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If is a connected topological manifold, and is a point in , the (topological) fundamental group of at is traditionally defined as the space of equivalence classes of loops starting and ending at , with two loops considered equivalent if they are homotopic to each other. (One can of course define the fundamental group for more general classes of topological spaces, such as locally path connected spaces, but we will stick with topological manifolds in order to avoid pathologies.) As the name suggests, it is one of the most basic topological invariants of a manifold, which among other things can be used to classify the covering spaces of that manifold. Indeed, given any such covering , the fundamental group acts (on the right) by monodromy on the fibre , and conversely given any discrete set with a right action of , one can find a covering space with that monodromy action (this can be done by “tensoring” the universal cover with the given action, as illustrated below the fold). In more category-theoretic terms: monodromy produces an equivalence of categories between the category of covers of , and the category of discrete -sets.

One of the basic tools used to compute fundamental groups is van Kampen’s theorem:

Theorem 1 (van Kampen’s theorem)Let be connected open sets covering a connected topological manifold with also connected, and let be an element of . Then is isomorphic to the amalgamated free product .

Since the topological fundamental group is customarily defined using loops, it is not surprising that many proofs of van Kampen’s theorem (e.g. the one in Hatcher’s text) proceed by an analysis of the loops in , carefully deforming them into combinations of loops in or in and using the combinatorial description of the amalgamated free product (which was discussed in this previous blog post). But I recently learned (thanks to the responses to this recent MathOverflow question of mine) that by using the above-mentioned equivalence of categories, one can convert statements about fundamental groups to statements about coverings. In particular, van Kampen’s theorem turns out to be equivalent to a basic statement about how to glue a cover of and a cover of together to give a cover of , and the amalgamated free product emerges through its categorical definition as a coproduct, rather than through its combinatorial description. One advantage of this alternate proof is that it can be extended to other contexts (such as the étale fundamental groups of varieties or schemes) in which the concept of a path or loop is no longer useful, but for which the notion of a covering is still important. I am thus recording (mostly for my own benefit) the covering-based proof of van Kampen’s theorem in the topological setting below the fold.

This week I was in my home town of Adelaide, Australia, for the 2009 annual meeting of the Australian Mathematical Society. This was a fairly large meeting (almost 500 participants). One of the highlights of such a large meeting is the ability to listen to plenary lectures in fields adjacent to one’s own, in which speakers can give high-level overviews of a subject without getting too bogged down in the technical details. From the talks here I learned a number of basic things which were well known to experts in that field, but which I had not fully appreciated, and so I wanted to share them here.

The first instance of this was from a plenary lecture by Danny Calegari entitled “faces of the stable commutator length (scl) ball”. One thing I learned from this talk is that in homotopy theory, there is a very close relationship between topological spaces (such as manifolds) on one hand, and groups (and generalisations of groups) on the other, so that homotopy-theoretic questions about the former can often be converted to purely algebraic questions about the latter, and vice versa; indeed, it seems that homotopy theorists almost think of topological spaces and groups as being essentially the same concept, despite looking very different at first glance. To get from a space to a group, one looks at homotopy groups of that space, and in particular the fundamental group ; conversely, to get from a group back to a topological space one can use the Eilenberg-Maclane spaces associated to that group (and more generally, a Postnikov tower associated to a sequence of such groups, together with additional data). In Danny’s talk, he gave the following specific example: the problem of finding the least complicated embedded surface with prescribed (and homologically trivial) boundary in a space , where “least complicated” is measured by genus (or more precisely, the negative component of Euler characteristic), is essentially equivalent to computing the *commutator length* of the element in the fundamental group corresponding to that boundary (i.e. the least number of commutators one is required to multiply together to express the element); and the stable version of this problem (where one allows the surface to wrap around the boundary times for some large , and one computes the asymptotic ratio between the Euler characteristic and ) is similarly equivalent to computing the *stable commutator length* of that group element. (Incidentally, there is a simple combinatorial open problem regarding commutator length in the free group, which I have placed on the polymath wiki.)

This theme was reinforced by another plenary lecture by Ezra Getzler entitled “-groups”, in which he showed how sequences of groups (such as the first homotopy groups ) can be enhanced into a more powerful structure known as an -group, which is more complicated to define, requiring the machinery of simplicial complexes, sheaves, and nerves. Nevertheless, this gives a very topological and geometric interpretation of the concept of a group and its generalisations, which are of use in topological quantum field theory, among other things.

Mohammed Abuzaid gave a plenary lecture entitled “Functoriality in homological mirror symmetry”. One thing I learned from this talk was that the (partially conjectural) phenomenon of (homological) mirror symmetry is one of several types of duality, in which the behaviour of maps into one mathematical object (e.g. immersed or embedded curves, surfaces, etc.) are closely tied to the behaviour of maps *out of* a dual mathematical object (e.g. functionals, vector fields, forms, sections, bundles, etc.). A familiar example of this is in linear algebra: by taking adjoints, a linear map into a vector space can be related to an adjoint linear map mapping out of the dual space . Here, the behaviour of curves in a two-dimensional symplectic manifold (or more generally, Lagrangian submanifolds in a higher-dimensional symplectic manifold), is tied to the behaviour of holomorphic sections on bundles over a dual algebraic variety, where the precise definition of “behaviour” is category-theoretic, involving some rather complicated gadgets such as the Fukaya category of a symplectic manifold. As with many other applications of category theory, it is not just the individual pairings between an object and its dual which are of interest, but also the *relationships* between these pairings, as formalised by various functors between categories (and natural transformations between functors). (One approach to mirror symmetry was discussed by Shing-Tung Yau at a distinguished lecture at UCLA, as transcribed in this previous post.)

There was a related theme in a talk by Dennis Gaitsgory entitled “The geometric Langlands program”. From my (very superficial) understanding of the Langlands program, the behaviour of specific maps into a reductive Lie group , such as representations in of a fundamental group, étale fundamental group, class group, or Galois group of a global field, is conjecturally tied to specific maps out of a dual reductive Lie group , such as irreducible automorphic representations of , or of various structures (such as derived categories) attached to vector bundles on . There are apparently some tentatively conjectured links (due to Witten?) between Langlands duality and mirror symmetry, but they seem at present to be fairly distinct phenomena (one is topological and geometric, the other is more algebraic and arithmetic). For abelian groups, Langlands duality is closely connected to the much more classical Pontryagin duality in Fourier analysis. (There is an analogue of Fourier analysis for nonabelian groups, namely representation theory, but the link from this to the Langlands program is somewhat murky, at least to me.)

Related also to this was a plenary talk by Akshay Venkatesh, entitled “The Cohen-Lenstra heuristics over global fields”. Here, the question concerned the conjectural behaviour of class groups of quadratic fields, and in particular to explain the numerically observed phenomenon that about of all quadratic fields (with prime) enjoy unique factorisation (i.e. have trivial class group). (Class groups, as I learned in these two talks, are arithmetic analogues of the (abelianised) fundamental groups in topology, with Galois groups serving as the analogue of the full fundamental group.) One thing I learned here was that there was a canonical way to randomly generate a (profinite) abelian group, by taking the product of randomly generated finite abelian -groups for each prime . The way to canonically randomly generate a finite abelian -group is to take large integers , and look at the cokernel of a random homomorphism from to . In the limit (or by replacing with the -adics and just sending ), this stabilises and generates any given -group with probability

where is the group of automorphisms of . In particular this leads to the strange identity

where ranges over all -groups; I do not know how to prove this identity other than via the above probability computation, the proof of which I give below the fold.

Based on the heuristic that the class group should behave “randomly” subject to some “obvious” constraints, it is expected that a randomly chosen real quadratic field has unique factorisation (i.e. the class group has trivial -group component for every ) with probability

whereas a randomly chosen imaginary quadratic field has unique factorisation with probability

The former claim is conjectural, whereas the latter claim follows from (for instance) Siegel’s theorem on the size of the class group, as discussed in this previous post. Ellenberg, Venkatesh, and Westerland have recently established some partial results towards the function field analogues of these heuristics.

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