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Work in the media? Struggle with statistics? Stan's irreverent (and often irrelevant) review of the latest media reports, news and gossip may not help at all... Stan the Statistician

Stan # 87: E8 Lies (rather than G8 ones) June 2007

The year when the Islamic and Christian calendars will coincide is, of course, 20874. Not many of us will be around to confirm this.

The advent of chip and pin means (allegedly) that our credit cards are more secure. But as most people carry multiple cards, this means memorising multiple PINs. Worse, you have to remember which PIN goes with which card and you are not supposed to write anything down which could give fraudsters a clue. So one lucky couple from Lancashire, England, must have been overjoyed to receive the same PIN for all four cards from three banks. Firstly, Kevin Stokes changed his Sainsbury’s card PIN. Then his Barclaycard arrived with the same PIN as the Sainsbury’s card. Then when the couple opened pension accounts with the Alliance and Leicester, Anne’s card was given the same PIN.
Two weeks later, Barclays sent Kevin a new card with the same number again. Numbers are computer generated but with 200 million cards in use in the UK, people inevitably share PINs but having four the same is not a likely occurrence. What are the odds for four, four digit numbers being the same? Answers to my e-mail address please and check out my next desk top. Mr and Mrs Stokes fail to reveal what that number is. Maybe they should do the lottery.

A team of maths experts has cracked a 120-year puzzle - even though many boffins do not even understand what it is all about. The solution is so complex that the handwritten solution would cover Manhattan island in New York. And when stored in highly compressed form on a computer hard drive, it takes up as much space as 45 days of continuous music in MP3 format. So, a fairly big answer then.

An international team of 18 mathematicians and computer scientists was assembled to map a theoretical object known as the "Lie group E8". Lie (pronounced Lee) groups were invented by 19th-Century Norwegian mathematician Sophus Lie in his study of symmetrical objects, especially spheres, and differential calculus. I suppose there wasn’t much else to do in those long Nowegian winters.

The E8 group, which dates to 1887, is the most complicated Lie group, with 248 dimensions, and was long considered impossible to solve.

"To say what precisely it is is something even many mathematicians can't understand," said Jeffrey Adams, the project's leader and a math professor at the University of Maryland. The team - assembled by the American Institute of Mathematics - revealed their findings at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their work took four years research and involves about 60 times as much data as the Human Genome Project.

They have not indicated what they plan to do with it though. Will it make a good book or film? Will it feature in the crime show Numb3rs? Maybe it’s like Everest. People climb it because it is there. Might be useful in string theory and other brances of theoretical physics I suppose.

Check in again at my desk soon!
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