In mathematics, a group is a set equipped with an operation that combines any two elements to form a third element while being associative as well as having an identity element and inverse elements. These three conditions, called group axioms, hold for number systems and many other mathematical structures. For example, the integers together with the addition operation form a group. The formulation of the axioms is, however, detached from the concrete nature of the group and its operation. This allows one to handle entities of very different mathematical origins in a flexible way, while retaining essential structural aspects of many objects in abstract algebra and beyond. The ubiquity of groups in numerous areas—both within and outside mathematics—makes them a central organizing principle of contemporary mathematics.
Groups share a fundamental kinship with the notion of symmetry. For example, a symmetry group encodes symmetry features of a geometrical object: the group consists of the set of transformations that leave the object unchanged and the operation of combining two such transformations by performing one after the other. Lie groups arise as symmetry groups in geometry but appear also in the Standard Model of particle physics. The Poincaré group is a Lie group consisting of the symmetries of spacetime in special relativity. Point groups describe symmetry in molecular chemistry.
The concept of a group arose from the study of polynomial equations, starting with Évariste Galois in the 1830s, who introduced the term of group (groupe, in French) for the symmetry group of the roots of an equation, now called a Galois group. After contributions from other fields such as number theory and geometry, the group notion was generalized and firmly established around 1870. Modern group theory—an active mathematical discipline—studies groups in their own right. To explore groups, mathematicians have devised various notions to break groups into smaller, better-understandable pieces, such as subgroups, quotient groups and simple groups. In addition to their abstract properties, group theorists also study the different ways in which a group can be expressed concretely, both from a point of view of representation theory (that is, through the representations of the group) and of computational group theory. A theory has been developed for finite groups, which culminated with the classification of finite simple groups, completed in 2004. Since the mid-1980s, geometric group theory, which studies finitely generated groups as geometric objects, has become an active area in group theory.
Formally, the group is the ordered pair of a set and a binary operation on this set that satisfies the group axioms. The set is called the underlying set of the group, and the operation is called the group operation or the group law.
A group and its underlying set are thus two different mathematical objects. To avoid cumbersome notation, it is common to abuse notation by using the same symbol to denote both. This reflects also an informal way of thinking: that the group is the same as the set except that it has been enriched by additional structure provided by the operation.
Two figures in the plane are congruent if one can be changed into the other using a combination of rotations, reflections, and translations. Any figure is congruent to itself. However, some figures are congruent to themselves in more than one way, and these extra congruences are called symmetries. A square has eight symmetries. These are:
Given this set of symmetries and the described operation, the group axioms can be understood as follows.
Geometry was a second field in which groups were used systematically, especially symmetry groups as part of Felix Klein's 1872 Erlangen program. After novel geometries such as hyperbolic and projective geometry had emerged, Klein used group theory to organize them in a more coherent way. Further advancing these ideas, Sophus Lie founded the study of Lie groups in 1884.
The third field contributing to group theory was number theory. Certain abelian group structures had been used implicitly in Carl Friedrich Gauss' number-theoretical work Disquisitiones Arithmeticae (1798), and more explicitly by Leopold Kronecker. In 1847, Ernst Kummer made early attempts to prove Fermat's Last Theorem by developing groups describing factorization into prime numbers.
The convergence of these various sources into a uniform theory of groups started with Camille Jordan's Traité des substitutions et des équations algébriques (1870). Walther von Dyck (1882) introduced the idea of specifying a group by means of generators and relations, and was also the first to give an axiomatic definition of an "abstract group", in the terminology of the time. As of the 20th century, groups gained wide recognition by the pioneering work of Ferdinand Georg Frobenius and William Burnside, who worked on representation theory of finite groups, Richard Brauer's modular representation theory and Issai Schur's papers. The theory of Lie groups, and more generally locally compact groups was studied by Hermann Weyl, Élie Cartan and many others. Its algebraic counterpart, the theory of algebraic groups, was first shaped by Claude Chevalley (from the late 1930s) and later by the work of Armand Borel and Jacques Tits.
The University of Chicago's 1960–61 Group Theory Year brought together group theorists such as Daniel Gorenstein, John G. Thompson and Walter Feit, laying the foundation of a collaboration that, with input from numerous other mathematicians, led to the classification of finite simple groups, with the final step taken by Aschbacher and Smith in 2004. This project exceeded previous mathematical endeavours by its sheer size, in both length of proof and number of researchers. Research concerning this classification proof is ongoing. These days, group theory is still a highly active mathematical branch,[b] impacting many other fields, as the examples below illustrate.
Basic facts about all groups that can be obtained directly from the group axioms are commonly subsumed under elementary group theory. For example, repeated applications of the associativity axiom show that the unambiguity of
Individual axioms may be "weakened" to assert only the existence of a left identity and left inverses. From these one-sided axioms, one can prove that the left identity is also a right identity and a left inverse is also a right inverse for the same element. Since they define exactly the same structures as groups, collectively the axioms are no weaker.
When studying sets, one uses concepts such as subset, function, and quotient by an equivalence relation. When studying groups, one instead subgroups, homomorphisms, and quotient groups. These are the appropriate analogues that take into account the existence of the group structure.[c]
In some situations the set of cosets of a subgroup can be endowed with a group law, giving a quotient group or factor group. For this to be possible, the subgroup has to be normal. Given any normal subgroup N, the quotient group is defined by
Groups are also applied in many other mathematical areas. Mathematical objects are often examined by associating groups to them and studying the properties of the corresponding groups. For example, Henri Poincaré founded what is now called algebraic topology by introducing the fundamental group. By means of this connection, topological properties such as proximity and continuity translate into properties of groups.[h] For example, elements of the fundamental group are represented by loops. The second image shows some loops in a plane minus a point. The blue loop is considered null-homotopic (and thus irrelevant), because it can be continuously shrunk to a point. The presence of the hole prevents the orange loop from being shrunk to a point. The fundamental group of the plane with a point deleted turns out to be infinite cyclic, generated by the orange loop (or any other loop winding once around the hole). This way, the fundamental group detects the hole.
In more recent applications, the influence has also been reversed to motivate geometric constructions by a group-theoretical background.[i] In a similar vein, geometric group theory employs geometric concepts, for example in the study of hyperbolic groups. Further branches crucially applying groups include algebraic geometry and number theory.
In addition to the above theoretical applications, many practical applications of groups exist. Cryptography relies on the combination of the abstract group theory approach together with algorithmical knowledge obtained in computational group theory, in particular when implemented for finite groups. Applications of group theory are not restricted to mathematics; sciences such as physics, chemistry and computer science benefit from the concept.
Many number systems, such as the integers and the rationals enjoy a naturally given group structure. In some cases, such as with the rationals, both addition and multiplication operations give rise to group structures. Such number systems are predecessors to more general algebraic structures known as rings and fields. Further abstract algebraic concepts such as modules, vector spaces and algebras also form groups.
The desire for the existence of multiplicative inverses suggests considering fractions
The study of finitely generated abelian groups is quite mature, including the ; and reflecting this state of affairs, many group-related notions, such as center and commutator, describe the extent to which a given group is not abelian.
Symmetry groups are groups consisting of symmetries of given mathematical objects, principally geometric entities, such as the symmetry group of the square given as an introductory example above, although they also arise in algebra such as the symmetries among the roots of polynomial equations dealt with in Galois theory (see below). Conceptually, group theory can be thought of as the study of symmetry.[q] Symmetries in mathematics greatly simplify the study of geometrical or analytical objects. A group is said to act on another mathematical object X if every group element can be associated to some operation on X and the composition of these operations follows the group law. For example, an element of the (2,3,7) triangle group acts on a triangular tiling of the hyperbolic plane by permuting the triangles. By a group action, the group pattern is connected to the structure of the object being acted on.
In chemical fields, such as crystallography, space groups and point groups describe molecular symmetries and crystal symmetries. These symmetries underlie the chemical and physical behavior of these systems, and group theory enables simplification of quantum mechanical analysis of these properties. For example, group theory is used to show that optical transitions between certain quantum levels cannot occur simply because of the symmetry of the states involved.
Not only are groups useful to assess the implications of symmetries in molecules, but surprisingly they also predict that molecules sometimes can change symmetry. The Jahn–Teller effect is a distortion of a molecule of high symmetry when it adopts a particular ground state of lower symmetry from a set of possible ground states that are related to each other by the symmetry operations of the molecule.
Likewise, group theory helps predict the changes in physical properties that occur when a material undergoes a phase transition, for example, from a cubic to a tetrahedral crystalline form. An example is ferroelectric materials, where the change from a paraelectric to a ferroelectric state occurs at the Curie temperature and is related to a change from the high-symmetry paraelectric state to the lower symmetry ferroelectric state, accompanied by a so-called soft phonon mode, a vibrational lattice mode that goes to zero frequency at the transition.
Finite symmetry groups such as the Mathieu groups are used in coding theory, which is in turn applied in error correction of transmitted data, and in CD players. Another application is differential Galois theory, which characterizes functions having antiderivatives of a prescribed form, giving group-theoretic criteria for when solutions of certain differential equations are well-behaved.[r] Geometric properties that remain stable under group actions are investigated in (geometric) invariant theory.
A group action gives further means to study the object being acted on.[t] On the other hand, it also yields information about the group. Group representations are an organizing principle in the theory of finite groups, Lie groups, algebraic groups and topological groups, especially (locally) compact groups.
Modern Galois theory generalizes the above type of Galois groups by shifting to field theory and considering field extensions formed as the splitting field of a polynomial. This theory establishes—via the fundamental theorem of Galois theory—a precise relationship between fields and groups, underlining once again the ubiquity of groups in mathematics.
This way of defining groups lends itself to generalizations such as the notion of a group objects in a category. Briefly this is an object (that is, examples of another mathematical structure) which comes with transformations (called morphisms) that mimic the group axioms.
A Lie group is a group that also has the structure of a differentiable manifold; informally, this means that it looks locally like a Euclidean space of some fixed dimension. Again, the definition requires the additional structure, here the manifold structure, to be compatible: the multiplication and inverse maps are required to be smooth.
Lie groups are of fundamental importance in modern physics: Noether's theorem links continuous symmetries to conserved quantities. Rotation, as well as translations in space and time are basic symmetries of the laws of mechanics. They can, for instance, be used to construct simple models—imposing, say, axial symmetry on a situation will typically lead to significant simplification in the equations one needs to solve to provide a physical description.[x] Another example is the group of Lorentz transformations, which relate measurements of time and velocity of two observers in motion relative to each other. They can be deduced in a purely group-theoretical way, by expressing the transformations as a rotational symmetry of Minkowski space. The latter serves—in the absence of significant gravitation—as a model of spacetime in special relativity. The full symmetry group of Minkowski space, i.e., including translations, is known as the Poincaré group. By the above, it plays a pivotal role in special relativity and, by implication, for quantum field theories. Symmetries that vary with location are central to the modern description of physical interactions with the help of gauge theory. An important example of a gauge theory is the Standard Model, which describes three of the four known fundamental forces and classifies all known elementary particles.