June 1, 2023

What are eigenvectors?

What are eigenvectors?

Linear algebra is a branch of mathematics concerned with the study of linear equations, matrices, and vector spaces. Eigenvectors are a fundamental concept in linear algebra that play a crucial role in many applications such as quantum mechanics, data analysis, and image processing. In this article, we will explore the definition of eigenvectors, their applications, and how to calculate them.

Understanding Eigenvectors

Definition of Eigenvectors

An eigenvector is a non-zero vector that, when multiplied by a matrix, produces a scalar multiple of itself. That scalar is known as the eigenvalue of the eigenvector. In simpler terms, an eigenvector is a vector that maintains its direction after a linear transformation, such as scaling or rotation, but only changes in magnitude.

For example, imagine a vector pointing due north. If we multiply this vector by a matrix that scales it by a factor of 2, the resulting vector will still be pointing due north, but its length will have doubled. This new vector is an eigenvector of the matrix with an eigenvalue of 2.

Eigenvectors are important in many areas of mathematics and science, including physics, engineering, and computer science. They have applications in fields such as image processing, data analysis, and quantum mechanics.

Importance of Eigenvectors in Linear Algebra

Eigenvectors are fundamental in linear algebra since they allow us to diagonalize matrices. Diagonalization simplifies matrix calculations by allowing us to perform operations on the diagonal entries independently of one another. This can be especially useful when dealing with large matrices, as it can greatly reduce the computational complexity of certain operations.

Furthermore, eigenvectors also provide a geometric interpretation of linear transformations. For example, in a 2D space, the eigenvectors of a matrix can represent the major and minor axes of an ellipse after a linear transformation. This can help us understand how the matrix is transforming the space, and can provide insights into the underlying structure of the data being analyzed.

In addition, eigenvectors are used in many numerical methods for solving systems of linear equations, such as the power method and the QR algorithm. These methods rely on the properties of eigenvectors and eigenvalues to iteratively converge to a solution.

Eigenvectors and Eigenvalues

Eigenvalues are the scalar multiples of eigenvectors. An eigenvector can have multiple eigenvalues, and a matrix can have multiple eigenvectors and eigenvalues. Eigenvalues and eigenvectors together represent the spectrum of a matrix.

The eigenvectors and eigenvalues of a matrix can tell us a lot about its properties and behavior. For example, the largest eigenvalue of a matrix can be used to determine the dominant mode of a system, while the smallest eigenvalue can be used to determine the stability of the system. Eigenvectors can also be used to identify patterns and structure in data, such as clustering and dimensionality reduction.

In conclusion, eigenvectors are a powerful tool in linear algebra and have many important applications in various fields. Understanding eigenvectors and eigenvalues can provide insights into the underlying structure of data and can help us solve complex problems more efficiently.

Calculating Eigenvectors

Calculating eigenvectors is a crucial step in many applications, including machine learning, quantum mechanics, and computer graphics. Eigenvectors are used to identify patterns in data, transform coordinates, and solve differential equations.

Solving the Eigenvalue Equation

The standard way of calculating eigenvectors is by solving the eigenvalue equation. This equation relates a matrix to its eigenvectors and eigenvalues. The equation is:

Av = 位v

where A is a matrix, 位 is an eigenvalue, and v is an eigenvector. Rearranging the equation, we get:

(A - 位I)v = 0

where I is the identity matrix. The equation has non-zero solutions only if the determinant of (A - 位I) equals zero. The eigenvalues are the roots of the characteristic polynomial of A, and the eigenvectors correspond to the eigenvalues.

Finding the Eigenvectors for a Given Matrix

Once we have the eigenvalues, we can find the eigenvectors by substituting each eigenvalue back into the original equation and solving for the eigenvector. Alternatively, we can use Gaussian elimination or other algorithms to solve for the eigenvectors.

For example, let's consider the matrix:

A = [1 2; 3 4]

The characteristic polynomial of A is:

p(位) = det(A - 位I) = det([1-位 2; 3 4-位]) = 位^2 - 5位 - 2

The roots of the polynomial are:

位1 = (5 + sqrt(33))/2 鈮 4.8 and 位2 = (5 - sqrt(33))/2 鈮 0.2

Substituting 位1 into the eigenvalue equation, we get:

[1 2; 3 4]v1 = (5 + sqrt(33))/2 v1

Solving for v1, we get:

v1 = [-0.385; 0.921]

Similarly, substituting 位2 into the eigenvalue equation, we get:

[1 2; 3 4]v2 = (5 - sqrt(33))/2 v2

Solving for v2, we get:

v2 = [-2.24; 0.47]

Normalizing Eigenvectors

Eigenvectors are often normalized to simplify their interpretation and calculations. Normalization involves dividing each eigenvector by its length, which makes the magnitude of each vector equal to 1. This ensures that the eigenvectors lie on the unit circle or sphere. Normalization does not change the direction of the eigenvector, only its length.

For example, normalizing v1 and v2 from the previous example, we get:

v1_norm = [-0.416; 0.91] and v2_norm = [-0.89; 0.46]

Notice that the direction of the eigenvectors remains the same, but their length is now 1.

Eigenvector Applications

Principal Component Analysis (PCA)

PCA is a technique used in data analysis to reduce the dimensionality of datasets while retaining the most important information. The technique involves finding the eigenvectors of the covariance matrix of the data. The eigenvectors represent the principal components, which capture the directions of maximum variance in the data.

This technique is commonly used in image processing, where images can have millions of pixels. By using PCA, the images can be represented by a smaller number of eigenvectors, which reduces the amount of data needed to store and process the images. This also helps to remove noise and other unwanted features from the images.

Quantum Mechanics

In quantum mechanics, eigenvectors of a Hamiltonian operator represent the possible states of a system. The corresponding eigenvalues represent the energy levels of the system. Operators in quantum mechanics are represented by matrices, and their eigenvectors and eigenvalues have physical significance.

The study of quantum mechanics has led to the development of many technologies, such as lasers, transistors, and MRI machines. These technologies rely on the principles of quantum mechanics and the use of eigenvectors and eigenvalues to describe the behavior of particles and systems at the quantum level.

Control Theory and System Stability

In control theory, eigenvectors and eigenvalues are used to analyze the stability of a system. The eigenvectors represent the modes of vibration of the system, and their corresponding eigenvalues determine the rate of decay or growth of each mode. The system is stable if all the eigenvalues have negative real parts.

This technique is used in many engineering applications, such as designing control systems for aircraft, spacecraft, and industrial processes. By analyzing the eigenvectors and eigenvalues of a system, engineers can design control systems that ensure stability and optimal performance.

Google's PageRank Algorithm

Google's PageRank algorithm uses eigenvectors to rank web pages based on their relevance and importance. The eigenvector with the highest eigenvalue represents the most important page, and the ranking of other pages is determined by their relative importance compared to the top-ranked page.

This algorithm has revolutionized the way we search for information on the internet. By using eigenvectors to rank web pages, Google is able to provide users with the most relevant and useful information, which has greatly improved the efficiency and effectiveness of online search.

Visualizing Eigenvectors

Geometric Interpretation of Eigenvectors

Eigenvectors have a clear geometric interpretation that makes them easy to visualize. In a 2D space, for example, an eigenvector is a vector that remains parallel to itself after scaling or rotation. This means that when a linear transformation is applied to a vector, the direction of the eigenvector remains unchanged. However, the length of the eigenvector may change, depending on the scaling factor associated with the eigenvalue. In higher-dimensional spaces, the geometric interpretation of eigenvectors becomes more complex but follows the same principle.

For instance, in a 3D space, eigenvectors can represent the principal axes of an ellipsoid after a linear transformation. The lengths of the eigenvectors correspond to the scaling factor in each direction. The eigenvectors with the highest eigenvalues indicate the direction in which the ellipsoid is stretched the most. Similarly, the eigenvectors with the lowest eigenvalues represent the direction in which the ellipsoid is stretched the least.

Eigenvectors in 2D and 3D Spaces

In 2D space, we can visualize eigenvectors as directions along which the matrix scales or rotates the space. Eigenvectors are particularly useful in image processing, where they can be used to identify the orientation of edges in an image. For example, if an image is rotated, the eigenvectors of the image's covariance matrix can be used to determine the angle of rotation.

In 3D space, eigenvectors can also be used to analyze the behavior of a system. For example, in fluid dynamics, eigenvectors can be used to identify the direction in which a fluid flows. Eigenvectors can also be used to analyze the behavior of a vibrating system, such as a guitar string or a bridge, by identifying the natural frequencies of vibration.

Transformations and Eigenvectors

Understanding eigenvectors allows us to better understand linear transformations. For example, the eigenvectors of a rotation matrix represent the axis of rotation, and the corresponding eigenvalues represent the amount of rotation around each axis. Eigenvectors also provide a way to decompose complex linear transformations into simpler ones. By using eigenvectors, we can break down a matrix into a diagonal matrix, which makes it easier to analyze and manipulate.

Moreover, eigenvectors can be used to solve differential equations, which are used to model many physical phenomena, such as heat transfer, fluid flow, and electromagnetic fields. The eigenvectors of the differential equation represent the modes of vibration of the system, while the corresponding eigenvalues represent the frequencies of vibration.

Overall, eigenvectors are a powerful tool for understanding and analyzing linear transformations and their applications in various fields, including physics, engineering, and computer science.


Eigenvectors are a fundamental concept in linear algebra that plays a crucial role in many applications across different fields. They allow us to simplify matrix calculations, understand linear transformations, and analyze the properties of systems. Understanding how to calculate and interpret eigenvectors is essential for anyone working with linear algebra or its applications.

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