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After a couple years of living out of suitcases, we recently sold our house in Pasadena, and bought a new one in Hyde Park. All our junk was shipped to us, and the boxes we didn’t feel like unpacking are all sitting around in the attic, where the kids have been spending a lot of time this summer. Every so often they root through some box and uncover some archaeological treasure; so it was that I found Lisa and Anna the other day, mucking around with a Rubik’s cube. They had persisted with it, and even managed to get the first layer done.

I remember seeing my first cube some time in early 1980; my Dad brought one home from work. He said I could have a play with it if I was careful not to scramble it (of course, I scrambled it). After a couple of hours of frustration trying to restore the initial state, I gave up and went to bed. In the morning the cube had been solved – I remember being pretty impressed with Dad for this (later he admitted that he had just taken the pieces out of their sockets). Within a year, Rubik’s cube fever had taken over – my Mum bought me a little book explaining how to solve the cube, and I memorized a small list of moves. I remember taking part in an “under 10” cube-solving competition; in the heat of the moment, I panicked and got stuck with only two layers done (since there were only two competitors, I came second anyway, and won a prize: a vinyl single of the Barron Knights performing “Mr. Rubik”). The solution in the book was a procedure for completing the cube layer by layer, by judiciously applying in order some sequence of operations, each of which had a precise effect on only a small number of cubelets, leaving the others untouched. In retrospect I find it a bit surprising – in view of how much effort I put into memorizing sequences, reproducing patterns (from the book), and trying to improve my speed – that I never had the curiosity to wonder how someone had come up with this list of “magic” operations in the first place. At the time it seemed a baffling mystery, and I wouldn’t have known where to get started to come up with such moves on my own. So the appearance of my kids playing with a cube 33 years later is the perfect opportunity for me to go back and work out a solution from first principles.

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The purpose of this blog post is to try to give some insight into the “meaning” of the Hall-Witt identity in group theory. This identity can look quite mysterious in its algebraic form, but there are several ways of describing it geometrically which are more natural and easier to understand.

If G is a group, and a,b are elements of G, the commutator of a and b (denoted [a,b]) is the expression aba^{-1}b^{-1} (note: algebraists tend to use the convention that [a,b]=a^{-1}b^{-1}ab instead). Commutators (as their name suggests) measure the failure of a pair of elements to commute, in the sense that ab=[a,b]ba. Since [a,b]^c = [a^c,b^c], the property of being a commutator is invariant under conjugation (here the superscript c means conjugation by c; i.e. a^c:=cac^{-1}; again, the algebraists use the opposite convention).

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