Orthonormality

In linear algebra, two vectors in an inner product space are orthonormal if they are orthogonal (or perpendicular along a line) unit vectors. A set of vectors form an orthonormal set if all vectors in the set are mutually orthogonal and all of unit length. An orthonormal set which forms a basis is called an orthonormal basis.

The construction of orthogonality of vectors is motivated by a desire to extend the intuitive notion of perpendicular vectors to higher-dimensional spaces. In the Cartesian plane, two vectors are said to be perpendicular if the angle between them is 90° (i.e. if they form a right angle). This definition can be formalized in Cartesian space by defining the dot product and specifying that two vectors in the plane are orthogonal if their dot product is zero.

Similarly, the construction of the norm of a vector is motivated by a desire to extend the intuitive notion of the length of a vector to higher-dimensional spaces. In Cartesian space, the norm of a vector is the square root of the vector dotted with itself. That is,

Many important results in linear algebra deal with collections of two or more orthogonal vectors. But often, it is easier to deal with vectors of unit length. That is, it often simplifies things to only consider vectors whose norm equals 1. The notion of restricting orthogonal pairs of vectors to only those of unit length is important enough to be given a special name. Two vectors which are orthogonal and of length 1 are said to be orthonormal.

What does a pair of orthonormal vectors in 2-D Euclidean space look like?

Let u = (x1, y1) and v = (x2, y2). Consider the restrictions on x1, x2, y1, y2 required to make u and v form an orthonormal pair.

It is clear that in the plane, orthonormal vectors are simply radii of the unit circle whose difference in angles equal to 90°.

Orthonormal sets are not especially significant on their own. However, they display certain features that make them fundamental in exploring the notion of diagonalizability of certain operators on vector spaces.

Orthonormal sets have certain very appealing properties, which make them particularly easy to work with.

Proof of the Gram-Schmidt theorem is constructive, and discussed at length elsewhere. The Gram-Schmidt theorem, together with the axiom of choice, guarantees that every vector space admits an orthonormal basis. This is possibly the most significant use of orthonormality, as this fact permits operators on inner-product spaces to be discussed in terms of their action on the space's orthonormal basis vectors. What results is a deep relationship between the diagonalizability of an operator and how it acts on the orthonormal basis vectors. This relationship is characterized by the Spectral Theorem.

The Fourier series is a method of expressing a periodic function in terms of sinusoidal basis functions. Taking C[−π,π] to be the space of all real-valued functions continuous on the interval [−π,π] and taking the inner product to be

However, this is of little consequence, because C[−π,π] is infinite-dimensional, and a finite set of vectors cannot span it. But, removing the restriction that n be finite makes the set dense in C[−π,π] and therefore an orthonormal basis of C[−π,π].