I am studying orthogonal columns and matrices right now and I have encountered the following theorem:

Theorem An $m \times n$ matrix $U$ has orthonormal columns if and only if $U^T U = 1$.

Is it even possible to have a matrix $U$ of the size $m\neq n$ here?

I ask because $U^TU=I\iff U^T=U^{-1}$, which means $U$ must be $n\times n$.

Also, I tried using it on some examples.

For instance, let $\displaystyle y=(4,8,1), u_1=\left(\frac{2}{3},\frac{1}{3},\frac{2}{3}\right), u_2=\left(-\frac{2}{3},\frac{2}{3},\frac{1}{3}\right), W=\text{span}(u_1,u_2)$ and $U$ be the matrix formed by $u_1$ and $u_2$ as columns.

So $\{u_1,u_2\}$ is an orthonormal set (I checked it is an orthogonal set and $u_1\cdot u_1=u_2\cdot u_2 = 1$).

But I am not able to use this theorem computing $U^TU$ and $UU^T$ (i.e. $UU^T\neq I$!). I am definitely misunderstanding something here.

If $u_1\cdot u_1=1$, would $u_1$ be an orthonormal column?

  • $\begingroup$ $U^TU = I$ doesn't imply $U$ is invertible. Actually, $U$ can be not a square matrix. An invertible matrix must be squared. $\endgroup$
    – Zhanxiong
    Aug 4 '15 at 0:06

Your mistake is that if $U$ is $m\times n$ you are always allowed to take the transpose, but $U$ is not necessarily invertible. $U^T$ in this case is an $n\times m$ matrix, and the product $U^TU$ makes sense because you end up with an $n\times n$ matrix (an $n\times m$ matrix multiplies on the left of an $m\times n$ matrix yields an $n\times n$ matrix). Similarly $UU^T$ also makes sense but in this case you get an $m\times m$ matrix by the same logic.

Above you wrote $U^TU = I \Leftrightarrow U^T = U^{-1}$, but this is not correct. Just because $U^TU = I$ doesn't mean $U$ is invertible. For invertibility you would require that $m = n$. If the dimensions are different you are automatically guaranteed that $U$ is not invertible because it doesn't achieve full rank: at least one of its rows or columns is linearly dependent on the other rows/columns, respectively. Even if a matrix is square ($m=n$) you only get invertibility when all of the columns (interchangeably, all of the rows) are linearly independent.

To illustrate why $U^TU = I$ implies the columns of $U$ are orthogonal, suppose that $U = \left [ \begin{array}{ccc} u_1 & \ldots & u_n \\ \end{array} \right ]$ where $u_i$ is the $i$th column of $U$. Then the multiplication $U^TU = I$ is equivalent to

$$ \left [ \begin{array}{c} u_1^T \\ \vdots \\ u_n^T \\ \end{array} \right ] \left [ \begin{array}{ccc} u_1 & \ldots & u_n \\ \end{array} \right ] \;\; =\;\; \left [ \begin{array}{cccc} \langle u_1, u_1\rangle & \langle u_1, u_2 \rangle & \ldots & \langle u_1, u_n\rangle \\ \langle u_2, u_1 \rangle & \langle u_2, u_2\rangle & \ldots & \langle u_2, u_n \rangle \\ \vdots & \vdots & \ddots & \vdots \\ \langle u_n, u_1\rangle & \langle u_n, u_2\rangle & \ldots & \langle u_n, u_n\rangle\\ \end{array} \right ]. $$

This above matrix being equal to the identity, is equivalent to saying that $\langle u_i, u_j\rangle = \delta_{ij}$, hence the columns are orthonormal.


Orthonormality is not a property of a vector, but rather of a set of vectors (in an inner product space):

A set $S = \{v_{\alpha}\}$ of vectors in an inner product space $(\Bbb V, \,\cdot\,)$ is orthonormal iff $$v_{\alpha} \cdot v_{\beta} = \delta_{\alpha \beta} := \left\{ \begin{array}{cl} 1, & \alpha = \beta \\ 0, & \alpha \neq \beta \end{array} \right.$$ (for all $\alpha, \beta$ in the index set).

It is certainly possible to have a nonsquare matrix with orthonormal columns: Given any unit length vector $v \in \Bbb R^n$, $n > 1$, the columns of the $n \times 1$ matrix $\pmatrix{v}$ trivially comprise an orthonormal set. (The flaw in the reasoning in the question is that it assumes the existence of an inverse of the matrix, and this really does require the given matrix to be square.)

On the other hand, one can show easily that an orthonormal set (or even just an orthogonal one) is linearly independent, so an orthonormal set cannot contain more elements than the dimension of the given inner product space; in particular, if the columns of a $m \times n$ matrix are orthonormal, we must have $m \geq n$.


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