How to deduce a formula (see below) for number of conjugacy classes in $\operatorname{GL}_n(F_2)$? (More generally F_q) ? Is there some description of conjugacy classes or we just know how many of them but do not know how to describe them ?

Can someone send me a paper, please ?: "Pairs of commuting matrices over a finite field" Walter Feit and N. J. Fine


FORMULA from OEIS The number $a(n)$ of conjugacy classes in the group $\operatorname{GL}(n, q)$ is the coefficient of $t^n$ in the infinite product: product $k=1, 2, ... (1-t^k)/(1-qt^k)$ - Noam Katz (noamkj(AT)hotmail.com), Mar 30 2001.

Simple observations

Clearly if characteristic polynom is different then matrices are not conjugated. For each char. pol. it is easy to give a matrix with such char. pol. so we get (q-1)q^{n-1} possibilities at least.

But if char. pol has a roots with multiplicities - then we may have several Jordan cells and several conjugacy classes with same characteristic polynomial. So it is not clear for me how to count them.

Diagonal elements of corresponding Jordan cells may not live in F_q but in some alg. extentsion of it, these makes me completely puzzled - is it possible to control this ? Hardly...

Related and not so much but nice questions :)

Number of conjugacy classes in generic finite group?

Sizes of twisted conjugacy classes of $PSL(n,q)$

How many conjugacy classes of subgroups does GL(2,p) have?

Decomposition of GL(2,p) into irreducible representations

Centralizers in GL(n,p)

Products of Conjugacy Classes in S_n

The number of conjugacy classes and the order of the group

Arithmetic relations between degrees of irrchar and cardinals of conjugacy classes

Can we bound degrees of complex irreps in terms of the average conjugacy class size?

Symmetric group irreps in tensor products of exterior products of the standard representation


3 Answers 3


Edit: Unfortunately, the first version of this answer was wrong, so I had to rewrite it almost entirely.

So the formula you want to prove is: $$ \sum_{n=1}^\infty C_{n,q} t^n =\prod_{k=1}^\infty \frac{1-t^k}{1-qt^k} $$ where $C_{n,q}$ denotes the number of conjugacy classes in $\textrm{GL}_n(q)$.

Note that $$ \frac{1-t^k}{1-qt^k} =1+\sum_{i=1}^\infty (q^i-q^{i-1}) t^{ki} $$ As Paul Garrett notes in his answer, $q^i-q^{i-1}$ is the number of monic polynomials in $\mathbb F_q[x]$ of degree $i$ with non-vanishing constant term. One usual way of counting conjugagy classes of matrices in $\textrm{GL}_n(q)$ (or $\textrm{Mat}_n(\mathbb F_q)$, if one admits the eigenvalue $0$) is counting isomorphism classes of $\mathbb F_q[x]$-modules of dimension $n$, which by the structure theorem on f.g. modules over PID's are given by $$ \mathbb F_{q}[x]/(p_k(x)) \oplus \mathbb F_{q}[x]/(p_k(x)\cdot p_{k-1}(x)) \ldots \oplus F_{q}[x]/(p_k(x)\cdot p_{k-1}(x)\cdots p_{1}(x)) $$ where $p_1,\ldots,p_k$ are monic polynomials with constant term $\neq 0$ (uniquely determined by the isomorphism type of the module) such that $1\cdot \textrm{deg}(p_1)+2\cdot \textrm{deg}(p_2) \ \ldots + k \cdot \textrm{deg}(p_k) = n \textrm{ (the dimension of the module)}$. Note that some of the $p_i$ may very well be equal to $1$.

From the above considerations it is clear that we can parametrize isomorphism classes of $\mathbb F_q[x]$-modules by giving a sequence of monic polynomials which eventually becomes constant $=1$, by letting the module given above correspond to the sequence $$ (f_1,f_2,f_3,\ldots) =(p_k, p_{p-1},\ldots,p_1,1,1,\ldots) $$ Note that in this sequence, $f_m$ constributes $m\cdot \textrm{deg}(f_m)$ to the dimension of the module. It follows $$ \begin{array}{rcl} \sum_{n=1}^\infty C_{n,q} t^n &=& \prod_{m=1}^{\infty}\left(\sum_{i=0}^\infty \#\textrm{(choices for $f_m$ that contribute $mi$ to the dimension)}\cdot t^{mi}\right)\newline &=&\prod_{m=1}^{\infty} \left(1+\sum_{i=1}^\infty (q^i-q^{i-1}) t^{mi}\right) =\prod_{m=1}^\infty \frac{1-t^m}{1-qt^m} \end{array} $$

  • $\begingroup$ Again, in the non-algebraically closed situation, it's rational canonical form which parametrizes the conjugacy classs in ${\rm GL}(n,q)$. $\endgroup$ Aug 11, 2012 at 7:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Geoff: I really don't see your problem. What I'm counting here are rational canonical forms of matrices (or some sort of rational canonical form). This is often referred to as generalized Jordan normal form, I don't think using the term "Jordan normal form" exclusively in the algebraically closed context is necessarily standard terminology. $\endgroup$ Aug 11, 2012 at 9:11
  • $\begingroup$ There is no problem. I was just saying that the standard, well-known and classical way to parametrize the conjugacy classes of ${\rm GL}(n,F)$ for any field $F$ is via the rational canonical form. This is well-known and in many algebra texts. As for Jordan form, it is certainly true that people in algebraic groups speak of the Jordan decomposition of an an element in the form $su =us$ with $s$ semisimple and $u$ unipotent, and use that in a non-necessarily algebraically closed situation. $\endgroup$ Aug 11, 2012 at 9:52
  • $\begingroup$ The original version of this answer was wrong. The edit should take care of those issues. $\endgroup$ Aug 11, 2012 at 11:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Florian Thank you very much for yours kind answer, give time to wrap my mind over it:). $\endgroup$ Aug 11, 2012 at 19:38

Thinking about Jordan form with rationality considerations taken into account a slightly different way than in the question may be useful: conjugacy classes are in bijection with "elementary divisor forms", meaning writing the vector space as a $R=\mathbb F_q[x]$-module of the form $R/d_1\oplus \ldots\oplus R/d_\ell$, where the monic elementary divisors satisfy $d_1|\ldots|d_\ell$, and (for invertibility) $x$ does not divide $d_\ell$.

Thus, the counting can be done without necessarily classifying or counting irreducibles and adding up. More simply, the number of monic polynomials of degree $d$ with non-vanishing constant term is obviously $q^d-q^{d-1}$.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ That number incidentally gives a count of the number of conjugacy classes of elements of order prime to $p$ (ie semisimple conjugacy classes) in ${\rm GL}(n,q),$ where $q$ is a power of the prime $p.$ This is because for each choice of characteristic polynomial, there is just one way to make the minimum polynomial multiplicity free. $\endgroup$ Aug 11, 2012 at 1:30

The correct paper is J.A. Green's 1955 paper.

  • $\begingroup$ That goes much further, and constructs the irreducible complex characters of ${\rm GL}(n,q).$ $\endgroup$ Aug 11, 2012 at 7:39
  • $\begingroup$ I believe this is the primary source for the result the OP alludes to. $\endgroup$
    – Igor Rivin
    Aug 11, 2012 at 15:34
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think the result is in there. The generating function for the number of conjugacy classes given on page 408 isn't the same as the one given by the OP (at least not obviously so). And the existence of this generating function is more of a side-remark in this paper. $\endgroup$ Aug 11, 2012 at 16:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Igor OEIS cites Feit, Fine. $\endgroup$ Aug 11, 2012 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ @alexander: Feit and Fine five years later, and in a slightly different subject. OEIS is just wrong. $\endgroup$
    – Igor Rivin
    Aug 11, 2012 at 23:16

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