Around Cal

Berkeley Magazine, Summer 1999


Since when does a theory about "Monstrous Moonshine" win the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in math? Since last August, when Richard Borcherds, a Berkeley math professor, received the Fields Medal for proving a mathematical conjecture that had stymied experts for 20 years.

While on a long bus trip in Kashmir in 1989, Borcherds toyed with some calculations to pass time -- and solved the riddle, which concerns symmetry. He'd been working on the problem for eight years.

The word "monster" in the conjecture, formulated in the late 1970s by two British mathematicians, refers to a purely mathematical and unimaginable object that lives in more than 196,883 dimensions and has countless symmetries. The term "moonshine" long has been used to describe absurd scientific ideas.

Borcherds found a relationship between the monster and a diverse area of math called number theory.

In solving the calculation, "I was over the moon," he told a British reporter.

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