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Friday, March 13, 2015

Mathematicians Chase Moonshine’s Shadow

"Researchers are on the trail of a mysterious connection between number theory, algebra and string theory." according to Erica Klarreich, Quanta Magazine.

Photo: Peter Diamond for Quanta Magazine

In 1978, the mathematician John McKay noticed what seemed like an odd coincidence. He had been studying the different ways of representing the structure of a mysterious entity called the monster group, a gargantuan algebraic object that, mathematicians believed, captured a new kind of symmetry. Mathematicians weren’t sure that the monster group actually existed, but they knew that if it did exist, it acted in special ways in particular dimensions, the first two of which were 1 and 196,883.

McKay, of Concordia University in Montreal, happened to pick up a mathematics paper in a completely different field, involving something called the j-function, one of the most fundamental objects in number theory. Strangely enough, this function’s first important coefficient is 196,884, which McKay instantly recognized as the sum of the monster’s first two special dimensions.

Most mathematicians dismissed the finding as a fluke, since there was no reason to expect the monster and the j-function to be even remotely related. However, the connection caught the attention of John Thompson, a Fields medalist now at the University of Florida in Gainsville, who made an additional discovery. The j-function’s second coefficient, 21,493,760, is the sum of the first three special dimensions of the monster: 1 + 196,883 + 21,296,876. It seemed as if the j-function was somehow controlling the structure of the elusive monster group.

Soon, two other mathematicians had demonstrated so many of these numerical relationships that it no longer seemed possible that they were mere coincidences. In a 1979 paper called “Monstrous Moonshine,” the pair — John Conway, now of Princeton University, and Simon Norton — conjectured that these relationships must result from some deep connection between the monster group and the j-function. “They called it moonshine because it appeared so far-fetched,” said Don Zagier, a director of the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in Bonn, Germany. “They were such wild ideas that it seemed like wishful thinking to imagine anyone could ever prove them.”

It took several more years before mathematicians succeeded in even constructing the monster group, but they had a good excuse: The monster has more than 1053 elements, which is more than the number of atoms in a thousand Earths. In 1992, a decade after Robert Griess of the University of Michigan constructed the monster, Richard Borcherds tamed the wild ideas of monstrous moonshine, eventually earning a Fields Medal for this work. Borcherds, of the University of California, Berkeley, proved that there was a bridge between the two distant realms of mathematics in which the monster and the j-function live: namely, string theory, the counterintuitive idea that the universe has tiny hidden dimensions, too small to measure, in which strings vibrate to produce the physical effects we experience at the macroscopic scale.

Source: Quanta Magazine

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