Finding Moonshine

Marcus Du Sautoy

When I was sixteen I attended a maths camp in Canberra, which is where I decided that I wasn’t going to be a mathematician. For one thing, everyone else had solved Rubiks’ Cube without using a knife or a screwdriver or the ‘How to Solve Rubiks’ Cube’ book: even worse, they carried them around and played with them constantly and discussed techniques. For the first time in my life I was one of the least nerdy people in the room, which was very unsettling.

The other thing was group theory, which gave me a kind of sickening intellectual vertigo followed by the distinct sensation of my brain seizing up.

Ever since then I’ve wished that I hadn’t given up at that point. It was really just the first time I’d found maths a big challenge: another new feeling which was too unsettling. Finding Moonshine got as close to satisfying the leftover intellectual curiosity about groups and symmetry as any book I’ve yet read. The format is a bit frustrating: I felt like there was not enough actual maths and a few too many anecdotes about Du Sautoy’s zany mathematician colleagues – but it was still enjoyable.

It’s also a good history of the classification of finite simple groups; this is a really big deal, and I’m a bit surprised that I didn’t read about when it happened. This was in the early part of the 80s, when I had my nose buried in some popular science magazine for about 50% of my waking hours.

I don’t know why there are so many high-school reminiscences on the blog this week, I feel a little off-colour so maybe that’s it.

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3 responses to “Finding Moonshine

  1. I was trying to come up with a proof of Fermat’s Little Theorem, which is supposed to be *easy*, and showed my working to a friend. He gave an embarrassed cough and said “The result is sort of self-evident in group theory…”

    Damn maths PhDs and their Galois!

  2. I can’t believe I reviewed that book without mentioning that it has a neat little mini-bio of Galois, mathematics’ archetypal angry young man.

    He was pissed off at the Man, completely doomed, died in a stupid duel over a gurl, AND he revolutionised the whole subject almost without anyone noticing. Why they don’t use him in schools to make the subject a bit more attractive to high school students is a mystery to me.

  3. Pingback: Mathematics « Nannygoat Hill

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