What’s the chance that a random curve has ordinary Jacobian? You might instinctively say “It must be probability 1” because the non-ordinary locus is a *proper* closed subvariety of M_g. (This is not obvious by pure thought, at least to me, and I don’t know who first proved it! I imagine you can check it by explicitly exhibiting a curve of each genus with ordinary Jacobian, but I’m not sure this is the best way.)

Anyway, the point is, this instinctive response is wrong! At least it’s wrong if you interpret the question the way I have in mind, which is to ask: given a random curve X of genus g over F_q, *with g growing as q stays fixed*, is there a limiting probability that X has ordinary Jacobian? And this might not be 1, in the same way that the probability that a random polynomial over F_q is squarefree is not 1, but 1-1/q.

Bryden Cais, David Zureick-Brown and I worked out some heuristic guesses for this problem several years ago, based on the idea that the Dieudonne module for a random curve might be a random Dieudonne module, and then working out in some detail what in the Sam Hill one might mean by “random Dieudonne module.” Then we did some numerical experiments which showed that our heuristic looked basically OK for plane curves of high degree, but pretty badly wrong for hyperelliptic curves of high genus. But there was no family of curves for which one could *prove *either that our heuristic was right or that it was wrong.

Now there is, thanks to my Ph.D. student Soumya Sankar. Unfortunately, there are still no families of curves for which our heuristics are provably right. But there are now several for which it is provably wrong!

15.7% of Artin-Schreier curves over F_2 (that is: Z/2Z-covers of P^1/F_2) are ordinary. (The heuristic proportion given in my paper with Cais and DZB is about 42%, which matches data drawn from plane curves reasonably well.) The reason Sankar can prove this is because, for Artin-Schreier curves, you can test ordinarity (or, more generally, compute the a-number) in terms of the numerical invariants of the ramification points; the a-number doesn’t care *where* the ramification points are, which would be a more difficult question.

On the other hand, 0% of Artin-Schreier curves over F are ordinary for any finite field of odd characteristic! What’s going on? It turns out that it’s only in characteristic 2 that the Artin-Schreier locus is irreducible; in larger characteristics, it turns out that the locus has irreducible components whose number grows with genus, and the ordinary curves live on only one of these components. This “explains” the rarity of ordinarity (though this fact alone doesn’t prove that the proportion of ordinarity goes to 0; Sankar does that another way.) Natural question: if you just look at the ordinary component, does the proportion of ordinary curves approach a limit? Sankar shows this proportion is bounded away from 0 in characteristic 3, but in larger characteristics the combinatorics get complicated! (All this stuff, you won’t be surprised to hear, relies on Rachel Pries’s work on the interaction of special loci in M_g with the Newton stratification.)

Sankar also treats the case of superelliptic curves y^n = f(x) in characteristic 2, which turns out to be like that of Artin-Schreier in odd characteristics; a lot of components, only one with ordinary points, probability of ordinarity going to zero.

Really nice paper which raises lots of questions! What about more refined invariants, like the shape of the Newton polygon? What about other families of curves? I’d be particularly interested to know what happens with trigonal curves which (at least in characteristic not 2 or 3, and maybe even then) feel more “generic” to me than curves with extra endomorphisms. Is there any hope for our poor suffering heuristics in a family like that?

I think a short way to show the ordinary locus is non-empty might be to take a partial compactification of M_g given by stable curves of compact type (the dual graph is a tree) — this still maps to A_g, and you can see an ordinary curve here by taking a bunch of ordinary elliptic curves glued together in a chain.

Oh yeah of course! It’s the same old lesson Ravi Vakil taught me in grad school and which I always struggle to keep in mind: “You think smooth curves are easier than singular curves because you learn about smooth curves first, but in fact the singular curves are the easy ones.”