From the Noether boys to Bourbaki

Next year I’ll be teaching a master course on the “History of Mathematics” for the first time, so I’m brainstorming a bit on how to approach such a course and I would really appreciate your input.

Rather than giving a chronological historic account of some period, I’d like this course to be practice oriented and focus on questions such as

  • what are relevant questions for historians of mathematics to ask?
  • how do they go about answering these questions?
  • having answers, how do they communicate their finds to the general public?

To make this as concrete as possible I think it is best to concentrate on a specific period which is interesting both from a mathematical as well as an historic perspective. Such as the 1930’s with the decline of the Noether boys (pictures below) and the emergence of the Bourbaki group, illustrating the shift in mathematical influence from Germany to France.

(btw. the picture above is taken from a talk by Peter Roquette on Emmy Noether, available here)

There is plenty of excellent material available online, for students to explore in search for answers to their pet project-questions :

There’s a wealth of riddles left to solve about this period, ranging from the genuine over the anecdotic to the speculative. For example

  • Many of the first generation Bourbakis spend some time studying in Germany in the late 20ties early 30ties. To what extend did these experiences influence the creation and working of the Bourbaki group?
  • Now really, did Witt discover the Leech lattice or not?
  • What if fascism would not have broken up the Noether group, would this have led to a proof of the Riemann hypothesis by the Noether-Bourbakis (Witt, Teichmuller, Chevalley, Weil) in the early 40ties?

I hope students will come up with other interesting questions, do some excellent detective work and report on their results (for example in a blogpost or a YouTube clip).

Farey symbols in SAGE 5.0

The sporadic second Janko group $J_2$ is generated by an element of order two and one of order three and hence is a quotient of the modular group $PSL_2(\mathbb{Z}) = C_2 \ast C_3$.

This Janko group has a 100-dimensional permutation representation and hence there is an index 100 subgroup $G$ of the modular group such that the fundamental domain $\mathbb{H}/G$ for the action of $G$ on the upper-half plane by Moebius transformations consists of 100 triangles in the Dedekind tessellation.

Four years ago i tried to depict this fundamental domain in the Farey symbols of sporadic groups-post using Chris Kurth’s kfarey package in Sage, but the result was rather disappointing.

Now, the kfarey-package has been greatly extended by Hartmut Monien of Bonn University and is integrated in the latest version of Sage, SAGE 5.0, released a few weeks ago.

Using the Farey symbol sage-documentation it is easy to repeat the calculations from four years ago and, this time, we do obtain this rather nice picture of the fundamental domain

But, there’s a lot more one can do with the new package. By combining the .fractions() with the .pairings() info it is now possible to get the corresponding Farey code which consists of 34 edges, starting off with



Perhaps surprisingly (?) $G$ turns out to be a genus zero modular subgroup. Naturally, i couldn’t resist drawing the fundamental domain for the 12-dimensional permutations representation of the Mathieu group $M_{12}$ and compare it with that of last time.

Aaron Siegel on transfinite number hacking

One of the coolest (pure math) facts in Conway’s book ONAG is the explicit construction of the algebraic closure $\overline{\mathbb{F}_2}$ of the field with two elements as the set of all ordinal numbers smaller than $(\omega^{\omega})^{\omega}$ equipped with nimber addition and multiplication.

Some time ago we did run a couple of posts on this. In transfinite number hacking we recalled Cantor’s ordinal arithmetic and in Conway’s nim arithmetics we showed that Conway’s simplicity rules for addition and multiplication turns the set of all ordinal numbers into a field of characteristic zero : $\mathbb{On}_2$ (pronounced ‘Onto’).

In the post extending Lenstra’s list we gave Hendrik Lenstra’s effective construction of the mystery elements $\alpha_p$ (for prime numbers $p$) needed to do actual calculations in $\mathbb{On}_2$. We used SAGE to check the values for $p \leq 41$ and solved the conjecture left in Lenstra’s paper Nim multiplication that $(\omega^{\omega^{13}})^{43} = \omega^{\omega^7} + 1$ and determined $\alpha_p$ for $p \leq 67$.


Aaron Siegel has now dramatically extended this and calculated the $\alpha_p$ for all primes $p \leq 181$. He mails :

“thinking about the problem I figured it shouldn’t be too hard to write a dedicated program for it. So I threw together some Java code and… pushed the table up to p = 181! You can see the results below. Q(f(p)), excess, and alpha_p are all as defined by Lenstra. The “t(sec)” column is the number of seconds the calculation took, on my 3.4GHz iMac. The most difficult case, by far, was p = 167, which took about five days.

I’m including results for all p < 300, except for p = 191, 229, 263, and 283. p = 263 and 283 are omitted because they involve computations in truly enormous finite fields (exponent 102180 for p = 263, and 237820 for p = 283). I'm confident that if I let my computer grind away at them for long enough, we'd get an answer... but it would take several months of CPU time at least.

p = 191 and 229 are more troubling cases. Consider p = 191: it's the first prime p such that p-1 has a factor with excess > 1. (190 = 2 x 5 x 19, and alpha_19 has excess 4.) This seems to have a significant effect on the excess of alpha_191. I’ve tried it for every excess up to m = 274, and for all powers of 2 up to m = 2^32. No luck.”

Aaron is writing a book on combinatorial game theory (to be published in the AMS GSM series, hopefully later this year) and will include details of these computations. For the impatient, here’s his list






lieven le bruyn's (old) blog