So, who did discover the Leech lattice?

For the better part of the 30ties, Ernst Witt (1) did hang out with the rest of the ‘Noetherknaben’, the group of young mathematicians around Emmy Noether (3) in Gottingen.

In 1934 Witt became Helmut Hasse‘s assistent in Gottingen, where he qualified as a university lecturer in 1936. By 1938 he has made enough of a name for himself to be offered a lecturer position in Hamburg and soon became an associate professor, the down-graded position held by Emil Artin (2) until he was forced to emigrate in 1937.

A former fellow student of him in Gottingen, Erna Bannow (4), had gone earlier to Hamburg to work with Artin. She continued her studies with Witt and finished her Ph.D. in 1939. In 1940 Erna Bannow and Witt married.

So, life was smiling on Ernst Witt that sunday january 28th 1940, both professionally and personally. There was just one cloud on the horizon, and a rather menacing one. He was called up by the Wehrmacht and knew he had to enter service in february. For all he knew, he was spending the last week-end with his future wife… (later in february 1940, Blaschke helped him to defer his military service by one year).

Still, he desperately wanted to finish his paper before entering the army, so he spend most of that week-end going through the final version and submitted it on monday, as the published paper shows.

In the 70ties, Witt suddenly claimed he did discover the Leech lattice $ {\Lambda} $ that sunday. Last time we have seen that the only written evidence for Witt’s claim is one sentence in his 1941-paper Eine Identität zwischen Modulformen zweiten Grades. “Bei dem Versuch, eine Form aus einer solchen Klassen wirklich anzugeben, fand ich mehr als 10 verschiedene Klassen in $ {\Gamma_{24}} $.”

But then, why didn’t Witt include more details of this sensational lattice in his paper?

Ina Kersten recalls on page 328 of Witt’s collected papers : “In his colloquium talk “Gitter und Mathieu-Gruppen” in Hamburg on January 27, 1970, Witt said that in 1938, he had found nine lattices in $ {\Gamma_{24}} $ and that later on January 28, 1940, while studying the Steiner system $ {S(5,8,24)} $, he had found two additional lattices $ {M} $ and $ {\Lambda} $ in $ {\Gamma_{24}} $. He continued saying that he had then given up the tedious investigation of $ {\Gamma_{24}} $ because of the surprisingly low contribution

$ \displaystyle | Aut(\Lambda) |^{-1} < 10^{-18} $

to the Minkowski density and that he had consented himself with a short note on page 324 in his 1941 paper.”

In the last sentence he refers to the fact that the sum of the inverse orders of the automorphism groups of all even unimodular lattices of a given dimension is a fixed rational number, the Minkowski-Siegel mass constant. In dimension 24 this constant is

$ \displaystyle \sum_{L} \frac{1}{| Aut(L) |} = \frac {1027637932586061520960267}{129477933340026851560636148613120000000} \approx 7.937 \times 10^{-15} $

That is, Witt was disappointed by the low contribution of the Leech lattice to the total constant and concluded that there might be thousands of new even 24-dimensional unimodular lattices out there, and dropped the problem.

If true, the story gets even better : not only claims Witt to have found the lattices $ {A_1^{24}=M} $ and $ {\Lambda} $, but also enough information on the Leech lattice in order to compute the order of its automorphism group $ {Aut(\Lambda)} $, aka the Conway group $ {Co_0 = .0} $ the dotto-group!

Is this possible? Well fortunately, the difficulties one encounters when trying to compute the order of the automorphism group of the Leech lattice from scratch, is one of the better documented mathematical stories around.

The books From Error-Correcting Codes through Sphere Packings to Simple Groups by Thomas Thompson, Symmetry and the monster by Mark Ronan, and Finding moonshine by Marcus du Sautoy tell the story in minute detail.

It took John Conway 12 hours on a 1968 saturday in Cambridge to compute the order of the dotto group, using the knowledge of Leech and McKay on the properties of the Leech lattice and with considerable help offered by John Thompson via telephone.

But then, John Conway is one of the fastest mathematicians the world has known. The prologue of his book On numbers and games begins with : “Just over a quarter of a century ago, for seven consecutive days I sat down and typed from 8:30 am until midnight, with just an hour for lunch, and ever since have described this book as “having been written in a week”.”

Conway may have written a book in one week, Ernst Witt did complete his entire Ph.D. in just one week! In a letter of August 1933, his sister told her parents : “He did not have a thesis topic until July 1, and the thesis was to be submitted by July 7. He did not want to have a topic assigned to him, and when he finally had the idea, he started working day and night, and eventually managed to finish in time.”

So, if someone might have beaten John Conway in fast-computing the dottos order, it may very well have been Witt. Sadly enough, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to make Witt’s claim highly unlikely.

For starters, psychology. Would you spend your last week-end together with your wife to be before going to war performing an horrendous calculation?

Secondly, mathematical breakthroughs often arise from newly found insight. At that time, Witt was also working on his paper on root lattices “Spiegelungsgrupen and Aufzähling halbeinfacher Liescher Ringe” which he eventually submitted in january 1941. Contained in that paper is what we know as Witt’s lemma which tells us that for any integral lattice the sublattice generated by vectors of norms 1 and 2 is a direct sum of root lattices.

This leads to the trick of trying to construct unimodular lattices by starting with a direct sum of root lattices and ‘adding glue’. Although this gluing-method was introduced by Kneser as late as 1967, Witt must have been aware of it as his 16-dimensional lattice $ {D_{16}^+} $ is constructed this way.

If Witt wanted to construct new 24-dimensional even unimodular lattices in 1940, it would be natural for him to start off with direct sums of root lattices and trying to add vectors to them until he got what he was after. Now, all of the Niemeier-lattices are constructed this way, except for the Leech lattice!

I’m far from an expert on the Niemeier lattices but I would say that Witt definitely knew of the existence of $ {D_{24}^+} $, $ {E_8^3} $ and $ {A_{24}^+} $ and that it is quite likely he also constructed $ {(D_{16}E_8)^+, (D_{12}^2)^+, (A_{12}^2)^+, (D_8^3)^+} $ and possibly $ {(A_{17}E_7)^+} $ and $ {(A_{15}D_9)^+} $. I’d rate it far more likely Witt constructed another two such lattices on sunday january 28th 1940, rather than discovering the Leech lattice.

Finally, wouldn’t it be natural for him to include a remark, in his 1941 paper on root lattices, that not every even unimodular lattices can be obtained from sums of root lattices by adding glue, the Leech lattice being the minimal counter-example?

If it is true he was playing around with the Steiner systems that sunday, it would still be a pretty good story he discovered the lattices $ {(A_2^{12})^+} $ and $ {(A_1^{24})^+} $, for this would mean he discovered the Golay codes in the process!

Which brings us to our next question : who discovered the Golay code?

Who discovered the Leech lattice?

The Leech lattice was, according to wikipedia, ‘originally discovered by Ernst Witt in 1940, but he did not publish his discovery’ and it ‘was later re-discovered in 1965 by John Leech’. However, there is very little evidence to support this claim.

The facts

What is certain is that John Leech discovered in 1965 an amazingly dense 24-dimensional lattice $ {\Lambda} $ having the property that unit balls around the lattice points touch, each one of them having exactly 196560 neighbors. The paper ‘Notes on sphere packings’ appeared in 1967 in the Canad. J. Math. 19, 251-267.

Compare this to the optimal method to place pennies on a table, leading to the hexagonal tiling, each penny touching exactly 6 others. Similarly, in dimension 8 the densest packing is the E8 lattice in which every unit ball has exactly 240 neighbors.

The Leech lattice $ {\Lambda} $ can be characterized as the unique unimodular positive definite even lattice such that the length of any non-zero vector is at least two.

The list of all positive definite even unimodular lattices, $ {\Gamma_{24}} $, in dimension 24 was classified later by Hans-Volker Niemeier and are now known as the 24 Niemeier lattices.

For the chronology below it is perhaps useful to note that, whereas Niemeier’s paper did appear in 1973, it was submitted april 5th 1971 and is just a minor rewrite of Niemeier’s Ph.D. “Definite quadratische Formen der Dimension 24 und Diskriminante 1” obtained in 1968 from the University of Göttingen with advisor Martin Kneser.

The claim

On page 328 of Ernst Witt’s Collected Papers Ina Kersten recalls that Witt gave a colloquium talk on January 27, 1970 in Hamburg entitled “Gitter und Mathieu-Gruppen” (Lattices and Mathieu-groups). In this talk Witt claimed to have found nine lattices in $ {\Gamma_{24}} $ as far back as 1938 and that on January 28, 1940 he found two additional lattices $ {M} $ and $ {\Lambda} $ while studying the Steiner system $ {S(5,8,24)} $.

On page 329 of the collected papers is a scan of the abstract Witt wrote in the colloquium book in Bielefeld where he gave a talk “Uber einige unimodularen Gitter” (On certain unimodular lattices) on January 28, 1972

Here, Witt claims that he found three new lattices in $ {\Gamma_{24}} $ on January 28, 1940 as the lattices $ {M} $, $ {M’} $ and $ {\Lambda} $ ‘feiern heute ihren 32sten Gebursttag!’ (celebrate today their 32nd birthday).

He goes on telling that the lattices $ {M} $ and $ {\Lambda} $ were number 10 and 11 in his list of lattices in $ {\Gamma_{24}} $ in his paper “Eine Identität zwischen Modulformen zweiten Grades” in the Abh. Math. Sem. Univ. Hamburg 14 (1941) 323-337 and he refers in particular to page 324 of that paper.

He further claims that he computed the orders of their automorphism groups and writes that $ {\Lambda} $ ‘wurde 1967 von Leech wieder-entdeckt’ (was re-discovered by Leech in 1967) and that its automorphism group $ {G(\Lambda)} $ was studied by John Conway. Recall that Conway’s investigations of the automorphism group of the Leech lattice led to the discovery of three new sporadic groups, the Conway groups $ {Co_1,Co_2} $ and $ {Co_3} $.

However, Witt’s 1941-paper does not contain a numbered list of 24-dimensional lattices. In fact, apart from $ {E_8+E_8+E_8} $ is does not contain a single lattice in $ {\Gamma_{24}} $. The only relevant paragraph is indeed on page 324

He observes that Mordell already proved that there is just one lattice in $ {\Gamma_8} $ (the $ {E_8} $-lattice) and that the main result of his paper is to prove that there are precisely two even unimodular 16-dimensional lattices : $ {E_8+E_8} $ and another lattice, now usually called the 16-dimensional Witt-lattice.

He then goes on to observe that Schoeneberg knew that $ {\# \Gamma_{24} > 1} $ and so there must be more lattices than $ {E_8+E_8+E_8} $ in $ {\Gamma_{24}} $. Witt concludes with : “In my attempt to find such a lattice, I discovered more than 10 lattices in $ {\Gamma_{24}} $. The determination of $ {\# \Gamma_{24}} $ does not seem to be entirely trivial.”

Hence, it is fair to assume that by 1940 Ernst Witt had discovered at least 11 of the 24 Niemeier lattices. Whether the Leech lattice was indeed lattice 11 on the list is anybody’s guess.

Next time we will look more closely into the historical context of Witt’s 1941 paper.

Seriously now, where was the Bourbaki wedding?

A few days before Halloween, Norbert Dufourcq (who died december 17th 1990…), sent me a comment, containing lots of useful information, hinting I did get it wrong about the church of the Bourbali wedding in the previous post.

Norbert Dufourcq, an organist and student of Andre Machall, the organist-in-charge at the Saint-Germain-des-Prés church in 1939, the place where I speculated the Bourbaki wedding took place, concluded his comment with :

“P.S. Lieven, you _do_ know about the Schola Cantorum, now, don’t you?!?”.

Euh… actually … no, I did not …

La Schola Cantorum is a private music school in Paris. It was founded in 1894 by Charles Bordes, Alexandre Guilmant and Vincent d’Indy as a counterbalance to the Paris Conservatoire’s emphasis on opera. Its alumni include many significant figures in 20th century music, such as Erik Satie and Cole Porter.

Schola Cantorum is situated 69, rue Saint Jacques, Paris, just around the corner of the Ecole Normal Superieure, home base to the Bourbakis. In fact, closer investigation reveals striking similarities and very close connections between the circle of artists at la Schola and the Bourbaki group.

In december 1934, the exact month the Bourbaki group was formed, a radical reorganisation took place at the Schola, when Nestor Lejeune became the new director. He invited several young musicians, many from the famous Dukas-class, to take up teaching positions at the Schola.

Here’s a picture of part of the Dukas class of 1929, several of its members will play a role in the upcoming events :
from left to right next to the piano : Pierre Maillard-Verger, Elsa Barraine, Yvonne Desportes, Tony Aubin, Pierre Revel, Georges Favre, Paul Dukas, René Duclos, Georges Hugon, Maurice Duruflé. Seated on the right : Claude Arrieu, Olivier Messiaen.



The mid-1930s in Paris saw the emergence of two closely-related groups with a membership which overlapped : La Spirale and La Jeune France. La Spirale was founded in 1935 under the leadership of Georges Migot; its other committee members were Paul Le Flem, his pupil André Jolivet, Edouard Sciortino, Claire Delbos, her husband Olivier Messiaen, Daniel-Lesur and Jules Le Febvre. The common link between almost all of these musicians was their connection with the Schola Cantorum.

On the left : Les Jeunes Musiciens Français : André Jolivet on the Piano. Standing from left to right :
Olivier Messiaen, Yves Baudrier, Daniel-Lesur.

Nigel Simeone wrote this about Messiaen and La Jeune France :
“The extremely original and independent-minded Messiaen had already shown himself to be a rather unexpected enthusiast for joining groups: in December 1932 he wrote to his friend Claude Arrieu about a letter from another musician, Jacques Porte, outlining plans for a new society to be called Les Jeunes Musiciens Français.
Messiaen agreed to become its vice-president, but nothing seems to have come of the project. Six months later, in June 1933, he had a frustrating meeting with Roger Désormière on behalf of the composers he described to Arrieu as ‘les quatre’, all of them Dukas pupils: Elsa Barraine, the recently-deceased Jean Cartan, Arrieu and Messiaen himself; during the early 1930s Messiaen and Arrieu organised concerts featuring all four composers.”

Finally, we’re getting a connection with the Bourbaki group! Norbert Dufourcq mentioned it already in his comment “Messiaen was also a good friend of Jean Cartan (himself a composer, and Henri’s brother)”. Henri Cartan was one of the first Bourbakis and an excellent piano player himself.

The Cartan family picture on the right : standing from left to right, father Elie Cartan (one of the few older French mathematicians respected by the Bourbakis), Henri and his mother Marie-Louise. Seated, the younger children, from left to right : Louis, Helene (who later became a mathematician, herself) and the composer Jean Cartan, who sadly died very young from tuberculoses in 1932…

The december 1934 revolution in French music at the Schola Cantorum, instigated by Messiaen and followers, was the culmination of a process that started a few years before when Jean Cartan was among the circle of revolutionados. Because Messiaen was a fiend of the Cartan family, they surely must have been aware of the events at the Schola (or because it was merely a block away from the ENS), and, the musicians’ revolt may very well have been an example to follow for the first Bourbakis…(?!)

Anyway, we now know the intended meaning of the line “with lemmas sung by the Scholia Cartanorum” on the wedding-invitation. Cartanorum is NOT (as I claimed last time) bad Latin for ‘Cartesiorum’, leading to Descartes and the Saint-Germain-des-Pres church, but is in fact passable Latin (plur. gen.) of CARTAN(us), whence the translation “with lemmas sung by the school of the Cartans”. There’s possibly a double pun intended here : first, a reference to (father) Cartan’s lemma and, of course, to La Schola where the musical Cartan-family felt at home.

Fine, but does this brings us any closer to the intended place of the Bourbaki-Petard wedding? Well, let’s reconsider the hidden ‘clues’ we discovered last time : the phrase “They will receive the trivial isomorphism from P. Adic, of the Order of the Diophantines” might suggest that the church belongs to a a religious order and is perhaps an abbey- or convent-church and the phrase “the organ will be played by Monsieur Modulo” requires us to identify this mysterious Mister Modulo, because Norbert Dufourcq rightfully observed :

“note however that in 1939, it wasn’t as common to have a friend-organist perform at a wedding as it is today: the appointed organists, especially at prestigious Paris positions, were much less likely to accept someone play in their stead.”

The history of La Schola Cantorum reveals something that might have amused Frank Smithies (remember he was one of the wedding-invitation-composers) : the Schola is located in the Convent(!) of the Brittish Benedictines…

In 1640 some Benedictine monks, on the run after the religious schism in Britain, found safety in Paris under the protection of Cardinal Richelieu and Anne of Austria at Val-de-Grace, where the Schola is now housed.

As is the case with most convents, the convent of the Brittish Benedictines did have its own convent church, now called l’église royale Notre-Dame du Val-de-Grâce (remember that one of the possible interpretations for “of the universal variety” was that the name of the church would be “Notre-Dame”…).

This church is presently used as the concert hall of La Schola and is famous for its … musical organ : “In 1853, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll installed a new organ in the Church of Sainte-geneviève which had been restored in its rôle as a place of worship by Prince President Louis-Napoléon. In 1885, upon the decision of President Jules Grévy, this church once again became the Pantheon and, six years later, according to an understanding between the War and Public Works Departments, the organ was transferred to the Val-de-Grâce, under the supervision of the organ builder Merklin. Beforehand, the last time it was heard in the Pantheon must have been for the funeral service of Victor Hugo.
In 1927, a raising was carried out by the builder Paul-Marie Koenig, and the inaugural concert was given by André Marchal and Achille Philippe, the church’s organist. Added to the register of historic monument in 1979, Val-de-Grâce’s “ little great organ ”, as Cavaillé-Coll called it, was restored in 1993 by the organ builders François Delangue and Bernard Hurvy.
The organ of Val-de-Grâce is one the rare parisian surviving witnesses of the art of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, an instrument that escaped abusive and definitive transformations or modernizations. This explain why, in spite of its relatively modest scale, this organ enjoys quite a reputation, and this, as far as the United States.”

By why would the Val-de-Grace organiste at the time Achille Philip, “organiste titulaire du Val-de-Grâce de 1903 à 1950 et professeur d’orgue et d’harmonie à la Schola Cantorum de 1904 à 1950”, be called ‘Mister Modulo’ in the wedding-invitations line “L’orgue sera tenu par Monsieur Modulo”???

Again, the late Norbert Dufourcq comes to our rescue, proposing a good candidate for ‘Monsieur Modulo’ : “As for “modulo”, note that the organist at Notre-Dame at that time, Léonce de Saint-Martin, was also the composer of a “Suite Cyclique”, though I admit that this is just wordplay: there is nothing “modular” about this work. Maybe a more serious candidate would be Olivier Messiaen (who was organist at the Église de la Trinité): his “modes à transposition limitée” are really about Z/12Z→Z/3Z and Z/12Z→Z/4Z. “

Messiaen’s ‘Modes of limited transposition’ were compiled in his book ‘Technique de mon langage musical’. This book was published in Paris by Leduc, as late as 1944, 5 years after the wedding-invitation.

Still, several earlier works of Messiaen used these schemes, most notably La Nativité du Seigneur, composed in 1935 : “The work is one of the earliest to feature elements that were to become key to Messiaen’s later compositions, such as the extensive use of the composer’s own modes of limited transposition, as well as influence from birdsong, and the meters and rhythms of Ancient Greek and traditional Indian music.”

More details on Messiaen’s modes and their connection to modular arithmetic can be found in the study Implementing Modality in Algorithmic Composition by Vincent Joseph Manzo.

Hence, Messiaen is a suitable candidate for the title ‘Monsieur Modulo’, but would he be able to play the Val-de-Grace organ while not being the resident organist?

Remember, the Val-de-Grace church was the concert hall of La Schola, and its musical organ the instrument of choice for the relevant courses. Now … Olivier Messiaen taught at the Schola Cantorum and the École Normale de Musique from 1936 till 1939. So, at the time of the Bourbaki-Petard wedding he would certainly be allowed to play the Cavaillé-Coll organ.

Perhaps we got it right, the second time around : the Bourbaki-Pétard wedding was held on June 3rd 1939 in the church ‘l’église royale Notre-Dame du Val-de-Grâce’ at 12h?

Conway’s big picture

Conway and Norton showed that there are exactly 171 moonshine functions and associated two arithmetic subgroups to them. We want a tool to describe these and here’s where Conway’s big picture comes in very handy. All moonshine groups are arithmetic groups, that is, they are commensurable with the modular group. Conway’s idea is to view several of these groups as point- or set-wise stabilizer subgroups of finite sets of (projective) commensurable 2-dimensional lattices.

Expanding (and partially explaining) the original moonshine observation of McKay and Thompson, John Conway and Simon Norton formulated monstrous moonshine :

To every cyclic subgroup $\langle m \rangle $ of the Monster $\mathbb{M} $ is associated a function

$f_m(\tau)=\frac{1}{q}+a_1q+a_2q^2+\ldots $ with $q=e^{2 \pi i \tau} $ and all coefficients $a_i \in \mathbb{Z} $ are characters at $m $ of a representation of $\mathbb{M} $. These representations are the homogeneous components of the so called Moonshine module.

Each $f_m $ is a principal modulus for a certain genus zero congruence group commensurable with the modular group $\Gamma = PSL_2(\mathbb{Z}) $. These groups are called the moonshine groups.

Conway and Norton showed that there are exactly 171 different functions $f_m $ and associated two arithmetic subgroups $F(m) \subset E(m) \subset PSL_2(\mathbb{R}) $ to them (in most cases, but not all, these two groups coincide).

Whereas there is an extensive literature on subgroups of the modular group (see for instance the series of posts starting here), most moonshine groups are not contained in the modular group. So, we need a tool to describe them and here’s where Conway’s big picture comes in very handy.

All moonshine groups are arithmetic groups, that is, they are subgroups $G $ of $PSL_2(\mathbb{R}) $ which are commensurable with the modular group $\Gamma = PSL_2(\mathbb{Z}) $ meaning that the intersection $G \cap \Gamma $ is of finite index in both $G $ and in $\Gamma $. Conway’s idea is to view several of these groups as point- or set-wise stabilizer subgroups of finite sets of (projective) commensurable 2-dimensional lattices.

Start with a fixed two dimensional lattice $L_1 = \mathbb{Z} e_1 + \mathbb{Z} e_2 = \langle e_1,e_2 \rangle $ and we want to name all lattices of the form $L = \langle v_1= a e_1+ b e_2, v_2 = c e_1 + d e_2 \rangle $ that are commensurable to $L_1 $. Again this means that the intersection $L \cap L_1 $ is of finite index in both lattices. From this it follows immediately that all coefficients $a,b,c,d $ are rational numbers.

It simplifies matters enormously if we do not look at lattices individually but rather at projective equivalence classes, that is $~L=\langle v_1, v_2 \rangle \sim L’ = \langle v’_1,v’_2 \rangle $ if there is a rational number $\lambda \in \mathbb{Q} $ such that $~\lambda v_1 = v’_1, \lambda v_2=v’_2 $. Further, we are of course allowed to choose a different ‘basis’ for our lattices, that is, $~L = \langle v_1,v_2 \rangle = \langle w_1,w_2 \rangle $ whenever $~(w_1,w_2) = (v_1,v_2).\gamma $ for some $\gamma \in PSL_2(\mathbb{Z}) $.
Using both operations we can get any lattice in a specific form. For example,

$\langle \frac{1}{2}e_1+3e_2,e_1-\frac{1}{3}e_2 \overset{(1)}{=} \langle 3 e_1+18e_2,6e_1-2e_2 \rangle \overset{(2)}{=} \langle 3 e_1+18 e_2,38 e_2 \rangle \overset{(3)}{=} \langle \frac{3}{38}e_1+\frac{9}{19}e_2,e_2 \rangle $

Here, identities (1) and (3) follow from projective equivalence and identity (2) from a base-change. In general, any lattice $L $ commensurable to the standard lattice $L_1 $ can be rewritten uniquely as $L = \langle Me_1 + \frac{g}{h} e_2,e_2 \rangle $ where $M $ a positive rational number and with $0 \leq \frac{g}{h} < 1 $.

Another major feature is that one can define a symmetric hyper-distance between (equivalence classes of) such lattices. Take $L=\langle Me_1 + \frac{g}{h} e_2,e_2 \rangle $ and $L’=\langle N e_1 + \frac{i}{j} e_2,e_2 \rangle $ and consider the matrix

$D_{LL’} = \begin{bmatrix} M & \frac{g}{h} \\ 0 & 1 \end{bmatrix} \begin{bmatrix} N & \frac{i}{j} \\ 0 & 1 \end{bmatrix}^{-1} $ and let $\alpha $ be the smallest positive rational number such that all entries of the matrix $\alpha.D_{LL’} $ are integers, then

$\delta(L,L’) = det(\alpha.D_{LL’}) \in \mathbb{N} $ defines a symmetric hyperdistance which depends only of the equivalence classes of lattices (hyperdistance because the log of it behaves like an ordinary distance).

Conway’s big picture is the graph obtained by taking as its vertices the equivalence classes of lattices commensurable with $L_1 $ and with edges connecting any two lattices separated by a prime number hyperdistance. Here’s part of the 2-picture, that is, only depicting the edges of hyperdistance 2.



The 2-picture is an infinite 3-valent tree as there are precisely 3 classes of lattices at hyperdistance 2 from any lattice $L = \langle v_1,v_2 \rangle $ namely (the equivalence classes of) $\langle \frac{1}{2}v_1,v_2 \rangle~,~\langle v_1, \frac{1}{2} v_2 \rangle $ and $\langle \frac{1}{2}(v_1+v_2),v_2 \rangle $.

Similarly, for any prime hyperdistance p, the p-picture is an infinite p+1-valent tree and the big picture is the product over all these prime trees. That is, two lattices at square-free hyperdistance $N=p_1p_2\ldots p_k $ are two corners of a k-cell in the big picture!
(Astute readers of this blog (if such people exist…) may observe that Conway’s big picture did already appear here prominently, though in disguise. More on this another time).

The big picture presents a simple way to look at arithmetic groups and makes many facts about them visually immediate. For example, the point-stabilizer subgroup of $L_1 $ clearly is the modular group $PSL_2(\mathbb{Z}) $. The point-stabilizer of any other lattice is a certain conjugate of the modular group inside $PSL_2(\mathbb{R}) $. For example, the stabilizer subgroup of the lattice $L_N = \langle Ne_1,e_2 \rangle $ (at hyperdistance N from $L_1 $) is the subgroup

${ \begin{bmatrix} a & \frac{b}{N} \\ Nc & d \end{bmatrix}~|~\begin{bmatrix} a & b \\ c & d \end{bmatrix} \in PSL_2(\mathbb{Z})~} $

Now the intersection of these two groups is the modular subgroup $\Gamma_0(N) $ (consisting of those modular group element whose lower left-hand entry is divisible by N). That is, the proper way to look at this arithmetic group is as the joint stabilizer of the two lattices $L_1,L_N $. The picture makes it trivial to compute the index of this subgroup.

Consider the ball $B(L_1,N) $ with center $L_1 $ and hyper-radius N (on the left, the ball with hyper-radius 4). Then, it is easy to show that the modular group acts transitively on the boundary lattices (including the lattice $L_N $), whence the index $[ \Gamma : \Gamma_0(N)] $ is just the number of these boundary lattices. For N=4 the picture shows that there are exactly 6 of them. In general, it follows from our knowledge of all the p-trees the number of all lattices at hyperdistance N from $L_1 $ is equal to $N \prod_{p | N}(1+ \frac{1}{p}) $, in accordance with the well-known index formula for these modular subgroups!

But, there are many other applications of the big picture giving a simple interpretation for the Hecke operators, an elegant proof of the Atkin-Lehner theorem on the normalizer of $\Gamma_0(N) $ (the whimsical source of appearances of the number 24) and of Helling’s theorem characterizing maximal arithmetical groups inside $PSL_2(\mathbb{C}) $ as conjugates of the normalizers of $\Gamma_0(N) $ for square-free N.
J.H. Conway’s paper “Understanding groups like $\Gamma_0(N) $” containing all this material is a must-read! Unfortunately, I do not know of an online version.

Mazur’s knotty dictionary

In the previous posts, we have depicted the ‘arithmetic line’, that is the prime numbers, as a ‘line’ and individual primes as ‘points’.

However, sometime in the roaring 60-ties, Barry Mazur launched the crazy idea of viewing the affine spectrum of the integers, $\mathbf{spec}(\mathbb{Z}) $, as a 3-dimensional manifold and prime numbers themselves as knots in this 3-manifold…

After a long silence, this idea was taken up recently by Mikhail Kapranov and Alexander Reznikov (1960-2003) in a talk at the MPI-Bonn in august 1996. Pieter Moree tells the story in his recollections about Alexander (Sacha) Reznikov in Sipping Tea with Sacha : “Sasha’s paper is closely related to his paper where the analogy of covers of three-manifolds and class field theory plays a big role (an analogy that was apparently first noticed by B. Mazur). Sasha and Mikhail Kapranov (at the time also at the institute) were both very interested in this analogy. Eventually, in August 1996, Kapranov and Reznikov both lectured on this (and I explained in about 10 minutes my contribution to Reznikov’s proof). I was pleased to learn some time ago that this lecture series even made it into the literature, see Morishita’s ‘On certain analogies between knots and primes’ J. reine angew. Math 550 (2002) 141-167.”

Here’s a part of what is now called the Kapranov-Reznikov-Mazur dictionary :



What is the rationale behind this dictionary? Well, it all has to do with trying to make sense of the (algebraic) fundamental group $\pi_1^{alg}(X) $ of a general scheme $X $. Recall that for a manifold $M $ there are two different ways to define its fundamental group $\pi_1(M) $ : either as the closed loops in a given basepoint upto homotopy or as the automorphism group of the universal cover $\tilde{M} $ of $M $.

For an arbitrary scheme the first definition doesn’t make sense but we can use the second one as we have a good notion of a (finite) cover : an etale morphism $Y \rightarrow X $ of the scheme $X $. As they form an inverse system, we can take their finite automorphism groups $Aut_X(Y) $ and take their projective limit along the system and call this the algebraic fundamental group $\pi^{alg}_1(X) $.

Hendrik Lenstra has written beautiful course notes on ‘Galois theory for schemes’ on all of this starting from scratch. Besides, there are also two video-lectures available on this at the MSRI-website : Etale fundamental groups 1 by H.W. Lenstra and Etale fundamental groups 2 by F. Pop.

But, what is the connection with the ‘usual’ fundamental group in case both of them can be defined? Well, by construction the algebraic fundamental group is always a profinite group and in the case of manifolds it coincides with the profinite completion of the standard fundamental group, that is,
$\pi^{alg}_1(M) \simeq \widehat{\pi_1(M)} $ (recall that the cofinite completion is the projective limit of all finite group quotients).

Right, so all we have to do to find a topological equivalent of an algebraic scheme is to compute its algebraic fundamental group and find an existing topological space of which the profinite completion of its standard fundamental group coincides with our algebraic fundamental group. An example : a prime number $p $ (as a ‘point’ in $\mathbf{spec}(\mathbb{Z}) $) is the closed subscheme $\mathbf{spec}(\mathbb{F}_p) $ corresponding to the finite field $\mathbb{F}_p = \mathbb{Z}/p\mathbb{Z} $. For any affine scheme of a field $K $, the algebraic fundamental group coincides with the absolute Galois group $Gal(\overline{K}/K) $. In the case of $\mathbb{F}_p $ we all know that this abslute Galois group is isomorphic with the profinite integers $\hat{\mathbb{Z}} $. Now, what is the first topological space coming to mind having the integers as its fundamental group? Right, the circle $S^1 $. Hence, in arithmetic topology we view prime numbers as topological circles, that is, as knots in some bigger space.

But then, what is this bigger space? That is, what is the topological equivalent of $\mathbf{spec}(\mathbb{Z}) $? For this we have to go back to Mazur’s original paper Notes on etale cohomology of number fields in which he gives an Artin-Verdier type duality theorem for the affine spectrum $X=\mathbf{spec}(D) $ of the ring of integers $D $ in a number field. More precisely, there is a non-degenerate pairing $H^r_{et}(X,F) \times Ext^{3-r}_X(F, \mathbb{G}_m) \rightarrow H^3_{et}(X,F) \simeq \mathbb{Q}/\mathbb{Z} $ for any constructible abelian sheaf $F $. This may not tell you much, but it is a ‘sort of’ Poincare-duality result one would have for a compact three dimensional manifold.

Ok, so in particular $\mathbf{spec}(\mathbb{Z}) $ should be thought of as a 3-dimensional compact manifold, but which one? For this we have to compute the algebraic fundamental group. Fortunately, this group is trivial as there are no (non-split) etale covers of $\mathbf{spec}(\mathbb{Z}) $, so the corresponding 3-manifold should be simple connected… but wenow know that this has to imply that the manifold must be $S^3 $, the 3-sphere! Summarizing : in arithmetic topology, prime numbers are knots in the 3-sphere!

More generally (by the same arguments) the affine spectrum $\mathbf{spec}(D) $ of a ring of integers can be thought of as corresponding to a closed oriented 3-dimensional manifold $M $ (which is a cover of $S^3 $) and a prime ideal $\mathfrak{p} \triangleleft D $ corresponds to a knot in $M $.

But then, what is an ideal $\mathfrak{a} \triangleleft D $? Well, we have unique factorization of ideals in $D $, that is, $\mathfrak{a} = \mathfrak{p}_1^{n_1} \ldots \mathfrak{p}_k^{n_k} $ and therefore $\mathfrak{a} $ corresponds to a link in $M $ of which the constituent knots are the ones corresponding to the prime ideals $\mathfrak{p}_i $.

And we can go on like this. What should be an element $w \in D $? Well, it will be an embedded surface $S \rightarrow M $, possibly with a boundary, the boundary being the link corresponding to the ideal $\mathfrak{a} = Dw $ and Seifert’s algorithm tells us how we can produce surfaces having any prescribed link as its boundary. But then, in particular, a unit $w \in D^* $ should correspond to a closed surface in $M $.

And all these analogies carry much further : for example the class group of the ring of integers $Cl(D) $ then corresponds to the torsion part $H_1(M,\mathbb{Z})_{tor} $ because principal ideals $Dw $ are trivial in the class group, just as boundaries of surfaces $\partial S $ vanish in $H_1(M,\mathbb{Z}) $. Similarly, one may identify the unit group $D^* $ with $H_2(M,\mathbb{Z}) $… and so on, and on, and on…

More links to papers on arithmetic topology can be found in John Baez’ week 257 or via here.