University of Michigan
News for Faculty and Staff

January 20, 2018

Robert Griess to discuss mathematics, sporadic simple groups

November 13, 2017

Robert Griess to discuss mathematics, sporadic simple groups

Distinguished University Professor lecture

Topic: Campus News

The decade between 1965 and 1975 was a period of intense interest among mathematicians in classifying sporadic simple groups.

"We just kept finding more of them and they kept getting bigger," said Robert Griess, professor of mathematics in LSA. "We didn’t know. Nobody knew. Could they become so impossibly big you couldn’t analyze them?"

Robert Griess

The flurry of activity did eventually come to a stop after 26 sporadic groups were identified.

In 1973, Bernd Fischer of the Universität Bielefeld and Griess independently discovered evidence for the largest of these, which was dubbed "The Monster" for its size. His discovery had profound, far-reaching consequences in many mathematical areas, including string theory and number theory. In 1980, Griess proved that The Monster really exists.

Griess will discuss this in his upcoming Distinguished University Professorship lecture, "The sporadic simple groups: 26 characters in search of an oracle." The lecture will take place at 4 p.m. today in Rackham Amphitheatre. The lecture and the reception that follows are free and open to the public.

He will survey the history of these discoveries and the key contributions he and University of Michigan professors Richard Brauer (who taught from 1948-53), Donald Higman and Jack McLaughlin made to the process. Griess also will discuss how these sporadic groups arise and what role they may have in mathematics and other sciences.

A Distinguished University Professorship is the highest professorial honor bestowed on U-M faculty. Griess was named in 2016 as the John Griggs Thompson Distinguished University Professor of Mathematics.

Griess named his professorship for his thesis adviser, a significant figure in the effort to classify finite simple groups. In 1971, Griess started working at U-M as a T.H. Hildebrandt Research Instructor, and in 1973 he became an assistant professor.

He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Science in 2007, and in January 2010 he was awarded the American Mathematical Society Steele Prize for Seminal Research, one of the highest honors the society bestows. In 2013, he was among the American Mathematical Society’s inaugural class of fellows.

Griess was greatly involved with the King/Chavez/Parks program administered through the Office of Academic and Multicultural Initiatives, and in 2003 was honored with the Harold R. Johnson Award for his commitment to the development of a more culturally and ethnically diverse campus community.

While the KCP program ended a decade ago, Griess remains dedicated to diversity and got involved with the Center for Educational Outreach. For this work, in May he received the Lester P. Monts Award for Outstanding Service from the center, which highlights efforts at U-M that promote K-12 educational outreach.