Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Algebra in the news

A certain person has repeatedly told me that this blog is "too nerdy". This post will be even nerdier than usual, because the news media has come probably as close as it ever will to a story abot my work. Another mathematician sent me this quote from yesterday's Metro:
Mapped Out: A mathematical conundrum has been solved - with an answer the size of Manhattan. A group of mathematicians successfully mapped E8, one of the largest and most complicated mathematical structures. If the answer was written out by hand it would cover an area the size of New York borough. E8 is an example of a Lie group, invented by Norwegian mathematician Sophus Lie in 1887 to understand the symmetry of three-dimensional objects.

Apart from being bemused at what the journalist's typically hyperbolic phrase "one of the largest and most complicated mathematical structures" might actually mean, he and I were not able to tell what these mathematicians had actually done. Of course, it is a free paper (see what The Shadow has to say about a free paper), but The Times and the BBC didn't do much better. I'm not sure what The Times' heading is about, but at least the BBC corrected their most obvious mistake, changing the sentence that originally read "E8 is a member of the "Lie group" that describe symmetrical objects."

Obviously, these articles aren't trying to tell mathematicians exactly what has been done, but to give readers with no background in the area a general idea of the story. We eventuallly worked out what was going on using Google, but I'd really like to know what non-mathematicians make of the articles. Do you think they told you anything more than "a computer calculated something really big"? Can you describe what they actually calculated? Please tell me, even if you think you didn't understand a word of it!

Also, 10 points to anyone who does enough research to say what the picture is.


tdix said...

If I said I understood what was going on there, I'd be a member of the lie group.

I'm glad I'm not one of those journalist. What they really need is a junket!

Jonathan said...

I'd prescribe a junket with a good lie in.

To all those who've told me in person that the Metro quote tells them absolutely nothing: Remeber it is the Metro, after all. The Times and BBC links may (or may not) shed a bit more light!