Math 113: Abstract algebra

UC Berkeley, Fall 2009, room 4 Evans, MWF 2:10-3:00


Michael Hutchings
Office phone: 510-642-4329.
Office: 923 Evans.
Tentative office hours: Wednesday 9:30 - 11:30.

Course goals

In previous courses you have seen many kinds of algebra, from the algebra of real and complex numbers, to polynomials, functions, vectors, and matrices. Abstract algebra (most mathematicians would just call this "algebra", I'm not sure why the word "abstract" is there) encompasses all of this and much more. Roughly speaking, abstract algebra studies the structure of sets with operations on them. We will study three basic kinds of "sets with operations on them", called Groups, Rings, and Fields.

A group is, roughly, a set with one "binary operation" on it satisfying certain axioms which we will learn about. Examples of groups include the integers with the operation of addition, the nonzero real numbers with the operation of multiplication, and the invertible n by n matrices with the operation of matrix multiplication. But groups arise in many other diverse ways. For example, the symmetries of an object in space naturally comprise a group. The moves that one can do on Rubik's cube comprise a fun example of a group. After studying many examples of groups, we will develop some general theory which concerns the basic principles underlying all groups.

A ring is, roughly, a set with two binary operations on it satisfying certain properties which we will learn about. An example is the integers with the operations of addition and multiplication. Another example is the ring of polynomials. A field is a ring with certain additional nice properties. At the end of the course we will have built up enough machinery to prove that one cannot trisect a sixty degree angle using a ruler and compass.

In addition to the specific topics we will study, which lie at the foundations of much of higher mathematics, an important goal of the course is to expand facility with mathematical reasoning and proofs in general, as a transition to more advanced mathematics courses, and for logical thinking outside of mathematics as well. I am hoping that you already have some familiarity with proofs from Math 55 or a similar course. If not, the following might be helpful:

Notes on proofs

Some old notes of mine giving a very basic introduction to proofs are available here.


The textbook for this course is John B. Fraleigh, A first course in abstract algebra , 7th edition, Addison-Wesley. This book is very readable, has been well liked by students in the past, and contains lots of good exercises and examples.

Most of the lectures will correspond to particular sections of the book (indicated in the syllabus below), and studying these sections should be very helpful for understanding the material. However, please note that in class I will often present material in a different order or from a different perspective than that of the book. We will also occasionally discuss topics which are not in the book at all. Thus it is important to attend class and, since you shouldn't expect to understand everything right away, to take good notes.

There are many other algebra texts out there, and you might try browsing through these for some additional perspectives. (Bear in mind that Fraleigh is an "entry-level" text, so many other algebra books will be too hard at this point; but after this course you should be prepared to start exploring these. There is a vast world of algebra out there!)

In addition, the math articles on wikipedia have gotten a lot better than they used to be, and much useful information related to this course can be found there. However you shouldn't blindly trust anything you read on the internet, and keep in mind that wikipedia articles tend to give brief summaries rather than the detailed explanations that are needed for proper understanding.


It is recommended that you obtain a 3x3 Rubik's cube, if you do not already have one, e.g. from This will be used to illustrate some group-theoretic concepts in a fun, hands-on way. (However ability to solve Rubik's cube is not a course requirement. By the way, you can find some pretty scary stuff by searching for "rubik" on youtube.)

Study tips (for any upper division math course)

Homework policy

Homework is due every Wednesday (except for the first two Wednesdays and the weeks of the midterms) at 2:10 PM sharp . You can either bring it to class or slide it under my office door. (If it doesn't fit under the door, please be more concise!) Homework assignments will be posted below at least a week before they are due. No late homeworks will be accepted for any reason, so that we can go over the homework problems at the beginning of Wednesday's class (which is when people are most eager to see solutions to troublesome problems). However it is OK if you miss the deadline once or twice, because your lowest two homework scores will be dropped.

When preparing your homework, please keep the following in mind:

1) You are encouraged to discuss the homework problems with your classmates. Mathematics can be a fun social activity! Perhaps the best way to learn is to think hard about a problem on your own until you get really stuck or solve it, then ask someone else how they thought about it. However, when it comes time to write down your solutions to hand in, you must do this by yourself, in your own words, without looking at someone else's paper.

2) All answers should be written in complete, grammatically correct English sentences which explain the logic of what you are doing, with mathematical symbols and equations interspersed as appropriate. For example, instead of writing "x^2 = 4, x = 2, x = -2", write "since x^2 = 4, it follows that x = 2 or x = -2." Otherwise your proof will be unreadable and will not receive credit. Results of calculations and answers to true/false questions etc. should always be justified. Proofs should be complete and detailed. The proofs in the book provide good models; but when in doubt, explain more details. Avoid phrases such as "it is easy to see that"; often what follows such a phrase is actually a tricky point that needs justifiction, or even false. You can of course cite theorems that we have already proved in class or from the book.

Homework assignments

Exams and grading

There will be in-class midterms on 10/7 and 11/9, and a final exam on 12/17.

There will be no makeup exams. However you can miss one midterm without penalty, as explained in the grading policy below.

There is no regrading unless there is an egregious error such as adding up the points incorrectly. Every effort is made to grade all exams according to the same standards, so regrading one student's exam would be unfair to everyone else.

The course grade will be determined as follows: homework 20%, midterms 20% each, final 60%, lowest exam score -20%. All grades will be curved to a uniform scale before being averaged.

Syllabus (short version)

Syllabus (long version)

The following is the plan for what I intend to cover, and when. Below, numbers in square brackets refer to the relevant sections of Fraleigh. The schedule of topics is only an approximation, so some topics might be covered at slightly different times than listed, or skipped if time gets short.