Group Theory for Wellness I

(Part of Math and Wellness Month.)

Groups! A group is a set with an associative binary operation such that there exists an identity element and inverse elements! And my favorite thing about groups is that all the time that you spend thinking about groups, is time that you're not thinking about pain, betrayal, politics, or moral uncertainty!

Groups have subgroups, which you can totally guess just from the name are subsets of the group that themselves satisfy the group axioms!

The order of a finite group is its number of elements, but this is not to be confused with the order of an element of a group, which is the smallest integer such that the element raised to that power equals the identity! Both senses of "order" are indicated with vertical bars like an absolute value (|G|, |a|).

Lagrange proved that the order of a subgroup divides the order of the group of which it is a subgroup! History remains ignorant of how often Lagrange cried.

To show that a nonempty subset H of a group is in fact a subgroup, it suffices to show that if x, yH, then xy⁻¹ ∈ H.

Exercise #6 in §2.1 of Dummit and Foote Abstract Algebra (3rd ed'n) asks us to prove that if G is a commutative ("abelian") group, then the torsion subgroup {gG | |g| < ∞} is in fact a subgroup. I argue as follows: we need to show that if x and y have finite order, then so does xy⁻¹, that is, that (xy⁻¹)^n equals the identity. But (xy⁻¹)^n equals (xy⁻¹)(xy⁻¹)...(xy⁻¹), "n times"—that is, pretend n ≥ 3, and pretend that instead of "..." I wrote zero or more extra copies of "(xy⁻¹)" so that the expression has n factors. (I usually dislike it when authors use ellipsis notation, which feels so icky and informal compared to a nice Π or Σ, but let me have this one.) Because group operations are associative, we can drop the parens to get xy⁻¹ xy⁻¹ ... xy⁻¹. And because we said the group was commutative, we can reörder the factors to get xxx...y⁻¹y⁻¹y⁻¹, and then we can consolidate into powers to get x^n y^(−n)—but that's the identity if n is the least common multiple of |x| and |y|, which means that xy⁻¹ has finite order, which is what I've been trying to tell you this entire time.

The True Secret About Conjugate Roots and Field Automorphisms

In the study of the elementary algebra, one occasionally hears of the conjugate roots theorem, which says that if z0 is a root of a polynomial with real coefficients, then its complex conjugate is also a root. Or if you prefer, nonreal roots come in conjugate pairs. It also works in the other direction: if nonreal roots of a polynomial come in conjugate pairs, then the polynomial has real coefficients, because the purely imaginary parts cancel when you do the algebra: (x – (a + bi))(x – (abi)) = x2x(a + bi) – x(abi) + (a2 – (bi)2) = x2 – 2ax + a2 + b2.

There's also this idea that conjugation is the unique nontrivial "well-behaved" automorphism on ℂ, a map from ℂ to itself that respects addition and multiplication: the sum (respectively product) of the conjugates is the conjugate of the sum (respectively product). The complex numbers are symmetrical around the real axis in a way that they're not around the imaginary axis: while i and –i are different from each other, you can't "tell which is which" because they behave the same way. Contrast to 1 and –1, which do behave differently: if someone put either 1 or –1 in a box, but they wouldn't tell you which, but they were willing to tell you that "The number in the box squares to itself," then you could figure out that the number in the box was 1, because –1 doesn't do that.

The existence of these two ideas (the conjugate roots theorem and conjugation-as-automorphism) can't possibly be a coincidence; there must be some sense in which nonreal roots of real-coefficient polynomials come in conjugate pairs because the polynomial "can't tell" "which is which". But it would be unsatisfying to just say this much and nothing more ("Theorem: That can't possibly be a coincidence. Proof ...??"); we want to say something much more general and precise. And in fact, we can—

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