# STABLY FREE MODULES KEITH CONRAD

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1 STABLY FREE MODULES KEITH CONRAD 1. Introduction Let R be a commutative ring. When an R-module has a particular module-theoretic property after direct summing it with a finite free module, it is said to have the property stably. For example, R-modules M and N are stably isomorphic if R k M = R k N for some k 0. An R-module M is stably free if it is stably isomorphic to a free module: R k M is free for some k. When M is finitely generated and stably free, then for some k R k M is finitely generated and free, so R k M = R l for some l. Necessarily k l (why?). Are stably isomorphic modules in fact isomorphic? Is a stably free module actually free? Not always, and that s why the concepts are interesting. This stable mathematics is part of algebraic K-theory. Our purpose here is to describe the simplest example of a non-free module which is stably free and then discuss what it means for all stably free modules over a ring to be free. Theorem 1.1. Let R be the ring R[x, y, z]/(x 2 + y 2 + z 2 1). Let T = {(f, g, h) R 3 : xf + yg + zh = 0 in R}. Then R T = R 3, but T = R 2. The module T in this theorem is stably free (it is stably isomorphic to R 2 ), but it is not a free module. Indeed, if T is free then (since T is finitely generated; the theorem shows it admits a surjection from R 3 ) for some n we have T = R n, so R R n = R 3. Since R a = R b only if a = b, 1+n = 3 so n = 2. But this contradicts the non-isomorphism in the conclusion of the theorem. It s worth noting that the ranks in the theorem are as small as possible for a nonfree stably free module. If R is any commutative ring and M is an R-module such that R M = R then M = 0. If R M = R 2 then M = R. The first time we could have R M = R l with M = R l 1 is l = 3, and Theorem 1.1 shows such an example occurs. 2. Proof of Theorem 1.1 In the proof of Theorem 1.1 it will be easy to show R T = R 3. But the proof that T = R 2 will require a theorem from topology about vector fields on the sphere. We denote the module as T because it is related to tangent vectors on the sphere. Proof. Since R is a ring, on R 3 we can consider the dot product R 3 R 3 R. For example, (x, y, z) (x, y, z) = x 2 + y 2 + z 2 = 1. For any v R 3, let r = v (x, y, z) R. Then (v r(x, y, z)) (x, y, z) = v (x, y, z) r(x, y, z) (x, y, z) = r r = 0, so v r(x, y, z) T. That means R 3 = R(x, y, z) + T. This sum is direct since R(x, y, z) T = (0, 0, 0): if r(x, y, z) T then dotting r(x, y, z) with (x, y, z) implies r = 0. So we have proved (2.1) R 3 = R(x, y, z) T. 1

2 2 KEITH CONRAD Since R = R(x, y, z) by r r(x, y, z), R 3 = R T. Thus T is stably free. Now we will show by contradiction that T = R 2. Assume T = R 2, so T has an R-basis of size 2, say (f, g, h) and (F, G, H). By (2.1) the three vectors (x, y, z), (f, g, h), (F, G, H) in R 3 are an R-basis, so the matrix x f F y g G z h H in M 3 (R) must be invertible: it is the change-of-basis matrix between the standard basis of R 3 and the basis (x, y, z), (f, g, h), (F, G, H). Therefore the determinant of this matrix is a unit in R: (2.2) det x f F y g G R. z h H It makes sense to evaluate elements of R at points (x 0, y 0, z 0 ) on the unit sphere S 2 : polynomials in R[x, y, z] which are congruent modulo x 2 + y 2 + z 2 1 take the same value at any (x 0, y 0, z 0 ) S 2 since x y2 0 + z2 0 1 = 0. A unit in R takes nonzero values everywhere on the sphere: if a(x, y, z)b(x, y, z) = 1 in R then a(x 0, y 0, z 0 )b(x 0, y 0, z 0 ) = 1 in R when (x 0, y 0, z 0 ) S 2. In particular, at each point v S 2 the determinant in (2.2) has a nonzero value, so (f(v), g(v), h(v)) R 3 {0}. Thus v (f(v), g(v), h(v)) is a nowhere vanishing vector field on S 2 with continuous components (polynomial functions are continuous). But this is impossible: the hairy ball theorem in topology says every continuous vector field on the sphere vanishes at least once. There is a stably free non-free module T Z over Z[x, y, z]/(x 2 +y 2 +z 2 1). The construction is analogous to the previous one. Elements of Z[x, y, z]/(x 2 +y 2 +z 2 1) can be evaluated on the real sphere, and the proof that T Z is not a free module uses evaluations of polynomials at points on the real sphere as before. For any d 1, every continuous vector field on the 2d-dimensional sphere S 2d vanishes somewhere, so over (2.3) R = R[x 1,..., x 2d+1 ]/(x x 2 2d+1 1) the tangent module T = {(f 1,..., f 2d+1 ) R 2d+1 : x i f i = 0 in R} is stably free but not free: R T = R 2d+1 but T = R 2d. 3. When Stably Free Modules Must Be Free For some rings R, all stably free finitely generated R-modules are free. This holds if R is a field since all vector spaces are free (have bases). It also holds if R is a PID: a stably free R-module is a submodule of a finite free R-module, and any submodule of a finite free module over a PID is a free module. A much more difficult example is when R = k[x 1,..., X n ], where k is a field. (This is Serre s conjecture, proved independently by Quillen and Suslin with k even allowed to be a PID rather than a field. 1 ) In this section we show how the task of proving all stably free finitely generated modules over a particular ring R are free can be formulated as a linear algebra problem over R. (It is shown in the 1 The actual problem put forward by Serre was to show any finitely generated projective module over k[x 1,..., X n] is free. He showed such modules are stably free, so his problem reduces to the version we stated about freeness of stably free finitely generated modules over k[x 1,..., X n].

3 STABLY FREE MODULES 3 appendix that over any ring, every non-finitely generated module which is stably free is free, so there is no loss of generality in focusing on finitely generated modules.) To distinguish n-tuples (a 1,..., a n ) in R n from the ideal (a 1,..., a n ) = Ra Ra n in R, denote the n-tuple in R n as [a 1,..., a n ]. Theorem 3.1. Fix a nonzero commutative ring R and a positive integer n. The following conditions are equivalent. (1) For any R-module M, if M R = R n then M is free. (2) Every vector [a 1,..., a n ] R n satisfying (a 1,..., a n ) = R is part of a basis of R n. Proof. Both (1) and (2) are true (for all R) when n = 1, so we may suppose n 2. (1) (2): Suppose (a 1,..., a n ) = R, so a i b i = 1 for some b i R. Set a = [a 1,..., a n ] and b = [b 1,..., b n ]. Let f : R n R by f(v) = v b, so f(a) = 1 and R n = Ra ker f by the decomposition v = f(v)a + (v f(v)a). (This sum decomposition is unique because if v = ra + w with r R and w ker f then applying f to both sides shows f(v) = r, so w = v ra = v f(v)a.) Since Ra = R by v v b (concretely, ra r), R n is isomorphic to R ker f, so ker f is free by (1). Adjoining a to a basis of ker f provides us with a basis of R n. (2) (1): Let g : M R R n be an R-module isomorphism. Set a = g(0, 1) = [a 1,..., a n ]. To show the ideal (a 1,..., a n ) is R, suppose it is not. Then there is a maximal ideal m containing each a i, so g(0, 1) m n. However, the isomorphism g restricts to an isomorphism from m(m R) = mm m to mr n = m n, so g(0, 1) being in m n implies (0, 1) mm m, which is false. By (2) there is a basis of R n containing a. Every R-basis of R n contains n elements 2 so we can write the basis of R n as v 1,..., v n with v 1 = a. Then g 1 (v 1 ),..., g 1 (v n ) is a basis of M R, with g 1 (v 1 ) = (0, 1). For i = 2,..., n, write g 1 (v i ) = (m i, c i ). Subtracting a multiple of (0, 1) from each (m i, c i ) for i = 2,..., n, we get a basis (0, 1), (m 2, 0),..., (m n, 0) of M R. Writing any (m, 0) as a linear combination of these shows m 2,..., m n spans M as an R-module and is linearly independent, so M is free. Corollary 3.2. For a commutative ring R, the following conditions are equivalent. (1) For all R-modules M, if M R = R n for some n then M is free. (2) For all n 1, every vector [a 1,..., a n ] R n satisfying (a 1,..., a n ) = R is part of a basis of R n. (3) All stably free finitely generated R-modules are free. Proof. (1) (2): This equivalence is Theorem 3.1 for all n. (1) (3): Suppose M is a stably free R-module, so M R k = R l for some k and l. We want to show M is free. If k = 0 then obviously M is free. If k 1 then (M R k 1 ) R = R l, so (1) with n = l tells us that M R k 1 is free. By induction on k, the module M is free. (3) (1): If M R = R n for some n then M is stably free, and thus M is free by (3). 2 If R n = R n as R-modules then, for any maximal ideal m in R, that R-module isomorphism implies m n = m n and therefore R n /m n = R n /m n, so (R/m) n = (R/m) n as R/m-vector spaces. By linear algebra over the field R/m, n = n.

4 4 KEITH CONRAD Corollary 3.2(2) expresses the freeness of all stably free finitely generated R-modules as a problem in linear algebra in R n (over all n). The condition there that the coordinates generate the unit ideal is necessary if [a 1,..., a n ] has a chance to be part of a basis of R n : Theorem 3.3. If [a 1,..., a n ] R n is part of a basis of R n then the ideal (a 1,..., a n ) is the unit ideal. Proof. We are assuming there is an R-basis of R n that contains the n-tuple [a 1,..., a n ]. Any basis has n elements, so write the basis as v 1,..., v n with v 1 = [a 1,..., a n ]. Write each v j in coordinates relative to the standard basis of R n, say v j = [c 1j,..., c nj ] (so a i = c i1 ). Then the matrix (c ij ) has the v j s as its columns, so this matrix describes the linear transformation R n R n sending the standard basis of R n to v 1,..., v n. Since the v j s form a basis, this matrix is invertible: det(c ij ) R. Expanding the determinant along its first column shows det(c ij ) is an R-linear combination of a 1,..., a n, so det(c ij ) (a 1,..., a n ). Therefore the ideal (a 1,..., a n ) contains a unit, so the ideal is R. Thus all stably free finitely generated R-modules are free if and only if for all n the obvious necessary condition for a vector in R n to be part of a basis of R n is a sufficient condition. Example 3.4. If [a 1,..., a n ] in Z n is part of a basis of Z n then gcd(a 1,..., a n ) = 1. For example, the vector [6, 9, 15] is not part of a basis of Z 3 since its coordinates are all multiples of 3. The vector [6, 10, 15] has no common factors among its coordinates (although each pair of coordinates has a common factor). Is it part of a basis of Z 3? Essentially we are asking if the necessary condition in Theorem 3.3 is also sufficient over Z. It is in this case: the vectors [6, 10, 15], [1, 1, 0], and [0, 3, 11] are a basis of Z 3. (A matrix with these vectors as the columns has determinant ±1.) For any R, the necessary condition (a 1,..., a n ) = R in Theorem 3.3 is actually sufficient for [a 1,..., a n ] to be part of a basis of R n when n = 1 and n = 2. For n = 1, if (a 1 ) = R then a 1 is a unit and thus is a basis of R as an R-module. For n = 2, if (a 1, a 2 ) = R then there are b 1, b 2 R such that a 1 b 1 + a 2 b 2 = 1, so the matrix ( a 1 b 2 a 2 b 1 ) has determinant 1 and therefore its columns are a basis of R 2. What if n > 2? The necessary condition is sufficient when R is a PID by Corollary 3.2 since we already saw that stably free free when R is a PID. (e.g., R = Z or F [X]). More generally, the necessary condition is sufficient when R is a Dedekind domain [6], [7], but Theorem 1.1 provides us with a ring admitting a stably free module that is not free, and this leads to a counterexample when n = 3. Example 3.5. Let R = R[x, y, z]/(x 2 + y 2 + z 2 1). In the free module R 3, the triple [x, y, z] satisfies the condition of Theorem 3.3: the ideal (x, y, z) of R is the unit ideal since x 2 + y 2 + z 2 = 1 in R. However, there is no basis of R 3 containing [x, y, z]. Indeed, assume there is a basis v 1, v 2, v 3 where v 1 = [x, y, z]. Then there is a matrix in GL 3 (R) with first column v 1, and the argument in the proof of Theorem 1.1 derives a contradiction from this. The sphere rings R[x 1,..., x n ]/(x x2 n 1) for any odd n 3 provide additional examples where the condition in Theorem 3.3 is not sufficient to guarantee an n-tuple in R n is part of a basis of R n. Another use of the ring R = R[x, y, z]/(x 2 + y 2 + z 2 1) as a counterexample in algebra involves matrices with trace 0. Since Tr(AB) = Tr(BA), any matrix of the form AB BA (called a commutator) has trace 0. Over a field, the converse holds [1]: every square matrix with trace 0 is a commutator. However, the matrix ( x z x y ) in M 2 (R) has trace 0 and it is

5 STABLY FREE MODULES 5 proved in [8] that this matrix is not a commutator in M 2 (R). But all is not lost. A matrix with trace 0 is always a sum of two commutators [5]. Appendix A. Theorems of Gabel and Bass Our discussion of stably free modules focused on finitely generated ones. The reason is that in the case of non-finitely generated modules there are no interesting stably free modules. Theorem A.1 (Gabel). If M is stably free and not finitely generated then M is free. Proof. Let F := M R k be free. We want to show M is free. Projection from F onto M is a surjective linear map, so M not being finitely generated implies F is not finitely generated. Let {e i } i I be a basis of F, so the index set I is infinite. Projection from F onto R k is a surjective linear map f : F R k with kernel M. The standard basis of R k is in the image of the span of finitely many e i s, say the submodule F := Re Re l has f(f ) = R k. For any v F, f(v) = f(v ) for some v F. Then v v ker f = M, so F = F + M. The module F is finite free and F /(M F ) = R k. Since R k is free (and thus a projective module), there is an isomorphism F = N R k where N = M F. Since F + M = F, F/F = M/N and F/F = i>l Re i is free with infinite rank, so we can write F/F = R k F for some free F. Therefore M/N is free, so which is free. M = N (M/N) = N (F/F ) = N R k F = F F, To prove all stably free modules over a (nonzero) ring R are free is the same as showing M R k = R l M is free for any k and l. When such an isomorphism occurs, l k = dim R/m (M/mM) for all maximal ideals m in R, so l k is well-defined by M although l and k are not. We call l k the rank of M. For example, if M R = R n then M has rank n 1. We will prove a theorem of Bass which reduces the verification that all stably free R-modules are free to the case of even rank. Lemma A.2. If M R = R 2d for some d 1 then M = R N for some R-module N. Proof. Composing an isomorphism R 2d = M R with projection to the second summand gives us a surjective map ϕ: R 2d R with kernel isomorphic to M. Since any linear map R 2d R is dotting with a fixed vector, there is some w R 2d such that ϕ(v) = v w for all v R 2d. Set w = (c 1,..., c 2d ). Then ϕ(c 2, c 1,..., c 2d, c 2d 1 ) = 0. Let u = (c 2, c 1,..., c 2d, c 2d 1 ) ker ϕ = M. We will show there is a submodule N of M such that M = R N. Choose (r 1,..., r 2d ) R 2d such that ϕ(r 1,..., r 2d ) = 1, so c 1 r c 2d r 2d = 1. Then u (r 2, r 1,..., r 2d, r 2d 1 ) = 1, so the linear map f : R 2d R given by f(v) = v (r 2, r 1,..., r 2d, r 2d 1 ) satisfies f(u) = 1. Since u ker ϕ, the restriction of f to a linear map ker ϕ R is surjective and restricts to an isomorphism Ru R. Thus M = ker ϕ = Ru ker f = R ker f. Remark A.3. It is generally false that if M R = R 2d+1 then M = R N for some N. An example is R being the sphere ring (2.3) when 2d + 1 1, 3 or 7 and M being the tangent module T. Our work in Section 2 shows T R = R 2d+1. A proof that T = R N for any N is in [3, pp ].

6 6 KEITH CONRAD Theorem A.4 (Bass). The following conditions on a commutative ring R are equivalent. (1) All stably free finitely generated R-modules are free. (2) All stably free finitely generated R-modules of even rank are free. Proof. It s clear that (1) (2). To show (2) (1), suppose M R k = R l (so k l) with l k an odd number. If k = 0 then M is free. If k > 0 then (M R) R k 1 = R l, so M R is stably free of even rank l (k 1). Then M R = R l k+1, so M = R N for some N by Lemma A.2. Therefore N R 2 is free of even rank l k + 1, so N is stably free of odd rank (l k + 1) 2 = l k 1. By induction N = R l k 1, so M = R N = R l k. References [1] A. A. Albert and B. Muckenhoupt, On matrices of trace zero, Michigan Math. J. 4 (1957), 1 3. [2] W.H. Gustafson, P. R. Halmos, J. M. Zelmanowitz, The Serre Conjecture, Amer. Math. Monthly 85 (1978), [3] T. Y. Lam, Serre s Problem on Projective Modules, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, [4] B. McDonald, Linear Algebra over Commutative Rings, Marcel Dekker, New York, [5] Z. Mesyan, Commutator Rings, Bull Austral. Math Soc. 74 (2006), [6] I. Reiner, Unimodular Complements, Amer. Math. Monthly 63 (1956), [7] I. Reiner, Completion of Primitive Matrices, Amer. Math. Monthly 73 (1966), [8] M. Rosset and S. Rosset, Elements of trace zero that are not commutators, Comm. Algebra 28 (2000),

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