Archive for the ‘IA Groups’ Category

A look at a few Tripos questions X

May 29, 2012

Since time is short, I am going to discuss a couple of Groups questions but in slightly less detail than I have been giving up to now: instead of working through the questions completely, I’ll try to zero in on the most important points. Because there wasn’t a separate Groups course until 2008, I am taking my questions from that year.

5E. For a normal subgroup H of a group G, explain carefully how to make the set of (left) cosets of H into a group.

For a subgroup H of a group G, show that the following are equivalent:

(i) H is a normal subgroup of G;

(ii) there exist a group K and a homomorphism \theta:G\rightarrow K such that H is the kernel of \theta.

Let G be a finite group that has a proper subgroup H of index n (in other words, |H|=|G|/n). Show that if |G|>n!, then G cannot be simple. [Hint: Let G act on the set of left cosets of H by left multiplication.]


Group actions IV: intrinsic actions

December 10, 2011

I have a confession to make. When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge (hmm, that sounds as though it might be the beginning of quite an interesting confession, so I’d better forestall any disappointment by saying right now that it isn’t), there was a third-year course in group theory, taught by John Thompson no less, on which I did not do very well. For a few weeks it seemed to cover material that we’d done in our first year, and then suddenly it got serious, with things like the Sylow theorems. And at that point I got lost, and was unable to do the questions on the examples sheets. I can’t remember much about the questions, but I think my difficulty was that there was a slightly indirect style of proof that caused me to find arguments hard to remember and even harder to come up with. And I never got round to doing anything about it: I went into a different area of maths, and even now I don’t know the proofs of the Sylow theorems. In fact, I don’t even know the statements, though I know they’re about the existence of subgroups of various cardinalities, and I know that they are proved using cleverly defined group actions. I’ve skim-read the proofs, so I have a fairly good idea of their flavour, but I don’t know the details. In particular, I don’t know which action does the job.

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.

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.

Alternative definitions

October 25, 2011

Something that happens very often in lecture courses is that you are presented with a definition, and soon after it you are told that a certain property is equivalent to that definition. This equivalence means that in principle one could have chosen the property as the “definition” and the definition as an equivalent property. To put that differently, suppose you are developing a piece of theory and have some word you want to define. To pick an imaginary example, suppose you have a notion of a set being “abundant”. Suppose that a set is defined to be abundant if it has property P, and that property P is equivalent to property Q. There may well not be much to choose between the following pair of alternatives. On the one hand you can say, “Definition: A set is abundant if it has property P,” and follow that with, “Proposition: A set is abundant if and only if it has property Q,” while on the other you can say, “Definition: A set is abundant if it has property Q,” and follow that with, “Proposition: A set is abundant if and only if it has property P.”


October 16, 2011

I don’t have too much to say about permutations, but there are two points that I have often found myself needing to get straight in supervisions. In fact, make that three. Here they are. [Added later: I have just finished the post, and it ended up being longer than I expected.]

1. The first is a confusion that some people have about what a permutation of \{1,2,\dots,n\} actually is. What could possibly be the trouble, you might ask? Well, let's take the permutation that in cycle notation is written (124). My guess is that a non-negligible percentage of people reading this have worried about whether this permutation means that you cycle round the elements 1, 2 and 4 of the set \{1,2,\dots,n\} or the elements in the places 1, 2 and 4.