In 1978, the mathematician John McKay noticed what seemed like an odd coincidence. He had been studying the different ways of representing the structure of a mysterious entity called the monster group, a gargantuan algebraic object that, mathematicians believed, captured a new kind of symmetry. Mathematicians weren’t sure that the monster group actually existed, but they knew that if it did exist, it acted in special ways in particular dimensions, the first two of which were 1 and 196,883.
McKay, of Concordia University in Montreal, happened to pick up a mathematics paper in a completely different field, involving something called the j-function, one of the most fundamental objects in number theory. Strangely enough, this function’s first important coefficient is 196,884, which McKay instantly recognized as the sum of the monster’s first two special dimensions.
Most mathematicians dismissed the finding as a fluke, since there was no reason to expect the monster and the j-function to be even remotely related. However, the connection caught the attention of John Thompson, a Fields medalist now at the University of Florida in Gainesville, who made an additional discovery. The j-function’s second coefficient, 21,493,760, is the sum of the first three special dimensions of the monster: 1 + 196,883 + 21,296,876. It seemed as if the j-function was somehow controlling the structure of the elusive monster group.
Soon, two other mathematicians had demonstrated so many of these numerical relationships that it no longer seemed possible that they were mere coincidences. In a 1979 paper called “Monstrous Moonshine,” the pair—John Conway, now of Princeton University, and Simon Norton—conjectured that these relationships must result from some deep connection between the monster group and the j-function. “They called it moonshine because it appeared so far-fetched,” said Don Zagier, a director of the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in Bonn, Germany. “They were such wild ideas that it seemed like wishful thinking to imagine anyone could ever prove them.”
It took several more years before mathematicians succeeded in even constructing the monster group, but they had a good excuse: The monster has more than 1053 elements, which is more than the number of atoms in a thousand Earths. In 1992, a decade after Robert Griess of the University of Michigan constructed the monster, Richard Borcherds tamed the wild ideas of monstrous moonshine, eventually earning a Fields Medal for this work. Borcherds, of the University of California, Berkeley, proved that there was a bridge between the two distant realms of mathematics in which the monster and the j-function live: namely, string theory, the counterintuitive idea that the universe has tiny hidden dimensions, too small to measure, in which strings vibrate to produce the physical effects we experience at the macroscopic scale.
Borcherds’ discovery touched off a revolution in pure mathematics, leading to a new field known as generalized Kac-Moody algebras. But from a string theory point of view, it was something of a backwater. The 24-dimensional string theory model that linked the j-function and the monster was far removed from the models string theorists were most excited about. “It seemed like just an esoteric corner of the theory, without much physical interest, although the math results were startling,” said Shamit Kachru, a string theorist at Stanford University.
But now moonshine is undergoing a renaissance, one that may eventually have deep implications for string theory. Over the past five years, starting with a discovery analogous to McKay’s, mathematicians and physicists have come to realize that monstrous moonshine is just the start of the story.
Last week, researchers posted a paper on arxiv.org presenting a numerical proof of the so-called Umbral Moonshine Conjecture, formulated in 2012, which proposes that in addition to monstrous moonshine, there are 23 other moonshines: mysterious correspondences between the dimensions of a symmetry group on the one hand, and the coefficients of a special function on the other. The functions in these new moonshines have their origins in a prescient letter by one of mathematics’ great geniuses, written more than half a century before moonshine was even a glimmer in the minds of mathematicians.
The 23 new moonshines appear to be intertwined with some of the most central structures in string theory, four-dimensional objects known as K3 surfaces. The connection with umbral moonshine hints at hidden symmetries in these surfaces, said Miranda Cheng of the University of Amsterdam and France’s National Center for Scientific Research, who originated the Umbral Moonshine Conjecture together with John Duncan, of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and Jeffrey Harvey, of the University of Chicago. “This is important, and we need to understand it,” she said.
The new proof strongly suggests that in each of the 23 cases, there must be a string theory model that holds the key to understanding these otherwise baffling numerical correspondences. But the proof doesn’t go so far as to actually construct the relevant string theory models, leaving physicists with a tantalizing problem. “At the end of the day when we understand what moonshine is, it will be in terms of physics,” Duncan said.