Technical Closures

Today’s news (OK, one piece is yesterday’s news) brings reports of two closures on a mathematical front:

  • By now, many have heard the reports of the death of John Backus (not Jim Backus). Best known as the inventor of FORTRAN (my first programming language), he was also responsible for inventing Backus-Naur Form. The latter was developed to express the grammar of ALGOL 58. All this came from, as Backus said, “being lazy”.
  • The news also brings reports of the solution of the mapping of the theoretical object known as the “Lie group E8.” This is a century-old math puzzle so complicated that its handwritten solution would cover the island of Manhattan. The E8 group, discovered in 1887, is the most complicated Lie group, with 248 dimensions, and was long considered impossible to solve. The problem’s proof, announced Monday, consists of more than 205 billion entries, with about 60 times the data as the Human Genome Project. When stored in highly compressed form on a computer hard drive, the solution takes up as much space as 45 days of continuous music in MP3 format. Of course, it has no obvious practical applications… but who cares… it’s math!