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In mathematics, an affine space is an abstract structure that generalises the affine-geometric properties of Euclidean space. In an affine space, one can subtract points to get vectors, or add a vector to a point to get another point, but one cannot add points, since there is no origin. One-dimensional affine space is the affine line.
Physical space (in pre-relativistic conceptions) is not only an affine space. It also has a metric structure and in particular a conformal structure.
Albeit somewhat jocular, the following characterization may be easier to understand than a precise definition: an affine space is what is left of a vector space after you've forgotten which point is the origin (or, in the words of mathematical physicist John Baez, "An affine space is a vector space that's forgotten its origin"). Imagine that Smith knows that a certain point is the origin, and Jones believes that another point—call it p—is the origin. Two vectors, a and b, are to be added. Jones draws an arrow from p to a and another arrow from p to b, and completes the parallelogram to find what Jones thinks is a + b, but Smith knows that it is actually p + (a − p) + (b − p). Similarly, Jones and Smith may evaluate any linear combination of a and b, or of any finite set of vectors, and will generally get different answers. However—and note this well:
- If the sum of the coefficients in a linear combination is 1, then Smith and Jones will agree on the answer!
The proof is a routine exercise. Here is the punch line: Smith knows the "linear structure", but both Smith and Jones know the "affine structure"—i.e. the values of affine combinations, defined as linear combinations in which the sum of the coefficients is 1. An underlying set with an affine structure is an affine space.
An affine space is a space in which you can subtract two points to form a vector pointing from one point to the other. If you single out one point and identify it with the zero vector you get a vector space. Since in any vector space you can subtract vectors to get a connecting vector, all vector spaces are affine spaces. Another way of putting this is that an affine space is a vector space that's forgotten its origin. Instead of arbitrary linear combinations, only affine combinations of points have meaning.
Alternatively an affine space is a set S, together with a vector space V, and a map
- 1. for every b in S the map
- is a bijection, and
- 2. for every a, b and c in S we have
We can define addition of vectors and points as follows
- If V is a vector space, then V is an affine space for vector subtraction.
- If O, a and b are points in S and is a real number, then
is independent of O.
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