I made a mistake! I thought we had got to the end of the block of A To Z topics suggested by Gaurish, of the For The Love Of Mathematics blog. Not so and, indeed, I wonder if it wouldn’t be a viable writing strategy around here for me to just ask Gaurish to throw out topics and I have two weeks to write about them. I don’t think there’s a single unpromising one in the set.

# Jordan Canonical Form.

Before you ask, yes, this is named for *the* Camille Jordan.

So this is a thing from algebra. Particularly, linear algebra. And more particularly, matrices. Matrices are so much of linear algebra that you could be forgiven thinking they’re *all* of linear algebra. The thing is, matrices are a really good way of describing linear transformations. That is, where you take a block of space and stretch it out, or squash it down, or rotate it, or do some combination of these things. And stretching and squashing and rotating is a lot of what you’d ever want to do. Refer to any book on how to draw animated cartoons. The only thing matrices can’t do is have their eyes bug out huge when an attractive region of space walks past.

Thing about a matrix is if you want to do something with it, you’re going to write it as a grid of numbers. It doesn’t *have* to be a grid of numbers. But about all the matrices anyone *does* anything with are grids of numbers. And that’s fine. They do an incredible lot of stuff. What’s not fine is that on looking at a huge block of numbers, the mind sees: huh. That’s a big block of numbers. Good luck finding what’s meaningful in them. To help find meaning we have a set of standard forms. We call them “canonical” or “normal” or some other approving term. They rearrange and change the terms in the matrix so that more interesting stuff is more obvious.

Now you’re justified asking: how can we rearrange and change the terms in a matrix without changing what the matrix is? We can get away with doing this because we can show some rearrangements don’t change what we’re interested in. That covers the “how dare we” part of “how”. We do it by using matrix multiplication. You might remember from high school algebra that matrix multiplication is this agonizing process of multiplying every pair of numbers that ever existed together, then adding them all up, and then maybe you multiply something by minus one because you’re thinking of determinants, and it all comes out wrong anyway and you have to do it over? Yeah. Well, matrix multiplication is defined hard because it makes stuff like this work out. So that covers the “by what technique” part of “how”. We start out with some matrix, let me imaginatively name it . And then we find some transformation matrix for which, eh, let’s say is a good enough name. I’ll say why in a moment. Then we use that matrix and its multiplicative inverse . And we evaluate the product . This won’t just be the same old matrix we started with. Not usually. Promise. But what this *will* be, if we chose our matrix correctly, is some new matrix that’s easier to read.

The matrices involved here have to follow some rules. Most important, they’re all going to be square matrices. There’ll be more rules that your linear algebra textbook will tell you. Or your instructor will, after checking the textbook.

So what makes a matrix easy to read? Zeroes. Lots and lots of zeroes. When we have a standardized form of a matrix it’s nearly all zeroes. This is for a good reason: zeroes are easy to multiply stuff by. And they’re easy to add stuff to. And almost everything we do with matrices, as a calculation, is a lot of multiplication and addition of the numbers in the matrix.

What also makes a matrix easy to read? Everything important being on the diagonal. The diagonal is one of the two things you would imagine if you were told “here’s a grid of numbers, pick out the diagonal”. In particular it’s the one that goes from the upper left to the bottom right, that is, row one column one, and row two column two, and row three column three, and so on up to row 86 column 86 (or whatever). If everything is on the diagonal the matrix is incredibly easy to work with. If it can’t all be on the diagonal at least everything should be close to it. As close as possible.

In the Jordan Canonical Form not everything is on the diagonal. I mean, it can be, but you shouldn’t count on that. But everything either will be on the diagonal or else it’ll be one row up from the diagonal. That is, row one column two, row two column three, row 85 column 86. Like that. There’s two other important pieces.

First is the thing in the row above the diagonal will be either 1 or 0. Second is that on the diagonal you’ll have a sequence of all the same number. Like, you’ll get four instances of the number ‘2’ along this string of the diagonal. Third is that you’ll get a 1 above all but the row above first instance of this particular number. Fourth is that you’ll get a 0 in the row above the first instance of this number.

Yeah, that’s fussy to visualize. This is one of those things easiest to show in a picture. A Jordan canonical form is a matrix that looks like this:

2 | 1 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 |

0 | 2 | 1 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 |

0 | 0 | 2 | 1 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 |

0 | 0 | 0 | 2 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 |

0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 3 | 1 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 |

0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 3 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 |

0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 4 | 1 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 |

0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 4 | 1 | 0 | 0 | 0 |

0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 4 | 0 | 0 | 0 |

0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | -1 | 0 | 0 |

0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | -2 | 1 |

0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | -2 |

This may have you dazzled. It dazzles mathematicians too. When we have to write a matrix that’s almost all zeroes like this we drop nearly all the zeroes. If we have to write anything we just write a really huge 0 in the upper-right and the lower-left corners.

What makes this the Jordan Canonical Form is that the matrix looks like it’s put together from what we call Jordan Blocks. Look around the diagonals. Here’s the first Jordan Block:

2 | 1 | 0 | 0 |

0 | 2 | 1 | 0 |

0 | 0 | 2 | 1 |

0 | 0 | 0 | 2 |

Here’s the second:

3 | 1 |

0 | 3 |

Here’s the third:

4 | 1 | 0 |

0 | 4 | 1 |

0 | 0 | 4 |

Here’s the fourth:

-1 |

And here’s the fifth:

-2 | 1 |

0 | -2 |

And we can represent the whole matrix as this might-as-well-be-diagonal thing:

First Block | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 |

0 | Second Block | 0 | 0 | 0 |

0 | 0 | Third Block | 0 | 0 |

0 | 0 | 0 | Fourth Block | 0 |

0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | Fifth Block |

These blocks can be as small as a single number. They can be as big as however many rows and columns you like. Each individual block is some repeated number on the diagonal, and a repeated one in the row above the diagonal. You can call this the “superdiagonal”.

(Mathworld, and Wikipedia, assert that sometimes the row below the diagonal — the “subdiagonal” — gets the 1’s instead of the superdiagonal. That’s fine if you like it that way, and it won’t change any of the real work. I have not seen these subdiagonal 1’s in the wild. But I admit I don’t do a lot of this field and maybe there’s times it’s more convenient.)

Using the Jordan Canonical Form for a matrix is a lot like putting an object in a standard reference pose for photographing. This is a good metaphor. We get a Jordan Canonical Form by matrix multiplication, which works like rotating and scaling volumes of space. You can view the Jordan Canonical Form for a matrix as how you represent the original matrix from a new viewing angle that makes it easy to recognize. And this is why is not a bad name for the matrix that does this work. We can see all this as “projecting” the matrix we started with into a new frame of reference. The new frame is maybe rotated and stretched and squashed and whatnot, compared to how we started. But it’s as valid a base. Projecting a mathematical object from one frame of reference to another usually involves calculating something that looks like so, projection. That’s our name.

Mathematicians will speak of “the” Jordan Canonical Form for a matrix as if there were such a thing. I don’t mean that Jordan Canonical Forms don’t exist. They exist just as much as matrices do. It’s the “the” that misleads. You can put the Jordan Blocks in any order and have as valid, and as useful, a Jordan Canonical Form. But it’s easy to swap the orders of these blocks around — it’s another matrix multiplication, and a blessedly easy one — so it doesn’t matter which form you have. Get any one and you have them all.

I haven’t said anything about what these numbers on the diagonal are. They’re the eigenvalues of the original matrix. I hope that clears things up.

Yeah, not to anyone who didn’t know what a Jordan Canonical Form was to start with. Rather than get into calculations let me go to well-established metaphor. Take a sample of an unknown chemical and set it on fire. Put the light from this through a prism and photograph the spectrum. There will be lines, interruptions in the progress of colors. The locations of those lines and how intense they are tell you what the chemical is made of, and in what proportions. These are much like the eigenvectors and eigenvalues of a matrix. The eigenvectors tell you what the matrix is made of, and the eigenvalues how much of the matrix is those. This stuff gets you very far in proving a lot of great stuff. And part of what makes the Jordan Canonical Form great is that you get the eigenvalues right there in neat order, right where anyone can see them.

So! All that’s left is finding the things. The best way to find the Jordan Canonical Form for a given matrix is to become an instructor for a class on linear algebra and assign it as homework. The second-best way is to give the problem to your TA, who will type it in to Mathematica and return the result. It’s too much work to do most of the time. Almost all the stuff you could learn from having the thing in the Jordan Canonical Form you work out in the process of finding the matrix that would let you calculate what the Jordan Canonical Form is. And once you had that, why go on?

Where the Jordan Canonical Form shines is in doing proofs about what matrices can do. We can always put a square matrix into a Jordan Canonical Form. So if we want to show something is true about matrices in general, we can show that it’s true for the simpler-to-work-with Jordan Canonical Form. Then show that shifting a matrix to or from the Jordan Canonical Form doesn’t change whether the thing we’re interested in is true. It exists in that strange space: it is quite useful, but never on a specific problem.

Oh, all right. Yes, it’s the same Camille Jordan of the Jordan Curve and also of the Jordan Curve Theorem. That fellow.