Archive for November, 2011

A short post on countability and uncountability

November 28, 2011

There is plenty I could write about countability and uncountability, but much of what I have to say I have said already in written form, and I don’t see much reason to rewrite it. So here’s a link to two articles on the Tricki, which, if you don’t know, is a wiki for mathematical techniques. The Tricki hasn’t taken off, and probably never will, but it’s still got some useful material on it that you might enjoy looking at. The articles in question are one about how to tell almost instantly whether a set is countable and another about how to find neat proofs that sets are countable when they are.

Group actions III — what’s the point of them?

November 25, 2011

Somebody told me recently that a few years ago they had a supervision with a colleague of mine (who shall remain nameless, but he or she is an applied mathematician) and asked what the point of group actions was. “I have absolutely no idea,” was the response, and the implication that one might draw from it was apparently intended.

No pure mathematician could hold such a view. I’ve stated a few times that group actions tell you a lot about groups. In this post I want to try to explain why that is, though there is far more to say than I am capable of explaining, let alone fitting into one blog post.

Several proofs that use group actions seem to depend on almost magically coming up with an action that just happens, when you analyse it the right way, to tell you what you wanted to know. I am not an algebraist and do not have a good all-purpose method for finding actions to prove given statements. I don’t rule out that such a method might exist, at least for reasonably simple statements, and would be interested to hear from anybody who thinks they can usefully add to what I have to say.

Normal subgroups and quotient groups

November 20, 2011

The traditional presentation of normal subgroups and quotient groups goes something like this. First, you define a subgroup to be normal if it satisfies a certain funny condition. Then, given a group G and a normal subgroup H, you show that you can define an operation on the cosets of H, and that that operation turns the set of all cosets into a group, called the quotient group. Ideally, you also show that one can’t give a natural group structure to the left cosets of an arbitrary subgroup: that justifies restricting attention to normal subgroups.

There’s nothing terribly wrong with this approach, but it does leave one question unanswered: why bother with all this stuff? The traditional approach to that question is to ignore it, confident that the answer will gradually reveal itself. The more group theory you do, the more normal subgroups and quotients will arise naturally and demonstrate their utility, so if you just diligently keep studying, you will (fairly soon) come to regard normal subgroups and quotient groups as natural concepts that were obviously worth introducing.

Proving the fundamental theorem of arithmetic

November 18, 2011

How much of the standard proof of the fundamental theorem of arithmetic follows from general tricks that can be applied all over the place and how much do you actually have to remember? At first it may seem as though you have to remember quite a bit: there is a non-obvious sequence of lemmas, starting with Bézout’s theorem, continuing with the clever proof that if p|ab then either p|a or p|b, bumping that up to a proof for bigger products, and eventually deducing the theorem itself.

But what if one were simply asked to come up with a proof? Would there be any chance of discovering that sequence of lemmas? I maintain that there would — if, that is, you are aware of certain general tricks.

Why isn’t the fundamental theorem of arithmetic obvious?

November 13, 2011

The fundamental theorem of arithmetic states that every positive integer can be factorized in one way as a product of prime numbers. This statement has to be appropriately interpreted: we count the factorizations 3\times 5\times 13 and 13\times 3\times 5 as the same, for instance. Note that it is essential not to count 1 as a prime, or else we could stick a product of 1s on to the end of any factorization to get a different one: 3\times 5\times 13=3\times 5\times 13\times 1\times 1\times 1. But doesn’t that mean that 1 itself cannot be written as a product of primes? No — we define the “empty product” (what you get when you take a bunch of … no numbers at all and multiply them together) to be 1. That is a sensible convention because we would like multiplying a product of numbers by the empty product not to make any change to the result.

Group actions II: the orbit-stabilizer theorem

November 9, 2011

How many rotational symmetries does a cube have? This question can be answered in a number of ways. Perhaps the one that most readily occurs to people is this: each vertex can end up in one of eight places; once you’ve decided where to put it, there are three places you can put one of its neighbours; once you’ve decided where to put that, the rotation is determined, so the total number of rotations is 8\times 3=24.

Here’s another proof. Take one of the faces. It can go to one of six other faces, and once you’ve decided which face it will go to, one of the vertices on the face has four places it can go, and once you’ve decided that you’ve fixed the rotation. So the total number of rotations is 6\times 4=24.

And here’s another. Take one of the midpoints of the twelve edges. There are twelve places it can end up, and once you’ve decided where to put it, there are two choices for how you send the two endpoints of the original edge to the endpoints of the new edge. So the total number of rotations is 12\times 2=24.

Group actions I

November 6, 2011

There is something odd about the experience of learning group theory. At first, one is told that the great virtue of groups is their abstractness: many mathematical structures, from number systems, to sets of permutations, to symmetries, to automorphisms of other algebraic structures, to invariants of geometric objects (these last two are examples you won’t meet for a while) have important properties in common, and these are encapsulated in a small set of axioms that lead to a rich theory with applications throughout mathematics. So far so good — understanding about abstraction is wonderful and mind-expanding and the definition of a group is one of the best examples.

But then one studies group actions (and later group representations). They appear to be doing the reverse of abstraction: we take an abstract group and find a way of thinking of it as a group of symmetries. And that is supposed to help us understand the group better — so much so that group actions are an indispensable part of group theory.

So is abstraction good or bad? Well, both the views above are correct. Abstraction does indeed play a very important clarifying role, by showing us that many apparently different phenomena are basically the same, and isolating the aspects of those phenomena that really matter. However, if a group is defined for us in an abstract way (I’ll say more precisely what I mean by this later), then showing that it is isomorphic to a group of symmetries can make it much easier to answer questions about that group.

In this post, and one or two further ones, I want to discuss what a group action actually is, the orbit-stabilizer theorem and how to remember its proof, and how to use group actions to prove facts about groups.

A more modest proposal

November 3, 2011

In my previous post I suggested a way in which an online system of submitting and commenting on papers might perhaps work better than our current system of journals, editors and anonymous referees. I am very grateful to all who commented, both positively and (more often) negatively. It has given me a lot to think about. One thing that I wasn’t expecting, but should have expected, was that a number of people just plain don’t like the idea of an online alternative, regardless of the rational arguments. I don’t mean that there aren’t arguments to back up the dislike — merely, that I think that there is a dislike there, which becomes an argument in itself, since if many people have an emotional reaction against a new system, then that makes it less likely that the system will be adopted by enough people to become as officially recognised as the journal system. To avoid misunderstanding, let me stress that I’ve got nothing against emotional reactions, as long as they are backed up with arguments; and in the comments on my previous post they have been. Indeed, the arguments against various aspects of what I suggested have caused me to realize that there are some disadvantages I didn’t think of and others that I underestimated.

In this post, I want to summarize the points made in the comments (for the benefit of anyone who is interested in what was said but doesn’t have time to read through them all), and then make a second suggestion, which I think deals with a number of objections to the first. As with the first, I don’t see the details as set in stone. I think it’s an improvement on the first, but doubtless it can itself be improved on. Whether it reaches the level where one should actually consider trying to implement it is of course quite another matter. But I do think that these issues should be discussed: if we were designing a system from scratch for disseminating and evaluating mathematical output, I don’t think we would come up with the current journal system, though of course that’s not the situation, and historical accidents often result in quite good ways of doing things.