# Simple groups and the classification of finite groups

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1 Simple groups and the classification of finite groups 1 Finite groups of small order How can we describe all finite groups? Before we address this question, let s write down a list of all the finite groups of small orders 15, up to isomorphism. We have seen almost all of these already. If G is abelian, it is easy to write down all possible G of a given order, using the Fundamental Theorem of Finite Abelian Groups: G must be isomorphic to a direct product of cyclic groups, and any isomorphism between two such direct products is a consequence of the Chinese Remainder Theorem. For example, if #(G) = n and n is a product of distinct primes then G is cyclic, and hence isomorphic to Z/nZ. The only cases where this doesn t happen for n 15 are: n = 4 and G = Z/4Z or G = (Z/2Z) (Z/2Z). n = 8 and G = Z/8Z, G = (Z/4Z) (Z/2Z) or G = (Z/2Z) (Z/2Z) (Z/2Z). n = 9 and G = Z/9Z or G = (Z/3Z) (Z/3Z). n = 12 and G = (Z/4Z) (Z/3Z) or G = (Z/2Z) (Z/2Z) (Z/3Z). Note that, for n = 16, there are already 5 possibilities for G. In case G is not abelian, there are many orders which can t arise. For example, if #(G) = p, where p is a prime, then we have seen that G is abelian. We will show soon that, if #(G) = p 2, where p is a prime, then G is abelian. Also, if #(G) = pq, where p and q are distinct primes, say p < q, then G is abelian unless q 1 mod p, and in this case the nonabelian G can be described quite explicitly. Thus for example every group of order 15 is abelian, hence cyclic. The only possibilities then for nonabelian groups of order at most 15, up to isomorphism, are given by: n = 6 and G = S 3 = D3. n = 8; G = D 4 or G = Q, the quaternion group. 1

2 n = 10 and G = D 5. n = 12; G = D 6, G = A 4, or G = (Z/3Z) (Z/4Z), a certain group which we shall describe later. n = 14 and G = D 7. Lest one conclude that the list seems manageable, we mention that for n = 16, there are already 5 non-isomorphic groups of order 16 as well as 9 non-isomorphic nonabelian groups of order 16, and it is rather complicated to describe them all. In general, if n is divisible by a large power of a prime p, then it becomes very difficult to list all groups G with #(G) = n up to isomorphism. 2 Breaking up finite groups into simpler pieces We begin with a discussion of quotient groups as a way to break a group up into simpler pieces. Suppose for simplicity that G is a finite group and that H G. If H = {1}, then G/H = G, and if H = G then G/H = {G} is the trivial group with one element. So we suppose that H is a nontrivial proper normal subgroup of G, i.e. that H {1}, G. In this case 1 < #(H) < #(G), and hence 1 < #(G/H) < #(G) as well. We can think of this as saying that the subgroup H and quotient group G/H are simpler (smaller) groups and that G is somehow built out of the building blocks H and G/H. In general, however, this process is quite complicated. For example, Z/4Z has the nontrivial proper (normal) subgroup 2 = Z/2Z, and (as we have seen) the quotient group Z/4Z/ 2 = Z/2Z as well. This says that Z/4Z, the simplest group which has any proper nontrivial subgroup at all, is built out of two building blocks, each isomorphic to Z/2Z. However, if instead we look at (Z/2Z) (Z/2Z), it has the subgroup {0} Z/2Z, also isomorphic to Z/2Z, and (Z/2Z) (Z/2Z)/({0} Z/2Z) = Z/2Z as well. So (Z/2Z) (Z/2Z) is also built up from two building blocks, each isomorphic to Z/2Z, and there needs to be additional information in how they are put together in order to distinguish the end result (Z/2Z) (Z/2Z) from Z/4Z. In general the issue of how to reconstruct G given the knowledge of H and G/H is called the extension problem, and it is generally agreed to be a hopeless problem as stated. If there is a subgroup K of G such that π K is an isomorphism, where π : G G/H is the quotient homomorphism, then G can be described fairly concretely in terms of H and G/H = K (as we shall see), but this situation turns out to be rather rare. In the special case where H is an abelian subgroup of G, there is a mechanism (group 2

3 cohomology) for listing the possibilities for G given H and the group G/H (and an extra piece of data which we shall describe later). Let us give some more examples. For the group G = Z/6Z, we have the subgroup H = 2 Z/6Z, with H = Z/3Z and the quotient (Z/6Z)/ 2 = Z/2Z. We could also have looked at the subgroup 3 = Z/2Z. In this case Z/6Z/ 3 = Z/3Z. Thus in this case we could have used the building blocks in either order. Working instead with S 3, there is the unique normal subgroup A 3 = Z/3Z, and S3 /A 3 = Z/2Z. Here there is only one possible order. (We will also see later that there is a difference between how the building blocks for Z/6Z or for S 3 fit together.) For larger groups, we must continue this process. For example, for the quaternion group Q, we have the normal subgroup i (normal because it has index two), and the quotient group Q/ i = Z/4Z. This group can be further pulled apart as above, by looking at the subgroup 1 i. Putting this together, we have a sequence {1} 1 i Q, where each subgroup is normal in the next one, and the quotients are all isomorphic to Z/2Z. Of course, we could also have used the subgroups j or k in this picture instead of i. Working with D 4, or Z/8Z, or (Z/4Z) (Z/2Z), or (Z/2Z) (Z/2Z) (Z/2Z), would give a very similar picture. Another example is S 4, where we could begin with the normal subgroup A 4, then use the normal subgroup H of A 4, where H = {1, (12)(34), (13)(24), (14)(23)} = (Z/2Z) (Z/2Z), and finally take a subgroup of H isomorphic to Z/2Z, say K = {1, (12)(34)}. The picture would then look like {1} K H A 4 S 4, with the successive quotients isomorphic to Z/2Z, Z/2Z, Z/3Z, and Z/2Z. In general, we would attempt the following strategy: begin with the group G, and look for a nontrivial proper normal subgroup H G, leading to building blocks H, G/H. Then, on the left hand side, look for a nontrivial proper normal subgroup H H. On the right hand side, if we have found a nontrivial proper normal subgroup J G/H, then we can look at K = π 1 (J) G, where π : G G/H is the quotient homomorphism. Note that H K and that K/H = J since π K : K J is surjective with kernel H. The Third Isomorphism Theorem says that G/K = (G/H)/J. So the longer sequence of groups {1} H K G 3

4 has the building blocks H, J, G/K = (G/H)/K. consider a sequence In general, we would {1} G 0 G 1 G k 1 G k = G, where each G i G i+1, but G i is not necessarily a normal subgroup of G. If we can further pull apart the quotient G i+1 /G i by finding a nontrivial proper normal subgroup J G i+1 /G i, then the procedure outlined above tells us how to enlarge the sequence {G i } by adding an intermediate subgroup K with G i K G i+1. So we enlarge the sequence and continue. This procedure is called refining the sequence {G i }. If G is finite and we only work with nontrivial proper subgroups, the orders of the G i+1 /G i cannot decrease indefinitely, so this procedure must terminate. What makes the procedure terminate? For an even more basic question, what happens when, for a given G, we can t get started at all, because G has no proper normal subgroups? For example, if p is a prime, then the group Z/pZ has no nontrivial proper subgroups at all and hence no nontrivial proper normal subgroups. Let us make a definition: Definition 2.1. Let G be a group (not necessarily finite), with G not the trivial group. Then G is simple if it has no nontrivial proper normal subgroups, i.e. G is simple if G {1} and if, for every H G, either H = {1} or H = G. For example, Z/pZ is simple if p is prime. Optimistically, we might conjecture that, if a finite group G is simple, then conversely G = Z/pZ for some prime number p. However, as we shall see, this turns out not to be the case. The discussion above says that, if G is a finite group, then we can find a sequence of subgroups G i of G with the property that {1} G 0 G 1 G k 1 G k = G, and such that the quotient group G i+1 /G i is simple for every i. Such a sequence is called a composition series. It is not unique, but a result called the Jordan-Hölder theorem says that the set of simple quotient groups G i+1 /G i, together with how many times they appear, are independent of the choice of composition series. We note that a nontrivial finite abelian group A is simple A = Z/pZ for some prime number p. In fact, we have the following: Lemma 2.2. Let A be an abelian group (written additively), not necessarily finite. If A {0} and A is not isomorphic to Z/pZ, where p is a prime, then A has a nontrivial proper subgroup, necessarily normal. 4

5 Proof. For an abelian group A, A has no proper nontrivial normal subgroups A has no proper nontrivial subgroups, since every subgroup of an abelian group is automatically normal. We have seen in the homework that this is equivalent to: A = Z/pZ for some prime number p. Since every quotient of an abelian group is again abelian, this says that we can perform the procedure described earlier for a finite abelian group A and eventually reach a stage where there is a sequence of subgroups {0} A 0 A 1 A k 1 A k = A, where A i+1 /A i is a cyclic group of prime order. In general, let G be a group, not necessarily abelian, and suppose that there exists a sequence {1} G 0 G 1 G k 1 G k = G, where each G i G i+1 and G i+1 /G i is abelian. Then applying the above results for abelian groups and by successively refining the sequence {G i } as described above we can in fact assume that each G i+1 /G i is cyclic of prime order. In general, we make the following: Definition 2.3. Let G be a group (not necessarily finite), with G not the trivial group. Then G is solvable if there exists a sequence {1} G 0 G 1 G k 1 G k = G, where each G i G i+1 and G i+1 /G i is abelian. By the above remarks, G is solvable there exists a sequence as above such that G i+1 /G i is cyclic of prime order. (The term solvable comes from the theory of solving polynomial equations by radicals.) 3 Simple groups What are the possibilities for finite simple groups other than Z/pZ? First, there is the following, which we shall prove later and which is connected with the insolvability of polynomial equations of degree 5 and higher by radicals: Theorem 3.1. For n 5, the group A n is simple. As outlined in the homework, this leads to the following: 5

6 Corollary 3.2. For n 5, if H S n, then H is either {1}, A n, or S n. Thus, for n 5, the group S n has very few normal subgroups. The theorem shows that there exists a simple group of order n!/2 for every n 5, so of order 60, 360, 2520,... It turns out that 60 is the smallest possible order of a simple group not isomorphic to Z/pZ, and every simple group of order 60 is isomorphic to A 5. However, there are many other finite simple groups. Example 3.3. For every prime number p, there is a group P SL 2 (Z/pZ) which is simple for p 5. Begin with GL 2 (Z/pZ), the group of 2 2 matrices with coefficients in Z/2Z and with nonzero determinant. Thus GL 2 (Z/pZ) = { A = ( ) a b c d } : a, b, c, d Z/pZ, det A = ad bc 0. Elements of GL 2 (Z/pZ) are multiplied by the usual formulas for multiplying matrices, using the operations of addition and multiplication in Z/pZ. The usual formulas for the inverse of a 2 2 matrix show that, if det A 0, then A has an inverse and conversely. Thus GL 2 (Z/pZ) is a group, but it is not simple: By the usual properties of det, the function det: GL 2 (Z/pZ) (Z/pZ) is a surjective homomorphism, whose kernel by definition is the normal subgroup SL 2 (Z/pZ). The group SL 2 (Z/pZ) is also not simple, because it has a center {±I}, which as we have seen is always a normal subgroup of SL 2 (Z/pZ). Set P SL 2 (Z/pZ) = SL 2 (Z/pZ)/{±I} For p = 2, I = I and (Z/2Z) = {1}, so that P SL 2 (Z/2Z) = SL 2 (Z/2Z) = GL 2 (Z/2Z). One can show that in this case P SL 2 (Z/2Z) = S 3. For p > 2, it is not hard to show that P SL 2 (Z/pZ) has order 1 2 p(p2 1). Thus, #(P SL 2 (Z/3Z)) = 12, and in fact P SL 2 (Z/3Z) = A 4. For p = 5, P SL 2 (Z/5Z) has order 60 and it is isomorphic to A 5. But for p = 7, P SL 2 (Z/7Z) has order 168 and hence it is not isomorphic to A n for any n. In fact, by comparing orders, it is easy to see that, for all p 7, P SL 2 (Z/pZ) is not isomorphic to A n for any n. One can then show: Theorem 3.4. P SL 2 (Z/pZ) is simple for all p 5. What can one say about finite simple groups which are not cyclic? Burnside proved around 1900 that, if G is a finite simple group which is not cyclic, then #(G) is divisible by at least 3 primes. Feit and Thompson proved in 6

7 1965 that a finite simple group which is not cyclic has even order. The proof runs to over 250 pages. The complete classification of finite simple groups was felt to have been completed around 1983, and ran to several thousand pages of widely scattered journal articles, but later it was noticed that some details needed to elaborated, which ran to another thousand or so pages. This step was only completed in The answer is that, every finite simple group is isomorphic to Z/pZ for some prime p, or to A n for some n 5, or to one of 16 infinite series of groups most of which in some sense are a generalization of the groups P SL 2 (Z/pZ) (finite groups of Lie type and their generalizations), or to one of 26 so-called sporadic simple groups. The largest of the sporadic simple groups was finally constructed in 1981 and is called the Fischer-Griess monster group (or briefly the monster), although its existence had been conjectured for some time. It has order , and in a certain sense it contains almost all of the other sporadic simple groups within it. The monster group has very unexpected connections with number theory (modular forms) and mathematical physics (vertex operator algebras). 4 Proof that A n is simple Finally we prove Theorem 3.1, that A n is simple for n 5. We begin with the following lemma: Lemma 4.1. Suppose that n 5 and that H is a normal subgroup of A n. If H contains a 3-cycle, then H = A n. Proof. We have seen in the homework that A n is generated by the set of 3-cycles. So we will show that, if a normal subgroup H of A n contains a 3-cycle, then H contains all 3-cycles and hence H = A n. Suppose that (a, b, c) H is a 3-cycle. Let (d, e, f) be any 3-cycle. We claim that there exists a ρ A n such that ρ (a, b, c) ρ 1 = (d, e, f). Since H is normal, this implies that (d, e, f) H, hence that H contains all 3-cycles and thus that H = A n. To find ρ, choose σ S n such that σ(a) = d, σ(b) = e, σ(c) = f, and σ defines some bijection from {1, 2,..., n} {a, b, c} to {1, 2,..., n} {d, e, f}, which is clearly possible since both sets have n 3 elements. Note that σ (a, b, c) σ 1 = (σ(a), σ(b), σ(c)) = (d, e, f). If σ is even, we can just take ρ = σ A n, and then ρ (a, b, c) ρ 1 = (d, e, f). If σ is odd, since n 5, we 7

8 can choose two distinct elements x, y {1, 2,..., n} {a, b, c}. (This is the only place where we use n 5.) Then set ρ = σ (x, y). Since σ is odd, ρ is even and hence ρ A n. Also, ρ(a) = σ (x, y)(a) = σ(a) = d, and likewise ρ(b) = e, ρ(c) = f. Thus ρ (a, b, c) ρ 1 = (ρ(a), ρ(b), ρ(c)) = (d, e, f) as desired. The next step is: Lemma 4.2. A 5 is simple. Proof. By the previous lemma, we must show that, if H A 5 and H {1}, then H contains a 3-cycle. Now every element of A 5 is an even permutation in S 5 and hence is either the identity, a 3-cycle, a product of two disjoint transpositions, or a 5-cycle. Since H {1}, H contains either a 3-cycle, a product of two disjoint transpositions, or a 5-cycle. If H already contains a 3-cycle, we are done. If H contains a product (a, b)(c, d) of two disjoint transpositions, then there exists an e {1, 2, 3, 4, 5} with e a, b, c, d. Then σ = (a, b)(d, e) A 5 and σ (a, b)(c, d) σ 1 = (a, b)(c, e) H since H is normal. Hence (a, b)(c, d) (a, b)(c, e) H since H is closed under multiplication. But (a, b)(c, d)(a, b)(c, e) = (c, d)(c, e) = (c, e, d) H. Hence again H contains a 3-cycle. Finally, if H contains a 5-cycle (a, b, c, d, e), let σ = (a, b)(c, d) A 5. Then σ (a, b, c, d, e) σ 1 = (b, a, d, c, e) H, and hence (a, b, c, d, e) (b, a, d, c, e) H. But (a, b, c, d, e) (b, a, d, c, e) = (a, e, c) H, so that once again H contains a 3-cycle. So in all cases H contains a 3-cycle and hence H = A 5. We now complete the proof of the simplicity of A n. The proof is by induction on n, starting with the case n = 5, which is the statement of the previous lemma. Suppose inductively that n 6 and that we have proved that A n 1 is simple, and let H A n with H {1}. Recall that we have the subgroup H n S n defined by H n = {σ S n : σ(n) = n}. 8

9 Then H n = Sn 1 and H n A n = An 1 and hence is simple as well. If we can show that H (H n A n ) {1}, then H (H n A n ) is a normal subgroup of H n A n, not equal to {1}, and hence it is all of H n A n. In particular, H must contain a 3-cycle, hence H = A n. Since H A n, H (H n A n ) = H H n, and it suffices to prove that this subgroup is not {1}, i.e. that there exists a σ H with σ 1 and σ(n) = n. Since by assumption H {1}, there exists a σ H with σ 1. If σ(n) = n, we are done: σ H H n. Otherwise σ(n) = i with i n. First suppose that σ(i) = j with j n (note that σ(i) i since σ(n) = i). Thus when we write σ as a product of disjoint cycles, one of the cycles looks like (n, i, j,... ). Choose some k n, i, j. The element (j, k) is odd, but since n 6, there exist a, b {1, 2,..., n} with a, b distinct elements not equal to n, i, j, k, and ρ = (j, k)(a, b) is even. Then ρ σ ρ 1 H since H is normal, and hence τ = σ 1 ρ σ ρ 1 H since H is closed under taking inverses and products. Now ρ(n) = n by construction, and hence τ(n) = σ 1 ρ σ ρ 1 (n) = σ 1 ρ σ(n) = σ 1 ρ(i) = σ 1 (i) = n. Thus τ H H n. Finally, we claim that τ 1. To see this, note that τ(i) = σ 1 ρ σ ρ 1 (i) = σ 1 ρ σ(i) = σ 1 ρ(j) = σ 1 (k). We cannot have σ 1 (k) = i, for otherwise σ(i) = k, but also σ(i) = j k, which is impossible. Hence τ(i) i, so that τ 1. The remaining case is where σ(n) = i with i n and σ(i) = n. This case is similar in spirit to the previous case. Since σ is even, σ (n, i), and so there exists a j n, i with σ(j) = k n, i. (Think of writing σ as a product of disjoint cycles of lengths at least two: one such looks like (n, i) and there must be another which begins (j, k,... ).) Again using n 6, there exist l, m which are distinct and not equal to any of n, i, j, k. Let ρ = (j, l, m). Then ρ A n since ρ is a 3-cycle, and, setting τ = σ 1 ρ σ ρ 1, τ H as before. But τ(n) = σ 1 ρ σ ρ 1 (n) = σ 1 ρ σ(n) = σ 1 ρ(i) = σ 1 (i) = n; τ(l) = σ 1 ρ σ ρ 1 (l) = σ 1 ρ σ(j) = σ 1 ρ(k) = σ 1 (k) = j. The first equation says that τ H H n, and the second says that τ(l) = j l, so that τ 1. Hence in both cases H H n {1} and we are done. 9

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