The Genius In My Basement
Posted by John Baez
Simon J. Norton was a math prodigy as a child. He went to Cambridge for grad school. Together with his advisor John Conway, he did some amazing work on group theory. In 1985, based on an idea from John McKay, they conjectured an astounding relation between the Monster group and the modular $j$-function. Conway dubbed this “Monstrous Moonshine”. The proof turned out to involve ideas from string theory, but the full implications are yet to be understood.
But in 1985 — when some mathematicians claim he suffered a “catastrophic intellectual collapse” — Simon took to collecting thousands of bus and train timetables. What happened to him? What is he doing now?
You can learn a bit of the answer here:
- Alexander Masters, The genius who lives downstairs, The Guardian, August 19, 2011.
This is an excerpt from Master’s new book The Genius In My Basement. Here’s a review:
- Jenny Turner, The Genius in My Basement by Alexander Masters - review, The Guardian, August 24, 2011.
From the excerpt, Norton is apparently still doing good math. He says he discovered “the appearance of Conway Group in the projective plane presentation of the Monster”. I would like to know more about that!
I find it fascinating how much people enjoy tales of eccentric mathematicians. I do too, but I don’t think that counts: I’m a mathematician, and I also enjoy tales of non-eccentric mathematicians, packed with details of their actual work.
Why would a non-mathematician want to read about an expert on finite simple groups… but only if they switch to filling their apartment with bus schedules? Here’s one possibility. Most non-mathematicians eventually ‘hit the wall’ in their studies of math: it becomes too hard, and they quit. So, they’re left wondering what they’re missing, and what sort of mind it would take to learn that stuff. It’s fascinating, and somewhat reassuring, to hear that it takes someone crazy.
But that doesn’t seem to be all there is to it. Perhaps in our times the mathematician has replaced the poet as the mythical figure who — some like to think — must approach the brink of madness to see beyond what everyone else has seen. From the Wikipedia article on artistic inspiration:
In Greek thought, inspiration meant that the poet or artist would go into ecstasy or furor poeticus, the divine frenzy or poetic madness. He or she would be transported beyond his own mind and given the gods’ or goddesses own thoughts to embody.
Inspiration is prior to consciousness and outside of skill (ingenium in Latin). Technique and performance are independent of inspiration, and therefore it is possible for the non-poet to be inspired and for a poet or painter’s skill to be insufficient to the inspiration.
Re: The Genius In My Basement
I see your Wikipedia citation and raise you a TV Tropes entry, Mad Mathematician:
A spot of Google-Scholaring turned up the following:
The projective-plane stuff seems to go back to “Constructing the Monster” (1990), in Groups, Combinatorics and Geometry, Liebeck and Saxi, eds.