Literary Matter

A review of Symmetry and the Monster by Mark Ronan.
In this book Mark Ronan takes the reader on a voyage of discovery in the quest for the ‘Monster’ of symmetry. Ronan, an honorary Professor […]

Art by Samuel Pilgrim

In this book Mark Ronan takes the reader on a voyage of discovery in the quest for the ‘Monster’ of symmetry. Ronan, an honorary Professor of Mathematics at University College London, was personally involved in this exploration, allowing him to give an intimate insight into this fascinating piece of mathematics.

The book focuses on a complex branch of mathematics called group theory, with the story following the discovery and classification of all simple groups. The largest of these is the ‘Monster’; not actually a monster at all but rather a bizarre structure in 196,884 dimensions. The author explains the connections between this symmetrical beast and the other branches of mathematics in an eloquent way, leaving the reader to question the significance of such links. While Ronan takes great pains to initially explain in simpler terms the basic mathematical ideas, towards the end it can begin to feel he is bombarding you with concepts which may be confusing to those who are not of a mathematical disposition.

While at times slightly too technical, the author manages to hold the readers’ interest with his historical storytelling, which really brings the intriguing characters of mathematics to life. From the tragic life of Galois, who the night before his death in a duel at the tender age of 20, scribbled thoughts on a piece of paper which became the beginning of the quest, to the Norwegian giant Sophus Lie whose work took group theory into new territory, there is much to be learned from the beautiful description of the historical events that surround the quest for the ‘Monster’.

For the group theory enthusiasts, this is a book for you. While someone with a less technical background may struggle to grasp some of the ideas, this is an intriguing story that involved one of the biggest collaborations between mathematicians across the world, and is sure to keep even the most maths-phobic readers enthralled.

Ciara Dangerfield

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