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I was pleased to learn this week that the 2019 Abel Prize was awarded to Karen Uhlenbeck. Uhlenbeck laid much of the foundations of modern geometric PDE. One of the few papers I have in this area is in fact a joint paper with Gang Tian extending a famous singularity removal theorem of Uhlenbeck for four-dimensional Yang-Mills connections to higher dimensions. In both these papers, it is crucial to be able to construct “Coulomb gauges” for various connections, and there is a clever trick of Uhlenbeck for doing so, introduced in another important paper of hers, which is absolutely critical in my own paper with Tian. Nowadays it would be considered a standard technique, but it was definitely not so at the time that Uhlenbeck introduced it.

Suppose one has a smooth connection on a (closed) unit ball in for some , taking values in some Lie algebra associated to a compact Lie group . This connection then has a curvature , defined in coordinates by the usual formula

It is natural to place the curvature in a scale-invariant space such as , and then the natural space for the connection would be the Sobolev space . It is easy to see from (1) and Sobolev embedding that if is bounded in , then will be bounded in . One can then ask the converse question: if is bounded in , is bounded in ? This can be viewed as asking whether the curvature equation (1) enjoys “elliptic regularity”.

There is a basic obstruction provided by gauge invariance. For any smooth gauge taking values in the Lie group, one can gauge transform to

and then a brief calculation shows that the curvature is conjugated to

This gauge symmetry does not affect the norm of the curvature tensor , but can make the connection extremely large in , since there is no control on how wildly can oscillate in space.

However, one can hope to overcome this problem by *gauge fixing*: perhaps if is bounded in , then one can make bounded in *after* applying a gauge transformation. The basic and useful result of Uhlenbeck is that this can be done if the norm of is sufficiently small (and then the conclusion is that is small in ). (For large connections there is a serious issue related to the Gribov ambiguity.) In my (much) later paper with Tian, we adapted this argument, replacing Lebesgue spaces by Morrey space counterparts. (This result was also independently obtained at about the same time by Meyer and Riviére.)

To make the problem elliptic, one can try to impose the *Coulomb gauge condition*

(also known as the *Lorenz gauge* or *Hodge gauge* in various papers), together with a natural boundary condition on that will not be discussed further here. This turns (1), (2) into a divergence-curl system that is elliptic at the linear level at least. Indeed if one takes the divergence of (1) using (2) one sees that

and if one could somehow ignore the nonlinear term then we would get the required regularity on by standard elliptic regularity estimates.

The problem is then how to handle the nonlinear term. If we already knew that was small in the right norm then one can use Sobolev embedding, Hölder’s inequality, and elliptic regularity to show that the second term in (3) is small compared to the first term, and so one could then hope to eliminate it by perturbative analysis. However, proving that is small in this norm is exactly what we are trying to prove! So this approach seems circular.

Uhlenbeck’s clever way out of this circularity is a textbook example of what is now known as a “continuity” argument. Instead of trying to work just with the original connection , one works with the rescaled connections for , with associated rescaled curvatures . If the original curvature is small in norm (e.g. bounded by some small ), then so are all the rescaled curvatures . We want to obtain a Coulomb gauge at time ; this is difficult to do directly, but it is trivial to obtain a Coulomb gauge at time , because the connection vanishes at this time. On the other hand, once one has successfully obtained a Coulomb gauge at some time with small in the natural norm (say bounded by for some constant which is large in absolute terms, but not so large compared with say ), the perturbative argument mentioned earlier (combined with the qualitative hypothesis that is smooth) actually works to show that a Coulomb gauge can also be constructed and be small for all sufficiently close *nearby* times to ; furthermore, the perturbative analysis actually shows that the nearby gauges enjoy a slightly better bound on the norm, say rather than . As a consequence of this, the set of times for which one has a good Coulomb gauge obeying the claimed estimates is both open and closed in , and also contains . Since the unit interval is connected, it must then also contain . This concludes the proof.

One of the lessons I drew from this example is to not be deterred (especially in PDE) by an argument seeming to be circular; if the argument is still sufficiently “nontrivial” in nature, it can often be modified into a usefully non-circular argument that achieves what one wants (possibly under an additional qualitative hypothesis, such as a continuity or smoothness hypothesis).

“Gauge theory” is a term which has connotations of being a fearsomely complicated part of mathematics – for instance, playing an important role in quantum field theory, general relativity, geometric PDE, and so forth. But the underlying concept is really quite simple: a *gauge* is nothing more than a “coordinate system” that varies depending on one’s “location” with respect to some “base space” or “parameter space”, a *gauge transform* is a change of coordinates applied to each such location, and a *gauge theory* is a model for some physical or mathematical system to which gauge transforms can be applied (and is typically *gauge invariant*, in that all physically meaningful quantities are left unchanged (or transform naturally) under gauge transformations). By *fixing* a gauge (thus *breaking* or *spending* the gauge symmetry), the model becomes something easier to analyse mathematically, such as a system of partial differential equations (in classical gauge theories) or a perturbative quantum field theory (in quantum gauge theories), though the tractability of the resulting problem can be heavily dependent on the choice of gauge that one fixed. Deciding exactly how to fix a gauge (or whether one should spend the gauge symmetry at all) is a key question in the analysis of gauge theories, and one that often requires the input of geometric ideas and intuition into that analysis.

I was asked recently to explain what a gauge theory was, and so I will try to do so in this post. For simplicity, I will focus exclusively on classical gauge theories; quantum gauge theories are the quantization of classical gauge theories and have their own set of conceptual difficulties (coming from quantum field theory) that I will not discuss here. While gauge theories originated from physics, I will not discuss the physical significance of these theories much here, instead focusing just on their mathematical aspects. My discussion will be informal, as I want to try to convey the geometric intuition rather than the rigorous formalism (which can, of course, be found in any graduate text on differential geometry).

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