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4.3: Properties and Representations of Groups

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    Click here to see a lecture on this topic.

    Group Multiplication

    Now we will investigate what happens when we apply two symmetry operations in sequence. As an example, consider the \(NH_3\) molecule, which belongs to the \(C_{3v}\) point group. Consider what happens if we apply a \(C_3\)rotation (120˚ counter-clockwise) followed by a \(\sigma_v\) reflection (reflection over the \(\sigma_v\) axis). We write this combined operation \(\sigma_v\)\(C_3\) (when written, symmetry operations operate on the thing directly to their right, just as operators do in quantum mechanics – we therefore have to work backwards from right to left from the notation to get the correct order in which the operators are applied). As we shall soon see, the order in which the operations are applied is important.


    The combined operation \(\sigma_v\)\(C_3\) is equivalent to \(\sigma_v''\) (note the double prime on \(\sigma_v''\)!), which is also a symmetry operation of the \(C_{3v}\) point group. Now let’s see what happens if we apply the operators in the reverse order, i.e., \(C_3\)\(\sigma_v\) is (\(\sigma_v\) followed by \(C_3\)).


    Again, the combined operation \(C_3\)\(\sigma_v\) is equivalent to another operation of the point group, this time \(\sigma_v'\) (note the single prime on \(\sigma_v'\)!).

    There are two important points that are illustrated by this example:

    1. The order in which two operations are applied is important. For two symmetry operations \(A\) and \(B\), \(AB\) is not necessarily the same as \(BA\), i.e. symmetry operations do not in general commute. In some groups the symmetry elements do commute; such groups are said to be Abelian.
    2. If two operations from the same point group are applied in sequence, the result will be equivalent to another operation from the point group. Symmetry operations that are related to each other by other symmetry operations of the group are said to belong to the same class. In \(NH_3\), the three mirror planes \(\sigma_v\), \(\sigma_v'\) and \(\sigma_v''\) belong to the same class (related to each other through a \(C_3\) rotation), as do the rotations \(C_3^+\) and \(C_3^-\) (anticlockwise and clockwise rotations about the principal axis, related to each other by a vertical mirror plane).

    Four Properties of Mathematical Groups

    Now that we have explored some of the properties of symmetry operations and elements and their behavior within point groups, we are ready to introduce the formal mathematical definition of a group. The definitions below will be put into the context of molecular symmetry.

    A mathematical group is defined as a set of elements (\(A_1\), \(A_2\), \(A_3\)...) together with a rule for forming combinations \(A_i\),\(A_j\)... For our purposes, \(A_1\), \(A_2\), \(A_3\), etc. are symmetry elements and \(A_i\), \(A_j\), etc. are symmetry operations described in a previous section. The elements of the group and the rule for combining them must satisfy the following four criteria.

    1. The group must include the identity \(E\), which commutes with other members of the group. In other terms, \(E A_i= A_i \) for all the elements of the group. Application of the identity operation before or after another operation, \(A_i\), results in the same outcome as \(A_i\) alone.
    2. The elements must satisfy the group property that the combination of any pair of elements is also an element of the group. For example, in the \(C_{3v}\) point group, a C3 rotation followed by a \(\sigma_v\) gives another operation that is already part of the group: a \(\sigma_v"\).
    3. Each symmetry operation \(A_i\) must have an inverse \(A_i^{-1}\), which is also an element of the group, such that \[A_i A_i^{-1} = A_i^{-1}A_i = E \nonumber \] The inverse \(g_i^{-1}\) effectively 'undoes’ the effect of the symmetry operation \(g_i\). For example, in the \(C_{3v}\) point group, the inverse of \(C_3^+\) is \(C_3^-\).
    4. The rule of combination must be associative \[(A_i A_j )(A_k) = A_i(A_jA_k) \nonumber \] Or \(A(BC)=(AB)C\). In other words, the order of operations should not matter.

    Group theory is an important area in mathematics, and luckily for chemists the mathematicians have already done most of the work for us. Along with the formal definition of a group comes a comprehensive mathematical framework that allows us to carry out a rigorous treatment of symmetry in molecular systems and learn about its consequences.

    Many problems involving operators or operations (such as those found in quantum mechanics or group theory) may be reformulated in terms of matrices. Any of you who have come across transformation matrices before will know that symmetry operations such as rotations and reflections may be represented by matrices. It turns out that the set of matrices representing the symmetry operations in a group obey all the conditions laid out above in the mathematical definition of a group, and using matrix representations of symmetry operations simplifies carrying out calculations in group theory. Before we learn how to use matrices in group theory, it will probably be helpful to review some basic definitions and properties of matrices.

    *This page was adapted from here (click).

    Contributors and Attributions

    This page titled 4.3: Properties and Representations of Groups is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kathryn Haas.

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