A lattice is an abstract structure studied in the mathematical subdisciplines of order theory and abstract algebra. It consists of a partially ordered set in which every two elements have a unique supremum (also called a least upper bound or join) and a unique infimum (also called a greatest lower bound or meet). An example is given by the natural numbers, partially ordered by divisibility, for which the unique supremum is the least common multiple and the unique infimum is the greatest common divisor.
Lattices can also be characterized as algebraic structures satisfying certain axiomatic identities. Since the two definitions are equivalent, lattice theory draws on both order theory and universal algebra. Semilattices include lattices, which in turn include Heyting and Boolean algebras. These lattice-like structures all admit order-theoretic as well as algebraic descriptions.
It follows by an induction argument that every non-empty finite subset of a lattice has a least upper bound and a greatest lower bound. With additional assumptions, further conclusions may be possible; see Completeness (order theory) for more discussion of this subject. That article also discusses how one may rephrase the above definition in terms of the existence of suitable Galois connections between related partially ordered sets—an approach of special interest for the category theoretic approach to lattices, and for formal concept analysis.
The following two identities are also usually regarded as axioms, even though they follow from the two absorption laws taken together.[note 2] Those are called idempotent laws.
Lattices have some connections to the family of group-like algebraic structures. Because meet and join both commute and associate, a lattice can be viewed as consisting of two commutative semigroups having the same domain. For a bounded lattice, these semigroups are in fact commutative monoids. The absorption law is the only defining identity that is peculiar to lattice theory.
The algebraic interpretation of lattices plays an essential role in universal algebra.
Since the two definitions of a lattice are equivalent, one may freely invoke aspects of either definition in any way that suits the purpose at hand.
Further examples of lattices are given for each of the additional properties discussed below.
Most partially ordered sets are not lattices, including the following.
In the order-theoretic formulation, these conditions just state that a homomorphism of lattices is a function preserving binary meets and joins. For bounded lattices, preservation of least and greatest elements is just preservation of join and meet of the empty set.
Any homomorphism of lattices is necessarily monotone with respect to the associated ordering relation; see Limit preserving function. The converse is not true: monotonicity by no means implies the required preservation of meets and joins (see Pic. 9), although an order-preserving bijection is a homomorphism if its inverse is also order-preserving.
Given the standard definition of isomorphisms as invertible morphisms, a lattice isomorphism is just a bijective lattice homomorphism. Similarly, a lattice endomorphism is a lattice homomorphism from a lattice to itself, and a lattice automorphism is a bijective lattice endomorphism. Lattices and their homomorphisms form a category.
We now introduce a number of important properties that lead to interesting special classes of lattices. One, boundedness, has already been discussed.
A poset is called a complete lattice if all its subsets have both a join and a meet. In particular, every complete lattice is a bounded lattice. While bounded lattice homomorphisms in general preserve only finite joins and meets, complete lattice homomorphisms are required to preserve arbitrary joins and meets.
Every poset that is a complete semilattice is also a complete lattice. Related to this result is the interesting phenomenon that there are various competing notions of homomorphism for this class of posets, depending on whether they are seen as complete lattices, complete join-semilattices, complete meet-semilattices, or as join-complete or meet-complete lattices.
Note that "partial lattice" is not the opposite of "complete lattice" – rather, "partial lattice", "lattice", and "complete lattice" are increasingly restrictive definitions.
A lattice that satisfies the first or, equivalently (as it turns out), the second axiom, is called a distributive lattice. The only non-distributive lattices with fewer than 6 elements are called M3 and N5; they are shown in Pictures 10 and 11, respectively. A lattice is distributive if and only if it doesn't have a sublattice isomorphic to M3 or N5. Each distributive lattice is isomorphic to a lattice of sets (with union and intersection as join and meet, respectively).
For an overview of stronger notions of distributivity that are appropriate for complete lattices and that are used to define more special classes of lattices such as frames and completely distributive lattices, see distributivity in order theory.
Another equivalent (for graded lattices) condition is Birkhoff's condition:
In domain theory, it is natural to seek to approximate the elements in a partial order by "much simpler" elements. This leads to the class of continuous posets, consisting of posets where every element can be obtained as the supremum of a directed set of elements that are way-below the element. If one can additionally restrict these to the compact elements of a poset for obtaining these directed sets, then the poset is even algebraic. Both concepts can be applied to lattices as follows:
Both of these classes have interesting properties. For example, continuous lattices can be characterized as algebraic structures (with infinitary operations) satisfying certain identities. While such a characterization is not known for algebraic lattices, they can be described "syntactically" via Scott information systems.
The notions of ideals and the dual notion of filters refer to particular kinds of subsets of a partially ordered set, and are therefore important for lattice theory. Details can be found in the respective entries.
Note that in many applications the sets are only partial lattices: not every pair of elements has a meet or join.
Elementary texts recommended for those with limited mathematical maturity:
The standard contemporary introductory text, somewhat harder than the above: