The universal space

Take (or imagine) a blank sheet of paper. This is a plane. You can put points and vectors on it. A vector connects two points, but it is "movable": if you can translate one vector into another, they are deemed equal. A vector doesn't really have a beginning - you can position it wherever you want.

In this setting, some operations make sense, like

  • vector + point = point:
    Position the vector at a point, and its end will be the result.

  • point - point = vector:
    Join the points to get a vector from A to B. (It's inverse of vector + point = point.)

  • vector + vector = vector:
    Put the beginning of one vector to the end of the second.

But some don't, like adding two points, or subtracting vector - point. With added origin, you can do anything using coordinates, as in (2,1) + (3,0) = (5,1). In fact, with given origin you can consider every point as a vector from the origin. But without it, it's like physical motion - you cannot tell if something is moving without a frame of reference.

Although addition point + point doesn't make sense, (point + point) / 2 should - it's middle between the points. 0.2 point + 0.8 point is somewhere in the 4/5 of the segment. This is known as "affine combination".

An expression like vector + point - point can be computed in two different ways: (vector + point) - point and vector + (point - point) and it turns out the result will be the same. There must be some structure here.

Define mass of a vector as 0, and mass of point as 1. Then,

  • vector + point = point: 0 + 1 = 1

  • point - point = vector: 1 - 1 = 0

  • vector + vector = vector: 0 + 0 = 0

  • (point + point) / 2 = point: (1+1) / 2 = 1

In fact you can enlarge the space. Define an object to be either a vector with mass 0, or a pair (p,m) which is a point p with a nonzero mass m. I'll write a point as m*p. Then multiplication streches a vector, or changes a point's mass: a*(m*p) = (a*m)*p. Addition is done with:

m p + v = m (p + \frac{v}{m})
- translation

m_{1}p_{1} + m_{2}p_{2} = (m_{1}+m_{2}) (\frac{m_{1}}{m_{1}+m_{2}} p_{1} + \frac{m_{2}}{m_{1}+m_{2}} p_{2})
- weighted mean of points

m_{1}p_{1} - m_{1} p_{2} = m_{1} (p_{1} - p_2})
- a vector joining two points

In this space, points and vectors are equal partners, and anything can be added and multiplied by a number. It's a vector space with dimension one more than the original.

In the original space, you assign a meaning to a sum like 0.2a + 0.8b, but not to the summands. In this space, summands make sense and 0.2a + 0.8b is really a sum of 0.2a and 0.8b.

In mathematical terms, this is an assignment of a vector space to every affine space. This construction is known as the universal space. Now, vector spaces and affine spaces have their own meaning of functions. A linear map respects linear combinations: f(cx+dy) = c f(x)+d f(y). An affine map is something that respects affine combinations: f(cx+dy) = cf(x)+ df(y), where c+d=1. It's easy to present a linear map using a matrix. How to present an affine map? The answer is, given affine map, you can extend it to a linear map between universal spaces by f(m*p)=m*f(p) for all m. And that gives a matrix.

For category theory lovers, this construction is the left adjoint of a functor that assigns an affine space to a vector space by forgetting the origin.
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