The ring is more interesting than it is often given credit for. I have also met many advanced students who do not even know, in general, the structure of its group of units. This post will tell you everything you need to know about this structure, which includes a nice result to quote at parties.
Why care about such a simple thing? Well first, the rings are universal, in the following sense. If is any ring with unity, there exists a unique and injective homomorphism . here is called the characteristic of . It’s easy to find this homomorphism: there is a natural map , and we factor out its kernel. (which is of the form , being a principal ideal domain) So we should immediately give up hope of understanding ring theory until we know everything there is to know about .
Theorem: If , where the product is over odd primes, the group of units can be written as a product of cyclic groups when and when . In particular, the group of units is cyclic exactly when is a power of an odd prime, twice a power of an odd prime, or .
The rest of this post will prove this theorem. First, the Chinese remainder theorem tells us that if factors into primes as , then . So we only need to address the question when is a power of a prime.
What are the invertible elements in ? If , then , so cannot be invertible. Those who are quick on the draw with the number theory will be able to quickly show that if does not divide , then is invertible in . (the standard technique here is to note that and are relatively prime, so we can choose integers and such that )
Proposition 1: When is odd, the group of units of is a cyclic group of order .
Proof: The case is actually the most difficult. It is a special case of a theorem which says that a finite subgroup of the multiplicative group of any field is cyclic. For a proof of this case, see e.g. here. (I will certainly discuss this topic in detail in a future post)
Suppose that is a generator for the group of units of . Then the order of is divisible by , so it is of the form . Then has order . We claim that has order , from which it follows that has order .
What we really need to show here is that is divisible by but not . But this is straightforward induction: if with not divisible by , then taking -th powers we see that .
Proposition 2: If , the group of units of is the product of two cyclic groups, one of order , and one of order . If , the group of units of is cyclic.
Proof In fact, we will show that generates a cyclic group of order that does not contain , an element of order . (there is nothing special about here—any choice that is will work) We first show, by induction on , that , the case being clear.
For , the inductive hypothesis now tells us that , so there is some such that . Squaring, we get .
Since is an element of order , this shows that generates a cyclic group of order . So we just need to make sure that . But a cyclic group can contain at most one element of order , and we have already shown .
The second statement in the proposition is easily verified.
Exercise: Prove the second sentence of the theorem! (hint: for one direction, use the Chinese remainder theorem for cyclic groups, and for the other, count elements of order )