Quaternions are a relative of complex numbers.
Quaternions are in fact part of a small hierarchy of structures built upon
the real numbers, which comprise only the set of real numbers (traditionally
named R), the set of
complex numbers (traditionally named C),
the set of quaternions (traditionally named H)
and the set of octonions (traditionally named O),
which possess interesting mathematical properties (chief among which is the
fact that they are division algebras, i.e.
where the following property is true: if
is an element of that algebra and is not equal to zero,
yx = yx', where
x' denote elements of that algebra,
x = x'). Each member
of the hierarchy is a super-set of the former.
One of the most important aspects of quaternions is that they provide an efficient way to parameterize rotations in R3 (the usual three-dimensional space) and R4.
In practical terms, a quaternion is simply a quadruple of real numbers (α,β,γ,δ),
which we can write in the form
q = α + βi + γj + δk,
i is the same object as for
complex numbers, and
are distinct objects which play essentially the same kind of role as
An addition and a multiplication is defined on the set of quaternions, which
generalize their real and complex counterparts. The main novelty here is
that the multiplication is not commutative
(i.e. there are quaternions
y such that
≠ yx). A good mnemotechnical way of remembering things
is by using the formula
i*i = j*j = k*k = -1.
Some traditional constructs, such as the exponential, carry over without too much change into the realms of quaternions, but other, such as taking a square root, do not.