Schur's lemma

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In mathematics, Schur's lemma[1] is an elementary but extremely useful statement in representation theory of groups and algebras. In the group case it says that if M and N are two finite-dimensional irreducible representations of a group G and φ is a linear transformation from M to N that commutes with the action of the group, then either φ is invertible, or φ = 0. An important special case occurs when M = N and φ is a self-map. The lemma is named after Issai Schur who used it to prove Schur orthogonality relations and develop the basics of the representation theory of finite groups. Schur's lemma admits generalisations to Lie groups and Lie algebras, the most common of which is due to Jacques Dixmier.

Representation theory of groups[edit]

Representation theory is the study of homomorphisms from a group, G, into the general linear group GL(V) of a vector space V; i.e., into the group of automorphisms of V. (Let us here restrict ourself to the case when the underlying field of V is , the field of complex numbers.) Such a homomorphism is called a representation of G on V. A representation on V is a special case of a group action on V, but rather than permit any arbitrary permutations of the underlying set of V, we restrict ourselves to invertible linear transformations.

Let ρ be a representation of G on V. It may be the case that V has a subspace, W, such that for every element g of G, the invertible linear map ρ(g) preserves or fixes W, so that (ρ(g))(w) is in W for every w in W, and (ρ(g))(v) is not in W for any v not in W. In other words, every linear map ρ(g): V→V is also an automorphism of W, ρ(g): W→W, when its domain is restricted to W. We say W is stable under G, or stable under the action of G. It is clear that if we consider W on its own as a vector space, then there is an obvious representation of G on W - the representation we get by restricting each map ρ(g) to W. When W has this property, we call W with the given representation a subrepresentation of V. A representation of G with no subrepresentations (other than itself and zero) is an irreducible representation. Irreducible representations, like the prime numbers, or like the simple groups in group theory, are the building blocks of representation theory. Many of the initial questions and theorems of representation theory deal with the properties of irreducible representations.

As we are interested in homomorphisms between groups, or continuous maps between topological spaces, we are interested in certain functions between representations of G. Let V and W be vector spaces, and let and be representations of G on V and W respectively. Then we define a G-linear map f from V to W to be a linear map from V to W that is equivariant under the action of G; that is, for every g in G, . In other words, we require that f commutes with the action of G. G-linear maps are the morphisms in the category of representations of G.

Schur's Lemma is a theorem that describes what G-linear maps can exist between two irreducible representations of G.

Statement and Proof of the Lemma[edit]

Theorem (Schur's Lemma): Let V and W be vector spaces with underlying field ; and let and be irreducible representations of G on V and W respectively.[2]

  1. If V and W are not isomorphic, then there are no nontrivial G-linear maps between them.
  2. If V=W; and if , then the only nontrivial G-linear maps are the identity, and scalar multiples of the identity. (A scalar multiple of the identity is sometimes called a homothety.)

Proof: Suppose f is a nonzero G-linear map from V to W. We will prove that V and W are isomorphic. Let be the kernel, or null space, of f in V, the subspace of all x in V for which fx=0. (It is easy to check that this is a subspace.) By the assumption that f is G-linear, for every g in G and choice of x in . But saying that is the same as saying that is in the null space of V. So is stable under the action of G; it is a subrepresentation. Since by assumption V is irreducible, must be zero; so f is injective.

By an identical argument we will show f is also surjective; since , we can conclude that for arbitrary choice of f(x) in the range of f, sends f(x) somewhere else in the range of f; in particular it sends it to the image of . So the range of f(x) is a subspace of W stable under the action of G, so it is a subrepresentation and f must be zero or surjective. By assumption it is not zero, so it is surjective, in which case it is an isomorphism.

In the event that and they have the same representation, let be an eigenvalue of 'f'. (An eigenvalue exists for every invertible linear transformation on a vector space whose underlying field is , as a simple consequence of the fundamental theorem of algebra.) Let . Then if x is an eigenvector of f corresponding to . It is clear that is a G-linear map, because the sum or difference of G-linear maps is also G-linear. Then we return to the above argument, where we used the fact that a map was G-linear to conclude that the kernel is a subrepresentation, and is thus either zero or equal to all of V; because it is not zero (it contains x) it must be all of V and so is trivial, so .

Formulation in the language of modules[edit]

If M and N are two simple modules over a ring R, then any homomorphism f: MN of R-modules is either invertible or zero.[3] In particular, the endomorphism ring of a simple module is a division ring.[4]

The condition that f is a module homomorphism means that

The group version is a special case of the module version, since any representation of a group G can equivalently be viewed as a module over the group ring of G.

Schur's lemma is frequently applied in the following particular case. Suppose that R is an algebra over a field k and the vector space M = N is a simple module of R. Then Schur's lemma says that the endomorphism ring of the module M is a division algebra over the field k. If M is finite-dimensional, this division algebra is finite-dimensional. If k is the field of complex numbers, the only option is that this division algebra is the complex numbers. Thus the endomorphism ring of the module M is "as small as possible". In other words, the only linear transformations of M that commute with all transformations coming from R are scalar multiples of the identity.

This holds more generally for any algebra R over an uncountable algebraically closed field k and for any simple module M that is at most countably-dimensional: the only linear transformations of M that commute with all transformations coming from R are scalar multiples of the identity.

When the field is not algebraically closed, the case where the endomorphism ring is as small as possible is still of particular interest. A simple module over k-algebra is said to be absolutely simple if its endomorphism ring is isomorphic to k. This is in general stronger than being irreducible over the field k, and implies the module is irreducible even over the algebraic closure of k.

Representations of Lie groups and Lie algebras[edit]

We now describe Schur's lemma as it is usually stated in the context of representations of Lie groups and Lie algebras. There are three parts to the result.[5]

First, suppose that and are irreducible representations of a Lie group or Lie algebra over any field and that is an intertwining map. Then is either zero or an isomorphism.

Second, if is an irreducible representation of a Lie group or Lie algebra over an algebraically closed field and is an intertwining map, then is a scalar multiple of the identity map.

Third, suppose and are irreducible representations of a Lie group or Lie algebra and are nonzero intertwining maps. Then for some scalar .

As a simple corollary of the second statement is that every complex irreducible representation of an Abelian group is one-dimensional.

Application to the Casimir element[edit]

Suppose is a Lie algebra and is the universal enveloping algebra of . Let be an irreducible representation of over an algebraically closed field. The universal property of the universal enveloping algebra ensures that extends to a representation of acting on the same vector space. It follows from the second part of Schur's lemma that if belongs to the center of , then must be a multiple of the identity operator. In the case when is a complex semisimple Lie algebra, an important example of the preceding construction is the one in which is the (quadratic) Casimir element . In this case, , where is a constant that can be computed explicitly in terms of the highest weight of .[6] The action of the Casimir element plays an important role in the proof of complete reducibility for finite-dimensional representations of semisimple Lie algebras.[7]

See also Schur complement.

Generalization to non-simple modules[edit]

The one module version of Schur's lemma admits generalizations involving modules M that are not necessarily simple. They express relations between the module-theoretic properties of M and the properties of the endomorphism ring of M.

A module is said to be strongly indecomposable if its endomorphism ring is a local ring. For the important class of modules of finite length, the following properties are equivalent (Lam 2001, §19):

  • A module M is indecomposable;
  • M is strongly indecomposable;
  • Every endomorphism of M is either nilpotent or invertible.

In general, Schur's lemma cannot be reversed: there exist modules that are not simple, yet their endomorphism algebra is a division ring. Such modules are necessarily indecomposable, and so cannot exist over semi-simple rings such as the complex group ring of a finite group. However, even over the ring of integers, the module of rational numbers has an endomorphism ring that is a division ring, specifically the field of rational numbers. Even for group rings, there are examples when the characteristic of the field divides the order of the group: the Jacobson radical of the projective cover of the one-dimensional representation of the alternating group on five points over the field with three elements has the field with three elements as its endomorphism ring.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Issai Schur (1905) "Neue Begründung der Theorie der Gruppencharaktere" (New foundation for the theory of group characters), Sitzungsberichte der Königlich Preußischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, pages 406-432.
  2. ^ J.P. Serre, (1977) "Linear Representations of Finite Groups", page 13
  3. ^ (Sengupta 2001, p. 126)
  4. ^ Lam (2001), p. 33.
  5. ^ Hall 2015 Theorem 4.29
  6. ^ Hall 2015 Proposition 10.6
  7. ^ Hall 2015 Section 10.3


  • Dummit, David S.; Foote, Richard M. (1999). Abstract Algebra (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley. p. 337. ISBN 0-471-36857-1.
  • Hall, Brian C. (2015), Lie Groups, Lie Algebras, and Representations: An Elementary Introduction, Graduate Texts in Mathematics, 222 (2nd ed.), Springer, ISBN 978-3319134666
  • Lam, Tsit-Yuen (2001). A First Course in Noncommutative Rings. Berlin, New York: Springer-Verlag. ISBN 978-0-387-95325-0.
  • Sengupta, Ambar (2012). Representing finite groups: a semisimple introduction. New York. doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-1231-1_8. ISBN 9781461412311. OCLC 769756134.
  • Shtern, A.I.; Lomonosov, V.I. (2001) [1994], "Schur lemma", in Hazewinkel, Michiel, Encyclopedia of Mathematics, Springer Science+Business Media B.V. / Kluwer Academic Publishers, ISBN 978-1-55608-010-4