Homotopy groups are notoriously difficult to compute. For a simple space like the -sphere, already, the higher homotopy groups exhibits no discernible patterns. It was therefore a complete surprise in 1957, when Raoul Bott computed the stable homotopy groups of the classical groups and found a simple periodic pattern for each of the classical groups [24].

We first explain what is meant by the *stable* homotopy group.
Consider the unitary group
. It acts transitively on the unit
sphere
in
, with stabilizer
at the point
. In this way, the sphere
can be identified with
the homogeneous space
, and there is a fibering
with fiber
.
By the homotopy exact sequence of a fibering, the following sequence is
exact:

Since for , it follows immediately that as goes to infinity (in fact for all ), the th homotopy group of the unitary group stabilizes:

This common value is called the

In the original proof of the periodicity theorem [24], Bott showed that in the loop space of the special unitary group , the manifold of minimal geodesics is the complex Grassmannian

By Morse theory, the loop space has the homotopy type of a CW complex obtained from the Grassmannian by attaching cells of dimension :

It follows that

for .

It is easily shown that

Using the homotopy exact sequence of the fibering

one gets

Putting all this together, for large relative to , we get

Thus, the stable homotopy group of the unitary group is periodic of period :

Applying the same method to the orthogonal group and the symplectic group, Bott showed that their stable homotopy groups are periodic of period .