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Simon Zheng

March 24, 2013

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.

1

• 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.

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.

2

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.

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}.

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

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 .

3

3

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

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

4

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.

3.1 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.

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.)

5

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.

6

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

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.

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