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March 23, 2007

This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics (Week 247)

John Baez

Symmetry has fascinated us throughout the ages. Greek settlers

in Sicily may have seen irregular 12-sided crystals of pyrite in Sicily

and dreamt up the regular dodecahedron simply because it was more

beautiful, more symmetrical. The Alhambra, a Moorish palace in Granada

built around 1300, has tile patterns with at least 13 of the 17 possible

symmetry groups:

1) Branko Gruenbaum, What symmetry groups are present in the Alhambra?,

Notices of the AMS, 53 (2006), 670-673. Also available at

http://www.ams.org/notices/200606/comm-grunbaum.pdf

You can see some of these patterns here:

2) Moresque tiles, http://www.spsu.edu/math/tile/grammar/moor.htm

Recently, Peter Lu and Paul Steinhardt discovered that Islamic tile

designs include "quasicrystals", patterns that seem to struggle for

a 5-fold symmetry but never quite reach it, unless we think of them

as slices of a higher-dimensional lattice:

3) Peter J. Lu and Paul J. Steinhardt, Decagonal and quasi-crystalline

tilings in medieval Islamic architecture, Science 315 (2007), 1106-1110.

Also available at http://www.physics.harvard.edu/~plu/publications/ [Broken]

Here's one from the I'timad al-Daula mausoleum in the Indian city of

Agra, built by Islamic conquerors in 1622 - together with a more

mathematical version constructed by Lu and Steinhardt:

Here's another, from the Darb-i Imam shrine in Isfahan, Iran, also built

in the 1600s:

This came as a big surprise, since everyone had *thought* that the

math behind quasicrystals was first discovered by Penrose around 1974,

then seen in nature by Shechtman, Blech, Gratias and Cahn in 1983.

It goes to show that the appeal of symmetry, even in its subtler forms,

is very old!

For more on quasicrystals, try this:

4) Steven Webber, Quasicrystals, http://www.jcrystal.com/steffenweber/

Of course, the appeal of symmetry didn't end with ancient Greeks or

medieval Islamic monarchs. It also seems to have gotten ahold of John

Fry, chief executive of Fry's Electronics - a chain of retail shops

whose motto is "Your best buys are always at Fry's". In 1994 he

set up something called the American Institute of Mathematics. The

headquarters was in a Fry's store in Palo Alto - not very romantic.

But last year, this institute announced plans to move to a full-scale

replica of the Alhambra!

5) Associated Press, Silicon valley will get Alhambra-like castle,

August 18, 2006. Available at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/14412387/

And this week, the institute flexed its mighty PR muscles and coaxed

reporters from the New York Times, BBC, Le Monde, Scientific American,

Science News, and so on to write about a highly esoteric advance in

our understanding of symmetry - a gargantuan calculation involving the

Lie group E8:

6) American Institute of Mathematics, Mathematicians map E8,

http://aimath.org/E8/

The calculation is indeed huge. The *answer* takes up 60 gigabytes of

data - the equivalent of 45 days of music in MP3 format. If this

information were written out on paper, it would cover Manhattan!

But what's the calculation *about*? It almost seems a good explanation

of that would *also* cover Manhattan. I took a stab at it here:

7) John Baez, News about E8,

http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/category/2007/03/news_about_e8.html

but I only got as far as sketching a description of E8 and some gadgets

called R-polynomials. Then come Kazhdan-Lusztig polynomials, and

Kazhdan-Lusztig-Vogan polynomials.... For more details, follow

the links, especially to the page written by Jeffrey Adams, who led

the project.

In weeks to come, I'll say more about some topics tangentially related

to this calculation - especially flag varieties, representation theory

and the Weil conjectures. I may even talk about Kazhdan-Lusztig polynomials!

For starters, though, let's just look at some pretty pictures by

John Dembridge that hint at the majesty of E8. Then I'll sketch the

real subject of Weeks to come: symmetry, geometry, and "groupoidification".

To warm up to E8, let's first take a look at D4, D5, E6, and E7.

In "week91" I spoke about the D4 lattice. To get this, first take

a bunch of equal-sized spheres in 4 dimensions. Stack them in a hypercubical

pattern, so their centers lie at the points with integer coordinates.

A bit surprisingly, there's a lot of room left over - enough to fit

in another copy of this whole pattern: a bunch of spheres whose centers

lie at the points with *half-integer* coordinates!

If you stick in these extra spheres, you get the densest known packing

of spheres in 4 dimensions. Their centers form the "D4 lattice".

It's an easy exercise to check that each sphere touches 24 others.

The centers of these 24 are the vertices of a marvelous shape called

the "24-cell" - one of the six 4-dimensional Platonic solids. It looks

like this:

8) John Baez, picture of 24-cell, in a review of On Quaternions and

Octonions: Their Geometry, Arithmetic and Symmetry, by John H. Conway

and Derek A. Smith, available at

http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/octonions/conway_smith/

Here I'm using a severe form of perspective to project 4 dimensions down

to 2. The coordinate axes are drawn as dashed lines; the solid lines are

the edges of the 24-cell.

How about in 5 dimensions? Here the densest known packing of spheres

uses the "D5 lattice". This is a lot like the D4 lattice... but only

if you think about it the right way.

Imagine a 4-dimensional checkerboard with "squares" - really hypercubes! -

alternately colored red and black. Put a dot in the middle of each

black square. Voila! You get a rescaled version of the D4 lattice.

It's not instantly obvious that this matches my previous description,

but it's true.

If you do the same thing with a 5-dimensional checkerboard, you get

the "D5 lattice", by definition. This gives the densest known

packing of spheres in 5 dimensions. In this packing, each sphere

has 40 nearest neighbors. The centers of these nearest neighbors

are the vertices of a solid that looks like this:

8) John Stembridge, D5 root system, available at

http://www.math.lsa.umich.edu/~jrs/data/coxplanes/

If you do the same thing with a 6-dimensional checkerboard, you get

the "D6 lattice"... and so on.

However, in 8 dimensions something cool happens. If you pack spheres

in the pattern of the D8 lattice, there's enough room left to stick in an

extra copy of this whole pattern! The result is called the "E8 lattice".

It's twice as dense as the D8 lattice.

If you then take a well-chosen 7-dimensional slice through the origin of

the E8 lattice, you get the E7 lattice. And if you take a well-chosen

6-dimensional slice of this, you get the E6 lattice. For precise details

on what I mean by "well-chosen", see "week65".

E6 and E7 give denser packings of spheres than D6 and D7. In fact,

they give the densest known packings of spheres in 6 and 7 dimensions!

In the E6 lattice, each sphere has 72 nearest neighbors. They form

the vertices of a solid that looks like this:

8) John Stembridge, E6 root system, available at

http://www.math.lsa.umich.edu/~jrs/data/coxplanes/

In the E7 lattice, each sphere has 126 nearest neighbors. They form

the vertices of a solid like this:

9) John Stembridge, E7 root system, available at

http://www.math.lsa.umich.edu/~jrs/data/coxplanes/

In the E8 lattice, each sphere has 240 nearest neighbors. They form

the vertices of a solid like this:

10) John Stembridge, E8 root system, available at

http://www.math.lsa.umich.edu/~jrs/data/coxplanes/

Faithful readers will know I've discussed these lattices often before.

For how they give rise to Lie groups, see "week63". For more about

"ADE classifications", see "week64" and "week230". I haven't really

added much this time, except Stembridge's nice pictures. I'm really

just trying to get you in the mood for a big adventure involving all

these ideas: the Tale of Groupoidification!

If we let this story lead us where it wants to go, we'll meet and

all sorts of famous and fascinating creatures, such as:

Coxeter groups, buildings, and the quantization of logic

Hecke algebras and Hecke operators

categorified quantum groups and Khovanov homology

Kleinian singularities and the McKay correspondence

quiver representations and Hall algebras

intersection cohomology, perverse sheaves and Kazhdan-Lusztig theory

However, the charm of the tale is how many of these ideas are unified

and made simpler thanks to a big, simple idea: groupoidification.

So, what's groupoidification? It's a method of exposing the combinatorial

underpinnings of linear algebra - the hard bones of set theory underlying

the flexibility of the continuum.

Linear algebra is all about vector spaces and linear maps. One of the

lessons that gets drummed into you when you study this subject is that

it's good to avoid picking bases for your vector spaces until you need

them. It's good to keep the freedom to do coordinate transformations...

and not just keep it in reserve, but keep it *manifest*!

As Hermann Weyl wrote, "The introduction of a coordinate system to geometry

is an act of violence".

This is a deep truth, which hits many physicists when they study special

and general relativity. However, as Niels Bohr quipped, a deep truth is one

whose opposite is also a deep truth. There are some situations where

a vector space comes equipped with a god-given basis. Then it's foolish

not to pay attention to this fact!

The most obvious example is when our vector space has been *defined*

to consist of formal linear combinations of the elements of some set.

Then this set is our basis.

This often happens when we use linear algebra to study combinatorics.

But if sets give vector spaces, what gives linear operators? Your

first guess might be *functions*. And indeed, functions between sets

do give linear operators between their vector spaces. For example,

suppose we have a function

f: {livecat, deadcat} -> {livecat, deadcat}

which "makes sure the cat is dead":

f(livecat) = deadcat

f(deadcat) = deadcat

Then, we can extend f to a linear operator defined on formal

linear combinations of cats:

F(a livecat + b deadcat) = a deadcat + b deadcat

Written as a matrix in the {livecat, deadcat} basis, this looks like

0 0

1 1

(The relation to quantum mechanics here is just a vague hint of

themes to come. I've deliberately picked an example where the linear

operator is *not* unitary.)

So, we get some linear operators from functions... but not all!

We only get operators whose matrices have exactly a single 1 in

each column, the rest of the entries being 0. That's because a

function f: X -> Y sends each element of X to a single element of Y.

This is very limiting. We can do better if we get operators from

*relations* between sets. In a relation between sets X and Y,

an element of X can be related to any number of elements of Y, and

vice versa. For example, let the relation

R: {1,2,3,4} -> {1,2,3,4}

be "is a divisor of". Then 1 is a divisor of everybody, 2 is a

divisor of itself and 4, 3 is only a divisor of itself, and 4 is

only a divisor of itself. We can encode this in a matrix:

1 0 0 0

1 1 0 0

1 0 1 0

1 1 0 1

where 1 means "is a divisor of" and 0 means "is not a divisor of".

We can get any matrix of 0's and 1's this way. Relations are really

just matrices of truth values. We're thinking of them as matrices of

numbers. Unfortunately we're still far from getting *all* matrices

of numbers!

We can do better if we get matrices from *spans* of sets. A span of

sets, written S: X -/-> Y, is just a set S equipped with functions to

X and Y. We can draw it like this:

S

/ \

/ \

f/ \g

/ \

v v

X Y

This is my wretched ASCII attempt to draw two arrows coming down from

the set S to the sets X and Y. It's supposed to look like a bridge -

hence the term "span".

Spans of sets are like relations, but where you can be related to

someone more than once!

For example, X could be the set of Frenchman and Y could be the set of

Englishwomen. S could be the set of Russians. As you know, every

Russian has exactly one favorite Frenchman and one favorite

Englishman. So, f could be the function "your favorite Frenchman",

and g could be "your favorite Englishman".

Then, given a Frenchman x and an Englishwoman y, they're related by

the Russian s whenever s has x as their favorite Frenchman and y as

their favorite Englishwoman:

f(s) = x and g(s) = y.

Some pairs (x,y) will be related by no Russians, others will be related

by one, and others will be related by more than one! I bet the pair

(x,y) = (Gerard Depardieu, Emma Thompson)

is related by at least 57 Russians.

This idea lets us turn spans of sets into matrices of natural numbers.

Given a span of finite sets:

S

/ \

/ \

f/ \g

/ \

v v

X Y

we get an X x Y matrix whose (x,y) entry is the number of Russians -

I mean elements s of S - such that

f(s) = x and g(s) = y.

We can get any finite-sized matrix of natural numbers this way.

Even better, there's a way to "compose" spans that nicely matches the

usual way of multiplying matrices. You can figure this out yourself if

you solve this puzzle:

Let X be the set of people on Earth. Let T be the X x X matrix

corresponding to the relation "is the father of". Why does the matrix

T^2 correspond to the relation "is the grandfather of"? Let S

correspond to the relation "is a friend of". Why doesn't the matrix

matrix S^2 correspond to the relation "is a friend of a friend of"?

What span does this matrix correspond to?

To go further, we need to consider spans, not of sets, but of groupoids!

I'll say more about this later - I suspect you're getting tired.

But for now, briefly: a groupoid is a category with inverses. Any

group gives an example, but groupoids are more general - they're the

modern way of thinking about symmetry.

There's a way to define the cardinality of a finite groupoid:

12) John Baez and James Dolan, From finite sets to Feynman diagrams,

in Mathematics Unlimited - 2001 and Beyond, vol. 1, eds. Bjorn Engquist

and Wilfried Schmid, Springer, Berlin, 2001, pp. 29-50. Also available

as math.QA/0004133.

And, this can equal any nonnegative *rational* number! This lets us

generalize what we've done from finite sets to finite groupoids, and

get rational numbers into the game.

A span of groupoids is a diagram

S

/ \

/ \

f/ \g

/ \

v v

X Y

where X, Y, S are groupoids and f, g are functors. If all the groupoids

are finite, we can turn this span into a finite-sized matrix of nonnegative

rational numbers, by copying what we did for spans of finite sets.

There's also a way of composing spans of groupoids, which corresponds

to multiplying matrices. For details, see:

13) Jeffrey Morton, Categorified algebra and quantum mechanics, to

appear in Theory and Application of Categories. Also available as

math.QA/0601458.

14) Simon Byrne, On Groupoids and Stuff, honors thesis, Macquarie

University, 2005, available at

http://www.maths.mq.edu.au/~street/ByrneHons.pdf and

http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/qg-spring2004/ByrneHons.pdf

And, the idea of "groupoidification" is that in many cases where

mathematicians think they're playing around with linear operators

between vector spaces, they're *actually* playing around with spans of

groupoids!

This is especially true in math related to simple Lie groups, their

Lie algebras, quantum groups and the like. While people usually study

these gadgets using linear algebra, there's a lot of combinatorics

involved - and where combinatorics and symmetry show up, one invariably

finds groupoids.

As the name suggests, groupoidification is akin to categorification.

But, it's a bit different. In categorification, we try to boost up

mathematical ideas this way:

sets -> categories

functions -> functors

In groupoidification, we try this:

vector spaces -> groupoids

linear operators -> spans of groupoids

Actually, it's "decategorification" and "degroupoidification" that are

systematic processes. These processes lose information, so there's no

systematic way to reverse them. But, as I explained in "week99", it's

still fun to try! If we succeed, we discover an extra layer of structure

beneath the math we thought we understood... and this usually makes that

math *clearer* and *less technical*, because we're not seeing it through

a blurry, information-losing lens.

Okay, that's enough for now. On a completely different note, here's

a book on "structural realism" and quantum mechanics:

15) Dean Rickles, Steven French, and Juha Saatsi, The Structural

Foundations of Quantum Gravity, Oxford University Press, Oxford,

2006. Containing:

Dean Rickles and Steven French, Quantum gravity meets structuralism:

interweaving relations in the foundations of physics. Also available at

http://fds.oup.com/www.oup.co.uk/pdf/0-19-926969-6.pdf [Broken]

Tian Yu Cao, Structural realism and quantum gravity.

John Stachel, Structure, individuality, and quantum gravity.

Also available as gr-qc/0507078.

Oliver Pooley, Points, particles, and structural realism. Also

available at http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/archive/00002939/

Mauro Dorato and Massimo Pauri, Holism and structuralism in

classical and quantum general relativity. Also available at

http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/archive/00001606/

Dean Rickles, Time and structure in canonical gravity. Also

available at http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/archive/00001845/

Lee Smolin, The case for background independence. Also available

as hep-th/0507235.

John Baez, Quantum quandaries: A category-theoretic perspective.

Also available at http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/quantum/ and as

quant-ph/0404040.

Very loosely speaking - I ain't no philosopher - structural realism is

the idea that what's "real" about mathematics, or the abstractions in

physical theories, are not individual entities but the structures, or

patterns, they form. So, instead of asking tired questions like "What

is the number 2, really?" or "Do points of spacetime really exist?",

we should ask more global questions about the roles that structures

like "natural numbers" or "spacetime" play in math and physics. It's

a bit like how in category theory, we can only understand an object in

the context of the category it inhabits.

Finally, here's a puzzle for lattice and Lie group fans. The dots

in Stembridge's pictures are the shortest nonzero vectors in the D5,

E6, E7, and E8 lattices - or in technical terms, the "roots". Of

course, only for ADE Dynkin diagrams are the roots all of equal length -

but those are the kind we have here. Anyway: in the D5 case, only 32

of the 40 roots are visible. The other 8 are hidden in back somewhere.

Where are they?

I asked John Stembridge about this and he gave a useful clue. His

planar pictures show projections of the roots into what he calls the

"Coxeter plane".

Recall from "week62" that the "Coxeter group" associated to a Dynkin

diagram acts as rotation/reflection symmetries of the roots; it's

generated by reflections through the roots. There's a basis of roots

called "simple roots", one for each dot in our Dynkin diagram, and

the product of reflections through all these simple roots is called

the "Coxeter element" of our Coxeter group - it's well-defined up to

conjugation. The "Coxeter plane" is the canonical plane on which the

Coxeter element acts as a rotation.

A rotation by how much? The order of the Coxeter element is called

the "Coxeter number" and denoted h, so the Coxeter element acts on the

Coxeter plane as a rotation of 2pi/h. The Coxeter number is important

for other reasons, too! Here's how it goes:

Coxeter group Coxeter number

A_n n+1

B_n 2n

C_n 2n

D_n 2n-2

E6 12

E7 18

E8 30

F4 12

G2 6

For D5 the Coxeter number is 8, which accounts for the 8-fold symmetry

of Stembridge's picture in that case. The E8 picture has 30-fold symmetry!

My D4 picture has 8-fold symmetry, so I must not have been projecting

down to the Coxeter plane.

Anyway, this stuff should help answer my puzzle. I don't know the answer,

though.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

Quote of the Week:

The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more

than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to

be found in mathematics as surely as poetry. - Bertrand Russell

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

Previous issues of "This Week's Finds" and other expository articles on

mathematics and physics, as well as some of my research papers, can be

obtained at

http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/

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http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/twfcontents.html

A simple jumping-off point to the old issues is available at

http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/twfshort.html

If you just want the latest issue, go to

http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/this.week.html

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# This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics (Week 247)

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