Monday, March 19, 2007

Hard Sums

Congratulations to the team who have mapped the outrageous mathematical object E8.

Congratulations also the to the state-of-the-art computing beast without which it wouldn't have been possible.

I studied Pure Maths at St.Andrews University in Scotland, where I was taught by some of the heavyweights in computational number theory. This was not a totally respectable area of research in the late 1980's - many old-school mathematicians thought it was cheating in some way to have computers do the heavy lifting. In fact, some had spent the previous decade moaning about the computer-based proof of the Four Colour Theorem. A typical comment was
"A good mathematical proof is like a poem — this is a telephone directory!"

Nowadays, it would seem perversely Luddite to ban mathematicians from using computers.

When Campbell and Robertson worked on slightly less complicated objects than E8 in the 1970s, they would often draw the groups/rings/semigroups on a long roll of wallpaper in coloured pens. Apparently the equivalent roll of wallpaper for E8 would have to be the size of Manhattan...

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