One of the most important discoveries in the history of science is the structure of the periodic table. This structure is a consequence of how electrons cluster around atomic nuclei and is essentially quantum-mechanical in nature. Most of it (the part not having to do with spin) can be deduced by solving the Schrödinger equation by hand, but it is conceptually cleaner to use the symmetries of the situation and representation theory. Deducing these results using representation theory has the added benefit that it identifies which parts of the situation depend only on symmetry and which parts depend on the particular form of the Hamiltonian. This is nicely explained in Singer’s Linearity, symmetry, and prediction in the hydrogen atom.

For awhile now I’ve been interested in finding a toy model to study the basic structure of the arguments involved, as well as more generally to get a hang for quantum mechanics, while avoiding some of the mathematical difficulties. Today I’d like to describe one such model involving finite graphs, which replaces the infinite-dimensional Hilbert spaces and Lie groups occurring in the analysis of the hydrogen atom with finite-dimensional Hilbert spaces and finite groups. This model will, among other things, allow us to think of representations of finite groups as particles moving around on graphs.