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Homology (mathematics)

(See also Homology (biology).)

In mathematics (especially algebraic topology and abstract algebra), homology is a certain general procedure to associate a sequence of abelian groups or modules to a given mathematical object.

Table of contents

Construction of homology groups

The procedure works as follows: Given the object X, one first defines a chain complex that encodes information about X. A chain complex is a sequence of abelian groups or modules A0, A1, A2... connected by homomorphisms dn : An -> An-1, such that the composition of any two consecutive maps is zero: dn o dn+1 = 0 for all n. This means that the image of the n+1-th map is contained in the kernel of the n-th, and we can define the n-th homology group of X to be the factor group (or factor module)

Hn(X) = ker(dn) / im(dn+1).

A chain complex is said to be exact if the image of the n+1-th map is always equal to the kernel of the n-th map. The homology groups of X therefore measure "how far" the chain complex associated to X is from being exact.


A gentler introduction with pictures would be nice

The motivating example comes from algebraic topology: the simplicial homology of a simplicial complex X. Here An is the free abelian group or module whose generators are the n-dimensional oriented simplexes of X. The mappings are called the boundary mappings and send the simplex with vertices (a[1], a[2], ..., a[n]) to the sum of (-1)i (a[1], ..., a[i-1], a[i+1], ..., a[n]) from i = 0 to i = n. If we take the modules to be over a field, then the dimension of the n-th homology of X turns out to be the number of "holes" in X at dimension n.

Using this example as a model, one can define a simplicial homology for any topological space X. We define a chain complex for X by taking An to be the free abelian group (or free module) whose generators are all continuous maps from n-dimensional simplices into X. The homomorphisms dn arise from the boundary maps of simplices.

In abstract algebra, one uses homology to define derived functors[?], for example the Tor functors[?]. Here one starts with some covariant additive functor F and some module X. The chain complex for X is defined as follows: first find a free module F1 and a surjective homomorphism p1 : F1 -> X. Then one finds a free module F2 and a surjective homomorphism p2 : F2 -> ker(p1). Continuing in this fashion, a sequence of free modules Fn and homorphisms pn can be defined. By applying the functor F to this sequence, one obtains a chain complex; the homology Hn of this complex depends only on F and X and is, by definition, the n-th derived functor of F, applied to X.


Chain complexes form a category: A morphism from the chain complex (dn : An -> An-1) to the chain complex (en : Bn -> Bn-1) is a sequence of homomorphisms fn : An -> Bn such that fn-1 o dn = en-1 o fn for all n. The n-th homology Hn can be viewed as a covariant functor from the category of chain complexes to the category of abelian groups (or modules).

If the chain complex depends on the object X in a covariant manner (meaning that any morphism X -> Y induces a morphism from X's chain complex to Y's), then the Hn are covariant functors from the category that X belongs to into the category of abelian groups (or modules).

The only difference between homology and cohomology is that in cohomology the chain complexes depend in a contravariant manner on X, and that therefore the homology groups (which are called cohomology groups in this context and denoted by Hn) form contravariant functors from the category that X belongs to into the category of abelian groups or modules.


If (dn : An -> An-1) is a chain complex such that all but finitely many An are zero, and the others are finitely generated abelian groups (or finite dimensional vector spaces), then we can defined the Euler characteristic

χ = ∑ (-1)n rank(An)
(using the rank in the case of abelian groups and the Hamel dimension in the case of vector spaces). It turns out that the Euler characteristic can also be computed on the level of homology:
χ = ∑ (-1)n rank(Hn)
and, especially in algebraic topology, this provides two ways to compute the important invariant χ for the object X which gave rise to the chain complex.

Every short exact sequence

0 -> A -> B -> C -> 0
of chain complexes gives rise to a long exact sequence of homology groups
... -> Hn(A) -> Hn(B) -> Hn(C) -> Hn-1(A) -> Hn-1(B) -> Hn-1(C) -> Hn-2(A) -> ...
All maps in this long exact sequence are induced by the maps between the chain complexes, except for the maps Hn(C) -> Hn-1(A). These latter are called connecting homomorphisms and are provided by the snake lemma.

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