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A finite group ${G=(G,\cdot)}$ is said to be a Frobenius group if there is a non-trivial subgroup ${H}$ of ${G}$ (known as the Frobenius complement of ${G}$) such that the conjugates ${gHg^{-1}}$ of ${H}$ are “disjoint as possible” in the sense that ${H \cap gHg^{-1} = \{1\}}$ whenever ${g \not \in H}$. This gives a decomposition

$\displaystyle G = \bigcup_{gH \in G/H} (gHg^{-1} \backslash \{1\}) \cup K \ \ \ \ \ (1)$

where the Frobenius kernel ${K}$ of ${G}$ is defined as the identity element ${1}$ together with all the non-identity elements that are not conjugate to any element of ${H}$. Taking cardinalities, we conclude that

$\displaystyle |G| = \frac{|G|}{|H|} (|H| - 1) + |K|$

and hence

$\displaystyle |H| |K| = |G|. \ \ \ \ \ (2)$

A remarkable theorem of Frobenius gives an unexpected amount of structure on ${K}$ and hence on ${G}$:

Theorem 1 (Frobenius’ theorem) Let ${G}$ be a Frobenius group with Frobenius complement ${H}$ and Frobenius kernel ${K}$. Then ${K}$ is a normal subgroup of ${G}$, and hence (by (2) and the disjointness of ${H}$ and ${K}$ outside the identity) ${G}$ is the semidirect product ${K \rtimes H}$ of ${H}$ and ${K}$.

I discussed Frobenius’ theorem and its proof in this recent blog post. This proof uses the theory of characters on a finite group ${G}$, in particular relying on the fact that a character on a subgroup ${H}$ can induce a character on ${G}$, which can then be decomposed into irreducible characters with natural number coefficients. Remarkably, even though a century has passed since Frobenius’ original argument, there is no proof known of this theorem which avoids character theory entirely; there are elementary proofs known when the complement ${H}$ has even order or when ${H}$ is solvable (we review both of these cases below the fold), which by the Feit-Thompson theorem does cover all the cases, but the proof of the Feit-Thompson theorem involves plenty of character theory (and also relies on Theorem 1). (The answers to this MathOverflow question give a good overview of the current state of affairs.)

I have been playing around recently with the problem of finding a character-free proof of Frobenius’ theorem. I didn’t succeed in obtaining a completely elementary proof, but I did find an argument which replaces character theory (which can be viewed as coming from the representation theory of the non-commutative group algebra ${{\bf C} G \equiv L^2(G)}$) with the Fourier analysis of class functions (i.e. the representation theory of the centre ${Z({\bf C} G) \equiv L^2(G)^G}$ of the group algebra), thus replacing non-commutative representation theory by commutative representation theory. This is not a particularly radical depature from the existing proofs of Frobenius’ theorem, but it did seem to be a new proof which was technically “character-free” (even if it was not all that far from character-based in spirit), so I thought I would record it here.

The main ideas are as follows. The space ${L^2(G)^G}$ of class functions can be viewed as a commutative algebra with respect to the convolution operation ${*}$; as the regular representation is unitary and faithful, this algebra contains no nilpotent elements. As such, (Gelfand-style) Fourier analysis suggests that one can analyse this algebra through the idempotents: class functions ${\phi}$ such that ${\phi*\phi = \phi}$. In terms of characters, idempotents are nothing more than sums of the form ${\sum_{\chi \in \Sigma} \chi(1) \chi}$ for various collections ${\Sigma}$ of characters, but we can perform a fair amount of analysis on idempotents directly without recourse to characters. In particular, it turns out that idempotents enjoy some important integrality properties that can be established without invoking characters: for instance, by taking traces one can check that ${\phi(1)}$ is a natural number, and more generally we will show that ${{\bf E}_{(a,b) \in S} {\bf E}_{x \in G} \phi( a x b^{-1} x^{-1} )}$ is a natural number whenever ${S}$ is a subgroup of ${G \times G}$ (see Corollary 4 below). For instance, the quantity

$\displaystyle \hbox{rank}(\phi) := {\bf E}_{a \in G} {\bf E}_{x \in G} \phi(a xa^{-1} x^{-1})$

is a natural number which we will call the rank of ${\phi}$ (as it is also the linear rank of the transformation ${f \mapsto f*\phi}$ on ${L^2(G)}$).

In the case that ${G}$ is a Frobenius group with kernel ${K}$, the above integrality properties can be used after some elementary manipulations to establish that for any idempotent ${\phi}$, the quantity

$\displaystyle \frac{1}{|G|} \sum_{a \in K} {\bf E}_{x \in G} \phi( axa^{-1}x^{-1} ) - \frac{1}{|G| |K|} \sum_{a,b \in K} \phi(ab^{-1}) \ \ \ \ \ (3)$

is an integer. On the other hand, one can also show by elementary means that this quantity lies between ${0}$ and ${\hbox{rank}(\phi)}$. These two facts are not strong enough on their own to impose much further structure on ${\phi}$, unless one restricts attention to minimal idempotents ${\phi}$. In this case spectral theory (or Gelfand theory, or the fundamental theorem of algebra) tells us that ${\phi}$ has rank one, and then the integrality gap comes into play and forces the quantity (3) to always be either zero or one. This can be used to imply that the convolution action of every minimal idempotent ${\phi}$ either preserves ${\frac{|G|}{|K|} 1_K}$ or annihilates it, which makes ${\frac{|G|}{|K|} 1_K}$ itself an idempotent, which makes ${K}$ normal.

The classification of finite simple groups (CFSG), first announced in 1983 but only fully completed in 2004, is one of the monumental achievements of twentieth century mathematics. Spanning hundreds of papers and tens of thousands of pages, it has been called the “enormous theorem”. A “second generation” proof of the theorem is nearly completed which is a little shorter (estimated at about five thousand pages in length), but currently there is no reasonably sized proof of the classification.

An important precursor of the CFSG is the Feit-Thompson theorem from 1962-1963, which asserts that every finite group of odd order is solvable, or equivalently that every non-abelian finite simple group has even order. This is an immediate consequence of CFSG, and conversely the Feit-Thompson theorem is an essential starting point in the proof of the classification, since it allows one to reduce matters to groups of even order for which key additional tools (such as the Brauer-Fowler theorem) become available. The original proof of the Feit-Thompson theorem is 255 pages long, which is significantly shorter than the proof of the CFSG, but still far from short. While parts of the proof of the Feit-Thompson theorem have been simplified (and it has recently been converted, after six years of effort, into an argument that has been verified by the proof assistant Coq), the available proofs of this theorem are still extremely lengthy by any reasonable standard.

However, there is a significantly simpler special case of the Feit-Thompson theorem that was established previously by Suzuki in 1957, which was influential in the proof of the more general Feit-Thompson theorem (and thus indirectly to the proof of CFSG). Define a CA-group to be a group ${G}$ with the property that the centraliser ${C_G(x) := \{ g \in G: gx=xg \}}$ of any non-identity element ${x \in G}$ is abelian; equivalently, the commuting relation ${x \sim y}$ (defined as the relation that holds when ${x}$ commutes with ${y}$, thus ${xy=yx}$) is an equivalence relation on the non-identity elements ${G \backslash \{1\}}$ of ${G}$. Trivially, every abelian group is CA. A non-abelian example of a CA-group is the ${ax+b}$ group of invertible affine transformations ${x \mapsto ax+b}$ on a field ${F}$. A little less obviously, the special linear group ${SL_2(F_q)}$ over a finite field ${F_q}$ is a CA-group when ${q}$ is a power of two. The finite simple groups of Lie type are not, in general, CA-groups, but when the rank is bounded they tend to behave as if they were “almost CA”; the centraliser of a generic element in ${SL_d(F_q)}$, for instance, when ${d}$ is bounded and ${q}$ is large), is typically a maximal torus (because most elements in ${SL_d(F_q)}$ are regular semisimple) which is certainly abelian. In view of the CFSG, we thus see that CA or nearly CA groups form an important subclass of the simple groups, and it is thus of interest to study them separately. To this end, we have

Theorem 1 (Suzuki’s theorem on CA-groups) Every finite CA-group of odd order is solvable.

Of course, this theorem is superceded by the more general Feit-Thompson theorem, but Suzuki’s proof is substantially shorter (the original proof is nine pages) and will be given in this post. (See this survey of Solomon for some discussion of the link between Suzuki’s argument and the Feit-Thompson argument.) Suzuki’s analysis can be pushed further to give an essentially complete classification of all the finite CA-groups (of either odd or even order), but we will not pursue these matters here.

Moving even further down the ladder of simple precursors of CSFG is the following theorem of Frobenius from 1901. Define a Frobenius group to be a finite group ${G}$ which has a subgroup ${H}$ (called the Frobenius complement) with the property that all the non-trivial conjugates ${gHg^{-1}}$ of ${H}$ for ${g \in G \backslash H}$, intersect ${H}$ only at the origin. For instance the ${ax+b}$ group is also a Frobenius group (take ${H}$ to be the affine transformations that fix a specified point ${x_0 \in F}$, e.g. the origin). This example suggests that there is some overlap between the notions of a Frobenius group and a CA group. Indeed, note that if ${G}$ is a CA-group and ${H}$ is a maximal abelian subgroup of ${G}$, then any conjugate ${gHg^{-1}}$ of ${H}$ that is not identical to ${H}$ will intersect ${H}$ only at the origin (because ${H}$ and each of its conjugates consist of equivalence classes under the commuting relation ${\sim}$, together with the identity). So if a maximal abelian subgroup ${H}$ of a CA-group is its own normaliser (thus ${N(H) := \{ g \in G: gH=Hg\}}$ is equal to ${H}$), then the group is a Frobenius group.

Frobenius’ theorem places an unexpectedly strong amount of structure on a Frobenius group:

Theorem 2 (Frobenius’ theorem) Let ${G}$ be a Frobenius group with Frobenius complement ${H}$. Then there exists a normal subgroup ${K}$ of ${G}$ (called the Frobenius kernel of ${G}$) such that ${G}$ is the semi-direct product ${H \ltimes K}$ of ${H}$ and ${K}$.

Roughly speaking, this theorem indicates that all Frobenius groups “behave” like the ${ax+b}$ example (which is a quintessential example of a semi-direct product).

Note that if every CA-group of odd order was either Frobenius or abelian, then Theorem 2 would imply Theorem 1 by an induction on the order of ${G}$, since any subgroup of a CA-group is clearly again a CA-group. Indeed, the proof of Suzuki’s theorem does basically proceed by this route (Suzuki’s arguments do indeed imply that CA-groups of odd order are Frobenius or abelian, although we will not quite establish that fact here).

Frobenius’ theorem can be reformulated in the following concrete combinatorial form:

Theorem 3 (Frobenius’ theorem, equivalent version) Let ${G}$ be a group of permutations acting transitively on a finite set ${X}$, with the property that any non-identity permutation in ${G}$ fixes at most one point in ${X}$. Then the set of permutations in ${G}$ that fix no points in ${X}$, together with the identity, is closed under composition.

Again, a good example to keep in mind for this theorem is when ${G}$ is the group of affine permutations on a field ${F}$ (i.e. the ${ax+b}$ group for that field), and ${X}$ is the set of points on that field. In that case, the set of permutations in ${G}$ that do not fix any points are the non-trivial translations.

To deduce Theorem 3 from Theorem 2, one applies Theorem 2 to the stabiliser of a single point in ${X}$. Conversely, to deduce Theorem 2 from Theorem 3, set ${X := G/H = \{ gH: g \in G \}}$ to be the space of left-cosets of ${H}$, with the obvious left ${G}$-action; one easily verifies that this action is faithful, transitive, and each non-identity element ${g}$ of ${G}$ fixes at most one left-coset of ${H}$ (basically because it lies in at most one conjugate of ${H}$). If we let ${K}$ be the elements of ${G}$ that do not fix any point in ${X}$, plus the identity, then by Theorem 3 ${K}$ is closed under composition; it is also clearly closed under inverse and conjugation, and is hence a normal subgroup of ${G}$. From construction ${K}$ is the identity plus the complement of all the ${|G|/|H|}$ conjugates of ${H}$, which are all disjoint except at the identity, so by counting elements we see that

$\displaystyle |K| = |G| - \frac{|G|}{|H|}(|H|-1) = |G|/|H|.$

As ${H}$ normalises ${K}$ and is disjoint from ${K}$, we thus see that ${KH = H \ltimes K}$ is all of ${G}$, giving Theorem 2.

Despite the appealingly concrete and elementary form of Theorem 3, the only known proofs of that theorem (or equivalently, Theorem 2) in its full generality proceed via the machinery of group characters (which one can think of as a version of Fourier analysis for nonabelian groups). On the other hand, once one establishes the basic theory of these characters (reviewed below the fold), the proof of Frobenius’ theorem is very short, which gives quite a striking example of the power of character theory. The proof of Suzuki’s theorem also proceeds via character theory, and is basically a more involved version of the Frobenius argument; again, no character-free proof of Suzuki’s theorem is currently known. (The proofs of Feit-Thompson and CFSG also involve characters, but those proofs also contain many other arguments of much greater complexity than the character-based portions of the proof.)

It seems to me that the above four theorems (Frobenius, Suzuki, Feit-Thompson, and CFSG) provide a ladder of sorts (with exponentially increasing complexity at each step) to the full classification, and that any new approach to the classification might first begin by revisiting the earlier theorems on this ladder and finding new proofs of these results first (in particular, if one had a “robust” proof of Suzuki’s theorem that also gave non-trivial control on “almost CA-groups” – whatever that means – then this might lead to a new route to classifying the finite simple groups of Lie type and bounded rank). But even for the simplest two results on this ladder – Frobenius and Suzuki – it seems remarkably difficult to find any proof that is not essentially the character-based proof. (Even trying to replace character theory by its close cousin, representation theory, doesn’t seem to work unless one gives in to the temptation to take traces everywhere and put the characters back in; it seems that rather than abandon characters altogether, one needs to find some sort of “robust” generalisation of existing character-based methods.) In any case, I am recording here the standard character-based proofs of the theorems of Frobenius and Suzuki below the fold. There is nothing particularly novel here, but I wanted to collect all the relevant material in one place, largely for my own benefit.