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Imagination and the Impossible

Two more sources I’d like to draw from for this fall’s maths for designers-course:

1. Geometry and the Imagination

A fantastic collection of handouts for a two week summer workshop entitled ’Geometry and the Imagination’, led by John Conway, Peter Doyle, Jane Gilman and Bill Thurston at the Geometry Center in Minneapolis, June 1991, based on a course ‘Geometry and the Imagination’ they taught twice before at Princeton.

Among the goodies a long list of exercises in imagining (always useful to budding architects) and how to compute curvature by peeling potatoes and other vegetables…

The course really shines in giving a unified elegant classification of the 17 wallpaper groups, the 7 frieze groups and the 14 families of spherical groups by using Thurston’s concept of orbifolds.

If you think this will be too complicated, have a look at the proof that the orbifold Euler characteristic of any symmetry pattern in the plane with bounded fundamental domain is zero :

Take a large region in the plane that is topologically a disk (i.e. without holes). Its Euler characteristic is $1$. This is approximately equal to $N$ times the orbifold Euler characteristic for some large $N$, so the orbifold Euler characteristic must be $0$.

This then leads to the Orbifold Shop where they sell orbifold parts:

  • a handle for 2 Euros,
  • a mirror for 1 Euro,
  • a cross-cap for 1 Euro,
  • an order $n$ cone point for $(n-1)/n$ Euro,
  • an order $n$ corner reflector for $(n-1)/2n$ Euro, if you have the required mirrors to install this piece.



Here’s a standard brick wall, with its fundamental domain and corresponding orbifold made from a mirror piece (1 Euro), two order $2$ corner reflectors (each worth $.25$ Euro), and one order $2$ cone point (worth $.5$ Euro). That is, this orbifold will cost you exactly $2$ Euros.

If you spend exactly $2$ Euros at the Orbifold Shop (and there are $17$ different ways to do this), you will have an orbifold coming from a symmetry pattern in the plane with bounded fundamental domain, that is, one of the $17$ wallpaper patterns.

For the mathematicians among you desiring more details, please read The orbifold notation for two-dimensional groups by Conway and Daniel Huson, from which the above picture was taken.

2. On the Cohomology of Impossible Figures by Roger Penrose

The aspiring architect should be warned that some constructions are simply not possible in 3D, even when they look convincing on paper, such as Escher’s Waterfall.



M.C. Escher, Waterfall – Photo Credit

In his paper, Penrose gives a unified approach to debunk such drawings by using cohomology groups.

Clearly I have no desire to introduce cohomology, but it may still be possible to get the underlying idea across. Let’s take the Penrose triangle (all pictures below taken from Penrose’s paper)



The idea is to break up such a picture in several parts, each of which we do know to construct in 3D (that is, we take a particular cover of our figure). We can slice up the Penrose triangle in three parts, and if you ever played with Lego you’ll know how to construct each one of them.



Next, position the constructed pieces in space as in the picture and decide which of the two ends is closer to you. In $Q_1$ it is clear that point $A_{12}$ is closer to you than $A_{13}$, so we write $A_{12} < A_{13}$.

Similarly, looking at $Q_2$ and $Q_3$ we see that $A_{23} < A_{21}$ and that $A_{31} < A_{32}$.

Next, if we try to reassemble our figure we must glue $A_{12}$ to $A_{21}$, that is $A_{12}=A_{21}$, and similarly $A_{23}=A_{32}$ and $A_{31}=A_{13}$. But, then we get
\[
A_{13}=A_{31} < A_{32}=A_{23} < A_{21}=A_{12} < A_{13} \] which is clearly absurd.

Once again, if you have suggestions for more material to be included, please let me know.

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Designer Maths

This fall, I’ll be teaching ‘Mathematics for Designers’ to first year students in Architecture.

The past few weeks I’ve been looking around for topics to be included in such as course, relevant to architects/artists (not necessarily to engineers/mathematicians).

One of the best texts I’ve found on this (perhaps in need of a slight update) is the 1986-paper by Jay Kappraff: A course in the mathematics of design. He suggests the following list of topics:

  • graph theory
  • polyhedra
  • tilings of the plane
  • three dimensional packings
  • proportion and the golden mean
  • transformations
  • symmetry
  • vectors

We all know that an awful lot of math and computation is needed to design a building, but today all of the hardcore use of vectors, equations and transformations is conveniently hidden from the architect’s view by digital design platforms and CAD-programs.

These computational tools offer new creative possibilities, as illustrated in the beautiful book The new mathematics of architecture by Jane Burry and Mark Burry, also available in Dutch with a cover picture of the Möbius bridge in Bristol



In this book, about 50 recent architectural projects are clustered around these topics:

  • mathematical surfaces and seriality
  • chaos, complexity, emergence
  • packings and tilings
  • optimization
  • topology
  • datascapes and multi-dimensionality

In the description of the projects, cool math-topics are (sadly only) touched, including

It will take me some time to find a balance between these two approaches. Common themes clearly are

  • Shapes : what is possible/impossible in 2D and 3D, and how can mathematics help us to find new exciting shapes (think minimal and Seifert surfaces, knot complements, etc.)
  • Symmetry : what is possible/impossible in 2D and 3D, and what can mathematics tell us about new symmetries (think emerging symmetries from aperiodic tilings and quasicrystals)

Over the coming months I’ll be writing the course notes and may post about it here. For this reason I’ve included a new category DesignerMaths.

If you have suggestions, please let me know.

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Lockdown reading : SNORT

In this series I’ll mention some books I found entertaining, stimulating or comforting during these Corona times. Read them at your own risk.



This must have been the third time I’ve read The genius in by basement – The biography of a happy man by Alexander masters.

I first read it when it came out in 2011.

Then, in conjunction with Genius at play – The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway Conway’s biography by Siobhan Roberts, in july 2017, which is probably the best way to read this book.

And, then again last week, as Simon Norton‘s work pops up wherever I look, as in the previous post.

It takes some time to get used to the rather chaotic style (probably used because that’s how Masters perceives Norton), and all attempts at explaining Simon’s mathematics can better be skipped.

The book tries to find an answer as to why a child prodigy and genius like Simon Norton failed to secure a safe place in academics.

Page 328:

Simon’s second explanation of his loss of mathematical direction is heartbreaking. Now that Conway has fled to America, there is no one in the mathematical world who will work with him.

They say he is too peculiar, too shabby, too old.

His interests are fixed in mathematics that has had its day. His brilliance is frigid. His talent, perfectly suited to an extraordinary moment in algebraic history (the symmetry work at Cambridge during the early 1970s and 1980s) is out of fashion.

This may give the impression that Norton stopped doing good math after Conway left for Princeton in 1985. This is far from true.

Norton’s Wikipedia page mentions only post 1995 publications, which in itself is deplorable, as it leaves out his contributions to the ATLAS and his seminal paper with Conway on Monstrous moonshine.

Here’s Alexander Masters talking about ‘Genius in my basement’

I’ll leave you with a nice quote, comparing Monstrous Moonshine to a Sainsbury’s bag on Jupiter.

Page 334:

This much I do know: Monstrous Moonshine links the Monster to distant mathematics and the structure of space in ways that are as awe-inspiring to a man like Simon as it would be to an astronaut to step out of his space machine on Jupiter, and find a Sainsbury’s bag floating past. That’s why it’s called ‘Moonshine’, because mathematicians can even now hardly believe it.

‘I think’, said Simon, standing up from his berth and shaking crumbs and clotted blobs of oil and fish off his T-shirt onto the covers, ‘I can explain to you what Moonshine is in one sentence.’

When he really tries, Simon can be a model of clarity.

‘It is,’ he said, ‘the voice of God.’

Ps, wrt. SNORT.

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a monstrous unimodular lattice

An integral $n$-dimensional lattice $L$ is the set of all integral linear combinations
\[
L = \mathbb{Z} \lambda_1 \oplus \dots \oplus \mathbb{Z} \lambda_n \]
of base vectors $\{ \lambda_1,\dots,\lambda_n \}$ of $\mathbb{R}^n$, equipped with the usual (positive definite) inner product, satisfying
\[
(\lambda, \mu ) \in \mathbb{Z} \quad \text{for all $\lambda,\mu \in \mathbb{Z}$.} \]
But then, $L$ is contained in its dual lattice $L^* = Hom_{\mathbb{Z}}(L,\mathbb{Z})$, and if $L = L^*$ we say that $L$ is unimodular.

If all $(\lambda,\lambda) \in 2 \mathbb{Z}$, we say that $L$ is an even lattice. Even unimodular lattices (such as the $E_8$-lattice or the $24$ Niemeier lattices) are wonderful objects, but they can only live in dimensions $n$ which are multiples of $8$.

Just like the Conway group $Co_0 = .0$ is the group of rotations of the Leech lattice $\Lambda$, one might ask whether there is a very special lattice on which the Monster group $\mathbb{M}$ acts faithfully by rotations. If such a lattice exists, it must live in dimension at least $196883$.



Simon Norton (1952-2019) – Photo Credit

A first hint of such a lattice is in Conway’s original paper A simple construction for the Fischer-Griess monster group (but not in the corresponding chapter 29 of SPLAG).

Conway writes that Simon Norton showed ‘by a very simple computations that does not even require knowledge of the conjugacy classes, that any $198883$-dimensional representation of the Monster must support an invariant algebra’, which, after adding an identity element $1$, we now know as the $196884$-dimensional Griess algebra.

Further, on page 529, Conway writes:

Norton has shown that the lattice $L$ spanned by vectors of the form $1,t,t \ast t’$, where $t$ and $t’$ are transposition vectors, is closed under the algebra multiplication and integral with respect to the doubled inner product $2(u,v)$. The dual quotient $L^*/L$ is cyclic of order some power of $4$, and we believe that in fact $L$ is unimodular.

Here, transposition vectors correspond to transpositions in $\mathbb{M}$, that is, elements of conjugacy class $2A$.

I only learned about this lattice yesterday via the MathOverflow-post A lattice with Monster group symmetries by Adam P. Goucher.

In his post, Adam considers the $196883$-dimensional lattice $L’ = L \cap 1^{\perp}$ (which has $\mathbb{M}$ as its rotation symmetry group), and asks for the minimal norm (squared) of a lattice point, which he believes is $448$, and for the number of minimal vectors in the lattice, which might be
\[
2639459181687194563957260000000 = 9723946114200918600 \times 27143910000 \]
the number of oriented arcs in the Monster graph.

Here, the Monster graph has as its vertices the elements of $\mathbb{M}$ in conjugacy class $2A$ (which has $9723946114200918600$ elements) and with an edge between two vertices if their product in $\mathbb{M}$ again belongs to class $2A$, so the valency of the graph must be $27143910000$, as explained in that old post the monster graph and McKay’s observation.

When I asked Adam whether he had more information about his lattice, he kindly informed me that Borcherds told him that the Norton lattice $L$ didn’t turn out to be unimodular after all, but that a unimodular lattice with monstrous symmetry had been constructed by Scott Carnahan in the paper A Self-Dual Integral Form of the Moonshine Module.



Scott Carnahan – Photo Credit

The major steps (or better, the little bit of it I could grasp in this short time) in the construction of this unimodular $196884$-dimensional monstrous lattice might put a smile on your face if you are an affine scheme aficionado.

Already in his paper Vertex algebras, Kac-Moody algebras, and the Monster, Richard Borcherds described an integral form of any lattice vertex algebra. We’ll be interested in the lattice vertex algebra $V_{\Lambda}$ constructed from the Leech lattice $\Lambda$ and call its integral form $(V_{\Lambda})_{\mathbb{Z}}$.

One constructs the Moonshine module $V^{\sharp}$ from $V_{\Lambda}$ by a process called ‘cyclic orbifolding’, a generalisation of the original construction by Frenkel, Lepowsky and Meurman. In fact, there are now no less than 51 constructions of the moonshine module.

One starts with a fixed point free rotation $r_p$ of $\Lambda$ in $Co_0$ of prime order $p \in \{ 2,3,5,7,13 \}$, which one can lift to an automorphism $g_p$ of the vertex algebra $V_{\Lambda}$ of order $p$ giving an isomorphism $V_{\Lambda}/g_p \simeq V^{\sharp}$ of vertex operator algebras over $\mathbb{C}$.

For two distinct primes $p,p’ \in \{ 2,3,5,7,13 \}$ if $Co_0$ has an element of order $p.p’$ one can find one such $r_{pp’}$ such that $r_{pp’}^p=r_{p’}$ and $r_{pp’}^{p’}=r_p$, and one can lift $r_{pp’}$ to an automorphism $g_{pp’}$ of $V_{\Lambda}$ such that $V_{\Lambda}/g_{pp’} \simeq V_{\Lambda}$ as vertex operator algebras over $\mathbb{C}$.

Problem is that these lifts of automorphisms and the isomorphisms are not compatible with the integral form $(V_{\Lambda})_{\mathbb{Z}}$ of $V_{\Lambda}$, but ‘essentially’, they can be performed on
\[
(V_{\Lambda})_{\mathbb{Z}} \otimes_{\mathbb{Z}} \mathbb{Z}[\frac{1}{pp’},\zeta_{2pp’}] \]
where $\zeta_{2pp’}$ is a primitive $2pp’$-th root of unity. These then give a $\mathbb{Z}[\tfrac{1}{pp’},\zeta_{2pp’}]$-form on $V^{\sharp}$.

Next, one uses a lot of subgroup information about $\mathbb{M}$ to prove that these $\mathbb{Z}[\tfrac{1}{pp’},\zeta_{2pp’}]$-forms of $V^{\sharp}$ have $\mathbb{M}$ as their automorphism group.

Then, using all his for different triples in $\{ 2,3,5,7,13 \}$ one can glue and use faithfully flat descent to get an integral form $V^{\sharp}_{\mathbb{Z}}$ of the moonshine module with monstrous symmetry and such that the inner product on $V^{\sharp}_{\mathbb{Z}}$ is positive definite.

Finally, one looks at the weight $2$ subspace of $V^{\sharp}_{\mathbb{Z}}$ which gives us our Carnahan’s $196884$-dimensional unimodular lattice with monstrous symmetry!

Beautiful as this is, I guess it will be a heck of a project to deduce even the simplest of facts about this wonderful lattice from running through this construction.

For example, what is the minimal length of vectors? What is the number of minimal length vectors? And so on. All info you might have is very welcome.

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Escher’s stairs

Stairways feature prominently in several drawings by Maurits Cornelis (“Mauk”) Escher, for example in this lithograph print Relativity from 1953.



Relativity (M. C. Escher) – Photo Credit

From its Wikipedia page:

In the world of ‘Relativity’, there are three sources of gravity, each being orthogonal to the two others.
Each inhabitant lives in one of the gravity wells, where normal physical laws apply.
There are sixteen characters, spread between each gravity source, six in one and five each in the other two.
The apparent confusion of the lithograph print comes from the fact that the three gravity sources are depicted in the same space.
The structure has seven stairways, and each stairway can be used by people who belong to two different gravity sources.

Escher’s inspiration for “Relativity” (h/t Gerard Westendorp on Twitter) were his recollections of the staircases in his old secondary school in Arnhem, the Lorentz HBS.
The name comes from the Dutch physicist and Nobel prize winner Hendrik Antoon Lorentz who attended from 1866 to 1869, the “Hogere Burger School” in Arnhem, then at a different location (Willemsplein).



Stairways Lorentz HBS in Arnhem – Photo Credit

Between 1912 and 1918 Mauk Escher attended the Arnhem HBS, located in the Schoolstraat and build in 1904-05 by the architect Gerrit Versteeg. The school building is constructed around a monumental central stairway.



Arnhem HBS – G. Versteeg 1904-05 – Photo Credit



Plan HBS-Arnhem by G. Versteeg – Photo Credit

If you flip the picture below in the vertical direction, the two side-stairways become accessible to figures living in an opposite gravitation field.



Central staircase HBS Arnhem – Photo Credit

There’s an excellent post on the Arnhem-years of Mauk Escher by Pieter van der Kuil. Unfortunately (for most of you) in Dutch, but perhaps Google translate can do its magic here.

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Bourbaki and Grothendieck-Serre

This time of year I’m usually in France, or at least I was before Covid. This might explain for my recent obsession with French math YouTube interviews.

Today’s first one is about Bourbaki’s golden years, the period between WW2 and 1975. Alain Connes is trying to get some anecdotes from Jean-Pierre Serre, Pierre Cartier, and Jacques Dixmier.

If you don’t have the time to sit through the whole thing, perhaps you might have a look at the discussion on whether or not to include categories in Bourbaki (starting at 51.40 into the clip).

Here are some other time-slots (typed on a qwerty keyboard, mes excuses) with some links.

  • 8.59 : Canular stupide (mort de Bourbaki)
  • 15.45 : recrutement de Koszul
  • 17.45 : recrutement de Grothendieck
  • 26.15 : influence de Serre
  • 28.05 : importance des ultra filtres
  • 35.35 : Meyer
  • 37.20 : faisceaux
  • 51.00 : Grothendieck
  • 51.40 : des categories, Gabriel-Demazure
  • 57.50 : lemme de Serre, theoreme de Weil
  • 1.03.20 : Chevalley vs. Godement
  • 1.05.26 : retraite Dieudonne
  • 1.07.05 : retraite
  • 1.10.00 : Weil vs. Serre-Borel
  • 1.13.50 : hierarchie Bourbaki
  • 1.20.22 : categories
  • 1.21.30 : Bourbaki, une secte?
  • 1.22.15 : Grothendieck C.N.R.S. 1984

The second one is an interview conducted by Alain Connes with Jean-Pierre Serre on the Grothendieck-Serre correspondence.

Again, if you don’t have the energy to sit through it all, perhaps I can tempt you with Serre’s reaction to Connes bringing up the subject of toposes (starting at 14.36 into the clip).

  • 2.10 : 2e these de Grothendieck: des faisceaux
  • 3.50 : Grothendieck -> Bourbaki
  • 6.46 : Tohoku
  • 8.00 : categorie des diagrammes
  • 9.10 : schemas et Krull
  • 10.50 : motifs
  • 11.50 : cohomologie etale
  • 14.05 : Weil
  • 14.36 : topos
  • 16.30 : Langlands
  • 19.40 : Grothendieck, cours d’ecologie
  • 24.20 : Dwork
  • 25.45 : Riemann-Roch
  • 29.30 : influence de Serre
  • 30.50 : fin de correspondence
  • 32.05 : pourquoi?
  • 33.10 : SGA 5
  • 34.50 : methode G. vs. theorie des nombres
  • 37.00 : paranoia
  • 37.15 : Grothendieck = centrale nucleaire
  • 38.30 : Clef des songes
  • 42.35 : 30.000 pages, probleme du mal
  • 44.25 : Ribenboim
  • 45.20 : Grothendieck a Paris, publication R et S
  • 48.00 : 50 ans IHES, lettre a Bourguignon
  • 50.46 : Laurant Laforgue
  • 51.35 : Lasserre
  • 53.10 : l’humour
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Finnegans Wake’s geometry lesson

The literary sensation that spring of 1939 no doubt was the publication of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. On May 4th 1939 FW was published simultaneously by Faber and Faber in London and by Viking Press in New York, after seventeen years of composition.

In 1928-29, Joyce started publishing individual chapters from FW, then known as ‘Work in Progress’, including chapter II.2 ‘The Triangle’, of which a brief excerpt was already published in February 1928. The name comes from the only diagram in FW, the classical Euclidian construction of an equilateral triangle (FW, p. 293)



This Vesica piscis has multiple interpretations in FW, most of them sexual. The triangle $\Delta$ is the Sigla for Anna Livia Plurabelle throughout FW, but it also refers to the river Liffey through Dublin.

Here’s Anthony Burgess explaining some of the Sigla, the relevant part starts at 14.20 into the clip.

In fact, many of FW’s Sigla are derived from mathematical symbols, such as $\exists$ (Earwicker), $\perp$ and $\vdash$ (Issy). For more on this, please read The logic of the doodles in Finnegans Wake II.2.

Not only does the equilateral triangle $\Delta$ refer to the river Liffey, the entire Euclidian diagram can be seen as a map for Dublin and its surroundings, as emphasised by the words “Vieus Von DVbLIn” (views from Dublin) in FW right under the diagram.

Here’s Dublin with the Liffey running through it, and Phoenix Park, which also features prominently in FW, see for example Phoenix Park in Finnegans Wake.



Views of Dublin – Photo Credit

The similarity between the map and the diagram is even clearer in Joyce’s own drawing in the first draft of FW.



The Triangle – Photo Credit

There’s a lot more to say about Joyce’s uses of geometry and topography in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, in fact Ciaran McMorran wrote an entire Glasgow Ph. D. about it, but perhaps I’ll save some of that for a future post.

But what does this have to to with the Bourbaki Code, the puzzles contained in the Bourbaki-Petard wedding announcement?



Well, I claim that Andre Weil hid the Vesica Piscis/Euclidian diagram into the ‘faire part’. The challenge is to view the wedding announcement as a partial city- map. Clearly this time, the city of Dublin should be replaced by the city of Paris. Se non e vero …

Probably, there are enough hints contained in the previous posts in this series for you to spot the triangle(s) on the map of Paris. If you do so, please leave a comment, or email me.

Meanwhile, we’ll unravel first the more obvious levels of interpretation of the wedding announcement.

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