Linear algebra

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Mathematics

Linear algebra is the branch of mathematics concerned with the study of vectors, vector spaces (also called linear spaces), linear transformations, and systems of linear equations. Vector spaces are a central theme in modern mathematics; thus, linear algebra is widely used in both abstract algebra and functional analysis. Linear algebra also has a concrete representation in analytic geometry and it is generalized in operator theory. It has extensive applications in the natural sciences and the social sciences, since nonlinear models can often be approximated by a linear model.


Linear algebra stems from the need to solve systems of linear equations. For small systems, ad hoc methods are sufficient. Larger systems require one to have more systematic methods. The modern day approach can be seen 2,000 years ago in a Chinese text, the Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art ( Traditional Chinese: 九章算術; Simplified Chinese: 九章算术, pinyin: Jiǔzhāng Suànshù). Chinese mathematicians developed a system in which they organized linear equations in a rectangular pattern called Fāng Chéng (方程) in Chinese, involving horizontal and vertical counting rods. This rectangular representation of linear equations is the equivalent of today's matrix.

One of the key developments in linear algebra was the modern day method of solving linear systems known as Gauss-Jordan elimination, after German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855) and German engineer Wilhelm Jordan (1844-1899). Gauss called the method elimination, even though the Chinese were using an almost identical method nearly two millennia prior. This method stemmed really from Gauss's laziness in leaving off variable stems such as x1, x2, etc. in solving large n-tuples of linear equations while following the asteroid now known as Ceres. His method is explained in his book Theoria Motus Corporum Coelestium (1809).

The history of modern linear algebra dates back to the years 1843 and 1844. In 1843, William Rowan Hamilton (from whom the term vector stems) discovered the quaternions. In 1844, Hermann Grassmann published his book Die lineale Ausdehnungslehre (see References). Arthur Cayley introduced matrices, one of the most fundamental linear algebraic ideas, in 1857. These early references belie the fact that linear algebra is mainly a development of the twentieth century: the number-like objects called matrices were hard to place before the development of ring theory in abstract algebra. With the coming of special relativity many practitioners gained appreciation of the subtleties of linear algebra. Furthermore, the routine application of Cramer's rule to solve partial differential equations led to inclusion of linear algebra in standard coursework at universities. For instance, E.T. Copson wrote:

Linear algebra
When I went to Edinburgh as a young lecturer in 1922, I was surprised to find how different the curriculum was from that at Oxford. It included topics such as Lebesgue integration, matrix theory, numerical analysis, Riemannian geometry, of which I knew nothing...
Linear algebra

—E.T. Copson, Preface to Partial Differential Equations, 1973

Francis Galton initiated the use of correlation coefficients in 1888. Often more than one random variable is in play and they may be cross-correlated. In statistical analysis of multivariate random variables the correlation matrix is a natural tool. Thus statistical study of such random vectors helped develop matrix usage.

Elementary introduction

Linear algebra had its beginnings in the study of vectors in Cartesian 2-space and 3-space. A vector, here, is a directed line segment, characterized by both its magnitude, represented by length, and its direction. Vectors can be used to represent physical entities such as forces, and they can be added to each other and multiplied with scalars, thus forming the first example of a real vector space.

Modern linear algebra has been extended to consider spaces of arbitrary or infinite dimension. A vector space of dimension n is called an n-space. Most of the useful results from 2 and 3-space can be extended to these higher dimensional spaces. Although many people cannot easily visualize vectors in n-space, such vectors or n-tuples are useful in representing data. Since vectors, as n-tuples, are ordered lists of n components, it is possible to summarize and manipulate data efficiently in this framework. For example, in economics, one can create and use, say, 8-dimensional vectors or 8-tuples to represent the Gross National Product of 8 countries. One can decide to display the GNP of 8 countries for a particular year, where the countries' order is specified, for example, (United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, India, Japan, Australia), by using a vector (v1, v2, v3, v4, v5, v6, v7, v8) where each country's GNP is in its respective position.

A vector space (or linear space), as a purely abstract concept about which we prove theorems, is part of abstract algebra, and is well integrated into this discipline. Some striking examples of this are the group of invertible linear maps or matrices, and the ring of linear maps of a vector space. Linear algebra also plays an important part in analysis, notably, in the description of higher order derivatives in vector analysis and the study of tensor products and alternating maps.

In this abstract setting, the scalars which with an element of a vector space can be multiplied need not be numbers. The only requirement is that the scalars form a mathematical structure, called a field. In applications, this field is usually the field of real numbers or the field of complex numbers. Linear operators take elements from a linear space to another (or to itself), in a manner that is compatible with the addition and scalar multiplication given on the vector space(s). The set of all such transformations is itself a vector space. If a basis for a vector space is fixed, every linear transform can be represented by a table of numbers called a matrix. The detailed study of the properties of and algorithms acting on matrices, including determinants and eigenvectors, is considered to be part of linear algebra.

One can say quite simply that the linear problems of mathematics - those that exhibit linearity in their behaviour - are those most likely to be solved. For example differential calculus does a great deal with linear approximation to functions. The difference from nonlinear problems is very important in practice.

The general method of finding a linear way to look at a problem, expressing this in terms of linear algebra, and solving it, if need be by matrix calculations, is one of the most generally applicable in mathematics.

Some useful theorems

  • Every linear space has a basis. (This statement is logically equivalent to the axiom of choice.)
  • A matrix is invertible if and only if its determinant is nonzero.
  • A matrix is invertible if and only if the linear transformation represented by the matrix is an isomorphism (see also invertible matrix for other equivalent statements).
  • A matrix is positive semidefinite if and only if each of its eigenvalues is greater than or equal to zero.
  • A matrix is positive definite if and only if each of its eigenvalues is greater than zero.
  • The spectral theorem (regarding diagonal matrices).

Generalization and related topics

Since linear algebra is a successful theory, its methods have been developed in other parts of mathematics. In module theory one replaces the field of scalars by a ring. In multilinear algebra one deals with the 'several variables' problem of mappings linear in each of a number of different variables, inevitably leading to the tensor concept. In the spectral theory of operators control of infinite-dimensional matrices is gained, by applying mathematical analysis in a theory that is not purely algebraic. In all these cases the technical difficulties are much greater.

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