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Irreducible representation

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Title: Irreducible representation  
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Subject: Gelfand pair, Spinor, Regular representation, Orbit method, Verma module
Collection: Group Theory, Representation Theory, Symmetry, Theoretical Chemistry, Theoretical Physics
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Irreducible representation

In mathematics, specifically in the representation theory of groups and algebras, an irreducible representation (\Pi, V) or irrep of an algebraic structure A is a nonzero representation that has no proper subrepresentation (\Pi,W), W \subset V closed under the action of \Pi(a), a\in A.

Every finite-dimensional unitary representation on a Hermitian vector space V is the direct sum of irreducible representations. As irreducible representations are always indecomposable (i.e. cannot be decomposed further into a direct sum of representations), these terms are often confused; however, in general there are many reducible but indecomposable representations, such as the two-dimensional representation of the real numbers acting by upper triangular unipotent matrices.


  • History 1
  • Overview 2
    • Notation and terminology of group representations 2.1
    • Decomposable and Indecomposable representations 2.2
  • Applications in theoretical physics and chemistry 3
  • Lie groups 4
    • Lorentz group 4.1
  • See also 5
    • Associative algebras 5.1
    • Lie groups 5.2
  • References 6
    • Books 6.1
    • Papers 6.2
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8


Group representation theory was generalized by Richard Brauer from the 1940s to give modular representation theory, in which the matrix operators act over a field K of arbitrary characteristic, rather than a vector of real or complex numbers. The structure analogous to an irreducible representation in the resulting theory is a simple module.


Let \rho be a representation i.e. a homomorphism \rho: G\to GL(V) of a group G where V is a vector space over a field F. If we pick a basis B for V, \rho can be thought of as a function (a homomorphism) from a group into a set of invertible matrices and in this context is called a matrix representation. However, it simplifies things greatly if we think of the space V without a basis.

A linear subspace W\subset V is called G-invariant if \rho(g)w\in W for all g\in G and all w\in W. The restriction of \rho to a G-invariant subspace W\subset V is known as a subrepresentation. A representation \rho: G\to GL(V) is said to be irreducible if it has only trivial subrepresentations (all representations can form a subrepresentation with the trivial G-invariant subspaces, e.g. the whole vector space V, and {0}). If there is a proper non-trivial invariant subspace, \rho is said to be reducible.

Notation and terminology of group representations

Group elements can be represented by matrices, although the term "represented" has a specific and precise meaning in this context. A representation of a group is a mapping from the group elements to the general linear group of matrices. As notation, let a, b, c... denote elements of a group G with group product signified without any symbol, so ab is the group product of a and b and is also an element of G, and let representations be indicated by D. The representation of a is written

D(a) = \begin{pmatrix} D(a)_{11} & D(a)_{12} & \cdots & D(a)_{1n} \\ D(a)_{21} & D(a)_{22} & \cdots & D(a)_{2n} \\ \vdots & \vdots & \ddots & \vdots \\ D(a)_{n1} & D(a)_{n2} & \cdots & D(a)_{nn} \\ \end{pmatrix}

By definition of group representations, the representation of a group product is translated into matrix multiplication of the representations:

D(ab) = D(a)D(b)

If e is the identity element of the group (so that ae = ea = a, etc.), then D(e) is an identity matrix, or identically a block matrix of identity matrices, since we must have

D(ea) = D(ae) = D(a)D(e) = D(e)D(a) = D(a)

and similarly for all other group elements.

Decomposable and Indecomposable representations

A representation is decomposable if a similar matrix P can be found for the similarity transformation:[1]

D(a) \rightarrow P^{-1} D(a) P

which diagonalizes every matrix in the representation into the same pattern of diagonal blocks – each of the blocks are representation of the group independent of each other. The representations D(a) and P−1D(a)P are said to be equivalent representations.[2] The representation can be decomposed into a direct sum of k matrices:

D(a) = \begin{pmatrix} D^{(1)}(a) & 0 & \cdots & 0 \\ 0 & D^{(2)}(a) & \cdots & 0 \\ \vdots & \vdots & \ddots & \vdots \\ 0 & 0 & \cdots & D^{(k)}(a) \\ \end{pmatrix} = D^{(1)}(a) \oplus D^{(2)}(a) \oplus \cdots \oplus D^{(k)}(a)

so D(a) is decomposable, and it is customary to label the decomposed matrices by a superscript in brackets, as in D(n)(a) for n = 1, 2, ..., k, although some authors just write the numerical label without brackets.

The dimension of D(a) is the sum of the dimensions of the blocks:

\mathrm{dim}[D(a)] = \mathrm{dim}[D^{(1)}(a)] + \mathrm{dim}[D^{(2)}(a)] + \ldots + \mathrm{dim}[D^{(k)}(a)]

If this is not possible, then the representation is indecomposable.[1][3]

Applications in theoretical physics and chemistry

In quantum physics and quantum chemistry, each set of degenerate eigenstates of the Hamiltonian operator makes up a representation of the symmetry group of the Hamiltonian, that barring accidental degeneracies will correspond to an irreducible representation. Identifying the irreducible representations therefore allows one to label the states, predict how they will split under perturbations; and predict non-zero transition elements.

In quantum mechanics, irreducible representations of the symmetry group of the system label the energy levels of the system, allowing the selection rules to be determined.[4]

Lie groups

Lorentz group

The irreps of D(K) and D(J), where J is the generator of rotations and K the generator of boosts, can be used to build to spin representations of the Lorentz group, because they are related to the spin matrices of quantum mechanics. This allows them to derive relativistic wave equations.[5]

See also

Associative algebras

Lie groups


  1. ^ a b E.P. Wigner (1959). Group theory and its application to the quantum mechanics of atomic spectra. Pure and applied physics. Academic press. p. 73. 
  2. ^ W.K. Tung (1985). Group Theory in Physics. World Scientific. p. 32.  
  3. ^ W.K. Tung (1985). Group Theory in Physics. World Scientific. p. 33.  
  4. ^ "A Dictionary of Chemistry," (6th ed.). Oxford Dictionary of Chemistry. 
  5. ^ T. Jaroszewicz, P.S Kurzepa (1992). "Geometry of spacetime propagation of spinning particles". Annals of Physics (California, USA). 


  • A. D. Boardman, D. E. O'Conner, P. A. Young (1973). Symmetry and its applications in science. McGraw Hill.  
  • V. Heine (republished: 2007 original: 1960). Group theory in quantum mechanics: an introduction to its present usage. Dover.  
  • V. Heine (1993). Group Theory in Quantum Mechanics: An Introduction to Its Present Usage. Courier Dover Publications.  
  • E. Abers (2004). Quantum Mechanics. Addison Wesley. p. 425.  
  • B. R. Martin, G.Shaw. Particle Physics (3rd ed.). Manchester Physics Series, John Wiley & Sons. p. 3.  
  • Weinberg, S (1995), The Quantum Theory of Fields 1, Cambridge university press, pp. 230–231,  
  • Weinberg, S (1996), The Quantum Theory of Fields 2, Cambridge university press,  
  • Weinberg, S (2000), The Quantum Theory of Fields 3, Cambridge university press,  
  • R. Penrose (2007).  
  • P. W. Atkins (1970). Molecular Quantum Mechanics (Parts 1 and 2): An introduction to quantum chemistry 1. Oxford University Press. pp. 125–126.  


  • Bargmann, V.; Wigner, E. P. (1948). "Group theoretical discussion of relativistic wave equations". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 34 (5): 211–23.  
  • E. Wigner (1937). "On Unitary Representations Of The Inhomogeneous Lorentz Group" (PDF). Annals of Mathematics 40 (1): 149.  

Further reading

  • Artin, Michael (1999). "Noncommutative Rings" (PDF). Chapter V. 

External links

  • "Commission on Mathematical and Theoretical Crystallography, Summer Schools on Mathematical Crystallography" (PDF). 2010. 
  • van Beveren, Eef (2012). "Some notes on group theory" (PDF). 
  • Teleman, Constantin (2005). "Representation Theory" (PDF). 
  • Finley. "Some Notes on Young Tableaux as useful for irreps of su(n)" (PDF). 
  • Hunt (2008). "Irreducible Representation (IR) Symmetry Labels" (PDF). 
  • Dermisek, Radovan (2008). "Representations of Lorentz Group" (PDF). 
  • Maciejko, Joseph (2007). "Representations of Lorentz and Poincaré groups" (PDF). 
  • Woit, Peter (2015). "Quantum Mechanics for Mathematicians: Representations of the Lorentz Group" (PDF). , see chapter 40
  • Drake, Kyle; Feinberg, Michael; Guild, David; Turetsky, Emma (2009). "Representations of the Symmetry Group of Spacetime" (PDF). 
  • Finley. "Lie Algebra for the Poincaré, and Lorentz, Groups" (PDF). 
  • Bekaert, Xavier; Boulanger, Niclas (2006). "The unitary representations of the Poincaré group in any spacetime dimension".  
  • "McGraw-Hill dictionary of scientific and technical terms". 
  • Mathar, R. J. (2015). "Irreducible representations of small abstract groups computed with GAP". 
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