Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Symmetry and the Monster (book review)

A review of "Symmetry and the Monster" posted on Amazon.com

According to the blurb on the back, the American Mathematical Monthly described this book as "truly a page-turner". I have to say it is not.

Mark Ronan's task is to take us through the history of group theory culminating in the recently-completed project to classify the finite simple groups. This has taken decades of work by large numbers of highly-skilled mathematicians, with proofs so long and abstruse that there is a genuine concern that no future generation of mathematicians will be able to comprehend them.

How do you communicate this to a lay audience? The key decision for the writer is to gauge his audience. Ronan's view is a readership which knows no group theory. He therefore can't even define a simple group: "a simple group is a group which is not the trivial group and whose only normal subgroups are the trivial group and the group itself" - Wikipedia.

The reader, lacking help in engaging with the subject matter, is instead entertained by concise and amusing mini-biographies and anecdotes about the many participants in the quest. Ronan is a little dry as a writer, but in general this works well enough, although he is too indulgent of such monstrous personages as Sophus Lie. The final milestone in the classification project was confirmation of discovery of the mathematical Monster, the largest of the 26 sporadic groups. This was big news even on conventional news outlets, such as the BBC.

In conclusion, this book will work for mathematicians who know some group theory and who like the historical context spelled out. I don't think many people not educated in mathematics will make it through to the end. With this in mind, Ronan could have profitably added a chapter at the beginning (or even an appendix) where he took the reader through normal subgroups, quotient groups and on to simple groups. He would then have been able to use correct terminology (his own merely irritates) and the journey would have been a lot more satisfying. Perhaps for the second edition?