Mathematics is about rich objects as well as big theories. This post is about one of my favorite rich objects, the spin group, inspired by my new paper Essential dimension of the spin groups in characteristic 2. What I mean by “rich” is being simple enough to be tractable yet complicated enough to exhibit interesting behavior and retaining this characteristic when viewed from many different theoretical angles.

Other objects in mathematics are rich in this way. In algebraic geometry, K3 surfaces come to mind, and rich objects live at various levels of sophistication: the Leech lattice, the symmetric groups, E_{8}, the complex projective plane,…. I’d guess other people have other favorites.

Back to spin. The orthogonal group is a fundamental example in mathematics: much of Euclidean geometry amounts to studying the orthogonal group O(3) of linear isometries of R^{3}, or its connected component, the rotation group SO(3). The 19th century revealed the striking new phenomenon that the group SO(*n*) has a double covering space which is also a connected group, the spin group Spin(*n*). That story probably started with Hamilton’s discovery of quaternions (where Spin(3) is the group S^{3} of unit quaternions), followed by Clifford’s construction of Clifford algebras. (A vivid illustration of this double covering is the Balinese cup trick.)

In the 20th century, the spin groups became central to quantum mechanics and the properties of elementary particles. In this post, though, I want to focus on the spin groups in algebra and topology. In terms of the general classification of Lie groups or algebraic groups, the spin groups seem straightforward: they are the simply connected groups of type B and D, just as the groups SL(*n*) are the simply connected groups of type A. In many ways, however, the spin groups are more complex and mysterious.

One basic reason for the richness of the spin groups is that their smallest faithful representations are very high dimensional. Namely, whereas SO(*n*) has a faithful representation of dimension *n*, the smallest faithful representation of its double cover Spin(*n*) is the *spin representation*, of dimension about 2^{n/2}. As a result, it can be hard to get a clear view of the spin groups.

For example, to understand a group G (and the corresponding principal G-bundles), topologists want to compute the cohomology of the classifying space BG. Quillen computed the mod 2 cohomology ring of the classifying space BSpin(*n*) for all *n*. These rings become more and more complicated as *n* increases, and the complete answer was an impressive achievement. For other cohomology theories such as complex cobordism MU, MU^{*}BSpin(*n*) is known only for *n* at most 10 or so.

In the theory of algebraic groups, it is especially important to study principal G-bundles over fields. One measure of the complexity of such bundles is the *essential dimension* of G. For the spin groups, a remarkable discovery by Brosnan, Reichstein, and Vistoli was that the essential dimension of Spin(*n*) is reasonably small for *n* at most 14 but then increases exponentially in *n*. Later, Chernousov and Merkurjev computed the essential dimension of Spin(*n*) exactly for all *n*, over a field of characteristic not 2.

Even after those results, there are still mysteries about how the spin groups are changing around *n* = 15. Merkurjev has suggested the possible explanation that the quotient of a vector space by a generically free action of Spin(*n*) is a rational variety for small *n*, but not for *n* at least 15. Karpenko’s paper gives some evidence for this view, but it remains a fascinating open question. The spin groups are far from yielding up all their secrets.

*Image is a still from The Aristocats (Disney, 1970).* *Recommended soundtrack: Cowcube’s Ye Olde Skool.*