Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Freigeist Fellow in mathematical physics



Starting up on the 1st of November is an online series of talks on Algebra, Particles, and Quantum foundations.  The subjects of these seminars have quite a range:  leaning more heavily on quantum theory initially, and then migrating into algebra and particle physics.  You are more than welcome to join in at any point.

For access go to

or email me at

nichol at aims dot ac dot za

for the zoom link.

Please note that recordings will not necessarily be available for all seminars. 

So, it is always best to attend the talks live if possible. 

For reasons of efficiency, I will process and post recordings in large batches.  

No recordings have been posted yet, but this should be coming soon.

Upcoming seminar:

23rd May, 2022

18:00 Berlin time

Markus Müller



Quantum theory and Jordan algebras from simple principles​


Quantum theory is one of our most successful physical theories, but its
standard textbook formulation is mysterious. For example, why are states
described by complex vectors in a Hilbert space, and why do observables
correspond to self-adjoint operators? In this talk, I describe how the
Hilbert space formalism of quantum theory (and its Jordan-algebraic
generalizations) can be reconstructed from simple physical or
information-theoretic principles, without presupposing any of the usual
mathematical machinery. This is conceptually similar to the derivation
of the Lorentz transformations from the principles of relativity and the
constancy of the speed of light. To this end, I introduce the framework
of “generalized probabilistic theories” which generalizes both classical
and quantum probability theory and which describes all possible
consistent ways in which preparations and measurements can interact
statistically in a laboratory. I give an explicit example of a set of
principles that implies quantum theory, describe how the hunt for
“higher-order interference” led to a scientific detective story, and
show how these insights and techniques can shed surprising light on the
relation between quantum theory and spacetime.


1st November 2021,
18:00 Berlin time

Lucien Hardy

Perimeter Institute

Causaloid Approach to 

Quantum Theory


15th November 2021,
18:00 Berlin time

Anna Pachol

Queen Mary London

Digital Quantum Geometry


29th November 2021,
18:00 Berlin time

A. Shadi Tahvildar-Zadeh

Rutgers University

Bohmian Mechanics


13th December 2021,
18:00 Berlin time

Howard Barnum

Euclidean Jordan Algebras and

Quantum Theory


31st January 2022,
18:00 Berlin time

Shahn Majid

Queen Mary of London

Octonions as a quasiassociative algebra


14th February 2022,
18:00 Berlin time

Peter Woit

Columbia University

Euclidean Twistor Unification and the Twistor P^1


28th February 2022,
18:00 Berlin time

Andreas Trautner

Max Planck Institute

Symmetries of symmetries

in particle physics


14th March 2022,
18:00 Berlin time

Jorge Zanelli


Local unconventional SUSY


11th April 2022,
17:00 Berlin time
Note the earlier time

Tevian Dray and

Corinne Manogue

Oregon State University

A Division Algebra Description of the Magic Square, including E_8


25th April 2022,
17:00 Berlin time
Note the earlier time

Corinne Manogue

and Tevian Dray

Oregon State University

E_8 and the Standard Model


23rd May 2022,
18:00 Berlin time

Markus Müller

Inst. for quantum optics and quantum information

Quantum theory and Jordan algebras from simple principles


13th June 2022,
18:00 Berlin time

Sean Carroll





Welcome to my homepage.

I am a VW Stiftung Research Fellow

in mathematical physics

at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.


nichol at aims dot ac dot za

My main interests are

division algebras, Clifford algebras, Jordan algebras,

and their relation to particle physics.



* Furey, Three generations, two unbroken gauge symmetries, and one eight-dimensional algebra, Phys.Lett.B (2018)

The addendum of this paper outlines a new project I am currently working on together with Beth Romano in Oxford.  The basic idea is to define a universal multiplication rule, known as a multi-action, which splits the Clifford algebra Cl(8,C) into Lie, Jordan, and spinor algebras.  This multi-action induces a Z_2 graded structure, reminiscent of a supersymmetry algebra, to a limited extent.  With this said, one would not anticipate the introduction of the usual superpartners in this framework.

* Furey, SU(3)xSU(2)xU(1) (xU(1)) as a symmetry of division algebraic ladder operators, Eur. Phys. J. C (2018) 

By building from the early work of [3], it is shown how the division algebras R, C, H, and O can combine to yield the basic structure of Georgi and Glashow’s SU(5) grand unified theory.  However, there is one significant difference.  That is, the extra structure provided by the division algebras may enable an escape from SU(5)’s (fatal) prediction of proton decay.  Lately I have been working together with Mia Hughes of Imperial College on a succinct one-generation model.

* Furey, Standard model physics from an algebra?, PhD thesis, 2016

In chapter 3, it is shown that each of the Lorentz representations of the standard model (scalars, left- and right-handed Weyl spinors, Dirac spinors, Majorana spinors, four-vectors, and the field strength tensor) can be identified as special invariant subspaces of the complex quaternions.  This work extends beyond the early 1937 paper of A. Conway [8].  Specifically, the new finding is that each of the standard model's Lorentz representations generalize, in their own way, the notion of a left ideal.

* Furey, Charge quantization from a number operator, Phys.Lett.B, 742 (2015) 195-199

Gunaydin and Gursey’s early model is extended to show not only quarks and anti-quarks using the octonions.  Instead, we find a set of states behaving like the eight quarks and leptons of one full generation.  Here we show that unitary symmetries of octonionic ladder operators lead uniquely to the two unbroken gauge symmetries, su(3)_c and u(1)_em.

We also find a straightforward way to understand the quantization of electric charge. In this model, electric charge is proportional to the number operator for the system. Hence, we see that electric charge is quantized because number operators can only take on integer values.

It should be noted that [4] came quite close to this result in the late 1970s; differences between these two models are described in [2], p.39.

* Furey, Generations: three prints, in colour, JHEP 10 (2014) 046

 Using only the complex octonions (an 8C dimensional algebra) we show how to build the SU(3)c representations corresponding to not one, but three generations of quarks and leptons.  The result is worth noting because natural three-generation models are few and far between.

In each of the three papers above, particles and anti-particles are related simply by the complex conjugate, i to -i.

* DeBenedictis, Furey, Wormhole throats in R^m gravity, Class. Quant. Grav., 2005 







The standard model of particle physics is the result of decades of collaboration, which began roughly in the 1930s, and converged finally on its current state in 1979, [1]. It is a perfected set of rules that tells us how the known fundamental particles behave. In the decades since 1979, the standard model has seen little in the way of alterations, and yet has survived rigorous experimental testing, nearly completely unscathed.

However, despite its long string of victories, the standard model is in some ways hollow, or incomplete. Roughly speaking, we know how to use the model to make predictions, but we do not know why it is the way it is.

To be more explicit, we do not know why the standard model is based on the gauge group SU(3)xSU(2)xU(1)/Z_6, and not some other gauge group. Even given that gauge group, the standard model does not specify why it uses such a long, apparently arbitrary, list of particles to represent that group. The standard model does not explain why its quarks and leptons are organized into three generations. It does not explain why SU(2) weak isospin acts only on left-handed states. Finally, the standard model does not explain the values of its 19 parameters. These questions, and others, have gone unanswered now for nearly 40 years.

The main goal of my work is to try to answer questions like these.


Ultimately, what we are seeking out is an underlying mathematical structure which could explain the behaviour of fundamental particles.  But which mathematical structure should this be?

One possibility is to consider a special set of number systems, which generalize the real numbers that we are already accustomed to using in everyday life. They are known as the normed division algebras over the reals. Curiously, it turns out that there exist only four of these algebras. They are the real numbers, R, the complex numbers, C, the quaternions, H, and the octonions, O. They have dimension 1, 2, 4, and 8, respectively.

The real numbers are used nearly everywhere in physics; the complex numbers are central to quantum theory; the quaternions underlie SL(2,C), and hence are tightly entwined with special relativity. In fact, in chapter 3 of [2], it is shown how invariant subspaces of the complex quaternions can concisely describe each of the Lorentz representations of the standard model.

But what is to be made of the octonions, the fourth and final division algebra? Currently, this algebra is not central to any widely accepted theory in physics. However, with R, C, and H undeniably etched into fundamental physics, it is hard not to wonder: is it really the case that O has been omitted in nature?

This becomes a particularly unavoidable question, once one realizes that the number of quarks and leptons within a generation of standard model fermions adds up to eight. (eg. red, green, and blue up quarks, red, green and blue down quarks, electron, and electron-neutrino)  Eight, of course, is also the dimension of the octonionic algebra.

One of the earliest breakthroughs along these lines belong to Gunaydin and Gursey, [3], who showed the SU(3)_c structure for quarks and anti-quarks within the octonions. Several authors since then have built directly from Gunaydin and Gursey's model, notably, Casalbuoni et al  [4] and Dixon [5]. Much of my own work over the last few years has also made direct use of [3].  Although [4] and [5] were not used in the construction of my model, I would highly recommend that readers explore these earlier texts.


My work to date has aimed to describe standard model physics only in terms of division algebras acting on themselves.  That is, just one copy of R, one copy of C, one copy of H, and one copy of O.  In particular, this means that there is then no liberty to alter the original division algebraic structure by augmenting it to matrices or column vectors. This is a statement worth emphasizing: there are no matrices or column vectors in this formalism. We deal strictly with the division algebras themselves.

Consequently, this means that particles, and the transformations that act on them, both come from the same algebra. Although this model is far from complete, it is anticipated that both bosons and fermions will likewise arise from the same algebra.


[1] P. Ramond, Journeys beyond the standard model, Perseus Books, 1999.

[2] C. Furey, Standard model physics from an algebra?, PhD thesis, 2015.

[3] M. Gunaydin, F. Gursey, Quark structure and the octonions, J. Math. Phys., 1973.

M. Gunaydin, F. Gursey, Quark statistics and octonions, PRD, 1974.

[4] A. Barducci, F. Buccella, R. Casalbuoni, L. Lusanna, and E. Sorace, Quantized grassmann variables and unifed theories, Phys. Letters B, 1977.

[5] G. Dixon, Division algebras: octonions, quaternions, complex numbers and the algebraic design of physics, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994.

[6] C. Furey, Charge quantization from a number operator, Phys.Lett.B, 742 (2015) 195-199

[7] C. Furey, Generations: three prints, in colour, JHEP 10 (2014) 046

[8]  A. Conway, Quaternion treatment of relativistic wave equation, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series A, Mathematical and physical sciences, 162, No 909 (1937).  

Division algebras as a unifying structure for elementary particle physics


Note 1: More precisely, four algebras generalize the real numbers *in a particular way*. To see what we mean by *in a particular way*, please see Section 1.1 of

Note 2: No dividing by zero, of course.