In mathematics, an isomorphism is a structure-preserving mapping between two structures of the same type that can be reversed by an inverse mapping. Two mathematical structures are isomorphic if an isomorphism exists between them. The word isomorphism is derived from the Ancient Greek: ἴσος isos "equal", and μορφή morphe "form" or "shape".
The interest in isomorphisms lies in the fact that two isomorphic objects have the same properties (excluding further information such as additional structure or names of objects). Thus isomorphic structures cannot be distinguished from the point of view of structure only, and may be identified. In mathematical jargon, one says that two objects are the same up to an isomorphism.
An automorphism is an isomorphism from a structure to itself. An isomorphism between two structures is a canonical isomorphism (a canonical map that is an isomorphism) if there is only one isomorphism between the two structures (as it is the case for solutions of a universal property), or if the isomorphism is much more natural (in some sense) than other isomorphisms. For example, for every prime number p, all fields with p elements are canonically isomorphic, with a unique isomorphism. The isomorphism theorems provide canonical isomorphisms that are not unique.
In various areas of mathematics, isomorphisms have received specialized names, depending on the type of structure under consideration. For example:
Category theory, which can be viewed as a formalization of the concept of mapping between structures, provides a language that may be used to unify the approach to these different aspects of the basic idea.
These structures are isomorphic under addition, under the following scheme:
S is reflexive, irreflexive, symmetric, antisymmetric, asymmetric, transitive, total, trichotomous, a partial order, total order, well-order, strict weak order, total preorder (weak order), an equivalence relation, or a relation with any other special properties, if and only if R is.
Just as the automorphisms of an algebraic structure form a group, the isomorphisms between two algebras sharing a common structure form a heap. Letting a particular isomorphism identify the two structures turns this heap into a group.
In mathematical analysis, an isomorphism between two Hilbert spaces is a bijection preserving addition, scalar multiplication, and inner product.
In early theories of logical atomism, the formal relationship between facts and true propositions was theorized by Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein to be isomorphic. An example of this line of thinking can be found in Russell's Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy.
In cybernetics, the good regulator or Conant–Ashby theorem is stated "Every good regulator of a system must be a model of that system". Whether regulated or self-regulating, an isomorphism is required between the regulator and processing parts of the system.
In a concrete category (that is, a category whose objects are sets (perhaps with extra structure) and whose morphisms are structure-preserving functions), such as the category of topological spaces or categories of algebraic objects (like the category of groups, the category of rings, and the category of modules), an isomorphism must be bijective on the underlying sets. In algebraic categories (specifically, categories of varieties in the sense of universal algebra), an isomorphism is the same as a homomorphism which is bijective on underlying sets. However, there are concrete categories in which bijective morphisms are not necessarily isomorphisms (such as the category of topological spaces).
In certain areas of mathematics, notably category theory, it is valuable to distinguish between equality on the one hand and isomorphism on the other. Equality is when two objects are exactly the same, and everything that is true about one object is true about the other, while an isomorphism implies everything that is true about a designated part of one object's structure is true about the other's. For example, the sets
and no one isomorphism is intrinsically better than any other.[note 1][note 2] On this view and in this sense, these two sets are not equal because one cannot consider them identical: one can choose an isomorphism between them, but that is a weaker claim than identity—and valid only in the context of the chosen isomorphism.
Sometimes the isomorphisms can seem obvious and compelling, but are still not equalities. As a simple example, the genealogical relationships among Joe, John, and Bobby Kennedy are, in a real sense, the same as those among the American football quarterbacks in the Manning family: Archie, Peyton, and Eli. The father-son pairings and the elder-brother-younger-brother pairings correspond perfectly. That similarity between the two family structures illustrates the origin of the word isomorphism (Greek iso-, "same", and -morph, "form" or "shape"). But because the Kennedys are not the same people as the Mannings, the two genealogical structures are merely isomorphic and not equal.
However, there is a case where the distinction between natural isomorphism and equality is usually not made. That is for the objects that may be characterized by a universal property. In fact, there is a unique isomorphism, necessarily natural, between two objects sharing the same universal property. A typical example is the set of real numbers, which may be defined through infinite decimal expansion, infinite binary expansion, Cauchy sequences, Dedekind cuts and many other ways. Formally, these constructions define different objects which are all solutions with the same universal property. As these objects have exactly the same properties, one may forget the method of construction and consider them as equal. This is what everybody does when referring to "the set of the real numbers". The same occurs with quotient spaces: they are commonly constructed as sets of equivalence classes. However, referring to a set of sets may be counterintuitive, and so quotient spaces are commonly considered as a pair of a set of undetermined objects, often called "points", and a surjective map onto this set.
Generally, saying that two objects are equal is reserved for when there is a notion of a larger (ambient) space that these objects live in. Most often, one speaks of equality of two subsets of a given set (as in the integer set example above), but not of two objects abstractly presented. For example, the 2-dimensional unit sphere in 3-dimensional space