Representation theory of SU(2)
In the study of the representation theory of Lie groups, the study of representations of SU(2) is fundamental to the study of representations of semisimple Lie groups. It is the first case of a Lie group that is both a compact group and a non-abelian group. The first condition implies the representation theory is discrete: representations are direct sums of a collection of basic irreducible representations (governed by the Peter–Weyl theorem). The second means that there will be irreducible representations in dimensions greater than 1.
SU(2) is the universal covering group of SO(3), and so its representation theory includes that of the latter. This also specifies importance of SU(2) for description of non-relativistic spin in theoretical physics; see below for other physical and historical context.
Lie algebra representations
The representations of the group are found by considering representations of , the Lie algebra of SU(2). In principle this is the 'infinitesimal version' of SU(2); Lie algebras consist of infinitesimal transformations, and their Lie groups to 'integrated' transformations. In what follows, we shall consider the complex Lie algebra (i.e. the complexification of the Lie algebra), which doesn't affect the representation theory.
The Lie algebra is spanned by three elements e, f and h with the Lie brackets
(These elements may be expressed in terms of matrices I1, I2 and I3 which are related to the Pauli matrices by multiplication by a factor of −i. e = I1 + i I2, f = I1 − i I2, and h = I3.)
Since is semisimple, the representation ρ(h) is always diagonalizable (for complex number scalars). Its eigenvalues are called the weights. Its eigenvectors can be taken as a basis for the vector space the group acts upon. The dimension of the representation can be determined by counting the number of these eigenvectors.
Suppose x is an eigenvector of weight α. Then,
In other words, e raises the weight by one and f reduces the weight by one. e and f are referred to as ladder operators, taking us between eigenvectors or to 0. A consequence is that
is a Casimir invariant and commutes with the generators of the algebra. By Schur's lemma, its action is proportional to the identity map, for irreducible representations. It is convenient to write the constant of proportionality as λ(λ + 1). (The expression is equal to defined as , which is related to the magnitude of angular momentum operator in quantum physics.)
Let α1 be a weight which is greater than all the other weights. Let x be an h-eigenvector of eigenvalue . Then e(x) = 0. If the representation is irreducible, using the commutation relations we can calculate that . Since x is nonzero, is either λ or −λ − 1.
Likewise, let α2 be a weight which is lower than all the other weights. Let x be an eigenvector of α2, so f(x) = 0. If the representation is irreducible, using the commutation relations , and so is either λ + 1 or −λ.
For an irreducible finite-dimensional representation, the highest weight can't be less than the lowest weight. In addition, the difference between them has to be an integer because if the difference isn't an integer, there will always be a weight which is one more or one less than any given weight, contradicting the assumption of finite-dimensionality.
Since λ < λ + 1 and −λ − 1 < −λ, without any loss of generality we can assume the highest weight is λ (if it's −λ − 1, just redefine a new λ′ as −λ − 1) and the lowest weight would then have to be −λ. This means λ has to be an integer or half-integer. Every weight is a number between λ and −λ which differs from them by an integer.
Furthermore, each weight has multiplicity one. If this were not the case, we could define a proper subrepresentation generated by an eigenvector of λ and f applied to it any number of times, contradicting the assumption of irreducibility.
This construction also shows for any given nonnegative integer multiple of half λ, all finite-dimensional irreps with λ as its highest weight are equivalent (just make an identification of a highest weight eigenvector of one with one of the other).
See under the example for Borel–Bott–Weil theorem.
Most important irreducible representations and their applications
As stated above, representations of SU(2) describe non-relativistic spin due to double covering of the rotation group of Euclidean 3-space. Relativistic spin is described with representation theory of SL2(C), a supergroup of SU(2), which in the similar way covers SO+(1;3), the relativistic version of rotation group. SU(2) symmetry also supports concepts of isobaric spin and weak isospin, collectively known as isospin.
λ = 1/ gives the 2 representation, the fundamental representation of SU(2). When an element of SU(2) is written as a complex 2 × 2 matrix, it is simply a multiplication of column 2-vectors. It is known in physics as the spin-½ and, historically, as the multiplication of quaternions (more precisely, multiplication by a unit quaternion).
λ = 1 gives the 3 representation, the adjoint representation. It describes 3-d rotations, the standard representation of SO(3), so real numbers are sufficient for it. Physicists use it for the description of massive spin-1 particles, such as vector mesons, but its importance for the spin theory is much higher because it anchors spin states to the geometry of the physical 3-space. This representation emerged simultaneously with the 2 when William Rowan Hamilton introduced versors, his term for elements of SU(2). Note that Hamilton did not use standard group theory terminology since he preceded Lie group developments.
- Rotation operator (vector space)
- Rotation operator (quantum mechanics)
- representation theory of SL2(R)
- Electroweak interaction
- Rotation group SO(3)#A note on representations
- Gerard 't Hooft (2007), Lie groups in Physics, Chapter 5 "Ladder operators"