nLab normed division algebra

Normed division algebras

Normed division algebras


A normed division algebra is a not-necessarily associative algebra over the real numbers that is:

  1. unital (there is an element 11 such that 1a=a=a11a = a = a1 for all aa),

  2. a division algebra (i.e.(ab=0)(a=0 or b=0))\big( \text{i.e.}\, (a \cdot b = 0) \Rightarrow (a = 0 \,\text{ or }\, b = 0) \big), and

  3. a normed algebra such that ab=ab\|a b\| = \|a\| \|b\| for all a,ba,b.

It turns out (by Hurwitz' theorem) that over the real numbers there are precisely only four finite-dimensional normed division algebras up to isomorphism: the algebras of

  1. real numbers,

  2. complex numbers,

  3. quaternions,

  4. octonions.

In this sense real normed division algebras may be thought of as a natural generalization of the real numbers and the complex numbers.

Moreover, if one regards the real numbers as a star-algebra with trivial anti-involution, then each step in the above sequence is given by applying the Cayley-Dickson construction. (While the process of applying the Cayley-Dickson construction continues, next with the sedenions, these and the following are no longer division algebras.)

This classification of real normed division algebras is closely related to various other systems of exceptional structures in mathematics and physics:

(Moreover, apparently these two items are not unrelated, see here.)


A normed division algebra is

While the norm in a Banach algebra is in general only submultiplicative (xyxy{\|x y\|} \leq {\|x\|} {\|y\|}), the norm in a normed division algebra must obey the stronger condition xy=xy{\|x y\|} = {\|x\|} {\|y\|}. Accordingly, this norm is considered to be an absolute value and often written ||{|{-}|} instead of {\|{-}\|}. There is also a converse: if the norm on a Banach algebra is multiplicative (including 1=1{\|1\|} = 1), then it must be a division algebra. While the usual definition of a ‘normed division algebra’ does not include the completeness condition of a Banach algebra, in fact (UrbanikWright60) the only examples have finite dimension and are therefore complete, hence Banach algebras.

Any normed division algebras is in particular a composition algebra.



Over the complex numbers, the only normed division algebra is the algebra of complex numbers themselves.

The Hurwitz theorem says that over the real numbers there are, up to isomorphism, exactly four finite-dimensonal normed division algebras :

In fact these are also exactly the real alternative division algebras:


The only division algebras over the real numbers which are also alternative algebras are the real numbers themselves, the complex numbers, the quaternions and the octonions.

(Zorn 30).

Each of these is produced from the previous one by the Cayley–Dickson construction; when applied to 𝕆\mathbb{O}, this construction produces the algebra of sedenions, which do not form a division algebra.

The Cayley–Dickson construction applies to an algebra with involution; by the abstract nonsense of that construction, we can see that the four normed division algebras above have these properties:

  • \mathbb{R} is associative, commutative, and with trivial involution,
  • \mathbb{C} is associative and commutative but has nontrivial involution,
  • \mathbb{H} is associative but noncommutative and with nontrivial involution,
  • 𝕆\mathbb{O} is neither associative, commutative, nor with trivial involution.

However, these algebras do all have some useful algebraic properties; in particular, they are all alternative (a weak version of associativity). They are also all composition algebras.

A normed field is a commutative normed division algebra; it follows from the preceding that the only normed fields over \mathbb{R} are \mathbb{R} and \mathbb{C} (e.g. Tornheim 52).

It is in fact true that all unital normed division algebras over \mathbb{R} are already finite dimensional, by (Urbanik-Wright 1960) (the authors give a reference on a non-unital infinite-dimensional normed division algebra). Hence the Hurwitz theorem together with Urbanik-Wright 1960 says that the above four exhaust all real normed division algebras.


The automorphism groups of the real normed division algebras, as normed algebras, are

Incidentally, there is a sense in which this sequence of groups continues, with the infinity-group G3 (the Dwyer-Wilkerson H-space):

= Aut(R)= Aut(C)= Aut(H)= Aut(O)

Relation to H-space structures on sphere (Hopf invariant one)

The Hopf invariant one theorem says that the spheres carrying H-space structure are precisely the unit spheres in one of the normed division algebras

(Adams 60)

Magic square

The Freudenthal magic square is a special square array of Lie algebras/Lie groups labeled by pairs of real normed division algebras and including all the exceptional Lie groups except G2.

exceptional spinors and real normed division algebras

AA\phantom{AA}spin groupnormed division algebra\,\, brane scan entry
3=2+13 = 2+1Spin(2,1)SL(2,)Spin(2,1) \simeq SL(2,\mathbb{R})A\phantom{A} \mathbb{R} the real numberssuper 1-brane in 3d
4=3+14 = 3+1Spin(3,1)SL(2,)Spin(3,1) \simeq SL(2, \mathbb{C})A\phantom{A} \mathbb{C} the complex numberssuper 2-brane in 4d
6=5+16 = 5+1Spin(5,1)Spin(5,1) \simeq SL(2,H)A\phantom{A} \mathbb{H} the quaternionslittle string
10=9+110 = 9+1Spin(9,1) {\simeq}SL(2,O)A\phantom{A} 𝕆\mathbb{O} the octonionsheterotic/type II string

see division algebra and supersymmetry

\;normed division algebra\;𝔸\;\mathbb{A}\;\;Riemannian 𝔸\mathbb{A}-manifolds\;\;special Riemannian 𝔸\mathbb{A}-manifolds\;
\;real numbers\;\;\mathbb{R}\;\;Riemannian manifold\;\;oriented Riemannian manifold\;
\;complex numbers\;\;\mathbb{C}\;\;Kähler manifold\;\;Calabi-Yau manifold\;
\;quaternions\;\;\mathbb{H}\;\;quaternion-Kähler manifold\;\;hyperkähler manifold\;

(Leung 02)


The classification of real division composition algebras is originally due (Hurwitz theorem) to

  • Adolf Hurwitz, Über die Composition der quadratischen Formen von beliebig vielen Variabeln, Nachr. Ges. Wiss. Göttingen (1898) 309–316

The alternative classification as real alternative division algebras is due to

  • Max Zorn, Theorie der alternativen Ringe, Abhandlungen des Mathematischen Seminars der Universität Hamburg 8 (1930), 123-147

General discussion includes includes

  • Leonard Tornheim, Normed fields over the real and complex fields, Michigan Math. J. Volume 1, Issue 1 (1952), 61-68. (Euclid)

  • Silvio Aurora, On normed rings with monotone multiplication, Pacific J. Math. Volume 33, Number 1 (1970), 15-20 (JSTOR)

The result about removing the assumption of finite-dimensionality from unital normed division algebras appears in:

Exposition with emphasis on the octonions is in

Discussion of Riemannian geometry and special holonomy modeled on the different normed division algebras is in

  • Naichung Conan Leung, Riemannian Geometry Over Different Normed Division Algebras, J. Differential Geom. Volume 61, Number 2 (2002), 289-333. (euclid)

Last revised on July 17, 2023 at 03:00:08. See the history of this page for a list of all contributions to it.