I told you that Image thing would reappear. Meanwhile I learned something about myself in writing this.
I want to talk about functions again. I’ve been keeping like a proper mathematician to a nice general idea of what a function is. The sort where a function’s this rule matching stuff in a set called the domain with stuff in a set called the range. And I’ve tried not to commit myself to saying anything about what that domain and range are. They could be numbers. They could be other functions. They could be the set of DVDs you own but haven’t watched in more than two years. They could be collections socks. Haven’t said.
But we know what functions anyone cares about. They’re stuff that have domains and ranges that are numbers. Preferably real numbers. Complex-valued numbers if we must. If we look at more exotic sets they’re ones that stick close to being numbers: vectors made up of an ordered set of numbers. Matrices of numbers. Functions that are themselves about numbers. Maybe we’ll get to something exotic like a rotation, but then what is a rotation but spinning something a certain number of degrees? There are a bunch of unavoidably common domains and ranges.
Fine, then. I’ll stick to functions with ranges that look enough like regular old numbers. By “enough” I mean they have a zero. That is, something that works like zero does. You know, add it to something else and that something else isn’t changed. That’s all I need.
A natural thing to wonder about a function — hold on. “Natural” is the wrong word. Something we learn to wonder about in functions, in pre-algebra class where they’re all polynomials, is where the zeroes are. They’re generally not at zero. Why would we say “zeroes” to mean “zero”? That could let non-mathematicians think they knew what we were on about. By the “zeroes” we mean the things in the domain that get matched to the zero in the range. It might be zero; no reason it couldn’t, until we know what the function’s rule is. Just we can’t count on that.
A polynomial we know has … well, it might have zero zeroes. Might have no zeroes. It might have one, or two, or so on. If it’s an n-th degree polynomial it can have up to n zeroes. And if it’s not a polynomial? Well, then it could have any conceivable number of zeroes and nobody is going to give you a nice little formula to say where they all are. It’s not that we’re being mean. It’s just that there isn’t a nice little formula that works for all possibilities. There aren’t even nice little formulas that work for all polynomials. You have to find zeroes by thinking about the problem. Sorry.
But! Suppose you have a collection of all the zeroes for your function. That’s all the points in the domain that match with zero in the range. Then we have a new name for the thing you have. And that’s the kernel of your function. It’s the biggest subset in the domain with an image that’s just the zero in the range.
So we have a name for the zeroes that isn’t just “the zeroes”. What does this get us?
If we don’t know anything about the kind of function we have, not much. If the function belongs to some common kinds of functions, though, it tells us stuff.
For example. Suppose the function has domain and range that are vectors. And that the function is linear, which is to say, easy to deal with. Let me call the function ‘f’. And let me pick out two things in the domain. I’ll call them ‘x’ and ‘y’ because I’m writing this after Thanksgiving dinner and can’t work up a cleverer name for anything. If f is linear then f(x + y) is the same thing as f(x) + f(y). And now something magic happens. If x and y are both in the kernel, then x + y has to be in the kernel too. Think about it. Meanwhile, if x is in the kernel but y isn’t, then f(x + y) is f(y). Again think about it.
What we can see is that the domain fractures into two directions. One of them, the direction of the kernel, is invisible to the function. You can move however much you like in that direction and f can’t see it. The other direction, perpendicular (“orthogonal”, we say in the trade) to the kernel, is visible. Everything that might change changes in that direction.
This idea threads through vector spaces, and we study a lot of things that turn out to look like vector spaces. It keeps surprising us by letting us solve problems, or find the best-possible approximate solutions. This kernel gives us room to match some fiddly conditions without breaking the real solution. The size of the null space alone can tell us whether some problems are solvable, or whether they’ll have infinitely large sets of solutions.
In this vector-space construct the kernel often takes on another name, the “null space”. This means the same thing. But it reminds us that superhero comics writers miss out on many excellent pieces of terminology by not taking advanced courses in mathematics.
Kernels also appear in group theory, whenever we get into rings. We’re always working with rings. They’re nearly as unavoidable as vector spaces.
You know how you can divide the whole numbers into odd and even? And you can do some neat tricks with that for some problems? You can do that with every ring, using the kernel as a dividing point. This gives us information about how the ring is shaped, and what other structures might look like the ring. This often lets us turn proofs that might be hard into a collection of proofs on individual cases that are, at least, doable. Tricks about odd and even numbers become, in trained hands, subtle proofs of surprising results.
We see vector spaces and rings all over the place in mathematics. Some of that’s selection bias. Vector spaces capture a lot of what’s important about geometry. Rings capture a lot of what’s important about arithmetic. We have understandings of geometry and arithmetic that transcend even our species. Raccoons understand space. Crows understand number. When we look to do mathematics we look for patterns we understand, and these are major patterns we understand. And there are kernels that matter to each of them.
Some mathematical ideas inspire metaphors to me. Kernels are one. Kernels feel to me like the process of holding a polarized lens up to a crystal. This lets one see how the crystal is put together. I realize writing this down that my metaphor is unclear: is the kernel the lens or the structure seen in the crystal? I suppose the function has to be the lens, with the kernel the crystallization planes made clear under it. It’s curious I had enjoyed this feeling about kernels and functions for so long without making it precise. Feelings about mathematical structures can be like that.