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noncommutative topology (1)

A couple of days ago Ars Mathematica had a post Cuntz on noncommutative topology pointing to a (new, for me) paper by Joachim Cuntz

A couple of years ago, the Notices of the AMS featured an article on noncommutative geometry a la Connes: Quantum Spaces and Their Noncommutative Topology by Joachim Cuntz. The hallmark of this approach is the heavy reliance on K theory. The first few pages of the article are fairly elementary (and full of intriguing pictures), before the K theory takes over.

A few comments are in order. To begin, the paper is **not** really about noncommutative geometry a la Connes, but rather about noncommutative geometry a la Cuntz&Quillen (based on quasi-free algebras) or, equivalently, a la Kontsevich (formally smooth algebras) or if I may be so bold a la moi (qurves).

About the **intruiging pictures** : it seems to be a recent trend in noncommutative geometry research papers to include meaningless pictures to lure the attention of the reader. But, unlike aberrations such as the recent pastiche by Alain Connes and Mathilde Marcolli A Walk in the Noncommutative Garden, Cuntz is honest about their true meaning

I am indebted to my sons, Nicolas and Michael,
for the illustrations to the examples above. Since
these pictures have no technical meaning, they
are only meant to provide a kind of suggestive
visualization of the corresponding quantum spaces.

As one of these pictures made it to the cover of the **Notices** an explanation was included by the cover-editor

About the Cover :

The image on this month’s cover arose from
Joachim Cuntz’s effort to render into visible art
his own internal vision of a noncommutative
torus, an object otherwise quite abstract. His
original idea was then implemented by his son
Michael in a program written in Pascal. More
explicitly, he says that the construction started
out with a triangle in a square, then translated
the triangle by integers times a unit along a line
with irrational slope; plotted the images thus
obtained in a periodic manner; and stopped
just before the figure started to seem cluttered.
Many mathematicians carry around inside
their heads mental images of the abstractions
they work with, and manipulate these objects
somehow in conformity with their mental imagery. They probably also make aesthetic judgements of the value of their work according to
the visual qualities of the images. These presumably common phenomena remain a rarely
explored domain in either art or psychology.

—Bill Casselman(

There can be no technical meaning to the pictures as in the Connes and Cuntz&Quillen approach there is only a noncommutative algebra and _not_ an underlying geometric space, so there is no topology, let alone a noncommutative topology. Of course, I do understand why Cuntz&others name it as such. They view the noncommutative algebra as the ring of functions on some virtual noncommutative space and they compute topological invariants (such as K-groups) of the algebras and interprete them as information about the noncommutative topology of these virtual and unspecified spaces.

Still, it is perfectly possible to associate to a qurve (aka quasi-free algebra or formally smooth algebra) a genuine noncommutative topological space. In this series of posts I’ll explain the little I know of the history of this topic, the thing I posted about it a couple of years ago, why I abandoned the project and the changes I made to it since and the applications I have in mind, both to new problems (such as the birational_classification of qurves) as well as classical problems (such as rationality problems for $PGL_n $ quotient spaces).

Although others have tried to define noncommutative topologies before, I learned about them from Fred Van Oystaeyen. Fred spend the better part of his career constructing structure sheaves associated to noncommutative algebras, mainly to prime Noetherian algebras (the algebras of preference for the majority of non-commutative algebraists). So, suppose you have an ordinary (meaning, the usual commutative definition) topological space X associated to this algebra R, he wants to define an algebra of sections on every open subset $X(\sigma) $ by taking a suitable localization of the algebra $Q_{\sigma}(R) $. This localization is taken with respect to a suitable filter of left ideals $\mathcal{L}(\sigma) $ of R and is defined to be the subalgebra of the classiocal quotient ring $Q(R) $ (which exists because $R$ is prime Noetherian in which case it is a simple Artinian algebra)

$Q_{\sigma}(R) = { q \in Q(R)~|~\exists L \in \mathcal{L}(\sigma)~:~L q \subset R } $

(so these localizations are generalizations of the usual Ore-type rings of fractions). But now we come to an essential point : if we want to glue this rings of sections together on an intersection $X(\sigma) \cap X(\tau) $ we want to do this by ‘localizing further’. However, there are two ways to do this, either considering $~Q_{\sigma}(Q_{\tau}(R)) $ or considering $Q_{\tau}(Q_{\sigma}(R)) $ and these two algebras are only the same if we impose fairly heavy restrictions on the filters (or on the algebra) such as being compatible.

As this gluing property is essential to get a sheaf of noncommutative algebras we seem to get stuck in the general (non compatible) case. Fred’s way out was to make a distinction between the intersection $X_{\sigma} \cap X_{\tau} $ (on which he put the former ring as its ring of sections) and the intersection $X_{\tau} \cap X_{\sigma} $ (on which he puts the latter one). So, the crucial new ingredient in a noncommutative topology is that the order of intersections of opens matter !!!

Of course, this is just the germ of an idea. He then went on to properly define what a noncommutative topology (and even more generally a noncommutative Grothendieck topology) should be by using this localization-example as guidance. I will not state the precise definition here (as I will have to change it slightly later on) but early version of it can be found in the Antwerp Ph.D. thesis by Luc Willaert (1995) and in Fred’s book Algebraic geometry for associative algebras.

Although _qurves_ are decidedly non-Noetherian (apart from trivial cases), one can use Fred’s idea to associate a noncommutative topological space to a qurve as I will explain next time. The quick and impatient may already sneak at my old note a non-commutative topology on rep A but please bear in mind that I changed my mind since on several issues…

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