It seems to be necessary to state some basic facts --and maybe warnings-- at the beginning of the character theory package. This holds for people who are familiar with character theory because there is no global reference on computational character theory, although there are many papers on this topic, like~NPP84 or~LP91. It holds, however, also for people who are familiar with GAP because the general concept of categories and domains (see About Domains and Categories and chapter Domains) plays no important role here --we will justify this later in this section.
Intuitively, characters of the finite group G can be thought of as certain mappings defined on G, with values in the complex number field; the set of all characters of G forms a semiring with addition and multiplication both defined pointwise, which is embedded in the ring of generalized (or virtual) characters in the natural way. A bf Z--basis of this ring, and also a vector space base of the vector space of class functions, is given by the irreducible characters.
At this stage one could ask where there is a problem, since all these algebraic structures are supported by GAP, as is described in chapters Domains, Rings, Vector Spaces, Mappings, and others.
Now, we first should say that characters are not implemented as mappings, that there are no GAP domains denoting character rings, and that a character table is not a domain.
For computations with characters of a finite group G with n conjugacy classes, say, we fix an order of the classes, and then identify each class with its position according to this order. Each character of G will be represented as list of length n where at the i--th position the character value for elements of the i--th class is stored. Note that we do not need to know the conjugacy classes of G physically, even our ``knowledge'' of the group may be implicit in the sense that e.g. we know how many classes of involutions G has, and which length these classes have, but we never have seen an element of G, or a presentation or representation of G. This allows to work with the character tables of very large groups, e.g., of the so--called monster, where GAP has no chance to work with the group.
As a consequence, also other information involving characters is given implicitly. For example, we can talk about the kernel of a character not as a group but as a list of classes (more exactly: a list of their positions according to the order of classes) forming this kernel; we can deduce the group order, the contained cyclic subgroups and so on, but we do not get the group itself.
Characters are one kind of class functions, and we also represent general class functions as lists. Two important kinds of these functions which are not characters are power maps and fusion maps. The k--th power map maps each class to the class of k--th powers of its elements, the corresponding list contains at each position the position of the image. A subgroup fusion map between the classes of a subgroup H of G and the classes of G maps each class c of H to that class of G that contains c; if we know only the character tables of the two groups, this means with respect to a fixed embedding of H in G.
So the data mainly consist of lists, and typical calculations with character tables are more or less loops over these lists. For example, the known scalar product of two characters chi, psi of G given by [ [chi,psi] = frac1|G| sum_gin G chi(g) psi(g^-1) ] can be written as
Sum( [1..n], i -> t.classes[i]*chi[i]*GaloisCyc(psi[i],-1) );
t.classes is the list of classlengths, and
psi are the
lists corresponding to chi, psi, respectively. Characters,
classlengths, element orders, power maps, fusion maps and other
information about a group is stored in a common character table record
just to avoid confusion, not to indicate an algebraic structure (which
would mean a domain in the sense of GAP).
A character table is not determined by something similar to generators for groups or rings in GAP where other components (the knowledge about the domain) is stored for the sake of efficiency. In many situations one works with incomplete tables or preliminary tables which are, strictly speaking, no character tables but shall be handled like character tables. Moreover, the correctness or even the consistency of a character table is hard to prove. Thus it is not sufficient to view a character table as a black box, and to get information about it using a few property test functions. In fact there are very few functions that return character tables or that are property tests. Most GAP functions dealing with character tables return class functions, or lists of them, or information about class functions. For that, GAP directly accesses the components of the table record, and the user will have to look at the record components, too, in order to put the pieces of the puzzle together, and to decide how to go on.
So it is not easy to say what a character table is; it describes some properties of the underlying group, and it describes them in a rather abstract way. Also GAP does not know whether or not a list is a character, it will e.g. regard a list with all entries equal to 1 as the trivial character if it is passed to a function that expects characters.
It is one of the advantages of character theory that after one has translated a problem concerning groups into a problem concerning their character tables the calculations are mostly simple. For example, one can often prove that a group is a Galois group over the rationals using calculations of structure constants that can be computed from the character table, and informations on (the character tables of) maximal subgroups.
In this kind of problems the translation back to the group is just an interpretation by the user, it does not take place in GAP. At the moment, the only interface between handling groups and handling character tables is the fixed order of conjugacy classes.
Note that algebraic structures are not of much interest in character theory. The main reason for this is that we have no homomorphisms since we need not to know anything about the group multiplication.
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