Let $1 \leq k < n$ be natural numbers. Given orthonormal vectors $u_1,\dots,u_k$ in ${\bf R}^n$, one can always find an additional unit vector $v \in {\bf R}^n$ that is orthogonal to the preceding $k$. My question is: under what conditions on $k,n$ is it possible to make $v$ depend continuously on $u_1,\dots,u_k$, as the tuple $(u_1,\dots,u_k)$ ranges over all possible orthonormal systems? (For my application I actually want smooth dependence, but I think that a continuous map can be averaged out to be smooth without difficulty.)

When $k=n-1$ then one can just pick the unique unit normal to the span of the $u_1,\dots,u_k$ that is consistent with a chosen orientation on ${\bf R}^n$ (i.e., take wedge product and then Hodge dual, or just cross product in the $(k,n)=(2,3)$ case). But I don't know what is going on in lower dimension. Intuitively it seems to me that if $n$ is much larger than $k$ then the problem is so underdetermined that there should be no topological obstructions (such as that provided by the Borsuk-Ulam theorem), but I don't have the experience in algebraic topology to make this intuition precise.

It would suffice to exhibit a global section of the normal bundle of the (oriented) Grassmannian $Gr(k,n)$, though I don't know how to calculate the space of such sections.

  • It's been a loooong time since I've thought about such things, but I think that the obstruction you want is the Euler class, on the Wikipedia page it says "Note that "Normalization" is a distinguishing feature of the Euler class, so that it detects the existence of a non-vanishing section". So you'd need to look at the pull-back of the Euler class under the map $Gr_{n,k} \to Gr_{n,n-k}$ which maps $E$ to its orthogonal complement. The issue is a little more complicated if you're starting with a basis as then you need to pull back further to the frame bundle. – Loop Space Nov 5 at 17:41
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    Just a comment on your intuition (now that you have a full answer). Having lots of choice doesn't make it any easier to find a continuous choice because the act of making a choice is not continuous. So after making lots of local choices, you are confronted with the problem of patching them together and that is where the obstructions lie. – Loop Space Nov 6 at 7:21
up vote 52 down vote accepted

$\def\RR{\mathbb{R}}$ This problem was solved by

Whitehead, G. W., Note on cross-sections in Stiefel manifolds, Comment. Math. Helv. 37, 239-240 (1963). ZBL0118.18702.

Such sections exist only in the cases $(k,n) = (1,2m)$, $(n-1, n)$, $(2,7)$ and $(3,8)$.

All sections can be given by antisymmetric multilinear maps (and thus, in particular, can be taken to be smooth). The $(2,7)$ product is the seven dimensional cross product, which is octonion multiplication restricted to the octonions of trace $0$.

The $(3,8)$ product was computed by

Zvengrowski, P., A 3-fold vector product in $R^8$, Comment. Math. Helv. 40, 149-152 (1966). ZBL0134.38401

to be given by the formula $$X(a,b,c) = -a (\overline{b} c) + a (b \cdot c) - b (c \cdot a) + c (a \cdot b)$$ where $\cdot$ is dot product while multiplication with no symbol and $\overline{b }$ have their standard octonion meanings. Note that, if $(a,b,c)$ are orthogonal, the last $3$ terms are all $0$, so the expression simplifies to $- a (\overline{b} c)$; writing in the formula in the given manner has the advantage that $X(a,b,c)$ is antisymmetric in its arguments and perpendicular to the span of $a$, $b$ and $c$ for all $(a,b,c)$.

Unless I'm missing something, I think that the hairy ball theorem states precisely that you cannot do this when $n = 3$ and $k = 1$. I'm not sure what happens for other values of $n$ and $k$.

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    The hairy ball theorem actually applies to any even-dimensional sphere, so this would also settle the case $n > 1$ odd and $k = 1$. – R. van Dobben de Bruyn Nov 5 at 15:58
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    Wow, I can't believe I had forgotten about this theorem. So my intuition that the problem is too underdetermined to have an obstruction in high dimension is wrong, apparently. – Terry Tao Nov 5 at 16:19
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    Write $n=2^{c+4d} a$, with $a$ odd and $0\leq c \leq 3$. Then there are $2^c+8 d -1$ linear independent sections of the tangent bundle of the sphere, which you can make orthogonal I think. This is a famous theorem of Adams. – Thomas Rot Nov 5 at 18:03
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    This is a terrific answer for $\mathbb{R}^3-\{0\}$, but I'm not sure that it applies to $\mathbb{R}^3$, for there's no non-degenerate vector field in $\mathbb{R}^3$ that would be normal to the sphere. – Michael Nov 6 at 22:25
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    @Michael The question is not asking for complementation of a vector field in $\mathbb{R}^n$. It is asking for complementation when "the tuple ranges over all possible orthonormal systems". This is precisely the sphere $S^2$ when $n=3, k=1$. – Aloizio Macedo Nov 7 at 19:09

The space of orthonormal $k$-frames in $\mathbb{R}^n$ is the Stiefel manifold $V(k, n) = SO(n)/SO(n - k)$. There is a natural $SO(k)$ action on $V(k, n)$ and the quotient is the oriented grassmannian $\operatorname{Gr}^+(k, n) = SO(n)/(SO(k)\times SO(n-k))$. Let $\gamma_k \to \operatorname{Gr}^+(k, n)$ denote the tautological bundle and let $\gamma_k^{\perp} \to \operatorname{Gr}^+(k, n)$ denote its orthogonal complement. As you indicated, a nowhere-zero section of $\gamma_k^{\perp} \to \operatorname{Gr}^+(k, n)$ would give rise to a map that you desire. In fact, such a map arises this way if and only if it is $SO(k)$-invariant.

The inner product on $\mathbb{R}^n$ allows us to define the map $P \mapsto P^{\perp}$ which induces a diffeomorphism $f : \operatorname{Gr}^+(k, n) \to \operatorname{Gr}^+(n-k, n)$. Under this diffeomorphism we have $f^*\gamma_{n-k} \cong \gamma_k^{\perp}$, so $\gamma_k^{\perp} \to \operatorname{Gr}^+(k, n)$ admits a nowhere-zero section if and only if $\gamma_{n-k} \to \operatorname{Gr}^+(n-k, n)$ does. Therefore, we would like to know the answer to the following question:

For which values of $k$ and $n$ does $\gamma_{n-k} \to \operatorname{Gr}^+(n-k, n)$ admit a nowhere-zero section?

One necessary condition is that $w_{n-k}(\gamma_{n-k}) = 0$. Said another way, if $w_{n-k}(\gamma_{n-k}) \neq 0$, then there is no $SO(k)$-invariant map.


In a previous version of this answer, I stated what I thought was the $\mathbb{Z}_2$ cohomology ring of $\operatorname{Gr}^+(k, n)$ - I was incorrect. From this mistake, it followed that for $1 < k < n - 1$, $w_{n-k}(\gamma_{n-k}) \neq 0$ and hence there were no $SO(k)$-invariant maps for these values of $k$. This conclusion is false; there is a counterexample when $k = 2$ and $n = 7$ as David E Speyer pointed out in the comments below.

Somewhat surprisingly, the $\mathbb{Z}_2$ cohomology ring of $\operatorname{Gr}^+(k, n)$ is not known in general, see this question. The values of $k$ and $n$ for which $w_{n-k}(\gamma_{n-k}) \neq 0$ also seems to be unknown.


When $k = n - 1$, you described such a map which is in fact $SO(n-1)$-invariant. By the above correspondence, such maps exist because $\gamma_1 \to \operatorname{Gr}^+(1, n) = S^{n-1}$ is trivial as it is an orientable line bundle (alternatively, $\gamma_1$ is trivialised by the Euler vector field).

When $k = 1$, first note that $\gamma_{n-1} \to \operatorname{Gr}^+(n - 1, n) = S^{n-1}$ is isomorphic to the tangent bundle of $S^{n-1}$:

\begin{align*} TS^{n-1} &\cong T\operatorname{Gr}^+(n-1, n)\\ &\cong \operatorname{Hom}(\gamma_{n-1}, \gamma_{n-1}^{\perp})\\ &\cong \gamma_{n-1}^*\otimes\gamma_{n-1}^{\perp}\\ &\cong \gamma_{n-1}\otimes f^*\gamma_1\\ &\cong \gamma_{n-1} \end{align*}

where the last isomorphism uses the fact that $\gamma_1$, and hence $f^*\gamma_1$, is trivial. By Poincaré-Hopf, $TS^{n-1}$ admits a section if and only if $n$ is even. In this case, the map can be written down explicitly: $(v_1, v_2, \dots, v_{n-1}, v_n) \mapsto (-v_2, v_1, \dots, -v_n, v_{n-1})$. Identifying $\mathbb{R}^n$ and $\mathbb{C}^{n/2}$ via $(v_1, v_2, \dots, v_{n-1}, v_n) \mapsto (v_1 + iv_2, \dots, v_{n-1} + iv_n)$, the aforementioned map is nothing but multiplication by $i$.

Note, requiring $SO(k)$-invariance for $k = 1$ is not a restriction as $SO(1)$ is the trivial group.

  • It seems to me that something is wrong with this argument, because of the existence of the 7 dimensional cross product: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven-dimensional_cross_product . This is an antisymmetric bilinear map $R^7 \times R^7 \to R^7$ such that $u \times v$ is always perpendicular to $u$ and $v$ and, if $u$ and $v$ are orthogonal, then $|u \times v| = |u| |v|$. Using bilinearity and antisymmetry, I get $(\cos \theta u + \sin \theta v) \times (-\sin \theta u + \cos \theta v) = (\cos^2 \theta + \sin^2 \theta) (u \times v) = u \times v$, meaning this map is $SO(2)$ invariant. – David E Speyer Nov 6 at 16:02
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    This would seem to give a section of $\gamma_2^{\perp} \to G^+(2,7)$. What did I miss? – David E Speyer Nov 6 at 16:02
  • @DavidESpeyer: I can't see anything wrong with what you've written, so there must be something wrong with my answer. Maybe the cohomology ring of $\operatorname{Gr}^+(n-k, n)$ is not correct. I don't know of a reference, but I was under the impression that this was correct. – Michael Albanese Nov 6 at 16:32
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    @DavidESpeyer: The cohomology ring is wrong as can be seen in the case $k = 2$, $n = 4$ where $\operatorname{Gr}^+(2, 4) = S^2\times S^2$. I will try to think about this and see what can be salvaged. – Michael Albanese Nov 6 at 17:37
  • @DavidESpeyer: It seems that the values of $k$ and $n$ for which $w_{n-k}(\gamma_{n-k}) \neq 0$ is not known; see this question. – Michael Albanese Nov 8 at 23:10

Denoting the Stiefel manifold of orthonormal $k$-frames in $\mathbb{R}^n$ by $V(k,n)$ as in Michael Albanese's answer, what you are asking for is a section of the sphere bundle $$ S^{n-k-1}\to V(k+1,n)\to V(k,n), $$ where the projection takes a $(k+1)$-frame to its first $k$ vectors.

According to the paper

Čadek, Martin; Mimura, Mamoru; Vanžura, Jiří, The cohomology rings of real Stiefel manifolds with integer coefficients, J. Math. Kyoto Univ. 43, No. 2, 411-428 (2003). ZBL1061.55015,

the Euler class of this bundle is zero when $n-k$ is odd, and nonzero when $n-k$ is even.

This extends Michael Albanese's answer slightly, showing that the maps cannot exist when $n-k$ is even with $1<k<n$, even without requiring $SO(k)$-invariance. I don't know if the bundle admits a section when $n-k$ is odd. The primary obstruction vanishes in these cases, but note that there may be higher obstructions in the groups $H^{i+1}(V(k,n);\pi_i(S^{n-k-1}))$.

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