Although A. Garrett Lisi’s use of the mathematical group known as E8 to form a physics “theory of everything” remains controversial, other recent research into the group has been acclaimed as the scaling of a mathematical Mount Everest. German mathematician Wilhelm Killing first formulated E8 nearly 120 years ago, but it was only in January 2007 that a team of mathematicians completed a detailed map of E8’s inner workings. The “map,” a table of integers with more than 450,000 rows and columns, required 77 hours of supercomputer time to compute and occupied 60 gigabytes of disk space. For comparison, all the genetic information in a person’s cells fills three gigabytes.
The program to compute the map took more than three years to write and was primarily the work of Fokko du Cloux of the University of Lyon 1 in France. He died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) just two months shy of seeing the project completed.