|Urhobo Historical Society
For Professor Chike Obi
By Edwin Madunagu
Thursday, March 27, 2008
THE purpose of this short tribute to Professor Chike Obi, who died in his hometown,
Born on April 7, 1921, he obtained a
degree in Mathematics as an external candidate. He also started the
degree as an external candidate before moving to the
I read somewhere that in Mathematics you cannot make a breakthrough, that is, solve an existing problem or make a new discovery, after the age of 35. After that age, you can only write books from your experience. But Chike Obi made a breakthrough at the age of 78 by providing a "simple proof", 10 pages long, to what is popularly known as Fermat's Last Theorem. The theorem is called Fermat's last theorem, not because it was the "last" theorem the 17th century French mathematician, Pierede Fermat (1601-1665), formulated, but because it was the only one of his many theorems whose proof remained elusive. However, he indicated, in his notes, that the proof existed and that he had worked it out.
Simply put, Fermat's last theorem is the impossibility of generalising the Pythagoras theorem which every junior Secondary School student is expected to know. More explicitly, the theorem says that if you change the number 2 which appears in the Pythagoras Theorem to n, where n is greater than 2, then there is no whole-number solution. Not that you cannot find the solution, but that no solution exists. That is the theorem Chike Obi, in retirement, solved in 1999, not using computers and modern techniques, but using the methods and techniques available to Fermat. So, Chike Obi's solution is superior to other solutions, or claimed solutions.
I read somewhere that some
have said that Chike Obi's solution contains some flaws found in some
solutions. Hence, his solution is no solution! I laughed as I
episode in the career of Albert Einstein of the "relativity" fame. He
had just relocated to the
Through Chike Obi I saw the beauty of mathematics and the elegance of its language. Incidentally I discovered the power and beauty of Marxism almost at the same time: the first half of the 1970s. Chike Obi was particularly challenged by Fermat's Last Theorem (the non-existence of solutions to a deceptively innocent-looking equation) because my teacher's main area of research in mathematics was the existence of some classes of solutions to some classes of non-linear differential equations of the second order. You need to see how he "played around" with complicated equations, showing the existence or non-existence of solutions and the qualitative properties (such as periodicity, stability, and boundedness) of these solutions where they exist. Why could he not establish the insolvability of a simple-looking equation mischievously thrown at the world by a secretive French mathematical genius? I am happy Chike Obi did it.
I said I would fill some gaps in the tributes I have so far read. The first gap is in his political career. Most of the time Chike Obi was either with the police, or in prison, or in court. The offence was either sedition, incitement or defamation. But one particular arrest that has not been mentioned - to the best of my knowledge - took place in 1962. Chike Obi was one of the people arrested and detained with Chief Obafemi Awolowo on the charge of treasonable felony. He was later released for "want of evidence". I regret that I could not ask Chike Obi whether, indeed, an attempt was made to overthrow the Federal Government of Nigeria in 1962 and if he was, despite his release, part of the plot.
I am still asking that question
attitude to those accused of treasonable felony and jailed was not, and
still not, condemnatory. I had asked a similar question regarding Wole
Soyinka's alleged armed seizure of a radio station at
It is well known that many myths were
around Chike Obi's intellect and his mathematical ability. Beyond
however, were jokes about his social life. Some of these jokes (mainly
students) are true, some are exaggerated, and others simply untrue -
speculations about how he would have reacted to certain situations. One
true stories is this: It was one night in June 1973. The M.Sc. written
in Differential Equations was to take place the following morning at
I felt that night that I had read enough and deserved to "wind down". So, together with a group of friends, I left the hostel for a lower-middle-class bar at Yaba. We sat, not in the main drinking hall, but in the open space behind the building and overlooking the lobby. The beer had been served; my glass had even been filled, but I had not taken even a sip. I was still adjusting my seat. Then I heard the shout "Fatherland!" I looked and saw Chike Obi being greeted by admirers in the lobby. Don't ask me what happened next. All I can say is that I vanished. But not before saying "goodnight" to my bewildered companions.
My colleague in that course was less
charitable when I told him of my experience. He laughed and laughed and
reconstructed that experience into one of the jokes about Chike Obi.
Ironically, not long after this, my colleague had his own experience.
gone one night to a popular nightclub, again in Yaba. Not long after
down, the live band started playing Fela's "Open and Close". My
friend took to the floor. Just then he noticed, not too far from him, a
bespectacled tall man wearing "
It was after this second incident that I carefully studied Chike Obi's movement outside his home. He usually arrived at the office early in the morning. Between that time and when other offices opened, he solved his Differential Equations. I also established that whenever he returned to the office in the evening he usually moved from there to town to "wind down". And I knew his usual joints. So, whenever I was going out in the evening, I had to go to the department and check if his K70 Volkswagen car was parked at the usual place. If it was there, I would either cancel the outing or move farther afield.
But Chike Obi was not mean; in fact, he was the opposite. He was intellectually hard and disciplined. But no other teacher of mine was as tolerant of me as Chike Obi. For I was not a particularly "obedient" student. I don't think he knew what a secret was. If you told him something and requested that he should tell no one else, he would wonder why you had told him. At the earliest opportunity he would pass on the message. This attribute of his worked to my advantage when I was in detention.