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# Burnside’s Lemma

Simon Zheng
March 24, 2013

## Burnside’s Lemma is an application of abstract algebra, specifically group theory, to combi-

natorics. Intuitively, Burnside’s Lemma counts the number of arrangements of an object if its
symmetries are considered “the same.” For example, we can find the number of ways to color the
faces of a cube with n colors if rotations count as the same arrangement.
Burnside’s Lemma occasionally shows up on high school competitions; it reduces a lot of case-
work. Otherwise, it represents one of the first interesting applications of elementary group theory.
We can use it to solve a wide range of coloring problems.

1 Group Theory*
1.1 Groups
Definition 1. A group (G, ·) consists of a set G and a binary operation · such that the following
conditions hold:
1. (Closure) a · b ∈ G for all a, b ∈ G.
2. (Associativity) a · (b · c) = (a · b) · c for all a, b, c ∈ G.
3. (Identity) There exists an identity e ∈ G such that e · a = a · e = a for all a ∈ G.
4. (Inverse) For all a ∈ G, there exists an inverse a−1 such that a · a−1 = a−1 · a = e.
We sometimes think of the operation · as a product, but keep in mind that · represents an
arbitrary operation defined on the underlying set. For ease of notation, we usually denote the
product a · b by ab. Also, G can refer to the group or its underlying set.
Example 1. Here are some examples of commutative, or abelian, groups:
• (R, +), the real numbers under addition.
• (Q \ {0}, ·), the nonzero rational numbers under multiplication.
• The trivial group {e}.
• (Z/nZ, +), the residue classes mod n under addition.
Example 2. Not all groups are commutative:
• The group Sn is the symmetric group on n elements. Its elements are the n! permutations
of {1, 2, . . . , n} and its binary operation is function composition.
• The set of all invertible functions from R to R is a group under function composition.

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• Symmetries of polygons and polyhedra form groups, again under function composition. For
example, there are 8 symmetries of the square: 4 rotations (the identity, rotation by 90 degrees,
rotation by 180 degrees, and rotation by 270 degrees), 2 reflections (across the midpoints of
the edges), and 2 diagonal reflections (across the diagonals of the square). Each of these sends
a square to a square, but some vertices and edges may be swapped. Note that composing two
transformations yields another transformation. Also, each transformation has an inverse. 1
The last example is especially important. In Burnside’s Lemma applications, these symmetry
groups capture the symmetries of different colorings of polygons and polyhedra.
Definition 2. Given a group (G, ·), a subset H ⊂ G is a subgroup of G if H also forms a group
under the operation ·.
Example 3. G and {e} are always subgroups of G.
Example 4. (Z, +) is subgroup of (R, +).
To prove that H is a subgroup of G, we have to show that the four conditions for groups are
met. Since H has the same operation as G, associativity always holds. So it suffices to show that
e ∈ H, ab ∈ H for all a, b ∈ H, and a−1 ∈ H for all a ∈ H.
Definition 3. If G is a group, H is a subgroup of G, and g ∈ G, then the left coset of H in G is
gH = {gh | h ∈ H}.
The right coset is defined analogously.

## 1.2 Group Actions

Groups, as we have seen, capture the symmetries of an object. What if we want to impose sym-
metries on another object? This motivates the definition of a group action. Intuitively, group
actions can be thought of as transferring the group operation onto another set. For example, the
symmetries of square act on the set of its vertices.
Definition 4. Let (G, ·) be a group and let X be any set. A group action is a function
∗:G×X →X
(g, x) 7→ g ∗ x
such that
1. (Identity) e ∗ x = x for all x ∈ X.
2. (Associativity) g ∗ (h ∗ x) = (g · h) ∗ x for all g, h ∈ G and x ∈ X.
We say that G acts on X.
Put simply, a group action sends a pair of elements (g, x), one from the group and one from
the set, to an element g ∗ x from the set. We may imagine the group element g as rearranging the
elements of the set X. It is important to distinguish the group operation · from the group action
∗. The former is only defined for two elements of the group, while the latter requires one element
from G and one from X.
1 This is a really bad explanation. Google “symmetry group of square” for interactive examples.

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Example 5. The most boring group action is when G acts on itself with the normal group operation:
g ∗ x = gx.
Example 6. Every group G acts on itself by conjugation: g ∗ x = gxg −1 .
Example 7. The group (R \ {0}, ·) of nonzero real numbers under multiplication acts on Euclidean
space Rn by scalar multiplication.
Example 8. The group of symmetries of a cube acts on the vertices of a cube. Similarly, the group
of symmetries of a cube acts on the faces of a cube.
Again, for convenience, the ∗ is usually omitted in a group action. For the following three
definitions, let a group G act on a set X.

## Definition 5. The orbit of a point x ∈ X is the set Gx = {gx | g ∈ G}.

This notation should be suggestive of cosets. Orbits for group actions are analogous to right
cosets for subgroups.
Definition 6. The stabilizer of a point x ∈ X is the set Gx = {g ∈ G | gx = x}.

## Definition 7. The set of points in X fixed by g ∈ G is X g = {x ∈ X | gx = x}. 2

These are a lot of definitions. Note that Gx, X g ⊂ X and Gx ⊂ G. Write out some examples
so that you fully understand orbits, stabilizers, and X g .
Theorem 1.1. (Orbit Stabilizer Theorem) Let a group G act on a set X. Then |Gx| · |Gx | = |G|.

2 Burnside’s Lemma
We can finally state Burnside’s Lemma. It expresses the number of orbits in terms of the number of
fixed points for each transformation. In applications, the group G usually represents the symmetries
or transformations that act on the set of objects X.
Theorem 2.1. (Burnside’s Lemma) Consider a group G acting on a set X. Let X/G be the set
of orbits of G. Then
1 X g
|X/G| = |X |.
|G|
g∈G

Proof. We use a double-counting argument. Let S = {(g, x) ∈ G × X | gx = x}. One one hand, we
have X
|S| = |X g |.
g∈G

## On the other hand, by the orbit stabilizer theorem, we have

X X |G| X 1
|S| = |Gx | = = |G| .
|Gx| |Gx|
x∈X x∈X x∈X

2 I’m following the notation on Wikipedia. Other authors use Orb(x) = Gx, Stab(x) = Gx , and Fix(g) = X g .

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Since the orbits partition X, we can write
X 1 X X 1 X
|S| = |G| = |G| = |G| 1 = |G| · |X/G|.
|Gx| |A|
x∈X A∈X/G x∈A A∈X/G

1 X g
|X/G| = |X |,
|G|
g∈G

## as desired. (Note that G and X must be finite.)

Example 9. You have a rectangular chocolate bar composed of two adjacent squares. Each square
can be one of n flavors. Find the number of distinguishable chocolate bars.
Solution. First we identify the group of transformations. There are only two elements: the identity
and a flip. The identity fixes n2 chocolate bars. There are n chocolate bars fixed by a flip, since
the two squares must be the same flavor. Thus the number of chocolate bars is (n2 + n)/2.
Example 10. Find the number of rotationally distinct ways to color a cube’s faces with 5 colors.
Solution. We first find the group of symmetries of the cube. It consists of 24 rotations, which we
can characterize based on the axis of rotation:
1. There is 1 identity rotation.
2. The axis of rotation passes through the centers of two opposite faces. There are 3 possible
axes of rotation and we can rotate by either 90, 180, or 270 degrees, so there are 3 · 3 = 9
rotations.
3. The axis of rotation passes through the midpoints of two opposite edges. There are 6 possible
axes of rotation and we can only rotate by 180 degrees, so there are 6 · 1 = 6 rotations.
4. The axis of rotation is the space diagonal passing through two opposite vertices. There are
4 possible axes of rotation and we can rotate by 120 or 240 degrees, so there are 4 · 2 = 8
rotations.
Now we count the number of colorings fixed under each of these rotations:
1. The identity fixes all 56 colorings of the cube.
2. We split this into two cases. Case 1: 90 or 270 degree rotation. This will fix the two faces
through which the axis of rotation passes through and create a four-cycle of the remaining
faces. So there are 53 possible colorings. There are 6 rotations with a 90 or 270 degree
rotation, so the total contribution to the number of fixed colorings is 6 · 53 .
Case 2: 180 degree rotation. This will fix the two faces through which the axis of rotation
passes through and create two two-cycles of the remaining faces. So there are 54 possible
colorings. There are 3 rotations with a 180 degree rotation, so the total contribution to the
number of fixed colorings is 3 · 54 .
3 See exercise 3 in section 3.2

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3. There are three two-cycles of faces, so there are 53 fixed colorings. With 6 rotations of this
type, the total contribution to the number of fixed colorings is 6 · 53 .
4. There are two three-cycles of faces, so there are 52 fixed colorings. With 8 rotations of this
type, the total contribution to the number of fixed colorings is 8 · 52 .
By Burnside’s Lemma, there are
1 6
(5 + 6 · 53 + 3 · 54 + 6 · 53 + 8 · 52 ) = 800
24
rotationally distinct ways to color a cube’s faces with 5 colors.

## 3 Group Theory* Exercises

3.1 Basic Groups
1. Verify that all of the examples in Section 1.1 are groups. What is the identity of each group?
What is the inverse of each element in each group?
2. Prove the cancellation law. For a, b, c ∈ G, if ab = ac, then b = c.
3. Prove that the identity is unique. That is, if e and f are both identities, then e = f .
4. Let G be a group. If a, b ∈ G, then (ab)−1 = b−1 a−1 .
5. Prove that each element of the group has a unique inverse.
6. Let H be a subgroup of G. Let a ∈ G. Prove that aH = H if and only if a ∈ H.
7. Show that if a group G has an even number of elements, then there exists a non-identity
element a ∈ G such that a2 = e.
8. Let G be a group such that a2 = e for all a ∈ G. Prove that G is abelian.
9. Let G be a group and suppose that (ab)2 = a2 b2 for all a, b ∈ G. Prove that G is abelian.
10. (Putnam 1989) Let S be a non-empty set with an associative operation that is left and right
cancellative (xy = xz implies y = z, and yx = zx implies y = z). Assume that for every a in
S the set {an | n = 0, 1, 2, . . . } is finite. Must S be a group?
11. (Putnam 1968) A is a subset of a finite group G, and A contains more than one half of the
elements of G. Prove that each element of G is the product of two elements of A.

## 3.2 Group Actions

For the following problems, let a group G act on the set X.
1. Verify that the examples in Section 1.2 are indeed group actions.
2. Prove that the stabilizer Gx is a subgroup of G.
3. Prove that orbits partition X. In other words, each element of X belongs to exactly one
orbit. (Hint: Let x ∼ y whenever there exists g ∈ G such that x = gy. Show that ∼ is an
equivalence relation.)

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4 The Problems
1. (AMC 12B 2007) Each face of a regular tetrahedron is painted either red, white, or blue. Two
colorings are considered indistinguishable if two congruent tetrahedra with those colorings
can be rotated so that their appearances are identical. How many distinguishable colorings
are possible?
2. How many ways are there to color the faces of a cube with 6 colors such that each face receives
a different color? Rotations are considered equivalent.
3. Find the number of distinct squares that can be obtained by painting each edge of a given
square in red, green, or blue. Squares are considered distinct if they cannot be obtained from
each other using rotations or reflections.
4. Find the number of ways to color the vertices of a square with n colors. Rotations and
reflections are considered equivalent.
5. (AMC 12 2000) Eight congruent equilateral triangles, each of a different color, are used to
construct a regular octahedron. How many distinguishable ways are there to construct the
octahedron? (Two colored octahedrons are distinguishable if neither can be rotated to look
just like the other.)

6. (USAMTS 2008) 27 unit cubes—25 of which are colored black and 2 of which are colored
white—are assembled to form a 3 × 3 × 3 cube. How many distinguishable cubes can be
formed? (Two cubes are indistinguishable if one of them can be rotated to appear identical
to the other.)
7. (AIME II 2010) Find the number of second-degree polynomials f (x) with integer coefficients
and integer zeros for which f (0) = 2010.
8. In how many ways can you color the 16 squares of a 4 × 4 board when half of them must be
red and the other half blue? Two colorings are considered the same if they can be obtained
from each other by a rotation.

9. A baton is divided into 2n + 1 cylindrical bands of equal length n ≥ 1. In how many different
ways can the 2n + 1 bands be colored if 3 colors are available, assuming that no two adjacent
bands may be given the same color? (Two colorings count as the same if one of them can be
converted into the other by turning the baton around.)
10. (PUMaC 2012) Two white pentagonal pyramids, with side lengths all the same, are glued to
each other at their regular pentagon bases. Some of the resulting 10 faces are colored black.
How many rotationally distinguishable colorings may result?
11. You have a cube indistinguishable under rotations.
(a) Find the number of ways to color the cubes’ faces with n colors.
(b) Find the number of ways to color the cubes’ vertices with n colors.
(c) Find the number of ways to color the cubes’ edges with n colors.

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12. (Mandelbrot) There are two types of knights: a white knight and a black knight (whites are
indistinguishable from whites and the blacks are indistinguishable from blacks). There are 6
black knight and 6 white knights. They all sit in a round table. Find the number of ways
to arrange the knights if any seating that can be attained from the rotation of another is the
same.

13. A k-ary necklace of length n is a string of n beads, each one of k colors, where rotations are
considered equivalent.
(a) Let p be prime. Find the number of k-ary necklaces of length p.
(b) Using (a), prove Fermat’s Little Theorem: if p is prime and k is a natural number, then
k p ≡ k (mod p).
(c) Prove that there are
1X
Nk (n) = ϕ(d)k n/d
n
d|n

## different k-ary necklaces of length n, where ϕ is Euler’s totient function.

14. A k-ary bracelet of length n is a string of n beads, each one of k colors, where rotations and
reflections are considered equivalent.
(a) (PUMaC 2009) Taotao wants to buy a bracelet. The bracelets have 7 different beads on
them, arranged in a circle. Two bracelets are the same if one can be rotated or flipped
to get the other. If she can choose the colors and placement of the beads, and the beads
come in orange, white, and black, how many possible bracelets can she buy?
(b) Prove that there are

1 1 n/2
 2 Nk (n) + 4 (k + 1)k
 if n is even
Bk (n) =
1
+ 12 k (n+1)/2

2 Nk (n) if n is odd

different k-ary bracelets of length n, where Nk (n) is the number of k-ary necklaces of
length n.