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KEITH CONRAD

1. Introduction For n ≥ 3, the dihedral group Dn is deﬁned as the rigid motions of the plane preserving a regular n-gon, with the operation of composition. Our model n-gon will be an n-gon centered at the origin, with vertices at the n-th roots of unity. For example, a rotation by a multiple of 2π/n radians carries this n-gon back to itself, and thus is an element of Dn . There are also several reﬂections across various lines which bring this n-gon back to itself (e.g., reﬂection across the x-axis), and such reﬂections are also in Dn . In this handout, we will look at various elementary aspects of dihedral groups: an explicit list of the elements, relations between rotations and reﬂections in this group, and systems of generators. Throughout, n ≥ 3. 2. Finding the elements of Dn Theorem 2.1. The size of Dn is at most 2n. Proof. (Sketch) A rigid motion preserving our model n-gon has to carry vertices to other vertices. The vertex at 1 can go to any of n positions. Then the next vertex (say, measured counterclockwise from 1) has only 2 choices of where to go, namely one of the vertices adjacent to the vertex where 1 was sent. Once we ﬁx where this second vertex goes, we can “see” by the geometry that the positions where every other point on the n-gon must go is completely determined. Thus, each rigid motion in Dn is determined by where it sends 1 and where it sends the next vertex counterclockwise past 1. There are a total of n · 2 = 2n decisions to make, each one completely determining where every other point goes, so #Dn ≤ 2n. Now we want to show the upper bound is reached, by writing down 2n diﬀerent rigid motions. We will ﬁnd exactly half of them are rotations and half of them are reﬂections. Along the way, we will work out a fundamental formula linking rotations and reﬂections. There are two standard ways to think about points in the plane: as vectors or as complex numbers. We will adopt the complex number point of view, since the corresponding calculations are less involved notationally. Before starting, we recall how complex conjugation on C interacts with the complex numbers both algebraically and geometrically. For a complex number z = a+bi, its complex conjugate is z = a − bi. Complex conjugation “commutes” with addition and multiplication of complex numbers: (2.1) z + w = z + w, z · w = z · w. (Thus, by an easy induction, the conjugate of any ﬁnite sum or product of terms if the sum √ or product of the conjugates of those terms, e.g., z 2 = z 2 .) The length of z is |z| = a2 + b2 ,

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r2 . For instance. n Here rk means the k-fold composite of r with itself (using inverses if k < 0). their commutation relation is a fundamental formula for computations in Dn . . using (2. . (A special case you can check is that multiplying by i rotates complex numbers π/2 radians = 90 degrees counterclockwise. Let’s check (2. rk has the eﬀect of multiplication by ρk : n r(z) = ρn z =⇒ rk (z) = ρk (z).1) and (2. This of course can lead to ambiguity. Theorem 2. We will think about the points in the plane as complex numbers and represent these transformations as functions of complex numbers: (2. In fact. (Note how we adopt common group-theoretic notation and designate the identity rigid motion simply as 1. Multiplication by ρn is a rotation. as long as we are dealing the dihedral group for a single value of n. s(z) = z. The order of s is 2: s2 (z) = z = z.) A transformation T : C → C that preserves distances (|T (z) − T (w)| = |z − w| for all z and w in C) is called a rigid motion or isometry. The reﬂection s is not a power of r. while no power of r ﬁxes the vertex 1 except for the identity rn .) From the rotation r. (Notice s has no need for a subscript from the start: it is always complex conjugation.2. We write ρn for the basic n-th root of unity cos(2π/n) + i sin(2π/n). we can also realize rn and s as matrix transformations on R2 : x x x x cos(2π/n) − sin(2π/n) 1 0 rn = .4) srs−1 = r−1 .3) deﬁnes rigid motions.3) rn (z) = ρn z.2 KEITH CONRAD and in particular (2.2): |rn (z) − rn (w)| = |ρn z − ρn w| = |ρn (z − w)| = |ρn ||z − w| = |z − w| and |s(z) − s(w)| = |z − w| = |z − w| = |z − w|. sin(2π/n) cos(2π/n) 0 −1 y y y y However. (2. as the r in D3 means something diﬀerent from the r in D4 . and goes as follows. . s ﬁxes the vertex 1 but is not the identity. for any n. and just speak about the basic rotation r in Dn . there shouldn’t be any confusion. . r. we get n rotations in Dn by taking its powers (r has order n): 1. s = . the notation of complex numbers is much more concise than that of matrices. However. Another way to see s is not a power or r is to check that r and s do not commute.2) |z| = |z|. In Dn . It is standard to drop the subscript n on rn . If you prefer matrices to complex numbers. Our basic motions in Dn are a rotation rn which goes counterclockwise by 2π/n radians and the reﬂection s across the x-axis. rn−1 . so we use complex numbers.) As an explicit transformation on complex numbers. . while ρk is the n k-th power of ρn . This is the case n = 4: r4 (z) = iz.

5) sr = r−1 s. rs. . What these mean is we can move r to the other side of s by just inverting it. The group Dn has 2n elements. r2 .1.4) stresses the conjugation aspect. . Check the following two equations are equivalent ways of writing (2.3. . Let’s summarize what we have now found. Example 2. Thus n srs−1 (z) = ρ−1 z = r−1 (z). Proof. . . r(z) ρn z ρn z ρn z. By induction (or by raising both sides of (2. it has length 1: 1 = |ρn |2 = ρn ρn . Are they diﬀerent from the powers of r? Sure. but (2. But this is false. s. r2 s. . Therefore ρn = ρ−1 : complex conjugation inverts ρn . . . rk s = sr−k for any integer k. r. Taking the complex number point of view. To check (2. srs−1 = r−1 .DIHEDRAL GROUPS 3 Since s has order 2. . As a list.4) using the matrix realizations of r and s too.6) srk = r−k s. using (2. In Example 2. Those calculations are a bit more tedious. we can think about r and s as functions of either complex numbers or of vectors. (2.4). (rk s)2 = rk srk s = rk r−k ss = s2 = 1. all elements of Dn with order greater than 2 are powers of r. . rn−1 . Theorem 2. The elements in Example 2. we can write this as srs = r−1 .4). and these exhaust the upper bound on #Dn in Theorem 2. since if rk s = ri for some i we get s = ri−k . you can check (2. rs.7) Dn = {1. In particular. n Since this holds for every z ∈ C. so s is a power of r.4. any power of r can be moved to the other side of s by inversion. In other words.3 are diﬀerent from each other (since they arise as diﬀerent powers of r all multiplied on the same side by s). for any z ∈ C we have (using (2. rn−1 s has order 2 since. . . keeping in mind that s has order 2 (so s−1 = s): (2.1)) srs−1 (z) = srs(z) = = = = Since ρn is a root of unity.3 we found n new elements of Dn .4) to an integral power). rn−1 s}.6). rs = sr−1 . The reader can verify (2. Each of s. .

and thus of order 2: Dn can be generated not only by an element of order n and an element of order 2. so we can multiply any reﬂection and any rotation using (2. we extended (2. (3. .6): (ri s)rj = ri r−j s = r−j ri s = r−j (ri s). the elements of Dn are rotations and reﬂections.6). rj (ri s) = ri rj s = ri sr−j = (ri s)r−j . Relations between rotations and reflections Geometrically. It’s worth bearing in mind that every element of Dn is either a rotation or a reﬂection. but also by two elements of order 2. The relation (2. s . In (2. The interesting aspect of the generating set s and rs is that they are both reﬂections.5. half the reﬂections in Dn are across lines connecting opposite vertices and the other half are across lines connecting midpoints of opposite edges. Can we extend (2.1) (ri s)rj (ri s)−1 = r−j . Or.7). This has a nice geometric meaning: when multiplying in Dn . so any rotation is conjugated to its inverse by any reﬂection. 3. The group Dn is generated by r and s or by s and rs: Dn = r. When n is even. any rotation can be moved to the other side of any reﬂection by inverting the rotation. That all reﬂections for odd n can be described in the same way. Every element of Dn is a product of powers of r and s. Since r = rs·s. s = s. by looking at the cases n = 3. In (2. Proof. Corollary 2. the ﬁrst n elements are rotations and the last n elements are reﬂections across diﬀerent lines.6) to any rotation and any reﬂection in Dn ? Any reﬂection in Dn has the form rk s.3 are reﬂections across diﬀerent lines. stated in terms of conjugation. and 6 that the elements of order 2 in Example 2.4 KEITH CONRAD Persuade yourself. rs . 4. When n is odd. There is no such thing as a “rotation-reﬂection”: the product of a rotation ri and a reﬂection rj s is always another reﬂection ri+j s. 5. each reﬂection in Dn is across a line connecting a vertex to the midpoint of the opposite side.5) involves a particular rotation and a particular reﬂection in Dn . In the other order. This geometric description makes such algebraic formulas easier to remember and understand. so Dn = r. we can write any element in terms of rs and s instead.5) to any rotation and a particular reﬂection in Dn . will manifest itself later in our consideration of conjugacy classes in Dn . while reﬂections for even n come in two ﬂavors.

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