Tag Archives: mapping class groups

Bourgain, Gamburd, Sarnak on Markoff triples

Such a great colloquium last week by Peter Sarnak, this year’s Hilldale Lecturer, on his paper with Bourgain and Gamburd.  My only complaint is that he promised to talk about the mapping class group and then barely did!  So I thought I’d jot down what their work has to do with mapping class groups and spaces of branched covers.

Let E be a genus 1 Riemann surface — that is, a torus — and O a point of E.  Then pi_1(E-O) is just a free group on two generators, whose commutator is (the conjugacy class of) a little loop around the puncture.  If G is a group, a G-cover of E branched only at O is thus a map from pi_1(E-O) to G, which is to say a pair (a,b) of elements of G.  Well, such a pair considered up to conjugacy, since we didn’t specify a basepoint for our pi_1.  And actually, we might as well just think about the surjective maps, which is to say the connected G-covers.

Let’s focus on the case G = SL_2(Z).  And more specifically on those maps where the puncture class is sent to a matrix of trace -2.  Here’s an example:  we can take

a_0 = \left[ \begin{array}{cc} 1 & 1 \\ 1 & 2 \end{array} \right]

b_0 = \left[ \begin{array}{cc} 2 & 1 \\ 1 & 1 \end{array} \right]

You can check that in this case the puncture class has trace -2; that is, it is the negative of a unipotent matrix.  Actually, I gotta be honest, these matrices don’t generate SL_2(Z); they generate a finite-index subgroup H of SL_2(Z), its commutator.

Write S for the set of all conjugacy classes of pairs (a,b) of matrices which generate H and have commutator with trace -2.  It turns out that this set is the set of integral points of an affine surface called the Markoff surface:  namely, if we take x = Tr(a)/3, y = Tr(b)/3, and z = Tr(ab)/3, then the three traces obey the relation

x^2 + y^2 + z^2 = 3xyz

and indeed every solution to this equation corresponds to an element of S.

So the integral points on the Markoff surface are acted on by an infinite discrete group.  Which if you just look at the equation seems like kind of a ridiculous miracle.  But in the setting of H-covers is very natural.  Because there’s a natural group acting on S: namely, the mapping class group Γ of type (1,1).  This group’s whole purpose in life is to act on the fundamental group of a once-punctured torus!  (For readers unfamiliar with mapping class groups, I highly recommend Benson Farb and Dan Margalit’s wonderful textbook.)   So you start with a surjection from pi_1(E-O) to H, you compose with the action of  Γ, and you get a new homomorphism.  The action of  Γ on pi_1(E-O) is only outer, but that’s OK, because we’re only keeping track of conjugacy classes of homomorphisms from pi_1(E-O) to H.

So Γ acts on S; and now the lovely theorem is that this action is transitive.

I don’t want to make this mapping class group business sound more abstract than it is.  Γ isn’t a mystery group; it acts on H_1(E-O), a free abelian group of rank 2, which gives a map from Γ to SL_2(Z), which turns out to be an isomorphism.  What’s more, the action of Γ on pairs (a,b) is completely explicit; the standard unipotent generators of SL_2(Z) map to the moves

(a,b) -> (ab,b)

(a,b) -> (a,ab)

(Sanity check:  each of these transformations preserves the conjugacy class of the commutator of a and b.)

Sarnak, being a number theorist, is interested in strong approximation: are the integral solutions of the Markoff equation dense in the adelic solutions?   In particular, if I have a solution to the Markoff equation over F_p — which is to say, a pair (a,b) in SL_2(F_p) with the right commutator — can I lift it to a solution over Z?

Suppose I have a pair (a,b) which lifts to a pair (a,b).  We know (a,b) = g(a_0,b_0) for some g in Γ.  Thus (a,b) = g(a_0,b_0).  In other words, if strong approximation is true, Γ acts transitively on the set S_p of Markoff solutions mod p.  And this is precisely what Bourgain, Gamburd, and Sarnak conjecture.  (In fact, they conjecture more:  that the Cayley-Schreier graph of this action is an expander, which is kind of a quantitative version of an action being transitive.)  One reason to believe this:  if we replace F_p with C, we replace S with the SL_2(C) character variety of pi_1(E-O), and Goldman showed long ago that the action of mapping class groups on complex character varieties of fundamental groups was ergodic; it mixes everything around very nicely.

Again, I emphasize that this is on its face a question of pure combinatorial group theory.  You want to know if you can get from any pair of elements in SL_2(F_p) with negative-unipotent commutator to any other via the two moves above.  You can set this up on your computer and check that it holds for lots and lots of p (they did.)  But it’s not clear how to prove this transitivity for all p!

They’re not quite there yet.  But what they can prove is that the action of Γ on S_p has a very big orbit, and has no very small orbits.

Now that G is the finite group SL_2(F_p), we’re in my favorite situation, that of Hurwitz spaces.  The mapping class group Γ is best seen as the fundamental group of the moduli stack M_{1,1} of elliptic curves.  So an action of Γ on the finite set S_p is just a cover H_p of M_{1,1}.  It is nothing but the Hurwitz space parametrizing maps (f: X -> E) where E is an elliptic curve and f an SL_2(F_p)-cover branched only at the origin.  What Bourgain, Gamburd, and Sarnak conjecture is that H_p is connected.

If you like, this is a moduli space of curves with nonabelian level structure as in deJong and Pikaart.  Or, if you prefer (and if H_p is actually connected) it is a noncongruence modular curve corresponding to the stabilizer of an element of S_p in Γ = SL_2(Z).  This stabilizer is in general going to be a noncongruence subgroup, except it is a congruence subgroup in the more general sense of Thurston.

This seems like an interesting family of algebraic curves!  What, if anything, can we say about it?

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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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“Every curve is a Teichmuller curve,” or “Why SL_2(Z) has the congruence subgroup property.”

Teichmüller curve in M_g, the moduli space of genus-g curves, is an algebraic curve V in M_g such that the inclusion V -> M_g induces an isometry between the constant-curvature metric on V and the restriction of the Teichmüller metric on M_g.

Alternatively:  the cotangent bundle of M_g, considered as a real manifold, admits a natural action of SL_2(R); the orbits are all copies of SL_2(R) / SO(2), or the upper half-plane.  Most of the time, when you project that hyperbolic plane H down to M_g, you get a dense orbit that wanders all over M_g.  But every once in a while, the fibers of the map H -> M_g are a lattice in H, and the image is actually an algebraic curve; that, again, is a Teichmüller curve.

Teichmüller curves are the subject of lots of recent research; for now, let me just say that they are interestingly canonical curves inside M_g.  Matt Bainbridge proved strong results about their intersection numbers in Hilbert modular surfaces.  McMullen classified Teichmuller curves in M_2, giving a very nice algebraic description of the 1-parameter families of genus-2 curves parametrized by Teichmüller curves.  (As far as I know, there’s no such description in higher genus.)  In a recent note, McMullen proved that they are all defined over number fields.

This leads one to ask:  which curves defined over algebraic number fields are Teichmüller curves?  This is the subject of a paper Ben McReynolds and I just posted to the arXiv, “Every curve is a Teichmüller curve.”  The title should be read birationally; what we prove is that every curve X over an algebraic number field is birational (over C) to a Teichmüller curve in some M_g.  (In the posted version, we prove the slightly weaker statement that X is birational to a Teichmüller curve in M_{g,n}), but we’ve since tweaked the argument to get the closed-surface version.)

So why does SL_2(Z) have the congruence subgroup property?  Especially given that it, y’know, doesn’t?

Here’s what I mean.  Let Gamma_{g,n} be the mapping class group of a genus-g surface with n punctures.  Then Gamma_{g,n} acts as a group of outer automorphisms of the fundamental group pi_{g,n} of the surface; and from this, you get an action of Gamma_{g,n} on the finite set


where G is a finite group and ~ is conjugacy.

By a congruence subgroup of Gamma_{g,n} let’s mean a stabilizer in this action.  Why this definition?  Well, when g = 1, n = 0, and G = Z/NZ, the stabilizer is just the standard congruence subgroup Gamma_0(N).  And you can easily check that the class of congruence subgroups of Gamma_{1,0} is cofinal with the usual class of congruence subgroups in SL_2(Z).

Now Gamma_{1,1} is also isomorphic to SL_2(Z), but the notion of “congruence subgroup of SL_2(Z)” afforded by this isomorphism is much more general than the usual one.  So much so that one gets the following, which is really the main point of my paper with Ben:

Every finite-index subgroup of Gamma_{1,1} containing the center and contained in Gamma(2) is a congruence subgroup.

It turns out that the finite covers of the moduli space M_{1,1} corresponding to such finite-index subgroups are always Teichmüller curves; since, by Belyi’s theorem, every curve over a number field can be so expressed, we get the desired result.

The italicized assertion above can be thought of as a very strong kind of “congruence subgroup property.”  Of course, CSP usually refers to the property that every finite-index subgroup contains a principal congruence subgroup.  That finite-index subgroups Gamma_{1,1} (and even Gamma_{1,n}) always contain congruence subgroups as defined above is a theorem of Asada, and it’s conjectured to be true for all g,n.  But the statement that every finite-index subgroup of a mapping class group is a congruence subgroup on the nose is substantially stronger, and I imagine it’s true only for (1,1) and the closely related case (0,4), which was proved, in somewhat different language, in the paper “Every curve is a Hurwitz space,” by Diaz, Donagi, and Harbater.  Our argument is very much inspired by theirs — it was to emphasize this debt that we gave our paper more or less the same title.

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