# The Universe of Discourse

Fri, 18 Dec 2015

I only posted three answers in August, but two of them were interesting.

• In why this !!\sigma\pi\sigma^{-1}!! keeps apearing in my group theory book? (cycle decomposition) the querent asked about the “conjugation” operation that keeps cropping up in group theory. Why is it important? I sympathize with this; it wasn't adequately explained when I took group theory, and I had to figure it out a long time later. Unfortunately I don't think I picked the right example to explain it, so I am going to try again now.

Consider the eight symmetries of the square. They are of five types:

1. Rotation clockwise or counterclockwise by 90°.
2. Rotation by 180°.
3. Horizontal or vertical reflection
4. Diagonal reflection
5. The trivial (identity) symmetry

What is meant when I say that a horizontal and a vertical reflection are of the same ‘type’? Informally, it is that the horizontal reflection looks just like the vertical reflection, if you turn your head ninety degrees. We can formalize this by observing that if we rotate the square 90°, then give it a horizontal flip, then rotate it back, the effect is exactly to give it a vertical flip. In notation, we might represent the horizontal flip by !!H!!, the vertical flip by !!V!!, the clockwise rotation by !!\rho!!, and the counterclockwise rotation by !!\rho^{-1}!!; then we have

$$\rho H \rho^{-1} = V$$

and similarly

$$\rho V \rho^{-1} = H.$$

Vertical flips do not look like diagonal flips—the diagonal flip leaves two of the corners in the same place, and the vertical flip does not—and indeed there is no analogous formula with !!H!! replaced with one of the diagonal flips. However, if !!D_1!! and !!D_2!! are the two diagonal flips, then we do have

$$\rho D_1 \rho^{-1} = D_2.$$

In general, When !!a!! and !!b!! are two symmetries, and there is some symmetry !!x!! for which

$$xax^{-1} = b$$

we say that !!a!! is conjugate to !!b!!. One can show that conjugacy is an equivalence relation, which means that the symmetries of any object can be divided into separate “conjugacy classes” such that two symmetries are conjugate if and only if they are in the same class. For the square, the conjugacy classes are the five I listed earlier.

This conjugacy thing is important for telling when two symmetries are group-theoretically “the same”, and have the same group-theoretic properties. For example, the fact that the horizontal and vertical flips move all four vertices, while the diagonal flips do not. Another example is that a horizontal flip is self-inverse (if you do it again, it cancels itself out), but a 90° rotation is not (you have to do it four times before it cancels out.) But the horizontal flip shares all its properties with the vertical flip, because it is the same if you just turn your head.

Identifying this sameness makes certain kinds of arguments much simpler. For example, in counting squares, I wanted to count the number of ways of coloring the faces of a cube, and instead of dealing with the 24 symmetries of the cube, I only needed to deal with their 5 conjugacy classes.

The example I gave in my math.se answer was maybe less perspicuous. I considered the symmetries of a sphere, and talked about how two rotations of the sphere by 17° are conjugate, regardless of what axis one rotates around. I thought of the square at the end, and threw it in, but I wish I had started with it.

• How to convert a decimal to a fraction easily? was the month's big winner. OP wanted to know how to take a decimal like !!0.3760683761!! and discover that it can be written as !!\frac{44}{117}!!. The right answer to this is of course to use continued fraction theory, but I did not want to write a long treatise on continued fractions, so I stripped down the theory to obtain an algorithm that is slower, but much easier to understand.

The algorithm is just binary search, but with a twist. If you are looking for a fraction for !!x!!, and you know !!\frac ab < x < \frac cd!!, then you construct the mediant !!\frac{a+c}{b+d}!! and compare it with !!x!!. This gives you a smaller interval in which to search for !!x!!, and the reason you use the mediant instead of using !!\frac12\left(\frac ab + \frac cd\right)!! as usual is that if you use the mediant you are guaranteed to exactly nail all the best rational approximations of !!x!!. This is the algorithm I described a few years ago in your age as a fraction, again; there the binary search proceeds down the branches of the Stern-Brocot tree to find a fraction close to !!0.368!!.

I did ask a question this month: I was looking for a simpler version of the dogbone space construction. The dogbone space is a very peculiar counterexample of general topology, originally constructed by R.H. Bing. I mentioned it here in 2007, and said, at the time:

[The paper] is on my desk, but I have not read this yet, and I may never.

I did try to read it, but I did not try very hard, and I did not understand it. So my question this month was if there was a simpler example of the same type. I did not receive an answer, just a followup comment that no, there is no such example.