Orientation (vector space)

The left-handed orientation is shown on the left, and the right-handed on the right.

In mathematics, orientation is a geometric notion that in two dimensions allows one to say when a cycle goes around clockwise or counterclockwise, and in three dimensions when a figure is left-handed or right-handed. In linear algebra, the notion of orientation makes sense in arbitrary finite dimension. In this setting, the orientation of an ordered basis is a kind of asymmetry that makes a reflection impossible to replicate by means of a simple rotation. Thus, in three dimensions, it is impossible to make the left hand of a human figure into the right hand of the figure by applying a rotation alone, but it is possible to do so by reflecting the figure in a mirror. As a result, in the three-dimensional Euclidean space, the two possible basis orientations are called right-handed and left-handed (or right-chiral and left-chiral).

The orientation on a real vector space is the arbitrary choice of which ordered bases are "positively" oriented and which are "negatively" oriented. In the three-dimensional Euclidean space, right-handed bases are typically declared to be positively oriented, but the choice is arbitrary, as they may also be assigned a negative orientation. A vector space with an orientation selected is called an oriented vector space, while one not having an orientation selected, is called unoriented.

Let V be a finite-dimensional real vector space and let b1 and b2 be two ordered bases for V. It is a standard result in linear algebra that there exists a unique linear transformation A : VV that takes b1 to b2. The bases b1 and b2 are said to have the same orientation (or be consistently oriented) if A has positive determinant; otherwise they have opposite orientations. The property of having the same orientation defines an equivalence relation on the set of all ordered bases for V. If V is non-zero, there are precisely two equivalence classes determined by this relation. An orientation on V is an assignment of +1 to one equivalence class and −1 to the other.[1]

Every ordered basis lives in one equivalence class or another. Thus any choice of a privileged ordered basis for V determines an orientation: the orientation class of the privileged basis is declared to be positive.

For example, the standard basis on Rn provides a standard orientation on Rn (in turn, the orientation of the standard basis depends on the orientation of the Cartesian coordinate system on which it is built). Any choice of a linear isomorphism between V and Rn will then provide an orientation on V.

The ordering of elements in a basis is crucial. Two bases with a different ordering will differ by some permutation. They will have the same/opposite orientations according to whether the signature of this permutation is ±1. This is because the determinant of a permutation matrix is equal to the signature of the associated permutation.

Similarly, let A be a nonsingular linear mapping of vector space Rn to Rn. This mapping is orientation-preserving if its determinant is positive.[2] For instance, in R3 a rotation around the Z Cartesian axis by an angle α is orientation-preserving:

while a reflection by the XY Cartesian plane is not orientation-preserving:

It is therefore possible to orient a point in two different ways, positive and negative.

The one-dimensional case deals with a line which may be traversed in one of two directions. There are two orientations to a line just as there are two orientations to a circle. In the case of a line segment (a connected subset of a line), the two possible orientations result in directed line segments. An orientable surface sometimes has the selected orientation indicated by the orientation of a line perpendicular to the surface.

Let B be the set of all ordered bases for V. Then the general linear group GL(V) acts freely and transitively on B. (In fancy language, B is a GL(V)-torsor). This means that as a manifold, B is (noncanonically) homeomorphic to GL(V). Note that the group GL(V) is not connected, but rather has two connected components according to whether the determinant of the transformation is positive or negative (except for GL0, which is the trivial group and thus has a single connected component; this corresponds to the canonical orientation on a zero-dimensional vector space). The identity component of GL(V) is denoted GL+(V) and consists of those transformations with positive determinant. The action of GL+(V) on B is not transitive: there are two orbits which correspond to the connected components of B. These orbits are precisely the equivalence classes referred to above. Since B does not have a distinguished element (i.e. a privileged basis) there is no natural choice of which component is positive. Contrast this with GL(V) which does have a privileged component: the component of the identity. A specific choice of homeomorphism between B and GL(V) is equivalent to a choice of a privileged basis and therefore determines an orientation.

The various objects of geometric algebra are charged with three attributes or features: attitude, orientation, and magnitude.[4] For example, a vector has an attitude given by a straight line parallel to it, an orientation given by its sense (often indicated by an arrowhead) and a magnitude given by its length. Similarly, a bivector in three dimensions has an attitude given by the family of planes associated with it (possibly specified by the normal line common to these planes [5]), an orientation (sometimes denoted by a curved arrow in the plane) indicating a choice of sense of traversal of its boundary (its circulation), and a magnitude given by the area of the parallelogram defined by its two vectors.[6]

The orientation of a volume may be determined by the orientation on its boundary, indicated by the circulating arrows.

Each point p on an n-dimensional differentiable manifold has a tangent space TpM which is an n-dimensional real vector space. Each of these vector spaces can be assigned an orientation. Some orientations "vary smoothly" from point to point. Due to certain topological restrictions, this is not always possible. A manifold that admits a smooth choice of orientations for its tangent spaces is said to be orientable.