A Leap Day 2016 Mathematics A To Z: Quaternion

I’ve got another request from Gaurish today. And it’s a word I had been thinking to do anyway. When one looks for mathematical terms starting with ‘q’ this is one that stands out. I’m a little surprised I didn’t do it for last summer’s A To Z. But here it is at last:


I remember the seizing of my imagination the summer I learned imaginary numbers. If we could define a number i, so that i-squared equalled negative 1, and work out arithmetic which made sense out of that, why not do it again? Complex-valued numbers are great. Why not something more? Maybe we could also have some other non-real number. I reached deep into my imagination and picked j as its name. It could be something else. Maybe the logarithm of -1. Maybe the square root of i. Maybe something else. And maybe we could build arithmetic with a whole second other non-real number.

My hopes of this brilliant idea petered out over the summer. It’s easy to imagine a super-complex number, something that’s “1 + 2i + 3j”. And it’s easy to work out adding two super-complex numbers like this together. But multiplying them together? What should i times j be? I couldn’t solve the problem. Also I learned that we didn’t need another number to be the logarithm of -1. It would be π times i. (Or some other numbers. There’s some surprising stuff in logarithms of negative or of complex-valued numbers.) We also don’t need something special to be the square root of i, either. \frac{1}{2}\sqrt{2} + \frac{1}{2}\sqrt{2}\imath will do. (So will another number.) So I shelved the project.

Even if I hadn’t given up, I wouldn’t have invented something. Not along those lines. Finer minds had done the same work and had found a way to do it. The most famous of these is the quaternions. It has a famous discovery. Sir William Rowan Hamilton — the namesake of “Hamiltonian mechanics”, so you already know what a fantastic mind he was — had a flash of insight that’s come down in the folklore and romance of mathematical history. He had the idea on the 16th of October, 1843, while walking with his wife along the Royal Canal, in Dublin, Ireland. While walking across the bridge he saw what was missing. It seems he lacked pencil and paper. He carved it into the bridge:

i^2 = j^2 = k^2 = ijk = -1

The bridge now has a plaque commemorating the moment. You can’t make a sensible system with two non-real numbers. But three? Three works.

And they are a mysterious three! i, j, and k are somehow not the same number. But each of them, multiplied by themselves, gives us -1. And the product of the three is -1. They are even more mysterious. To work sensibly, i times j can’t be the same thing as j times i. Instead, i times j equals minus j times i. And j times k equals minus k times j. And k times i equals minus i times k. We must give up commutivity, the idea that the order in which we multiply things doesn’t matter.

But if we’re willing to accept that the order matters, then quaternions are well-behaved things. We can add and subtract them just as we would think to do if we didn’t know they were strange constructs. If we keep the funny rules about the products of i and j and k straight, then we can multiply them as easily as we multiply polynomials together. We can even divide them. We can do all the things we do with real numbers, only with these odd sets of four real numbers.

The way they look, that pattern of 1 + 2i + 3j + 4k, makes them look a lot like vectors. And we can use them like vectors pointing to stuff in three-dimensional space. It’s not quite a comfortable fit, though. That plain old real number at the start of things seems like it ought to signify something, but it doesn’t. In practice, it doesn’t give us anything that regular old vectors don’t. And vectors allow us to ponder not just three- or maybe four-dimensional spaces, but as many as we need. You might wonder why we need more than four dimensions, even allowing for time. It’s because if we want to track a lot of interacting things, it’s surprisingly useful to put them all into one big vector in a very high-dimension space. It’s hard to draw, but the mathematics is nice. Hamiltonian mechanics, particularly, almost beg for it.

That’s not to call them useless, or even a niche interest. They do some things fantastically well. One of them is rotations. We can represent rotating a point around an arbitrary axis by an arbitrary angle as the multiplication of quaternions. There are many ways to calculate rotations. But if we need to do three-dimensional rotations this is a great one because it’s easy to understand and easier to program. And as you’d imagine, being able to calculate what rotations do is useful in all sorts of applications.

They’ve got good uses in number theory too, as they correspond well to the different ways to solve problems, often polynomials. They’re also popular in group theory. They might be the simplest rings that work like arithmetic but that don’t commute. So they can serve as ways to learn properties of more exotic ring structures.

Knowing of these marvelous exotic creatures of the deep mathematics your imagination might be fired. Can we do this again? Can we make something with, say, four unreal numbers? No, no we can’t. Four won’t work. Nor will five. If we keep going, though, we do hit upon success with seven unreal numbers.

This is a set called the octonions. Hamilton had barely worked out the scheme for quaternions when John T Graves, a friend of his at least up through the 16th of December, 1843, wrote of this new scheme. (Graves didn’t publish before Arthur Cayley did. Cayley’s one of those unspeakably prolific 19th century mathematicians. He has at least 967 papers to his credit. And he was a lawyer doing mathematics on the side for about 250 of those papers. This depresses every mathematician who ponders it these days.)

But where quaternions are peculiar, octonions are really peculiar. Let me call a couple quaternions p, q, and r. p times q might not be the same thing as q times r. But p times the product of q and r will be the same thing as the product of p and q itself times r. This we call associativity. Octonions don’t have that. Let me call a couple quaternions s, t, and u. s times the product of t times u may be either positive or negative the product of s and t times u. (It depends.)

Octonions have some neat mathematical properties. But I don’t know of any general uses for them that are as catchy as understanding rotations. Not rotations in the three-dimensional world, anyway.

Yes, yes, we can go farther still. There’s a construct called “sedenions”, which have fifteen non-real numbers on them. That’s 16 terms in each number. Where octonions are peculiar, sedenions are really peculiar. They work even less like regular old numbers than octonions do. With octonions, at least, when you multiply s by the product of s and t, you get the same number as you would multiplying s by s and then multiplying that by t. Sedenions don’t even offer that shred of normality. Besides being a way to learn about abstract algebra structures I don’t know what they’re used for.

I also don’t know of further exotic terms along this line. It would seem to fit a pattern if there’s some 32-term construct that we can define something like multiplication for. But it would presumably be even less like regular multiplication than sedenion multiplication is. If you want to fiddle about with that please do enjoy yourself. I’d be interested to hear if you turn up anything, but I don’t expect it’ll revolutionize the way I look at numbers. Sorry. But the discovery might be the fun part anyway.