Witt vector

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In mathematics, a Witt vector is an infinite sequence of elements of a commutative ring. Ernst Witt showed how to put a ring structure on the set of Witt vectors, in such a way that the ring of Witt vectors over the finite field of order is isomorphic to , the ring of -adic integers. They have a highly non-intuitive structure[1] upon first glance because their additive and multiplicative structure depends on an infinite set of recursive formulas which do not behave like addition and multiplication formulas for standard p-adic integers.

The main idea[1] behind Witt vectors is instead of using the standard -adic expansion

to represent an element in , we can instead consider an expansion using the Teichmüller character

which sends each element in the solution set of in to an element in the solution set of in . That is, we expand out elements in in terms of roots of unity instead of as profinite elements in . We can then express a -adic integer as an infinite sum

which gives a Witt vector

Then, the non-trivial additive and multiplicative structure in Witt vectors comes from using this map to give an additive and multiplicative structure such that induces a commutative ring morphism.


In the 19th century, Ernst Eduard Kummer studied cyclic extensions of fields as part of his work on Fermat's Last Theorem. This led to the subject now known as Kummer theory. Let be a field containing a primitive -th root of unity. Kummer theory classifies degree cyclic field extensions of . Such fields are in bijection with order cyclic groups , where corresponds to .

But suppose that has characteristic . The problem of studying degree extensions of , or more generally degree extensions, may appear superficially similar to Kummer theory. However, in this situation, cannot contain a primitive -th root of unity. Indeed, if is a -th root of unity in , then it satisfies . But consider the expression . By expanding using binomial coefficients we see that the operation of raising to the -th power, known here as the Frobenius homomorphism, introduces the factor to every coefficient except the first and the last, and so modulo these equations are the same. Therefore . Consequently, Kummer theory is never applicable to extensions whose degree is divisible by the characteristic.

The case where the characteristic divides the degree is today called Artin–Schreier theory because the first progress was made by Artin and Schreier. Their initial motivation was the Artin–Schreier theorem, which characterizes the real closed fields as those whose absolute Galois group has order two.[2] This inspired them to ask what other fields had finite absolute Galois groups. In the midst of proving that no other such fields exist, they proved that degree extensions of a field of characteristic were the same as splitting fields of Artin–Schreier polynomials. These are by definition of the form By repeating their construction, they described degree extensions. Abraham Adrian Albert used this idea to describe degree extensions. Each repetition entailed complicated algebraic conditions to ensure that the field extension was normal.[3]

Schmid[4] generalized further to non-commutative cyclic algebras of degree . In the process of doing so, certain polynomials related to the addition of -adic integers appeared. Witt seized on these polynomials. By using them systematically, he was able to give simple and unified constructions of degree field extensions and cyclic algebras. Specifically, he introduced a ring now called , the ring of -truncated -typical Witt vectors. This ring has as a quotient, and it comes with an operator which is called the Frobenius operator because it reduces to the Frobenius operator on . Witt observes that the degree analog of Artin–Schreier polynomials is

where . To complete the analogy with Kummer theory, define to be the operator Then the degree extensions of are in bijective correspondence with cyclic subgroups of order , where corresponds to the field .


Any -adic integer (an element of , not to be confused with ) can be written as a power series , where the are usually taken from the integer interval . It is hard to provide an algebraic expression for addition and multiplication using this representation, as one faces the problem of carrying between digits. However, taking representative coefficients is only one of many choices, and Hensel himself (the creator of -adic numbers) suggested the roots of unity in the field as representatives. These representatives are therefore the number together with the roots of unity; that is, the solutions of in , so that . This choice extends naturally to ring extensions of in which the residue field is enlarged to with , some power of . Indeed, it is these fields (the fields of fractions of the rings) that motivated Hensel's choice. Now the representatives are the solutions in the field to . Call the field , with an appropriate primitive root of unity (over ). The representatives are then and for . Since these representatives form a multiplicative set they can be thought of as characters. Some thirty years after Hensel's works Teichmüller studied these characters, which now bear his name, and this led him to a characterisation of the structure of the whole field in terms of the residue field. These Teichmüller representatives can be identified with the elements of the finite field of order by taking residues modulo in , and elements of are taken to their representatives by the Teichmüller character . This operation identifies the set of integers in with infinite sequences of elements of .

Taking those representatives the expressions for addition and multiplication can be written in closed form. We now have the following problem (stated for the simplest case: ): given two infinite sequences of elements of describe their sum and product as -adic integers explicitly. This problem was solved by Witt using Witt vectors.

Detailed motivational sketch[edit]

We derive the ring of -adic integers from the finite field using a construction which naturally generalizes to the Witt vector construction.

The ring of -adic integers can be understood as the inverse limit of the rings taken along the obvious projections. Specifically, it consists of the sequences with such that for That is, each successive element of the sequence is equal to the previous elements modulo a lower power of p; this is the inverse limit of the projections

The elements of can be expanded as (formal) power series in

where the coefficients are taken from the integer interval Of course, this power series usually will not converge in using the standard metric on the reals, but it will converge in with the -adic metric. We will sketch a method of defining ring operations for such power series.

Letting be denoted by , one might consider the following definition for addition:

and one could make a similar definition for multiplication. However, this is not a closed formula, since the new coefficients are not in the allowed set

Representing elements in Fp as elements in the ring of Witt vectors W(Fp)[edit]

There is a better coefficient subset of which does yield closed formulas, the Teichmüller representatives: zero together with the roots of unity. They can be explicitly calculated (in terms of the original coefficient representatives ) as roots of through Hensel lifting, the -adic version of Newton's method. For example, in to calculate the representative of one starts by finding the unique solution of in with ; one gets Repeating this in with the conditions and , gives and so on; the resulting Teichmüller representative of , denoted , is the sequence

The existence of a lift in each step is guaranteed by the greatest common divisor in every

This algorithm shows that for every , there is exactly one Teichmüller representative with , which we denote Indeed, this defines the Teichmüller character as a (multiplicative) group homomorphism, which moreover satisfies if we let denote the canonical projection. Note however that is not additive, as the sum need not be a representative. Despite this, if in then in

Representing elements in Zp as elements in the ring of Witt vectors W(Fp)[edit]

Because of this one-to-one correspondence given by , one can expand every -adic integer as a power series in with coefficients taken from the Teichmüller representatives. An explicit algorithm can be given, as follows. Write the Teichmüller representative as Then, if one has some arbitrary -adic integer of the form one takes the difference leaving a value divisible by . Hence, . The process is then repeated, subtracting and proceed likewise. This yields a sequence of congruences

So that

and implies:


Hence we have a power series for each residue of x modulo powers of p, but with coefficients in the Teichmüller representatives rather than . It is clear that


for all as so the difference tends to 0 with respect to the -adic metric. The resulting coefficients will typically differ from the modulo except the first one.

Additional properties of elements in the ring of Witt vectors motivating general definition[edit]

The Teichmüller coefficients have the key additional property that which is missing for the numbers in . This can be used to describe addition, as follows. Consider the equation in and let the coefficients now be as in the Teichmüller expansion. Since the Teichmüller character is not additive, is not true in . But it holds in as the first congruence implies. In particular,

and thus

Since the binomial coefficient is divisible by , this gives

This completely determines by the lift. Moreover, the congruence modulo indicates that the calculation can actually be done in satisfying the basic aim of defining a simple additive structure.

For this step is already very cumbersome. Write

Just as for a single th power is not enough: one must take

However, is not in general divisible by but it is divisible when in which case combined with similar monomials in will make a multiple of .

At this step, it becomes clear that one is actually working with addition of the form

This motivates the definition of Witt vectors.

Construction of Witt rings[edit]

Fix a prime number p. A Witt vector[5] over a commutative ring (relative to the prime ) is a sequence of elements of . Define the Witt polynomials by

and in general

The are called the ghost components of the Witt vector , and are usually denoted by ; taken together, the define the ghost map to . If is p-torsionfree, then the ghost map is injective and the ghost components can be thought of as an alternative coordinate system for the -module of sequences (though note that the ghost map is not surjective unless is p-divisible).

The ring of (p-typical) Witt vectors is defined by componentwise addition and multiplication of the ghost components. That is, that there is a unique way to make the set of Witt vectors over any commutative ring into a ring such that:

  1. the sum and product are given by polynomials with integral coefficients that do not depend on , and
  2. projection to each ghost component is a ring homomorphism from the Witt vectors over , to .

In other words,

  • and are given by polynomials with integral coefficients that do not depend on R, and
  • and

The first few polynomials giving the sum and product of Witt vectors can be written down explicitly. For example,

These are to be understood as shortcuts for the actual formulas. If for example the ring has characteristic , the division by in the first formula above, the one by that would appear in the next component and so forth, do not make sense. However, if the -power of the sum is developed, the terms are cancelled with the previous ones and the remaining ones are simplified by , no division by remains and the formula makes sense. The same consideration applies to the ensuing components.

Examples of addition and multiplication[edit]

As would be expected, the unit in the ring of Witt vectors is the element

Adding this element to itself gives a non-trivial sequence, for example in ,


which is not the expected behavior, since it doesn't equal . But, when we reduce with the map , we get . Note if we have an element and an element then

showing multiplication also behaves in a highly non-trivial manner.


  • The Witt ring of any commutative ring in which is invertible is just isomorphic to (the product of a countable number of copies of ). In fact the Witt polynomials always give a homomorphism from the ring of Witt vectors to , and if is invertible this homomorphism is an isomorphism.
  • The Witt ring of the finite field of order is the ring of -adic integers written in terms of the Teichmüller representatives, as demonstrated above.
  • The Witt ring of a finite field of order is the ring of integers of the unique unramified extension of degree of the ring of -adic numbers . Note for the -th root of unity, hence .

Universal Witt vectors[edit]

The Witt polynomials for different primes are special cases of universal Witt polynomials, which can be used to form a universal Witt ring (not depending on a choice of prime ). Define the universal Witt polynomials for by

and in general

Again, is called the vector of ghost components of the Witt vector , and is usually denoted by .

We can use these polynomials to define the ring of universal Witt vectors or big Witt ring of any commutative ring in much the same way as above (so the universal Witt polynomials are all homomorphisms to the ring ).

Generating Functions[edit]

Witt also provided another approach using generating functions.[6]


Let be a Witt vector and define

For let denote the collection of subsets of whose elements add up to . Then

We can get the ghost components by taking the logarithmic derivative:


Now we can see if . So that

if are the respective coefficients in the power series . Then

Since is a polynomial in and likewise for , we can show by induction that is a polynomial in


If we set then



Now 3-tuples with are in bijection with 3-tuples with , via ( is the least common multiple), our series becomes

So that

where are polynomials of So by similar induction, suppose

then can be solved as polynomials of

Ring schemes[edit]

The map taking a commutative ring to the ring of Witt vectors over (for a fixed prime ) is a functor from commutative rings to commutative rings, and is also representable, so it can be thought of as a ring scheme, called the Witt scheme, over The Witt scheme can be canonically identified with the spectrum of the ring of symmetric functions.

Similarly, the rings of truncated Witt vectors, and the rings of universal Witt vectors correspond to ring schemes, called the truncated Witt schemes and the universal Witt scheme.

Moreover, the functor taking the commutative ring to the set is represented by the affine space , and the ring structure on makes into a ring scheme denoted . From the construction of truncated Witt vectors, it follows that their associated ring scheme is the scheme with the unique ring structure such that the morphism given by the Witt polynomials is a morphism of ring schemes.

Commutative unipotent algebraic groups[edit]

Over an algebraically closed field of characteristic 0, any unipotent abelian connected algebraic group is isomorphic to a product of copies of the additive group . The analogue of this for fields of characteristic is false: the truncated Witt schemes are counterexamples. (We make them into algebraic groups by forgetting the multiplication and just using the additive structure.) However, these are essentially the only counterexamples: over an algebraically closed field of characteristic , any unipotent abelian connected algebraic group is isogenous to a product of truncated Witt group schemes.

Universal property[edit]

André Joyal explicated the universal property of the (p-typical) Witt vectors.[7] The basic intuition is that the formation of Witt vectors is the universal way to deform a characteristic ring to characteristic 0 together with a lift of its Frobenius endomorphism.[8] To make this precise, define a -ring to consist of a commutative ring together with a map of sets that is a -derivation, so that satisfies the relations

  • ;
  • ;
  • .

The definition is such that given a -ring , if one defines the map by the formula , then is a ring homomorphism lifting Frobenius on . Conversely, if is -torsionfree, then this formula uniquely defines the structure of a -ring on from that of a Frobenius lift. One may thus regard the notion of -ring as a suitable replacement for a Frobenius lift in the non -torsionfree case.

The collection of -rings and ring homomorphisms thereof respecting the -structure assembles to a category . One then has a forgetful functor

whose right adjoint identifies with the functor of Witt vectors. In fact, the functor creates limits and colimits and admits an explicitly describable left adjoint as a type of free functor; from this, it is not hard to show that inherits local presentability from so that one can construct the functor by appealing to the adjoint functor theorem.

One further has that restricts to a fully faithful functor on the full subcategory of perfect rings of characteristic p. Its essential image then consists of those -rings that are perfect (in the sense that the associated map is an isomorphism) and whose underlying ring is -adically complete.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Fisher, Benji (1999). "Notes on Witt Vectors: a motivated approach" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 20 Aug 2019.
  2. ^ Artin, Emil and Schreier, Otto, Über eine Kennzeichnung der reell abgeschlossenen Körper, Abh. Math. Sem. Hamburg 3 (1924).
  3. ^ A. A. Albert, Cyclic fields of degree over of characteristic , Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 40 (1934).
  4. ^ Schmid, H. L., Zyklische algebraische Funktionenkörper vom Grad pn über endlichen Konstantenkörper der Charakteristik p, Crelle 175 (1936).
  5. ^ Illusie, Luc (1979). "Complexe de de Rham-Witt et cohomologie cristalline". Annales scientifiques de l'École Normale Supérieure (in French). 12 (4): 501–661. doi:10.24033/asens.1374.
  6. ^ Lang, Serge (September 19, 2005). "Chapter VI: Galois Theory". Algebra (3rd ed.). Springer. pp. 330. ISBN 978-0-387-95385-4.
  7. ^ Joyal, André (1985). "δ-anneaux et vecteurs de Witt". C.R. Math. Rep. Acad. Sci. Canada. 7 (3): 177–182.
  8. ^ "Is there a universal property for Witt vectors?". MathOverflow. Retrieved 2022-09-06.
  9. ^ Bhatt, Bhargav (October 8, 2018). "Lecture II: Delta rings" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on September 6, 2022.