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.

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 Orange.fr 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.

the monster dictates her picture

The monstrous moonshine picture is a sub-graph of Conway’s Big Picture on 218 vertices. These vertices are the classes of lattices needed in the construction of the 171 moonshine groups. That is, moonshine gives us the shape of the picture.

(image credit Friendly Monsters)

But we can ask to reverse this process. Is the shape of the picture dictated by group-theoretic properties of the monster?

That is, can we reconstruct the 218 lattices and their edges starting from say the conjugacy classes of the monster and some simple rules?

Look at the the power maps for the monster. That is, the operation on conjugacy classes sending the class of $g$ to that of $g^k$ for all divisors $k$ of the order of $g$. Or, if you prefer, the $\lambda$-ring structure on the representation ring.

Rejoice die-hard believers in $\mathbb{F}_1$-theory, rejoice!

Here’s the game to play.

Let $g$ be a monster element of order $n$ and take $d=gcd(n,24)$.

(1) : If $d=8$ and a power map of $g$ gives class $8C$ add $(n|4)$ to your list.

(2) : Otherwise, look at the smallest power of $g$ such that the class is one of $12J,8F,6F,4D, 3C,2B$ or $1A$ and add $(n|e)$ where $e$ is the order of that class, or, if $n > 24$ and $e$ is even add $(n | \frac{e}{2})$.

A few examples:

For class 20E, $d=4$ and the power maps give classes 4D and 2B, so we add $(20|2)$.

For class 32B, $d=8$ but the power map gives 8E so we resort to rule (2). Here the power maps give 8E, 4C and 2B. So, the best class is 4C but as $32 > 24$ we add $(32|2)$.

For class 93A, $d=3$ and the power map gives 3C and even though $93 > 24$ we add $(93|3)$.

This gives us a list of instances $(n|e)$ with $n$ the order of a monster element. For $N=n \times e$ look at all divisors $h$ of $24$ such that $h^2$ divides $N$ and add to your list of lattices those of the form $M \frac{g}{h}$ with $g$ strictly smaller than $h$ and $(g,h)=1$ and $M$ a divisor of $\frac{N}{h^2}$.

This gives us a list of lattices $M \frac{g}{h}$, which is an $h$-th root of unity centered as $L=M \times h$ (see this post). If we do this for all lattices in the list we can partition the $L$’s in families according to which roots of unity are centered at $L$.

This gives us the moonshine picture. (modulo mistakes I made)

The operations we have to do after we have our list of instances $(n|e)$ is pretty straightforward from the rules we used to determine the lattices needed to describe a moonshine group.

Perhaps the oddest part in the construction are the rules (1) and (2) and the prescribed conjugacy classes used in them.

One way to look at this is that the classes $8C$ and $12J$ (or $24J$) are special. The other classes are just the power-maps of $12J$.

Another ‘rationale’ behind these classes may come from the notion of harmonics (see the original Monstrous moonshine paper page 312) of the identity element and the two classes of involutions, 2A (the Fischer involutions) and 2B (the Conway involutions).

For 1A these are : 1A,3C

For 2A these are : 2A,4B,8C

For 2B these are : 2B,4D,6F,8F,12J,24J

These are exactly the classes that we used in (1) and (2), if we add the power-classes of 8C.

Perhaps I should take some time to write all this down more formally.

A forgotten type and roots of unity (again)

The monstrous moonshine picture is the finite piece of Conway’s Big Picture needed to understand the 171 moonshine groups associated to conjugacy classes of the monster.

Last time I claimed that there were exactly 7 types of local behaviour, but I missed one. The forgotten type is centered at the number lattice $84$.

Locally around it the moonshine picture looks like this
\xymatrix{42 \ar@{-}[dr] & 28 \frac{1}{3} \ar@[red]@{-}[d] & 41 \frac{1}{2} \ar@{-}[ld] \\ 28 \ar@[red]@{-}[r] & \color{grey}{84} \ar@[red]@{-}[r] \ar@[red]@{-}[d] \ar@{-}[rd] & 28 \frac{2}{3} \\ & 252 & 168} \]

and it involves all square roots of unity ($42$, $42 \frac{1}{2}$ and $168$) and $3$-rd roots of unity ($28$, $28 \frac{1}{3}$, $28 \frac{2}{3}$ and $252$) centered at $84$.

No, I’m not hallucinating, there are indeed $3$ square roots of unity and $4$ third roots of unity as they come in two families, depending on which of the two canonical forms to express a lattice is chosen.

In the ‘normal’ expression $M \frac{g}{h}$ the two square roots are $42$ and $42 \frac{1}{2}$ and the three third roots are $28, 28 \frac{1}{3}$ and $28 \frac{2}{3}$. But in the ‘other’ expression
M \frac{g}{h} = (\frac{g’}{h},\frac{1}{h^2M}) \]
(with $g.g’ \equiv 1~mod~h$) the families of $2$-nd and $3$-rd roots of unity are
\{ 42 \frac{1}{2} = (\frac{1}{2},\frac{1}{168}), 168 = (0,\frac{1}{168}) \} \]
\{ 28 \frac{1}{3} = (\frac{1}{3},\frac{1}{252}), 28 \frac{2}{3} = (\frac{2}{3},\frac{1}{252}), 252 = (0 , \frac{1}{252}) \} \]
As in the tetrahedral snake post, it is best to view the four $3$-rd roots of unity centered at $84$ as the vertices of a tetrahedron with center of gravity at $84$. Power maps in the first family correspond to rotations along the axis through $252$ and power maps in the second family are rotations along the axis through $28$.

In the ‘normal’ expression of lattices there’s then a total of 8 different local types, but two of them consist of just one number lattice: in $8$ the local picture contains all square, $4$-th and $8$-th roots of unity centered at $8$, and in $84$ the square and $3$-rd roots.

Perhaps surprisingly, if we redo everything in the ‘other’ expression (and use the other families of roots of unity), then the moonshine picture has only 7 types of local behaviour. The forgotten type $84$ appears to split into two occurrences of other types (one with only square roots of unity, and one with only $3$-rd roots).

I wonder what all this has to do with the action of the Bost-Connes algebra on the big picture or with Plazas’ approach to moonshine via non-commutative geometry.

What we (don’t) know

Do we know why the monster exists and why there’s moonshine around it?

The answer depends on whether or not you believe that vertex operator algebras are natural, elegant and inescapable objects.

the monster

Simple groups often arise from symmetries of exceptionally nice mathematical objects.

The smallest of them all, $A_5$, gives us the rotation symmetries of the icosahedron. The next one, Klein’s simple group $L_2(7)$, comes from the Klein quartic.

The smallest sporadic groups, the Mathieu groups, come from Steiner systems, and the Conway groups from the 24-dimensional Leech lattice.

What about the largest sporadic simple, the monster $\mathbb{M}$?

In his paper What is … the monster? Richard Borcherds writes (among other characterisations of $\mathbb{M}$):

“3. It is the automorphism group of the monster vertex algebra. (This is probably the best answer.)”

But, even Borcherds adds:

“Unfortunately none of these definitions is completely satisfactory. At the moment all constructions of the algebraic structures above seem artificial; they are constructed as sums of two or more apparently unrelated spaces, and it takes a lot of effort to define the algebraic structure on the sum of these spaces and to check that the monster acts on the resulting structure.
It is still an open problem to find a really simple and natural construction of the monster vertex algebra.

Here’s 2 minutes of John Conway on the “one thing” he really wants to know before he dies: why the monster group exists.


Moonshine started off with McKay’s observation that 196884 (the first coefficient in the normalized j-function) is the sum 1+196883 of the dimensions of the two smallest simple representations of $\mathbb{M}$.

Soon it was realised that every conjugacy class of the monster has a genus zero group (or ‘moonshine group’) associated to it.

Borcherds proved the ‘monstrous moonshine conjectures’ asserting that the associated main modular function of such a group is the character series of the action of the element on the monster vertex algebra.

Here’s Borcherds’ ICM talk in Berlin on this: What is … Moonshine?.

Once again, the monster vertex algebra appears to be the final answer.

However, in characterising the 171 moonshine groups among all possible genus zero groups one has proved that they are all of the form:

(ii) : $(n|h)+e,g,\dots$

In his book Moonshine beyond the Monster, Terry Gannon writes:

“We now understand the significance, in the VOA or CFT framework, of transformations in $SL_2(\mathbb{Z})$, but (ii) emphasises that many modular transformations relevant to Moonshine are more general (called the Atkin-Lehner involutions).
Monstrous moonshine will remain mysterious until we can understand its Atkin-Lehner symmetries.