 Number system for a prime p which extends the rationals, defining closeness differently
The 3-adic integers, with selected corresponding characters on their Pontryagin dual group

In mathematics, the p-adic number system for any prime number p extends the ordinary arithmetic of the rational numbers in a different way from the extension of the rational number system to the real and complex number systems. The extension is achieved by an alternative interpretation of the concept of "closeness" or absolute value. In particular, two p-adic numbers are considered to be close when their difference is divisible by a high power of p: the higher the power, the closer they are. This property enables p-adic numbers to encode congruence information in a way that turns out to have powerful applications in number theory – including, for example, in the famous proof of Fermat's Last Theorem by Andrew Wiles.

These numbers were first described by Kurt Hensel in 1897, though, with hindsight, some of Ernst Kummer's earlier work can be interpreted as implicitly using p-adic numbers.[note 1] The p-adic numbers were motivated primarily by an attempt to bring the ideas and techniques of power series methods into number theory. Their influence now extends far beyond this. For example, the field of p-adic analysis essentially provides an alternative form of calculus.

More formally, for a given prime p, the field Qp of p-adic numbers is a completion of the rational numbers. The field Qp is also given a topology derived from a metric, which is itself derived from the p-adic order, an alternative valuation on the rational numbers. This metric space is complete in the sense that every Cauchy sequence converges to a point in Qp. This is what allows the development of calculus on Qp, and it is the interaction of this analytic and algebraic structure that gives the p-adic number systems their power and utility.

The p in "p-adic" is a variable and may be replaced with a prime (yielding, for instance, "the 2-adic numbers") or another expression representing a prime number. The "adic" of "p-adic" comes from the ending found in words such as dyadic or triadic.

The decimal expansion of a positive rational number r is its representation as a series

The p-adic expansion of a rational number is a series that converges to the rational number, if one applies the definition of a convergent series with the p-adic absolute value. In the standard p-adic notation, the digits are written in the same order as in a standard base-p system, namely with the powers of the base increasing to the left. This means that the production of the digits is reversed and the limit happens on the left hand side.

In this article, given a prime number p, a p-adic series is a formal series of the form

Two p-adic series are equivalent if they have the same order k, and if for every integer nk the difference between their partial sums

In other words, the equivalence of p-adic series is an equivalence relation, and each equivalence class contains exactly one normalized p-adic series.

It is possible to use a positional notation similar to that which is used to represent numbers in base p.

There are several equivalent definitions of p-adic numbers. The one that is given here is relatively elementary, since it does not involve any other mathematical concept than those introduced in the preceding sections. Other equivalent definitions use completion of a discrete valuation ring (see § p-adic integers), completion of a metric space (see § Topological properties), or inverse limits (see § Modular properties).

A p-adic number can be defined as a normalized p-adic series. Since there are other equivalent definitions that are commonly used, one says often that a normalized p-adic series represents a p-adic number, instead of saying that it is a p-adic number.

One can say also that any p-adic series represents a p-adic number, since every p-adic series is equivalent to a unique normalized p-adic series. This is useful for defining operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division) of p-adic numbers: the result of such an operation is obtained by normalizing the result of the corresponding operation on series. This well defines operations on p-adic numbers, since the series operations are compatible with equivalence of p-adic series.

The last property provides a definition of the p-adic numbers that is equivalent to the above one: the field of the p-adic numbers is the field of fractions of the completion of the localization of the integers at the prime ideal generated by p.

As a metric space, the p-adic numbers form the completion of the rational numbers equipped with the p-adic absolute value. This provides another way for defining the p-adic numbers. However, the general construction of a completion can be simplified in this case, because the metric is defined by a discrete valuation (in short, one can extract from every Cauchy sequence a subsequence such that the differences between two consecutive terms have strictly decreasing absolute values; such a subsequence is the sequence of the partial sums of a p-adic series, and thus a unique normalized p-adic series can be associated to every equivalence class of Cauchy sequences; so, for building the completion, it suffices to consider normalized p-adic series instead of equivalence classes of Cauchy sequences).

This definition of p-adic integers is specially useful for practical computations, as allowing building p-adic integers by successive approximations.

There are several different conventions for writing p-adic expansions. So far this article has used a notation for p-adic expansions in which powers of p increase from right to left. With this right-to-left notation the 3-adic expansion of 15, for example, is written as

When performing arithmetic in this notation, digits are carried to the left. It is also possible to write p-adic expansions so that the powers of p increase from left to right, and digits are carried to the right. With this left-to-right notation the 3-adic expansion of 15 is

In fact any set of p integers which are in distinct residue classes modulo p may be used as p-adic digits. In number theory, Teichmüller representatives are sometimes used as digits.

Quote notation is a variant of the p-adic representation of rational numbers that was proposed in 1979 by Eric Hehner and Nigel Horspool for implementing on computers the (exact) arithmetic with these numbers.

Because 0 can be written as sum of squares, Qp cannot be turned into an ordered field.

Cp and C are isomorphic as rings, so we may regard Cp as C endowed with an exotic metric. The proof of existence of such a field isomorphism relies on the axiom of choice, and does not provide an explicit example of such an isomorphism (that is, it is not constructive).

Qp contains the n-th cyclotomic field (n > 2) if and only if n | p − 1. For instance, the n-th cyclotomic field is a subfield of Q13 if and only if n = 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, or 12. In particular, there is no multiplicative p-torsion in Qp, if p > 2. Also, −1 is the only non-trivial torsion element in Q2.

Helmut Hasse's local–global principle is said to hold for an equation if it can be solved over the rational numbers if and only if it can be solved over the real numbers and over the p-adic numbers for every prime p. This principle holds, for example, for equations given by quadratic forms, but fails for higher polynomials in several indeterminates.

The reals and the p-adic numbers are the completions of the rationals; it is also possible to complete other fields, for instance general algebraic number fields, in an analogous way. This will be described now.

Suppose D is a Dedekind domain and E is its field of fractions. Pick a non-zero prime ideal P of D. If x is a non-zero element of E, then xD is a fractional ideal and can be uniquely factored as a product of positive and negative powers of non-zero prime ideals of D. We write ordP(x) for the exponent of P in this factorization, and for any choice of number c greater than 1 we can set

Completing with respect to this absolute value |.|P yields a field EP, the proper generalization of the field of p-adic numbers to this setting. The choice of c does not change the completion (different choices yield the same concept of Cauchy sequence, so the same completion). It is convenient, when the residue field D/P is finite, to take for c the size of D/P.

For example, when E is a number field, Ostrowski's theorem says that every non-trivial non-Archimedean absolute value on E arises as some |.|P. The remaining non-trivial absolute values on E arise from the different embeddings of E into the real or complex numbers. (In fact, the non-Archimedean absolute values can be considered as simply the different embeddings of E into the fields Cp, thus putting the description of all the non-trivial absolute values of a number field on a common footing.)

Often, one needs to simultaneously keep track of all the above-mentioned completions when E is a number field (or more generally a global field), which are seen as encoding "local" information. This is accomplished by adele rings and idele groups.