Lamplighter group

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In mathematics, the lamplighter group L of group theory is the restricted wreath product [math]\displaystyle{ \mathbf{Z}_2 \wr \mathbf Z }[/math].


The name of the group comes from viewing the group as acting on a doubly infinite sequence of street lamps [math]\displaystyle{ \dots,l_{-2},l_{-1},l_0,l_1,l_2,l_3,\dots }[/math] each of which may be on or off, and a lamplighter standing at some lamp [math]\displaystyle{ l_k. }[/math] An equivalent description for this, called the base group [math]\displaystyle{ B }[/math] of [math]\displaystyle{ L }[/math] is

[math]\displaystyle{ B=\bigoplus_{-\infty}^{\infty}\mathbf{Z}_2, }[/math]

an infinite direct sum of copies of the cyclic group [math]\displaystyle{ \mathbf Z_2 }[/math] where [math]\displaystyle{ 0 }[/math] corresponds to a light that is off and [math]\displaystyle{ 1 }[/math] corresponds to a light that is on, and the direct sum is used to ensure that only finitely many lights are on at once. An element of [math]\displaystyle{ \mathbf Z }[/math] gives the position of the lamplighter, and [math]\displaystyle{ B }[/math] to encode which bulbs are illuminated.

There are two generators for the group: the generator t increments k, so that the lamplighter moves to the next lamp (t -1 decrements k), while the generator a means that the state of lamp lk is changed (from off to on or from on to off). Group multiplication is done by "following" these operations.

We may assume that only finitely many lamps are lit at any time, since the action of any element of L changes at most finitely many lamps. The number of lamps lit is, however, unbounded. The group action is thus similar to the action of a Turing machine in two ways. The Turing machine has unbounded memory, but has only used a finite amount of memory at any given time. Moreover, the Turing machine's head is analogous to the lamplighter.


The standard presentation for the lamplighter group arises from the wreath product structure

[math]\displaystyle{ \langle a, t \mid a^2, [ t^m a t^{-m} , t^n a t^{-n} ], m, n \in \mathbb{Z} \rangle }[/math], which may be simplified to
[math]\displaystyle{ \langle a, t \mid a^2, (a t^n a t^{-n})^2, n \in \mathbb{Z} \rangle }[/math].

The generators a and t are intrinsic to[clarification needed] the group's notable growth rate, though they are sometimes replaced with a and at, changing the logarithm of the growth rate by at most a factor of 2.

This presentation is not finite (it has infinitely many relations). In fact there is no finite presentation for the lamplighter group, that is, it is not finitely presented.

Matrix representation

Allowing [math]\displaystyle{ t }[/math] to be a formal variable, the lamplighter group [math]\displaystyle{ L }[/math] is isomorphic to the group of matrices

[math]\displaystyle{ \begin{pmatrix}t^k & p \\ 0 & 1 \end{pmatrix}, }[/math]

where [math]\displaystyle{ k \in \mathbf{Z} }[/math] and [math]\displaystyle{ p }[/math] ranges over all polynomials in [math]\displaystyle{ \mathbf{Z}_2[t,t^{-1}]. }[/math][1]

Using the presentations above, the isomorphism is given by

[math]\displaystyle{ \begin{align} t &\mapsto \begin{pmatrix}t & 0 \\ 0 & 1 \end{pmatrix} \\ a &\mapsto \begin{pmatrix}1 & 1 \\ 0 & 1 \end{pmatrix}. \end{align} }[/math]


One can also define lamplighter groups [math]\displaystyle{ L_n = \mathbf{Z}_n \wr \mathbf{Z} }[/math], with [math]\displaystyle{ n \in \mathbb N }[/math], so that "lamps" may have more than just the option of "off" and "on." The classical lamplighter group is recovered when [math]\displaystyle{ n=2. }[/math]


  1. Clay, Matt, ed (2017-07-11) (in English). Office Hours with a Geometric Group Theorist. Princeton, NJ Oxford: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691158662. 

Further reading

  • Volodymyr Nekrashevych, 2005, Self-Similar Groups, Mathematical Surveys and Monographs v. 117, American Mathematical Society, ISBN 0-8218-3831-8.