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Big math problem is solved

March 21, 2007|From the Associated Press

PALO ALTO, CALIF. — A century-old math puzzle so complicated that its handwritten solution would cover the island of Manhattan was finally cracked by an international research team that had been working on it for four years.

The 18-member group of mathematicians and computer scientists was convened by the American Institute of Mathematics in Palo Alto 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.

The E8 group, discovered in 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 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.

"It's like a Mount Everest of mathematical structures they've climbed," said Brian Conrey, director of the institute.

The calculation does not have any obvious practical applications but could help advance theoretical physics and geometry, researchers said.

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