Spin group

In mathematics the spin group Spin(n) [1][2] is the double cover of the special orthogonal group SO(n) = SO(n, R), such that there exists a short exact sequence of Lie groups

As a Lie group, Spin(n) therefore shares its dimension, n (n − 1)/2, and its Lie algebra with the special orthogonal group.

For n > 2, Spin(n) is simply connected and so coincides with the universal cover of SO(n).

The non-trivial element of the kernel is denoted −1 , which should not be confused with the orthogonal transform of reflection through the origin, generally denoted −I .

Spin(n) can be constructed as a subgroup of the invertible elements in the Clifford algebra Cℓ(n). A distinct article discusses the spin representations.


Construction of the Spin group often starts with the construction of the Clifford algebra over a real vector space V.[3] The Clifford algebra is the quotient of the tensor algebra TV of V by a two-sided ideal. The tensor algebra (over the reals) may be written at

The Clifford algebra Cl(V) is then the quotient space

where is the norm of a vector . The resulting space is naturally graded, and can be written as

where and . The spin algebra is defined as

where the last is a short-hand for V being a real vector space of real dimension n. It is a Lie algebra; it has a natural action on V, and in this way can be shown to be isomorphic to the Lie algebra of the special orthogonal group.

The pin group is a subgroup of of all elements of the form

where each is of unit length: Note that many authors drop the use of the tensor symbol , making it implicit, as its overuse can become quite tedious. Here, however, it is shown explicitly, to keep the construction clear.

The spin group is then defined as

where is the subspace of an even number of products. That is, Spin(V) consists of all elements of Pin(V), given above, with the restriction to k being an even number. The restriction to the even subspace is key to the formation of two-component (Weyl) spinors, constructed below.

Note, incidentally, that if the set are an orthonormal basis of the (real) vector space V, then the quotienting above endows the space with a natural anti-commuting structure:

if . This anti-commutation turns out to be of tremendous importance in physics, as it captures the spirit of the Pauli exclusion principle for fermions. A precise formulation is out of scope, here, but it involves the creation of a spinor bundle on Minkowski spacetime; the resulting spinor fields can be seen to be anti-commuting as a by-product of the Clifford algebra construction. This anti-commutation property is also a key ingredient for the formulation of supersymmetry. The Clifford algebra and the spin group have many interesting and curious properties, some of which are listed below.

Double covering

A double covering of SO(n) by Spin(n) can be given explicitly, as follows. Let be an orthonormal basis for V. Define an anti-automorphism by

This can be extended to all elements of as

Observe that Spin(V) can then be defined as all elements for which

With this notation, an explicit double covering is the homomorphism given by

where . The above gives a double covering of both O(n) by Pin(n) and of SO(n) by Spin(n). With a small amount of work, it can be seen that corresponds to reflection across a hyperplane; this follows from the anti-commuting property of the Clifford algebra.

Spinor space

It is worth reviewing how spinor space and Weyl spinors are constructed, given this formalism. Given a real vector space V of dimension n=2m an even number, its complexification is . It can be written as the direct sum of a subspace of spinors and a subspace of anti-spinors:

The space is spanned by the spinors for and the complex conjugate spinors span . It is straight-forward to see that the spinors anti-commute, and that the product of a spinor and anti-spinor is a scalar.

The spinor space is defined as the exterior algebra . The (complexified) Clifford algebra acts naturally on this space; the (complexified) spin group corresponds to the length-preserving endomorphisms. There is a natural grading on the exterior algebra: The product of an odd number of copies of correspond to the physics notion of fermions; the even subspace corresponds to the bosons. The representations of the action of the spin group on the spinor space can be build in a relatively straight-forward fashion.[3]

Complex case

The Spinc group is defined by the exact sequence

It is a multiplicative subgroup of the complexification of the Clifford algebra, and specifically, it is the subgroup generated by Spin(V) and the unit circle in C. Alternately, it is the quotient

where the equivalence identifies (a, u) with (-a, -u).

This has important applications in 4-manifold theory and Seiberg–Witten theory. In physics, the Spin group is appropriate for describing uncharged fermions, while the Spinc group is used to describe electrically-charged fermions. In this case, the U(1) symmetry is specifically the gauge group of electromagnetism.


The spin algebra is a Lie algebra and it has a natural action on V (in which the spinors are constructed).

Accidental isomorphisms

In low dimensions, there are isomorphisms among the classical Lie groups called accidental isomorphisms. For instance, there are isomorphisms between low-dimensional spin groups and certain classical Lie groups, owing to low-dimensional isomorphisms between the root systems (and corresponding isomorphisms of Dynkin diagrams) of the different families of simple Lie algebras. Writing R for the reals, C for the complex numbers, H for the quaternions and the general understanding that Cl(n) is a short-hand for Cl(Rn) and that Spin(n) is a short-hand for Spin(Rn) and so on, one then has that[3]

Cl(1) = C the complex numbers
Pin(1) = {+i, -i, +1, -1}
Spin(1) = O(1) = {+1, -1}     the orthogonal group of dimension zero.


Cl(2) = H the quaternions
Spin(2) = U(1) = SO(2), which acts on z in 2 by double phase rotation zu2z.     dim=1


Cl(3) = H ⊕ H
Spin(3) = Sp(1) = SU(2), corresponding to     dim=3


Cl(4)= GL(2,H) the two-by-two matricies with quaternionic coefficients
Spin(4) = SU(2) × SU(2), corresponding to     dim=6


Spin(5) = Sp(2), corresponding to     dim=10
Spin(6) = SU(4), corresponding to     dim=15

There are certain vestiges of these isomorphisms left over for n = 7, 8 (see Spin(8) for more details). For higher n, these isomorphisms disappear entirely.

Indefinite signature

In indefinite signature, the spin group Spin(p, q) is constructed through Clifford algebras in a similar way to standard spin groups. It is a connected double cover of SO0(p, q), the connected component of the identity of the indefinite orthogonal group SO(p, q) (there are a variety of conventions on the connectedness of Spin(p, q); in this article, it is taken to be connected for p + q > 2 ). As in definite signature, there are some accidental isomorphisms in low dimensions:

Spin(1, 1) = GL(1, R)
Spin(2, 1) = SL(2, R)
Spin(3, 1) = SL(2,C)
Spin(2, 2) = SL(2, R) × SL(2, R)
Spin(4, 1) = Sp(1, 1)
Spin(3, 2) = Sp(4, R)
Spin(5, 1) = SL(2, H)
Spin(4, 2) = SU(2, 2)
Spin(3, 3) = SL(4, R)

Note that Spin(p, q) = Spin(q, p).

Topological considerations

Connected and simply connected Lie groups are classified by their Lie algebra. So if G is a connected Lie group with a simple Lie algebra, with G′ the universal cover of G, there is an inclusion

with Z(G′) the center of G′. This inclusion and the Lie algebra of G determine G entirely (note that it is not the case that and π1(G) determine G entirely; for instance SL(2, R) and PSL(2, R) have the same Lie algebra and same fundamental group Z, but are not isomorphic).

The definite signature Spin(n) are all simply connected for n > 2 , so they are the universal coverings of SO(n).

In indefinite signature, Spin(p, q) is not connected, and in general the identity component, Spin0(p, q), is not simply connected, thus it is not a universal cover. The fundamental group is most easily understood by considering the maximal compact subgroup of SO(p, q) , which is SO(p) × SO(q), and noting that rather than being the product of the 2-fold covers (hence a 4-fold cover), Spin(p, q) is the "diagonal" 2-fold cover – it is a 2-fold quotient of the 4-fold cover. Explicitly, the maximal compact connected subgroup of Spin(p, q) is

Spin(p) × Spin(q)/{(1, 1), (−1, −1)}.

This allows us to calculate the fundamental groups of Spin(p, q), taking pq:

Thus once p, q > 2 the fundamental group is Z2, as it is a 2-fold quotient of a product of two universal covers.

The maps on fundamental groups are given as follows. For p, q > 2, this implies that the map π1(Spin(p, q)) → π1(SO(p, q)) is given by 1 ∈ Z2 going to (1,1) ∈ Z2 × Z2. For p = 2, q > 2 , this map is given by 1 ∈ Z → (1,1) ∈ Z × Z2. And finally, for p = q = 2 , (1,0) ∈ Z × Z is sent to (1,1) ∈ Z × Z and (0, 1) is sent to (1, −1).


The center of the spin groups, for n≥3, (complex and real) are given as follows:[4]

Quotient groups

Quotient groups can be obtained from a spin group by quotienting out by a subgroup of the center, with the spin group then being a covering group of the resulting quotient, and both groups having the same Lie algebra.

Quotienting out by the entire center yields the minimal such group, the projective special orthogonal group, which is centerless, while quotienting out by {±1} yields the special orthogonal group – if the center equals {±1} (namely in odd dimension), these two quotient groups agree. If the spin group is simply connected (as Spin(n) is for n > 2), then Spin is the maximal group in the sequence, and one has a sequence of three groups,

Spin(n)  SO(n)  PSO(n),

splitting by parity yields:

Spin(2n)  SO(2n)  PSO(2n),
Spin(2n+1)  SO(2n+1) = PSO(2n+1),

which are the three compact real forms (or two, if SO = PSO ) of the compact Lie algebra

The homotopy groups of the cover and the quotient are related by the long exact sequence of a fibration, with discrete fiber (the fiber being the kernel) – thus all homotopy groups for k > 1 are equal, but π0 and π1 may differ.

For n > 2, Spin(n) is simply connected0 = π1 = {1} is trivial), so SO(n) is connected and has fundamental group Z2 while PSO(n) is connected and has fundamental group equal to the center of Spin(n).

In indefinite signature the covers and homotopy groups are more complicated – Spin(p, q) is not simply connected, and quotienting also affects connected components. The analysis is simpler if one considers the maximal (connected) compact SO(p) × SO(q) ⊂ SO(p, q) and the component group of Spin(p, q).

Postnikov tower

The spin group appears in a Postnikov tower anchored by the orthogonal group:

The tower is obtained by successively removing (killing) homotopy groups of increasing order. This is done by constructing short exact sequences starting with an Eilenberg–MacLane space for the homotopy group to be removed. Killing the π3 homotopy group in Spin(n), one obtains the infinite-dimensional string group String(n).

Discrete subgroups

Discrete subgroups of the spin group can be understood by relating them to discrete subgroups of the special orthogonal group (rotational point groups).

Given the double cover Spin(n) → SO(n), by the lattice theorem, there is a Galois connection between subgroups of Spin(n) and subgroups of SO(n) (rotational point groups): the image of a subgroup of Spin(n) is a rotational point group, and the preimage of a point group is a subgroup of Spin(n), and the closure operator on subgroups of Spin(n) is multiplication by {±1}. These may be called "binary point groups"; most familiar is the 3-dimensional case, known as binary polyhedral groups.

Concretely, every binary point group is either the preimage of a point group (hence denoted 2G, for the point group G), or is an index 2 subgroup of the preimage of a point group which maps (isomorphically) onto the point group; in the latter case the full binary group is abstractly (since {±1} is central). As an example of these latter, given a cyclic group of odd order in SO(n), its preimage is a cyclic group of twice the order, and the subgroup C2k+1 < Spin(n) maps isomorphically to C2k+1 < SO(n).

Of particular note are two series:

For point groups that reverse orientation, the situation is more complicated, as there are two pin groups, so there are two possible binary groups corresponding to a given point group.

See also

Related groups


  1. Lawson, H. Blaine; Michelsohn, Marie-Louise (1989). Spin Geometry. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-08542-5. page 14
  2. Friedrich, Thomas (2000), Dirac Operators in Riemannian Geometry, American Mathematical Society, ISBN 978-0-8218-2055-1 page 15
  3. 1 2 3 Jürgen Jost, Riemmanian Geometry and Geometric Analysis, (2002) Springer Verlag ISBN 3-540-42627-2 (See Chapter 1.)
  4. Varadarajan, V. S. (2004). Supersymmetry for mathematicians. AMS Bookstore. ISBN 978-0-8218-3574-6. (See p. 208)

Further reading

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