Category Archives: papers

Rational points on solvable curves over Q via non-abelian Chabauty (with Daniel Hast)

New paper up!  With my Ph.D. student Daniel Hast (last seen on the blog here.)

We prove that hyperelliptic curves over Q of genus at least 2 have only finitely many rational points.  Actually, we prove this for a more general class of high-genus curves over Q, including all solvable covers of P^1.

But wait, don’t we already know that, by Faltings?  Of course we do.  So the point of the paper is to show that you can get this finiteness in a different way, via the non-abelian Chabauty method pioneered by Kim.  And I think it seems possible in principle to get Faltings for all curves over Q this way; though I don’t know how to do it.

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Fox-Neuwirth-Fuks cells, quantum shuffle algebras, and Malle’s conjecture for function fields

I’ve gotten behind on blogging about preprints!  Let me tell you about a new one I’m really happy with, joint with TriThang Tran and Craig Westerland, which we posted a few months ago.

Malle’s conjecture concerns the number of number fields with fixed Galois group and bounded discriminant, a question I’ve been interested in for many years now.  We recall how it goes.

Let K be a global field — that is, a number field or the function field of a curve over a finite field.  Any degree-n extension L/K (here L could be a field or just an etale algebra over K — hold that thought) gives you a homomorphism from Gal(K) to S_n, whose image we call, in a slight abuse of notation, the Galois group of L/K.

Let G be a transitive subgroup of S_n, and let N(G,K,X) be the number of degree-n extensions of K whose Galois group is G and whose discriminant has norm at most X.  Every permutation g in G has an index, which is just n – the number of orbits of g.  So the permutations of index 1 are the transpositions, those of index 2 are the three-cycles and the double-flips, etc.  We denote by a(G) the reciprocal of the minimal index of any element of G.  In particular, a(G) is at most 1, and is equal to 1 if and only if G contains a transposition.

(Wait, doesn’t a transitive subgroup of S_n with a transposition have to be the whole group?  No, that’s only for primitive permutation groups.  D_4 is a thing!)

Malle’s conjecture says that, for every \epsilon > 0, there are constants c,c_\epsilon such that

c X^{a(G)} < N(G,K,X) < c_\epsilon X^{a(G)+\epsilon}

We don’t know much about this.  It’s easy for G = S_2.  A theorem of Davenport-Heilbronn (K=Q) and Datskovsky-Wright (general case) proves it for G = S_3.  Results of Bhargava handle S_4 and S_5, Wright proved it for abelian G.  I kind of think this new theorem of Alex Smith implies for K=Q and every dihedral G of 2-power order?  Anyway:  we don’t know much.  S_6?  No idea.  The best upper bounds for general n are still the ones I proved with Venkatesh a long time ago, and are very much weaker than what Malle predicts.

Malle’s conjecture fans will point out that this is only the weak form of Malle’s conjecture; the strong form doesn’t settle for an unspecified X^\epsilon, but specifies an asymptotic X^a (log X)^b.   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 state.

Anyway, here’s the new theorem:

Theorem (E-Tran-Westerland):  Let G be a transitive subgroup of S_n.  Then for all q sufficiently large relative to G, there is a constant c_\epsilon such that

N(G,\mathbf{F}_q(t),X) < c_\epsilon X^{a(G)+\epsilon}

for all X>0.

In other words:

The upper bound in the weak Malle conjecture is true for rational function fields.

A few comments.

  1.  We are still trying to fix the mistake in our 2012 paper about stable cohomology of Hurwitz spaces.  Craig and I discussed what seemed like a promising strategy for this in the summer of 2015.  It didn’t work.  That result is still unproved.  But the strategy developed into this paper, which proves a different and in some respects stronger theorem!  So … keep trying to fix your mistakes, I guess?  There might be payoffs you don’t expect.
  2. We can actually bound that X^\epsilon is actually a power of log, but not the one predicted by Malle.
  3. Is there any chance of getting the strong Malle conjecture?  No, and I’ll explain why.  Consider the case G=S_4.  Then a(G) = 1, and in this case the strong Malle’s conjecture predicts N(S_4,K,X) is on order X, not just X^{1+eps}.   But our method doesn’t really distinguish between quartic fields and other kinds of quartic etale algebras.  So it’s going to count all algebras L_1 x L_2, where L_1 and L_2 are quadratic fields with discriminants X_1 and X_2 respectively, with X_1 X_2 < X.  We already know there’s approximately one quadratic field per discriminant, on average, so the number of such algebras is about the number of pairs (X_1, X_2) with X_1 X_2 < X, which is about X log X.  So there’s no way around it:  our method is only going to touch weak Malle.  Note, by the way, that for quartic extensions, the strong Malle conjecture was proved by Bhargava, and he observes the same phenomenon:

    …inherent in the zeta function is a sum over all etale extensions” of Q, including the “reducible” extensions that correspond to direct sums of quadratic extensions. These reducible quartic extensions far outnumber the irreducible ones; indeed, the number of reducible quartic extensions of absolute discriminant at most X is asymptotic to X log X, while we show that the number of quartic field extensions of absolute discriminant at most X is only O(X).

  4.  I think there is, on the other hand, a chance of getting rid of the “q sufficiently large relative to G” condition and proving something for a fixed F_q(t) and all finite groups G.

 

OK, so how did we prove this?

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Configuration spaces of manifolds with flows (with John Wiltshire-Gordon)

New preprint up on the arXiv:  “Algebraic structures on cohomology of configuration spaces of manifolds with flows,” a short paper joint with John Wiltshire-Gordon.

John is a student at Michigan, finishing his Ph.D. this year under David Speyer, and he’s been thinking about stuff related to FI-modules ever since his undergrad days at Chicago hanging out with Benson Farb.

But this paper isn’t actually about FI-modules!  Let me explain.  Here’s the motivating question.  When M is a manifold, and S a finite set, we denote by PConf^S M the pure configuration space of M, i.e. the space of injections from S to M.  If S is the set 1,…,n we write PConf^n M for short.

Question:  Let M be a manifold.  What natural algebraic structure is carried by the cohomology groups H^i(PConf^n M,Z)?

Here’s one structure.  If f: S \rightarrow T is an injection, composition yields a map from PConf^T M to PConf^S M, which i turn yields a map from H^i(PConf^S M, Z) to  H^i(PConf^T M, Z).  In other words,

H^i(\mbox{PConf}^\bullet M, \mathbf{Z})

is a functor from the category of finite sets with injections to the category of k-vector spaces.  Such a functor is called an FI-module over k.  A big chunk of my paper with Benson Farb and Tom Church is devoted to figuring out what consequences this structure has for the Betti numbers, and it was by these means that Tom first proved that the unordered configuration spaces have stable cohomology with rational coefficients.  (This is actually false with integral coefficients, or when the coefficient field has characteristic p, but see the beautiful theorem of Rohit Nagpal for the story about what happens in the latter case.  How have I not blogged about that already?)

So it turns out that H_i(PConf M) is a finitely generated FI-module (the definition is what you expect) and this implies that the Betti number h^i(PConf^n M) agrees with some polynomial P_i(n) for all sufficiently large n.  For example, H_1(PConf^n S^2) has dimension

(1/2)n(n-3)

for n >= 3, but not for n=0,1,2.

If you know a little more about the manifold, you can do better.  For instance, if M has a boundary component, the Betti number agrees with P_i(n) for all n.  Why?  Because there’s more algebraic structure.  You can map from PConf^T to PConf^S, above, by “forgetting” points, but you can also add points in some predetermined contractible neighborhood of the boundary.  The operation of sticking on a point * gives you a map from PConf^S to PConf^{S union *}.  (Careful, though — if you want these maps to compose nicely, you have to say all this a little more carefully, and you really only want to think of these maps as defined up to homotopy; perfectly safe as long as we’re only keeping track of the induced maps on H^i.)

We thought we had a pretty nice story:  closed manifolds have configuration spaces with eventually polynomial Betti numbers, manifolds with boundary have configuration spaces with polynomial Betti numbers on the nose.  But in practice, it seems that configuration spaces sometimes have more stability than our results guaranteed!  For instance, H_1(PConf^n S^3) has dimension

(1/2)(n-1)(n-2)

for all n>0.  And in fact EVERY Betti number of the pure configuration space of S^3 agrees with a polynomial P_i(n) for all n > 0; the results of CEF guarantee only that h^i agrees with a polynomial once n > i.

What’s going on?

In the new paper, John and I write about a different way to get “point-adding maps” on configuration space.  If your M has the good taste to have an everywhere non-vanishing vector field, you can take any one of your marked points x in M and “split it” into two points y and y’, each very near x along the flowline of the vector field, one on either side of x.  Now once again we can both add and subtract points, as in the case of open manifolds, and again this supplies the configuration spaces with a richer structure.  In fact (exercise!) H_i(PConf^n M) now carries an action of the category of noncommutative finite sets:  objects are finite sets, morphisms are set maps endowed with an ordering of each fiber.

And fortunately, John already knew a lot about the representation theory of this category and categories like it!  In particular, it follows almost immediately that, when M is a closed manifold with a vector field (like S^3) the Betti number h^i(PConf^n M) agrees with some polynomial P_i(n) for all n > 0.  (For fans of character polynomials, the character polynomial version of this holds too, for cohomology with rational coefficients.)

That’s the main idea, but there’s more stuff in the paper, including a very beautiful picture that John made which explains how to answer the question “what structure is carried by the cohomology of pure configuration space of M when M has k nonvanishing vector fields?”  The answer is FI for k=0, the category of noncommutative finite sets for k=1, and the usual category of finite sets for k > 1.

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An incidence conjecture of Bourgain over fields of positive characteristic (with Hablicsek)

Marci Hablicsek (a finishing Ph.D. student at UW) and I recently posted a new preprint, “An incidence conjecture of Bourgain over fields of finite characteristic.”

The theme of the paper is a beautiful theorem of Larry Guth and Nets Katz, one of the early successes of Dvir’s “polynomial method.”  They proved a conjecture of Bourgain:

Given a set S of points in R^3, and a set of N^2 lines such that

  • No more than N lines are contained in any plane;
  • Each line contains at least N points of S;

then S has at least cN^3 points.

In other words, the only way for a big family of lines to have lots of multiple intersections is for all those lines to be contained in a plane.  (In the worst case where all the lines are in a plane, the incidences between points and lines are governed by the Szemeredi-Trotter theorem.)

I saw Nets speak about this in Wisconsin, and I was puzzled by the fact that the theorem only applied to fields of characteristic 0, when the proof was entirely algebraic.  But you know the proof must fail somehow in characteristic p, because the statement isn’t true in characteristic p.  For example, over the field k with p^2 elements, one can check that the Heisenberg surface

X: x - x^p + yz^p - zy^p = 0

has a set of p^4 lines, no more than p lying on any plane, and such that each line contains at least p^2 elements of X(k).  If the Guth-Katz theorem were true over k, we could take N = p^2 and conclude that |X(k)| is at least p^6.  But in fact, it’s around p^5.

It turns out that there is one little nugget in the proof of Guth-Katz which is not purely algebraic.  Namely:  they show that a lot of the lines are contained in some surface S with the following property;  at every smooth point s of S, the tangent plane to S at s intersects S with multiplicity greater than 2.  They express this in the form of an assertion that a certain curvature form vanishes everywhere.  In characteristic 0, this implies that S is a plane.  But not so in characteristic p!  (As always, the fundamental issue is that a function in characteristic p can have zero derivative without being constant — viz., x^p.)  All of us who did the problems in Hartshorne know about the smooth plane curve over F_3 with every point an inflection point.  Well, there are surfaces like that too (the Heisenberg surface is one such) and the point of the new paper is to deal with them.  In fact, we show that the Guth-Katz theorem is true word for word as long as you prevent lines not only from piling up in planes but also from piling up in these “flexy” surfaces.

It turns out that any such surface must have degree at least p, and this enables us to show that the Guth-Katz theorem is actually true, word for word, over the prime field F_p.

If you like, you can think of this as a strengthening of Dvir’s theorem for the case of F_p^3.  Dvir proves that a set of p^2 lines with no two lines in the same direction fills up a positive-density subset of the whole space.  What we prove is that the p^2 lines don’t have to point in distinct directions; it is enough to impose the weaker condition that no more than p of them lie in any plane; this already implies that the union of the lines has positive density.  Again, this strengthening doesn’t hold for larger finite fields, thanks to the Heisenberg surface and its variants.

This is rather satisfying, in that there are other situations in this area (e.g. sum-product problems) where there are qualitatively different bounds depending on whether the field k in question has nontrivial subfields or not.  But it is hard to see how a purely algebraic argument can “see the difference” between F_p and F_{p^2}.  The argument in this paper shows there’s at least one way this can happen.

Satisfying, also, because it represents an unexpected application for some funky characteristic-p algebraic geometry!  I have certainly never needed to remember that particular Hartshorne problem in my life up to now.

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Superstrong approximation for monodromy groups (and Galois groups?)

Hey, I posted a paper to the arXiv and forgot to blog about it!  The paper is called “Superstrong approximation for monodromy groups” and it roughly represents the lectures I gave at the MSRI workshop last February on “Thin Groups and Superstrong Approximation.”  Hey, as I write this I see that MSRI has put video of these lectures online:

But the survey paper has more idle speculation in it than the lectures, and fewer “um”s, so I recommend text over video in this case!  I mean, if you like idle speculation.  But if you don’t, would you be reading this blog?

I’m going to recount one of the idle speculations here, but first:

What is superstrong approximation?

Let’s say you have a graph on N vertices, regular of degree d.  One basic thing you want to know about the graph is what the connected components are, or at least how many there are.  That seems like a combinatorial question, and it is, but in a sense it is also a spectral question:  the random walk on the graph, thought of as an operator T on the space of functions on the graph, is going to have eigenvalues between [1,-1], and the mutiplicity of 1 is precisely the number of components; the eigenspace consists of the locally constant functions which are constant on connected components. 

So being connected means that the second-largest eigenvalue of T is strictly less than 1.  And so you might say a graph is superconnected (with respect to some positive constant x) if the second-largest eigenvalue is at most 1-x.  But we don’t say “superconnected” because we already have a word for this notion; we say the graph has a spectral gap of size x.  Now of course any connected graph has a spectral gap!  But the point is always to talk about families of graphs, typically with d fixed and N growing; we say the family has a spectral gap if, for some positive x, each graph in the family has a spectral gap of size at least x.  (Such a family is also called an expander family, because the random walks on those graphs tend to bust out of any fixed-size region very quickly; the relation between this point of view and the spectral one would be a whole nother post.)

When does life hand you a family of graphs?  OK, here’s the situation — let’s say you’ve got d matrices in SL_n(Z), or some other arithmetic group.  For every prime p, your matrices project to d elements in SL_n(Z/pZ), which produce a Cayley graph X_p, and X_p is connected just when those elements generate SL_n(Z/pZ).  If your original matrices generate SL_n(Z), their reductions mod p generate SL_n(Z/pZ); this is just the (not totally obvious!) fact that SL_n(Z) surjects onto SL_n(Z/pZ).  But more is true; it turns out that if the group Gamma generated by your matrices is Zariski-dense in SL_n, this is already enough to guarantee that X_p is connected for almost all p.  This statement is called strong approximation for Gamma.

But why stop there — we can ask not only whether X_p is connected, but whether it is superconnected!  That is:  does the family of graphs X_p have a spectral gap?  If so, we say Gamma has superstrong approximation, which is now seen to be a kind of quantitative strengthening of strong approximation.

We know much more than we did five years ago about which groups have superstrong approximation, and what the applications are when this is so.  Sarnak’s paper  from the same conference provides a good overview.

Idle speculation:  superstrong approximation for Galois groups

Another way to express superstrong approximation is to say that Gamma has property tau with respect to the congruence quotients SL_n(Z/pZ).

In the survey paper, I wonder whether there is some way to talk about superstrong approximation for Galois groups with bounded ramification.  For instance; let G be the Galois group of the maximal extension of Q which is tamely ramified everywhere, and unramified away from 2,3,5, and 7.  OK, that’s some profinite group.  I don’t know much about it.  By Golod-Shafarevich I could prove it was infinite, unless I couldn’t, in which case I would toss in some more ramified primes until I could.

We could ask something like the following.  Given any finite quotient Q of G, and any two elements of G whose images generated Q, we get a connected Cayley graph of degree 4 on the elements of Q, by means of those two elements and their inverses.  Is there a uniform spectral gap for all those graphs?

I have no real reason to think so.  But remark:  this would imply immediately that every finite-index subgroup of G has finite abelianization, and that’s true.  It would also imply that there are only finitely many n such that G surjects onto S_n, and that might be true.  Reader survey for those who’ve read this far:  do you think there’s a finite set S of primes such that there are tamely ramified S_n-extensions of Q, for n arbitrarily large, unramified outside S?

Acknowledgment:  I was much aided in formulating this question by the comments on the MathOverflow question I asked about it.

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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.

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FI-modules over Noetherian rings

New paper on the arXiv, joint with Tom Church, Benson Farb, and UW grad student Rohit Nagpal.  In our first paper on FI-modules (which I blogged about earlier this year) a crucial tool was the fact that the category of FI-modules over a field of characteristic 0 is Noetherian; that is, a submodule of a finitely generated FI-module is again finitely generated.  But we didn’t know how to prove this over a more general ring, which limited the application of some of our results.

In the new paper, we show that the category of FI-modules is Noetherian over an arbitrary Noetherian ring.  Sample consequence:  if M is a manifold and Conf^n M is the configuration space of ordered n-tuples of distinct points on M, then we show that

dim_k H_i(Conf^n M, k)

is a polynomial function of n, for all n greater than some threshold.  In our previous paper, we could prove this only when k had characteristic 0; now it works for mod p cohomology as well.  We also discuss some of the results of Andy Putman’s paper on stable cohomology of congruence subgroups — it is a bad thing that I somehow haven’t blogged about this awesome paper! — showing how, at the expense of losing stable ranges, you can remove from his results some of the restrictions on the characteristic of the coefficient field.

Philosophically, this paper makes me happy because it brings me closer to what I wanted to do in the first place — talk about the representation theory of symmetric groups “for general n” without giving names to representations.  In characteristic 0, this desire might seem a bit perverse, given the rich and beautiful story of the bijection between irreducible representations and partitions.  But in characteristic p, the representation theory of S_n is much harder to describe.  So it is pleasing to be able to talk, in a principled way, about what one might call “representation stability” in this context; I think that when V is a finitely generated FI-module over a finite field k it makes sense to say that the representations V_n of k[S_n] are “the same” for n large enough, even though I don’t have as nice a description of the isomorphism classes of such representations.

 

 

 

 

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FI-modules and representation stability, III

So how does this paper work?  The main idea is quite simple.  Let’s come back to the example of V_n = H^i(Conf^n M,Q), with i fixed and n ranging over nonnegative integers.  Then we have a sequence of vector spaces

V_0, V_1, V_2, …

But more than a sequence.  You have a map Conf^{n+1} -> Conf^n which is “forget the n+1 st point” — which functorially hands you a map V_n -> V_{n+1}.  So you have a diagram

V_0 -> V_1 -> V_2 -> …..

But in fact you have even more than this!  There’s no reason you have to forget just the n+1 st point.  You have tons of maps from Conf^n to Conf^m for all m <= n; one for each m-element subset of 1..n.  And there are lots of natural identifications between the compositions of these maps.  When you keep track of all the maps at your disposal, what you find is that the vector spaces V_n have a very rigid structure.

Definition:  FI is the category of finite sets with injections.  An FI-module over a ring R is a functor from FI to R-modules.

So V is an FI-module over Q!  (The vector space V_n is revealed as the image of the finite set [1..n] under the functor V.) And the main work of our paper is the study of the category of FI-modules, which sheds a great deal of light on representation stability.  For instance, we show that an FI-module over Q yields a representation-stable sequence in Church-Farb’s original sense if and only if it is finitely generated in the natural sense.  Moreover, the category of FI-modules over Q is Noetherian, in the sense that subobjects of finitely generated FI-modules are again finitely generation.  (The Noetherianness was proven independently by Snowden in a different form.)  Theorems like this very easy to show that tons of examples in nature (like the ones in the previous post) yield representation-stable sequences.  The work is all in the definitions and basic properties; once you have that, proving stability in particular examples is often a matter of a few lines.  For instance, you get a fairly instant proof of Murnaghan’s theorem on stability of Kronecker products; from this point of view, this becomes a theorem about the finite generation of a single object in an abelian category, rather than a theorem about a list of coefficients eventually setting down to constancy.

Sometimes there is more structure still.  Suppose, for example, that the manifold M above has nonempty boundary.  Then there are not only maps from Conf^{n+1} to Conf^n, but maps going the other way; you can add a new point in a little neighborhood of a boundary component.  (This is familiar from the configuration space of the complex plane, where you add new points at “the west pole” in the infinite negative real direction.)  These maps don’t quite compose on the nose, but they’re OK up to homotopy, and so the cohomology groups acquire a system of maps going both up and down.  It turns out that the right structure to describe such systems is given by the category of finite sets with partial injections; i.e. a map from A to B is an isomorphism from a subset of A to a subset of B.  We call this category FI#, and we call a functor from FI# to R-modules an FI#-module over R.

When your vector spaces carry an FI#-module structure you can really go to town.  It turns out that all the “eventuallies” disappear; when M is an open manifold, the dimension of H^i(Conf^n M) is a polynomial in n on the nose, for all n.  What’s more, if you want to show finite generation for FI#-modules, it suffices to show that dim V_n is bounded by some polynomial in n.  Once it’s less than a polynomial, it is a polynomial!  This stuff, unlike some other results in our paper, works in any characteristic and in fact is even fine with integral coefficients.

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FI-modules and representation stability, II

Here are some sequences of vector spaces.  In each case, the sequence is indexed by n, and all other variables are understood to be constant.  So suppose V_n is the space

  • H^i(Conf^n M, Q) for M a connected oriented manifold of dimension at least 2.
  • The (j_1, .. j_r)-multidegree piece of the diagonal coinvariant algebra on r sets of n variables.
  • H^i(M_{g,n},Q), the cohomology of the moduli space of curves of genus g with n marked points.
  • The tautological subring of the above.
  • The space of degree-d polynomials on the rank variety parametrizing nxn matrices of rank at most r.

By a character polynomial we mean a polynomial with integral coefficients in variables X_1, X_2, X_3, … .  We interpret these symbols (and thus character polynomials) as class functions on the symmetric group by S_n by taking

X_i(s) = number of i-cycles in s

for each permutation s.

Then we show that, in each of the examples above, there’s a character polynomial P such that the character of the action of S_n on V_n is given by P, for all sufficiently large n.  This is one way in which one can say that a sequence of representations of larger and larger symmetric groups are “all the same.”  In particular, by plugging in the identity we find that dim V_n is a polynomial in n, for n large enough.

For many of these examples, almost nothing is known about dimensions of individual spaces!  So a strong regularity theorem like this is perhaps surprising.  Even more surprising (to us at any rate) is that theorems like this require only very meager input from whatever context generate the vector spaces.  You get this stability (and many others) almost for free.

More about how it all works tomorrow!

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FI-modules and representation stability, I

Tom ChurchBenson Farb and I have just posted a new paper, “FI-modules:  a new approach to representation stability,” on the arXiv.  This paper has occupied a big chunk of our attention for about a year, so I’m very pleased to be able to release it!

Here is the gist.  Sometimes life hands you a sequence of vector spaces.  Sometimes these vector spaces even come with maps from one to the next.  And when you are very lucky, those maps become isomorphisms far enough along in the sequence; because at that point you can describe the entire picture with a finite amount of information, all the vector spaces after a certain point being canonically the same.  In this case we typically say we have found a stability result for the sequence.

But sometimes life is not so nice.  Say for instance we study the cohomology groups of configuration spaces of points of n distinct ordered points on some nice manifold M.  As one does.  In fact, let’s fix an index i and a coefficient field k and let V_n be the vector space H^i(Conf^n M, k.)

(In the imaginary world where there are people who memorize every word posted on this blog, those people would remember that I also sometimes use Conf^n M to refer to the space parametrizing unordered n-tuples of distinct points.  But now we are ordered.  This is important.)

For instance, you can let M be the complex plane, in which case we’re just computing the cohomology of the pure braid group.  Or, to put it another way, the cohomology of the hyperplane complement you get by deleting the hyperplanes (x_i-x_j) from C^n.

This cohomology was worked out in full by my emeritus colleagues Peter Orlik and Louis Solomon.  But let’s stick to something much easier; what about the H^1?  That’s just generated by the classes of the hyperplanes we cut out, which form a basis for the cohomology group.  And now you see a problem.  If V_n is H^1(Conf^n C, k), then the sequence {V_n} can’t be stable, because the dimensions of the spaces grow with n; to be precise,

dim V_n = (1/2)n(n-1).

But all isn’t lost.  As Tom and Benson explained last year in their much-discussed 2010 paper, “Representation stability and homological stability,” the right way to proceed is to think of V_n not as a mere vector space but as a representation of the symmetric group on n letters, which acts on Conf^n by permuting the n points.  And as representations, the V_n are in a very real sense all the same!  Each one is

“the representation of the symmetric group given by the action on unordered pairs of distinct letters.”

Of course one has to make precise what one means when one says “V_m and V_n are the same symmetric group representation”, when they are after all representations of different groups.  Church and Farb do exactly this, and show that in many examples (including the pure braid group) some naturally occuring sequences do satisfy their condition, which they call “representation stability.”

So what’s in the new paper?  In a sense, we start from the beginning, defining representation stability in a new way (or rather, defining a new thing and showing that it agrees with the Church-Farb definition in cases of interest.)  And this new definition makes everything much cleaner and dramatically expands the range of examples where we can prove stability.  This post is already a little long, so I think I’ll start a new one with a list of examples at the top.

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