# Nilpotent

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In mathematics, an element x of a ring R is called nilpotent if there exists some positive integer n such that xn = 0.

The term was introduced by Benjamin Peirce in the context of elements of an algebra that vanish when raised to a power.

## Examples

• This definition can be applied in particular to square matrices. The matrix
$A={\begin{pmatrix}0&1&0\\0&0&1\\0&0&0\end{pmatrix}}$ is nilpotent because A3 = 0. See nilpotent matrix for more.
• In the factor ring Z/9Z, the equivalence class of 3 is nilpotent because 32 is congruent to 0 modulo 9.
• Assume that two elements ab in a (non-commutative) ring R satisfy ab = 0. Then the element c = ba is nilpotent (if non-zero) as c2 = (ba)2 = b(ab)a = 0. An example with matrices (for ab):
$A={\begin{pmatrix}0&1\\0&1\end{pmatrix}},\;\;B={\begin{pmatrix}0&1\\0&0\end{pmatrix}}.$ Here AB = 0, BA = B.

## Properties

No nilpotent element can be a unit (except in the trivial ring {0} which has only a single element 0 = 1). All non-zero nilpotent elements are zero divisors.

An n-by-n matrix A with entries from a field is nilpotent if and only if its characteristic polynomial is tn.

If x is nilpotent, then 1 − x is a unit, because xn = 0 entails

$(1-x)(1+x+x^{2}+\cdots +x^{n-1})=1-x^{n}=1.\$ More generally, the sum of a unit element and a nilpotent element is a unit when they commute.

## Commutative rings

If $x$ is not nilpotent, we are able to localize with respect to the powers of $x$ : $S=\{1,x,x^{2},...\}$ to get a non-zero ring $S^{-1}R$ . The prime ideals of the localized ring correspond exactly to those primes ${\mathfrak {p}}$ with ${\mathfrak {p}}\cap S=\emptyset$ . As every non-zero commutative ring has a maximal ideal, which is prime, every non-nilpotent $x$ is not contained in some prime ideal. Thus ${\mathfrak {N}}$ is exactly the intersection of all prime ideals.

A characteristic similar to that of Jacobson radical and annihilation of simple modules is available for nilradical: nilpotent elements of ring R are precisely those that annihilate all integral domains internal to the ring R (that is, of the form R/I for prime ideals I). This follows from the fact that nilradical is the intersection of all prime ideals.

## Nilpotency in physics

An operand Q that satisfies Q2 = 0 is nilpotent. Grassmann numbers which allow a path integral representation for Fermionic fields are nilpotents since their squares vanish. The BRST charge is an important example in physics. As linear operators form an associative algebra and thus a ring, this is a special case of the initial definition. More generally, in view of the above definitions, an operator Q is nilpotent if there is nN such that Qn = 0 (the zero function). Thus, a linear map is nilpotent iff it has a nilpotent matrix in some basis. Another example for this is the exterior derivative (again with n = 2). Both are linked, also through supersymmetry and Morse theory, as shown by Edward Witten in a celebrated article.

The electromagnetic field of a plane wave without sources is nilpotent when it is expressed in terms of the algebra of physical space.

## Algebraic nilpotents

The two-dimensional dual numbers contain a nilpotent space. Other algebras and numbers that contain nilpotent spaces include split-quaternions (coquaternions), split-octonions, biquaternions $\mathbb {C} \otimes \mathbb {H}$ , and complex octonions $\mathbb {C} \otimes \mathbb {O}$ .