Virasoro algebra

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In mathematics, the Virasoro algebra (named after the physicist Miguel Angel Virasoro) is a complex Lie algebra, given as a central extension of the complex polynomial vector fields on the circle, and is widely used in two-dimensional conformal field theory and in string theory.


The Virasoro algebra is spanned by elements for n ∈ ℤ and c. Here, the central element c is the central charge.

The algebra satisfies and


The factor of 1/12 is merely a matter of convention.

The Virasoro algebra is a central extension of the (complex) Witt algebra of complex polynomial vector fields on the circle. The Lie algebra of real polynomial vector fields on the circle is a dense subalgebra of the Lie algebra of diffeomorphisms of the circle.

Representation theory[edit]

Lowest weight representations[edit]

A lowest weight representation of the Virasoro algebra is a representation generated by a vector v that is annihilated by for i ≥ 1; but is an eigenvector of and c. The letters h and c are usually used for the eigenvalues of and c on v. (The same letter, c, is used for both the element c of the Virasoro algebra and its eigenvalue.)

For any pair of complex numbers h and c, the Verma module is the largest possible lowest weight representation. The Verma module is constructed by repeatedly acting on v with the creation operators , subject to the Virasoro commutation relations. The Verma module is always indecomposable, and for generic values of h and c it is also irreducible. When it is not irreducible, there exist other lowest weight representations with these eigenvalues, which are all cosets of the Verma module. In particular, the unique irreducible lowest weight representation with these eigenvalues is the coset of the Verma module by its maximal submodule.


A lowest weight representation is called unitary if it has a positive definite inner product, such that the adjoint of is . The irreducible lowest weight representation with eigenvalues h and c is unitary if and only if either c ≥1 and h≥0, or c is one of the values

for m = 2, 3, 4, ..., and h is one of the values

for r = 1, 2, 3, ..., m−1 and s= 1, 2, 3, ..., r.

Daniel Friedan, Zongan Qiu, and Stephen Shenker (1984) showed that these conditions are necessary, and Peter Goddard, Adrian Kent, and David Olive (1986) used the coset construction or GKO construction (identifying unitary representations of the Virasoro algebra within tensor products of unitary representations of affine Kac–Moody algebras) to show that they are sufficient.

The unitary irreducible lowest weight representations with c ≤ 1 are called the discrete series representations of the Virasoro algebra. These are special cases of the representations with m = q/(pq), 0<r<q, 0< s<p for p and q coprime integers and r and s integers, called the minimal models and first studied in Belavin et al. (1984).

The first few discrete series representations are given by:

  • m = 2: c = 0, h = 0. The trivial representation.
  • m = 3: c = 1/2, h = 0, 1/16, 1/2. These 3 representations are related to the Ising model
  • m = 4: c = 7/10. h = 0, 3/80, 1/10, 7/16, 3/5, 3/2. These 6 representations are related to the tri critical Ising model.
  • m = 5: c = 4/5. There are 10 representations, which are related to the 3-state Potts model.
  • m = 6: c = 6/7. There are 15 representations, which are related to the tri critical 3-state Potts model.


The lowest weight representations that are not irreducible can be read off from the Kac determinant formula, which states that the determinant of the invariant inner product on the degree h+N piece of the lowest weight module with eigenvalues c and h is given by

which was stated by V. Kac (1978), (see also Kac and Raina 1987) and whose first published proof was given by Feigin and Fuks (1984).

(The function p(N) is the partition function, and AN is some constant.) The reducible highest weight representations are the representations with h and c given in terms of m, c, and h by the formulas above, except that m is not restricted to be an integer ≥ 2 and may be any number other than 0 and 1, and r and s may be any positive integers. This result was used by Feigin and Fuks to find the characters of all irreducible lowest weight representations.


Conformal field theory[edit]

In two dimensions, the algebra of local conformal transformations is made of two copies of the Witt algebra. It follows that the symmetry algebra of a quantum field theory with local conformal symmetry is the Virasoro algebra.

String theory[edit]

Since the Virasoro algebra comprises the generators of the conformal group of the worldsheet, the stress tensor in string theory obeys the commutation relations of (two copies of) the Virasoro algebra. This is because the conformal group decomposes into separate diffeomorphisms of the forward and back lightcones. Diffeomorphism invariance of the worldsheet implies additionally that the stress tensor vanishes. This is known as the Virasoro constraint, and in the quantum theory, cannot be applied to all the states in the theory, but rather only on the physical states (compare Gupta-Bleuler quantization).


There are two supersymmetric N=1 extensions of the Virasoro algebra, called the Neveu-Schwarz algebra and the Ramond algebra. Their theory is similar to that of the Virasoro algebra, now involving Grassmann numbers. There are further extensions of these algebras with more supersymmetry, such as the N = 2 superconformal algebra.

The Virasoro algebra is a central extension of the Lie algebra of meromorphic vector fields on a genus 0 Riemann surface that are holomorphic except at two fixed points. I V Krichever and S P Novikov (1987) found a central extension of the Lie algebra of meromorphic vector fields on a higher genus compact Riemann surface that are holomorphic except at two fixed points, and their analysis has been extended to supermanifolds by J Rabin (1995).

The Virasoro algebra also has vertex algebraic and conformal algebraic counterparts, which basically come from arranging all the basis elements into generating series and working with single objects. Unsurprisingly these are called the vertex Virasoro and conformal Virasoro algebras respectively.

The Virasoro algebra may also be specified as a presentation. This is to say that all of its generators may be determined recursively ("generated") out of merely two judiciously chosen generators (e.g. L3 and L−2), and six equations (constraint conditions) among them, by systematic use of the Jacobi identity. (D Fairlie, J Nuyts, and C Zachos, 1988. Shortly thereafter, J Uretsky discovered the original 8 conditions could be pared down to six.)

Correspondingly, for the Super Virasoro algebra extension, the Ramond algebra follows from two generating generators and five conditions; and the Neveu-Schwarz algebra out of two such and nine conditions.


The Witt algebra (the Virasoro algebra without the central extension) was discovered by E. Cartan (1909). Its analogues over finite fields were studied by E. Witt in about the 1930s. The central extension of the Witt algebra that gives the Virasoro algebra was first found (in characteristic p>0) by R. E. Block (1966, page 381) and independently rediscovered (in characteristic 0) by I. M. Gelfand and D. B. Fuchs (de) (1968). Virasoro (1970) wrote down some operators generating the Virasoso algebra while studying dual resonance models, though he did not find the central extension. The central extension giving the Virasoro algebra was rediscovered in physics shortly after by J. H. Weis, according to Brower and Thorn (1971, footnote on page 167).

See also[edit]