Tag Archives: dilatation

The conformal modulus of a mapping class

So I learned about this interesting invariant from a colloquium by Burglind Jöricke.

(Warning — this post concerns math I don’t know well and is all questions, no answers.)

Suppose you have a holomorphic map from C^* to M_g,n, the moduli space of curves.  Then you get a map on fundamental groups from \pi_1(\mathbf{C}^*) (otherwise known as Z) to \pi_1(\mathcal{M}_{g,n}) (otherwise known as the mapping class group) — in other words, you get a mapping class.

But not just any mapping class;  this one, which we’ll call u, is the monodromy of a holomorphic family of marked curves around a degenerate point.  So, for example, the image of u on homology has to be potentially unipotent.  I’m not sure (but I presume others know) which mapping classes u can arise in this way; does some power of u have to be a product of commuting Dehn twists, or is that too much to ask?

In any event, there are lots of mapping classes which you are not going to see.  Let m be your favorite one.  Now you can still represent m by a smooth loop in M_g,n.  And you can deform this loop to be a real-analytic function

f: \{z: |z| = 1\} \rightarrow \mathcal{M}_{g,n}

Finally — while you can’t extend f to all of C^*, you can extend it to some annulus with outer radius R and inner radius r.

Definition:  The conformal modulus of a mapping class x is the supremum, over all such f and all annuli, of (1/2 pi) log(R/r).

So you can think of this as some kind of measurement of “how complicated of a path do you have to draw on M_{g,n} in order to represent x?”  The modulus is infinite exactly when the mapping class is represented by a holomorphic degeneration.  In particular, I imagine that a pseudo-Anosov mapping class must have finite conformal modulus.  That is:  positive entropy (aka dilatation) implies finite conformal modulus.   Which leads Jöricke to ask:  what is the relation more generally between conformal modulus and (log of) dilatation?  When (g,n) = (0,3) she has shown that the two are inverse to each other.  In this case, the group is more or less PSL_2(Z) so it’s not so surprising that any two measures of complexity are tightly bound together.

Actually, I should be honest and say that Jöricke raised this only for g = 0, so maybe there’s some reason it’s a bad idea to go beyond braids; but the question still seems to me to make sense.  For that matter, one could even ask the same question with M_g replaced by A_g, right?  What is the conformal modulus of a symplectic matrix which is not potentially unipotent?  Is it always tightly related to the size of the largest eigenvalue?

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Pseudo-Anosov puzzle 2: homology rank and dilatation

In fact, following on what I wrote about the two Farb-Leininger-Margalit theorems below, one might ask the following.  Is there an absolute constant c such that, if f is a pseudo-Anosov mapping class on a genus g surface, and the f-invariant subspace of H_1(S) has dimension at least d, then

log λ(f) >= c (d+1)  / g?

This would “interpolate” between Penner’s theorem (the case d=0) and the F-L-M theorem about Torelli (the case d=2g).

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Pseudo-Anosovs with low dilatation: Farb-Leininger-Margalit, and a puzzle

I spent a very enjoyable weekend learning about the dilatation of pseudo-Anosov mapping classes at a workshop organized by Jean-Luc Thiffeault and myself.  The fact that a number theorist and a fluid dynamicist would organize a workshop about an area in low-dimensional topology should indicate, I hope, that the topic is of broad interest!

There are lots of ways to define dilatation, which is a kind of measure of “complexity” of a mapping class.  Here’s the simplest.  Let f be a diffeomorphism from a genus-g Riemann surface S to itself, which is pseudo-Anosov.  Loosely speaking, this means the dynamics of  f are “irreducible” on the surface; for instance, no power of f acts trivially on any subsurface.  (“Most” diffeomorphisms, in any reasonable sense, are pA.)  For any two curves a,b on S, let i(a,b) be the minimal number of intersection points between a and any curve isotopic to b.  (Note that this is typically a lot bigger than the intersection of the homology classes of a and b; the latter measures the number of intersection points counted with sign, which doesn’t change when you isotop the curves.)  It turns out that the quantity

(1/k) log i(f^k(a),b)

approaches a limit as k grows, which strictly exceeds 1;  this limit is called λ(f), the dilatation of f.  It’s invariant under deformation of f; in other words, it depends only on the class of f in the mapping class group of S.  That this limit exists is exciting enough; better still, and indicative of lots of structure I’m passing over in silence, is that λ(f) is an algebraic integer!

(I just remembered that I gave a different description of the dilatation on the blog last year, in connection with an analogy to Galois groups.)

The subject of the conference was pseudo-Anosovs with low dilatation.  The dilatations of pAs in a given genus g are known to form a discrete subset of the interval (1,infinity); thus it makes sense to ask what the smallest dilatation in genus g is.  Lots of progress on this problem has been made in recent years; Joan Birman, Eriko Hironaka, Chia-Yen Tsai, and Ji-Young Ham all talked about results in this vein.  But for general g the answer remains unknown.

A theorem of Penner guarantees that, for any pseudo-Anosov f on a surface of genus g, we have λ(f) > c^(1/g) for some constant c.  So one might call a family f_1, f_2,…. of pAs of varying genera g_1, g_2, …  “low-dilatation” if the quantity λ(f_i)^g_i is bounded.  (One such family, constructed by Hironaka and Eiko Kin, appeared in many of the lectures.)

In this connection, let me advertise the extremely satisfying theorem of Benson Farb, Chris Leininger, and Dan Margalit.  Here’s a natural construction you can do with a pA diffeomorphism f on a surface S.  The diffeo has an invariant foliation which is stretched by f; this foliation has a finite set of singularities.  Remove this to get a punctured surface S^0.  Since the singularities are preserved setwise by f, we have that f restricts to a diffeomorphism of S^0, which is again pA, and which we again call f.  Now we can make a 3-manifold M^0_f by starting with S^0 x [0,1] and gluing S^0  x 0 to S^0 x 1 via f.  By a theorem of Thurston, this will be a hyperbolic 3-manifold; because of the punctures, it’s not compact, but its ends are shaped like tori.

Now here’s the theorem:  suppose f_1, f_2, … is a sequence of pAs which has low dilatation in the sense above.  Then the sequence of 3-manifolds M^0_{f_i} actually consists of only finitely many distinct hyperbolic 3-manifolds.

This has all kinds of marvelous consequences; it tells us that the low-dilatation pAs are in some sense “all alike.”  (For more on the “in some sense” I would need to talk about the Thurston norm and fibered faces and etc. — maybe another post.)  For instance, it immediately implies that in a low-dilatation family of pseudos, the dimension of the subspace of H_1(S_i) fixed by f_i is bounded.

If you’ve read this far, maybe you’d like to see the promised puzzle.  Here it is.  Suppose f_1, f_2, … is a family of pseudos which lie in the Torelli group — that is, f_i acts trivially on H_1(S_i).  Then by the above remark this family can’t be low-dilatation.  Indeed, an earlier theorem of Farb, Leininger, and Margalit tells us that for Torellis we have an absolute lower bound

λ(f) > c

where the constant doesn’t depend on g.

Puzzle: Suppose f_1, f_2, … is a sequence of pseudos in Torelli which has bounded dilatation; this is as strong a notion of “low-dilatation family” as one can ask for.  Is there a “structure theorem” for f_1, f_2, …. as in the general case?  I.E., is there any “closed-form description” of this family?

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McMullen on dilatation in finite covers

Last year I blogged about a nice paper of Thomas Koberda, which shows that every pseudo-Anosov diffeomorphism of a Riemann surface X acts nontrivially on the homology of some characteristic cover of X with nilpotent Galois group.  (This statement is false with “nilpotent” replaced by “abelian.”)  The paper contains a question which Koberda ascribes to McMullen:

Is the dilatation λ(f) the supremum of the spectral radii of f on Σ’, as Σ’ ranges over finite etale covers of Σ preserved by f?

That question has now been answered by McMullen himself, in the negative, in a preprint released last month.  In fact, he shows that either λ(f) is detected on the homology of a double cover of Σ, or it is not detected by any finite cover at all!

The supremum of the spectral radius of f on the Σ’ is then an invariant of f, which most of the time is strictly bigger than the spectral radius of f on Σ and strictly smaller than λ(f).  Is this invariant interesting?  Are there any circumstances under which it can be computed?

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Koberda on dilatation and finite nilpotent covers

One reason dilatation was on my mind was thanks to a very interesting recent paper by Thomas Koberda, a Ph.D. student of Curt McMullen at Harvard.

Recall from the previous post that if f is a pseudo-Anosov mapping class on a surface Σ, there is an invariant λ of f called the dilatation, which measures the “complexity” of f; it is a real algebraic number greater than 1.  By the spectral radius of f we mean the largest absolute value of an eigenvalue of the linear automorphism of H_1(\Sigma,\mathbf{R}) induced by f.  Then the spectral radius of f is a lower bound for λ(f), and in fact so is the spectral radius of f on any finite etale cover of Σ preserved by f.

This naturally leads to the following question, which appears as Question 1.2 in Koberda’s paper:

Is λ(f) the supremum of the spectral radii of f on Σ’, as Σ’ ranges over finite etale covers of Σ preserved by f?

It’s easiest to think about variation in spectral radius when Σ’ ranges over abelian covers.  In this case, it turns out that the spectral radii are very far from determining the dilatation.  When Σ is a punctured sphere, for instance, a remark in a paper of Band and Boyland implies that the supremum of the spectral radii over finite abelian covers is strictly smaller than λ(f), except for the rare cases where the dilatation is realized on the double cover branched at the punctures.   It gets worse:  there are pseudo-Anosov mapping classes which act trivially on the homology of every finite abelian cover of Σ, so that the supremum can be 1!  (For punctured spheres, this is equivalent to the statement that the Burau representation isn’t faithful.)  Koberda shows that this unpleasant state of affairs is remedied by passing to a slightly larger class of finite covers:

Theorem (Koberda) If f is a pseudo-Anosov mapping class, there is a finite nilpotent etale cover of Σ preserved by f on whose homology f acts nontrivially.

Furthermore, Koberda gets a very nice purely homological version of the Nielsen-Thurston classification of diffeomorphisms (his Theorem 1.4,) and dares to ask whether the dilatation might actually be the supremum of the spectral radius over nilpotent covers.  I have to admit I would find that pretty surprising!  But I don’t have a good reason for that feeling.

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The entropy of Frobenius

Since Thurston, we know that among the diffeomorphisms of surfaces the most interesting ones are the pseudo-Anosov diffeomorphisms; these preserve two transverse folations on the surface, stretching one and contracting the other by the same factor.  The factor, usually denoted \lambda, is called the dilatation of the diffeomorphism and its logarithm is called the entropy. It turns out that \lambda, which is evidently a real number greater than 1, is in fact an algebraic integer, the largest eigenvalue of a matrix that in some sense keeps combinatorial track of the action of the diffeomorphism on the surface.  You might think of it as a kind of measure of the “complexity” of the diffeomorphism.  A recent preprint by my colleague Jean-Luc Thiffeault says much about how to compute these dilatations in practice, and especially how to hunt for diffeomorphisms whose dilatation is as small as possible.

Continue reading

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