how noncommutative geometry shot itself

I’ve never apologized for prolonged periods of blogsilence and have no intention to start now.

But, sometimes you need to expose the things holding you back before you can turn the page and (hopefully) start afresh.

Long time readers of this blog know I’ve often warned against group-think, personality cults and the making of exaggerate claims as possible threats to the survival of noncommutative geometry (for example in the group think post).

However, I was totally unprepared for this comment left on the noncommutative geometry blog, begin October:

Noncommutative Geometry is a field whose history is unpredictable.
When should I expect the pickaxe? Yours, Leon Trotsky

After sharing this on Google+ someone emailed suggesting I’d better have a look at some ‘semi-secret’ blogs. I did spend the better part of that friday going through more than 3 years worth of blogposts and cried my eyes out.

It is sad to read a message in a bottle and notice that after more than two years the matter is still far from resolved.

I wish you all a healing and liberating 2012!

Prep-notes dump

Here are the scans of my crude prep-notes for some of the later seminar-talks. These notes still contain mistakes, most of them were corrected during the talks. So, please, read these notes with both mercy are caution!

Hurwitz formula imples ABC : The proof of Smirnov’s argument, but modified so that one doesn’t require an $\epsilon$-term. This is known to be impossible in the number-theory case, but a possible explanation might be that not all of the Smirnov-maps $q~:~\mathsf{Spec}(\mathbb{Z}) \rightarrow \mathbb{P}^1_{\mathbb{F}_1}$ are actually covers.

Frobenius lifts and representation rings : Faithfully flat descent allows us to view torsion-free $\mathbb{Z}$-rings with a family of commuting Frobenius lifts (aka $\lambda$-rings) as algebras over the field with one element $\mathbb{F}_1$. We give several examples including the two structures on $\mathbb{Z}[x]$ and Adams operations as Frobenius lifts on representation rings $R(G)$ of finite groups. We give an example that this extra structure may separate groups having the same character table. In general this is not the case, the magic Google search term is ‘Brauer pairs’.

Big Witt vectors and Burnside rings : Because the big Witt vectors functor $W(-)$ is adjoint to the tensor-functor $- \otimes_{\mathbb{F}_1} \mathbb{Z}$ we can view the geometrical object associated to $W(A)$ as the $\mathbb{F}_1$-scheme determined by the arithmetical scheme with coordinate ring $A$. We describe the construction of $\Lambda(A)$ and describe the relation between $W(\mathbb{Z})$ and the (completion of the) Burnside ring of the infinite cyclic group.

Density theorems and the Galois-site of $\mathbb{F}_1$ : We recall standard density theorems (Frobenius, Chebotarev) in number theory and use them in combination with the Kronecker-Weber theorem to prove the result due to James Borger and Bart de Smit on the etale site of $\mathsf{Spec}(\mathbb{F}_1)$.

New geometry coming from $\mathbb{F}_1$ : This is a more speculative talk trying to determine what new features come up when we view an arithmetic scheme over $\mathbb{F}_1$. It touches on the geometric meaning of dual-coalgebras, the Habiro-structure sheaf and Habiro-topology associated to $\mathbb{P}^1_{\mathbb{Z}}$ and tries to extend these notions to more general settings. These scans are unintentionally made mysterious by the fact that the bottom part is blacked out (due to the fact they got really wet and dried horribly). In case you want more info, contact me.

On aliens and reality

October 21st : Dear Diary,

today’s seminar was fun, though a bit unconventional. The intention was to explain faithfully flat descent, but at the last moment i had the crazy idea to let students discover the main idea themselves (in the easiest of examples) by means of this thought experiment :

“I am an alien, and a very stubborn alien at that. To us, the only existing field is $\mathbb{C}$ and the only rings we accept are $\mathbb{C}$-algebras. We’ve heard rumours that you humans think there is some geometry hidden under $\mathbb{C}$, in particular we’ve heard that you consider something called real manifolds. Can you explain what an algebra over this non-existant field under $\mathbb{C}$ is in a way we can understand?”

The first hurdle was to explain the concept of complex conjugation, as the alien (me) was unwilling to decompose a number $c$ in two ‘ghost components’ $a+bi$. But, i had to concede that i knew about addition and multiplication and knew $1$ and that $-1$ had a square root which they called $i$.

‘Oh, but then you know what $\mathbb{Z}[i]$ is! You just add a number of times $1$’s and $i$’s.’

‘Why are you humans so focussed on counting? We do not count! We can’t! We have neither fingers nor toes!’

Admittedly a fairly drastic intervention, but i had to keep them on the path leading to Galois descent… After a while we agreed on a map, which they called conjugation, sending sums to sums and products to products and taking a root of unity to its inverse.

Next, they asked me to be a bit flexible and allow for ‘generalized’ fields such as consisting of all elements fixed under conjugation! Clearly, the alien refused : ‘We’re not going on the slippery road called generalization, we’ve seen the havock this has caused in human-mathematics.’

It took them a while to realize they would never be able to sell me an $\mathbb{R}$-algebra $A$, but could perhaps try to sell me the complex algebra $B= A \otimes_{\mathbb{R}} \mathbb{C}$.

Alien : ‘But, how do i recognize one of your algebras? Do they have a special property i can check?’

Humans : ‘Yes, they have some map (which we know to be the map $a \otimes c \mapsto a \otimes \overline{c}$, but you cannot see it) sending sums to sums, products to products and extending conjugation on $\mathbb{C}$.’

Alien : ‘But if i take a basis for any of my algebras and apply conjugation to all its coordinates, then all my algebras have this property, not?’

Humans : ‘No, such maps are good for sums, but not always for products. For example, take $\mathbb{C}[x]/(x^2-c)$ for $c$ a complex-number not fixed under conjugation.’

Alien : ‘Point taken. But then, your algebras are just a subclass of my algebras, right?’

Humans : ‘No! An algebra can have several of such additional maps. For example, take $B = \mathbb{C} \times \mathbb{C}$ then there is one sending $(a,b)$ to $(\overline{a},\overline{b})$ and another sending it to $(\overline{b},\overline{a})$. (because we know there are two distinct real algebras $\mathbb{R} \times \mathbb{R}$ and $\mathbb{C}$ of dimension two, tensoring both to $\mathbb{C} \times \mathbb{C}$.)’

By now, the alien and humans agreed on a dictionary : what to humans is the $\mathbb{R}$-algebra $A$ is to the alien the complex algebra $B=A \otimes \mathbb{C}$ together with a map $\gamma_B : B \rightarrow B$ sending sums to sums, products to products and extending conjugation on $\mathbb{C}$ (the extra structure, that is the map $\gamma_B$ is called the ‘descent data’).

Likewise, a human-observed $\mathbb{R}$-algebra morphism $\phi : A \rightarrow A’$ is to the alien the the $\mathbb{C}$-algebra morphism $\Phi = \phi \otimes id_{\mathbb{C}} : B \rightarrow B’$ which commutes with the extra structures, that is, $\Phi \circ \gamma_B = \gamma_{B’} \circ \Phi$.

Phrased differently (the alien didn’t want to hear any of this) : there is an equivalence of categories between the category $\mathbb{R}-\mathsf{algebras}$ of commutative $\mathbb{R}$-algebras and the category $\gamma-\mathsf{algebras}$ consisting of complex commutative algebras $B$ together with a ringmorphism $\gamma_B$ extending complex conjugation and with morphisms $\mathbb{C}$-algebra morphisms compatible with the $\gamma$-structure.

Further, what to humans is the base-extension (or tensor) functor

$- \otimes_{\mathbb{R}} \mathbb{C}~:~\mathbb{R}-\mathsf{algebras} \rightarrow \mathbb{C}-\mathsf{algebras}$

is (modulo the above equivalence) to the alien merely the forgetful functor

$\mathsf{Forget}~:~\gamma-\mathsf{algebras} \rightarrow \mathbb{C}-\mathsf{algebras}$

stripping off the descent-data.

After the break (yes, it took us that long to get here) we used this idea to invent rings living ‘under $\mathbb{Z}$’, or if you want, algebras over the field with one element $\mathbb{F}_1$.

Alien : ‘Ha-ha-ha a field with one element? Surely, you’re joking Mr. Human’

Note to self : Dare to waste more time like this in a seminar. It may very well be the only thing they will still remember next year.

meanwhile, at angs+

We’ve had three seminar-sessions so far, and the seminar-blog ‘angs+’ contains already 20 posts and counting. As blogging is not a linear activity, I will try to post here at regular intervals to report on the ground we’ve covered in the seminar, providing links to the original angs+ posts.

This year’s goal is to obtain a somewhat definite verdict on the field-with-one-element hype.

In short, the plan is to outline Smirnov’s approach to the ABC-conjecture using geometry over $\mathbb{F}_1$, to describe Borger’s idea for such an $\mathbb{F}_1$-geometry and to test it on elusive objects such as $\mathbb{P}^1_{\mathbb{F}_1} \times_{\mathbb{F}_1} \mathsf{Spec}(\mathbb{Z})$ (relevant in Smirnov’s paper) and $\mathsf{Spec}(\mathbb{Z}) \times_{\mathbb{F}_1} \mathsf{Spec}(\mathbb{Z})$ (relevant to the Riemann hypothesis).

We did start with an historic overview, using recently surfaced material such as the Smirnov letters. Next, we did recall some standard material on the geometry of smooth projective curves over finite fields, their genus leading up to the Hurwitz formula relating the genera in a cover of curves.

Using this formula, a version of the classical ABC-conjecture in number theory can be proved quite easily for curves.

By analogy, Smirnov tried to prove the original ABC-conjecture by viewing $\mathsf{Spec}(\mathbb{Z})$ as a ‘curve’ over $\mathbb{F}_1$. Using the connection between the geometric points of the projective line over the finite field $\mathbb{F}_p$ and roots of unity of order coprime to $p$, we identify $\mathbb{P}^1_{\mathbb{F}_1}$ with the set of all roots of unity together with $\{ [0],[\infty] \}$. Next, we describe the schematic points of the ‘curve’ $\mathsf{Spec}(\mathbb{Z})$ and explain why one should take as the degree of the ‘point’ $(p)$ (for a prime number $p$) the non-sensical value $log(p)$.

To me, the fun starts with Smirnov’s proposal to associate to any rational number $q = \tfrac{a}{b} \in \mathbb{Q} – \{ \pm 1 \}$ a cover of curves

$q~:~\mathsf{Spec}(\mathbb{Z}) \rightarrow \mathbb{P}^1_{\mathbb{F}_1}$

by mapping primes dividing $a$ to $[0]$, primes dividing $b$ to $[\infty]$, sending the real valuation to $[0]$ or $[\infty]$ depending onw whether or not $b > a$ and finally sending a prime $p$ not involved in $a$ or $b$ to $[n]$ where $n$ is the order of the unit $\overline{a}.\overline{b}^{-1}$ in the finite cyclic group $\mathbb{F}_p^*$. Somewhat surprisingly, it does follow from Zsigmondy’s theorem that this is indeed a finite cover for most values of $q$. A noteworthy exception being the map for $q=2$ (which fails to be a cover at $[6]$) and of which Pieter Belmans did draw this beautiful graph

True believers in $\mathbb{F}_1$ might conclude from this graph that there should only be finitely many Mersenne primes… Further, the full ABC-conjecture would follow from a natural version of the Hurwitz formula for such covers.

(to be continued)


In Belgium the hashtag-craze of the moment is #cestjoelle. Joelle Milquet is perceived to be the dark force behind everything, from the crisis in Greece, over DSK, to your mother-in-law coming over this weekend? #cestjoelle.

Sam Leith used the same meme in his book the coincidence engine.

A hurricane assembling a passenger jet out of old bean-cans? #cestGrothendieck

All shops in Alabama out of Chicken & Broccoli Rica-A-Roni? #cestGrothendieck

Frogs raining down on Atlanta? #cestGrothendieck

As this is a work of fiction, Alexandre Grothendieck‘s name is only mentioned in the ‘author’s note’:

“It is customary to announce on this page that all resemblances to characters living or dead are entirely coincidental. It seems only courteous to acknowledge, though, that in preparing the character of Nicolas Banacharski I was inspired by the true-life story of the eminent mathematician Alexandre Grothendieck.”

The name ‘Nicolas Banacharski’ is, of course, chosen on purpose (the old Bourbaki NB-joke even makes an appearance). The character ‘Isla Holderness’ is, of course, Leila Schneps, the ‘Banacharski ring’ is, of course, the Grothendieck circle. But, I’d love to know the name of the IRL-‘Fred Nieman’, who’s described as ‘an operative for the military’.

Sam Leith surely knows all the Grothendieck-trivia which shouldn’t come as a surprise because he wrote in 2004 a piece for the Spectator on the ‘what is a metre?’ incident (see also this n-category cafe post).

The story of ‘the coincidence engine’ is that Grothendieck did a double (or was it triple) bluff when he dropped out of academia in protest of military money accepted by the IHES. He went into hiding only to work for a weapons company and to develop a ‘coincidence bomb’. As more and more unlikely events happen during a car-ride by a young Cambridge postdoc though the US (to propose to his American girlfriend), the true Grothendieck-aficianado (and there are still plenty of them in certain circles) will no doubt begin to believe that the old genius succeeded (once again) and that Ana’s (Grothendieck’s mother) $\infty$-ring is this devilish (pun intended) device…


“There was no coincidence engine. Not in this world. It existed only in Banacharski’s imagination and in the imaginations he touched. But there was a world in which it worked, and this world was no further than a metre from our own. Its effect spilled across, like light through a lampshade.

And with that light there spilled, unappeased and peregrine, fragments of any number of versions of an old mathematician who had become his own ghost. Banacharski was neither quite alive nor quite dead, if you want the truth of it. He was a displaced person again, and nowhere was his home.”