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A finite group is said to be a Frobenius group if there is a non-trivial subgroup of (known as the *Frobenius complement* of ) such that the conjugates of are “disjoint as possible” in the sense that whenever . This gives a decomposition

where the *Frobenius kernel* of is defined as the identity element together with all the non-identity elements that are not conjugate to any element of . Taking cardinalities, we conclude that

A remarkable theorem of Frobenius gives an unexpected amount of structure on and hence on :

Theorem 1 (Frobenius’ theorem)Let be a Frobenius group with Frobenius complement and Frobenius kernel . Then is a normal subgroup of , and hence (by (2) and the disjointness of and outside the identity) is the semidirect product of and .

I discussed Frobenius’ theorem and its proof in this recent blog post. This proof uses the theory of characters on a finite group , in particular relying on the fact that a character on a subgroup can induce a character on , 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 has even order or when 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 ) with the Fourier analysis of class functions (i.e. the representation theory of the centre 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 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 such that . In terms of characters, idempotents are nothing more than sums of the form for various collections 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 is a natural number, and more generally we will show that is a natural number whenever is a subgroup of (see Corollary 4 below). For instance, the quantity

is a natural number which we will call the *rank* of (as it is also the linear rank of the transformation on ).

In the case that is a Frobenius group with kernel , the above integrality properties can be used after some elementary manipulations to establish that for any idempotent , the quantity

is an integer. On the other hand, one can also show by elementary means that this quantity lies between and . These two facts are not strong enough on their own to impose much further structure on , unless one restricts attention to *minimal* idempotents . In this case spectral theory (or Gelfand theory, or the fundamental theorem of algebra) tells us that 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 either preserves or annihilates it, which makes itself an idempotent, which makes normal.

In this lecture, we use topological dynamics methods to prove some other Ramsey-type theorems, and more specifically the polynomial van der Waerden theorem, the hypergraph Ramsey theorem, Hindman’s theorem, and the Hales-Jewett theorem. In proving these statements, I have decided to focus on the ultrafilter-based proofs, rather than the combinatorial or topological proofs, though of course these styles of proof are also available for each of the above theorems.

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