Turkelli on Hurwitz spaces and Malle’s conjecture

My Ph.D. student Seyfi Turkelli recently posted a really nice paper, “Connected components of Hurwitz schemes and Malle’s conjecture,” to the arXiv. It’s a beautiful example of the “hidden geometry” behind questions about arithmetic distributions, so I thought I’d say a little about it here.

The story begins with the old conjecture, sometimes attributed to Linnik, that the number of degree-n extensions of Q of discriminant at most X grows linearly with X, as X grows with n held constant. When n=2, this is easy; when n = 3, it is a theorem of Davenport and Heilbronn; when n=4 or 5, it is recent work of Bhargava; when n is at least 6, we have no idea.

Having no idea is, of course, no barrier to generalization. Here’s a more refined version of the conjecture, due to Gunter Malle. Let K be a number field, let G be a finite subgroup of S_n, and let N_{K,G}(X) be the number of extensions L/K of degree n whose discriminant has norm at most K, and whose Galois closure has Galois group G. Then there exists a constant c_{K,G} such that

Conjecture: N_{K,G}(X) ~ c_{K,G} X^a(G) (log X)^(b(K,G))

where a and b are constants explicitly described by Malle. (Malle doesn’t make a guess as to the value of c_{K,G} — that’s a more refined statement still, which I hope to blog about later…)

Akshay Venkatesh and I wrote a paper (“Counting extensions of function fields…”) in which we gave a heuristic argument for Malle’s conjecture over K = F_q(t). In that case, N_{K,G}(X) is the number of points on a certain Hurwitz space, a moduli space of finite covers of the projective line. We were able to control the dimensions and the number of irreducible components of these spaces, using in a crucial way an old theorem of Conway, Parker, Fried, and Volklein. The heuristic part arrives when you throw in the 100% shruggy guess that an irreducible variety of dimension d over F_q has about q^d points. When you apply this heuristic to the Hurwitz spaces, you get Malle’s conjecture on the nose.

So we were a little taken aback a couple of years later when Jurgen Kluners produced counterexamples to Malle’s theorem! We quickly figured out what was going on. There wasn’t anything wrong with our theorem; just our analogy. Our Hurwitz spaces were counting geometrically connected covers of the projective line. But a cover Y -> P^1/F_q which is connected, but not geometrically connected, provides a perfectly good field extension of F_q(t). If we’re trying to imitate the number field question, we’d better count those too. It had never occurred to us that they might outnumber the geometrically connected covers — but that’s just what happens in Kluners’ examples.

What Turkelli does in his new paper is to work out the dimensions and components for certain twisted Hurwitz spaces which parametrize the connected but not geometrically connected covers of P^1. This is a really subtle thing to get right — you can’t rely on your geometric intuition, because the phenomenon you’re trying to keep track of doesn’t exist over an algebraically closed field! But Turkelli nails it down — and as a consequence, he gets a new version of Malle’s conjecture, which is compatible with Kluners’ examples, and which I think is really the right statement. Which is not to say I know whether it’s true! But if it’s not, it’s at least the correct false guess given our present state of knowledge.

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One thought on “Turkelli on Hurwitz spaces and Malle’s conjecture

  1. […] specifies an asymptotic .   This conjecture has the slight defect that it’s wrong sometimes; my student Seyfi Turkelli wrote a nice paper which I think resolves this problem, but the revised version of the conjecture is a bit messy to […]

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