Fearless Symmetry

I come to you today with a recommendation for the book Fearless Symmetry by Avner Ash and Robert Gross. I started it this summer and finally had a chance to finish it over the Christmas break. I didn’t understand the last half-dozen chapters, but my dad did warn me that would happen. I wouldn’t even attempt reading it unless you’ve already been exposed to some undergraduate mathematics. But if you have, or if it’s been a while and you need a refresher, I highly recommend the book.

In the book, Ash and Gross attempt to explain some of the math underlying Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. So you can understand why the math gets a bit hard at the end.

Along the way, you’ll get a very conversational, well-written, fun-loving introduction to the Absolute Galois Group of the Algebraic numbers. This is a group that is so complicated and messy and theoretical that we can only explicitly write down two elements of the group. In order to talk about it, we need representations, which the authors also introduce in a gentle way. In particular, we need linear representations.

Elliptic curves become very important too. I have studied elliptic curves in two of my classes before, but I really liked the way they introduced them here: We know everything about linear equations (highest exponent 1), and everything about conics (highest exponent 2 on x and y), but suddenly things become very interesting when we allow just ONE of the exponents (on x) to jump to 3. These are elliptic curves. Amazingly, you can define an arithmetic on the points of an elliptic curve that yield both a GROUP and an algebraic VARIETY. Incredible. Of course, the authors introduce what a variety is too.

After reading this, I also gained a much bigger view of abstract algebra–a course I’ve taken, but I found myself guilty of seeing the trees but not the forest. I loved the way Ash and Gross introduce the group SO3 and relate it to A4 with the rotations of a sphere inside a shell. Very nice visualization!

I could go on, but just know that there are lots of little mathematical gems scattered throughout this book. It’s a refreshing jaunt through higher-level mathematics that will demystify some of the smart-sounding words you’ve been afraid to ask about :-).

Go check it out!

Non-repeating sequences

What a fascinating question: can you create a sequence without any repetition? Randomness won’t do, since clumping will occur. It turns out that finding non-repeating sequences has important applications to sonar. If there’s any repetition in the sequence of sounds transmitted, when the signal returns, parts of the signal can be confused because there’s internal similarity. Watch the talk for the whole story, and enjoy the ‘ugliest piece of music’ at the end! đŸ™‚

Longest mathematical proof

Here’s a recent article from NewScientist.com, Prize awarded for largest mathematical proof by Stephen Ornes:

The largest proof in mathematics is colossal in every dimension – from the 100-plus people needed to crack it to its 15,000 pages of calculations. Now the man who helped complete a key missing piece of the proof has won a prize.

In early November, Michael Aschbacher, an innovator in the abstract field of group theory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena will receive the $75,000 Rolf Schock prize in mathematics from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for his pivotal role in proving the Classification Theorem of Finite Groups, aka the Enormous Theorem.




Do Irrational Roots Come in Pairs? (Part 3)

continued from this post…

What polynomials can be solved?

Students are used to solving quadratic polynomials with the quadratic formula (if factoring techniques don’t work). And I mentioned in the previous post that Cardano gave us the very messy cubic formula. So it’s natural to ask, what polynomials can be solved?

The answer is that we can solve and get exact solutions for any polynomial up to degree four. This result is due to Ferrari and explained here (not for the faint of heart!!). It’s fun to give wolframalpha.com a fourth degree polynomial and see it go to work finding the exact zeros. Be sure to click on “Exact Form” to see the crazy nested radicals. Amazing what computers can do.

Fifth degree or higher degree polynomials can’t be solved by any particular formula or method. Interestingly, it’s not just that we haven’t discovered a method yet–it’s actually been proven impossible to solve a fifth degree polynomial. Évariste Galois is credited for this proof; he laid the foundation for Modern Algebra with some mathematics we now call Galois Theory. He proved that for any formula you write down that you claim solves the general 5th degree polynomial, we can construct a 5th degree polynomial that can’t be solved by your formula.

I think I have all my facts right. Pretty interesting stuff…and I don’t claim to fully understand it! Perhaps I’ll post more someday after some research.


[And thanks to Mr. Davis and Matthew Wright for inspiring me to post on these topics!!]