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This is a sequel to my previous blog post “Cayley graphs and the geometry of groups“. In that post, the concept of a Cayley graph of a group ${G}$ was used to place some geometry on that group ${G}$. In this post, we explore a variant of that theme, in which (fragments of) a Cayley graph on ${G}$ is used to describe the basic algebraic structure of ${G}$, and in particular on elementary word identities in ${G}$. Readers who are familiar with either category theory or group homology/cohomology will recognise these concepts lurking not far beneath the surface; we wil remark briefly on these connections later in this post. However, no knowledge of categories or cohomology is needed for the main discussion, which is primarily focused on elementary group theory.

Throughout this post, we fix a single group ${G = (G,\cdot)}$, which is allowed to be non-abelian and/or infinite. All our graphs will be directed, with loops and multiple edges permitted.

In the previous post, we drew the entire Cayley graph of a group ${G}$. Here, we will be working much more locally, and will only draw the portions of the Cayley graph that are relevant to the discussion. In this graph, the vertices are elements ${x}$ of the group ${G}$, and one draws a directed edge from ${x}$ to ${xg}$ labeled (or “coloured”) by the group element ${g}$ for any ${x, g \in G}$; the graph consisting of all such vertices and edges will be denoted ${Cay(G,G)}$. Thus, a typical edge in ${Cay(G,G)}$ looks like this:

Figure 1.

One usually does not work with the complete Cayley graph ${Cay(G,G)}$. It is customary to instead work with smaller Cayley graphs ${Cay(G,S)}$, in which the edge colours ${g}$ are restricted to a smaller subset of ${G}$, such as a set of generators for ${G}$. As we will be working locally, we will in fact work with even smaller fragments of ${Cay(G,G)}$ at a time; in particular, we only use a handful of colours (no more than nine, in fact, for any given diagram), and we will not require these colours to generate the entire group (we do not care if the Cayley graph is connected or not, as this is a global property rather than a local one).

Cayley graphs are left-invariant: for any ${a \in G}$, the left translation map ${x \mapsto ax}$ is a graph isomorphism. To emphasise this left invariance, we will usually omit the vertex labels, and leave only the coloured directed edge, like so:

Figure 2.

This is analogous to how, in undergraduate mathematics and physics, vectors in Euclidean space are often depicted as arrows of a given magnitude and direction, with the initial and final points of this arrow being of secondary importance only. (Indeed, this depiction of vectors in a vector space can be viewed as an abelian special case of the more general depiction of group elements used in this post.)

Let us define a diagram to be a finite directed graph ${H = (V,E)}$, with edges coloured by elements of ${G}$, which has at least one graph homomorphism into the complete Cayley graph ${Cay(G,G)}$ of ${G}$; thus there exists a map ${\phi: V \rightarrow G}$ (not necessarily injective) with the property that ${\phi(w) = \phi(v) g}$ whenever ${(v,w)}$ is a directed edge in ${H}$ coloured by a group element ${g \in G}$. Informally, a diagram is a finite subgraph of a Cayley graph with the vertex labels omitted, and with distinct vertices permitted to represent the same group element. Thus, for instance, the single directed edge displayed in Figure 2 is a very simple example of a diagram. An even simpler example of a diagram would be a depiction of the identity element:

Figure 3.

We will however omit the identity loops in our diagrams in order to reduce clutter.

We make the obvious remark that any directed edge in a diagram can be coloured by at most one group element ${g}$, since ${y=xg, y=xh}$ implies ${g=h}$. This simple observation provides a way to prove group theoretic identities using diagrams: to show that two group elements ${g, h}$ are equal, it suffices to show that they connect together (with the same orientation) the same pair of vertices in a diagram.

Remark 1 One can also interpret these diagrams as commutative diagrams in a category in which all the objects are copies of ${G}$, and the morphisms are right-translation maps. However, we will deviate somewhat from the category theoretic way of thinking here by focusing on the geometric arrangement and shape of these diagrams, rather than on their abstract combinatorial description. In particular, we view the arrows more as distorted analogues of vector arrows, than as the abstract arrows appearing in category theory.

Just as vector addition can be expressed via concatenation of arrows, group multiplication can be described by concatenation of directed edges. Indeed, for any ${x,g,h \in G}$, the vertices ${x, xg, xgh}$ can be connected by the following triangular diagram:

Figure 4.

In a similar spirit, inversion is described by the following diagram:

Figure 5.

We make the pedantic remark though that we do not consider a ${g^{-1}}$ edge to be the reversal of the ${g}$ edge, but rather as a distinct edge that just happens to have the same initial and final endpoints as the reversal of the ${g}$ edge. (This will be of minor importance later, when we start integrating “${1}$-forms” on such edges.)

A fundamental operation for us will be that of gluing two diagrams together.

Lemma 1 ((Labeled) gluing) Let ${D_1 = (V_1,E_1), D_2 = (V_2,E_2)}$ be two diagrams of a given group ${G}$. Suppose that the intersection ${D_1 \cap D_2 := (V_1 \cap V_2, E_1 \cap E_2)}$ of the two diagrams connects all of ${V_1 \cap V_2}$ (i.e. any two elements of ${V_1 \cap V_2}$ are joined by a path in ${D_1 \cap D_2}$). Then the union ${D_1 \cup D_2 := (V_1 \cup V_2, E_1 \cup E_2)}$ is also a diagram of ${G}$.

Proof: By hypothesis, we have graph homomorphisms ${\phi_1: D_1 \rightarrow Cay(G,G)}$, ${\phi_2: D_2 \rightarrow Cay(G,G)}$. If they agree on ${D_1 \cap D_2}$ then one simply glues together the two homomorphisms to create a new graph homomorphism ${\phi: D_1 \cup D_2 \rightarrow Cay(G,G)}$. If they do not agree, one can apply a left translation to either ${\phi_1}$ or ${\phi_2}$ to make the two diagrams agree on at least one vertex of ${D_1 \cap D_2}$; then by the connected nature of ${D_1 \cap D_2}$ we see that they now must agree on all vertices of ${D_1 \cap D_2}$, and then we can form the glued graph homomorphism as before. $\Box$

The above lemma required one to specify the label the vertices of ${D_1,D_2}$ (in order to form the intersection ${D_1 \cap D_2}$ and union ${D_1 \cup D_2}$). However, if one is presented with two diagrams ${D_1, D_2}$ with unlabeled vertices, one can identify some partial set of vertices of ${D_1}$ with a partial set of vertices of ${D_2}$ of matching cardinality. Provided that the subdiagram common to ${D_1}$ and ${D_2}$ after this identification connects all of the common vertices together, we may use the above lemma to create a glued diagram ${D}$.

For instance, if a diagram ${D}$ contains two of the three edges in the triangular diagram in Figure 4, one can “fill in” the triangle by gluing in the third edge:

Figure 6.

One can use glued diagrams to demonstrate various basic group-theoretic identities. For instance, by gluing together two copies of the triangular diagram in Figure 4 to create the glued diagram

Figure 7.

and then filling in two more triangles, we obtain a tetrahedral diagram that demonstrates the associative law ${(gh)k = g(hk)}$:

Figure 8.

Similarly, by gluing together two copies of Figure 4 with three copies of Figure 5 in an appropriate order, we can demonstrate the Abel identity ${(gh)^{-1} = h^{-1} g^{-1}}$:

Figure 9.

In addition to gluing, we will also use the trivial operation of erasing: if ${D}$ is a diagram for a group ${G}$, then any subgraph of ${D}$ (formed by removing vertices and/or edges) is also a diagram of ${G}$. This operation is not strictly necessary for our applications, but serves to reduce clutter in the pictures.

If two group elements ${g, h}$ commute, then we obtain a parallelogram as a diagram, exactly as in the vector space case:

Figure 10.

In general, of course, two arbitrary group elements ${g,h}$ will fail to commute, and so this parallelogram is no longer available. However, various substitutes for this diagram exist. For instance, if we introduce the conjugate ${g^h := h^{-1} g h}$ of one group element ${g}$ by another, then we have the following slightly distorted parallelogram:

Figure 11.

By appropriate gluing and filling, this can be used to demonstrate the homomorphism properties of a conjugation map ${g \mapsto g^h}$:

Figure 12.

Figure 13.

Another way to replace the parallelogram in Figure 10 is to introduce the commutator ${[g,h] := g^{-1}h^{-1}gh}$ of two elements, in which case we can perturb the parallelogram into a pentagon:

Figure 14.

We will tend to depict commutator edges as being somewhat shorter than the edges generating that commutator, reflecting a “perturbative” or “nilpotent” philosophy. (Of course, to fully reflect a nilpotent perspective, one should orient commutator edges in a different dimension from their generating edges, but of course the diagrams drawn here do not have enough dimensions to display this perspective easily.) We will also be adopting a “Lie” perspective of interpreting groups as behaving like perturbations of vector spaces, in particular by trying to draw all edges of the same colour as being approximately (though not perfectly) parallel to each other (and with approximately the same length).

Gluing the above pentagon with the conjugation parallelogram and erasing some edges, we discover a “commutator-conjugate” triangle, describing the basic identity ${g^h = g [g,h]}$:

Figure 15.

Other gluings can also give the basic relations between commutators and conjugates. For instance, by gluing the pentagon in Figure 14 with its reflection, we see that ${[g,h] = [h,g]^{-1}}$. The following diagram, obtained by gluing together copies of Figures 11 and 15, demonstrates that ${[h,g^{-1}] = [g,h]^{g^{-1}}}$,

Figure 16.

while this figure demonstrates that ${[g,hk] = [g,k] [g,h]^k}$:

Figure 17.

Now we turn to a more sophisticated identity, the Hall-Witt identity

$\displaystyle [[g,h],k^g] [[k,g],h^k] [[h,k],g^h] = 1,$

which is the fully noncommutative version of the more well-known Jacobi identity for Lie algebras.

The full diagram for the Hall-Witt identity resembles a slightly truncated parallelopiped. Drawing this truncated paralleopiped in full would result in a rather complicated looking diagram, so I will instead display three components of this diagram separately, and leave it to the reader to mentally glue these three components back to form the full parallelopiped. The first component of the diagram is formed by gluing together three pentagons from Figure 14, and looks like this:

Figure 18.

This should be thought of as the “back” of the truncated parallelopiped needed to establish the Hall-Witt identity.

While it is not needed for proving the Hall-Witt identity, we also observe for future reference that we may also glue in some distorted parallelograms and obtain a slightly more complicated diagram:

Figure 19.

To form the second component, let us now erase all interior components of Figure 18 or Figure 19:

Figure 20.

Then we fill in three distorted parallelograms:

Figure 21.

This is the second component, and is the “front” of the truncated praallelopiped, minus the portions exposed by the truncation.

Finally, we turn to the third component. We begin by erasing the outer edges from the second component in Figure 21:

Figure 22.

We glue in three copies of the commutator-conjugate triangle from Figure 15:

Figure 23.

But now we observe that we can fill in three pentagons, and obtain a small triangle with edges ${[[g,h],k^g] [[k,g],h^k] [[h,k],g^h]}$:

Figure 24.

Erasing everything except this triangle gives the Hall-Witt identity. Alternatively, one can glue together Figures 18, 21, and 24 to obtain a truncated parallelopiped which one can view as a geometric representation of the proof of the Hall-Witt identity.

Among other things, I found these diagrams to be useful to visualise group cohomology; I give a simple example of this below, developing an analogue of the Hall-Witt identity for ${2}$-cocycles.