An Example of a Matrix that Cannot Be a Commutator

Inverse Matrices Problems and Solutions

Problem 565

Let $I$ be the $2\times 2$ identity matrix.
Then prove that $-I$ cannot be a commutator $[A, B]:=ABA^{-1}B^{-1}$ for any $2\times 2$ matrices $A$ and $B$ with determinant $1$.

 
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Proof.

Assume that $[A, B]=-I$. Then $ABA^{-1}B^{-1}=-I$ implies
\[ABA^{-1}=-B. \tag{*}\] Taking the trace, we have
\[-\tr(B)=\tr(-B)=\tr(ABA^{-1})=tr(BAA^{-1})=\tr(B),\] hence the trace $\tr(B)=0$.
Thus, the characteristic polynomial of $B$ is
\[x^2-\tr(B)x+\det(B)=x^2+1.\] Hence the eigenvalues of $B$ are $\pm i$.


Note that the matrix $\begin{bmatrix}
0 & -1\\
1& 0
\end{bmatrix}$ has also eigenvalues $\pm i$.
Thus this matrix is similar to the matrix $B$ as both matrices are similar to the diagonal matrix $\begin{bmatrix}
i & 0\\
0& -i
\end{bmatrix}$.
Let $P$ be a nonsingular matrix such that
\[B’:=P^{-1}BP=\begin{bmatrix}
0 & -1\\
1& 0
\end{bmatrix}.\] Let $A’=P^{-1}AP$.


The relation (*) is equivalent to $AB=-BA$.
Using this we have
\begin{align*}
A’B’&=(P^{-1}AP)(P^{-1}BP)=P^{-1}(AB)P\\
&=P^{-1}(-BA)P=-(P^{-1}BP)(P^{-1}AP)=-B’A’.
\end{align*}

Let $A’=\begin{bmatrix}
a & b\\
c& d
\end{bmatrix}$.
Then $A’B’=-B’A’$ gives
\begin{align*}
\begin{bmatrix}
a & b\\
c& d
\end{bmatrix}
\begin{bmatrix}
0 & -1\\
1& 0
\end{bmatrix}
=-\begin{bmatrix}
0 & -1\\
1& 0
\end{bmatrix}\begin{bmatrix}
a & b\\
c& d
\end{bmatrix}\\[6pt] \Leftrightarrow
\begin{bmatrix}
b & -a\\
d& -c
\end{bmatrix}=\begin{bmatrix}
c & d\\
-a& -b
\end{bmatrix}.
\end{align*}
Hence we obtain $d=-a$ and $c=b$.


Then
\begin{align*}
1=\det(A)=\det(PA’P^{-1})=\det(A’)=\begin{vmatrix}
a & b\\
b& -a
\end{vmatrix}=-a^2-b^2,
\end{align*}
which is impossible.
Therefore, the matrix $-I$ cannot be written as a commutator $[A, B]$ for any $2\times 2$ matrices $A, B$ with determinant $1$.


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