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Abstract algebra

Related subjects: Mathematics

Background Information

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Abstract algebra is the subject area of mathematics that studies algebraic structures, such as groups, rings, fields, modules, vector spaces, and algebras. Most authors nowadays simply write algebra instead of abstract algebra.

The term abstract algebra now refers to the study of all algebraic structures, as distinct from the elementary algebra ordinarily taught to children, which teaches the correct rules for manipulating formulas and algebraic expressions involving real and complex numbers, and unknowns. Elementary algebra can be taken as an informal introduction to the structures known as the real field and commutative algebra.

Contemporary mathematics and mathematical physics make intensive use of abstract algebra; for example, theoretical physics draws on Lie algebras. Subject areas such as algebraic number theory, algebraic topology, and algebraic geometry apply algebraic methods to other areas of mathematics. Representation theory, roughly speaking, takes the 'abstract' out of 'abstract algebra', studying the concrete side of a given structure; see model theory.

Two mathematical subject areas that study the properties of algebraic structures viewed as a whole are universal algebra and category theory. Algebraic structures, together with the associated homomorphisms, form categories. Category theory is a powerful formalism for studying and comparing different algebraic structures.

History and examples

As in other parts of mathematics, concrete problems and examples have played important roles in evolution of algebra. Through the end of the nineteenth century many, perhaps most, of these problems were in some way related to the theory of algebraic equations. Among major themes we can mention:

  • solving of systems of linear equations, which led to matrices, determinants and linear algebra.
  • attempts to find formulas for solutions of general polynomial equations of higher degree that resulted in discovery of groups as abstract manifestations of symmetry;
  • and arithmetical investigations of quadratic and higher degree forms and diophantine equations, notably, in proving Fermat's last theorem, that directly produced the notions of a ring and ideal.

Numerous textbooks in abstract algebra start with axiomatic definitions of various algebraic structures and then proceed to establish their properties, creating a false impression that somehow in algebra axioms had come first and then served as a motivation and as a basis of further study. The true order of historical development was almost exactly the opposite. Most theories that we now recognize as parts of algebra started as collections of disparate facts from various branches of mathematics, acquired a common theme that served as a core around which various results were grouped, and finally became unified on a basis of a common set of concepts. An archetypical example of this evolution can be seen in the theory of groups.

Early group theory

There were several threads in the early development of group theory, in modern language loosely corresponding to number theory, theory of equations, and geometry, of which we concentrate on the first two.

Leonhard Euler considered algebraic operations on numbers modulo an integer, modular arithmetic, proving his generalization of Fermat's little theorem. These investigations were taken much further by Carl Friedrich Gauss, who considered the structure of multiplicative groups of residues mod n and established many properties of cyclic and more general abelian groups that arise in this way. In his investigations of composition of binary quadratic forms, Gauss explicitly stated the associative law for the composition of forms, but like Euler before him, he seems to have been more interested in concrete results than in general theory. In 1870, Leopold Kronecker gave a definition of an abelian group in the context of ideal class groups of a number field, a far-reaching generalization of Gauss's work. It appears that he did not tie it with previous work on groups, in particular, permutation groups. In 1882 considering the same question, Heinrich Weber realized the connection and gave a similar definition that involved the cancellation property but omitted the existence of the inverse element, which was sufficient in his context (finite groups).

Permutations were studied by Joseph Lagrange in his 1770 paper Réflexions sur la résolution algébrique des équations devoted to solutions of algebraic equations, in which he introduced Lagrange resolvents. Lagrange's goal was to understand why equations of third and fourth degree admit formulas for solutions, and he identified as key objects permutations of the roots. An important novel step taken by Lagrange in this paper was the abstract view of the roots, i.e. as symbols and not as numbers. However, he did not consider composition of permutations. Serendipitously, the first edition of Edward Waring's Meditationes Algebraicae appeared in the same year, with an expanded version published in 1782. Waring proved the main theorem on symmetric functions, and specially considered the relation between the roots of a quartic equation and its resolvent cubic. Mémoire sur la résolution des équations of Alexandre Vandermonde (1771) developed the theory of symmetric functions from a slightly different angle, but like Lagrange, with the goal of understanding solvability of algebraic equations.

Kronecker claimed in 1888 that the study of modern algebra began with this first paper of Vandermonde. Cauchy states quite clearly that Vandermonde had priority over Lagrange for this remarkable idea which eventually led to the study of group theory.

Paolo Ruffini was the first person to develop the theory of permutation groups, and like his predecessors, also in the context of solving algebraic equations. His goal was to establish impossibility of algebraic solution to a general algebraic equation of degree greater than four. En route to this goal he introduced the notion of the order of an element of a group, conjugacy, the cycle decomposition of elements of permutation groups and the notions of primitive and imprimitive and proved some important theorems relating these concepts, such as

if G is a subgroup of S5 whose order is divisible by 5 then G contains an element of order 5.

Note, however, that he got by without formalizing the concept of a group, or even of a permutation group. The next step was taken by Évariste Galois in 1832, although his work remained unpublished until 1846, when he considered for the first time what we now call the closure property of a group of permutations, which he expressed as

... if in such a group one has the substitutions S and T then one has the substitution ST.

The theory of permutation groups received further far-reaching development in the hands of Augustin Cauchy and Camille Jordan, both through introduction of new concepts and, primarily, a great wealth of results about special classes of permutation groups and even some general theorems. Among other things, Jordan defined a notion of isomorphism, still in the context of permutation groups and, incidentally, it was he who put the term group in wide use.

The abstract notion of a group appeared for the first time in Arthur Cayley's papers in 1854. Cayley realized that a group need not be a permutation group (or even finite), and may instead consist of matrices, whose algebraic properties, such as multiplication and inverses, he systematically investigated in succeeding years. Much later Cayley would revisit the question whether abstract groups were more general than permutation groups, and establish that, in fact, any group is isomorphic to a group of permutations.

Modern algebra

The end of 19th and the beginning of the 20th century saw a tremendous shift in methodology of mathematics. No longer satisfied with establishing properties of concrete objects, mathematicians started to turn their attention to general theory. For example, results about various groups of permutations came to be seen as instances of general theorems that concern a general notion of an abstract group. Questions of structure and classification of various mathematical objects came to forefront. These processes were occurring throughout all of mathematics, but became especially pronounced in algebra. Formal definition through primitive operations and axioms were proposed for many basic algebraic structures, such as groups, rings, and fields. The algebraic investigations of general fields by Ernst Steinitz and of commutative and then general rings by David Hilbert, Emil Artin and Emmy Noether, building up on the work of Ernst Kummer, Leopold Kronecker and Richard Dedekind, who had considered ideals in commutative rings, and of Georg Frobenius and Issai Schur, concerning representation theory of groups, came to define abstract algebra. These developments of the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of 20th century were systematically exposed in Bartel van der Waerden's Moderne algebra, the two-volume monograph published in 1930–1931 that forever changed for the mathematical world the meaning of the word algebra from the theory of equations to the theory of algebraic structures.

An example

Abstract algebra facilitates the study of properties and patterns that seemingly disparate mathematical concepts have in common. For example, consider the distinct operations of function composition, f(g(x)), and of matrix multiplication, AB. These two operations have, in fact, the same structure. To see this, think about multiplying two square matrices, AB, by a one column vector, x. This defines a function equivalent to composing Ay with Bx: Ay = A(Bx) = (AB)x. Functions under composition and matrices under multiplication are examples of monoids. A set S and a binary operation over S, denoted by concatenation, form a monoid if the operation associates, (ab)c = a(bc), and if there exists an eS, such that ae = ea = a.

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