Representation theory of SU(2)

In the study of the representation theory of Lie groups, the study of representations of SU(2) is fundamental to the study of representations of semisimple Lie groups. It is the first case of a Lie group that is both a compact group and a non-abelian group. The first condition implies the representation theory is discrete: representations are direct sums of a collection of basic irreducible representations (governed by the Peter–Weyl theorem). The second means that there will be irreducible representations in dimensions greater than 1.

SU(2) is the universal covering group of SO(3), and so its representation theory includes that of the latter, by dint of a surjective homomorphism to it. This underlies the significance of SU(2) for the description of non-relativistic spin in theoretical physics; see below for other physical and historical context.

The associated Lie algebra representation is simply the one described in the previous section. (See here for an explicit formula for the action of the Lie algebra on the space of polynomials.)

Characters plays an important role in the representation theory of compact groups. The character is easily seen to be a class function, that is, invariant under conjugation.

This expression is a finite geometric series that can be simplified to

This last expression is just the statement of the Weyl character formula for the SU(2) case.

Actually, following Weyl's original analysis of the representation theory of compact groups, one can classify the representations entirely from the group perspective, without using Lie algebra representations at all. In this approach, the Weyl character formula plays an essential part in the classification, along with the Peter–Weyl theorem. The SU(2) case of this story is described here.

Representations of SU(2) describe non-relativistic spin, due to being a double covering of the rotation group of Euclidean 3-space. Relativistic spin is described by the representation theory of SL2(C), a supergroup of SU(2), which in a similar way covers SO+(1;3), the relativistic version of the rotation group. SU(2) symmetry also supports concepts of isobaric spin and weak isospin, collectively known as isospin.