nLab spin structure



Higher spin geometry



Special and general types

Special notions


Extra structure





A spin structure on a manifold XX with an orientation is a lift g^\hat g of the classifying map g:XBSO(n)g : X \to B S O(n) of the tangent bundle through the second step BSpin(n)BSO(n)B Spin(n) \to B S O(n) in the Whitehead tower of O(n)O(n).

BSpin(n) g^ X g BSO(n) \array{ && B Spin(n) \\ & {}^{\hat g}\nearrow & \downarrow \\ X &\stackrel{g}{\to}& B S O(n) }

Spin structures derive their name from the fact that their existence on a space XX make the quantum anomaly for spinning particles propagating on XX vanish. See there.


Let nn \in \mathbb{N}, write

2Spin(n)SO(n) \mathbb{Z}_2 \to Spin(n) \to SO(n)

for the spin group group extension of the special orthogonal group in dimension nn. (All of the following also applies verbatim for Lorentzian signature).




SO(n)˜[ 2Spin(n)] \widetilde{SO(n)} \coloneqq [\mathbb{Z}_2 \to Spin(n)]

for the crossed module of smooth groups induced by the spin group extension. Write

B 2[ 21] \mathbf{B}\mathbb{Z}_2 \coloneqq [\mathbb{Z}_2 \to 1]

for the crossed module given by shifting up the group of order two in degree. Finally write

SO(n)˜ SO(n) \array{ \widetilde{SO(n)} \\ \downarrow \\ SO(n) }

for the canonical morphism of crossed modules which is the terminal morphism in degree-1 and the defining projection in degree 0, and write

w˜ 2:SO(n)˜=[ 2Spin(n)][ 21]=B 2 \tilde{\mathbf{w}}_2 \;\colon\; \widetilde{SO(n)} = [\mathbb{Z}_2 \to Spin(n)] \longrightarrow [\mathbb{Z}_2 \to 1] = \mathbf{B}\mathbb{Z}_2

for the canonical morphism of crossed modules which is the identity in degree 1 and the terminal map in degree 0.


In the span/zig-zag

SO(n)˜ w 2˜ B 2 SO(n) \array{ \widetilde{SO(n)} &\stackrel{\tilde{\mathbf{w}_2}}{\longrightarrow}& \mathbf{B}\mathbb{Z}_2 \\ \downarrow^{\mathrlap{\simeq}} \\ SO(n) }

the left leg is a weak equivalence of smooth groupoids (under the identification of crossed modules with strict 2-groups). Under delooping it presents a morphism of smooth 2-groupoids of the form

w 2:BSO(n)B 2 2 \mathbf{w}_2 \;\colon\; \mathbf{B}SO(n) \longrightarrow \mathbf{B}^2 \mathbb{Z}_2

from the universal moduli stack of smooth SO(n)SO(n)-principal bundles to that of B 2\mathbf{B}\mathbb{Z}_2-principal 2-bundles ( 2\mathbb{Z}_2-bundle gerbes). The homotopy fiber of this map in Smooth∞Grpd is BSpin(n)\mathbf{B}Spin(n), for the spin group regarded as a smooth group. Under geometric realization of cohesive ∞-groupoids ||:SmoothGrpdGrpd{\vert - \vert} \colon Smooth\infty Grpd \longrightarrow \infty Grpd this maps ti the universal second Stiefel-Whitney class

|w 2|w 2:BSO(n)K( 2,2). {\vert \mathbf{w}_2\vert} \simeq w_2 \;\colon\; B SO(n) \longrightarrow K(\mathbb{Z}_2,2) \,.

This is discussed in (dcct, section 5.1).


One checks that the homotopy fiber of w 2\mathbf{w}_2 in Smooth∞Grpd is BSpin(n)\mathbf{B}Spin(n), for Spin(n)Spin(n) the spin group regarded as a smooth group, for instance by using the techniques for computing homotopy pullbacks as discussed there. Moreover, by the general discussion at smooth ∞-groupoid – structures this homotopy fiber is preseved under geometric realization of cohesive ∞-groupoids so that the homotopy fiber of |w 2|{\vert \mathbf{w}_2 \vert} is the classifying space BSpin(n)B Spin(n). Since 𝕂( 2,2)\mathbb{K}(\mathbb{Z}_2,2) is connected, this characterizes |w 2|{\vert \mathbf{w}_2 \vert} as w 2w_2.


Given a smooth manifold XX with an orientation, its oriented tangent bundle is modulated by a map

τ X:XBSO(n). \tau_X \colon X \longrightarrow \mathbf{B}SO(n) \,.

Postcomposition with w 2\mathbf{w}_2 from prop. gives a map in Smooth∞Grpd of the form

w 2(τ X):Xτ XBSO(n)w 2B 2 2. \mathbf{w}_2(\tau_X) \;\colon\; X \stackrel{\tau_X}{\longrightarrow} \mathbf{B}SO(n) \stackrel{\mathbf{w}_2}{\longrightarrow} \mathbf{B}^2 \mathbb{Z}_2 \,.

This modulates a B 2\mathbf{B}\mathbb{Z}_2-principal 2-bundle on XX, also called a 2\mathbb{Z}_2-bundle gerbe. By construction (the universal property of the homotopy fiber) this is the obstruction to the existence of a lift g^\hat g in

BSpin(n) g^ X τ x BSO(n) w 2 B 2 2. \array{ && \mathbf{B} Spin(n) \\ & {}^{\hat g}\nearrow & \downarrow \\ X &\stackrel{\tau_x}{\to}& \mathbf{B} S O(n) &\stackrel{\mathbf{w}_2}{\longrightarrow}& \mathbf{B}^2 \mathbb{Z}_2 } \,.

Such a lift is a choice of spin structure on XX. Therefore as bundle gerbes, this w 2(τ X)\mathbf{w}_2(\tau_X) is also called a lifting bundle gerbe.

From the perspective of lifting bundle gerbes, spin structures are discussed in (Murray-Singer 03).


For XX a manifold, the groupoid/homotopy 1-type Spin(X)Spin(X) of spin structures over XX is the homotopy fiber in ∞Grpd \simeq L wheL_{whe}Top of the second Stiefel-Whitney class

Spin(X) * η Top(X,BSO) (w 2) * Top(X,B 2 2). \array{ Spin(X) &\to& * \\ {}^{\mathllap{\eta}}\downarrow && \downarrow \\ Top(X,B SO) &\stackrel{(w_2)_*}{\to}& Top(X, B^2 \mathbb{Z}_2) } \,.

Here an object sSpin(X)s \in Spin(X) over an SOSO-principal bundle η(s)\eta(s) on XX is called a spin structure on η(s)\eta(s) (SOSO is the special orthogonal group).

For η(s)\eta(s) the SOSO-principal bundle for which the tangent bundle TXT X is the canonically associated bundle, one says that a spin-structure on η(s)\eta(s) is a spin structure on the manifold XX.


From the smooth geometric perspective on spin structures of remark one may also start with an affine connection on the tangent bundle given, principally, by an SO(n)SO(n)-principal connection which in turn is modulated by a map \nabla in

BSO(n) conn X τ X BSO(n). \array{ && \mathbf{B} SO(n)_{conn} \\ & {}^{\mathllap{\nabla}}\nearrow & \downarrow \\ X &\stackrel{\tau_X}{\longrightarrow}& \mathbf{B} SO(n) } \,.

But since 2\mathbb{Z}_2 is a discrete group, there is no non-flat B 2\mathbf{B}\mathbb{Z}_2-principal 2-connection and hence no non-trivial “differential refinement” of w 2\mathbf{w}_2.

Beware that sometimes in the physics literature an SO(n)SO(n)-principal connection is already called a “spin connection” (due to the fact that often in physics only local data is connsidered, and locally there is no difference between Spin(n)Spin(n)-principal connections and SO(n)SO(n)-principal connections, up to equivalence.)


In analogy to how an orientation of a real vector space VV equipped with an inner product is equivalently an isometry between the top exterior power of VV and the real numbers, so a spin structure on a real vector space VV equipped with an inner product is an isomorphism in the 2-category of algebras, bimodules, and intertwiners (see here) from the Clifford algebra of VV to the Clifford algebra of the real vector space R n\mathbf{R}^n of the same dimension n=dimVn=\dim V with the canonical inner product.

Spin structures naturally form a category, with morphisms being (isometric) isomorphisms of bimodules as described above.


Over a Riemann surface

Over a Riemann surface spin structures correspond to square roots of the canonical bundle. See at Theta characteristic.

Over a Hermitian manifold / Kähler manifold

More generally:


A spin structure on a compact Hermitian manifold (Kähler manifold) XX of complex dimension nn exists precisely if, equivalently

In this case one has:


There is a natural isomorphism

S XΩ X 0,Ω X n,0 S_X \simeq \Omega^{0,\bullet}_X \otimes \sqrt{\Omega^{n,0}_X}

of the sheaf of sections of the spinor bundle S XS_X on XX with the tensor product of the Dolbeault complex with the corresponding Theta characteristic;

Moreover, the corresponding Dirac operator is the Dolbeault-Dirac operator ¯+¯ *\overline{\partial} + \overline{\partial}^\ast.

This is due to (Hitchin 74). A textbook account is for instance in (Friedrich 74, around p. 79 and p. 82).

As quantum anomaly cancellation condition

In the context of quantum field theory the existence of a spin structure on a Riemannian manifold XX arises notably as the condition for quantum anomaly cancellation of the sigma-model for the spinning particle – the superparticle – propagating on XX.

It is the generalization of this anomaly computation from the worldlines of superparticles to superstrings that leads to string structure, and then further the generalizaton to the worldvolume anomaly of fivebranes that leads to fivebrane structure.


On the 2-sphere

The 2-sphere S 2S^2 is famously a complex manifold: the Riemann sphere. One standard way to exhibit the complex structure is to cover S 2S^2 with two copies of the complex plane with coordinate transition functions on the overlap {0}\mathbb{C} - \{0\} given by

z 2=z 1 1. z_2 = z_1^{-1} \,.

The 2-sphere is moreover a Kähler manifold and of course compact. Therefore by prop. a spin structure on S 2S^2 is equivalently a square root Ω 1,0Line (S 2)\sqrt{\Omega^{1,0}} \in \mathbf{Line}_{\mathbb{C}}(S^2) of the canonical line bundle Ω 1,0\Omega^{1,0}, which here is simply the holomorphic 1-form bundle.

Now hermitian complex line bundles on the 2-sphere are classified by H 2(S 2,)H^2(S^2, \mathbb{Z}) \simeq \mathbb{Z}. By the clutching construction a line bundle given by two trivializing sections σ 1,σ 2\sigma_1, \sigma_2 of the trivial line bundle on the coordinate patch \mathbb{C} has class the winding number of the transition function

S 1{0}s 2s 1 1 ×. S^1 \hookrightarrow \mathbb{C} - \{0\} \stackrel{s_2 s_1^{-1}}{\to} \mathbb{C}^\times \,.

Now the canonical section of the holomorphic 1-form bundle on \mathbb{C} is simply the canonical 1-form dzd z itself. By the above coordinate charts we have on {0}\mathbb{C} - \{0\}

dz 2=d(z 1 1)=z 1 2dz 1 d z_2 = d (z_1^{-1}) = - z_1^{-2} d z_1

and so the transition function of the canonical bundle in this local trivialization is

z 2:{0} ×. - z^{-2} \colon \mathbb{C}-\{0\} \to \mathbb{C}^\times \,.

This has winding number ±2\pm 2. Therefore the first Chern class of the holomorphic 1-form bundle Ω 1,0\Omega^{1,0} is c 1(Ω 1,0)=±2c_1(\Omega^{1,0}) = \pm 2 (the sign being an arbitrary convention, determined by the identification H 2(S 2,)H^2(S^2, \mathbb{Z}) \simeq \mathbb{Z}).

And so it follows that there is a unique spin structure, namely given by choosing Ω 1,0\sqrt{\Omega^{1,0}} to be the line bundle on S 2S^2 with first Chern class ±1\pm 1.

To construct Ω 1,0\sqrt{\Omega^{1,0}} by local sections analogous to how we got Ω 1,0\Omega^{1,0} from the two sections dz 1d z_1 and dz 2d z_2, slice open \mathbb{C} to [0,)\mathbb{C} - [0,\infty) and consider one of the two z 1 1/2dz 1z_1^{-1/2} d z_1 as a local section of the trivial complex line bundle. Do the same on the other patch. Then

z 2 1/2dz 2 =z 1 1/2(z 1 2dz 1) =z 1 1(z 1 1/2dz 1). \begin{aligned} z_2^{-1/2} d z_2 &= z_1^{1/2} (-z_1^{-2} d z_1) \\ &= -z_1^{-1}\left(z_1^{-1/2} dz_1\right) \end{aligned} \,.

This is well defined also over the cut and so we can patch the cut with any small neighbourhood with any section chosen over it and conclude that these sections are the local sections locally trivializing a bundle of class ±1\pm 1 and hence that of Ω 1,0\sqrt{\Omega^{1,0}}.

Notice also that the canonical vector field on the first patch given by z 1 z 1z_1 \partial_{z_1} transforms on the overlap to

z 1 z 1 =z 2 1z 2z 1 z 2 =z 2 1(z 1 2) z 2 =z 2 z 2 \begin{aligned} z_1 \partial_{z_1} & = z_2^{-1} \frac{\partial z_2}{\partial z_1 } \partial_{z_2} \\ & = z_2^{-1} (- z_1^{-2}) \partial_{z_2} \\ & = - z_2 \partial_{z_2} \end{aligned}

and hence continues canonically to a well-defined vector field on all of S 2S^2. If L kL_k is the rank kk line bundle on S 2S^2 given by the clutching construction by the transition function z kz^k, then holomorphic sections of this bundle are expressed in terms of canonical bases z 1 a 1z_1^{a_1}, z 2 a 2z_2^{a_2} with a i0a_i \geq 0 satisfying

z 2 a 2=z 2 kz 2 a 1 z_2^{a_2} = z_2^{k} z_2^{-a_1}

and hence for

a 1+a 2=k. a_1 + a_2 = k \,.

This gives a (k+1)(k+1)-dimensional space of holomorphic sections.

For more along these lines see also at geometric quantization of the 2-sphere.

On the nn-sphere



The n-sphere, for each nn \in \mathbb{N}, carries a canonical spin structure, induced from its coset space-realization S nSpin(n+1)/Spin(n)S^n \simeq Spin(n+1)/Spin(n) (here), as a special case of the canonical HH-structure on G/HG/H (this example).

Other ways to see this:

  • Nikolai Nowaczyk, Theorem A.6.6 in: Dirac Eigenvalues of higher Multiplicity (arXiv:1501.04045)

  • S. Gutt, Killing spinors on spheres and projective spaces, p. 238-248 in: A. Trautman, G. Furlan (eds.) Spinors in Geometry and Physics – Trieste 11-13 September 1986, World Scientific 1988 (doi:10.1142/9789814541510, GBooks, p. 243)

Higher spin structures

Spin structures are one step in a tower of conditions that are related to the quantum anomaly cancellation of higher dimensional spinning/super branes.

This is controled by the Whitehead tower of the classifying space/delooping of the orthogonal group O(n)O(n), which starts out as

Whiteheadtower BFivebrane * secondfracPontr.class BString 16p 2 B 8 * firstfracPontr.class BSpin 12p 1 B 4 * secondSWclass BSO w 2 B 2 2 * firstSWclass BO τ 8BO τ 4BO τ 2BO w 1 τ 1BOB 2 Postnikovtower \array{ & Whitehead tower \\ &\vdots \\ & B Fivebrane &\to& \cdots &\to& * \\ & \downarrow && && \downarrow \\ second frac Pontr. class & B String &\to& \cdots &\stackrel{\tfrac{1}{6}p_2}{\to}& B^8 \mathbb{Z} &\to& * \\ & \downarrow && && \downarrow && \downarrow \\ first frac Pontr. class & B Spin && && &\stackrel{\tfrac{1}{2}p_1}{\to}& B^4 \mathbb{Z} &\to & * \\ & \downarrow && && \downarrow && \downarrow && \downarrow \\ second SW class & B S O &\to& \cdots &\to& &\to& & \stackrel{w_2}{\to} & B^2 \mathbb{Z}_2 &\to& * \\ & \downarrow && && \downarrow && \downarrow && \downarrow && \downarrow \\ first SW class & B O &\to& \cdots &\to& \tau_{\leq 8 } B O &\to& \tau_{\leq 4 } B O &\to& \tau_{\leq 2 } B O &\stackrel{w_1}{\to}& \tau_{\leq 1 } B O \simeq B \mathbb{Z}_2 & Postnikov tower }

where the stages are the deloopings of

\to fivebrane group \to string group \to spin group \to special orthogonal group \to orthogonal group,

where lifts through the stages correspond to

and where the obstruction classes are the universal characteristic classes

and where every possible square in the above is a homotopy pullback square (using the pasting law).

Notice that for instance w 2w_2 is identified as such by using that [S 2,][S^2,-] preserves homotopy pullbacks and sends BOτ 2BO B O \to \tau_{\leq 2} B O to a equivalence, so that BSOB 2B SO \to B^2 \mathbb{Z} is an isomorphism on the second homotopy group and hence by the Hurewicz theorem is also an isomorphism on the cohomology group H 2(, 2)H^2(-,\mathbb{Z}_2). Analogously for the other characteristic maps.

In summary, more concisely, the tower is

BFivebrane BString 16p 2 B 7U(1) B 8 BSpin 12p 1 B 3U(1) B 4 BSO w 2 B 2 2 BO w 1 B 2 BGL, \array{ \vdots \\ \downarrow \\ B Fivebrane \\ \downarrow \\ B String &\stackrel{\tfrac{1}{6}p_2}{\to}& B^7 U(1) & \simeq B^8 \mathbb{Z} \\ \downarrow \\ B Spin &\stackrel{\tfrac{1}{2}p_1}{\to}& B^3 U(1) & \simeq B^4 \mathbb{Z} \\ \downarrow \\ B SO &\stackrel{w_2}{\to}& B^2 \mathbb{Z}_2 \\ \downarrow \\ B O &\stackrel{w_1}{\to}& B \mathbb{Z}_2 \\ \downarrow^{\mathrlap{\simeq}} \\ B GL } \,,

where each “hook” is a fiber sequence.

smooth ∞-groupWhitehead tower of smooth moduli ∞-stacksG-structure/higher spin structureobstruction
ninebrane 10-groupBNinebrane\mathbf{B}Ninebrane ninebrane structurethird fractional Pontryagin class
fivebrane 6-groupBFivebrane1np 3B 11U(1)\mathbf{B}Fivebrane \stackrel{\tfrac{1}{n} p_3}{\to} \mathbf{B}^{11}U(1)fivebrane structuresecond fractional Pontryagin class
string 2-groupBString16p 2B 7U(1)\mathbf{B}String \stackrel{\tfrac{1}{6}\mathbf{p}_2}{\to} \mathbf{B}^7 U(1)string structurefirst fractional Pontryagin class
spin groupBSpin12p 1B 3U(1)\mathbf{B}Spin \stackrel{\tfrac{1}{2}\mathbf{p}_1}{\to} \mathbf{B}^3 U(1)spin structuresecond Stiefel-Whitney class
special orthogonal groupBSOw 2B 2 2\mathbf{B}SO \stackrel{\mathbf{w_2}}{\to} \mathbf{B}^2 \mathbb{Z}_2orientation structurefirst Stiefel-Whitney class
orthogonal groupBOw 1B 2\mathbf{B}O \stackrel{\mathbf{w}_1}{\to} \mathbf{B}\mathbb{Z}_2orthogonal structure/vielbein/Riemannian metric
general linear groupBGL\mathbf{B}GLsmooth manifold

(all hooks are homotopy fiber sequences)



Standard texbooks include

A discussion of the full groupoid of spin structures is in

  • Johannes Ebert, Characteristic classes of spin surface bundles:

    Applications of the Madsen-Weiss theory_ Phd thesis (2006) (pdf)

Discussion of lifting bundle gerbes for spin structures is in

Discussion of spin structures in terms of smooth moduli stacks as above is in

Discussion of spin structures on surfaces is in

  • Dennis Johnson, Spin structures and quadratic forms on surfaces. J. London Math. Soc. (2) 22 (1980), no. 2, 365–373.

See also this MO comment.

Discussion of spin structure on Kähler manifolds is in

  • Nigel Hitchin, Harmonic spinors, Adv. Math. 14 (1974), 1 − 55.

A textbook account is in (Friedrich 97, section 3.4)

A survey is also at

Spin structures on orbifolds:

In quantum anomaly cancellation

Discussions of spin structures as anomaly cancellation for the spinning particle (see also the references hereuantum mechanics#ReferencesRelationToMorseTheory) at supersymmetric quantum mechanics):

Last revised on February 15, 2024 at 16:04:01. See the history of this page for a list of all contributions to it.