# What is the difference between Quaternions and Bicomplex Numbers?

So, I know Quaternions are basically 4 dimensional Complex numbers, and the dimensions can double forever to Octonions, Sedinions, etc. I recently heard about bicomplex numbers, which are also sort of 4 dimensional complex numbers. I looked into it a bit, and I found that bicomplex numbers are a commutative version of quaternions. But I wanted to know how exactly that works. How is the multiplication defined? Also can that be extended to 8-Dimensional biquaternions, 16-D bioctonions, etc? And how are those defined exactly? I know with regular hypercomplex numbers, you lose properties as you go up in dimensions, so does the same thing happen with the bi- ones? If so does it just lose the property that it would normally lose one dimension lower? Or do they not lose properties at all? Any answers would be greatly appreciated.

• Quaternions are basically 4 dimensional real numbers? – Curiosity Mar 12 '15 at 18:38
• Well, however you want to say I guess. I was more just saying that I knew what Quaternions were, not trying to give an in-depth description. Really they are their own thing, 4-Dimensional Hypercomplex Numbers. – RothX Mar 12 '15 at 18:45

## 1 Answer

I'd never heard of a bicomplex number, but I like algebra, so let's go for it. From what I understand, reading Wikipedia and playing around:

We assume that, in addition to $i$, our favorite square root of $-1$, we have another, $h$, so that $h^2 = -1 = i^2$. Further, we force $i$ and $h$ to commute, so that $ih = hi$.

You can see for yourself that $(ih)^2 = 1$, since $h$ and $i$ commute. So, $ih$ is a square root of $1$. We know of some other square roots of $1$, let's see what happens when we multiply something by $ih$. At this point, we'll assume our numbers are associative (just like we assumed $h$ and $i$ commute).

$(ih)h = ih^2 = i(-1) = -i$. Thus, multiplication by $ih$ sent $h$ to $-i$. This means $ih$ can't be $1$ or $-1$, the square roots of $1$ we already know and love, since $i$ and $h$ are distinct (that is, $h \neq -i$).

It turns out the set $\{1, i, h, ih\}$ forms a basis for these numbers. Thus, a generic "bicomplex number" looks like $a + bi + ch + dih$.

But, these bicomplex numbers are certainly don't act like quaternions. For one, they form a commutative algebra; the order of multiplication never matters! But more seriously, we have zero-divisors:

$$(1 + ih)(-1 + ih) = -1 + ih - ih +(ih)^2 = -1 +ih - ih - 1 = 0.$$

This is a pretty serious departure from the quaternions.

It turns out that the biquaternions are isomorphic to the direct sum $\mathbb{C} \oplus \mathbb{C}$ of the field of complex numbers with itself (here, addition and multiplication are performed component-wise, like vector addition). This is not obvious to me, but it's believable.

Direct sums are fairly uninteresting: Just slap two copies of something together, and there you go! It explains why we have zero-divisors, and commutativity. We just do everything we normally would, but do it twice; business as usual.

The quaternions on the other hand - now that's an algebra! Associative, but not commutative; no zero divisors; we can define a norm. Generally, life with the quaternions is great.

To build the complex numbers, quaternions, or octonians from the reals, the situation is a lot more subtle; the construction is an example of a "twisted group algebra." The complex numbers, quaternions, and octonions are all examples of twisted group algebras over the real numbers. In particular, we get the quaternions by introducing a "twisted" way of multiplying elements of the group algebra $\mathbb{R}[\mathbb{Z}_2^2]$.

Unfortunately, I'm still processing all the details myself, so it's up to you to figure out exactly what "twisting" something entails. Essentially, it's like a direct sum, but with the terms interacting multiplicatively more than just "component-wise," we need some extra magic thrown in.

Sources:

John Baez' write up on octonions, where I first saw the term "twisted group algebra." Lacking on details of the construction, lots of attention to the big picture.

John Bales' write up on "Properly Twisted Group Algebras", which is way more detail than I'd hoped for, but could fill in some of the gaps.

• Ok, thanks, that explains it to an extant. They are more different than I expected. Also, I'm glad my question introduced you to something new as well! – RothX Mar 14 '15 at 0:53
• Also, you said $−1+ih−ih+(ih)^2 = −1+ih−ih−1$, when it should be $−1+ih−ih+(ih)^2 = −1+ih−ih+1$ – RothX May 18 '17 at 13:46
• @RothX Correct you are, and thank you! I'll hold off on changing anything at the moment -- while it is certainly an error, maybe in a day or two I'll be able to improve the post in a more significant way (although probably not :)). – pjs36 May 18 '17 at 14:09