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Complex Numbers, Quaternions and Beyond

Sam Evington, Undergraduate Mathematics Seminar

Date Icon Week 2, Wednesday 25 January HT 2012
Time Icon 8:15pm

In 1835 Hamilton gave a rigorous definition of a complex number as simply an order pair of real numbers . He defined addition coordinatewise and multiplication by . He then went on to show that the expected properties follow from these definitions and nothing else. There’s no need to pluck a square root of out of thin air! This leads one naturally to ask if there is a similar rule for multiplying triples of reals . Given the many applications of complex numbers to 2-dimensional geometry and physics a generalisation to the 3 dimensions of space would be immensely useful.

Alas we shall see that no such system exists. All is not lost however. If one ventures into a fourth dimension (and gives up the notion that times should equal times then a generalisation of complex numbers does exist. These are the Quaternions, and we shall establish their basic theory then look at their applications in 3-dimensional geometry, the invention of vector and modern physics.

If time permits we shall look beyond Quaternions and discover why (with perhaps 1 exception) there’s nothing else worthy of being called a number system.