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The origins of group theory go back to the study of permutations. Permutations arise in connection with studies of various kinds of symmetries that occur in mathematics and especially in investigations of the question of whether a particular polynomial equation of the n-th degree is solvable by radicals. Permutations are closely connected with group theory and permutation groups play a big part in it.

Some definitions:

Permutation. An operation which replaces each of a set of objects by itself or another object in the set in a one-to-one manner. In essence, a permutation represents a mapping of a set of n objects onto itself. A permutation in which a is replaced by b, b is replaced by d, c is replaced by c, d is replaced by a and e is replaced by e in the set S = {a,b,c,d,e} is represented by the mapping


and is denoted by


where the bottom row gives the images of the elements in the top row.

Cyclic permutation (cycle). A permutation of the form (m1m2 ... mk) is called a cyclic permutation (or cycle) of length k. By definition, (m1m2 ... mk) denotes the permutation that carries m1 into m2, m2 into m3, ... , mk-1 into mk and mk into m1 and leaves all the remaining elements of the set in question unchanged.

Example. The cyclic permutation


on the set S = {a,b,c,d} corresponds to the mapping




Syn. Cycle.

Permutation group. A group whose elements are permutations , the product of two permutations being the permutation resulting from applying each in succession.

Syn. substitution group

Products of permutations – examples.

1) The product of the permutation p1 = (abc), which takes a into b, b into c, and c into a, and the permutation p2 = (bc), which takes b into c and c into b, is p1p2 = (abc)(bc), which takes a into c and c into a. Graphically it can be expressed as:


             ole4.gif ole5.gif

2) The product of the permutations







Graphically it corresponds to:


Symmetric group Sn on n letters. The group of all permutations on n objects. It corresponds to the set of all possible mappings of a set S of n objects onto itself.

Q. How many mappings are there in the set Q of all mappings of a set S of n objects onto itself?

A. n! It is equal to the number of permutations of n things taken n at a time. Object 1 can be mapped into any of n objects, then object 2 can be mapped into any of n-1 objects, object 3 can be mapped into any of n-2 objects, etc. for all n objects. Thus the total number of mappings is

                                    n(n-1)(n-2) ... = n!

Thus the symmetric group Sn on n letters has n! elements.

Alternating group An on n letters. A group consisting of all even permutations on n objects. An is a subgroup of Sn. It contains n!/2 elements.




Def. Transposition. A cyclic permutation of length 2.

Example: (23) and (56) are transpositions.

Def. Disjoint cycles. Two or more cycles which have no element in common are called (mutually) disjoint.

Decomposition of a permutation into cycles. Every permutation can be represented in the form of a product of cycles without common elements (i.e. disjoint cycles) and this representation is unique to within the order of the factors..

Note. A permutation can also be represented as a product of cycles with common elements but this representation is not unique. 

Products of cycles without common elements. The order of the factors is immaterial in the case of products of cycles that are without common elements (i.e. disjoint cycles).

Example. The cycles (23) and (145) have no common elements so

                        (23)(145) = (145)(23)

Decomposition of a permutation into a product of transpositions. Every permutation can be factored into a product of transpositions e.g. (abc) = (ab)(ac) in the sense that the permutation (abc) has the same effect as the permutation (ab) followed by the permutation (ac). This factorization is not unique but, for a specific permutation, the number of transpositions (i.e. factors) will always be either even or odd.

Def. Even and odd permutations. A permutation is even or odd according as it can be written as the product of an even or odd number of transpositions.

Parity of products of even and odd permutations. The product of two even permutations is even; the product of two odd permutations is even; the product of an even and an odd permutation is odd. Moreover, the permutation inverse to an even or odd permutation is a permutation of the same parity.


Length of a cycle and its parity. A cycle of length m can be represented as a product of m-1 transpositions. Thus a cycle (a1a2 ... am) of length m is an odd permutation if m is even and an odd permutation if m is odd.

Generating elements for Sn and An.

The n-1 transpositions (12),(13), ... ,(1n) for n > 1 generate the symmetric group Sn.

The n-2 cyclic permutations on three digits (123), (124), ... , (12n) generate the alternating group An.

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