My All 2020 Mathematics A to Z: Zero Divisor


Jacob Siehler had several suggestions for this last of the A-to-Z essays for 2020. Zorn’s Lemma was an obvious choice. It’s got an important place in set theory, it’s got some neat and weird implications. It’s got a great name. The zero divisor is one of those technical things mathematics majors have deal with. It never gets any pop-mathematics attention. I picked the less-travelled road and found a delightful scenic spot.

Color cartoon illustration of a coati in a beret and neckerchief, holding up a director's megaphone and looking over the Hollywood hills. The megaphone has the symbols + x (division obelus) and = on it. The Hollywood sign is, instead, the letters MATHEMATICS. In the background are spotlights, with several of them crossing so as to make the letters A and Z; one leg of the spotlights has 'TO' in it, so the art reads out, subtly, 'Mathematics A to Z'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Zero Divisor.

3 times 4 is 12. That’s a clear, unambiguous, and easily-agreed-upon arithmetic statement. The thing to wonder is what kind of mathematics it takes to mess that up. The answer is algebra. Not the high school kind, with x’s and quadratic formulas and all. The college kind, with group theory and rings.

A ring is a mathematical construct that lets you do a bit of arithmetic. Something that looks like arithmetic, anyway. It has a set of elements.  (An element is just a thing in a set.  We say “element” because it feels weird to call it “thing” all the time.) The ring has an addition operation. The ring has a multiplication operation. Addition has an identity element, something you can add to any element without changing the original element. We can call that ‘0’. The integers, or to use the lingo Z , are a ring (among other things).

Among the rings you learn, after the integers, is the integers modulo … something. This can be modulo any counting number. The integers modulo 10, for example, we write as Z_{10} for short. There are different ways to think of what this means. The one convenient for this essay is that it’s the integers 0, 1, 2, up through 9. And that the result of any calculation is “how much more than a whole multiple of 10 this calculation would otherwise be”. So then 3 times 4 is now 2. 3 times 5 is 5; 3 times 6 is 8. 3 times 7 is 1, and doesn’t that seem peculiar? That’s part of how modulo arithmetic warns us that groups and rings can be quite strange things.

We can do modulo arithmetic with any of the counting numbers. Look, for example, at Z_{5} instead. In the integers modulo 5, 3 times 4 is … 2. This doesn’t seem to get us anything new. How about Z_{8} ? In this, 3 times 4 is 4. That’s interesting. It doesn’t make 3 the multiplicative identity for this ring. 3 times 3 is 1, for example. But you’d never see something like that for regular arithmetic.

How about Z_{12} ? Now we have 3 times 4 equalling 0. And that’s a dramatic break from how regular numbers work. One thing we know about regular numbers is that if a times b is 0, then either a is 0, or b is zero, or they’re both 0. We rely on this so much in high school algebra. It’s what lets us pick out roots of polynomials. Now? Now we can’t count on that.

When this does happen, when one thing times another equals zero, we have “zero divisors”. These are anything in your ring that can multiply by something else to give 0. Is zero, the additive identity, always a zero divisor? … That depends on what the textbook you first learned algebra from said. To avoid ambiguity, you can write a “nonzero zero divisor”. This clarifies your intentions and slows down your copy editing every time you read “nonzero zero”. Or call it a “nontrivial zero divisor” or “proper zero divisor” instead. My preference is to accept 0 as always being a zero divisor. We can disagree on this. What of zero divisors other than zero?

Your ring might or might not have them. It depends on the ring. The ring of integers Z , for example, doesn’t have any zero divisors except for 0. The ring of integers modulo 12 Z_{12} , though? Anything that isn’t relatively prime to 12 is a zero divisor. So, 2, 3, 6, 8, 9, and 10 are zero divisors here. The ring of integers modulo 13 Z_{13} ? That doesn’t have any zero divisors, other than zero itself. In fact any ring of integers modulo a prime number, Z_{p} , lacks zero divisors besides 0.

Focusing too much on integers modulo something makes zero divisors sound like some curious shadow of prime numbers. There are some similarities. Whether a number is prime depends on your multiplication rule and what set of things it’s in. Being a zero divisor in one ring doesn’t directly relate to whether something’s a zero divisor in any other. Knowing what the zero divisors are tells you something about the structure of the ring.

It’s hard to resist focusing on integers-modulo-something when learning rings. They work very much like regular arithmetic does. Even the strange thing about them, that every result is from a finite set of digits, isn’t too alien. We do something quite like it when we observe that three hours after 10:00 is 1:00. But many sets of elements can create rings. Square matrixes are the obvious extension. Matrixes are grids of elements, each of which … well, they’re most often going to be numbers. Maybe integers, or real numbers, or complex numbers. They can be more abstract things, like rotations or whatnot, but they’re hard to typeset. It’s easy to find zero divisors in matrixes of numbers. Imagine, like, a matrix that’s all zeroes except for one element, somewhere. There are a lot of matrices which, multiplied by that, will be a zero matrix, one with nothing but zeroes in it. Another common kind of ring is the polynomials. For these you need some constraint like the polynomial coefficients being integers-modulo-something. You can make that work.

In 1988 Istvan Beck tried to establish a link between graph theory and ring theory. We now have a usable standard definition of one. If R is any ring, then \Gamma(R) is the zero-divisor graph of R . (I know some of you think R is the real numbers. No; that’s a bold-faced \mathbb{R} instead. Unless that’s too much bother to typeset.) You make the graph by putting in a vertex for the elements in R . You connect two vertices a and b if the product of the corresponding elements is zero. That is, if they’re zero divisors for one other. (In Beck’s original form, this included all the elements. In modern use, we don’t bother including the elements that are not zero divisors.)

Drawing this graph \Gamma(R) makes tools from graph theory available to study rings. We can measure things like the distance between elements, or what paths from one vertex to another exist. What cycles — paths that start and end at the same vertex — exist, and how large they are. Whether the graphs are bipartite. A bipartite graph is one where you can divide the vertices into two sets, and every edge connects one thing in the first set with one thing in the second. What the chromatic number — the minimum number of colors it takes to make sure no two adjacent vertices have the same color — is. What shape does the graph have?

It’s easy to think that zero divisors are just a thing which emerges from a ring. The graph theory connection tells us otherwise. You can make a potential zero divisor graph and ask whether any ring could fit that. And, from that, what we can know about a ring from its zero divisors. Mathematicians are drawn as if by an occult hand to things that let you answer questions about a thing from its “shape”.

And this lets me complete a cycle in this year’s A-to-Z, to my delight. There is an important question in topology which group theory could answer. It’s a generalization of the zero-divisors conjecture, a hypothesis about what fits in a ring based on certain types of groups. This hypothesis — actually, these hypotheses. There are a bunch of similar questions about invariants called the L2-Betti numbers can be. These we call the Atiyah Conjecture. This because of work Michael Atiyah did in the cohomology of manifolds starting in the 1970s. It’s work, I admit, I don’t understand well enough to summarize, and hope you’ll forgive me for that. I’m still amazed that one can get to cutting-edge mathematics research this. It seems, at its introduction, to be only a subversion of how we find x for which (x - 2)(x + 1) = 0 .


And this, I am amazed to say, completes the All 2020 A-to-Z project. All of this year’s essays should be gathered at this link. In the next couple days I plan t check that they actually are. All the essays from every A-to-Z series, going back to 2015, should be at this link. I plan to soon have an essay about what I learned in doing the A-to-Z this year. And then we can look to 2021 and hope that works out all right. Thank you for reading.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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