To Gavin Wraiht a mathematical phantom is a “nonexistent entity which ought to be there but apparently is not; but nevertheless obtrudes its effects so convincingly that one is forced to concede a broader notion of existence”. Mathematics’ history is filled with phantoms getting the kiss of life.

Nobody will deny the ancient Greek were pretty good at maths, but still they were extremely unsure about the status of zero as a number. They asked themselves, “How can nothing be something?”, and, paradoxes such as of Zeno’s depend in large part on that uncertain interpretation of zero. It lasted until the 9th century before Indian scholars were comfortable enough to treat 0 just as any other number.

Italian gamblers/equation-solvers of the early 16th century were baffled by the fact that the number of solutions to quartic equations could vary, seemingly arbitrary, from zero to four until Cardano invented ‘imaginary numbers’ and showed that there were invariably four solutions provided one allows these imaginary or ‘phantom’ numbers.

Similar paradigm shifts occurred in mathematics much more recently, for example the discovery of the quaternions by William Hamilton. This object had all the telltale signs of a field-extension of the complex numbers, apart from the fact that the multiplication of two of its numbers a.b did not necessarely give you the same result as multiplying the other way around b.a.

Hamilton was so shaken by this discovery (which he made while walking along the Royal canal in Dublin with his wife on october 16th 1843) that he carved the equations using his penknife into the side of the nearby Broom Bridge (which Hamilton called Brougham Bridge), for fear he would forget it. Today, no trace of the carving remains, though a stone plaque does commemorate the discovery.

It reads :

Here as he walked by

on the 16th of October 1843

Sir William Rowan Hamilton

in a flash of genius discovered

the fundamental formula for

quaternion multiplication

$i^2 = j^2 = k^2 = i j k = −1 $

& cut it on a stone of this bridge

The fact that this seems to be the least visited tourist attraction in Dublin tells a lot about the standing of mathematics in society. Fortunately, some of us go to extreme lengths making a pilgrimage to Hamilton’s bridge…

In short, the discovery of mathematical objects such as 0, the square root of -1, quaternions or octonions, often allow us to make great progress in mathematics at the price of having to bend the existing rules slightly.

But, to suggest seriously that an unobserved object should exist when even the most basic arguments rule against its existence is a different matter entirely.

Probably, you have to be brought up in the surrealistic tradition of artists such as Renee Magritte, a guy who added below a drawing of a pipe a sentence saying “This is not a pipe” (Ceci n’est pas une pipe).

In short, you have to be Belgian…

Jacques Tits is a Belgian (today he is also a citizen of a far less surrealistic country : France). He is the ‘man from Uccle’ (in Mark Ronan’s bestselling Symmetry and the Monster), the guy making finite size replicas of infinite Lie groups. But also the guy who didn’t want to stop there.

He managed to replace the field of complex numbers $\mathbb{C} $ by a finite field $\mathbb{F}_q $, consisting of precisely $q=p^n $ a prime-power elements, but wondered what this group might become if $q $ were to go down to size $1 $, even though everyone knew that there couldn’t be a field $\mathbb{F}_1 $ having just one element as $0 \not= 1 $ and these two numbers have to be in any fields DNA.

Tits convinced himself that this elusive field had to exists because his limit-groups had all the characteristics of a finite group co-existing with a Lie group, its companion the Weyl group. Moreover, he was dead sure that the finite geometry associated to his versions of Lie groups would also survive the limit process and give an entirely new combinatorial geometry, featuring objects called ‘buildings’ containing ‘appartments’ glued along ‘walls’ and more terms a real-estate agent might use, but surely not a mathematician…

At the time he was a researcher with the Belgian national science foundation and, having served that agency twenty years myself, I know he had to tread carefully not to infuriate the more traditional committee-members that have to decide on your grant-application every other year. So, when he put his thoughts in writing

he added a footnote saying : “$K_1 $ isn’t generally considered a field”. I’m certain he was doing a Magritte :

$\mathbb{F}_1 $ (as we call today his elusive field $~K_1~ $)

ceci n’est pas un corps