In many places in mathematics, we see some variant of the following simple construction. The first time we see it is in constructing the integers from the natural numbers:

Consider pairs of elements of (which includes zero for our purposes, but it doesn’t really matter this time). We form equivalence classes out of these pairs by saying that if . We can create a group structure on these pairs by setting . The resulting group is isomorphic to . So that’s how to construct the integers from the natural numbers.

We see a similar construction when we discuss localizations of rings. Let be a commutative ring and a multiplicative subset containing 1. (If is noncommutative, you can still localize provided that is an Ore set, but I don’t feel like going there now.) We now consider pairs under the equivalence relation if there is some so that . The set of equivalence classes has the structure of a ring, called the localization of at , and denoted by . This construction is generally seen with , where is a prime ideal of . The resulting ring is then local (meaning that it has a unique maximal ideal, namely . (We generally write rather than in this situation.) Anyway, this construction is really useful because localizations at prime ideals are frequently principal ideal domains, and we know all sorts of interesting theorems about finitely generated modules over principal ideal domains. And then we can use some Hasse principle-type result to transfer our results back to the original ring.

Notice that I allowed the multiplicative set of localization to contain zero. However, in this case, the localization becomes the trivial ring (or not a ring, if you require that in your definition of a ring, as many people do). More generally, allowing zero divisors in the multiplicative set causes various elements in to become zero in the localization.

A similar construction shows up in -theory. Suppose is any commutative semigroup. We consider pairs under the equivalence relation if there is some so that . (This is necessary since we do not assume that satisfies the cancellation property.) The resulting equivalence classes form a group called the Grothendieck group of and denoted by .

The Grothendieck group satisfies the following universal property. Let be the map sending to for any . (This is easily seen to be well-defined.) Now let be any abelian group and any semigroup homomorphism. Then there is a (unique) map so that .

Grothendieck groups can be very helpful for studying rings. Let be a commutative ring, and let denote the semigroup of isomorphism classes of projective modules (under the operation of direct sum). Then (or , as people often write) is an important object of study. If is a field, for instance, then . However, if is the ring of integers of a number field , then , where is the ideal class group.

Perhaps more interesting is Swan’s Theorem, which relates vector bundles over a compact topological space to the projective modules over its ring of continuous functions: they have isomorphic Grothendieck groups. But that’s probably the subject of another post, especially if I can manage to understand my notes from Max Karoubi’s lecture series in Edmonton.

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Friday, March 20, 2009 at 2:29 pm

ZygmundLet me think of a few other uses. Localizations of modules. Local rings have lots of nice properties, especially Nakayama’s lemma, which makes them useful in commutative algebra. In algebraic geometry, the local ring on a scheme plays an important role (and the stalk of a quasicoherent sheaf-this is just localization too). At most places (at nonsingular points), the local rings will even be regular and consequently UFDs of finite homological dimension. Completions (e.g. the p-adic integers) give rise to local rings. Those complete local rings are of course interest in the theory of local fields, and for ideles in the theory of global fields. Localization can even be used to prove unique factorization of ideals in a Localization is also friendly since it is an exact functor. It commutes with Hom and the tensor product in a certain sense (the former for finitely presented modules, at least; localization is also really a tensor product operation). Yes, I agree: localization is universal.