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Tag: Conway

We sit in our ivory towers and think

I’m on vacation, and re-reading two ‘metabiographies’:

Philippe Douroux : Alexandre Grothendieck : Sur les traces du dernier génie des mathématiques


Siobhan Roberts : Genius At Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway


Siobhan Roberts’ book is absolutely brilliant! I’m reading it for the n-th time, first on Kindle, then hardcopy, and now I’m just flicking through its pages, whenever I want to put a smile on my face.

So, here’s today’s gem of a Conway quote (on page 150):

Pure mathematicians usually don’t found companies and deal with the world in an aggressive way. We sit in our ivory towers and think.

(Conway complains his words were taken out of context, in an article
featuring Stephen Wolfram.)

If only university administrations worldwide would accept the ‘sitting in an ivory tower and think’-bit as the job description, and evaluation criterium, for their pure mathematicians.

Sadly… they prefer managers to thinkers.

This reminds me of another brilliant text, perhaps not receiving the attention it deserves:

Daniel J. Woodhouse : An open letter to the mathematical community.

Woodhouse offers a reaction to the ‘neoliberal upper management and bloated administration’ of universities:

Within the sphere of pure mathematics — the oldest and most successful of humanity’s intellectual endeavors — I believe our best chance at preserving the integrity and dignity of our tradition is to return to our Pythagorean roots. We should become a cult.


Let us seclude ourselves in mountain caves and daub mysterious equations in blood across rock-faces to ward off outsiders. Let us embrace our most impenetrable mathematical texts as sacred and requiring divinely distributed revelation.


I am convinced that the current system has dulled our understanding of the value we offer through our instruction. Modern mathematical techniques are the foundation of modern science, medicine, and technology, and we should be the literal, rather than metaphorical, high priests of this temple. Only by withholding our insights will we be able to reassert the intrinsic worth of our knowledge.

I hope these few paragraphs have wetted your appetite to read the manifesto in full, and then take action!

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Monstrous dessins 2

Let’s try to identify the $\Psi(n) = n \prod_{p|n}(1+\frac{1}{p})$ points of $\mathbb{P}^1(\mathbb{Z}/n \mathbb{Z})$ with the lattices $L_{M \frac{g}{h}}$ at hyperdistance $n$ from the standard lattice $L_1$ in Conway’s big picture.

Here are all $24=\Psi(12)$ lattices at hyperdistance $12$ from $L_1$ (the boundary lattices):

You can also see the $4 = \Psi(3)$ lattices at hyperdistance $3$ (those connected to $1$ with a red arrow) as well as the intermediate $12 = \Psi(6)$ lattices at hyperdistance $6$.

The vertices of Conway’s Big Picture are the projective classes of integral sublattices of the standard lattice $\mathbb{Z}^2=\mathbb{Z} e_1 \oplus \mathbb{Z} e_2$.

Let’s say our sublattice is generated by the integral vectors $v=(v_1,v_2)$ and $w=(w_1.w_2)$. How do we determine its class $L_{M,\frac{g}{h}}$ where $M \in \mathbb{Q}_+$ is a strictly positive rational number and $0 \leq \frac{g}{h} < 1$?

Here’s an example: the sublattice (the thick dots) is spanned by the vectors $v=(2,1)$ and $w=(1,4)$

Well, we try to find a basechange matrix in $SL_2(\mathbb{Z})$ such that the new 2nd base vector is of the form $(0,z)$. To do this take coprime $(c,d) \in \mathbb{Z}^2$ such that $cv_1+dw_1=0$ and complete with $(a,b)$ satisfying $ad-bc=1$ via Bezout to a matrix in $SL_2(\mathbb{Z})$ such that
\begin{bmatrix} a & b \\ c & d \end{bmatrix} \begin{bmatrix} v_1 & v_2 \\ w_1 & w_2 \end{bmatrix} = \begin{bmatrix} x & y \\ 0 & z \end{bmatrix} \]
then the sublattice is of class $L_{\frac{x}{z},\frac{y}{z}~mod~1}$.

In the example, we have
\begin{bmatrix} 0 & 1 \\ -1 & 2 \end{bmatrix} \begin{bmatrix} 2 & 1 \\ 1 & 4 \end{bmatrix} = \begin{bmatrix} 1 & 4 \\ 0 & 7 \end{bmatrix} \]
so this sublattice is of class $L_{\frac{1}{7},\frac{4}{7}}$.

Starting from a class $L_{M,\frac{g}{h}}$ it is easy to work out its hyperdistance from $L_1$: let $d$ be the smallest natural number making the corresponding matrix integral
d. \begin{bmatrix} M & \frac{g}{h} \\ 0 & 1 \end{bmatrix} = \begin{bmatrix} u & v \\ 0 & w \end{bmatrix} \in M_2(\mathbb{Z}) \]
then $L_{M,\frac{g}{h}}$ is at hyperdistance $u . w$ from $L_1$.

Now that we know how to find the lattice class of any sublattice of $\mathbb{Z}^2$, let us assign a class to any point $[c:d]$ of $\mathbb{P}^1(\mathbb{Z}/n\mathbb{Z})$.

As $gcd(c,d)=1$, by Bezout we can find a integral matrix with determinant $1$
S_{[c:d]} = \begin{bmatrix} a & b \\ c & d \end{bmatrix} \]
But then the matrix
\begin{bmatrix} a.n & b.n \\ c & d \end{bmatrix} \]
has determinant $n$.

Working backwards we see that the class $L_{[c:d]}$ of the sublattice of $\mathbb{Z}^2$ spanned by the vectors $(a.n,b.n)$ and $(c,d)$ is of hyperdistance $n$ from $L_1$.

This is how the correspondence between points of $\mathbb{P}^1(\mathbb{Z}/n\mathbb{Z})$ and classes in Conway’s big picture at hyperdistance $n$ from $L_1$ works.

Let’s do an example. Take the point $[7:3] \in \mathbb{P}^1(\mathbb{Z}/12\mathbb{Z})$ (see last time), then
\begin{bmatrix} -2 & -1 \\ 7 & 3 \end{bmatrix} \in SL_2(\mathbb{Z}) \]
so we have to determine the class of the sublattice spanned by $(-24,-12)$ and $(7,3)$. As before we have to compute
\begin{bmatrix} -2 & -7 \\ 7 & 24 \end{bmatrix} \begin{bmatrix} -24 & -12 \\ 7 & 3 \end{bmatrix} = \begin{bmatrix} -1 & 3 \\ 0 & -12 \end{bmatrix} \]
giving us that the class $L_{[7:3]} = L_{\frac{1}{12}\frac{3}{4}}$ (remember that the second term must be taken $mod~1$).

If you do this for all points in $\mathbb{P}^1(\mathbb{Z}/12\mathbb{Z})$ (and $\mathbb{P}^1(\mathbb{Z}/6\mathbb{Z})$ and $\mathbb{P}^1(\mathbb{Z}/3 \mathbb{Z})$) you get this version of the picture we started with

You’ll spot that the preimages of a canonical coordinate of $\mathbb{P}^1(\mathbb{Z}/m\mathbb{Z})$ for $m | n$ are the very same coordinate together with ‘new’ canonical coordinates in $\mathbb{P}^1(\mathbb{Z}/n\mathbb{Z})$.

To see that this correspondence is one-to-one and that the index of the congruence subgroup
\Gamma_0(n) = \{ \begin{bmatrix} p & q \\ r & s \end{bmatrix}~|~n|r~\text{and}~ps-qr=1 \} \]
in the full modular group $\Gamma = PSL_2(\mathbb{Z})$ is equal to $\Psi(n)$ it is useful to consider the action of $PGL_2(\mathbb{Q})^+$ on the right on the classes of lattices.

The stabilizer of $L_1$ is the full modular group $\Gamma$ and the stabilizer of any class is a suitable conjugate of $\Gamma$. For example, for the class $L_n$ (that is, of the sublattice spanned by $(n,0)$ and $(0,1)$, which is of hyperdistance $n$ from $L_1$) this stabilizer is
Stab(L_n) = \{ \begin{bmatrix} a & \frac{b}{n} \\ c.n & d \end{bmatrix}~|~ad-bc = 1 \} \]
and a very useful observation is that
Stab(L_1) \cap Stab(L_n) = \Gamma_0(n) \]
This is the way Conway likes us to think about the congruence subgroup $\Gamma_0(n)$: it is the joint stabilizer of the classes $L_1$ and $L_n$ (as well as all classes in the ‘thread’ $L_m$ with $m | n$).

On the other hand, $\Gamma$ acts by rotations on the big picture: it only fixes $L_1$ and maps a class to another one of the same hyperdistance from $L_1$.The index of $\Gamma_0(n)$ in $\Gamma$ is then the number of classes at hyperdistance $n$.

To see that this number is $\Psi(n)$, first check that the classes at hyperdistance $p^k$ for $p$ a prime number and for all $k$ for the $p+1$ free valent tree with root $L_1$, so there are exactly $p^{k-1}(p+1)$ classes as hyperdistance $p^k$.

To get from this that the number of hyperdistance $n$ classes is indeed $\Psi(n) = \prod_{p|n}p^{v_p(n)-1}(p+1)$ we have to use the prime- factorisation of the hyperdistance (see this post).

The fundamental domain for the action of $\Gamma_0(12)$ by Moebius tranfos on the upper half plane must then consist of $48=2 \Psi(12)$ black or white hyperbolic triangles

Next time we’ll see how to deduce the ‘monstrous’ Grothendieck dessin d’enfant for $\Gamma_0(12)$ from it

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Monstrous dessins 1

Dedekind’s Psi-function $\Psi(n)= n \prod_{p |n}(1 + \frac{1}{p})$ pops up in a number of topics:

  • $\Psi(n)$ is the index of the congruence subgroup $\Gamma_0(n)$ in the modular group $\Gamma=PSL_2(\mathbb{Z})$,
  • $\Psi(n)$ is the number of points in the projective line $\mathbb{P}^1(\mathbb{Z}/n\mathbb{Z})$,
  • $\Psi(n)$ is the number of classes of $2$-dimensional lattices $L_{M \frac{g}{h}}$ at hyperdistance $n$ in Conway’s big picture from the standard lattice $L_1$,
  • $\Psi(n)$ is the number of admissible maximal commuting sets of operators in the Pauli group of a single qudit.

The first and third interpretation have obvious connections with Monstrous Moonshine.

Conway’s big picture originated from the desire to better understand the Moonshine groups, and Ogg’s Jack Daniels problem
asks for a conceptual interpretation of the fact that the prime numbers such that $\Gamma_0(p)^+$ is a genus zero group are exactly the prime divisors of the order of the Monster simple group.

Here’s a nice talk by Ken Ono : Can’t you just feel the Moonshine?

For this reason it might be worthwhile to make the connection between these two concepts and the number of points of $\mathbb{P}^1(\mathbb{Z}/n\mathbb{Z})$ as explicit as possible.

Surely all of this is classical, but it is nicely summarised in the paper by Tatitscheff, He and McKay “Cusps, congruence groups and monstrous dessins”.

The ‘monstrous dessins’ from their title refers to the fact that the lattices $L_{M \frac{g}{h}}$ at hyperdistance $n$ from $L_1$ are permuted by the action of the modular groups and so determine a Grothendieck’s dessin d’enfant. In this paper they describe the dessins corresponding to the $15$ genus zero congruence subgroups $\Gamma_0(n)$, that is when $n=1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,12,13,16,18$ or $25$.

Here’s the ‘monstrous dessin’ for $\Gamma_0(6)$

But, one can compute these dessins for arbitrary $n$, describing the ripples in Conway’s big picture, and try to figure out whether they are consistent with the Riemann hypothesis.

We will get there eventually, but let’s start at an easy pace and try to describe the points of the projective line $\mathbb{P}^1(\mathbb{Z}/n \mathbb{Z})$.

Over a field $k$ the points of $\mathbb{P}^1(k)$ correspond to the lines through the origin in the affine plane $\mathbb{A}^2(k)$ and they can represented by projective coordinates $[a:b]$ which are equivalence classes of couples $(a,b) \in k^2- \{ (0,0) \}$ under scalar multiplication with non-zero elements in $k$, so with points $[a:1]$ for all $a \in k$ together with the point at infinity $[1:0]$. When $n=p$ is a prime number we have $\# \mathbb{P}^1(\mathbb{Z}/p\mathbb{Z}) = p+1$. Here are the $8$ lines through the origin in $\mathbb{A}^2(\mathbb{Z}/7\mathbb{Z})$

Over an arbitrary (commutative) ring $R$ the points of $\mathbb{P}^1(R)$ again represent equivalence classes, this time of pairs
(a,b) \in R^2~:~aR+bR=R \]
with respect to scalar multiplication by units in $R$, that is
(a,b) \sim (c,d)~\quad~\text{iff}~\qquad \exists \lambda \in R^*~:~a=\lambda c, b = \lambda d \]
For $\mathbb{P}^1(\mathbb{Z}/n \mathbb{Z})$ we have to find all pairs of integers $(a,b) \in \mathbb{Z}^2$ with $0 \leq a,b < n$ with $gcd(a,b)=1$ and use Cremona’s trick to test for equivalence:
(a,b) = (c,d) \in \mathbb{P}^1(\mathbb{Z}/n \mathbb{Z})~\quad \text{iff}~\quad ad-bc \equiv 0~mod~n \]
The problem is to find a canonical representative in each class in an efficient way because this is used a huge number of times in working with modular symbols.

Perhaps the best algorithm, for large $n$, is sketched in pages 145-146 of Bill Stein’s Modular forms: a computational approach.

For small $n$ the algorithm in $\S 1.3$ in the Tatitscheff, He and McKay paper suffices:

  • Consider the action of $(\mathbb{Z}/n\mathbb{Z})^*$ on $\{ 0,1,…,n-1 \}=\mathbb{Z}/n\mathbb{Z}$ and let $D$ be the set of the smallest elements in each orbit,
  • For each $d \in D$ compute the stabilizer subgroup $G_d$ for this action and let $C_d$ be the set of smallest elements in each $G_d$-orbit on the set of all elements in $\mathbb{Z}/n \mathbb{Z}$ coprime with $d$,
  • Then $\mathbb{P}^1(\mathbb{Z}/n\mathbb{Z})= \{ [c:d]~|~d \in D, c \in C_d \}$.

Let’s work this out for $n=12$ which will be our running example (the smallest non-squarefree non-primepower):

  • $(\mathbb{Z}/12\mathbb{Z})^* = \{ 1,5,7,11 \} \simeq C_2 \times C_2$,
  • The orbits on $\{ 0,1,…,11 \}$ are
    \{ 0 \}, \{ 1,5,7,11 \}, \{ 2,10 \}, \{ 3,9 \}, \{ 4,8 \}, \{ 6 \} \]
    and $D=\{ 0,1,2,3,4,6 \}$,
  • $G_0 = C_2 \times C_2$, $G_1 = \{ 1 \}$, $G_2 = \{ 1,7 \}$, $G_3 = \{ 1,5 \}$, $G_4=\{ 1,7 \}$ and $G_6=C_2 \times C_2$,
  • $1$ is the only number coprime with $0$, giving us $[1:0]$,
  • $\{ 0,1,…,11 \}$ are all coprime with $1$, and we have trivial stabilizer, giving us the points $[0:1],[1:1],…,[11:1]$,
  • $\{ 1,3,5,7,9,11 \}$ are coprime with $2$ and under the action of $\{ 1,7 \}$ they split into the orbits
    \{ 1,7 \},~\{ 3,9 \},~\{ 5,11 \} \]
    giving us the points $[1:2],[3:2]$ and $[5:2]$,
  • $\{ 1,2,4,5,7,8,10,11 \}$ are coprime with $3$, the action of $\{ 1,5 \}$ gives us the orbits
    \{ 1,5 \},~\{ 2,10 \},~\{ 4,8 \},~\{ 7,11 \} \]
    and additional points $[1:3],[2:3],[4:3]$ and $[7:3]$,
  • $\{ 1,3,5,7,9,11 \}$ are coprime with $4$ and under the action of $\{ 1,7 \}$ we get orbits
    \{ 1,7 \},~\{ 3,9 \},~\{ 5,11 \} \]
    and points $[1:4],[3:4]$ and $[5,4]$,
  • Finally, $\{ 1,5,7,11 \}$ are the only coprimes with $6$ and they form a single orbit under $C_2 \times C_2$ giving us just one additional point $[1:6]$.

This gives us all $24= \Psi(12)$ points of $\mathbb{P}^1(\mathbb{Z}/12 \mathbb{Z})$ (strangely, op page 43 of the T-H-M paper they use different representants).

One way to see that $\# \mathbb{P}^1(\mathbb{Z}/n \mathbb{Z}) = \Psi(n)$ comes from a consequence of the Chinese Remainder Theorem that for the prime factorization $n = p_1^{e_1} … p_k^{e_k}$ we have
\mathbb{P}^1(\mathbb{Z}/n \mathbb{Z}) = \mathbb{P}^1(\mathbb{Z}/p_1^{e_1} \mathbb{Z}) \times … \times \mathbb{P}^1(\mathbb{Z}/p_k^{e_k} \mathbb{Z}) \]
and for a prime power $p^k$ we have canonical representants for $\mathbb{P}^1(\mathbb{Z}/p^k \mathbb{Z})$
[a:1]~\text{for}~a=0,1,…,p^k-1~\quad \text{and} \quad [1:b]~\text{for}~b=0,p,2p,3p,…,p^k-p \]
which shows that $\# \mathbb{P}^1(\mathbb{Z}/p^k \mathbb{Z}) = (p+1)p^{k-1}= \Psi(p^k)$.

Next time, we’ll connect $\mathbb{P}^1(\mathbb{Z}/n \mathbb{Z})$ to Conway’s big picture and the congruence subgroup $\Gamma_0(n)$.

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Rarer books: Singmaster’s notes

David Singmaster‘s “Notes on Rubik’s magic cube” are a collectors item, but it is still possible to buy a copy. I own a fifth edition (august 1980).

These notes capture the Rubik craze of those years really well.

Here’s a Conway story, from Siobhan Roberts’ excellent biography Genius at Play.

The ICM in Helsinki in 1978 was Conway’s last shot to get the Fields medal, but this was the last thing on his mind. He just wanted a Rubik cube (then, iron-curtain times, only sold in Hungary), so he kept chasing Hungarians at the meeting, hoping to obtain one. Siobhan writes (p. 239):

“The Fields Medals went to Pierre Deligne, Charles Fefferman, Grigory Margulis, and Daniel Quillen. The Rubik’s cube went to Conway.”

After his Notes, David Singmaster produced a follow-up newsletter “The Cubic Circular”. Only 5 magazines were published, of which 3 were double issues, between the Autumn of 1981 and the summer of 1985.

These magazines were reproduced on this page.

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taking stock

The one thing harder than to start blogging after a long period of silence is to stop when you think you’re still in the flow.

(image credit Putnam Consulting)

The Januari 1st post a math(arty) 2018 was an accident. I only wanted to share this picture, of a garage-door with an uncommon definition of prime numbers, i saw the night before.

I had been working on a better understanding of Conway’s Big Picture so I had material for a few follow-up posts.

It was never my intention to start blogging on a daily basis.

I had other writing plans for 2018.

For years I’m trying to write a math-book for a larger audience, or at least to give it an honest try.

My pet peeve with such books is that most of them are either devoid of proper mathematical content, or focus too much on the personal lives of the mathematicians involved.

An inspiring counter-example is ‘Closing the gap’ by Vicky Neal.

From the excellent review by Colin Beveridge on the Aperiodical Blog:

“Here’s a clever way to structure a maths book (I have taken copious notes): follow the development of a difficult idea or discovery chronologically, but intersperse the action with background that puts the discovery in context. That’s not a new structure – but it’s tricky to pull off: you have to keep the difficult idea from getting too difficult, and keep the background at a level where an interested reader can follow along and either say “yes, that’s plausible” or better “wait, let me get a pen!”. This is where Closing The Gap excels.”

So it is possible to publish a math-book worth writing. Or at least, some people can pull it off.

Problem was I needed to kick myself into writing mode. Feeling forced to post something daily wouldn’t hurt.

Anyway, I was sure this would have to stop soon. I had plans to disappear for 10 days into the French mountains. Our place there suffers from frequent power- and cellphone-cuts, which can last for days.

Thank you for upgrading your network to the remotest of places. At times, it felt like I was working from home.

I kept on blogging.

Even now, there’s material lying around.

I’d love to understand the claim that non-commutative geometry may offer some help in explaining moonshine. There was an interesting question on an older post on nimber-arithmetic I feel I should be following up. I’ve given a couple of talks recently on $\mathbb{F}_1$-material, parts of which may be postable. And so on.

Problem is, I would stick to the same (rather dense) writing style.

Perhaps it would make more sense to aim for a weekly (or even monthly) post over at Medium.

Medium offers no MathJax support forcing me to write differently about maths, and for a broader potential audience.

I may continue to blog here (or not), stick to the current style (or try something differently). I have not the foggiest idea right now.

If you have suggestions or advice, please leave a comment or email me.

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