A Leap Day 2016 Mathematics A To Z: Orthonormal

Jacob Kanev had requested “orthogonal” for this glossary. I’d be happy to oblige. But I used the word in last summer’s Mathematics A To Z. And I admit I’m tempted to just reprint that essay, since it would save some needed time. But I can do something more.


“Orthogonal” is another word for “perpendicular”. Mathematicians use it for reasons I’m not precisely sure of. My belief is that it’s because “perpendicular” sounds like we’re talking about directions. And we want to extend the idea to things that aren’t necessarily directions. As majors, mathematicians learn orthogonality for vectors, things pointing in different directions. Then we extend it to other ideas. To functions, particularly, but we can also define it for spaces and for other stuff.

I was vague, last summer, about how we do that. We do it by creating a function called the “inner product”. That takes in two of whatever things we’re measuring and gives us a real number. If the inner product of two things is zero, then the two things are orthogonal.

The first example mathematics majors learn of this, before they even hear the words “inner product”, are dot products. These are for vectors, ordered sets of numbers. The dot product we find by matching up numbers in the corresponding slots for the two vectors, multiplying them together, and then adding up the products. For example. Give me the vector with values (1, 2, 3), and the other vector with values (-6, 5, -4). The inner product will be 1 times -6 (which is -6) plus 2 times 5 (which is 10) plus 3 times -4 (which is -12). So that’s -6 + 10 – 12 or -8.

So those vectors aren’t orthogonal. But how about the vectors (1, -1, 0) and (0, 0, 1)? Their dot product is 1 times 0 (which is 0) plus -1 times 0 (which is 0) plus 0 times 1 (which is 0). The vectors are perpendicular. And if you tried drawing this you’d see, yeah, they are. The first vector we’d draw as being inside a flat plane, and the second vector as pointing up, through that plane, like a thumbtack.

So that’s orthogonal. What about this orthonormal stuff?

Well … the inner product can tell us something besides orthogonality. What happens if we take the inner product of a vector with itself? Say, (1, 2, 3) with itself? That’s going to be 1 times 1 (which is 1) plus 2 times 2 (4, according to rumor) plus 3 times 3 (which is 9). That’s 14, a tidy sum, although, so what?

The inner product of (-6, 5, -4) with itself? Oh, that’s some ugly numbers. Let’s skip it. How about the inner product of (1, -1, 0) with itself? That’ll be 1 times 1 (which is 1) plus -1 times -1 (which is positive 1) plus 0 times 0 (which is 0). That adds up to 2. And now, wait a minute. This might be something.

Start from somewhere. Move 1 unit to the east. (Don’t care what the unit is. Inches, kilometers, astronomical units, anything.) Then move -1 units to the north, or like normal people would say, 1 unit o the south. How far are you from the starting point? … Well, you’re the square root of 2 units away.

Now imagine starting from somewhere and moving 1 unit east, and then 2 units north, and then 3 units straight up, because you found a convenient elevator. How far are you from the starting point? This may take a moment of fiddling around with the Pythagorean theorem. But you’re the square root of 14 units away.

And what the heck, (0, 0, 1). The inner product of that with itself is 0 times 0 (which is zero) plus 0 times 0 (still zero) plus 1 times 1 (which is 1). That adds up to 1. And, yeah, if we go one unit straight up, we’re one unit away from where we started.

The inner product of a vector with itself gives us the square of the vector’s length. At least if we aren’t using some freak definition of inner products and lengths and vectors. And this is great! It means we can talk about the length — maybe better to say the size — of things that maybe don’t have obvious sizes.

Some stuff will have convenient sizes. For example, they’ll have size 1. The vector (0, 0, 1) was one such. So is (1, 0, 0). And you can think of another example easily. Yes, it’s \left(\frac{1}{\sqrt{2}}, -\frac{1}{2}, \frac{1}{2}\right) . (Go ahead, check!)

So by “orthonormal” we mean a collection of things that are orthogonal to each other, and that themselves are all of size 1. It’s a description of both what things are by themselves and how they relate to one another. A thing can’t be orthonormal by itself, for the same reason a line can’t be perpendicular to nothing in particular. But a pair of things might be orthogonal, and they might be the right length to be orthonormal too.

Why do this? Well, the same reasons we always do this. We can impose something like direction onto a problem. We might be able to break up a problem into simpler problems, one in each direction. We might at least be able to simplify the ways different directions are entangled. We might be able to write a problem’s solution as the sum of solutions to a standard set of representative simple problems. This one turns up all the time. And an orthogonal set of something is often a really good choice of a standard set of representative problems.

This sort of thing turns up a lot when solving differential equations. And those often turn up when we want to describe things that happen in the real world. So a good number of mathematicians develop a habit of looking for orthonormal sets.