In mathematics, an isomorphism is a structure-preserving mapping between two structures of the same type that can be reversed by an inverse mapping. Two mathematical structures are isomorphic if an isomorphism exists between them. The word isomorphism is derived from the Ancient Greek: ἴσος isos "equal", and μορφή morphe "form" or "shape".
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The interest in isomorphisms lies in the fact that two isomorphic objects have the same properties (excluding further information such as additional structure or names of objects). Thus isomorphic structures cannot be distinguished from the point of view of structure only, and may be identified. In mathematical jargon, one says that two objects are the same up to an isomorphism.
An automorphism is an isomorphism from a structure to itself. An isomorphism between two structures is a canonical isomorphism (a canonical map that is an isomorphism) if there is only one isomorphism between the two structures (as it is the case for solutions of a universal property), or if the isomorphism is much more natural (in some sense) than other isomorphisms. For example, for every prime number p, all fields with p elements are canonically isomorphic, with a unique isomorphism. The isomorphism theorems provide canonical isomorphisms that are not unique.
In various areas of mathematics, isomorphisms have received specialized names, depending on the type of structure under consideration. For example:
- An isometry is an isomorphism of metric spaces.
- A homeomorphism is an isomorphism of topological spaces.
- A diffeomorphism is an isomorphism of spaces equipped with a differential structure, typically differentiable manifolds.
- A permutation is an automorphism of a set.
- In geometry, isomorphisms and automorphisms are often called transformations, for example rigid transformations, affine transformations, projective transformations.
Category theory, which can be viewed as a formalization of the concept of mapping between structures, provides a language that may be used to unify the approach to these different aspects of the basic idea.