nth roots of unity : A geometric approach

When one is dealing with complex numbers, it is many a times useful to think of them as transformations. The problem at hand is to find the nth roots of unity. i.e

z^n = 1

Multiplication as a Transformation

Multiplication in the complex plane is mere rotation and scaling. i.e

z_{1} = r_{1}e^{i\theta_{1}}, z_{2} = r_{2}e^{i\theta_{2}} 

z_{1}z_{2} = \underbrace{r_{1} r_{2}}_{scaling} \underbrace{e^{i(\theta_{1} + \theta_{2})}}_{rotation}

Now what does finding the n roots of unity mean?

If you start at 1 and perform n equal rotations( because multiplication is nothing but rotation + scaling ), you should again end up at 1.

We just need to find the complex numbers that do this.i.e

z^n = 1

\underbrace{zz \hdots z}_{n} = 1

z = re^{i\theta}

r^{n}e^{i(\theta + \theta + \hdots \theta)} = 1e^{2\pi k i}

r^{n}e^{in\theta} =1e^{2\pi k i}

This implies that :

\theta = \frac{2\pi k}{n}, r = 1

And therefore :

z = e^{\frac{2\pi k i}{n}}

Take a circle, slice it into n equal parts and voila you have your n roots of unity.


Okay, but what does this imply ?

Multiplication by 1 is a 360^o/0^o rotation.


When you say that you are multiplying a positive real number(say 1) with 1 , we get a number(1) that is on the same positive real axis.

Multiplication by (-1) is a 180^o rotation.


When you multiply a positive real number (say 1) with -1, then we get a number (-1) that is on the negative real axis

The act of multiplying 1 by (-1) has resulted in a 180o transformation. And doing it again gets us back to 1.

Multiplication by i is a 90^o rotation.


Similarly multiplying by i takes 1 from real axis to the imaginary axis, which is a 90o rotation.

This applies to -i as well.

That’s about it! – That’s what the nth roots of unity mean geometrically. Have a good one!



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