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Kronecker is famously reported to have said, “God created the natural numbers; all else is the work of man”. The truth of this statement (literal or otherwise) is debatable; but one can certainly view the other standard number systems {{\bf Z}, {\bf Q}, {\bf R}, {\bf C}} as (iterated) completions of the natural numbers {{\bf N}} in various senses. For instance:

  • The integers {{\bf Z}} are the additive completion of the natural numbers {{\bf N}} (the minimal additive group that contains a copy of {{\bf N}}).
  • The rationals {{\bf Q}} are the multiplicative completion of the integers {{\bf Z}} (the minimal field that contains a copy of {{\bf Z}}).
  • The reals {{\bf R}} are the metric completion of the rationals {{\bf Q}} (the minimal complete metric space that contains a copy of {{\bf Q}}).
  • The complex numbers {{\bf C}} are the algebraic completion of the reals {{\bf R}} (the minimal algebraically closed field that contains a copy of {{\bf R}}).

These descriptions of the standard number systems are elegant and conceptual, but not entirely suitable for constructing the number systems in a non-circular manner from more primitive foundations. For instance, one cannot quite define the reals {{\bf R}} from scratch as the metric completion of the rationals {{\bf Q}}, because the definition of a metric space itself requires the notion of the reals! (One can of course construct {{\bf R}} by other means, for instance by using Dedekind cuts or by using uniform spaces in place of metric spaces.) The definition of the complex numbers as the algebraic completion of the reals does not suffer from such a non-circularity issue, but a certain amount of field theory is required to work with this definition initially. For the purposes of quickly constructing the complex numbers, it is thus more traditional to first define {{\bf C}} as a quadratic extension of the reals {{\bf R}}, and more precisely as the extension {{\bf C} = {\bf R}(i)} formed by adjoining a square root {i} of {-1} to the reals, that is to say a solution to the equation {i^2+1=0}. It is not immediately obvious that this extension is in fact algebraically closed; this is the content of the famous fundamental theorem of algebra, which we will prove later in this course.

The two equivalent definitions of {{\bf C}} – as the algebraic closure, and as a quadratic extension, of the reals respectively – each reveal important features of the complex numbers in applications. Because {{\bf C}} is algebraically closed, all polynomials over the complex numbers split completely, which leads to a good spectral theory for both finite-dimensional matrices and infinite-dimensional operators; in particular, one expects to be able to diagonalise most matrices and operators. Applying this theory to constant coefficient ordinary differential equations leads to a unified theory of such solutions, in which real-variable ODE behaviour such as exponential growth or decay, polynomial growth, and sinusoidal oscillation all become aspects of a single object, the complex exponential {z \mapsto e^z} (or more generally, the matrix exponential {A \mapsto \exp(A)}). Applying this theory more generally to diagonalise arbitrary translation-invariant operators over some locally compact abelian group, one arrives at Fourier analysis, which is thus most naturally phrased in terms of complex-valued functions rather than real-valued ones. If one drops the assumption that the underlying group is abelian, one instead discovers the representation theory of unitary representations, which is simpler to study than the real-valued counterpart of orthogonal representations. For closely related reasons, the theory of complex Lie groups is simpler than that of real Lie groups.

Meanwhile, the fact that the complex numbers are a quadratic extension of the reals lets one view the complex numbers geometrically as a two-dimensional plane over the reals (the Argand plane). Whereas a point singularity in the real line disconnects that line, a point singularity in the Argand plane leaves the rest of the plane connected (although, importantly, the punctured plane is no longer simply connected). As we shall see, this fact causes singularities in complex analytic functions to be better behaved than singularities of real analytic functions, ultimately leading to the powerful residue calculus for computing complex integrals. Remarkably, this calculus, when combined with the quintessentially complex-variable technique of contour shifting, can also be used to compute some (though certainly not all) definite integrals of real-valued functions that would be much more difficult to compute by purely real-variable methods; this is a prime example of Hadamard’s famous dictum that “the shortest path between two truths in the real domain passes through the complex domain”.

Another important geometric feature of the Argand plane is the angle between two tangent vectors to a point in the plane. As it turns out, the operation of multiplication by a complex scalar preserves the magnitude and orientation of such angles; the same fact is true for any non-degenerate complex analytic mapping, as can be seen by performing a Taylor expansion to first order. This fact ties the study of complex mappings closely to that of the conformal geometry of the plane (and more generally, of two-dimensional surfaces and domains). In particular, one can use complex analytic maps to conformally transform one two-dimensional domain to another, leading among other things to the famous Riemann mapping theorem, and to the classification of Riemann surfaces.

If one Taylor expands complex analytic maps to second order rather than first order, one discovers a further important property of these maps, namely that they are harmonic. This fact makes the class of complex analytic maps extremely rigid and well behaved analytically; indeed, the entire theory of elliptic PDE now comes into play, giving useful properties such as elliptic regularity and the maximum principle. In fact, due to the magic of residue calculus and contour shifting, we already obtain these properties for maps that are merely complex differentiable rather than complex analytic, which leads to the striking fact that complex differentiable functions are automatically analytic (in contrast to the real-variable case, in which real differentiable functions can be very far from being analytic).

The geometric structure of the complex numbers (and more generally of complex manifolds and complex varieties), when combined with the algebraic closure of the complex numbers, leads to the beautiful subject of complex algebraic geometry, which motivates the much more general theory developed in modern algebraic geometry. However, we will not develop the algebraic geometry aspects of complex analysis here.

Last, but not least, because of the good behaviour of Taylor series in the complex plane, complex analysis is an excellent setting in which to manipulate various generating functions, particularly Fourier series {\sum_n a_n e^{2\pi i n \theta}} (which can be viewed as boundary values of power (or Laurent) series {\sum_n a_n z^n}), as well as Dirichlet series {\sum_n \frac{a_n}{n^s}}. The theory of contour integration provides a very useful dictionary between the asymptotic behaviour of the sequence {a_n}, and the complex analytic behaviour of the Dirichlet or Fourier series, particularly with regard to its poles and other singularities. This turns out to be a particularly handy dictionary in analytic number theory, for instance relating the distribution of the primes to the Riemann zeta function. Nowadays, many of the analytic number theory results first obtained through complex analysis (such as the prime number theorem) can also be obtained by more “real-variable” methods; however the complex-analytic viewpoint is still extremely valuable and illuminating.

We will frequently touch upon many of these connections to other fields of mathematics in these lecture notes. However, these are mostly side remarks intended to provide context, and it is certainly possible to skip most of these tangents and focus purely on the complex analysis material in these notes if desired.

Note: complex analysis is a very visual subject, and one should draw plenty of pictures while learning it. I am however not planning to put too many pictures in these notes, partly as it is somewhat inconvenient to do so on this blog from a technical perspective, but also because pictures that one draws on one’s own are likely to be far more useful to you than pictures that were supplied by someone else.

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