Pariah Moonshine Part II: For Whom the Moon Shines

by Joshua Holden

This post originally appeared on The Aperiodical. We republish it here with permission. 

HoldenI ended Part I with the observation that the Monster group was connected with the symmetries of a group sitting in 196883-dimensional space, whereas the number 196884 appeared as part of a function used in number theory, the study of the properties of whole numbers.  In particular, a mathematician named John McKay noticed the number as one of the coefficients of a modular form.  Modular forms also exhibit a type of symmetry, namely if F is a modular form then there is some number k for which

Figure 1

for every set of whole numbers a, b, c, and d such that adbc=1.  (There are also some conditions as the real part of z goes to infinity.)

Modular forms, elliptic curves, and Fermat’s Last Theorem

In 1954, Martin Eichler was studying modular forms and observing patterns in their coefficients.  For example, take the modular form

Figure 2

(I don’t know whether Eichler actually looked at this particular form, but he definitely looked at similar ones.)  The coefficients of this modular form seem to be related to the number of whole number solutions of the equation

y2 = x3 – 4 x2 + 16

This equation is an example of what is known as an elliptic curve, which is a curve given by an equation of the form

y2 = x3 + ax2 + bx + c

Note that elliptic curves are not ellipses!  Elliptic curves have one line of symmetry, two open ends, and either one or two pieces, as shown in Figures 1 and 2. They are called elliptic curves because the equations came up in the seventeenth century when mathematicians started studying the arc length of an ellipse.  These curves are considered the next most complicated type of curve after lines and conic sections, both of which have been understood pretty well since at least the ancient Greeks.   They are useful for a lot of things, including cryptography, as I describe in Section 8.3 of The Mathematics of Secrets.

Figure 1

Figure 1. The elliptic curve y2= x3 + x has one line of symmetry, two open ends, and one piece.

Figure 2

Figure 2. The elliptic curve y2 = x3 – x has one line of symmetry, two open ends, and two pieces.


In the late 1950’s it was conjectured that every elliptic curve was related to a modular form in the way that the example above is.  Proving this “Modularity Conjecture” took on more urgency in the 1980’s, when it was shown that showing the conjecture was true would also prove Fermat’s famous Last Theorem.  In 1995 Andrew Wiles, with help from Richard Taylor, proved enough of the Modularity Conjecture to show that Fermat’s Last Theorem was true, and the rest of the Modularity Conjecture was filled in over the next six years by Taylor and several of his associates.

Modular forms, the Monster, and Moonshine

Modular forms are also related to other shapes besides elliptic curves, and in the 1970’s John McKay and John Thompson became convinced that the modular form

J(z) = e -2 π i z + 196884 e 2 π i z + 21493760 e 4 π i z  + 864299970 e 6 π i z  + …

was related to the Monster.  Not only was 196884 equal to 196883 + 1, but 21493760 was equal to 21296876 + 196883 + 1, and 21296876 was also a number that came up in the study of the Monster.  Thompson suggested that there should be a natural way of associating the Monster with an infinite-dimensional shape, where the infinite-dimensional shape broke up into finite-dimensional pieces with each piece having a dimension corresponding to one of the coefficients of J(z).   This shape was (later) given the name V♮, using the natural sign from musical notation in a typically mathematical pun.  (Terry Gannon points out that there is also a hint that the conjectures “distill information illegally” from the Monster.) John Conway and Simon Norton formulated some guesses about the exact connection between the Monster and V♮, and gave them the name “Moonshine Conjectures” to reflect their speculative and rather unlikely-seeming nature. A plausible candidate for V♮ was constructed in the 1980’s and Richard Borcherds proved in 1992 that the candidate satisfied the Moonshine Conjectures.  This work was specifically cited when Borcherds was awarded the Fields medal in 1998.

The construction of V♮ turned out also to have a close connection with mathematical physics.  The reconciliation of gravity with quantum mechanics is one of the central problems of modern physics, and most physicists think that string theory is likely to be key to this resolution.  In string theory, the objects we traditionally think of as particles, like electrons and quarks, are really tiny strings curled up in many dimensions, most of which are two small for us to see.  An important question about this theory is exactly what shape these dimensions curl into.  One possibility is a 24-dimensional shape where the possible configurations of strings in the shape are described by V♮.  However, there are many other possible shapes and it is not known how to determine which one really corresponds to our world.

More Moonshine?

Since Borcherds’ proof, many variations of the original “Monstrous Moonshine” have been explored.  The other members of the Happy Family can be shown to have Moonshine relationships similar to those of the Monster.  “Modular Moonshine” says that certain elements of the Monster group should have their own infinite dimensional shapes, related to but not the same as V♮.  (The “modular” in “Modular Moonshine” is related to the one in “modular form” because they are both related to modular arithmetic, although the chain of connections is kind of long. )  “Mathieu Moonshine” shows that one particular group in the Happy Family has its own shape, entirely different from V♮, and “Umbral Moonshine” extends this to 23 other related groups which are not simple groups.  But the Pariah groups remained outsiders, rejected by both the Happy Family and by Moonshine — until September 2017.

Joshua Holden is professor of mathematics at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. He is the author of The Mathematics of Secrets: Cryptography from Caesar Ciphers to Digital Encryption.

Pariah Moonshine Part I: The Happy Family and the Pariah Groups

by Joshua Holden

This post originally appeared on The Aperiodical. We republish it here with permission. 

HoldenBeing a mathematician, I often get asked if I’m good at calculating tips. I’m not. In fact, mathematicians study lots of other things besides numbers. As most people know, if they stop to think about it, one of the other things mathematicians study is shapes. Some of us are especially interested in the symmetries of those shapes, and a few of us are interested in both numbers and symmetries. The recent announcement of “Pariah Moonshine” has been one of the most exciting developments in the relationship between numbers and symmetries in quite some time. In this blog post I hope to explain the “Pariah” part, which deals mostly with symmetries. The “Moonshine”, which connects the symmetries to numbers, will follow in the next post.

What is a symmetry?

First I want to give a little more detail about what I mean by the symmetries of shapes. If you have a square made out of paper, there are basically eight ways you can pick it up, turn it, and put it down in exactly the same place. You can rotate it 90 degrees clockwise or counterclockwise. You can rotate it 180 degrees. You can turn it over, so the front becomes the back and vice versa. You can turn in over and then rotate it 90 degrees either way, or 180 degrees. And you can rotate it 360 degrees, which basically does nothing. We call these the eight symmetries of the square, and they are shown in Figure 1.


Figure 1. The square can be rotated into four different positions, without or without being flipped over, for eight symmetries total.

If you have an equilateral triangle, there are six symmetries. If you have a pentagon, there are ten. If you have a pinwheel with four arms, there are only four symmetries, as shown in Figure 2, because now you can rotate it but if you turn it over it looks different. If you have a pinwheel with six arms, there are six ways. If you have a cube, there are 24 if the cube is solid, as shown in Figure 3. If the cube is just a wire frame and you are allowed to turn it inside out, then you get 24 more, for a total of 48.

Figure 2

Figure 2. The pinwheel can be rotated but not flipped, for four symmetries total.

Figure 3

Figure 3. The cube can be rotated along three different axes, resulting in 24 different symmetries.

These symmetries don’t just come with a count, they also come with a structure. If you turn a square over and then rotate it 90 degrees, it’s not the same thing as if you rotate it first and then flip it over. (Try it and see.) In this way, symmetries of shapes are like the permutations I discuss in Chapter 3 of my book, The Mathematics of Secrets: you can take products, which obey some of the same rules as products of numbers but not all of them. These sets of symmetries, which their structures, are called groups.

Groups are sets of symmetries with structure

Some sets of symmetries can be placed inside other sets. For example, the symmetries of the four-armed pinwheel are the same as the four rotations in the symmetries of the square. We say the symmetries of the pinwheel are a subgroup of the symmetries of the square. Likewise, the symmetries of the square are a subgroup of the symmetries of the solid cube, if you allow yourself to turn the cube over but not tip it 90 degrees, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4

Figure 4. The symmetries of the square are contained inside the symmetries of the cube if you are allowed to rotate and flip the cube but not tip it 90 degrees.

In some cases, ignoring a subgroup of the symmetries of a shape gets us another group, which we call the quotient group. If you ignore the subgroup of how the square is rotated, you get the quotient group where the square is flipped over or not, and that’s it. Those are the same as the symmetries of the capital letter A, so the quotient group is really a group. In other cases, for technical reasons, you can’t get a quotient group. If you ignore the symmetries of a square inside the symmetries of a cube, what’s left turns out not to be the symmetries of any shape.

You can always ignore all the symmetries of a shape and get just the do nothing (or trivial) symmetry, which is the symmetries of the capital letter P, in the quotient group. And you can always ignore none of the nontrivial symmetries, and get all of the original symmetries still in the quotient group. If these are the only two possible quotient groups, we say that the group is simple. The group of symmetries of a pinwheel with a prime number of arms is simple. So is the group of symmetries of a solid icosahedron, like a twenty-sided die in Dungeons and Dragons. The group of symmetries of a square is not simple, because of the subgroup of rotations. The group of symmetries of a solid cube is not simple, not because of the symmetries of the square, but because of the smaller subgroup of symmetries of a square with a line through it, as shown in Figures 5 and 6. The quotient group there is the same as the symmetries of the equilateral triangle created by cutting diagonally through a cube near a corner.

Figure 5

Figure 5. The symmetries of a square with line through it. We can turn the square 180 degrees and/or flip it, but not rotate it 90 degrees, so there are four.

Figure 6

Figure 6. The symmetries of the square with a line through it inside of the symmetries of the cube.

Categorizing the Pariah groups

As early as 1892, Otto Hölder asked if we could categorize all of the finite simple groups. (There are also shapes, like the circle, which have an infinite number of symmetries. We won’t worry about them now.)  It wasn’t until 1972 that Daniel Gorenstein made a concrete proposal for how to make a complete categorization, and the project wasn’t finished until 2002, producing along the way thousands of pages of proofs. The end result was that almost all of the finite simple groups fell into a few infinitely large categories: the cyclic groups, which are the groups of symmetries of pinwheels with a prime number of arms, the alternating groups, which are the groups of symmetries of solid hypertetrahedra in 5 or more dimensions, and the “groups of Lie type”, which are related to matrix multiplication over finite fields and describe certain symmetries of objects known as finite projective planes and finite projective spaces. (Finite fields are used in the AES cipher and I talk about them in Section 4.5 of The Mathematics of Secrets.)

Even before 1892, a few finite simple groups were discovered that didn’t seem to fit into any of these categories. Eventually it was proved that there were 26 “sporadic” groups, which didn’t fit into any of the categories and didn’t describe the symmetries of anything obvious — basically, you had to construct the shape to fit the group of symmetries that you knew existed, instead of starting with the shape and finding the symmetries. The smallest of the sporadic groups has 7920 symmetries in it, and the largest, known as the Monster, has over 800 sexdecillion symmetries. (That’s an 8 with 53 zeros after it!) Nineteen of the other sporadic groups turn out to be subgroups or quotient groups of subgroups of the Monster. These 20 became known as the Happy Family. The other 6 sporadic groups became known as the ‘Pariahs’.

The shape that was constructed to fit the Monster lives in 196883-dimensional space. In the late 1970’s a mathematician named John McKay noticed the number 196884 turning up in a different area of mathematics. It appeared as part of a function used in number theory, the study of the properties of whole numbers. Was there a connection between the Monster and number theory? Or was the idea of a connection just … moonshine?

Joshua Holden is professor of mathematics at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. He is the author of The Mathematics of Secrets: Cryptography from Caesar Ciphers to Digital Encryption.

Craig Bauer on unsolved ciphers

In 1953, a man was found dead from cyanide poisoning near the Philadelphia airport with a picture of a Nazi aircraft in his wallet. Taped to his abdomen was an enciphered message. In 1912, a book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich came into possession of an illuminated cipher manuscript once belonging to Emperor Rudolf II, who was obsessed with alchemy and the occult. Wartime codebreakers tried—and failed—to unlock the book’s secrets, and it remains an enigma to this day. In Unsolved, Craig Bauer examines these and other vexing ciphers yet to be cracked. Recently he took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

Why focus on unsolved ciphers?

They’re much more intriguing because they could be concealing anything. Some might reveal the identities of serial killers. Others could unmask spies, rewrite history, expose secret societies, or even give the location of buried treasure worth millions. This sense of mystery is very appealing to me.

Did you try to solve the ciphers yourself first?

There are so many unsolved ciphers that I realized I would never finish writing about them if I kept stopping to try to solve them. There’s one that I’m confident I could solve, but instead of doing so, I simply presented the approach I think will work and am leaving it for a reader to pursue. I expect that several of them will be solved by readers and I look forward to seeing their results!

Does someone who wants to attack these mysteries need to know a lot of mathematics or have computer programming skills?

No. Many of the ciphers were created by people with very little knowledge in either area. Also, past solvers of important ciphers have included amateurs. One of the Zodiac killer’s ciphers was solved by a high school history teacher. Some of the ciphers might be solved in a manner that completely bypasses mathematics. A reader may find a solution through papers the cipher’s creator left behind, perhaps in some library’s archives, in government storage, or in a relative’s possession. I think some may be solved by pursuing a paper trail or some other non-mathematical avenue. Of course, there are mathematical challenges as well, for those who have the skills to take them on. The puzzles span thousands of years, from ancient Egypt to today’s online community. Twentieth century challenges come from people as diverse as Richard Feynman (a world-class physicist) and Ricky McCormick (thought to have been illiterate).

Are all of the unsolved ciphers covered in the book?

No, far from it. There are enough unsolved ciphers to fill many volumes. I limited myself to only the most interesting examples, and still there were too many! I originally set out to write a book about half the size of what was ultimately published. The problem was that there was so much fascinating material that I had to go to 600 pages or experience the agony of omitting something fabulous. Also, unsolved ciphers from various eras are constantly coming to light, and new ones are created every year. I will likely return to the topic with a sequel covering the best of these.

Which cipher is your favorite?

I’m the most excited about the Paul Rubin case. It involves a cipher found taped to the abdomen of a teenage whiz-kid who was found dead in a ditch by the Philadelphia airport, way back in 1953. While I like well-known unsolved ciphers like the Voynich Manuscript and Kryptos, I have higher hopes for this one being solved because it hasn’t attracted any attention since the 1950s. The codebreakers have made a lot of progress since then, so it’s time to take another look and see what can be learned about this young man’s death. I felt it was very important to include cases that will be new even to those who have read a great deal about cryptology already and this is one such case.

Should the potential reader have some prior knowledge of the subject?

If he or she does, there will still be much that is new, but for those with no previous exposure to cryptology, everything is explained from the ground up. As a teenager I loved books at the popular level on a wide range of topics. In particular, the nonfiction of Isaac Asimov instilled in me a love for many subjects. He always started at the beginning, assuming his readers were smart, but new to the topic he was covering. This is the approach that I have taken. I hope that the book finds a wide readership among the young and inspires them in the same way Asimov inspired me.

Is there anything that especially qualifies you to write on this topic?

Early work on this book was supported by the National Security Agency through their Scholar-in-Residence program at the Center for Cryptologic History. They wanted me in this role because, while I have a PhD in mathematics and have carried out mathematical research in cryptology, I also have a passion for history and other disciplines. In fact, both of my books have the word “history” in their titles. The journal Cryptologia, for which I serve as the editor-in-chief, is devoted to all aspects of cryptology, mathematical, historical, pedagogical, etc. My love of diverse fields allows me to write with enthusiasm about ciphers in music, art, criminal cases, ancient history, and other areas. The broad approach to the subject is more entertaining and ensures that there’s something in the book for nearly every reader.

BauerCraig Bauer is professor of mathematics at York College of Pennsylvania. He is editor in chief of the journal Cryptologia, has served as a scholar in residence at the NSA’s Center for Cryptologic History, and is the author of Unsolved! The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret Societies. He lives in York, Pennsylvania.