Spin representation

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In mathematics, the spin representations are particular projective representations of the orthogonal or special orthogonal groups in arbitrary dimension and signature (i.e., including indefinite orthogonal groups). More precisely, they are representations of the spin groups, which are double covers of the special orthogonal groups. They are usually studied over the real or complex numbers, but they can be defined over other fields.

Elements of a spin representation are called spinors. They play an important role in the physical description of fermions such as the electron.

The spin representations may be constructed in several ways, but typically the construction involves (perhaps only implicitly) the choice of a maximal isotropic subspace in the vector representation of the group. Over the real numbers, this usually requires using a complexification of the vector representation. For this reason, it is convenient to define the spin representations over the complex numbers first, and derive real representations by introducing real structures.

The properties of the spin representations depend, in a subtle way, on the dimension and signature of the orthogonal group. In particular, spin representations often admit invariant bilinear forms, which can be used to embed the spin groups into classical Lie groups. In low dimensions, these embeddings are surjective and determine special isomorphisms between the spin groups and more familiar Lie groups; this elucidates the properties of spinors in these dimensions.

Set up[edit]

Let V be a finite-dimensional real or complex vector space with a nondegenerate quadratic form Q. The (real or complex) linear maps preserving Q form the orthogonal group O(V, Q). The identity component of the group is called the special orthogonal group SO(V, Q). (For V real with an indefinite quadratic form, this terminology is not standard: the special orthogonal group is usually defined to be a subgroup with two components in this case.) Up to group isomorphism, SO(V, Q) has a unique connected double cover, the spin group Spin(V, Q). There is thus a group homomorphism Spin(V, Q) → SO(V, Q) whose kernel has two elements denoted {1, −1}, where 1 is the identity element.

The groups O(V, Q), SO(V, Q) and Spin(V, Q) are all Lie groups, and for fixed (V, Q) they have the same Lie algebra, so(V, Q). If V is real, then V is a real vector subspace of its complexification VC = VR C, and the quadratic form Q extends naturally to a quadratic form QC on VC. This embeds SO(V, Q) as a subgroup of SO(VC, QC), and hence we may realise Spin(V, Q) as a subgroup of Spin(VC, QC). Furthermore, so(VC, QC) is the complexification of so(V, Q).

In the complex case, quadratic forms are determined up to isomorphism by the dimension n of V. Concretely, we may assume V = Cn and

The corresponding Lie groups and Lie algebra are denoted O(n, C), SO(n, C), Spin(n, C) and so(n, C).

In the real case, quadratic forms are determined up to isomorphism by a pair of nonnegative integers (p, q) where n = p + q is the dimension of V, and pq is the signature. Concretely, we may assume V = Rn and

The corresponding Lie groups and Lie algebra are denoted O(p, q), SO(p, q), Spin(p, q) and so(p, q). We write Rp,q in place of Rn to make the signature explicit.

The spin representations are, in a sense, the simplest representations of Spin(n, C) and Spin(p, q) that do not come from representations of SO(n, C) and SO(p, q). A spin representation is, therefore, a real or complex vector space S together with a group homomorphism ρ from Spin(n, C) or Spin(p, q) to the general linear group GL(S) such that the element −1 is not in the kernel of ρ.

If S is such a representation, then according to the relation between Lie groups and Lie algebras, it induces a Lie algebra representation, i.e., a Lie algebra homomorphism from so(n, C) or so(p, q) to the Lie algebra gl(S) of endomorphisms of S with the commutator bracket.

Spin representations can be analysed according to the following strategy: if S is a real spin representation of Spin(p, q), then its complexification is a complex spin representation of Spin(p, q); as a representation of so(p, q), it therefore extends to a complex representation of so(n, C). Proceeding in reverse, we therefore first construct complex spin representations of Spin(n, C) and so(n, C), then restrict them to complex spin representations of so(p, q) and Spin(p, q), then finally analyse possible reductions to real spin representations.

Complex spin representations[edit]

Let V = Cn with the standard quadratic form Q so that

The symmetric bilinear form on V associated to Q by polarization is denoted ⟨.,.⟩.

Isotropic subspaces and root systems[edit]

A standard construction of the spin representations of so(n, C) begins with a choice of a pair (W, W) of maximal isotropic subspaces of V with WW = 0. Let us make such a choice. If n = 2m or n = 2m + 1, then W and W both have dimension m. If n = 2m, then V = WW, whereas if n = 2m + 1, then V = WUW, where U is the 1-dimensional orthogonal complement to WW. The bilinear form ⟨.,.⟩ induces a pairing between W and W, which must be nondegenerate, because W and W are isotropic subspaces and Q is nondegenerate. Hence W and W are dual vector spaces.

More concretely, let a1, … am be a basis for W. Then there is a unique basis α1, ... αm of W such that

If A is an m × m matrix, then A induces an endomorphism of W with respect to this basis and the transpose AT induces a transformation of W with

for all w in W and w in W. It follows that the endomorphism ρA of V, equal to A on W, AT on W and zero on U (if n is odd), is skew,

for all u, v in V, and hence (see classical group) an element of so(n, C) ⊂ End(V).

Using the diagonal matrices in this construction defines a Cartan subalgebra h of so(n, C): the rank of so(n, C) is m, and the diagonal n × n matrices determine an m-dimensional abelian subalgebra.

Let ε1, … εm be the basis of h such that, for a diagonal matrix A, εk(ρA) is the kth diagonal entry of A. Clearly this is a basis for h. Since the bilinear form identifies so(n, C) with , explicitly,


it is now easy to construct the root system associated to h. The root spaces (simultaneous eigenspaces for the action of h) are spanned by the following elements:

with root (simultaneous eigenvalue)
(which is in h if i = j) with root
with root

and, if n is odd, and u is a nonzero element of U,

with root
with root

Thus, with respect to the basis ε1, … εm, the roots are the vectors in h that are permutations of

together with the permutations of

if n = 2m + 1 is odd.

A system of positive roots is given by εi + εj (ij), εiεj (i < j) and (for n odd) εi. The corresponding simple roots are

The positive roots are nonnegative integer linear combinations of the simple roots.

Spin representations and their weights[edit]

One construction of the spin representations of so(n, C) uses the exterior algebra(s)


There is an action of V on S such that for any element v = w + w in WW and any ψ in S the action is given by:

where the second term is a contraction (interior multiplication) defined using the bilinear form, which pairs W and W. This action respects the Clifford relations v2 = Q(v)1, and so induces a homomorphism from the Clifford algebra ClnC of V to End(S). A similar action can be defined on S, so that both S and S are Clifford modules.

The Lie algebra so(n, C) is isomorphic to the complexified Lie algebra spinnC in ClnC via the mapping induced by the covering Spin(n) → SO(n)

It follows that both S and S are representations of so(n, C). They are actually equivalent representations, so we focus on S.

The explicit description shows that the elements αiai of the Cartan subalgebra h act on S by

A basis for S is given by elements of the form

for 0 ≤ km and i1 < ... < ik. These clearly span weight spaces for the action of h: αiai has eigenvalue −1/2 on the given basis vector if i = ij for some j, and has eigenvalue 1/2 otherwise.

It follows that the weights of S are all possible combinations of

and each weight space is one-dimensional. Elements of S are called Dirac spinors.

When n is even, S is not an irreducible representation: and are invariant subspaces. The weights divide into those with an even number of minus signs, and those with an odd number of minus signs. Both S+ and S are irreducible representations of dimension 2m−1 whose elements are called Weyl spinors. They are also known as chiral spin representations or half-spin representations. With respect to the positive root system above, the highest weights of S+ and S are


respectively. The Clifford action identifies ClnC with End(S) and the even subalgebra is identified with the endomorphisms preserving S+ and S. The other Clifford module S′ is isomorphic to S in this case.

When n is odd, S is an irreducible representation of so(n,C) of dimension 2m: the Clifford action of a unit vector uU is given by

and so elements of so(n,C) of the form uw or uw do not preserve the even and odd parts of the exterior algebra of W. The highest weight of S is

The Clifford action is not faithful on S: ClnC can be identified with End(S) ⊕ End(S′), where u acts with the opposite sign on S′. More precisely, the two representations are related by the parity involution α of ClnC (also known as the principal automorphism), which is the identity on the even subalgebra, and minus the identity on the odd part of ClnC. In other words, there is a linear isomorphism from S to S′, which identifies the action of A in ClnC on S with the action of α(A) on S′.

Bilinear forms[edit]

if λ is a weight of S, so is −λ. It follows that S is isomorphic to the dual representation S.

When n = 2m + 1 is odd, the isomorphism B: SS is unique up to scale by Schur's lemma, since S is irreducible, and it defines a nondegenerate invariant bilinear form β on S via

Here invariance means that

for all ξ in so(n,C) and φ, ψ in S — in other words the action of ξ is skew with respect to β. In fact, more is true: S is a representation of the opposite Clifford algebra, and therefore, since ClnC only has two nontrivial simple modules S and S′, related by the parity involution α, there is an antiautomorphism τ of ClnC such that

for any A in ClnC. In fact τ is reversion (the antiautomorphism induced by the identity on V) for m even, and conjugation (the antiautomorphism induced by minus the identity on V) for m odd. These two antiautomorphisms are related by parity involution α, which is the automorphism induced by minus the identity on V. Both satisfy τ(ξ) = −ξ for ξ in so(n,C).

When n = 2m, the situation depends more sensitively upon the parity of m. For m even, a weight λ has an even number of minus signs if and only if −λ does; it follows that there are separate isomorphisms B±: S±S± of each half-spin representation with its dual, each determined uniquely up to scale. These may be combined into an isomorphism B: SS. For m odd, λ is a weight of S+ if and only if −λ is a weight of S; thus there is an isomorphism from S+ to S, again unique up to scale, and its transpose provides an isomorphism from S to S+. These may again be combined into an isomorphism B: SS.

For both m even and m odd, the freedom in the choice of B may be restricted to an overall scale by insisting that the bilinear form β corresponding to B satisfies (1), where τ is a fixed antiautomorphism (either reversion or conjugation).

Symmetry and the tensor square[edit]

The symmetry properties of β: SSC can be determined using Clifford algebras or representation theory. In fact much more can be said: the tensor square SS must decompose into a direct sum of k-forms on V for various k, because its weights are all elements in h whose components belong to {−1,0,1}. Now equivariant linear maps SS → ∧kV correspond bijectively to invariant maps ∧kVSSC and nonzero such maps can be constructed via the inclusion of ∧kV into the Clifford algebra. Furthermore, if β(φ,ψ) = ε β(ψ,φ) and τ has sign εk on ∧kV then

for A in ∧kV.

If n = 2m+1 is odd then it follows from Schur's Lemma that

(both sides have dimension 22m and the representations on the right are inequivalent). Because the symmetries are governed by an involution τ that is either conjugation or reversion, the symmetry of the ∧2jV component alternates with j. Elementary combinatorics gives

and the sign determines which representations occur in S2S and which occur in ∧2S.[2] In particular


for vV (which is isomorphic to ∧2mV), confirming that τ is reversion for m even, and conjugation for m odd.

If n = 2m is even, then the analysis is more involved, but the result is a more refined decomposition: S2S±, ∧2S± and S+S can each be decomposed as a direct sum of k-forms (where for k = m there is a further decomposition into selfdual and antiselfdual m-forms).

The main outcome is a realisation of so(n,C) as a subalgebra of a classical Lie algebra on S, depending upon n modulo 8, according to the following table:

n mod 8 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Spinor algebra

For n ≤ 6, these embeddings are isomorphisms (onto sl rather than gl for n = 6):

Real representations[edit]

The complex spin representations of so(n,C) yield real representations S of so(p,q) by restricting the action to the real subalgebras. However, there are additional "reality" structures that are invariant under the action of the real Lie algebras. These come in three types.

  1. There is an invariant complex antilinear map r: SS with r2 = idS. The fixed point set of r is then a real vector subspace SR of S with SRC = S. This is called a real structure.
  2. There is an invariant complex antilinear map j: SS with j2 = −idS. It follows that the triple i, j and k:=ij make S into a quaternionic vector space SH. This is called a quaternionic structure.
  3. There is an invariant complex antilinear map b: SS that is invertible. This defines a pseudohermitian bilinear form on S and is called a hermitian structure.

The type of structure invariant under so(p,q) depends only on the signature pq modulo 8, and is given by the following table.

pq mod 8 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Structure R + R R C H H + H H C R

Here R, C and H denote real, hermitian and quaternionic structures respectively, and R + R and H + H indicate that the half-spin representations both admit real or quaternionic structures respectively.

Description and tables[edit]

To complete the description of real representation, we must describe how these structures interact with the invariant bilinear forms. Since n = p + qpq mod 2, there are two cases: the dimension and signature are both even, and the dimension and signature are both odd.

The odd case is simpler, there is only one complex spin representation S, and hermitian structures do not occur. Apart from the trivial case n = 1, S is always even-dimensional, say dim S = 2N. The real forms of so(2N,C) are so(K,L) with K + L = 2N and so(N,H), while the real forms of sp(2N,C) are sp(2N,R) and sp(K,L) with K + L = N. The presence of a Clifford action of V on S forces K = L in both cases unless pq = 0, in which case KL=0, which is denoted simply so(2N) or sp(N). Hence the odd spin representations may be summarized in the following table.

n mod 8 1, 7 3, 5
p-q mod 8 so(2N,C) sp(2N,C)
1, 7 R so(N,N) or so(2N) sp(2N,R)
3, 5 H so(N,H) sp(N/2,N/2) or sp(N)

(†) N is even for n > 3 and for n = 3, this is sp(1).

The even-dimensional case is similar. For n > 2, the complex half-spin representations are even-dimensional. We have additionally to deal with hermitian structures and the real forms of sl(2N, C), which are sl(2N, R), su(K, L) with K + L = 2N, and sl(N, H). The resulting even spin representations are summarized as follows.

n mod 8 0 2, 6 4
p-q mod 8 so(2N,C)+so(2N,C) sl(2N,C) sp(2N,C)+sp(2N,C)
0 R+R so(N,N)+so(N,N) sl(2N,R) sp(2N,R)+sp(2N,R)
2, 6 C so(2N,C) su(N,N) sp(2N,C)
4 H+H so(N,H)+so(N,H) sl(N,H) sp(N/2,N/2)+sp(N/2,N/2)

(*) For pq = 0, we have instead so(2N) + so(2N)

(†) N is even for n > 4 and for pq = 0 (which includes n = 4 with N = 1), we have instead sp(N) + sp(N)

The low-dimensional isomorphisms in the complex case have the following real forms.

Euclidean signature Minkowskian signature Other signatures

The only special isomorphisms of real Lie algebras missing from this table are and


  1. ^ Fulton & Harris 1991 Chapter 20, p.303. The factor 2 is not important, it is there to agree with the Clifford algebra construction.
  2. ^ This sign can also be determined from the observation that if φ is a highest weight vector for S then φφ is a highest weight vector for ∧mV ≅ ∧m+1V, so this summand must occur in S2S.