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Category: math

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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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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Witt and his Niemeier lattices

Sunday, January 28th 1940, Hamburg

Ernst Witt wants to get two papers out of his system because he knows he’ll have to enter the Wehrmacht in February.

The first one, “Spiegelungsgruppen und Aufzählung halbeinfacher Liescher Ringe”, contains his own treatment of the root systems of semisimple Lie algebras and their reflexion groups, following up on previous work by Killing, Cartan, Weyl, van der Waerden and Coxeter.



(Photo: Natascha Artin, Nikolausberg 1933): From left to right: Ernst Witt; Paul Bernays; Helene Weyl; Hermann Weyl; Joachim Weyl, Emil Artin; Emmy Noether; Ernst Knauf; unknown woman; Chiuntze Tsen; Erna Bannow (later became wife of Ernst Witt)

Important for our story is that this paper contains the result stating that integral lattices generated by norm 2 elements are direct sums of root systems of the simply laced Dynkin diagrans $A_n, D_n$ and $E_6,E_7$ or $E_8$ (Witt uses a slightly different notation).



In each case, Witt knows of course the number of roots and the determinant of the Gram matrix
\[
\begin{array}{c|cc}
& \# \text{roots} & \text{determinant} \\
\hline
A_n & n^2+n & n+1 \\
D_n & 2n^2-2n & 4 \\
E_6 & 72 & 3 \\
E_7 & 126 & 2 \\
E_8 & 240 & 1
\end{array}
\]
The second paper “Eine Identität zwischen Modulformen zweiten Grades” proves that there are just two positive definite even unimodular lattices (those in which every squared length is even, and which have one point per unit volume, that is, have determinant one) in dimension sixteen, $E_8 \oplus E_8$ and $D_{16}^+$. Previously, Louis Mordell showed that the only unimodular even lattice in dimension $8$ is $E_8$.

The connection with modular forms is via their theta series, listing the number of lattice points of each squared length
\[
\theta_L(q) = \sum_{m=0}^{\infty} \#\{ \lambda \in L : (\lambda,\lambda)=m \} q^{m} \]
which is a modular form of weight $n/2$ ($n$ being the dimension which must be divisible by $8$) in case $L$ is a positive definitive even unimodular lattice.

The algebra of all modular forms is generated by the Eisenstein series $E_2$ and $E_3$ of weights $4$ and $6$, so in dimension $8$ we have just one possible theta series
\[
\theta_L(q) = E_2^2 = 1+480 q^2+ 61920 q^4+ 1050240 q^6+ \dots \]

It is interesting to read Witt’s proof of his main result (Satz 3) in which he explains how he constructed the possible even unimodular lattices in dimension $16$.

He knows that the sublattice of $L$ generated by the $480$ norm two elements must be a direct sum of root lattices. His knowledge of the number of roots in each case tells him there are only two possibilities
\[
E_8 \oplus E_8 \qquad \text{and} \qquad D_{16} \]
The determinant of the Gram matrix of $E_8 \oplus E_8$ is one, so this one is already unimodular. The remaining possibility
\[
D_{16} = \{ (x_1,\dots,x_{16}) \in \mathbb{Z}^{16}~|~x_1+ \dots + x_{16} \in 2 \mathbb{Z} \} \]
has determinant $4$ so he needs to add further lattice points (necessarily contained in the dual lattice $D_{16}^*$) to get it unimodular. He knows the coset representatives of $D_{16}^*/D_{16}$:
\[
\begin{cases}
[0]=(0, \dots,0) &~\text{of norm $0$} \\
[1]=(\tfrac{1}{2},\dots,\tfrac{1}{2}) &~\text{of norm $4$} \\
[2]=(0,\dots,0,1) &~\text{of norm $1$} \\
[3]=(\tfrac{1}{2},\dots,\tfrac{1}{2},-\tfrac{1}{2}) &~\text{of norm $4$}
\end{cases}
\]
and he verifies that the determinant of $D_{16}^+=D_{16}+([1]+D_{16})$ is indeed one (btw. adding coset $[3]$ gives an isomorphic lattice). Witt calls this procedure to arrive at the correct lattices forced (‘zwangslaufig’).

So, how do you think Witt would go about finding even unimodular lattices in dimension $24$?

To me it is clear that he would start with a direct sum of root lattices whose dimensions add up to $24$, compute the determinant of the Gram matrix and, if necessary, add coset classes to arrive at a unimodular lattice.

Today we would call this procedure ‘adding glue’, after Martin Kneser, who formalised this procedure in 1967.

On January 28th 1940, Witt writes that he found more than $10$ different classes of even unimodular lattices in dimension $24$ (without giving any details) and mentioned that the determination of the total number of such lattices will not be entirely trivial (‘scheint nicht ganz leicht zu sein’).

The complete classification of all $24$ even unimodular lattices in dimension $24$ was achieved by Hans Volker Niemeier in his 1968 Ph.D. thesis “Definite quadratische Formen der Dimension 24 und Diskriminante 1”, under the direction of Martin Kneser. Naturally, these lattices are now known as the Niemeier lattices.

Which of the Niemeier lattices were known to Witt in 1940?

There are three obvious certainties: $E_8 \oplus E_8 \oplus E_8$, $E_8 \oplus D_{16}^+$ (both already unimodular, the second by Witt’s work) and $D_{24}^+$ with a construction analogous to the one of $D_{16}^+$.

To make an educated guess about the remaining Witt-Niemeier lattices we can do two things:

  1. use our knowledge of Niemeier lattices to figure out which of these Witt was most likely to stumble upon, and
  2. imagine how he would adapt his modular form approach in dimension $16$ to dimension $24$.

Here’s Kneser’s neighbourhood graph of the Niemeier lattices. Its vertices are the $24$ Niemeiers and there’s an edge between $L$ and $M$ whenever the intersection $L \cap M$ is of index $2$ in both $L$ and $M$. In this case, $L$ and $M$ are called neighbours.



Although the theory of neighbours was not known to Witt, the graph may give an indication of how likely it is to dig up a new Niemeier lattice by poking into an already discovered one.
The three certainties are the three lattices at the bottom of the neighborhood graph, making it more likely for the lattices in the lower region to be among Witt’s list.

For the other approach, the space of modular forms of weight $12$ is two dimensional, with a basis formed by the series
\[
\begin{cases}
E_6(q) = 1 + \tfrac{65520}{691}(q+2049 q^2 + 177148 q^3+4196353q^4+\dots \\
\Delta(q) = q-24 q^2+252q^3-1472q^4+ \dots
\end{cases}
\]

If you are at all with me, Witt would start with a lattice $R$ which is a direct sum of root lattices, so he would know the number of its roots (the norm $2$ vectors in $R$), let’s call this number $r$. Now, he wants to construct an even unimodular lattice $L$ containing $R$, so the theta series of both $L$ and $R$ must start off with $1 + r q^2 + \dots$. But, then he knows
\[
\theta_L(q) = E_6(q) + (r-\frac{65520}{691})\Delta(q) \]
and comparing coefficients of $\theta_L(q)$ with those of $\theta_R(q)$ will give him an idea what extra vectors he has to throw in.

If we’re generous to Witt (and frankly, why shouldn’t we), we may believe that he used his vast knowledge of Steiner systems (a few years earlier he wrote the definite paper on the Mathieu groups, and a paper on Steiner systems) to construct in this way the lattices $(A_1^{24})^+$ and $(A_2^{12})^+$.

The ‘glue’ for $(A_1^{24})^+$ is coming from the extended binary Golay code, which itself uses the Steiner system $S(5,8,24)$. $(A_2^{12})^+$ is constructed using the extended ternary Golay code, based on the Steiner system $S(5,6,12)$.

The one thing that would never have crossed his mind that sunday in 1940 was to explore the possibility of an even unimodular 24-dimensional lattice $\Lambda$ without any roots!

One with $r=0$, and thus with a theta series starting off as
\[
\theta_{\Lambda}(q) = 1 + 196560 q^4 + 16773120 q^6 + \dots \]
No, he did not find the Leech lattice that day.

If he would have stumbled upon it, it would have simply blown his mind.

It would have been so much against all his experiences and intuitions that he would have dropped everything on the spot to write a paper about it, or at least, he would have mentioned in his ‘more than $10$ lattices’-claim that, surprisingly, one of them was an even unimodular lattice without any roots.

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Teapot supremacy

No, this is not another timely post about the British Royal family.

It’s about Richard Borcherds’ “teapot test” for quantum computers.



A lot of money is being thrown at the quantum computing hype, causing people to leave academia for quantum computing firms. A recent example (hitting the press even in Belgium) being the move of Bob Coecke from Oxford University to Cambridge Quantum Computing.

Sure, quantum computing is an enticing idea, and we have fantastic quantum algorithms such as Shor’s factorisation algorithm and Grover’s search algorithm.

The (engineering) problem is building quantum computers with a large enough number of qubits, which is very difficult due to quantum decoherence. To an outsider it may appear that the number of qubits in a working quantum computer is growing at best linearly, if not logarithmic, in sharp contrast to Moore’s law for classical computers, stating that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles every two years.

Quantum computing evangelists assure us that this is nonsense, and that we should replace Moore’s law by Neven’s law claiming that the computing power of quantum computers will grow not just exponentially, but doubly exponentially!

What is behind these exaggerated claims?

In 2015 the NSA released a policy statement on the need for post-quantum cryptography. In the paper “A riddle wrapped in an enigma”, Neil Koblitz and Alfred Menezes carefully examined NSA’s possible strategies behind this assertion.

Can the NSA break PQC? Can the NSA break RSA? Does the NSA believes that RSA-3072 is much more quantum-resistant than ECC-256 and even ECC-384?, and so on.

Perhaps the most plausible of all explanations is this one : the NSA is using a diversion strategy aimed at Russia and China.

Suppose that the NSA believes that, although a large-scale quantum computer might eventually be built, it will be hugely expensive. From a cost standpoint it will be less analogous to Alan Turing’s bombe than to the Manhattan Project or the Apollo program, and it will be within the capabilities of only a small number of nation-states and huge corporations.

Suppose also that, in thinking about the somewhat adversarial relationship that still exists between the U.S. and both China and Russia, especially in the area of cybersecurity, the NSA asked itself “How did we win the Cold War? The main strategy was to goad the Soviet Union into an arms race that it could not afford, essentially bankrupting it. Their GNP was so much less than ours, what was a minor set-back for our economy was a major disaster for theirs. It was a great strategy. Let’s try it again.”

This brings us to the claim of quantum supremacy, that is, demonstrating that a programmable quantum device can solve a problem that no classical computer can solve in any feasible amount of time.

In 2019, Google claimed “to have reached quantum supremacy with an array of 54 qubits out of which 53 were functional, which were used to perform a series of operations in 200 seconds that would take a supercomputer about 10,000 years to complete”. In December 2020, a group based in USTC reached quantum supremacy by implementing a type of Boson sampling on 76 photons with their photonic quantum computer. They stated that to generate the number of samples the quantum computer generates in 20 seconds, a classical supercomputer would require 600 million years of computation.

Richard Borcherds rants against the type of problems used to claim quantum ‘supremacy’. He proposes the ‘teapot problem’ which a teapot can solve instantaneously, but will be impossibly hard for classical (and even quantum) computers. That is, any teapot achieves ‘teapot supremacy’ over classical and quantum computers!

Another point of contention are the ‘real-life applications’ quantum computers are said to be used for. Probably he is referring to Volkswagen’s plan for traffic optimization with a D-Wave quantum computer in Lisbon.

“You could give these guys a time machine and all they’d use it for was going back to watch some episodes of some soap opera they missed”

Enjoy!

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Borcherds’ favourite numbers

Whenever I visit someone’s YouTube or Twitter profile page, I hope to see an interesting banner image. Here’s the one from Richard Borcherds’ YouTube Channel.

Not too surprisingly for Borcherds, almost all of these numbers are related to the monster group or its moonshine.

Let’s try to decode them, in no particular order.

196884

John McKay’s observation $196884 = 1 + 196883$ was the start of the whole ‘monstrous moonshine’ industry. Here, $1$ and $196883$ are the dimensions of the two smallest irreducible representations of the monster simple group, and $196884$ is the first non-trivial coefficient in Klein’s j-function in number theory.

$196884$ is also the dimension of the space in which Robert Griess constructed the Monster, following Simon Norton’s lead that there should be an algebra structure on the monster-representation of that dimension. This algebra is now known as the Griess algebra.

Here’s a recent talk by Griess “My life and times with the sporadic simple groups” in which he tells about his construction of the monster (relevant part starting at 1:15:53 into the movie).

1729

1729 is the second (and most famous) taxicab number. A long time ago I did write a post about the classic Ramanujan-Hardy story the taxicab curve (note to self: try to tidy up the layout of some old posts!).

Recently, connections between Ramanujan’s observation and K3-surfaces were discovered. Emory University has an enticing press release about this: Mathematicians find ‘magic key’ to drive Ramanujan’s taxi-cab number. The paper itself is here.

“We’ve found that Ramanujan actually discovered a K3 surface more than 30 years before others started studying K3 surfaces and they were even named. It turns out that Ramanujan’s work anticipated deep structures that have become fundamental objects in arithmetic geometry, number theory and physics.”

Ken Ono

24

There’s no other number like $24$ responsible for the existence of sporadic simple groups.

24 is the length of the binary Golay code, with isomorphism group the sporadic Mathieu group $M_24$ and hence all of the other Mathieu-groups as subgroups.

24 is the dimension of the Leech lattice, with isomorphism group the Conway group $Co_0 = .0$ (dotto), giving us modulo its center the sporadic group $Co_1=.1$ and the other Conway groups $Co_2=.2, Co_3=.3$, and all other sporadics of the second generation in the happy family as subquotients (McL,HS,Suz and $HJ=J_2$)



24 is the central charge of the Monster vertex algebra constructed by Frenkel, Lepowski and Meurman. Most experts believe that the Monster’s reason of existence is that it is the symmetry group of this vertex algebra. John Conway was one among few others hoping for a nicer explanation, as he said in this interview with Alex Ryba.

24 is also an important number in monstrous moonshine, see for example the post the defining property of 24. There’s a lot more to say on this, but I’ll save it for another day.

60

60 is, of course, the order of the smallest non-Abelian simple group, $A_5$, the rotation symmetry group of the icosahedron. $A_5$ is the symmetry group of choice for most viruses but not the Corona-virus.

3264

3264 is the correct solution to Steiner’s conic problem asking for the number of conics in $\mathbb{P}^2_{\mathbb{C}}$ tangent to five given conics in general position.



Steiner himself claimed that there were $7776=6^5$ such conics, but realised later that he was wrong. The correct number was first given by Ernest de Jonquières in 1859, but a rigorous proof had to await the advent of modern intersection theory.

Eisenbud and Harris wrote a book on intersection theory in algebraic geometry, freely available online: 3264 and all that.

248

248 is the dimension of the exceptional simple Lie group $E_8$. $E_8$ is also connected to the monster group.

If you take two Fischer involutions in the monster (elements of conjugacy class 2A) and multiply them, the resulting element surprisingly belongs to one of just 9 conjugacy classes:

1A,2A,2B,3A,3C,4A,4B,5A or 6A

The orders of these elements are exactly the dimensions of the fundamental root for the extended $E_8$ Dynkin diagram.

This is yet another moonshine observation by John McKay and I wrote a couple of posts about it and about Duncan’s solution: the monster graph and McKay’s observation, and $E_8$ from moonshine groups.

163

163 is a remarkable number because of the ‘modular miracle’
\[
e^{\pi \sqrt{163}} = 262537412640768743.99999999999925… \]
This is somewhat related to moonshine, or at least to Klein’s j-function, which by a result of Kronecker’s detects the classnumber of imaginary quadratic fields $\mathbb{Q}(\sqrt{-D})$ and produces integers if the classnumber is one (as is the case for $\mathbb{Q}(\sqrt{-163})$).

The details are in the post the miracle of 163, or in the paper by John Stillwell, Modular Miracles, The American Mathematical Monthly, 108 (2001) 70-76.

Richard Borcherds, the math-vlogger, has an entertaining video about this story: MegaFavNumbers 262537412680768000

His description of the $j$-function (at 4:13 in the movie) is simply hilarious!

Borcherds connects $163$ to the monster moonshine via the $j$-function, but there’s another one.

The monster group has $194$ conjugacy classes and monstrous moonshine assigns a ‘moonshine function’ to each conjugacy class (the $j$-function is assigned to the identity element). However, these $194$ functions are not linearly independent and the space spanned by them has dimension exactly $163$.

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GoV 2 : Viruses and quasi-crystals

If you look around for mathematical theories of the structure of viruses, you quickly end up with the work of Raidun Twarock and her group at the University of York.



We’ve seen her proposal to extend the Caspar-Klug classification of viruses. Her novel idea to distribute proteins on the viral capsid along Penrose-like tilings shouldn’t be taken too literally. The inherent aperiodic nature of Penrose tiles doesn’t go together well with perfect tilings of the sphere.

Instead, the observation that these capsid tilings resemble somewhat Penrose tilings is a side-effect of another great idea of the York group. Recently, they borrowed techniques from the theory of quasicrystals to gain insight in the inner structure of viruses, in particular on the interaction of the capsid with the genome.

By the crystallographic restriction theorem no $3$-dimensional lattice can have icosahedral symmetry. But, we can construct aperiodic structures (quasicrystals) which have local icosahedral structure, much like Penrose tilings have local $D_5$-symmetry

This is best explained by de Bruijn‘s theory of pentagrids (more on that another time). Here I’ll just mention the representation-theoretic idea.

The isometry group of the standard $5$-dimensional lattice $\mathbb{Z}^5$ is the group of all signed permutation $5 \times 5$ matrices $B_5$ (Young’s hyperoctahedral group). There are two distinct conjugacy classes of subgroups in $B_5$ isomorphic to $D_5$, one such subgroup generated by the permutation matrices
\[
x= \begin{bmatrix}
0 & 1 & 0 & 0 & 0 \\
0 & 0 & 1 & 0 & 0 \\
0 & 0 & 0 & 1 & 0 \\
0 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 1 \\
1 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 0 \end{bmatrix} \qquad \text{and} \qquad
y = \begin{bmatrix} 1 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 0 \\
0 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 1 \\
0 & 0 & 0 & 1 & 0 \\
0 & 0 & 1 & 0 & 0 \\
0 & 1 & 0 & 0 & 0 \end{bmatrix} \]
The traces of $x,x^2$ and $y$, together with the character table of $D_5$ tell us that this $5$-dimensional $D_5$-representation splits as the direct sum of the trivial representation and of the two irreducible $2$-dimensional representations.
\[
\mathbb{R}^5 = A \simeq T \oplus W_1 \oplus W_2 \]
with $T = \mathbb{R} d$, $W_1 = \mathbb{R} u_1 + \mathbb{R} u_2$ and $W_2 = \mathbb{R} w_1 + \mathbb{R} w_2$ where
\[
\begin{cases}
(1,1,1,1,1)=d \\
(1,c_1,c_2,c_3,c_4)= u_1 \\
(0,s_1,s_2,s_3,s_4) = u_2 \\
(1,c_2,c_4,c1,c3)= w_1 \\
(0,s_2,s_4,s_1,s_3)= w_2
\end{cases}
\]
and $c_j=cos(2\pi j/5)$ and $s_j=sin(2 \pi/5)$. We have a $D_5$-projection
\[
\pi : A \rightarrow W_1 \quad (y_0,\dots,y_4) \mapsto \sum_{i=0}^4 y_i(c_i u_1+s_i u_2) \]
The projection maps the vertices of the $5$-dimensional hypercube to a planar configuration with $D_5$-symmetry.



de Bruijn’s results say that if we take suitable ‘windows’ of lattice-points in $\mathbb{Z}^5$ and project them via the $D_5$-equivariant map $\pi$ onto the plane, then the images of these lattice points become the vertices of a rhombic Penrose tiling (and we get all such tilings by choosing our window carefully).



This explains why Penrose tilings have a local $D_5$-symmetry. I’ll try to come back to de Bruijn’s papers in future posts.

But, let’s go back to viruses and the work of Twarock’s group using methods from quasicrystals. Such aperiodic structures with a local icosahedral symmetry can be constructed along similar lines. This time one starts with the standard $6$-dimensional lattice $\mathbb{Z^6}$ with isometry group $B_6$ (signed $6 \times 6$ permutation matrices).

This group has three conjugacy classes of subgroups isomorphic to $A_5$, but for only one of them this $6$-dimensional representation decomposes as the direct sum of the two irreducible $3$-dimensional representations of $A_5$ (the decompositions in the two other cases contain an irreducible of dimension $4$ or $5$ together with trivial factor(s)). A representant of the crystallographic relevant case is given by the signed permutation matrices
\[
x= \begin{bmatrix}
0 & 1 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 0 \\
1 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 0 \\
0 & 0 & 0 & -1 & 0 & 0 \\
0 & 0 & -1 & 0 & 0 & 0 \\
0 & 0 & 0 & 0 & -1 & 0 \\
0 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 0 & -1
\end{bmatrix} \qquad \text{and} \qquad y=
\begin{bmatrix}
0 & 0 & 1 & 0 & 0 & 0 \\
1 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 0 \\
0 & 1 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 0 \\
0 & 0 & 0 & 0 & -1 & 0 \\
0 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 0 & 1 \\
0 & 0 & 0 & -1 & 0 & 0
\end{bmatrix} \]

Again, using suitable windows of $\mathbb{Z}^6$-lattice points and using the $A_5$-equivariant projection to one of the two $3$-dimensional components, one obtains quasicrystals with local $A_5$-symmetry.

In this $3$-dimensional case the replacements of the thick and thin rhombi are these four parallellepipeda, known as the Amman blocks



which must be stacked together obeying the gluing condition that dots of the same colour must be adjacent.

Has anyone looked at a possible connection between the four Amman blocks (which come in pairs) and the four (paired) nucleotides in DNA? Just an idle thought…

These blocks grow into quasicrystals with local icosahedral symmetry.



The faces on the boundary of such a sphere-like quasicrystal then look a lot like a Penrose tiling.

How can we connect these group and representation-theoretic ideas to the structure of viruses? Here’s another thought-provoking proposal coming from the York group.

Take the $A_5$ subgroup of the hyperoctahedral group in six dimensiona $B_6$ generated by the above two matrices (giving a good $A_5$-equivariant projection $\pi$ to three dimensional space) and consider an intermediate group
\[
A_5 \subsetneq G \subseteq B_6 \]
Take a point in $\mathbb{R}^6$ and look at its orbit under the isometries of $G$, then all these points have the same distance from the origin in $\mathbb{R}^6$. Now, project this orbit under $\pi$ to get a collection of points in $\mathbb{R}^3$.

As $\pi$ is only $A_5$-equivariant (and not $G$-equivariant) the image points may lie in different shells from the origin. We can try to relate these shells of points to observational data on the inner structures of viruses.

Here’s a pretty convincing instance of such a correlation, taken from the thesis by Emilio Zappa “New group theoretical methods for applications in virology and quasicrystals”.



This is the inner structure of the Hepatitis B virus, showing the envelope (purple), capsid protein (cream) and genome (light blue). The coloured dots are the image points in the different shells around the origin.

Do viruses invade us from the sixth dimension??

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GoV 1 : Geometry of viruses

As you may have guessed from the symmetries of Covid-19 post, I did spend some time lately catching up with the literature on the geometric structure and symmetries of viruses. It may be fun to run a little series on this.

A virus is a parasite, so it cannot reproduce on its own and needs to invade a host cell to replicate. All information needed for this replication process is stored in a fragile DNA or RNA string, the viral genome.

This genome needs to be protected by a coating made of proteins, the viral capsid. Most viruses have an additional fatty protection layer, the envelope, decorated by virus (glyco)proteins (such as the ‘spikes’ needed to infiltrate the host cell).



Most viruses are extremely small (between 20 and 200nm), our friend the corona-virus measures between 80 and 120nm. So, its genome is also pretty small (the corona genome has around 30.000 base pairs). To maximise its information, the volume of the protective capsid must be as large as possible, and must be formed by just a few different proteins (to free as much space in the code of the genome for other operations) and clusters of them are distributed over the polyhedral capsid, as symmetric as possible.

This insight led Watson and Crick, the discoverers of the structure of DNA, to the ‘genetic economy’-proposal that most sphere-like viruses will have an icosahedral capsid because the icosahedron is the Platonic solid with the largest volume and rotational symmetry group. They argued that the capsid is most likely constructed from a single subunit (capsomere), which is repeated many times to form the protein shell.



Little is known about capsid formation, that is the process in which the capsid proteins self-assemble into an icosahedral shape, nor about the precise interplay between the genome and the capsid proteins. If we would understand these two things better it might open new possibilities for anti-viral drugs, by either blocking the self-assembly process or by breaking the genome-capsid interaction.

A first proposal for the capsid structure was put forward by Caspar and Klug. Their quasi-equivalence principle asserts that each of the 20 triangular faces of the icosahedron is subdivided in 3 subunits, each consisting of at least one protein.

Most viruses have much more than 60 proteins in their capsid, so Caspar and Klug introduced their $T$-number giving the number of proteins per subunit. One superimposes the triangulation of the icosahedron with the hexagonal plane lattice, then $T$ is the number of sub-triangles of these hexagons contained in each subunit. For $T = 7$ we have the following situation



Folding back the triangulation to form the icosahedron one then obtains a tiling consisting of hexagons (the green regions) and pentagons (the blue regions)



It turned out that many viruses with icosahedral symmetry consist of subunits having a different number of proteins, such as dimers (2 proteins), trimers (3 proteins), or pentamers (5 proteins) and these self-organise around a 2, 3, or 5-fold rotational axis of the icosahedron.

This led Reidun Twarock around 2000 to propose her virus tiling theory. This is a generalisation of the Caspar-Klug theory in which one superimposese the triangulation of the icosahedron with other tilings of the plane, consisting of two or more non-congruent tiles. Here an example which looks a bit like the aperiodic Penrose tilings of the plane.



Here’s a recent Quanta-Magazine article on Twarock’s work and potential consequences: The illuminating geometry of viruses.

And here’s an LMS Popular Lecture, from 2008, by Raidun Twarock herself: “Know your enemy – viruses under the mathematical microscope”.

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