So, who did discover the Leech lattice?

For the better part of the 30ties, Ernst Witt (1) did hang out with the rest of the ‘Noetherknaben’, the group of young mathematicians around Emmy Noether (3) in Gottingen.

In 1934 Witt became Helmut Hasse‘s assistent in Gottingen, where he qualified as a university lecturer in 1936. By 1938 he has made enough of a name for himself to be offered a lecturer position in Hamburg and soon became an associate professor, the down-graded position held by Emil Artin (2) until he was forced to emigrate in 1937.

A former fellow student of him in Gottingen, Erna Bannow (4), had gone earlier to Hamburg to work with Artin. She continued her studies with Witt and finished her Ph.D. in 1939. In 1940 Erna Bannow and Witt married.

So, life was smiling on Ernst Witt that sunday january 28th 1940, both professionally and personally. There was just one cloud on the horizon, and a rather menacing one. He was called up by the Wehrmacht and knew he had to enter service in february. For all he knew, he was spending the last week-end with his future wife… (later in february 1940, Blaschke helped him to defer his military service by one year).

Still, he desperately wanted to finish his paper before entering the army, so he spend most of that week-end going through the final version and submitted it on monday, as the published paper shows.

In the 70ties, Witt suddenly claimed he did discover the Leech lattice $ {\Lambda} $ that sunday. Last time we have seen that the only written evidence for Witt’s claim is one sentence in his 1941-paper Eine Identität zwischen Modulformen zweiten Grades. “Bei dem Versuch, eine Form aus einer solchen Klassen wirklich anzugeben, fand ich mehr als 10 verschiedene Klassen in $ {\Gamma_{24}} $.”

But then, why didn’t Witt include more details of this sensational lattice in his paper?

Ina Kersten recalls on page 328 of Witt’s collected papers : “In his colloquium talk “Gitter und Mathieu-Gruppen” in Hamburg on January 27, 1970, Witt said that in 1938, he had found nine lattices in $ {\Gamma_{24}} $ and that later on January 28, 1940, while studying the Steiner system $ {S(5,8,24)} $, he had found two additional lattices $ {M} $ and $ {\Lambda} $ in $ {\Gamma_{24}} $. He continued saying that he had then given up the tedious investigation of $ {\Gamma_{24}} $ because of the surprisingly low contribution

$ \displaystyle | Aut(\Lambda) |^{-1} < 10^{-18} $

to the Minkowski density and that he had consented himself with a short note on page 324 in his 1941 paper.”

In the last sentence he refers to the fact that the sum of the inverse orders of the automorphism groups of all even unimodular lattices of a given dimension is a fixed rational number, the Minkowski-Siegel mass constant. In dimension 24 this constant is

$ \displaystyle \sum_{L} \frac{1}{| Aut(L) |} = \frac {1027637932586061520960267}{129477933340026851560636148613120000000} \approx 7.937 \times 10^{-15} $

That is, Witt was disappointed by the low contribution of the Leech lattice to the total constant and concluded that there might be thousands of new even 24-dimensional unimodular lattices out there, and dropped the problem.

If true, the story gets even better : not only claims Witt to have found the lattices $ {A_1^{24}=M} $ and $ {\Lambda} $, but also enough information on the Leech lattice in order to compute the order of its automorphism group $ {Aut(\Lambda)} $, aka the Conway group $ {Co_0 = .0} $ the dotto-group!

Is this possible? Well fortunately, the difficulties one encounters when trying to compute the order of the automorphism group of the Leech lattice from scratch, is one of the better documented mathematical stories around.

The books From Error-Correcting Codes through Sphere Packings to Simple Groups by Thomas Thompson, Symmetry and the monster by Mark Ronan, and Finding moonshine by Marcus du Sautoy tell the story in minute detail.

It took John Conway 12 hours on a 1968 saturday in Cambridge to compute the order of the dotto group, using the knowledge of Leech and McKay on the properties of the Leech lattice and with considerable help offered by John Thompson via telephone.

But then, John Conway is one of the fastest mathematicians the world has known. The prologue of his book On numbers and games begins with : “Just over a quarter of a century ago, for seven consecutive days I sat down and typed from 8:30 am until midnight, with just an hour for lunch, and ever since have described this book as “having been written in a week”.”

Conway may have written a book in one week, Ernst Witt did complete his entire Ph.D. in just one week! In a letter of August 1933, his sister told her parents : “He did not have a thesis topic until July 1, and the thesis was to be submitted by July 7. He did not want to have a topic assigned to him, and when he finally had the idea, he started working day and night, and eventually managed to finish in time.”

So, if someone might have beaten John Conway in fast-computing the dottos order, it may very well have been Witt. Sadly enough, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to make Witt’s claim highly unlikely.

For starters, psychology. Would you spend your last week-end together with your wife to be before going to war performing an horrendous calculation?

Secondly, mathematical breakthroughs often arise from newly found insight. At that time, Witt was also working on his paper on root lattices “Spiegelungsgrupen and Aufzähling halbeinfacher Liescher Ringe” which he eventually submitted in january 1941. Contained in that paper is what we know as Witt’s lemma which tells us that for any integral lattice the sublattice generated by vectors of norms 1 and 2 is a direct sum of root lattices.

This leads to the trick of trying to construct unimodular lattices by starting with a direct sum of root lattices and ‘adding glue’. Although this gluing-method was introduced by Kneser as late as 1967, Witt must have been aware of it as his 16-dimensional lattice $ {D_{16}^+} $ is constructed this way.

If Witt wanted to construct new 24-dimensional even unimodular lattices in 1940, it would be natural for him to start off with direct sums of root lattices and trying to add vectors to them until he got what he was after. Now, all of the Niemeier-lattices are constructed this way, except for the Leech lattice!

I’m far from an expert on the Niemeier lattices but I would say that Witt definitely knew of the existence of $ {D_{24}^+} $, $ {E_8^3} $ and $ {A_{24}^+} $ and that it is quite likely he also constructed $ {(D_{16}E_8)^+, (D_{12}^2)^+, (A_{12}^2)^+, (D_8^3)^+} $ and possibly $ {(A_{17}E_7)^+} $ and $ {(A_{15}D_9)^+} $. I’d rate it far more likely Witt constructed another two such lattices on sunday january 28th 1940, rather than discovering the Leech lattice.

Finally, wouldn’t it be natural for him to include a remark, in his 1941 paper on root lattices, that not every even unimodular lattices can be obtained from sums of root lattices by adding glue, the Leech lattice being the minimal counter-example?

If it is true he was playing around with the Steiner systems that sunday, it would still be a pretty good story he discovered the lattices $ {(A_2^{12})^+} $ and $ {(A_1^{24})^+} $, for this would mean he discovered the Golay codes in the process!

Which brings us to our next question : who discovered the Golay code?

Who discovered the Leech lattice?

The Leech lattice was, according to wikipedia, ‘originally discovered by Ernst Witt in 1940, but he did not publish his discovery’ and it ‘was later re-discovered in 1965 by John Leech’. However, there is very little evidence to support this claim.

The facts

What is certain is that John Leech discovered in 1965 an amazingly dense 24-dimensional lattice $ {\Lambda} $ having the property that unit balls around the lattice points touch, each one of them having exactly 196560 neighbors. The paper ‘Notes on sphere packings’ appeared in 1967 in the Canad. J. Math. 19, 251-267.

Compare this to the optimal method to place pennies on a table, leading to the hexagonal tiling, each penny touching exactly 6 others. Similarly, in dimension 8 the densest packing is the E8 lattice in which every unit ball has exactly 240 neighbors.

The Leech lattice $ {\Lambda} $ can be characterized as the unique unimodular positive definite even lattice such that the length of any non-zero vector is at least two.

The list of all positive definite even unimodular lattices, $ {\Gamma_{24}} $, in dimension 24 was classified later by Hans-Volker Niemeier and are now known as the 24 Niemeier lattices.

For the chronology below it is perhaps useful to note that, whereas Niemeier’s paper did appear in 1973, it was submitted april 5th 1971 and is just a minor rewrite of Niemeier’s Ph.D. “Definite quadratische Formen der Dimension 24 und Diskriminante 1” obtained in 1968 from the University of Göttingen with advisor Martin Kneser.

The claim

On page 328 of Ernst Witt’s Collected Papers Ina Kersten recalls that Witt gave a colloquium talk on January 27, 1970 in Hamburg entitled “Gitter und Mathieu-Gruppen” (Lattices and Mathieu-groups). In this talk Witt claimed to have found nine lattices in $ {\Gamma_{24}} $ as far back as 1938 and that on January 28, 1940 he found two additional lattices $ {M} $ and $ {\Lambda} $ while studying the Steiner system $ {S(5,8,24)} $.

On page 329 of the collected papers is a scan of the abstract Witt wrote in the colloquium book in Bielefeld where he gave a talk “Uber einige unimodularen Gitter” (On certain unimodular lattices) on January 28, 1972

Here, Witt claims that he found three new lattices in $ {\Gamma_{24}} $ on January 28, 1940 as the lattices $ {M} $, $ {M’} $ and $ {\Lambda} $ ‘feiern heute ihren 32sten Gebursttag!’ (celebrate today their 32nd birthday).

He goes on telling that the lattices $ {M} $ and $ {\Lambda} $ were number 10 and 11 in his list of lattices in $ {\Gamma_{24}} $ in his paper “Eine Identität zwischen Modulformen zweiten Grades” in the Abh. Math. Sem. Univ. Hamburg 14 (1941) 323-337 and he refers in particular to page 324 of that paper.

He further claims that he computed the orders of their automorphism groups and writes that $ {\Lambda} $ ‘wurde 1967 von Leech wieder-entdeckt’ (was re-discovered by Leech in 1967) and that its automorphism group $ {G(\Lambda)} $ was studied by John Conway. Recall that Conway’s investigations of the automorphism group of the Leech lattice led to the discovery of three new sporadic groups, the Conway groups $ {Co_1,Co_2} $ and $ {Co_3} $.

However, Witt’s 1941-paper does not contain a numbered list of 24-dimensional lattices. In fact, apart from $ {E_8+E_8+E_8} $ is does not contain a single lattice in $ {\Gamma_{24}} $. The only relevant paragraph is indeed on page 324

He observes that Mordell already proved that there is just one lattice in $ {\Gamma_8} $ (the $ {E_8} $-lattice) and that the main result of his paper is to prove that there are precisely two even unimodular 16-dimensional lattices : $ {E_8+E_8} $ and another lattice, now usually called the 16-dimensional Witt-lattice.

He then goes on to observe that Schoeneberg knew that $ {\# \Gamma_{24} > 1} $ and so there must be more lattices than $ {E_8+E_8+E_8} $ in $ {\Gamma_{24}} $. Witt concludes with : “In my attempt to find such a lattice, I discovered more than 10 lattices in $ {\Gamma_{24}} $. The determination of $ {\# \Gamma_{24}} $ does not seem to be entirely trivial.”

Hence, it is fair to assume that by 1940 Ernst Witt had discovered at least 11 of the 24 Niemeier lattices. Whether the Leech lattice was indeed lattice 11 on the list is anybody’s guess.

Next time we will look more closely into the historical context of Witt’s 1941 paper.

The M(13)-groupoid (2)

Conway’s puzzle M(13) involves the 13 points and 13 lines of $\mathbb{P}^2(\mathbb{F}_3) $. On all but one point numbered counters are placed holding the numbers 1,…,12 and a move involves interchanging one counter and the ‘hole’ (the unique point having no counter) and interchanging the counters on the two other points of the line determined by the first two points. In the picture on the left, the lines are respresented by dashes around the circle in between two counters and the points lying on this line are those that connect to the dash either via a direct line or directly via the circle. In the first part we saw that the group of all reachable positions in Conway’s M(13) puzzle having the hole at the top positions contains the sporadic simple Mathieu group $M_{12} $ as a subgroup. To see the reverse inclusion we have to recall the definition of the ternary Golay code named in honour of the Swiss engineer Marcel Golay who discovered in 1949 the binary Golay code that we will encounter _later on_.

The ternary Golay code $\mathcal{C}_{12} $ is a six-dimenional subspace in $\mathbb{F}_3^{\oplus 12} $ and is spanned by its codewords of weight six (the Hamming distance of $\mathcal{C}_{12} $ whence it is a two-error correcting code). There are $264 = 2 \times 132 $ weight six codewords and they can be obtained from the 132 hexads, we encountered before as the winning positions of Mathieu’s blackjack, by replacing the stars by signs + or – using the following rules. By a tet (from tetracodeword) we mean a 3×4 array having 4 +-signs indicating the row-positions of a tetracodeword. For example

$~\begin{array}{|c|ccc|} \hline & + & & \\ + & & + & \\ & & & + \\ \hline + & 0 & + & – \end{array} $ is the tet corresponding to the bottom-tetracodeword. $\begin{array}{|c|ccc|} \hline & + & & \\ & + & & \\ & + & & \\ \hline & & & \end{array} $ A col is an array having +-signs along one of the four columns. The signed hexads will now be the hexads that can be written as $\mathbb{F}_3 $ vectors as (depending on the column-distributions of the stars in the hexad indicated between brackets)

$col-col~(3^20^2)\qquad \pm(col+tet)~(31^3) \qquad tet-tet~(2^30) \qquad \pm(col+col-tet)~(2^21^2) $

For example, the hexad on the right has column-distribution $2^30 $ so its signed versions are of the form tet-tet. The two tetracodewords must have the same digit (-) at place four (so that they cancel and leave an empty column). It is then easy to determine these two tetracodewords giving the signed hexad (together with its negative, obtained by replacing the order of the two codewords)

$\begin{array}{|c|ccc|} \hline \ast & \ast & & \\ \ast & & \ast & \\ & \ast & \ast & \\ \hline – & + & 0 & – \end{array} $ signed as
$\begin{array}{|c|ccc|} \hline + & & & \\ & & & \\ & + & + & + \\ \hline 0 & – & – & – \end{array} – \begin{array}{|c|ccc|} \hline & + & & \\ + & & + & \\ & & & + \\ \hline + & 0 & + & – \end{array} = \begin{array}{|c|ccc|} \hline + & – & & \\ – & & – & \\ & + & + & \\ \hline – & + & 0 & – \end{array} $

and similarly for the other cases. As Conway&Sloane remark ‘This is one of many cases when the process is easier performed than described’.

We have an order two operation mapping a signed hexad to its negative and as these codewords span the Golay code, this determines an order two automorphism of $\mathcal{C}_{12} $. Further, forgetting about signs, we get the Steiner-system S(5,6,12) of hexads for which the automorphism group is $M_{12} $ hence the automorphism group op the ternary Golay code is $2.M_{12} $, the unique nonsplit central extension of $M_{12} $.

Right, but what is the connection between the Golay code and Conway’s M(13)-puzzle which is played with points and lines in the projective plane $\mathbb{P}^2(\mathbb{F}_3) $? There are 13 points $\mathcal{P} $ so let us consider a 13-dimensional vectorspace $X=\mathbb{F}_3^{\oplus 13} $ with basis $x_p~:~p \in \mathcal{P} $. That is a vector in X is of the form $\vec{v}=\sum_p v_px_p $ and consider the ‘usual’ scalar product $\vec{v}.\vec{w} = \sum_p v_pw_p $ on X. Next, we bring in the lines in $\mathbb{P}^2(\mathbb{F}_3) $.

For each of the 13 lines l consider the vector $\vec{l} = \sum_{p \in l} x_p $ with support the four points lying on l and let $\mathcal{C} $ be the subspace (code) of X spanned by the thirteen vectors $\vec{l} $. Vectors $\vec{c},\vec{d} \in \mathcal{C} $ satisfy the remarkable identity $\vec{c}.\vec{d} = (\sum_p c_p)(\sum_p d_p) $. Indeed, both sides are bilinear in $\vec{c},\vec{d} $ so it suffices to check teh identity for two line-vectors $\vec{l},\vec{m} $. The right hand side is then 4.4=16=1 mod 3 which equals the left hand side as two lines either intersect in one point or are equal (and hence have 4 points in common). The identity applied to $\vec{c}=\vec{d} $ gives us (note that the squares in $\mathbb{F}_3 $ are {0,1}) information about the weight (that is, the number of non-zero digits) of codewords in $\mathcal{C} $

$wt(\vec{c})~mod(3) = \sum_p c_p^2 = (\sum_p c_p)^2 \in \{ 0,1 \} $

Let $\mathcal{C}’ $ be the collection of $\vec{c} \in \mathcal{C} $ of weight zero (modulo 3) then one can verify that $\mathcal{C}’ $ is the orthogonal complement of $\mathcal{C} $ with respect to the scalar product and that the dimension of $\mathcal{C} $ is seven whereas that of $\mathcal{C}’ $ is six.
Now, let for a point p be $\mathcal{G}_p $ the restriction of

$\mathcal{C}_p = \{ c \in \mathcal{C}~|~c_p = – \sum_{q \in \mathcal{P}} c_q \} $

to the coordinates of $\mathcal{P} – \{ p \} $, then $\mathcal{G}_p $ is clearly a six dimensional code in a 12-dimensional space. A bit more work shows that $\mathcal{G}_p $ is a self-dual code with minimal weight greater or equal to six, whence it must be the ternary Golay code! Now we are nearly done. _Next time_ we will introduce a reversi-version of M(13) and use the above facts to deduce that the basic group of the Mathieu-groupoid indeed is the sporadic simple group $M_{12} $.


Robert L. Griess, “Twelve sporadic groups” chp. 7 ‘The ternary Golay code and $2.M_{12} $’

John H. Conway and N. J.A. Sloane, “Sphere packings, lattices and groups” chp 11 ‘The Golay codes and the Mathieu groups’

John H. Conway, Noam D. Elkies and Jeremy L. Martin, ‘The Mathieu group $M_{12} $ and its pseudogroup extension $M_{13} $’ arXiv:math.GR/0508630

more… The M(13)-groupoid (2)

Mathieu’s blackjack (3)

If you only tune in now, you might want to have a look at the definition of Mathieu’s blackjack and the first part of the proof of the Conway-Ryba winning strategy involving the Steiner system S(5,6,12) and the Mathieu sporadic group $M_{12} $.

We’re trying to disprove the existence of misfits, that is, of non-hexad positions having a total value of at least 21 such that every move to a hexad would increase the total value. So far, we succeeded in showing that such a misfit must have the patern

$\begin{array}{|c|ccc|} \hline 6 & III & \ast & 9 \\ 5 & II & 7 & . \\ IV & I & 8 & . \\ \hline & & & \end{array} $

That is, a misfit must contain the 0-card (queen) and cannot contain the 10 or 11(jack) and must contain 3 of the four Romans. Now we will see that a misfit also contains precisely one of {5,6} (and consequently also exactly one card from {7,8,9}). To start, it is clear that it cannot contain BOTH 5 and 6 (then its total value can be at most 20). So we have to disprove that a misfit can miss {5,6} entirely (and so the two remaining cards (apart from the zero and the three Romans) must all belong to {7,8,9}).

Lets assume the misfit misses 5 and 6 and does not contain 9. Then, it must contain 4 (otherwise, its column-distribution would be (0,3,3,0) and it would be a hexad). There are just three such positions possible

$\begin{array}{|c|ccc|} \hline . & \ast & \ast & . \\ . & \ast & \ast & . \\ \ast & . & \ast & . \\ \hline – & – & ? & ? \end{array} $ $\begin{array}{|c|ccc|} \hline . & \ast & \ast & . \\ . & . & \ast & . \\ \ast & \ast & \ast & . \\ \hline – & + & ? & ? \end{array} $ $\begin{array}{|c|ccc|} \hline . & . & \ast & . \\ . & \ast & \ast & . \\ \ast & \ast & \ast & . \\ \hline – & 0 & ? & ? \end{array} $

Neither of these can be misfits though. In the first one, there is an 8->5 move to a hexad of smaller total value (in the second a 7->5 move and in the third a 7->6 move). Right, so the 9 card must belong to a misfit. Assume it does not contain the 4-card, then part of the misfit looks like (with either a 7- or an 8-card added)

$\begin{array}{|c|ccc|} \hline . & \ast & \ast & \ast \\ . & \ast & ? & . \\ . & \ast & ? & . \\ \hline & & & \end{array} $ contained in the unique hexad $\begin{array}{|c|ccc|} \hline \ast & \ast & \ast & \ast \\ . & \ast & & . \\ . & \ast & & . \\ \hline & & & \end{array} $

Either way the moves 7->6 or 8->6 decrease the total value, so it cannot be a misfit. Therefore, a misfit must contain both the 4- and 9-card. So it is of the form on the left below

$\begin{array}{|c|ccc|} \hline . & ? & \ast & \ast \\ . & ? & ? & . \\ \ast & ? & ? & . \\ \hline & & & \end{array} $ $\begin{array}{|c|ccc|} \hline . & . & \ast & . \\ . & \ast & \ast & \ast \\ \ast & \ast & . & . \\ \hline – & 0 & – & + \end{array} $ $\begin{array}{|c|ccc|} \hline . & . & \ast & \ast \\ . & \ast & \ast & . \\ \ast & \ast & . & . \\ \hline & & & \end{array} $

If this is a genuine misfit only the move 9->10 to a hexad is possible (the move 9->11 is not possible as all BUT ONE of {0,1,2,3,4} is contained in the misfit). Now, the only hexad containing 0,4,10 and 2 from {1,2,3} is in the middle, giving us what the misfit must look like before the move, on the right. Finally, this cannot be a misfit as the move 7->5 decreases the total value.

That is, we have proved the claim that a misfit must contain one of {5,6} and one of {7,8,9}. Right, now we can deliver the elegant finishing line of the Kahane-Ryba proof. A misfit must contain 0 and three among {1,2,3,4} (let us call the missing card s), one of $5+\epsilon $ with $0 \leq \epsilon \leq 1 $ and one of $7+\delta $ with $0 \leq \delta \leq 2 $. Then, the total value of the misfit is

$~(0+1+2+3+4-s)+(5+\epsilon)+(7+\delta)=21+(1+\delta+\epsilon-s) $

So, if this value is strictly greater than 21 (and we will see in a moment is has to be if it is at least 21) then we deduce that $s < 1 + \delta + \epsilon \leq 4 $. Therefore $1+\delta+\epsilon $ belongs to the misfit. But then the move $1+\delta \epsilon \rightarrow s $ moves the misfit to a 6-tuple with total value 21 and hence (as we see in a moment) must be a hexad and hence this is a decreasing move! So, finally, there are no misfits!

Hence, from every non-hexad pile of total value at least 21 we have a legal move to a hexad. Because the other player cannot move from an hexad to another hexad we are done with our strategy provided we can show (a) that the total value of any hexad is at least 21 and (b) that ALL 6-piles of total value 21 are hexads. As there are only 132 hexads it is easy enough to have their sum-distribution. Here it is

That is, (a) is proved by inspection and we see that there are 11 hexads of sum 21 (the light hexads in Conway-speak) and there are only 11 ways to get 21 as a sum of 6 distinct numbers from {0,1,..,11} so (b) follows. Btw. the obvious symmetry of the sum-distribution is another consequence of the duality t->11-t discussed briefly at the end of part 2.

Clearly, I’d rather have conceptual proofs for all these facts and briefly tried my hand. Luckily I did spot the following phrase on page 326 of Conway-Sloane (discussing the above distribution) :

“It will not be easy to explain all the above observations. They are certainly connected with hyperbolic geometry and with the ‘hole’ structure of the Leech lattice.”

So, I’d better leave it at this…


Joseph Kahane and Alexander J. Ryba, “The hexad game

John H. Conway and N. J.A. Sloane, “Sphere packings, Lattices and Groups” chp. 11 ‘The Golay codes and the Mathieu groups’

more… Mathieu’s blackjack (3)

Mathieu’s blackjack (2)

(continued from part one). Take twelve cards and give them values 0,1,2,…,11 (for example, take the jack to have value 11 and the queen to have value 0). The hexads are 6-tuples of cards having the following properties. When we star their values by the scheme on the left below and write a 0 below a column if it has just one star at the first row or two stars on rows two and three (a + if the unique star is at the first row or two stars in the other columns, and a – if the unique star in on the second row or two stars in rows one and two) or a ? if the column has 3 or 0 stars, we get a tetracodeword where we are allowed to replace a ? by any digit. Moreover, we want that the stars are NOT distributed over the four columns such that all of the possible outcomes 0,1,2,3 appear once. For example, the card-pile { queen, 3, 4, 7, 9, jack } is an hexad as is indicated on the right below and has column-distributions (1,1,2,2).

$\begin{array}{|c|ccc|} \hline 6 & 3 & 0 & 9 \\ 5 & 2 & 7 & 10 \\ 4 & 1 & 8 & 11 \\ \hline & & & \end{array} $ $\begin{array}{|c|ccc|} \hline & \ast & \ast & \ast \\ & & \ast & \\ \ast & & & \ast \\ \hline – & 0 & – & + \end{array} $

The hexads form a Steiner-system S(5,6,12), meaning that every 5-pile of cards is part of a unique hexad. The permutations on these twelve cards, having the property that they send every hexad to another hexad, form the sporadic simple group $M_{12} $, the _Mathieu group_ of order 95040. For now, we assume these facts and deduce from them the Conway-Ryba winning strategy for Mathieu’s blackjack : the hexads are exactly the winning positions and from a non-hexad pile of total value at least 21 there is always a legal (that is, total value decreasing) move to an hexad by replacing one card in the pile by a card from the complement.

It seems that the first proof of this strategy consisted in calculating the Grundy values of all 905 legal positions in Mathieu’s blackjack. Later Joseph Kahane and Alex Ryba gave a more conceptual proof, that we will try to understand.

Take a non-hexad 6-pile such that the total value of its cards is at least 21, then removing any one of the six cards gives a 5-pile and is by the Steiner-property contained in a unique hexad. Hence we get 6 different hexads replacing one card from the non-hexad pile by a card not contained in it. We claim that at least one of these operations is a legal move, meaning that the total value of the cards decreases. Let us call a counterexample a misfit and record some of its properties until we can prove its non-existence.

A misfit is a non-hexad with total value at least 21 such that all 6 hexads, obtained from it by replacing one card by a card from its complement, have greater total value

A misfit must contain the queen-card. If not, we could get an hexad replacing one misfit-card (value > 0) by the queen (value zero) so this would be a legal move. Further, the misfit cannot contain the jack-card for otherwise replacing it by a lower-valued card to obtain an hexad is a legal move.

A misfit contains at least three cards from {queen,1,2,3,4}. If not, three of these cards are the replacements of misfit-cards to get an hexad, but then at least one of the replaced cards has a greater value than the replacement, giving a legal move to an hexad.

A misfit contains more than three cards from {queen=0, 1,2,3,4}. Assume there are precisely three $\{ c_1,c_2,c_3 \} $ from this set, then the complement of the misfit in the hexad {queen,1,2,3,4,jack} consists of three elements $\{ d_1,d_2,d_3 \} $ (a misfit cannot contain the jack). The two leftmost columns of the value-scheme (left above) form the hexad {1,2,3,4,5,6} and because the Mathieu group acts 5-transitively there is an element of $M_{12} $ taking $\{ 0,1,2,3,4,11 \} \rightarrow \{ 1,2,3,4,5,6 \} $ and we may even assume that it takes $\{ c_1,c_2,c_3 \} \rightarrow \{ 4,5,6 \} $. But then, in the new value-scheme (determined by that $M_{12} $-element) the two leftmost columns of the misfit look like

$\begin{array}{|c|ccc|} \hline \ast & . & ? & ? \\ \ast & . & ? & ? \\ \ast & . & ? & ? \\ \hline ? & ? & & \end{array} $

and the column-distribution of the misfit must be either (3,0,2,1) or (3,0,1,2) (it cannot be (3,0,3,0) or (3,0,0,3) otherwise the (image of the) misfit would be an hexad). Let {i,j} be the two misfit-values in the 2-starred column. Replacing either of them to get an hexad must have the replacement lying in the second column (in order to get a valid column distribution (3,1,1,1)). Now, the second column consists of two small values (from {0,1,2,3,4}) and the large jack-value (11). So, at least one of {i,j} is replaced by a smaller valued card to get an hexad, which cannot happen by the misfit-property.

Now, if the misfit shares four cards with {queen,1,2,3,4} then it cannot contain the 10-card. Otherwise, the replacement to get an hexad of the 10-card must be the 11-card (by the misfit-property) but then there would be another hexads containing five cards from {queen,0,1,2,3,jack} which cannot happen by the Steiner-property. Right, let’s summarize what we know so far about our misfit. Its value-scheme looks like

$\begin{array}{|c|ccc|} \hline 6 & III & \ast & 9 \\ 5 & II & 7 & . \\ IV & I & 8 & . \\ \hline & & & \end{array} $ and it must contain three of the four Romans. At this point Kahane and Ryba claim that the two remaining cards (apart from the queen and the three romans) must be such that there is exactly one from {5,6} and exactly one from {7,8,9}. They argue this follows from duality where the dual pile of a card-pile $\{ x_1,x_2,\ldots,x_6 \} $ is the pile $\{ 11-x_1,11-x_2,\ldots,11-x_6 \} $. This duality acts on the hexads as the permutation $~(0,11)(1,10)(2,9)(3,8)(4,7)(5,6) \in M_{12} $. Still, it is unclear to me how they deduce from it the above claim (lines 13-15 of page 4 of their paper). I’d better have some coffee and work around this (to be continued…)

If you want to play around a bit with hexads and the blackjack game, you’d better first download SAGE (if you haven’t done so already) and then get David Joyner’s hexad.sage file and put it in a folder under your sage installation (David suggests ‘spam’ himself…). You can load the routines into sage by typing from the sage-prompt attach ‘spam/hexad.sage’. Now, you can find the hexad from a 5-pile via the command find_hexad([a1,a2,a3,a4,a5],minimog_shuffle) and you can get the winning move for a blackjack-position via blackjack_move([a1,a2,a3,a4,a5,a6],minimog_shuffle). More details are in the Joyner-Casey(Luers) paper referenced last time.


Joseph Kahane and Alexander J. Ryba, ‘The hexad game

more… Mathieu’s blackjack (2)

Mathieu’s blackjack (1)

Mathieu’s blackjack is a two-person combinatorial game played with 12 cards of values 0,1,2,…,11. For example take from any deck the numbered cards together with the jack (value 11) and the queen (value 0) (btw. if you find this PI by all means replace the queen by a zero-valued king). Shuffle the cards and divide them into two piles of 6 cards (all of them face up on the table) : the main-pile and the other-pile. The rules of the game are

  • players alternate moves
  • a move consists of exchanging a card of the main-pile with a lower-valued card from the other-pile
  • the player whose move makes the sum of all cards in the main-pile under 21 looses the game

For example, the starting main-pile might consist of the six cards

This pile has total value 3+4+7+8+9+11=42. A move replaces one of these cards with a lowever vlued one not in the pile. So for example, replacing 8 with 5 or 1 or 2 or the queen are all valid moves. A winning move from this situation is for example replacing 8 by the queen (value 0) decreasing the value from 42 to 34

But there are otthers, such as replacing 11 by 5, 9 by 1 or 4 by 2. To win this game you need to know the secrets of the tetracode and the MINIMOG.

The tetracode is a one-error correcting code consisting of the following nine words of length four over $\mathbb{F}_3 = { 0,+,- } $

$~\begin{matrix} 0~0 0 0 & 0~+ + + & 0~- – – \\ +~0 + – & +~+ – 0 & +~- 0 + \\ -~0 – + & -~+ 0 – & -~- + 0 \end{matrix} $

The first element (which is slightly offset from the rest) is the slope s of the words, and the other three digits cyclically increase by s (in the field $\mathbb{F}_3 $). Because the Hamming-distance is 3 (the minimal number of different digits between two codewords), the tetracode can correct one error, meaning that if at most one of the four digits gets distorted by the channel one can detect and correct this. For example, if you would receive the word $+~++- $ (which is not a codeword) and if you would know that at most one digits went wrong, you can deduce that the word $+~0+- $ was sent. Thus, one can solve the 4-problem for the tetracode : correctt a tetracodeword given all 4 of its digits, one of which may be mistaken.

Another easy puzzle is the 2-problem for the tertracode : complete a tetracodeword from any 2 of its digits. For example, given the incomplete word $?~?0+ $ you can decide that the slope should be + and hence that the complete word must be $+~-0+ $.

We will use the MINIMOG here as a way to record the blackjack-position. It is a $4 \times 3 $ array where the 12 boxes correspond to the card-values by the following scheme

$\begin{array}{|c|ccc|} \hline 6 & 3 & 0 & 9 \\ 5 & 2 & 7 & 10 \\ 4 & 1 & 8 & 11 \\ \hline \end{array} $

and given a blackjack-position we place a star in the corresponding box, so the above start-position (resp. after the first move) corresponds to

$~\begin{array}{|c|ccc|} \hline & \ast & & \ast \\ & & \ast & \\ \ast & & \ast & \ast \\ \hline – & 0 & 0 & + \end{array}~ $ respectively $\begin{array}{|c|ccc|} \hline & \ast & \ast & \ast \\ & & \ast & \\ \ast & & & \ast \\ \hline – & 0 & – & + \end{array} $

In the final row we have added elements of $\mathbb{F}_3 $ indicating wher ethe stars are placed in that column (if there is just one star, we write the row-number of the star (ordered 0,+,- from top to bottom), if there are two stars we record the row-number of the empty spot. If we would have three or no stars in a column we would record a wild-card character : ?

Observe that the final row of the start position is $-~00+ $ which is NOT a tetracodeword, whereas that of the winning position $-~0-+ $ IS a tetracodeword! This is the essence of the _Conway-Ryba winning strategy_ for Mathieu’s blackjack. There are precisely 132 winning positions forming the Steiner-system S(5,6,12). By an S(5,6,12) we mean a collection of 6-element subsets (our card-piles) from a 12-element set (the deck minus the king) having the amazing property that for EVERY 5-tuple from the 12-set there is a UNIQUE 6-element set containing this 5-tuple. Hence, there are exactly $\begin{pmatrix} 12 \\\ 5 \end{pmatrix}/6 = 132 $ elements in a Steiner S(5,6,12) system. The winning positions are exactly those MINOMOGs having 6 stars such that the final row is a tetracodeword (or can be extended to a tetracodeword replacing the wildcards ? by suitable digits) and such that the distribution of the stars over the columns is NOT (3,2,1,0) in any order.

Provided the given blackjack-position is not in this Steiner-system (and there is only a 1/7 chance that it is), the strategy is clear : remove one of the stars to get a 5-tuple and determine the unique 6-set of the Steiner-system containing this 5-tuple. If the required extra star corresponds to a value less than the removed star you have a legal and winning move (if not, repeat this for another star). Finding these winning positions means solving 2- and 4-problems for the tetracode. _Another time_ we will say more about this Steiner system and indicate the relation with the Mathieu group $M_{12} $.


J.H. Conway and N.J.A. Sloane, ‘The Golay codes and the Mathieu groups’, chp. 10 of “Sphere Packings, Lattices and Groups

David Joyner and Ann Casey-Luers, ‘Kittens, S(5,6,12) and Mathematical blackjack in SAGE

more… Mathieu’s blackjack (1)