Tag Archives: topology

Braid monodromy and the dual curve

Nick Salter gave a great seminar here about this paper; hmm, maybe I should blog about that paper, which is really interesting, but I wanted to make a smaller point here.  Let C be a smooth curve in P^2 of degree n. The lines in P^2 are parametrized by the dual P^2; let U be the open subscheme of the dual P^2 parametrizing those lines which are not tangent to C; in other words, U is the complement of the dual curve C*.  For each point u of U, write L_u for the corresponding line in P^2.

This gives you a fibration X -> U where the fiber over a point u in U is L_u – (L_u intersect C).  Since L_u isn’t tangent to C, this fiber is a line with n distinct points removed.  So the fibration gives you an (outer) action of pi_1(U) on the fundamental group of the fiber preserving the puncture classes; in other words, we have a homomorphism

\pi_1(U) \rightarrow B_n

where B_n is the n-strand braid group.

When you restrict to a line L* in U (i.e. a pencil of lines through a point in the original P^2) you get a map from a free group to B_n; this is the braid monodromy of the curve C, as defined by Moishezon.  But somehow it feels more canonical to consider the whole representation of pi_1(U).  Here’s one place I see it:  Proposition 2.4 of this survey by Libgober shows that if C is a rational nodal curve, then pi_1(U) maps isomorphically to B_n.  (OK, C isn’t smooth, so I’d have to be slightly more careful about what I mean by U.)


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Smectic crystals, fingerprints, Klein bottles

Amazing colloquium this week by Randall Kamien, who talked about this paper with Chen and Alexander, this one with Liarte, Bierbaum, Mosna, and Sethna, and other stuff besides.

I’ve been thinking about his talk all weekend and I’m just going to write down a bit about what I learned.  In a liquid crystal, the molecules are like little rods; they have an orientation and nearby molecules want to have nearby orientations.  In a nematic crystal, that’s all that’s going on — the state of the crystal in some region B is given by a line field on B.   A smectic crystal has a little more to it — here, the rods are aligned into layers


(image via this handy guide to liquid crystal phases)

separated by — OK, I’m not totally clear on whether they’re separated by a sheet of something else or whether that’s just empty space.  Doesn’t matter.  The point is, this allows you to tell a really interesting topological story.  Let’s focus on a smectic crystal in a simply connected planar region B.   At every point of B, you have, locally, a structure that looks like a family of parallel lines in the plane, each pair of lines separated by a unit distance.  (The unit is the length of the molecule, I think.)

Alternatively, you can think of such a “local smectic structure” as a line in the plane, where we consider two lines equivalent if they are parallel and the distance between them is an integer.  What’s the moduli space M — the “ground state manifold” — of such structures?    Well, the line family has a direction, so you get a map from M to S^1.  The lines in a given direction are parametrized by a line, and the equivalence relation mods out by the action of a lattice, so the fiber of M -> S^1 is a circle; in fact, it’s not hard to see that this surface M is a Klein bottle.

Of course this map might be pretty simple.  If B is the whole plane, you can just choose a family of parallel lines on B, which corresponds to the constant map.  Or you can cover the plane with concentric circles; the common center doesn’t have a smectic structure, and is a defect, but you can map B = R^2 – 0 to M.  Homotopically, this just gives you a path in M, i.e. an element of pi_1(M), which is a semidirect product of Z by Z, with presentation

\langle S,F: FSF^{-1} = S^{-1} \rangle

The concentric circle smectic corresponds the map which sends the generator of pi_1(B) to F.

So already this gives you a nice topological invariant of a plane smectic with k defects; you get a map from pi_1(B), which is a free group on k generators, to pi_1(M).  Note also that there’s a natural notion of equivalence on these maps; you can “stir” the smectic, which is to say, you can apply a diffeomorphism of the punctured surface, which acts by precomposition on pi_1(B).  The action of (the connected components of) Diff(B) on Hom(pi_1(B), pi_1(M)) is my favorite thing; the Hurwitz action of a mapping class group on the space of covers of a Riemann surface!  In particular I think the goal expressed in Chen et al’s paper of “extending our work to the topology of such patterns on surfaces of nontrivial topology (rather than just the plane)” will certainly involve this story.  I think in this case the Hurwitz orbits are pretty big; i.e. if what you know is the local appearance of the defects (i.e. the image in pi_1(M) of the conjugacy class in pi_1(B) corresponding to the puncture) you should almost be able to reconstruct the homotopy type of the map (up to stirring.)  If I understood Randy correctly, those conjugacy classes are precisely what you can actually measure in an experiment.

There’s more, though — a lot more!  You can’t just choose a map from B to M and make a smectic out of it.  The layers won’t line up!  There’s a differential criterion.  This isn’t quite the way they express it, but I think it amounts to the following:  the tangent bundle of M has a natural line bundle L sitting inside it, consisting of those directions of motion that move a line parallel to itself.  I think you want to consider only those maps from B to M such that the induced map on tangent bundles TB -> TM takes image in L.  More concretely, in coordinates, I think this means the following:  if you think of the local smectic structure at p as the preimage of Z under some real-valued function f in the neighborhood of p, then f should satisfy

(df/dx)^2 + (df/dy)^2 = 1.

This restricts your maps a lot, and it accounts for all kinds of remarkable behavior.  For one thing, it forbids certain conjugacy classes in pi_1(M) from appearing as local monodromy; i.e. the set of possible defect types is strictly smaller than the set of conjugacy classes in pi_1(M).  Moreover, it forbids certain kinds of defects from colliding and coalescing — for algebraic geometers, this naturally makes you feel like there’s a question about boundaries of Hurwitz spaces floating around.

Best of all, the differential equation forces the appearance of families of parallel ellipses, involute spirals, and other plane curves of an 18th century flavor.  The cyclides of Dupin put in an appearance.  Not just in the abstract — in actual liquid crystals!  There are pictures!  This is great stuff.  

Update:  Wait a minute — I forgot to say anything about fingerprints!  Maybe because I don’t have anything to say at the moment.  Except that the lines of a fingerprint are formally a lot like the lines of a smectic crystal, the defects can be analyzed in roughly the same way, etc.  Whether the diffeomorphism type of a fingerprint is an interesting forensic invariant I don’t rightly know.  I’ll bet whoever made my iPhone home button knows, though.


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Counting acyclic orientations with topology

Still thinking about chromatic polynomials.   Recall: if Γ is a graph, the chromatic polynomial χ_Γ(n) is the number of ways to color the vertices of Γ in which no two adjacent vertices have the same color.

Fact:  χ_Γ(-1) is the number of acyclic orientations of Γ.

This is a theorem of Richard Stanley from 1973.

Here’s a sketch of a weird proof of that fact, which I think can be made into an actual weird proof.  Let U be the hyperplane complement

\mathbf{A}^|\Gamma| - \bigcup_{ij \in e(\Gamma)} (z_i = z_j)

Note that |U(F_q)| is just the number of colorings of Γ by elements of F_q; that is,  χ_Γ(q).  More importantly, the Poincare polynomial of the manifold U(C) is (up to powers of -1 and t) χ_Γ(-1/t).  The reason |U(F_q)| is  χ_Γ(q) is that Frobenius acts on H^i(U) by q^{-i}.  (OK, I switched to etale cohomology but for hyperplane complements everything’s fine.)  So what should  χ_Γ(-1) mean?  Well, the Lefschetz trace formula suggests you look for an operator on U(C) which acts as -1 on the H^1, whence as (-1)^i on the H^i.  Hey, I can think of one — complex conjugation!  Call that c.

Then Lefchetz says χ_Γ(-1) should be the number of fixed points of c, perhaps counted with some index.  But careful — the fixed point locus of c isn’t a bunch of isolated points, as it would be for a generic diffeo; it’s U(R), which has positive dimension!  But that’s OK; in cases like this we can just replace cardinality with Euler characteristic.  (This is the part that’s folkloric and sketchy.)  So

χ(U(R)) = χ_Γ(-1)

at least up to sign.  But U(R) is just a real hyperplane complement, which means all its components are contractible, so the Euler characteristic is just the number of components.  What’s more:  if (x_1, … x_|Γ|) is a point of U(R), then x_i – x_j is nonzero for every edge ij; that means that the sign of x_i – x_j is constant on every component of U(R).  That sign is equivalent to an orientation of the edge!  And this orientation is obviously acyclic.  Furthermore, every acyclic orientation can evidently be realized by a point of U(R).

To sum up:  acyclic orientations are in bijection with the connected components of U(R), which by Lefschetz are χ_Γ(-1) in number.




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Bobrowski-Kahle-Skraba on the null hypothesis in persistent homology

I really like persistent homology; it’s a very beautiful idea, a way to look for structure in data when you really don’t have any principled way to embed it in Euclidean space (or, even when it does come embedded in Euclidean space, to find the kind of structure that doesn’t depend too much on the embedding.)

But because I like it, I want to see it done well, so I have some minor complaints!

Complaint one:  Persistent homology, applied to H_0 only, is clustering, and we know a lot about clustering already.  (Update:  As commenters point out, this is really only so for persistent homology computed on the Vietoris-Rips complex of a point cloud, the “classical case…”!)  Not to say that the ideas of persistence can’t be useful here at all (I have some ideas about directed graphs I want to eventually work out) but my sense is that people are not craving new clustering algorithms.  I really like the work that tries to grapple with the topology of the data in its fullness; I was really charmed, for instance, by Ezra Miller’s piece about the persistent homology of fruit fly wings.  (There’s a lot of nice stuff about geometric probability theory, too — e.g., how do you take the “average” of a bunch of graded modules for k[x,y], which you may think of as noisy measurements of some true module you want to estimate?)

My second complaint is the lack of understanding of the null hypothesis.  You have some point cloud, you make a barcode, you see some bars that look long, you say they’re features — but why are you so sure?  How long would bars be under the null hypothesis that the data has no topological structure at all?  You kind of have to know this in order to do good inference.  Laura Balzano and I did a little numerical investigation of this years ago but now Omer Bobrowski, Matthew Kahle, and Primoz Skraba have proved a theorem!  (Kahle’s cool work in probabilistic topology has appeared several times before on Quomodocumque…)

They show that if you sample points from a uniform Poisson process on the unit cube of intensity n (i.e. you expect n points) the longest bar in the H_k barcode has

(death radius / birth radius) ~ [(log n)/(log log n)]^(1/k).

That is really short!  And it makes me feel like there actually is something going on, when you see a long barcode in practice.

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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


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


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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Shin-Strenner: Pseudo-Anosov mapping classes not arising from Penner’s construction

Balazs Strenner, a Ph.D. student of Richard Kent graduating this year, gave a beautiful talk yesterday in our geometry/topology seminar about his recent paper with Hyunshik Shin.  (He’s at the Institute next year but if you’re looking for a postdoc after that…!)

A long time ago, Robert Penner showed how to produce a whole semigroup M in the mapping class group with the property that all but a specified finite list of elements of M were pseudo-Anosov.  So that’s a good cheap way to generate lots of certified pseudo-Anosovs in the mapping class group.  But of course one asks:  do you get all pA’s as part of some Penner semigroup?  This can’t quite be true, because it turns out that the Penner elements can’t permute singularities of the invariant folation, while arbitrary pA’s can.  But there are only finitely many singularities, so some power of a given pA clearly fixes the singularities.

So does every pA have a power that arises from Penner’s construction?  This is what’s known as Penner’s conjecture.  Or was, because Balazs and Hyunshik have shown that it is falsitty false false false.

When I heard the statement I assumed this was going to be some kind of nonconstructive counting argument — but no, they actually give a way of proving explicitly that a given pA is not in a Penner semigroup.  Here’s how.  Penner’s semigroup M is generated by Dehn twists Q_1, … Q_m, which all happen to preserve a common traintrack, so that there’s actually a representation

\rho: M \rightarrow GL_n(\mathbf{R})

such that the dilatation of g is the Perron-Frobenius eigenvalue \lambda of \rho(g).

Now here’s the key observation; there is a quadratic form F on R^n such that F(Q_i x) >= F(x) for all x, with equality only when x is a fixed point of Q_i.  In particular, this shows that if g is an element of M not of the form Q_i^a, and x is an arbitrary vector, then the sequence

x, g x, g^2 x, \ldots

can’t have a subsequence converging to x, since

F(x), F(gx), F(g^2 x), \ldots

is monotone increasing and thus can’t have a subsequence converging to F(x).

This implies in particular:

g cannot have any eigenvalues on the unit circle.

But now we win!  Because \rho(g) is an integral matrix, so all the Galois conjugates of \lambda must be among its eigenvalues.  In other words, \lambda is an algebraic number none of whose Galois conjugates lie on the unit circle.  But there are lots of pseudo-Anosovs whose dilatations \lambda do have Galois conjugates on the unit circle.  In fact, experiments by Dunfield and Tiozzo seem to show that in a random walk on the braid group, the vast majority of pAs have this property!  And these pAs, which Shin and Strenner call coronal, cannot appear in any Penner semigroup.


Anyway, I found the underlying real linear algebra question very appealing.  Two idle questions:

  • If M is a submonoid of GL_n(R) we may say a continuous real-valued function F on R^n is M-monotone if F(mx) >= F(x) for all m in M, x in R^n.  The existence of a monotone function for the Penner monoid is the key to Strenner and Shin’s theorem.  But I have little feeling for how it works in general.  Given a finite set of matrices, what are explicit conditions that guarantee the existence of an M-monotone function?  Nonexistence?  (I have a feeling it is roughly equivalent to M containing no element with an eigenvalue on the unit circle, but I’m not sure, and anyway, this is not a checkable condition on the generating matrices…)
  • What can we say about the eigenvalues of matrices appearing in the Penner subgroup?  Balazs says he’ll show in a later paper that they can actually get arbitrarily close to the unit circle, which is actually not what I had expected.  He asks:  are those eigenvalues actually dense in the complex plane?
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Random simplicial complexes

This is a post about Matt Kahle’s cool paper “Sharp vanishing thresholds for cohomology of random flag complexes,” which has just been accepted in the Annals.

The simplest way to make a random graph is to start with n vertices and then, for each pair (i,j) independently, put an edge between vertices i and j with probability p.  That’s called the Erdös-Rényi graph G(n,p), after the two people who first really dug into its properties.  What’s famously true about Erdös-Rényi graphs is that there’s a sharp threshold for connectness.  Imagine n being some fixed large number and p varying from 0 to 1 along a slider.  When p is very small relative to n, G(n,p) is very likely to be disconnected; in fact, if

p = (0.9999) \frac{\log n}{n}

there is very likely to be an isolated vertex, which makes G(n,p) disconnected all by itself.

On the other hand, if

p = (1.0001) \frac{\log n}{n}

then G(n,p) is almost surely connected!  In other words, the probability of connectedness “snaps” from 0 to 1 as you cross the barrier p = (log n)/n.  Of course, there are lots of other interesting questions you can ask — what exactly happens very near the “phase transition”?  For p < (log n)/n, what do the components look like?  (Answer:  for some range of p there is, with probability 1, a single “giant component” much larger than all others.  For instance, when p = 1/n the giant component has size around n^{2/3}.)

I think it’s safe to say that the Erdös-Rényi graph is the single most-studied object in probabilistic combinatorics.

But Kahle asked a very interesting question about it that was completely new to me.  Namely:  what if you consider the flag complex X(n,p), a simplicial complex whose k-simplices are precisely the k-cliques in G(n,p)?  X(n,p) is connected precisely when G(n,p) is, so there’s nothing new to say from that point of view.  But, unlike the graph, the complex has lots of interesting higher homology groups!  The connectedness threshold says that dim H_0(X(n,p)) is 1 above some sharp threshold and larger below it.  What Kahle proves is that a similar threshold exists for all the homology.  Namely, for each k there’s a range (bounded approximately by n^{1/k} and $(log n / n)^{1/(k+1)}$) such that H_k(X(n,p)) vanishes when p is outside the range, but not when p is inside the range!  So there are two phase transitions; first, H^k appears, then it disappears.  (If I understand correctly, there’s a narrow window where two consecutive Betti numbers are nonzero, but most of the time there’s only one nonzero Betti number.)  Here’s a graph showing the appearance and disappearance of Betti in different ranges of p:

This kind of “higher Erdös-Rényi theorem” is, to me, quite dramatic and unexpected.  (One consequence that I like a lot; if you condition on the complex having dimension d, i.e. d being the size of the largest clique in G(n,p), then with probability 1 the homology of the complex is supported in middle degree, just as you might want!)  And there’s other stuff there too — like a threshold for the fundamental group of X(n,p) to have property T.

For yet more about this area, see Kahle’s recent survey on the topology of random simplicial complexes.  The probability that a random graph has a spectral gap, the distribution of Betti numbers of X(n,p) in the regime where they’re nonzero, the behavior of torsion, etc., etc……

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Jenny Wilson on FI-modules beyond type A

When I talk about FI-modules and their relation with representations of the symmetric group, people often ask me, what about the other classical Weyl groups? The answer is that Jennifer Wilson, a student of Benson Farb’s at Chicago, has worked it all out, in her paper “FI_W–modules and stability criteria for representations of the classical Weyl groups,” available at her webpage.  Lots of nice stuff in here — she revisits a theorem she already proved about stabilization of the cohomology of the string motion group, providing a much simpler proof, she gives a version of Murnaghan’s theorem for the hyperoctahedral group, she gets results on the cohomology of the complement of the hyperplane arrangement corresponding to the relevant Weyl group, etc.

It seems that type D is the hardest, and direct analogues of the approach that Benson, Tom and I used don’t work — in order to get there, she has to develop a notion of induction between these categories; just as one induces from representations of a smaller group to representations of a bigger one, she needs to induce from her category of FI_D-modules up to the more restrictive category of FI_B-modules.  To accomplish this uses the (exotic, to me) theory of Kan extensions, and this ends up allowing her to use the theorems she proves in type B, which is closer to classical representation theory, to prove the desired theorems in type D.  Cool!

I had sort of feared that there would be terrifying complications for types B and D in characteristic 2, but apparently not!  That’s handsome.


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Non-conjugate matrices that are conjugate

Sylvain Cappell was here in Madison today talking about classification of group actions on manifolds, and he mentioned a crazy fact, due to himself and Shaneson, that I didn’t know.  You can have two matrices, i.e. linear transformations of R^d, which are not conjugate in GL_d(R), but they are conjugate by some homeomorphism of R^d!  That’s cool.  And to me kind of amazing!  People who know the paper are welcome to explain in comments why I should not have been amazed by this fact, if that’s indeed the case.

Update:  As a couple of people point out in comments, this fact is really not so amazing as I stated it, because e.g. multiplication by 5 and multiplication by 125 on R^1 are conjugate by x -> x^3!  Looking at Cappell and Shaneson’s “Non-linear similarity,” I see that the real point is to prove this for matrices with eigenvalues on the unit circle.  This makes the eigenvalues “feel” much more like topological invariants, in the sense that there are certain sequences of powers of the matrix that move closer and closer to the identity.  It’s a theorem of Poincare (I learn from C&S) that 2×2 matrices with norm-1 eigenvalues are topologically conjugate if and only if they’re linearly conjugate.  And de Rham showed (at least for orthogonal matrices) that topological conjugacy can’t change any eigenvalue that’s not a root of unity.  Then Nicolaas Kuiper and my UW colleague Joel Robbin extended this to the general linear group, and conjectured that topological conjugacy implied conjugacy in general.  Lots of cases of the Kuiper-Robbin conjecture were proved, e.g. by Sullivan and Schwartz; for instance it is true for matrices of odd prime power order.  So what Cappell and Shaneson did was construct the first counterexamples to the Kuiper-Robbin conjecture.  And more:  they go a long way towards classification of linear transformations with norm-1 eigenvalues up to topological conjugacy, showing e.g. that the two notions agree in dimensions up to 5.

By the way, as Tom Graber pointed out in comment, you can’t make two non-conjugate linear maps conjugate via a diffeomorphism, because you can read the eigenvalues off the action on the tangent space at 0.  But Capell and Shaneson show that you can get the job done with a homeomorphism that’s smooth everywhere except o!  So the obvious obstruction is in some sense the only one.

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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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