The Unapologetic Mathematician

Mathematics for the interested outsider


We have defined a ring as a \mathbb{Z}-module (abelian group) R with a linear function R\otimes R\rightarrow R satisfying certain properties. The concept of an algebra takes this definition and extends it to work over more general base rings than \mathbb{Z}.

Let A be a module over a commutative ring R with unit. Then A has both a left and a right action by R, since R is commutative. Thus, when we take the tensor product A\otimes_RA, the result is also an R module. It makes sense, then, to talk about an R-module homomorphism A\otimes_RA\rightarrow A. Equivalently, this is a “multiplication” function m:A\times A\rightarrow A such that

  • m(a,b_1+b_2)=m(a,b_1)+m(a,b_2)
  • m(a_1+a_2,b)=m(a_1,b)+m(a_2,b)
  • m(ra,b)=m(a,rb)=rm(a,b)

An R-module equipped with such a multiplication is called an R-algebra. We will often write the multiplication as m(a,b)=ab. In many cases of interest, the base ring will be a field \mathbb{F}, but any ring is an algebra over \mathbb{Z}.

Usually the term “algebra” on its own will refer to an associative algebra. This imposes an additional condition like the one we had in the definition of a ring: (ab)c=a(bc). An algebra may also have a unit 1 so that 1a=a=a1 for all a\in A. Algebras can also be commutative if ab=ba for all elements a,b\in A. There are other kinds of algebras we’ll get to later that are not associative.

Pretty much everything I’ve said about rings works for associative algebras as well, substituting “R-module” for “abelian group”. An Rmodule M is a left A-module if there is an R-linear function A\otimes_RM\rightarrow M, and a similar definition works for right A-modules. We can take direct sums and tensor products of A-modules, and we have an R-module of homomorphisms \hom_A(M_1,M_2). All these constructions are clear from what we’ve said about modules over rings if we consider that A is a ring, and that an A-module is an abelian group with actions of both R and A which commute with each other.

The standard constructions of rings also work for algebras. In particular, we can start with an R-module M and build the free R-algebra on M like we built the free ring on an abelian group. Just use \bigoplus_{n\in\mathbb{N}}M^{\otimes_R n}, where the tensor powers over R make sense because R is commutative.

We can also start with any semigroup S and build the semigroup algebra R[S] just like we did for the semigroup ring \mathbb{Z}[S]. As a special case, we can take S to be the free commutative monoid on n generators and get the algebra R[x_1,...,x_n] of polynomials in n variables over R. In fact, almost all of “high school algebra” is really about studying the algebra \mathbb{Q}[x_1,...,x_n], where \mathbb{Q} is the field of rational numbers I’m almost ready to define.

Another source of R-algebras extends the notion of the ring of endomorphisms. If M is any R-module, then {\rm End}_R(M)=\hom_R(M,M) is again an R-module, and composition is R-bilinear, making this into an R-algebra.

Algebras over more general commutative rings than \mathbb{Z} — particularly over fields — are extremely useful objects of study mostly because the linear substrate can often be much simpler. Building everything on abelian groups can get complicated because abelian groups can be complicated, but building everything on vector spaces over a field is generally pretty straightforward since vector spaces and their linear transformations are so simple.

May 8, 2007 Posted by | Ring theory | 11 Comments

Overpriced journals

In the May issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, there is an article by Allyn Jackson: Jumping Ship: Topology Board Resigns about the mass resignation of the entire editorial board of the Elsevier journal over its exorbitant pricing. This has been a steadily mounting problem to academic mathematics. In 2005 a group set up the Banff Protocol, refusing to have anything to do with excessively-priced journals. If you’re a professional mathematician, go there and sign up.

May 8, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | 6 Comments