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New Scientist

New Scientist vol 176 issue 2368 - 09 November 2002, page 30

obvious next term is 16. But if we're talking a particular kind of

algebra, there is no next term. And it turns out that this is highly

significant. The ultimate number - the humble 8 - lies at the heart of

a mathematical system known as the octonions, and this system

appears to be the key that will allow physicists to fit quantum theory

and gravity together. Strange as it may seem, the number 8 may

provide us with a "theory of everything".

The tale of the octonions begins in the mid-16th century. Until that

time, mathematicians had thought that numbers were God-given, a

done deal. No one could contemplate inventing a new number. But

around 1550 the Italian algebraists Girolamo Cardano and Raphael

Bombelli did just that, by writing down the square root of -1. It took

about 400 years to sort out what the thing meant, but only 300 to

convince mathematicians that it was too useful to be ignored.

into a new kind of number, i, whose square is -1. The square of a

"real number" - the usual kind that we all know - is always positive.

So whatever i may be, it's not a real number, and mathematicians

call it an "imaginary" number to make this clear. A combination of

real and imaginary numbers, like 4 + 5i, is said to be "complex".

memorably announced, mathematics is "unreasonably effective".

Complex numbers may seem weird, but they turn out to be a

marvellous tool for understanding physics. Problems of heat, light,

sound, vibration, elasticity, gravity, magnetism, electricity and fluid

flow all succumbed to this complex weaponry - but only for physics

in two dimensions.

more. So, since the two-dimensional system of complex numbers was

so effective for two-dimensional physics, might there be an

analogous three-dimensional number system that could be used for

physics in the real world?

Rowan Hamilton spent years trying to find a three-dimensional

number system - but with no success. Then, on 16 October 1843 he

had a flash of insight: don't look in three dimensions, look in four.

And it worked. Hamilton named his new numbers "quaternions".

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New Scientist Archive | Selected Article

John Graves - a British mathematician and an old college friend of

Hamilton's - announced he had found an eight-dimensional number

system. He called it the "octaves". But before Graves could publish,

the British lawyer-mathematican Arthur Cayley made the same

discovery, and published it as an addendum to an otherwise awful

paper on elliptic functions. He called the system "octonions".

The discovery of the octonions was ever after credited to the wrong

person (they are often known as Cayley numbers, even today), but it

didn't really matter because nobody took any notice of them anyway.

The octonions appeared to be nothing more than Victorian

mathematical whimsy.

Graves was not to be put off though, and spent a long while

convinced that his method of going from 4 to 8 could be repeated,

leading to algebras with dimensions of 16, 32, 64 and so on for any

power of 2. He called his 16-dimensional algebra the sedenions, but

he couldn't find a way to make it - or any of the others - work, and

began to doubt whether it could exist.

His doubt was well-founded. We now know that those four algebras,

of dimensions 1, 2, 4 and 8, are the only ones that behave remotely

like ordinary real numbers. The reason is that, with increasing

numbers of dimensions, these systems obey fewer and fewer

algebraic laws - the amount of algebraic structure keeps decreasing.

Put rather too simply, by the time we reach Graves's sedenions,

there's pretty much no algebraic structure left.

by mathematical standards this is an odd set of tools. These four

number systems have several features in common, the most striking

being that they are "division algebras". There are many number

systems in which notions of addition, subtraction and multiplication

hold good: when these notions are applied to the integers (... -2, -1,

0, 1, 2, 3, ...), for example, they transform two integers into another

integer. But the same can't be said for division: divide some integers

by others, for example, and the result is often not an integer. But in

these four number systems, you can always divide and yet remain

within the same system.

And that's not the only mathematical operation that sets them apart.

Numbers in these systems are the only ones to have a "norm",

effectively the number's distance from the origin (see Graphic). With

the complex numbers, the norm of x + iy is x 2 + y2. Because of the

existence of a norm, and their divisibility, these number systems are

known as "normed division algebras".

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New Scientist Archive | Selected Article

only really important cases are the real and complex numbers. Well,

not quite: the quaternions have shown up in some useful if esoteric

researches - fields such as abstract algebra and topology.

But it's certainly true that the octonions remained in the shadows

for a long time. In 1925 Wigner, working with the mathematician

John von Neumann, tried to make the octonions the basis of

quantum mechanics. But he failed, and the octonions slipped back

into obscurity. Until now, that is.

most important system of all. That's because they are crucial to

string theory, the best candidate for a physical theory of everything.

After 150 years, physics is finally telling us the purpose of the

octonions: they are essential to space and time.

Einstein's general relativity to the small-scale uncertainties inherent

in quantum theory. Both these theories are brilliantly successful in

their own domain. But they can't be fitted together: put into the

same framework, they effectively contradict each other. So the

search has been on for a unified theory that modifies them well

enough to fit them together consistently but doesn't destroy their

existing successes.

Very roughly, the traditional idea that a fundamental particle is a

featureless point is rejected, and particles are modelled instead as

tiny loops of energy - the aforementioned strings. The loops can

vibrate in ways that give them integer quantum numbers, such as

spin, charge and charm.

But all this only works if the loop is a many-dimensional surface that

protrudes beyond the familiar four-dimensional space-time, and one

of the burning questions is just how many dimensions there are. At

the moment, finding the answer seems to depend on finding the

number of dimensions where the theories work most elegantly. And

though physicists have not pinned it down precisely, they have

noticed that something rather pleasing occurs when they work with

3, 4, 6 and 10 dimensions. Interestingly, each of these numbers is 2

greater than that of a normed division algebra: subtract 2 from 3, 4,

6 and 10, and you get 1, 2, 4 and 8. And that's no coincidence:

these algebras are a vital part of the theory.

objects: vectors and spinors. A vector is essentially a way to

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New Scientist Archive | Selected Article

example, is a vector because it describes a body's speed and the

direction in which it is moving. The spinor is a more esoteric

mathematical gadget invented by Paul Dirac to describe electron

spin. It turns out that the relationship between vectors and spinors

holds precisely (and only) in space-times of 3, 4, 6, and 10

dimensions. This happens because, in 3, 4, 6, and 10-dimensional

string theory, every spinor can be represented using two numbers

in the associated normed division algebra. This doesn't happen for

any other number of dimensions, and it has lots of nice

consequences for physics.

quaternionic, and octonionic. The one that is thought to have the

best chance of corresponding to reality is the 10-dimensional one,

because it neatly avoids a mass of mathematical obstacles while

allowing the physics to work properly. And, in this system, the

relationships between the properties of matter are specified by the

octonions: if this particular theory really does correspond to reality,

then our Universe is built from pairs of octonions.

that the octonions will still be found to play a vital role in the theory

of everything. The other very fashionable candidate string theory,

"M-theory", involves 11-dimensional space-time. Although that

means the vector-spinor relationship won't hold, something almost

as good does. In M-theory, the extra dimensions don't need to be

curled up tightly, so the restriction to six extra dimensions can be

relaxed to allow a seventh, but again it doesn't work without the

octonions.

dimensions to the familiar four (three space and one time), we have

to hide seven of them. We do that by rolling them up so tightly that

they can't be detected. And how do you do that? You make use of the

octonions' symmetry.

in a certain way and leave it looking the same - has turned out to be

central to physics, especially the quantum world. All our theories of

fundamental particles, and their strange properties such as spin,

charge and charm, which come in whole-number chunks, boil down

to symmetries. And the use of octonionic symmetry in M-theory even

gives a purpose to a mathematical peculiarity, discovered around

the same time as the octonions, whose existence has always

mystified mathematicians (see "The eightfold way"). So the efficacy

of the octonions here is doubly pleasing.

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New Scientist Archive | Selected Article

were almost entirely ignored for 150 years, their time has come.

They are no longer quaint Victoriana, but a hefty clue to a possible

theory of everything. Daunting though their mathematics is,

physicists are beginning to take up this new set of tools and work

with it. A paper published this year by John Baez of the University of

Califonia, Riverside, has prompted much Web-based discussion

between string theorists. It all boils down to one extraordinary

realisation: the humble 8 is no longer just a number. It's our key to

the Universe.

theory. This idea suggests that the fundamental particles are loops

of energy that exist in many more dimensions than the four we

experience. Multidimensional loops can in principle take on lots of

shapes. The big task facing physicists is to find the right one.

to pin down correct theories is symmetry. Physicists often settle on a

particular shape as the correct description of something because it

has the right kinds of symmetry: the Universe seems to like

symmetric characteristics. And in string theory, it turns out, the

symmetry of the octonions is crucial.

you've finished it looks the same as it did at the start. If you take a

featureless circular disc, for example, and rotate it through any

angle, it looks just the same. This is an example of a continuous

symmetry. But with a square, only 90° rotations will do that.

And it's not only objects such as circles and squares that can have

symmetry operations applied to them. Hard as it may be to envisage,

algebras have symmetries too. The collection of all symmetries of a

given shape or algebra or whatever, is called its symmetry group. In

the 19th century, the Norwegian mathematician Sophus Lie

captured such symmetries using an algebraic structure that is

known nowadays as a Lie group. An example is the set of rotations of

an object in three-dimensional space. One symmetry in that set

would be a rotation that turns this magazine through 180° until it's

upside down.

four main families. For instance, one family consists of the rotation

group in the plane, the rotation group in space, the rotation group

in four-dimensional space, and so on. Each dimension of space

5

New Scientist Archive | Selected Article

all the possible ways to distort space of n dimensions while keeping

straight lines straight. Again, there is one such group for each

dimension n. These are "linear mappings" and they do things like (in

the case n = 2) stretch the plane in a north-south direction while

leaving east-west unchanged; or tilt the north-south axis by 45°

while leaving the east-west one unchanged. It's as if someone has

leaned against the vertical axis and pushed it over. A similar thing

happens with larger n.

But there are five curious symmetry groups that don't fit into any

family. The very existence of these "exceptional" Lie groups, which

rejoice in the names G2, F4, E6, E7 and E8, is a puzzle and a pain to

mathematicians, who like everything to fit into some pattern or

other. One exasperated mathematician even declared them a "brutal

act of Providence".

For decades, no one could find any use for the exceptional groups,

or any reason for their existence, and it was tempting simply to

ignore them. However, it has now been realised that all five of them

can be explained in terms of the octonions. In effect, they form a

small family of their own, one with only five members. And it looks as

though the octonions actually hold together what may prove to be

the theory of everything.

experience, physicists need to carry out some particular

mathematical transformations on space-time. The only way to do that

is with the exceptional Lie group G2. And what else is this heroic

group that rescues a vital theory of physics? It's the symmetry group

of the octonion algebra.

others called e1, e2 and so on up to e7. The square of any of these is

-1. The multiplication rule for the units is determined by the "Fano

plane", shown on the left. Suppose you want to multiply e3 by e7,

say. Look at the diagram for the corresponding points, find the line

that joins them, and you will see that there is a third point on the

line, e1. Following the arrows, you go from e3 to e7 to e1, so e3 × e7

= e1. If the ordering is the other way round, throw in a minus sign:

e7 × e3 = -e1. What's more, all the lines are considered to loop back

to the start, so e1 × e3 = e7, and e3 × e1 = -e7. Do this for all the

possible pairs of units and you know how to multiply octonions.

Ian Stewart

Ian Stewart is a professor of mathematics based at the University of Warwick

6

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