A topological look at the vector (cross) product in three dimensions

Speaker: Peter Zvengrowski

Date: Sat, May 9, 2015

Location: PIMS, University of Lethbridge

Conference: Alberta Mathematics Dialog

Subject: Mathematics

Class: Scientific, Educational


The vector product (or cross product) of two vectors in 3-dimensional real space $\mathbb{R}^3$ is a standard item covered in most every text in calculus, advanced calculus, and vector calculus, as well as in many physics and linear algebra texts. Most of these texts add a remark (or “warning”) that this vector product is available only in 3-dimensional space.

In this talk we shall start with some of the early history, in the nineteenth century, of the vector product, and in particular its relation to quaternions. Then we shall show that in fact the 3-dimensional vector product is
notthe only one, indeed the Swiss mathematician Beno Eckmann (a frequent visitor to Alberta) discovered a vector product in 7-dimensional space in 1942. Further-
more, by about 1960 deep advances in topology implied that there were no further vector products in any other dimension. We shall also, following Eckmann, talk about the generalization to r-fold vector products for
$r\geq 1$ (the familiar vector product is a 2-fold vector product), and give the complete results for which dimensions n and for which $r$ these can exist.

In the above work it is clear that the spheres $S^3$, $S^7$ play a special role (as well as their “little cousin” $S^1$). In the last part of the talk we will briefly discuss how these special spheres also play a major part in the recent solution of the Kervaire conjecture by Hill, Hopkins, and Ravenel, as well as their relation to the author’s own research on the span of smooth manifolds.