## Bounded rank was probable in 1950

Somehow I wrote that last post about bounded ranks without knowing about this paper by Mark Watkins and many other authors, which studies in great detail the variation in ranks in quadratic twists of the congruent number curve.  I’ll no doubt have more to say about this later, but I just wanted to remark on a footnote; they say they learned from Fernando Rodriguez-Villegas that Neron wrote in 1950:

On ignore s’il existe pour toutes les cubiques rationnelles, appartenant a un corps donné une borne absolute du rang. L’existence de cette borne est cependant considérée comme probable.

So when I said the conventional wisdom is shifting from “unbounded rank” towards “bounded rank,” I didn’t tell the whole story — maybe the conventional wisdom started at “bounded rank” and is now shifting back!

## Are ranks bounded?

Important update, 23 Jul:  I missed one very important thing about Bjorn’s talk:  it was about joint work with a bunch of other people, including one of my own former Ph.D. students, whom I left out of the original post!  Serious apologies.  I have modified the post to include everyone and make it clear that Bjorn was talking about a multiperson project.  There are also some inaccuracies in my second-hand description of the mathematics, which I will probably deal with by writing a new post later rather than fixing this one.

I was only able to get to two days of the arithmetic statistics workshop in Montreal, but it was really enjoyable!  And a pleasure to see that so many strong students are interested in working on this family of problems.

I arrived to late to hear Bjorn Poonen’s talk, where he made kind of a splash talking about joint work by Derek Garton, Jennifer Park, John Voight, Melanie Matchett Wood, and himself, offering some heuristic evidence that the Mordell-Weil ranks of elliptic curves over Q are bounded above.  I remember Andrew Granville suggesting eight or nine years ago that this might be the case.  At the time, it was an idea so far from conventional wisdom that it came across as a bit cheeky!  (Or maybe that’s just because Andrew often comes across as a bit cheeky…)

Why did we think there were elliptic curves of arbitrarily large rank over Q?  I suppose because we knew of no reason there shouldn’t be.  Is that a good reason?  It might be instructive to compare with the question of bounds for rational points on genus 2 curves.  We know by Faltings that |X(Q)| is finite for any genus 2 curve X, just as we know by Mordell-Weil that the rank of E(Q) is finite for any elliptic curve E.  But is there some absolute upper bound for |X(Q)|?  When I was in grad school, Lucia Caporaso, Joe Harris, and Barry Mazur proved a remarkable theorem:  that if Lang’s conjecture were true, there was some constant B such that |X(Q)| was at most B for every genus 2 curve X.  (And the same for any value of 2…)

Did this make people feel like |X(Q)| was uniformly bounded?  No!  That was considered ridiculous!  The Caporaso-Harris-Mazur theorem was thought of as evidence against Lang’s conjecture.  The three authors went around Harvard telling all the grad students about the theorem, saying — you guys are smart, go construct sequences of genus 2 curves with growing numbers of points, and boom, you’ve disproved Lang’s conjecture!

But none of us could.

## Boyer: curves with real multiplication over subcyclotomic fields

A long time ago, inspired by a paper of Mestre constructing genus 2 curves whose Jacobians had real multiplication by Q(sqrt(5)), I wrote a paper showing the existence of continuous families of curves X whose Jacobians had real multiplication by various abelian extensions of Q.  I constructed these curves as branched covers with prescribed ramification, which is to say I had no real way of presenting them explicitly at all.  I just saw a nice preprint by Ivan Boyer, a recent Ph.D. student of Mestre, which takes all the curves I construct and computes explicit equations for them!  I wouldn’t have thought this was doable (in particular, I never thought about whether the families in my construction were rational.) For instance, for any value of the parameter s, the genus 3 curve

$2v + u^3 + (u+1)^2 + s((u^2 + v)^2 - v(u+v)(2u^2 - uv + 2v))$

has real multiplication by the real subfield of $\mathbf{Q}(\zeta_7)$.  Cool!

## Puzzle: low-height points in general position

I have no direct reason to need the answer to, but have wondered about, the following question.

We say a set of points $P_1, \ldots, P_N$ in $\mathbf{A}^2$ are in general position if the Hilbert function of any subset S of the points is equal to the Hilbert function of a generic set of $|S|$ points in $\mathbf{A}^n$.  In other words, there are no curves which contain more of the points than a curve of their degree “ought” to.  No three lie on a line, no six on a conic, etc.

Anyway, here’s a question.  Let H(N) be the minimum, over all N-tuples $P_1, \ldots, P_N \in \mathbf{A}^2(\mathbf{Q})$ of points in general position, of

$\max H(P_i)$

where H denotes Weil height.  What are the asymptotics of H(N)?  If you take the N lowest-height points, you will have lots of collinearity, coconicity, etc.  Does the Bombieri-Pila / Heath-Brown method say anything here?

## Shende and Tsimerman on equidistribution in Bun_2(P^1)

Very nice paper just posted by Vivek Shende and Jacob Tsimerman.  Take a sequence {C_i} of hyperelliptic curves of larger and larger genus.  Then for each i, you can look at the pushforward of a random line bundle drawn uniformly from Pic(C) / [pullbacks from P^1] to P^1, which is a rank-2 vector bundle.  This gives you a measure $\mu_i$ on Bun_2(P^1), the space of rank-2 vector bundles, and Shende and Tsimerman prove, just as you might hope, that this sequence of measures converges to the natural measure.

I think (but I didn’t think this through carefully) that this corresponds to saying that if you look at a sequence of quadratic imaginary fields with increasing discriminant, and for each field you write down all the ideal classes, thought of as unimodular lattices in R^2 up to homothety, then the corresponding sequence of (finitely supported) measures on the space of lattices converges to the natural one.

Equidistribution comes down to counting, and the method here is to express the relevant counting problem as a problem of counting points on a variety (in this case a Brill-Noether locus inside Pic(C_i)), which by Grothendieck-Lefschetz you can do if you can control the cohomology (with its Frobenius action.)  The high-degree part of the cohomology they can describe explicitly, and fortunately they are able to exert enough control over the low-degree Betti numbers to show that the contribution of this stuff is negligible.

In my experience, it’s often the case that showing that the contribution of the low-degree stuff, which “should be small” but which you don’t actually have a handle on, is often the bottleneck!  And indeed, for the second problem they discuss (where you have a sequence of hyperelliptic curves and a single line bundle on each one) it is exactly this point that stops them, for the moment, from having the theorem they want.

Error terms are annoying.  (At least when you can’t prove they’re smaller than the main term.)

## Elliptic curves with isomorphic cyclic 13-subgroups?

I liked this MathOverflow question, which asks:  are there two non-isogenous elliptic curves over Q, each one of which has a rational cyclic 13-isogeny, and such that the kernels of the two isogenies are isomorphic as Galois modules?

This is precisely to look for rational points on the modular surface S parametrizing pairs (E,E’,C,C’,φ), where E and E’ are elliptic curves, C and C’ are cyclic 13-subgroups, and φ is an isomorphism between C and C’.

S is a quotient of X_1(13) x X_1(13) by the diagonal in the natural (Z/13Z)^* x (Z/13Z)^* action.

Is S general type, rational, what?

## Y. Zhao and the Roberts conjecture over function fields

Before the developments of the last few years the only thing that was known about the Cohen-Lenstra conjecture was what had already been known before the Cohen-Lenstra conjecture; namely, that the number of cubic fields of discriminant between -X and X could be expressed as

$\frac{1}{3\zeta(3)} X + o(X)$.

It isn’t hard to go back and forth between the count of cubic fields and the average size of the 3-torsion part of the class group of quadratic fields, which gives the connection with Cohen-Lenstra in its usual form.

Anyway, Datskovsky and Wright showed that the asymptotic above holds (for suitable values of 12) over any global field of characteristic at least 5.  That is:  for such a field K, you let N_K(X) be the number of cubic extensions of K whose discriminant has norm at most X; then

$N_K(X) = c_K \zeta_K(3)^{-1} X + o(X)$

for some explicit rational constant $c_K$.

One interesting feature of this theorem is that, if it weren’t a theorem, you might doubt it was true!  Because the agreement with data is pretty poor.  That’s because the convergence to the Davenport-Heilbronn limit is extremely slow; even if you let your discriminant range up to ten million or so, you still see substantially fewer cubic fields than you’re supposed to.

In 2000, David Roberts massively clarified the situation, formulating a conjectural refinement of the Davenport-Heilbronn theorem motivated by the Shintani zeta functions:

$N_{\mathbf{Q}}(X) = (1/3)\zeta(3)^{-1} X + c X^{5/6} + o(X^{5/6})$

with c an explicit (negative) constant.  The secondary term with an exponent very close to 1 explains the slow convergence to the Davenport-Heilbronn estimate.

The Datskovsky-Wright argument works over an arbitrary global field but, like most arguments that work over both number fields and function fields, it is not very geometric.  I asked my Ph.D. student Yongqiang Zhao, who’s finishing this year, to revisit the question of counting cubic extensions of a function field F_q(t) from a more geometric point of view to see if he could get results towards the Roberts conjecture.  And he did!  Which is what I want to tell you about.

But while Zhao was writing his thesis, there was a big development — the Roberts conjecture was proved.  Not only that — it was proved twice!  Once by Bhargava, Shankar, and Tsimerman, and once by Thorne and Taniguchi, independently, simultaneously, and using very different methods.  It is certainly plausible that these methods can give the Roberts conjecture over function fields, but at the moment, they don’t.

Neither does Zhao, yet — but he’s almost there, getting

$N_K(T) = \zeta_K(3)^{-1} X + O(X^{5/6 + \epsilon})$

for all rational function fields K = F_q(t) of characteristic at least 5.  And his approach illuminates the geometry of the situation in a very beautiful way, which I think sheds light on how things work in the number field case.

Geometrically speaking, to count cubic extensions of F_q(t) is to count trigonal curves over F_q.  And the moduli space of trigonal curves has a classical unirational parametrization, which I learned from Mike Roth many years ago:  given a trigonal curve Y, you push forward the structure sheaf along the degree-3 map to P^1, yielding a rank-3 vector bundle on P^1; you mod out by the natural copy of the structure sheaf; and you end up with a rank-2 vector bundle W on P^1, whose projectivization is a rational surface in which Y embeds.  This rational surface is a Hirzebruch surface F_k, where k is an integer determined by the isomorphism class of the vector bundle W.  (This story is the geometric version of the Delone-Fadeev parametrization of cubic rings by binary cubic forms.)

This point of view replaces a problem of counting isomorphism classes of curves (hard!) with a problem of counting divisors in surfaces (not easy, but easier.)  It’s not hard to figure out what linear system on F_k contains Y.  Counting divisors in a linear system is nothing but a dimension count, but you have to be careful — in this problem, you only want to count smooth members.  That’s a substantially more delicate problem.  Counting all the divisors is more or less the problem of counting all cubic rings; that problem, as the number theorists have long known, is much easier than the problem of counting just the maximal orders in cubic fields.

Already, the geometric meaning of the negative secondary term becomes quite clear; it turns out that when k is big enough (i.e. if the Hirzebruch surface is twisty enough) then the corresponding linear system has no smooth, or even irreducible, members!  So what “ought” to be a sum over all k is rudely truncated; and it turns out that the sum over larger k that “should have been there” is on order X^{5/6}.

So how do you count the smooth members of a linear system?  When the linear system is highly ample, this is precisely the subject of Poonen’s well-known “Bertini theorem over finite fields.”  But the trigonal linear systems aren’t like that; they’re only “semi-ample,” because their intersection with the fiber of projection F_k -> P^1 is fixed at 3.  Zhao shows that, just as in Poonen’s case, the probability that a member of such a system is smooth converges to a limit as the linear system gets more complicated; only this limit is computed, not as a product over points P of the probability D is smooth at P, but rather a product over fibers F of the probability that D is smooth along F.  (This same insight, arrived at independently, is central to the paper of Erman and Wood I mentioned last week.)

This alone is enough for Zhao to get a version of Davenport-Heilbronn over F_q(t) with error term O(X^{7/8}), better than anything that was known for number fields prior to last year.  How he gets even closer to Roberts is too involved to go into on the blog, but it’s the best part, and it’s where the algebraic geometry really starts; the main idea is a very careful analysis of what happens when you take a singular curve on a Hirzebruch surface and start carrying out elementary transforms at the singular points, making your curve more smooth but also changing which Hirzebruch surface it’s on!

To what extent is Zhao’s method analogous to the existing proofs of the Roberts conjecture over Q?  I’m not sure; though Zhao, together with the five authors of the two papers I mentioned, spent a week huddling at AIM thinking about this, and they can comment if they want.

I’ll just keep saying what I always say:  if a problem in arithmetic statistics over Q is interesting, there is almost certainly interesting algebraic geometry in the analogous problem over F_q(t), and the algebraic geometry is liable in turn to offer some insights into the original question.

## This Week’s Finds In Number Theory

Twenty years ago yesterday, John Baez posted the first installment of This Week’s Finds in Mathematical Physics.  In so doing, he invented the math blog, and, quite possibly, the blog itself.  A lot of mathematicians of my generation found in John’s blog an accessible, informal, but never dumbed-down window beyond what we were learning in classes, into the messy and contentious ground of current research.  And everybody who blogs now owes him a gigantic debt.

In his honor I thought it would be a good idea to post a “This Week’s Finds” style post of my own, with capsule summaries of a few papers I’ve recently noted with pleasure and interest.  I won’t be able to weave these into a story the way John often did, though!  Nor will there be awesome ASCII graphics.  Nor will any of the papers actually be from this week, because I’m a little behind on my math.NT abstract scanning.

If you run a math blog, please consider doing the same in your own field!  I’ll link to it.

Update:  It begins!  Valeria de Palva offers This Week’s Finds In Categorical Logic.  And Matt Ward, a grad student at UW-Seattle, has This Week’s Finds in Arithmetic Geometry.

1)  “On sets defining few ordinary lines,” by Ben Green and Terry Tao.

The idea that has launched a thousand papers in additive combinatorics:  if you are a set approximately closed under some kind of relation, then you are approximately a set which is actually closed under that kind of relation.  Subset of a group mostly closed under multiplication?  You must be close to an honest subgroup.  Subset of Z with too many pair-sums agreeing?  You have an unusually large intersection with an authentic arithmetic progression.  And so on.

This new paper considers the case of sets in R^2 with few ordinary lines; that is, sets S such that most lines that intersect S at all intersect S in three or more points.  How can you cook up a set of points with this property?  There are various boring ways, like making all the points collinear.  But there’s only one interesting way I can think of:  have the points form an “arithmetic progression” …,-3P,-2P, -P, P,2P,3P, …. in an elliptic curve!  (A finite subgroup also works.)  Then the usual description of the group law on the curve tells us that the line joining two points of S quite often passes through a third.  Green and Tao prove a remarkable quasi-converse to this fact:  if a set has few ordinary lines, it must be concentrated on a cubic algebraic curve!  This might be my favorite “approximately structured implies approximates a structure” theorem yet.

2) “Asymptotic behavior of rational curves,” by David Bourqui.  Oh, I was about to start writing this but when I searched I realized I already blogged about this paper when it came out!  I leave this here because the paper is just as interesting now as it was then…

3) “The fluctuations in the number of points of smooth plane curves over finite fields,” by Alina Bucur, Chantal David, Brooke Feigon, and Matilde Lalin;

“The probability that a complete intersection is smooth,” by Alina Bucur and Kiran Kedlaya;

“The distribution of the number of points on trigonal curves over F_q,” by Melanie Matchett Wood;

“Semiample Bertini theorems over finite fields,” by Daniel Erman and Melanie Matchett Wood.

How many rational points does a curve over F_q have?  We discussed this question here a few years ago, coming to no clear conclusion.  I still maintain that if the curve is understood to vary over M_g(F_q), with q fixed and g growing, the problem is ridiculously hard.

But in more manageable families of curves, we now know a lot more than we did in 2008.

You might guess, of course, that the average number of points should be q+1; if you have to reason to think of Frobenius as biased towards having positive or negative trace, why not guess that the trace, on average, is 0?  Bucur-David-Feigon-Lalin prove that this is exactly the case for a random smooth plane curve.  It’s not hard to check that this holds for a random hyperelliptic curve as well.  But for a random trigonal curve, Wood proves that the answer is different — the average is slightly less than q+2!

Where did the extra point come from?

Here’s one way I like to think of it.  This is very vague, and proves nothing, of course.  The trigonal curve X has a degree-3 map to P^1, which is ramified at some divisor D in P^1.  If D is a random divisor, it has one F_q-point on average.  How many F_q-points on X lie over each rational point P of D?  Well, generically, the ramification is going to be simple, and this means that there are two rational points over D; the branch point, and the unique unramified point.  Over every other F_q-point of D, the Frobenius action on the preimage in X should be a random element of S_3, with an average of one fixed point.  To sum up, in expectation we should see q rational points of X over q non-branch rational points of P^1, and 2 rational points of X over a single rational branch point in P^1, for a total of q+2.

(Erman and Wood, in a paper released just a few months ago, prove much more general results of a similar flavor about smooth members of linear systems on P^1 x P^1 (or other Hirzebruch surfaces, or other varieties entirely) which are semiample; for instance, they may have a map to P^1 which stays constant in degree, while their intersection with another divisor gets larger and larger.)

Most mysterious of all is the theorem of Bucur and Kedlaya, which shows (among other things) that if X is a random smooth intersection of two hypersurfaces of large degree in P^3, then the size of |X(F_q)| is slightly less than q+1 on average.  For this phenomenon I have no heuristic explanation at all.  What’s keeping the points away?

## Idle question: cluster algebras over finite fields and spectral gaps

Yet another great talk at the JMM:  Lauren Williams gave an introduction to cluster algebras in the Current Events section which was perfect for people, like me, who didn’t know the definition.  (The talks by Wei Ho, Sam Payne, and Mladen Bestvina were equally good, but I don’t have any idle questions about them!)

This post will be too long if I try to include the definitions myself, and I wouldn’t do as good a job of exposition as Williams did, so it’s good news that she’s arXived a survey paper which covers roughly the same ground as her talk.

Setup for idle question:  you can get a cluster algebra comes from a process called “seed mutation” — given a rational function field K = k(x_1, … x_m), a labelled seed is a pair (Q,f) where Q is a quiver on m vertices and f = (f_1, … f_m) is a labelling of the vertices of Q with rational functions in K.  For each i, there’s a seed mutation mu_i which is an involution on the labelled seeds; see Williams’s paper for the definition.

Now start with a labelled seed (Q,(x_1, … x_m)) and let T be the set of labelled seeds obtainable from the starting seed by repeated application of seed mutations mu_1, …. m_n for some n < m.  (I didn’t think carefully about the meaning of this special subset of n vertices, which are called the mutable vertices.)

It’s called T because it’s a tree, regular of degree n; each vertex is indexed by a word in the n seed mutations with no letter appearing twice in succession.

Anyway, for each vertex of T and each mutable vertex i you have a rational function f_i.  The cluster algebra is the algebra generated by all these rational functions.

The great miracle — rather, one of the great miracles — is that, by a theorem of Fomin and Zelevinsky, the f_i are all Laurent; that is, their denominators are just monomials in the original functions x_i.

We are now ready for the idle question!

Let’s take k to be a finite field F_q, and let U be (F_q^*)^m, the rational points of the m-torus over F_q.  Choose a point u = (u_1, … u_n) in (F_q^*)^m.

Then for any vertex of T, we can (thanks to the Laurent condition!) evaluate the functions (f_1, …. f_m) at u, getting an element of F_q^m.

So a random walk on the tree T, combined with evaluation at u, gives you a random walk on F_q^m.

Idle question:  Is there a spectral gap for this family of walks, independent of q?

Update:  As David Speyer explains in the comments, this finite random walk is not in general well-defined.  Let me try another phrasing which I think makes sense.

Let t be the endpoint of a length-R random walk on T; then evaluation at (1,1,..1) gives a probability distribution P_{R,N} on (Z/NZ)^m.  Let U_N be the uniform distribution on (Z/NZ)^m.  Now for each N we can ask about the limit

$\Lambda_N = \lim_{R \rightarrow \infty} ||P_{R,N} - U_{N}||^{1/R}$

(I don’t think it matters what norm we use.)

The idea is that the random walk on the tree should be equidistributing mod N, and the speed of convergence is governed by Λ_N.  Then we can ask

Idle question mark 2:  Is Λ_N bounded away from 1 by a constant independent of N?

This is a question in “spectral gap” style, which, if I did it right, doesn’t a priori have to do with a sequence of finite graphs.

Motivation:  this setup reminds me of a very well-known story in arithmetic groups; you have a discrete group Gamma which comes equipped with an action on an set of objects “over Z” — then reducing mod p for all p gives you a family of actions of Gamma on larger and larger finite sets, and a critical organizing question is:  do the corresponding graphs have a spectral gap?

For that matter, what happens if you, say, keep k = C and then evaluate your f_i at (1,1,… 1)?  Looking at a bigger and bigger ball in the tree you get bigger and bigger sets of elements of C^m; what do these look like?  Do they shoot off to infinity, accumulate, equidistribute…..?

## Homological Stability for Hurwitz spaces and the Cohen-Lenstra conjecture over function fields, II

Akshay Venkatesh, Craig Westerland, and I, recently posted a new paper, “Homological Stability for Hurwitz spaces and the Cohen-Lenstra conjecture over function fields, II.” The paper is a sequel to our 2009 paper of the same title, except for the “II.”  It’s something we’ve been working on for a long time, and after giving a lot of talks about this material it’s very pleasant to be able to show it to people at last!

The main theorem of the new paper is that a version of the Cohen-Lenstra conjecture over F_q(t) is true.  (See my blog entry about the earlier paper for a short description of Cohen-Lenstra.)

For instance, one can ask: what is the average size of the 5-torsion subgoup of a hyperelliptic curve over F_q? That is, what is the value of

$\lim_{n \rightarrow \infty} \frac{\sum_C |J(C)[5](\mathbf{F}_q)|}{\sum_C 1}$

where C ranges over hyperelliptic curves of the form y^2 = f(x), f squarefree of degree n?

We show that, for q large enough and not congruent to 1 mod 5, this limit exists and is equal to 2, exactly as Cohen and Lenstra predict. Our previous paper proved that the lim sup and lim inf existed, but didn’t pin down what they were.

In fact, the Cohen-Lenstra conjectures predict more than just the average size of the group $J(C)[5](\mathbf{F}_q)$ as n gets large; they propose a the isomorphism class of the group settles into a limiting distribution, and they say what this distribution is supposed to be! Another way to say this is that the Cohen-Lenstra conjecture predicts that, for each abelian p-group A, the average number of surjections from $J(C)(\mathbf{F}_q)$ to A approaches 1. There are, in a sense, the “moments” of the Cohen-Lenstra distribution on isomorphism classes of finite abelian p-groups.

We prove that this, too, is the case for sufficiently large q not congruent to 1 mod p — but, it must be conceded, the value of “sufficiently large” depends on A. So there is still no q for which all the moments are known to agree with the Cohen-Lenstra predictions. That’s why I call what we prove a “version” of the Cohen-Lenstra conjectures. If you think of the Cohen-Lenstra conjecture as being about moments, we’re almost there — but if you think of it as being about probability distributions, we haven’t started!

Naturally, we prefer the former point of view.

This paper ended up being a little long, so I think I’ll make several blog posts about what’s in there, maybe not all in a row.