Classification of finite subgroups of SO(3,R)

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Statement

Basic statement

This article explains the complete classification of finite subgroups of the Special orthogonal group (?) of order three over the field of real numbers. In other words, it completely classifies, upto conjugacy in the orthogonal group, all the finite subgroups of SO(3,\R).

A concise statement of the classification is as a correspondence:

Conjugacy classes of finite subgroups of SO(3,\R) \equiv Spherical von Dyck groups \equiv Triples (l,m,n) of natural numbers with 1/l + 1/m + 1/n > 1.

Here is the complete classification:

  • For any natural number n, the cyclic group of order n acts as rotations in a plane, fixing the axis perpendicular to that plane. This is not typically viewed as a von Dyck group, but can be viewed as the extreme case with parameters (n,n,1), and corresponds to a triangle with only two sides.
  • For any natural number n, the Dihedral group (?) of order 2n, acting as the dihedral group on a plane (say, the equatorial plane). The rotations in this group fix the perpendicular axis, while the reflections in this group also flip the perpendicular axis, and are effectively achieved through rotations, hence are still elements of the special orthogonal group. This is the von Dyck group with parameters (n,2,2), and corresponds to a triangle with two right angles, e.g., a triangle with one point on the pole and two equatorial points that are vertices of the regular polygon. (A particular case of note is the Klein four-group, which is the dihedral group on a regular 2-gon.
  • There are three other groups: the alternating group of degree four is realized as the group of symmetries of the tetrahedron, the symmetric group of degree four is realized as the group of symmetries of the cube and also of the octahedron, and the alternating group of degree five is realized as the group of symmetries of the icosahedron and also of the dodecahedron. These are realized as von Dyck groups with parameters (3,3,2) (for the alternating group of degree four), (4,3,2) (for the symmetric group of degree four), and (5,3,2) (for the alternating group of degree five).

Fallout implications

These implications follow from an examination of the classification:

  • In SO(3,\R), every finite subgroup is an isomorph-conjugate subgroup. In other words, any two isomorphic finite subgroups are conjugate. In particular, any two finite subgroups of SO(3,\R) that are conjugate in any bigger group containing it are conjugate in SO(3,\R). The analogous statement is not true for infinite subgroups, or for elements.
  • If H \le K are both finite subgroups of SO(3,\R), then H is an automorph-conjugate subgroup inside K.

Also, since special orthogonal group is finite-dominating in special affine orthogonal group over characteristic zero, the above classifies, up to conjugacy, all finite subgroups of the Euclidean group in three dimensions.

Tabular form

Group Order von Dyck type (Orbit,Stabilizer)-1 (Orbit, Stabilizer)-2 (Orbit,Stabilizer)-3 Symmetry figure Symbol
Cyclic of order n n (n,n,1) (1,n) (1,n) -- Oriented regular polygon
Dihedral of order 2n 2n (n,2,2) (2,n) (n,2) (n,2) Regular polygon
Alternating group:A4 12 (3,3,2) (4,3) (4,3) (6,2) Regular tetrahedron T, 332, or 23
Symmetric group:S4 24 (4,3,2) (6,4) (8,3) (12,2) Cube or regular octahedron O or 432
Alternating group:A5 60 (5,3,2) (12,5) (20,3) (30,2) Regular dodecahedron or regular icosahedron L or 532

Containment relations

Any subgroup of a finite subgroup of SO(3,\R) is again a finite subgroup of SO(3,\R). The containment relations are as follows:

  • Subgroups of the cyclic group of order n are cyclic groups of order m for every m | n.
  • Subgroups of the dihedral group of order 2n are: all cyclic groups of orders dividing n, and all dihedral groups of orders dividing 2n.
  • Subgroups of the alternating group of degree four are: trivial group, cyclic groups of order two and three, a Klein four-group (this is a dihedral group of order four), and the whole group. Further information: Subgroup structure of alternating group:A4
  • Subgroups of the symmetric group of degree four are: cyclic groups of order 1,2,3,4, dihedral groups of orders 4,6,8, the alternating group of degree four, and the whole group. Further information: Subgroup structure of symmetric group:S4
  • Subgroups of the alternating group of degree five are: cyclic groups of order 1,2,3,5, dihedral groups of order 4,6,10, the alternating group of degree four, and the whole group. Further information: Subgroup structure of alternating group:A5

In particular, the only two conjugacy classes of finite subgroups of SO(3,\R) that are not contained in bigger finite subgroups are those of the symmetric group of degree four and the alternating group of degree five. Further, the only other conjugacy class of finite subgroups that is contained in only finitely many bigger finite subgroups is that of the alternating group of degree four.

Related facts

Facts used

  1. Euler's theorem: Every element of SO(3,\R) has an eigenvalue of 1. In particular, it has two antipodal fixed points in the induced action on the sphere S^2. Moreover, if it is a non-identity element, it has no more fixed points, and it acts as a rotation on the perpendicular plane.
  2. Fundamental theorem of group actions
  3. Every finite subgroup of the circle group is cyclic

Proof

Action on the finite set of fixed points of non-identity elements

Suppose G is a finite subgroup of SO(3,\R). Let S^2 be the unit sphere in \R^3, i.e., the sphere of radius one centered at the origin. By fact (1), every non-identity element of G has exactly two antipodal fixed points. Let P be the set of points in S^2 that arise as fixed points of some non-identity element of G.

We claim that the action of G sends P to itself. This follows from the fact that if p is fixed by a non-identity element x \in G, then g \cdot p is fixed by the non-identity element gxg^{-1} \in G.

Decomposing the group

Using Euler's theorem (fact (1)) every non-identity element of the group fixes exactly one pair of antipodal points. Thus, we get:

|G| - 1 = \frac{1}{2} \sum_{p \in P} (\operatorname{Stab}_G(p) - 1).

The 1/2 is to correct for double-counting antipodal points. We now use fact (2) to rewrite:

\operatorname{Stab}_G(p) = \frac{|G|}{|\mathcal{O}_p|},

where \mathcal{O}_p is the orbit of the point p.

We get:

|G| - 1 = \frac{1}{2} \sum_{p \in P} \left( \frac{|G|}{|\mathcal{O}_p|} - 1 \right ).

Rearranging to sum over orbits \mathcal{O} \subseteq P, we get:

|G| - 1 = \frac{1}{2} \sum_{\mathcal{O}} (|G| - |\mathcal{O}|).

Rearranging and dividing by |G|:

2 - \frac{2}{|G|} = \sum_{\mathcal{O}} \left(1 - \frac{1}{|\operatorname{Stab}_G(p)|}\right),

where p is any element of \mathcal{O}. Suppose a_1,a_2, \dots, a_r are the sizes of the stabilizers for the distinct orbits. Then we get:

2 - \frac{2}{|G|} = \sum_{i=1}^r \left(1 - \frac{1}{a_i}\right).

with the additional constraint that a_i divides |G|, and a_i and |G| are positive integers. Without loss of generality, we can arrange a_i in descending order.

Solving the equation

We easily obtain that r \le 3. Here are the solutions for various values of r:

  1. r = 1: In this case, a_1 = 1, and |G| = 1. This is the trivial group.
  2. r = 2: We have two orbits. The above equation forces a_1 = a_2 = |G|. Call this number n. Since the stabilizer has size equal to the whole group, so both points of P are fixed by all group elements. Thus, we have a pair of antipodal fixed points. Thus, G acts as orientation-preserving orthogonal transformations in the perpendicular plane to the fixed points. In particular, G is a cyclic group acting by rotations.
  3. r = 3, a_1 = a_2 = a_3 = 2, and |G| = 4: P has six points, with three orbits of size two. Since every point and its antipode have the same orbit size, there is at least one orbit comprising a point and its antipode. A little work shows that the group is the Klein four-group, behaving as the dihedral group on a regular 2-gon.
  4. r = 3, with a_2 = a_3 = 2 and a_1 > 2: In this case, if a_1 = n, then |G| = 2n. The orbit corresponding to a_1 has size two and the other two orbits have size n. Since the size of the orbit of a point and its antipode are equal, the orbit of size two contains two antipodal points. Its stabilizer is a subgroup of order n acting as orientation-preserving orthogonal transformations on the perpendicular plane. Thus, this is a cyclic subgroup of order n. The element that flips the two antipodal points restricts to that plane as a reflection in some axis in that plane. It follows that the group is a dihedral group of order 2n, with the usual action on that plane. (NOTE: This case can be absorbed into the next case, and is hence typically not stated separately).
  5. r = 3, with (a_1,a_2,a_3) = (3,3,2): In this case, |G| = 12, and there are 14 elements in P, with orbits of sizes 4,4,6. We can show that either of the orbits of size 4 can be chosen as the vertices of a regular tetrahedron and the group is the full group of orientation-preserving symmetries of the tetrahedron.
  6. r = 3, with (a_1,a_2,a_3) = (4,3,2): In this case, |G| = 24, and there are 26 elements in P, with orbits of sizes 6,8,12. We can show that the orbit of size 8 can be chosen as the vertices of a cube and the group is the full group of orientation-preserving symmetries of the cube. The orbits of size 6 can be chosen as the vertices of a regular octahedron, and the group is the full group of orientation-preserving symmetries of the octahedron.
  7. r = 3, with (a_1,a_2,a_3) = (5,3,2): In this case, |G| = 60. and there are 62 elements in P, with orbits of size 12,20,30. We can show that the orbit of size 12 can be chosen as the vertices of a regular dodecahedron, and the group is the full group of orientation-preserving symmetries of the dodecahedron. The orbits of size 20 can be chosen as the vertices of a regular octahedron, and the group is the full group of orientation-preserving symmetries of the octahedron.

Note that there are no other solutions for a_1, a_2, a_3, because we need 1/a_1 + 1/a_2 + 1/a_3 > 1.

Geometric interpretation of the proof in terms of von Dyck groups

The (a_1,a_2,a_3) parameters appearing above are the same as the parameters for the von Dyck presentation. This follows geometrically, as follows.

Let p_1 be a representative for the first orbit, with stabilizer of size a_1. Since the stabilizer of each point p_1 is of order a_1, and since each stabilizer is a cyclic group (on account of being a subgroup of the orientation-preserving orthogonal transformations of the perpendicular plane), the stabilizer of p_i is generated by a rotation about p_i by the angle 2\pi/a_1. Let p_2 be any point in the second orbit. Then, the image of p_2 under this rotation cannot lie either in the p_1-orbit or in the p_2-orbit, hence it lies in the third orbit. Call this image p_3. It is now easy to see that the group G is the von Dyck group for the spherical triangle with vertices p_1, p_2, p_3, and we get the desired presentation.

(Note that the fact that the presentation works follows from the fact that the sphere is simply connected, so there are no additional relations that arise when we descend from the cover where the action is well-defined).