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.

Someone Else’s Homework: A Postscript


My friend aced the mathematics final. Not due to my intervention, I’d say; my friend only remembered one question on the exam being much like anything we had discussed recently. Though it was very like one of those, a question about the probability of putting together a committee with none, one, two, or more than two members of particular subgroups. And that one we didn’t even work through; I just confirmed my friend’s guess about what calculation to do. Which is good since that particular calculation is a tedious one that I didn’t want to do. No, my friend aced it by working steadily through the whole term. And yes, asking me for tutoring a couple times, but that’s all right. Small, steady work adds up, in mathematics as with so much else.

Meanwhile may I draw your attention over to my humor blog where last night I posted a bit of silliness about number divisibility. Because I can’t help myself, it does include a “quick” test for whether a number could be divided by 21. It’s in the same spirit as tests for whether a number can be divided by 3 or 9 (add the digits add see whether that sum’s divisible by 3 or 9) or 11 (add or subtract digits, in alternate form, and see whether that sum is divisible by 11). The process I give is correct, which is not to say that anyone would ever use it. Even if they did they’d be better off testing for divisibility by both 3 and 7. And I don’t think I’d use an add-the-digits scheme for 7 either.

Eliminating Your Footprints


When last we discussed divisibility rules, particularly, rules for just adding up the digits in a number to tell what it might divide by, we had worked out rules for testing divisibility by eight. In that, we take the sum of four times the hundreds digit, plus two times the tens digit, plus the units digit, and if that sum is divisible by eight, then so was the original number. This hasn’t got the slick, smooth memorability of the rules for three and nine — just add all the numbers up — or the simplicity of checking for divisibility by ten, five, or two — just look at the last digit — but it’s not a complicated rule either.

Still, we came at it through an experimental method, fiddling around with possible rules until we found one which seemed to work. It seemed to work, and since we found out there are only a thousand possible cases to consider we can check that it works in every one of those cases. That’s tiresome to do, but functions, and it’s a legitimate way of forming mathematical rules. Quite a number of proofs amount to dividing a problem into several different cases and show that whatever we mean to prove is so in each ase.

Let’s see what we can do to tidy up the proof, though, and see if we can make it work without having to test out so many cases. We can, or I’d have been foolish to start this essay rather than another; along the way, though, we can remove the traces that show the experimenting that lead to the technique. We can put forth the cleaned-up reasoning and look all the more clever because it isn’t so obvious how we got there. This is another common property of proofs; the most attractive or elegant method of presenting them can leave the reader wondering how it was ever imagined.

Continue reading “Eliminating Your Footprints”

What Makes Eight Different From Nine?


When last speaking about divisibility rules, we had finally worked out why it is that adding up the digits in a number will tell you whether the number is divisible by nine, or by three. We take the digits in the number, and add them up. If that sum is itself divisible by nine or three, so is the original number.

It’s a great trick. We have to want to do more. In one direction this is easy to expand. Last time we showed it explicitly by working on three-digit numbers; but we could show that adding a forth digit doesn’t change the reasoning which makes it work. Nor does adding a fifth, nor a sixth. We can carry on until we lose interest in showing longer numbers still work. However long the number is we can just add up its digits and the same divisibile-by-three or divisible-by-nine trick works.

Of course that isn’t enough. We want to check divisibility of more numbers. The obvious thing, at least the thing obvious to me in elementary school when I checked this, was to try other numbers. For example, how about divisibility by eight? And we test quickly … well, 14, one plus four is 5, that doesn’t divide by eight, and neither does fourteen. OK so far. 15 gives us similarly optimistic results. For 16, one plus six is 7, which doesn’t divide by eight, but 16 does, so, ah, obviously there’s something more we have to look at here. Maybe we need to patch up the rule, and look at the sum of the digits plus one and whether that divides eight.

This may sound a little fishy, but it’s at least a normal part of discovering mathematics, at least in my experience: notice a pattern, and try out little cases, and see if that suggests some overall rule. Sometimes it does; sometimes we find exceptions right away; sometimes a rule looks initially like it’s there and we learn something interesting by finding how it doesn’t.

Continue reading “What Makes Eight Different From Nine?”

A Quick Impersonation Of Base Nine


I now resume the thread of spotting multiples of numbers easily. Thanks to the way positional notation lets us write out numbers as some multiple of our base, which is so nearly always ten it takes some effort to show where it’s not, it’s easy to spot whether a number is a multiple of that base, or some factor of the base, just by looking at the last digit. And if we’re interested in factors of some whole power of the base, of the ten squared which is a hundred, or the ten cubed which is a thousand, or so, we can find all we want to know just by looking at the last two or last three or last or-so digits.

Sadly, three and nine don’t go into ten, and never go into any power of ten either. Six and seven won’t either, although that exhausts the numbers below ten which don’t go into any power of ten. Of course, we also have the unpleasant point that eleven won’t go into a hundred or thousand or ten-thousand or more, and so won’t many other numbers we’d like.

If we didn’t have to use base ten, if we could use base nine, then we could get the benefits of instantly recognizing multiples of three or nine that we get for multiples of five or ten. If the digits of a number are some strand R finished off with an a, then the number written as Ra means the number gotten by multiplying nine by R and adding to that a. The whole strand will be divisible by nine whenever a is, which is to say when a is zero; and the whole strand will be divisible by three when a is, that is, when a is zero, three, or six.

Continue reading “A Quick Impersonation Of Base Nine”

How To Recognize Multiples Of 100 From Not So Far Away


MJ Howard last week answered my little demonstration that it was easy to tell multiples of two, five, and ten by looking at just the last digit of a whole number, but that there weren’t any ways to tell from just the last digit whether it was divisible by four. He pointed out we could look at the last two digits, and if those were divisible by four, then the entire number would be. This is perfectly true, and it’s only by asserting that I was looking for a rule based on the last digit alone that my forecast of doom about an instant check for divisibility-by-four could be sustained.

Remember the reasoning by which we wrote out a whole number as some string of digits which I call R followed by whatever goes in the units column, which I call a. (I had been thinking of R as in the “rest” of the number, but it struck me over the week that R is also the symbol used in organic chemistry to denote a chain of carbon atoms when one doesn’t really care how many of them are lined up. This interests me as I got on this thread with a set of numbers I called “alcoholic” due to their structural resemblance to organic chemistry’s idea of alcohols.) Since we’re writing in base ten, then, the number written as Ra is ten times R plus a. Ten times R can’t help being divisible by ten, or by any of the factors of ten, which are two and five (and one, which nobody cares about).

Continue reading “How To Recognize Multiples Of 100 From Not So Far Away”

How To Recognize Multiples Of Ten From Quite A Long Way Away


I got so caught up last week talking about the different possible bases that I forgot to the interesting thing I had wanted to talk about those bases. I suppose that will happen as long as I write to passion rather than plan. It gives me something to speak about today, at least.

Here is one thing implied by having a consistent base for all these numbers in which position is relevant: a one in each column represents the base-number of units of whatever the next column over represents. That is, in base ten, a one in the tens column represents ten units of one; a one in the thousands column represents ten units of one hundred. I mention this obvious point because it is so familiar and simple as to pass into invisibility. (It also extends past the decimal point; a one in the hundredths column is equivalent to ten units of a thousandth. But I want to talk about divisibility, in the whole numbers, and so leave fractions for some later time.)

This is tidy, in a way that we don’t see in variable bases. It will give us one tool for neat little divisibility rules. That tool appears just by writing things in the appropriate way, which is the best sort of tool. It saves on time trying to prove it works.

Continue reading “How To Recognize Multiples Of Ten From Quite A Long Way Away”

Something Cute Without 9’s and a 6


The cute little thing about a string of 9’s followed by a 6 being a number divisible by 6 inspired my Dearly Beloved, who spent some time looking for other patterns in this kind of number. I’m glad for that; this sort of pattern, while it may not be terribly important, is often fun to play with. And interesting things can be found in play.

I don’t know a good name for this kind of number, and admit it feels awkward to say just “this kind of number”. If I have to talk about them much longer some group name is probably worth devising. Unfortunately the only names which come to my mind come there through organic chemistry, where it’s reasonably common to have an arbitrarily long chain of carbon atoms terminated with some distinctly different group. For example, an alcohol is a string of carbons ending with an oxygen and hydrogen molecule. But an “alcoholic number”, while an imagination-capturing name, doesn’t quite fit. I suppose aldehydes, which end on a double-bond to an oxygen atom, preserves the metaphor, but no one knows the adjective form of aldehyde.

My Dearly Beloved’s experiments found no other numbers for which a repeated string, terminated by a 6, would produce a number divisible by 6. This overlooked the obvious case, though: a string of 6’s, followed by another 6, is itself divisible by 6. Obvious cases are like that, and many people would think of a uniform string of 6’s not part of the pattern “an arbitrary number of one digit, followed by a 6”.

Continue reading “Something Cute Without 9’s and a 6”

Something Cute With 9’s and a 6.


After the last few essays I’d like to take a moment for a distinct, cute little problem of no practical use but cute.

Write down as many 9’s as you like, and when finished with that place a 6 at the right end. The result is divisible by 6.

That is, whatever number you’ve written, divided by 6, produces a whole number. Divisibility is one of those things which turns up whenever you have a collection of things which can be multiplied, and one thing is divisible by the second if you can find something in your collection so that the second multiplied by your find equals the first. It’s most often used to talk about the integers — the positive counting numbers, their negative counterparts, and zero if we didn’t include that already — and if it isn’t said divisible-with-respect-to-what then integers are what is usually meant. Partly that’s because integers are the first thing where divisibility stands out: if we look at the real numbers, everything is divisible by everything else (as long as that “else” is not zero), and a property that’s (almost) always true is usually too dull to mention. The next topic where divisibility gets mentioned much is usually polynomials, with a few eccentrics holding out for the complex numbers where the real part and the imaginary part are both integers.

There are several ways to prove this string of 9’s followed by 6 is divisible by 6. Here’s a proof which I like.

Continue reading “Something Cute With 9’s and a 6.”