Key segments from the article:
"As numbers go, the familiar real numbers — those found on the number line, like 1, π and -83.777 — just get things started. Real numbers can be paired up in a particular way to form “complex numbers,” first studied in 16th-century Italy, that behave like coordinates on a 2-D plane. Adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing is like translating and rotating positions around the plane. Complex numbers, suitably paired, form 4-D “quaternions,” discovered in 1843 by the Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton, who on the spot ecstatically chiseled the formula into Dublin’s Broome Bridge. John Graves, a lawyer friend of Hamilton’s, subsequently showed that pairs of quaternions make octonions: numbers that define coordinates in an abstract 8-D space.
When you double the dimensions with each step as you go from real numbers to complex numbers to quaternions to octonions, she explained, “in every step you lose a property.” Real numbers can be ordered from smallest to largest, for instance, “whereas in the complex plane there’s no such concept.” Next, quaternions lose commutativity; for them, a × b doesn’t equal b × a. This makes sense, since multiplying higher-dimensional numbers involves rotation, and when you switch the order of rotations in more than two dimensions you end up in a different place. Much more bizarrely, the octonions are nonassociative, meaning (a × b) × c doesn’t equal a × (b × c). “Nonassociative things are strongly disliked by mathematicians because while it’s very easy to imagine noncommutative situations — putting on shoes then socks is different from socks then shoes — it’s very difficult to think of a nonassociative situation.” If, instead of putting on socks then shoes, you first put your socks into your shoes, technically you should still then be able to put your feet into both and get the same result. “The parentheses feel artificial.”
Already, there’s a sense of space-time in the math. She finds that all multiplicative chains of elements of ℝ⊗ℂ⊗ℍ⊗