The road from Dunsink to the exceptional symmetries of M-theory
By Leron Borsten and Alessio Marrani
Our journey starts in the fall of 1843 at the Dunsink Observatory, presiding from its hill-top vantage over the westerly reaches of Dublin City, seat to the then Astronomer Royal Sir William Rowan Hamilton. In the preceding months Hamilton had become preoccupied by the observation that multiplication by a complex phase induces a rotation in the Argand plane, revealing an intimate link between two-dimensional Euclidean geometry and the complex numbers ℂ. Fascinated by this unification of geometry and algebra, Hamilton set about the task of constructing a new number system that would do for three dimensions what the complexes did for two. After a series of trying failures, on October 16th 1843, while walking from the Dunsink Observatory to a meeting of the Royal Irish Academy on Dawson Street, Hamilton surmounted his apparent impasse in a moment of inspired clarity: rotations in three dimensions require a four-dimensional algebra with one real and three imaginary units satisfying the fundamental relations i2 = j2 = k2 = ijk = -1. The quaternions ℍ were thus born. Taken in that instant of epiphany, Hamilton etched his now famous equations onto the underside of Broome bridge, a cave painting illuminated not by campfire, but mathematical insight and imagination. Like all great mathematical expressions, once seen they hang elegant and timeless, eternal patterns in the fixed stars merely chanced upon by our ancestral explorers.