Characteristic (algebra)

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In mathematics, the characteristic of a ring R, often denoted char(R), is defined to be the smallest number of times one must use the ring's multiplicative identity element (1) in a sum to get the additive identity element (0); the ring is said to have characteristic zero if this sum never reaches the additive identity.

That is, char(R) is the smallest positive number n such that

\underbrace{1+\cdots+1}_{n \text{ summands}} = 0

if such a number n exists, and 0 otherwise.

The characteristic may also be taken to be the exponent of the ring's additive group, that is, the smallest positive n such that

\underbrace{a+\cdots+a}_{n \text{ summands}} = 0

for every element a of the ring (again, if n exists; otherwise zero). Some authors do not include the multiplicative identity element in their requirements for a ring (see ring), and this definition is suitable for that convention; otherwise the two definitions are equivalent due to the distributive law in rings.

Other equivalent characterizations[edit]

The requirements of ring homomorphisms are such that there can be only one homomorphism from the ring of integers to any ring; in the language of category theory, Z is an initial object of the category of rings. Again this follows the convention that a ring has a multiplicative identity element (which is preserved by ring homomorphisms).

Case of rings[edit]

If R and S are rings and there exists a ring homomorphism RS, then the characteristic of S divides the characteristic of R. This can sometimes be used to exclude the possibility of certain ring homomorphisms. The only ring with characteristic 1 is the trivial ring which has only a single element 0 = 1. If a non-trivial ring R does not have any zero divisors, then its characteristic is either 0 or prime. In particular, this applies to all fields, to all integral domains, and to all division rings. Any ring of characteristic 0 is infinite.

The ring Z/nZ of integers modulo n has characteristic n. If R is a subring of S, then R and S have the same characteristic. For instance, if q(X) is a prime polynomial with coefficients in the field Z/pZ where p is prime, then the factor ring (Z/pZ)[X]/(q(X)) is a field of characteristic p. Since the complex numbers contain the rationals, their characteristic is 0.

If a commutative ring R has prime characteristic p, then we have (x + y)p = xp + yp for all elements x and y in R – the "freshman's dream" holds for power p.

The map

f(x) = xp

then defines a ring homomorphism


It is called the Frobenius homomorphism. If R is an integral domain it is injective.

Case of fields[edit]

As mentioned above, the characteristic of any field is either 0 or a prime number. A field of non-zero characteristic is called a field of finite characteristic or a field of positive characteristic.

For any field F, there is a minimal subfield, namely the prime field, the smallest subfield containing 1F. It is isomorphic either to the rational number field Q, or a finite field of prime order, Fp; the structure of the prime field and the characteristic each determine the other. Fields of characteristic zero have the most familiar properties; for practical purposes they resemble subfields of the complex numbers (unless they have very large cardinality, that is; in fact, any field of characteristic zero and cardinality at most continuum is isomorphic to a subfield of complex numbers).[1] The p-adic fields or any finite extension of them are characteristic zero fields, much applied in number theory, that are constructed from rings of characteristic pk, as k → ∞.

For any ordered field, as the field of rational numbers Q or the field of real numbers R, the characteristic is 0. Thus, number fields and the field of complex numbers C are of characteristic zero. Actually, every field of characteristic zero is the quotient field of a ring Q[X]/P where X is a set of variables and P a set of polynomials in Q[X]. The finite field GF(pn) has characteristic p. There exist infinite fields of prime characteristic. For example, the field of all rational functions over Z/pZ, the algebraic closure of Z/pZ or the field of formal Laurent series Z/pZ((T)).

The size of any finite ring of prime characteristic p is a power of p. Since in that case it must contain Z/pZ it must also be a vector space over that field and from linear algebra we know that the sizes of finite vector spaces over finite fields are a power of the size of the field. This also shows that the size of any finite vector space is a prime power. (It is a vector space over a finite field, which we have shown to be of size pn. So its size is (pn)m = pnm.)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Enderton, Herbert B. (2001), A Mathematical Introduction to Logic (2nd ed.), Academic Press, p. 158, ISBN 9780080496467 . Enderton states this result explicitly only for algebraically closed fields, but also describes a decomposition of any field as an algebraic extension of a transcendental extension of its prime field, from which the result follows immediately.