The four-color theorem states that any map in a plane can be colored using four-colors in such a way that regions sharing a common boundary
(other than a single point) do not share the same color. This problem is sometimes
also called Guthrie's problem after F. Guthrie,
who first conjectured the theorem in 1852. The conjecture
was then communicated to de Morgan and thence into the general community. In 1878,
Cayley wrote the first paper on the conjecture.
Fallacious proofs were given independently by Kempe (1879) and Tait (1880). Kempe's proof was accepted for a decade until Heawood showed an error using a map with 18
faces (although a map with nine faces suffices to show the fallacy). The Heawood
conjecture provided a very general assertion for map coloring, showing that in
a genus 0 space (including the
sphere or plane), four colors
suffice. Ringel and Youngs (1968) proved that for
the upper bound provided by the Heawood conjecture
also give the necessary number of colors, with the
exception of the Klein bottle (for which the Heawood
formula gives seven, but the correct bound is six).
Six colors can be proven to suffice for the case, and this number can easily be reduced to five, but
reducing the number of colors all the way to four proved very difficult. This result
was finally obtained by Appel and Haken (1977), who constructed a computer-assisted
proof that four colors were sufficient. However, because
part of the proof consisted of an exhaustive analysis of many discrete cases by a
computer, some mathematicians do not accept it. However, no flaws have yet been found,
so the proof appears valid. A shorter, independent proof was constructed by Robertson
et al. (1996; Thomas 1998).
In December 2004, G. Gonthier of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, England (working with B. Werner of INRIA in France) announced that they had verified the Robertson
et al. proof by formulating the problem in the equational logic program Coq
and confirming the validity of each of its steps (Devlin 2005, Knight 2005).
J. Ferro (pers. comm., Nov. 8, 2005) has debunked a number of purported "short" proofs of the four-color theorem.
Martin Gardner (1975) played an April Fool's joke by asserting that the McGregor map consisting of 110 regions required five colors and constitutes a counterexample
to the four-color theorem.
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