The Unapologetic Mathematician

Mathematics for the interested outsider

Different kinds of rings

There are a number of different kinds of rings differentiated (sorry) by properties of their multiplications. Most of them lead into their own specialized areas of study. I mentioned that a ring may or may not be commutative, and it may or may not have an identity, but there are a few more that will be useful.

One initially counterintuitive idea is that it’s entirely possible that a ring has “zero divisors”: two nonzero elements that multiply to give zero. Imagine starting with two copies of the integers, \mathbb{Z} and \bar{\mathbb{Z}}, writing elements of the second copy as integers with a bar over them. Now consider pairs of elements, one from each copy, (a,\bar{b}). Add pairs by adding the two components, but multiply them like this:
Notice that the product of any two elements of \bar{\mathbb{Z}} is zero! Weird. Eerie.

To be explicit: an element of this ring coming from \bar{\mathbb{Z}} is (0,\bar{a}). We calculate the product:

So, any element a for which there is a b so that ab=0 is called a left zero divisor. Right zero divisors are defined similarly. If a ring has no zero divisors, so the product of two nonzero elements is always nonzero, we call it an “integral domain”. The integers are just such an integral domain, fittingly enough.

Now if a ring has a multiplicative identity we can start talking about multiplicative inverses. We say an element a has a left inverse b if ba=1, or a right inverse c if ac=1. If a ring has both a left and a right inverse they’re the same, since
In this case we call a a unit and write its inverse as a^{-1}. We can also see that an element having a left (right) inverse cannot be a left (right) zero divisor:
ax=0\Rightarrow x=1x=(ba)x=b(ax)=b0=0
If every nonzero element of a ring is a unit, we call it a division ring.

In the case of commutative rings, all these distinctions between “left” and “right” (zero divisors, inverses, etc.) disappear, since multiplication doesn’t care about the order of the factors. We actually have a special name for a commutative division ring: we call it a “field”, though everyone else in the world except the Belgians seems to call it a “(dead) body” (körper, corps, поле, test, lichaam, …).

[EDIT: added explicit calculation verifying that elements from \bar{\mathbb{Z}} in the example are zero-divisors.]

March 29, 2007 - Posted by | Ring theory


  1. Why is the product of any two elements of Zbar zero? Would you spell this out?

    Comment by Me | March 31, 2007 | Reply

  2. In case of Russian language also: поле = field. This is for commutative division ring. In noncommutative case we use another word: тело = body. 🙂

    (I am not mathematician, so maybe it’s better to verify.)

    Comment by osman | May 14, 2007 | Reply

  3. […] since would both work equally well. The point here is that they differ by multiplication by a unit, and so each divides the other. This sort of thing happens in the divisibility preorder for any […]

    Pingback by Euclid’s Algorithm for Polynomials « The Unapologetic Mathematician | August 5, 2008 | Reply

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