Is linear algebra more “fully understood” than other maths disciplines?

In a recent question, it was discussed how LA is a foundation to other branches of mathematics, be they pure or applied. One answer argued that linear problems are fully understood, and hence a natural target to reduce pretty much anything to.

Now, it’s evident enough that such a linearisation, if possible, tends to make hard things easier. Find a Hilbert space hidden in your domain, obtain an orthonormal basis, and bam, any point/state can be described as a mere sequence of numbers, any mapping boils down to a matrix; we have some good theorems for existence of inverses / eigenvectors/exponential objects / etc..

So, LA sure is convenient.

OTOH, it seems unlikely that any nontrivial mathematical system could ever be said to be thoroughly understood. Can’t we always find new questions within any such framework that haven’t been answered yet? I’m not firm enough with Gödel’s incompleteness theorems to judge whether they are relevant here. The first incompleteness theorem says that discrete disciplines like number theory can’t be both complete and consistent. Surely this is all the more true for e.g. topology.

Is LA for some reason exempt from such arguments, or does it for some other reason deserve to be called the best understood branch of mathematics?


It’s closer to true that all the questions in finite-dimensional linear algebra that can be asked in an introductory course can be answered in an introductory course. This is wildly far from true in most other areas. In number theory, algebraic topology, geometric topology, set theory, and theoretical computer science, for instance, here are some questions you could ask within a week of beginning the subject: how many primes are there separated by two? How many homotopically distinct maps are there between two given spaces? How can we tell apart two four dimensional manifolds? Are there sets in between a given set and its powerset in cardinality? Are various natural complexity classes actually distinct?

None of these questions are very close to completely answered, only one is really anywhere close, in fact one is known to be unanswerable in general, and partial answers to each of these have earned massive accolades from the mathematical community. No such phenomena can be observed in finite dimensional linear algebra, where we can classify in a matter of a few lectures all possible objects, give explicit algorithms to determine when two examples are isomorphic, determine precisely the structure of the spaces of maps between two vector spaces, and understand in great detail how to represent morphisms in various ways amenable to computation. Thus linear algebra becomes both the archetypal example of a completely successful mathematical field, and a powerful tool when other mathematical fields can be reduced to it.

This is an extended explanation of the claim that linear algebra is “thoroughly understood.” That doesn’t mean “totally understood,” as you claim!

Source : Link , Question Author : leftaroundabout , Answer Author : Kevin Arlin

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