Only certain combinations of symmetry operation can exist in a crystal structure. This is because one symmetry element operating on another will generate a third symmetry element in the structure and this can end up generating an infinite number of symmetry elements, as shown in the animation below:
Note: This animation requires Adobe Flash Player 8 and later, which can be downloaded here.
In fact, there are only 32 permitted combinations of mirror planes, rotation axes, centres of symmetry and inversion axes. These are known as the 32 point groups. Each point group is a finite set of mutually compatible symmetry elements. When the symmetry elements of a point group are operated on each other, they simply generate one of the other elements within the group.
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