Clarification on algebras and σ-algebras of a set

David Williams makes a terminological remark on algebras in p. 16 of his book “Probability with martingales”; he mentions that an algebra \Sigma on a set S (defined ordinarily as a collection of subsets of S that contains S and that is closed under set complementation and closed under finite set unions) is “a true algebra in the algebraists’ sense”.

This remark emphasises two aspects of the concept of algebra \Sigma on a set S. Firstly, it means that \Sigma is an algebra over a field K. The field K contains exactly two elements, so it can be defined to be the subset K=\{0,1\} of integers. According to the definition of algebra over a field, \Sigma is a vector space equipped with a bilinear product. So any algebra (and consequently any σ-algebra) is a type of vector space of sets (subsets of S).

Secondly, consider the defining operations of an algebra \Sigma on a set S. The vector space addition is defined to be the symmetric difference A\Delta B:= (A\cup B)\setminus (A\cap B). The bilinear product, which turns the vector space to an algebra over \{0,1\}, is the set intersection A\cap B. It is straightforward to check that the product A\cap B satisfies right and left distributivity and compatibility with scalars. The two operations (addition and bilinear product) defined from the product space \Sigma\times\Sigma to the vector space \Sigma are both symmetric.

In summary, any algebra (and any σ-algebra) is a vector space of sets equipped with two symmetric set operations.

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