In mathematics, the quaternion number system extends the complex numbers. Quaternions were first described by Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton in 1843[1][2] and applied to mechanics in three-dimensional space. Hamilton defined a quaternion as the quotient of two directed lines in a three-dimensional space,[3] or, equivalently, as the quotient of two vectors.[4] Multiplication of quaternions is noncommutative.

where a, b, c, and d are real numbers; and i, j, and k are the basic quaternions.

Quaternions are used in pure mathematics, but also have practical uses in applied mathematics, particularly for calculations involving three-dimensional rotations, such as in three-dimensional computer graphics, computer vision, and crystallographic texture analysis.[5] They can be used alongside other methods of rotation, such as Euler angles and rotation matrices, or as an alternative to them, depending on the application.

The unit quaternions can be thought of as a choice of a group structure on the 3-sphere S3 that gives the group Spin(3), which is isomorphic to SU(2) and also to the universal cover of SO(3).

Quaternions were introduced by Hamilton in 1843.[7] Important precursors to this work included Euler's four-square identity (1748) and Olinde Rodrigues' (1840), but neither of these writers treated the four-parameter rotations as an algebra.[8][9] Carl Friedrich Gauss had also discovered quaternions in 1819, but this work was not published until 1900.[10][11]

The great breakthrough in quaternions finally came on Monday 16 October 1843 in Dublin, when Hamilton was on his way to the Royal Irish Academy where he was going to preside at a council meeting. As he walked along the towpath of the Royal Canal with his wife, the concepts behind quaternions were taking shape in his mind. When the answer dawned on him, Hamilton could not resist the urge to carve the formula for the quaternions,

into the stone of Brougham Bridge as he paused on it. Although the carving has since faded away, there has been an annual pilgrimage since 1989 called the Hamilton Walk for scientists and mathematicians who walk from Dunsink Observatory to the Royal Canal bridge in remembrance of Hamilton's discovery.

On the following day, Hamilton wrote a letter to his friend and fellow mathematician, John T. Graves, describing the train of thought that led to his discovery. This letter was later published in a letter to the ;[12] Hamilton states:

And here there dawned on me the notion that we must admit, in some sense, a fourth dimension of space for the purpose of calculating with triples ... An electric circuit seemed to close, and a spark flashed forth.[12]

Hamilton called a quadruple with these rules of multiplication a quaternion, and he devoted most of the remainder of his life to studying and teaching them. Hamilton's treatment is more geometric than the modern approach, which emphasizes quaternions' algebraic properties. He founded a school of "quaternionists", and he tried to popularize quaternions in several books. The last and longest of his books, Elements of Quaternions,[13] was 800 pages long; it was edited by his son and published shortly after his death.

After Hamilton's death, his student Peter Tait continued promoting quaternions. At this time, quaternions were a mandatory examination topic in Dublin. Topics in physics and geometry that would now be described using vectors, such as kinematics in space and Maxwell's equations, were described entirely in terms of quaternions. There was even a professional research association, the Quaternion Society, devoted to the study of quaternions and other hypercomplex number systems.

From the mid-1880s, quaternions began to be displaced by vector analysis, which had been developed by Josiah Willard Gibbs, Oliver Heaviside, and Hermann von Helmholtz. Vector analysis described the same phenomena as quaternions, so it borrowed some ideas and terminology liberally from the literature on quaternions. However, vector analysis was conceptually simpler and notationally cleaner, and eventually quaternions were relegated to a minor role in mathematics and physics. A side-effect of this transition is that Hamilton's work is difficult to comprehend for many modern readers. Hamilton's original definitions are unfamiliar and his writing style was wordy and difficult to follow.

However, quaternions have had a revival since the late 20th century, primarily due to their utility in describing spatial rotations. The representations of rotations by quaternions are more compact and quicker to compute than the representations by matrices. In addition, unlike Euler angles, they are not susceptible to “gimbal lock”. For this reason, quaternions are used in computer graphics,[14][15] computer vision, robotics,[16] control theory, signal processing, attitude control, physics, bioinformatics,[17][18] molecular dynamics, computer simulations, and orbital mechanics. For example, it is common for the attitude control systems of spacecraft to be commanded in terms of quaternions. Quaternions have received another boost from number theory because of their relationships with the quadratic forms.[19]

P.R. Girard's 1984 essay The quaternion group and modern physics[20] discusses some roles of quaternions in physics. The essay shows how various physical covariance groups, namely SO(3), the Lorentz group, the general theory of relativity group, the Clifford algebra SU(2) and the conformal group, can easily be related to the quaternion group in modern algebra. Girard began by discussing group representations and by representing some space groups of crystallography. He proceeded to kinematics of rigid body motion. Next he used complex quaternions (biquaternions) to represent the Lorentz group of special relativity, including the Thomas precession. He cited five authors, beginning with Ludwik Silberstein, who used a potential function of one quaternion variable to express Maxwell's equations in a single differential equation. Concerning general relativity, he expressed the Runge–Lenz vector. He mentioned the Clifford biquaternions (split-biquaternions) as an instance of Clifford algebra. Finally, invoking the reciprocal of a biquaternion, Girard described conformal maps on spacetime. Among the fifty references, Girard included Alexander Macfarlane and his Bulletin of the Quaternion Society. In 1999 he showed how Einstein's equations of general relativity could be formulated within a Clifford algebra that is directly linked to quaternions.[21]

The finding of 1924 that in quantum mechanics the spin of an electron and other matter particles (known as spinors) can be described using quaternions furthered their interest; quaternions helped to understand how rotations of electrons by 360° can be discerned from those by 720° (the “Plate trick”).[22][23] As of 2018, their use has not overtaken rotation groups.[a]

where a, b, c, d, are real numbers, and i, j, k, are symbols that can be interpreted as unit-vectors pointing along the three spatial axes. In practice, if one of a, b, c, d is 0, the corresponding term is omitted; if a, b, c, d are all zero, the quaternion is the zero quaternion, denoted 0; if one of b, c, d equals 1, the corresponding term is written simply i, j, or k.

A multiplicative group structure, called the Hamilton product, denoted by juxtaposition, can be defined on the quaternions in the following way:

The multiplication with 1 of the basis elements i, j, and k is defined by the fact that 1 is a multiplicative identity, that is,

The center of a noncommutative ring is the subring of elements c such that cx = xc for every x. The center of the quaternion algebra is the subfield of real quaternions. In fact, it is a part of the definition that the real quaternions belong to the center. Conversely, if q = a + b i + c j + d k belongs to the center, then

and c = d = 0. A similar computation with j instead of i shows that one has also b = 0. Thus q = a is a real quaternion.

The quaternions form a division algebra. This means that the non-commutativity of multiplication is the only property that makes quaternions different from a field. This non-commutativity has some unexpected consequences, among them that a polynomial equation over the quaternions can have more distinct solutions than the degree of the polynomial. For example, the equation z2 + 1 = 0, has infinitely many quaternion solutions, which are the quaternions z = b i + c j + d k such that b2 + c2 + d2 = 1. Thus these "roots of –1" form a unit sphere in the three-dimensional space of vector quaternions.

For two elements a1 + b1i + c1j + d1k and a2 + b2i + c2j + d2k, their product, called the Hamilton product (a1 + b1i + c1j + d1k) (a2 + b2i + c2j + d2k), is determined by the products of the basis elements and the distributive law. The distributive law makes it possible to expand the product so that it is a sum of products of basis elements. This gives the following expression:

Now the basis elements can be multiplied using the rules given above to get:[7]

The product of two rotation quaternions[25] will be equivalent to the rotation a2 + b2i + c2j + d2k followed by the rotation a1 + b1i + c1j + d1k.

Hamilton also called vector quaternions right quaternions[27][28] and real numbers (considered as quaternions with zero vector part) scalar quaternions.

If a quaternion is divided up into a scalar part and a vector part, that is,

The conjugation of a quaternion, in stark contrast to the complex setting, can be expressed with multiplication and addition of quaternions:

Conjugation can be used to extract the scalar and vector parts of a quaternion. The scalar part of p is 1/2(p + p) , and the vector part of p is 1/2(pp) .

The square root of the product of a quaternion with its conjugate is called its norm and is denoted ||q|| (Hamilton called this quantity the tensor of q, but this conflicts with the modern meaning of "tensor"). In formulas, this is expressed as follows:

This is a special case of the fact that the norm is multiplicative, meaning that

for any two quaternions p and q. Multiplicativity is a consequence of the formula for the conjugate of a product. Alternatively it follows from the identity

(where i denotes the usual imaginary unit) and hence from the multiplicative property of determinants of square matrices.

This norm makes it possible to define the distance d(p, q) between p and q as the norm of their difference:

Continuity follows from taking a to zero in the limit. Continuity for multiplication holds similarly.

A unit quaternion is a quaternion of norm one. Dividing a non-zero quaternion q by its norm produces a unit quaternion Uq called the versor of q:

This makes it possible to divide two quaternions p and q in two different ways (when q is non-zero). That is, their quotient can be either p q−1 or q−1p ; in general, those products are different, depending on the order of multiplication, except for the special case that p and q are scalar multiples of each other (which includes the case where p = 0). Hence, the notation p/q is ambiguous because it does not specify whether q divides on the left or the right (whether  q−1 multiplies p on its left or its right).

This is equal to the scalar parts of the products pq, qp, pq, and qp. Note that their vector parts are different.

The cross product of p and q relative to the orientation determined by the ordered basis i, j, and k is

(Recall that the orientation is necessary to determine the sign.) This is equal to the vector part of the product pq (as quaternions), as well as the vector part of qp. It also has the formula

For the commutator, [p, q] = pqqp, of two vector quaternions one obtains

where ps and qs are the scalar parts, and pv and qv are the vector parts of p and q. Then we have the formula

This shows that the noncommutativity of quaternion multiplication comes from the multiplication of vector quaternions. It also shows that two quaternions commute if and only if their vector parts are collinear. Hamilton[31] showed that this product computes the third vertex of a spherical triangle from two given vertices and their associated arc-lengths, which is also an algebra of points in Elliptic geometry.

Using 2 × 2 complex matrices, the quaternion a + bi + cj + dk can be represented as

However, the representation of quaternions in M(4,ℝ) is not unique. For example, the same quaternion can also be represented as

There exist 48 distinct matrix representations of this form in which one of the matrices represents the scalar part and the other three are all skew-symmetric. More precisely, there are 48 sets of quadruples of matrices with these symmetry constraints such that a function sending 1, i, j, and k to the matrices in the quadruple is a homomorphism, that is, it sends sums and products of quaternions to sums and products of matrices.[34] In this representation, the conjugate of a quaternion corresponds to the transpose of the matrix. The fourth power of the norm of a quaternion is the determinant of the corresponding matrix. As with the 2 × 2 complex representation above, complex numbers can again be produced by constraining the coefficients suitably; for example, as block diagonal matrices with two 2 × 2 blocks by setting c = d = 0.

Each 4×4 matrix representation of quaternions corresponds to a multiplication table of unit quaternions. For example, the last matrix representation given above corresponds to the multiplication table

Constraining any such multiplication table to have the identity in the first row and column and for the signs of the row headers to be opposite to those of the column headers, then there are 3 possible choices for the second column (ignoring sign), 2 possible choices for the third column (ignoring sign), and 1 possible choice for the fourth column (ignoring sign); that makes 6 possibilities. Then, the second column can be chosen to be either positive or negative, the third column can be chosen to be positive or negative, and the fourth column can be chosen to be positive or negative, giving 8 possibilities for the sign. Multiplying the possibilities for the letter positions and for their signs yields 48. Then replacing 1 with a, i with b, j with c, and k with d and removing the row and column headers yields a matrix representation of a + b i + c j + d k .

Quaternions are also used in one of the proofs of Lagrange's four-square theorem in number theory, which states that every nonnegative integer is the sum of four integer squares. As well as being an elegant theorem in its own right, Lagrange's four square theorem has useful applications in areas of mathematics outside number theory, such as combinatorial design theory. The quaternion-based proof uses Hurwitz quaternions, a subring of the ring of all quaternions for which there is an analog of the Euclidean algorithm.

Quaternions can be represented as pairs of complex numbers. From this perspective, quaternions are the result of applying the Cayley–Dickson construction to the complex numbers. This is a generalization of the construction of the complex numbers as pairs of real numbers.

To satisfy the last three equations, either a = 0 or b, c, and d are all 0. The latter is impossible because a is a real number and the first equation would imply that a2 = −1. Therefore, a = 0 and b2 + c2 + d2 = 1. In other words: A quaternion squares to −1 if and only if it is a vector quaternion with norm 1. By definition, the set of all such vectors forms the unit sphere.

Only negative real quaternions have infinitely many square roots. All others have just two (or one in the case of 0).[citation needed][d]

Each pair of square roots of −1 creates a distinct copy of the complex numbers inside the quaternions. If q2 = −1, then the copy is determined by the function

Decompose the vector part further as the product of its norm and its versor:

The Julia sets and Mandelbrot sets can be extended to the Quaternions, but they must use cross sections to be rendered visually in 3 dimensions. This Julia set is cross sectioned at the x y plane.

Like functions of a complex variable, functions of a quaternion variable suggest useful physical models. For example, the original electric and magnetic fields described by Maxwell were functions of a quaternion variable. Examples of other functions include the extension of the Mandelbrot set and Julia sets into 4 dimensional space.[36]

It follows that the polar decomposition of a quaternion may be written

The power of a quaternion raised to an arbitrary (real) exponent x is given by:

The geodesic distance dg(p, q) between unit quaternions p and q is defined as:

and amounts to the absolute value of half the angle subtended by p and q along a great arc of the S3 sphere. This angle can also be computed from the quaternion dot product without the logarithm as:

The word "conjugation", besides the meaning given above, can also mean taking an element a to r a r−1 where r is some non-zero quaternion. All elements that are conjugate to a given element (in this sense of the word conjugate) have the same real part and the same norm of the vector part. (Thus the conjugate in the other sense is one of the conjugates in this sense.)

The set of all unit quaternions (versors) forms a 3-sphere S3 and a group (a Lie group) under multiplication, double covering the group SO(3,ℝ) of real orthogonal 3×3 matrices of determinant 1 since two unit quaternions correspond to every rotation under the above correspondence. See the plate trick.

The image of a subgroup of versors is a point group, and conversely, the preimage of a point group is a subgroup of versors. The preimage of a finite point group is called by the same name, with the prefix binary. For instance, the preimage of the icosahedral group is the binary icosahedral group.

The versors' group is isomorphic to SU(2), the group of complex unitary 2×2 matrices of determinant 1.

The Quaternions can be generalized into further algebras called quaternion algebras. Take F to be any field with characteristic different from 2, and a and b to be elements of F; a four-dimensional unitary associative algebra can be defined over F with basis 1, i, j, and i j, where i2 = a, j2 = b and i j = −j i (so (i j)2 = −a b).

Quaternion algebras are isomorphic to the algebra of 2×2 matrices over F or form division algebras over F, depending on the choice of a and b.

If these fundamental basis elements are taken to represent vectors in 3D space, then it turns out that the reflection of a vector r in a plane perpendicular to a unit vector w can be written:

Two reflections make a rotation by an angle twice the angle between the two reflection planes, so

corresponds to a rotation of 180° in the plane containing σ1 and σ2. This is very similar to the corresponding quaternion formula,

and it is straightforward to confirm that this preserves the Hamilton relations

In this picture, so-called "vector quaternions" (that is, pure imaginary quaternions) correspond not to vectors but to bivectors – quantities with magnitude and orientations associated with particular 2D planes rather than 1D directions. The relation to complex numbers becomes clearer, too: in 2D, with two vector directions σ1 and σ2, there is only one bivector basis element σ1σ2, so only one imaginary. But in 3D, with three vector directions, there are three bivector basis elements σ1σ2, σ2σ3, σ3σ1, so three imaginaries.

There are several advantages for placing quaternions in this wider setting:[40]

For further detail about the geometrical uses of Clifford algebras, see Geometric algebra.

The quaternions are "essentially" the only (non-trivial) central simple algebra (CSA) over the real numbers, in the sense that every CSA over the real numbers is Brauer equivalent to either the real numbers or the quaternions. Explicitly, the Brauer group of the real numbers consists of two classes, represented by the real numbers and the quaternions, where the Brauer group is the set of all CSAs, up to equivalence relation of one CSA being a matrix ring over another. By the Artin–Wedderburn theorem (specifically, Wedderburn's part), CSAs are all matrix algebras over a division algebra, and thus the quaternions are the only non-trivial division algebra over the real numbers.

CSAs – rings over a field, which are simple algebras (have no non-trivial 2-sided ideals, just as with fields) whose center is exactly the field – are a noncommutative analog of extension fields, and are more restrictive than general ring extensions. The fact that the quaternions are the only non-trivial CSA over the real numbers (up to equivalence) may be compared with the fact that the complex numbers are the only non-trivial field extension of the real numbers.

I regard it as an inelegance, or imperfection, in quaternions, or rather in the state to which it has been hitherto unfolded, whenever it becomes or seems to become necessary to have recourse to x, y, z, etc.

Time is said to have only one dimension, and space to have three dimensions. ... The mathematical quaternion partakes of both these elements; in technical language it may be said to be "time plus space", or "space plus time": and in this sense it has, or at least involves a reference to, four dimensions. .

And how the One of Time, of Space the Three, Might in the Chain of Symbols girdled be

Quaternions came from Hamilton after his really good work had been done; and, though beautifully ingenious, have been an unmixed evil to those who have touched them in any way, including Clerk Maxwell.

I came later to see that, as far as the vector analysis I required was concerned, the quaternion was not only not required, but was a positive evil of no inconsiderable magnitude; and that by its avoidance the establishment of vector analysis was made quite simple and its working also simplified, and that it could be conveniently harmonised with ordinary Cartesian work.

Neither matrices nor quaternions and ordinary vectors were banished from these ten [additional] chapters. For, in spite of the uncontested power of the modern Tensor Calculus, those older mathematical languages continue, in my opinion, to offer conspicuous advantages in the restricted field of special relativity. Moreover, in science as well as in everyday life, the mastery of more than one language is also precious, as it broadens our views, is conducive to criticism with regard to, and guards against hypostasy [weak-foundation] of, the matter expressed by words or mathematical symbols.

... quaternions appear to exude an air of nineteenth century decay, as a rather unsuccessful species in the struggle-for-life of mathematical ideas. Mathematicians, admittedly, still keep a warm place in their hearts for the remarkable algebraic properties of quaternions but, alas, such enthusiasm means little to the harder-headed physical scientist.