There’s a new article at Quanta today promoting representation theory, Kevin Hartnett’s The ‘Useless’ Perspective that Transformed Mathematics. Representation theory is a central, unifying theme in modern mathematics, one that deserves a lot more attention than it usually gets, with undergraduate math majors often not exposed to the subject at all. My book on quantum mechanics is very much based on the idea that the subject is best understood in terms of representation theory. Unfortunately, physics students typically get even less exposure to representation theory than math students.
While I think the article is a great idea, and well-worth reading, I do have two quibbles, one minor and one major. The minor quibble is that one example given of a group, the real numbers with multiplication, is not quite right: you need to remove the element 0, since it has no inverse. If the group law is the additive one, then the real number line with nothing removed truly is a group.
The major quibble is with the theme of the article that a group representation can be thought of as a simplification of something more complicated, the group itself. This is a good way of thinking about one aspect of the use of representation theory in number theory, where representations provide a tractable way to get at the much more complicated structure of the absolute Galois group of a number field. The talk by Geordie Williamson linked to in the article (slides here) explains this well, but Williamson also gets right the more general context, where the group can be easy to understand, the representations complicated. For a simple example of this, in the case of the circle group $S^1$ the group is very easy to understand, its representation theory (the theory of Fourier series) is much more complicated (and much more interesting).
As Williamson explains, a good way to think about what is going on is that representation theory does simplify something by linearizing it, but it’s not the group, it’s a group action. When people talk about the importance of the study of “symmetry” in mathematics, physics, and elsewhere, they often make the mistake of only paying attention to the symmetry groups. The structure you actually have is not just a group (the abstract “symmetries”), but an action of that group on some other object, the thing that has symmetries. When you talk about “rotational symmetry” you have a rotation group, but also something else: the thing that is getting rotated. Representation theory is the linearization of this situation, often achieved by going from the group action on an object to the corresponding group action on some version of functions on the object. Once linearized, the group action becomes a problem in linear algebra, with the group elements represented as matrices, which act on the vectors of the linearization.
To further add to the confusion, “symmetry” is often described in popular accounts as meaning “invariance”. In typical examples given, “invariance” just means that you have a group action, since the group is taking elements of the set to other elements of the set (e.g. rotations not of an arbitrary object, but of a sphere). In representation theory, you have a different notion of invariance. For instance, for the representation of rotations on functions on the sphere, the constant functions are a one-dimensional invariant subspace, giving a trivial representation. But, there are lots of more interesting invariant subspaces of higher dimensions. These are the irreducible representations on the sets of spherical harmonics.
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