# Is a Set of All Nilpotent Matrix a Vector Space?

## Problem 236

Let $V$ denote the vector space of all real $n\times n$ matrices, where $n$ is a positive integer.

Determine whether the set $U$ of all $n\times n$ nilpotent matrices is a subspace of the vector space $V$ or not.

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## Definition.

An matrix $A$ is a **nilpotent matrix** if there exists a positive integer $k$ such that $A^k$ is the zero matrix.

## Solution.

### Case: $n=1$

When $n=1$, the only $1\times 1$ nilpotent matrix is $(0)$. Thus $U=\{(0)\}$ and it is a subspace of $V$.

### Case: $n=2$

Let us next consider the case $n=2$.

In this case, we prove that the set $U$ of all $2\times 2$ nilpotent matrices is not a subspace of $V$.

The set $U$ is not a subspace because it is not closed under addition as the following example shows.

Consider the matrices

\[A=\begin{bmatrix}

0 & 1\\

0& 0

\end{bmatrix}

\text{ and }

B=\begin{bmatrix}

0 & 0\\

1& 0

\end{bmatrix}.\]
It is easy to compute and see that $A^2$ and $B^2$ are both the zero matrices.

Hence $A$ and $B$ are nilpotent matrices.

However we show that their sum

\[A+B=\begin{bmatrix}

0 & 1\\

1& 0

\end{bmatrix}\]
is not a nilpotent matrix. We have

\begin{align*}

(A+B)^k=

\begin{cases}

A+B & \text{ if $k$ is odd}\\

I & \text{ if $k$ is even},

\end{cases}

\end{align*}

where $I$ is $2\times 2$ identity matrix. Thus $(A+B)^k$ is not the zero matrix for any integer $k$, and thus $A+B$ is not a nilpotent matrix.

So we saw that even though $A$ and $B$ are in $U$, their sum $A+B$ is not in $U$.

Namely, the set $U$ is not closed under addition, hence $U$ is not a subspace of $V$.

### Case: $n \geq 3$

Finally, we consider the case $n \geq 3$.

We claim that the set $U$ of all $n\times n$ nilpotent matrices is not a subspace of the vector space $V$.

Let $A$ and $B$ be the $2\times 2$ matrices as above. Then consider the $n\times n$ matrices

\[A’=

\left[\begin{array}{c|c}

A & O\\

\hline

O& O

\end{array}

\right] \text{ and }

B’=

\left[\begin{array}{c|c}

B & O\\

\hline

O& O

\end{array}

\right],\]
that is, $A’$ is the $n \times n$ matrix whose left top $2\times 2$ part is $A$ and the remaining entries are all $0$. Similarly for $B’$.

Then it is easy to check that $A’^2, B’^2$ are both zero matrices but $(A’+B’)^k$ is not a zero matrix for any integer $k$.

Thus, $A’, B’$ are nilpotent matrices but their sum $A+B$ is not nilpotent.

Hence $U$ is not a subspace of $V$ since it is not closed under addition.

### Summary

In summary, the set $U$ of all $n\times n$ nilpotent matrices is a subspace of $V$ if and only if $n=1$.

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