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I was saddened to hear the news that Geoff Mess recently passed away, just a few days short of his 54th birthday. I first met Geoff as a beginning graduate student at Berkeley, in 1995; in fact, I believe he gave the first topology seminar I ever attended at Berkeley, on closed 3-manifolds which non-trivially cover themselves (the punchline is that there aren’t very many of them, and they could be classified without assuming the geometrization theorem, which was just a conjecture at the time). Geoff was very fast, whip-smart, with a daunting command of theory; and the impression he made on me in that seminar is still fresh in my mind. The next time I saw him might have been May 2004, at the N+1st Southern California Topology Conference, where Michael Handel was giving a talk on distortion elements in groups of diffeomorphisms of surfaces, and Geoff (who was in the audience), explained in an instant how to exhibit certain translations on a (flat) torus as exponentially distorted elements. Geoff was not well even at that stage — he had many physical problems, with his joints and his teeth; and some mental problems too. But he was perfectly pleasant and friendly, and happy to talk math with anyone. I saw him again a couple of years later when I gave a colloquium at UCLA, and his physical condition was a bit worse. But again, mentally he was razor-sharp, answering in an instant a question about (punctured) surface subgroups of free groups that I had been puzzling about for some time (and which became an ingredient in a paper I later wrote with Alden Walker).
Geoff Mess in 1996 at Kevin Scannell’s graduation (photo courtesy of Kevin Scannell)
Geoff published very few papers — maybe only one or two after finishing his PhD thesis; but one of his best and most important results is a key step in the proof of the Seifert Fibered Theorem in 3-manifold topology. Mess’s paper on this result was written but never published; it’s hard to get hold of the preprint, and harder still to digest it once you’ve got hold of it. So I thought it would be worthwhile to explain the statement of the Theorem, the state of knowledge at the time Mess wrote his paper, some of the details of Mess’s argument, and some subsequent developments (another account of the history of the Seifert Fibered Theorem by Jean-Philippe Préaux is available here).
When I started in graduate school, I was very interested in 3-manifolds, especially Thurston’s geometrization conjecture. Somehow in dimension 3, there is a marvelous marriage of flexibility and rigidity: generic 3-manifolds are flexible enough to admit hyperbolic structures — i.e. Riemannian metrics of constant curvature -1, modeled on hyperbolic space. But these structures are so rigid that they are determined up to isometry (!) entirely by the fundamental group of the manifold, and provide a bridge from topology to the rigid world of number fields and arithmetic. 3-manifolds, especially the hyperbolic ones, display an astonishing range of interesting phenomena, so that even though the individual manifolds are discrete and rigid, they come in infinite families parameterized by Dehn surgery. When Perelman proved Thurston’s conjecture, I gradually moved away from 3-manifold topology into some neighboring fields such as dynamics and geometric group theory; subjectively this move felt to me like a transition from a baroque world of highly intricate, finely tuned and beautiful objects to more rough and disordered domains in which the rule was chaos and disorder, and where one had to restrict attention and focus to find the kinds of structured objects that one can say something about mathematically. In these new domains my familiarity with 3-manifold topology was always extremely useful to me, but almost always as a source of inspiration or analogy or example, rather than that some specific theorem about 3-manifolds could be used to say something about groups in general, or dynamical systems in general, or whatever. Many important recent developments in geometric group theory are generalizations of geometric ideas which were first identified or studied in the world of 3-manifolds; but there was not much connection at the deepest level, at least as far as I could see.
This impression was dramatically shaken by Agol’s proof of the virtual Haken conjecture and virtual fibration conjectures in 3-manifold topology by an argument which depends for one of its key ingredients on the theory of non-positively curved cube complexes — a subject in geometric and combinatorial group theory which, while inspired by key examples in low-dimensions (especially surfaces in the hands of Scott, and graphs in the hands of Stallings), is definitely a high-dimensional theory with no obvious relations to manifolds at all. Even so, the transfer of information in this case is still from the “broad” world of group theory to the “special” world of 3-manifolds. It shows that 3-manifold topology is even richer than hitherto suspected, but it does not contradict the idea that the beautiful edifice of 3-manifold topology is an exceptional corner in the vast unstructured world of geometry.
I have just posted a paper to the arXiv, coauthored with Henry Wilton, and building on prior work I did with Alden Walker, that aims to challenge this idea. Let me quote the first couple of paragraphs of the introduction:
Geometric group theory was born in low-dimensional topology, in the collective visions of Klein, Poincaré and Dehn. Stallings used key ideas from 3-manifold topology (Dehn’s lemma, the sphere theorem) to prove theorems about free groups, and as a model for how to think about groups geometrically in general. The pillars of modern geometric group theory — (relatively) hyperbolic groups and hyperbolic Dehn filling, NPC cube complexes and their relations to LERF, the theory of JSJ splittings of groups and the structure of limit groups — all have their origins in the geometric and topological theory of 2- and 3-manifolds.
Despite these substantial and deep connections, the role of 3-manifolds in the larger world of group theory has been mainly to serve as a source of examples — of specific groups, and of rich and important phenomena and structure. Surfaces (especially Riemann surfaces) arise naturally throughout all of mathematics (and throughout science more generally), and are as ubiquitous as the complex numbers. But the conventional view is surely that 3-manifolds per se do not spontaneously arise in other areas of geometry (or mathematics more broadly) amongst the generic objects of study. We challenge this conventional view: 3-manifolds are everywhere.
It’s been a while since I last blogged; the reason, of course, is that I felt that I couldn’t post anything new before completing my series of posts on Kähler groups; but I wasn’t quite ready to write my last post, because I wanted to get to the bottom of a few analytic details in the notorious Gromov-Schoen paper. I am not quite at the bottom yet, but maybe closer than I was; but I’m still pretty far from having collected my thoughts to the point where I can do them justice in a post. So I’ve finally decided to put Kähler groups on the back burner for now, and resume my usual very sporadic blogging habits.
So the purpose of this blog post is to advertise that I wrote a little piece of software called kleinian which uses the GLUT tools to visualize Kleinian groups (or, more accurately, interesting hyperbolic polyhedra invariant under such groups). The software can be downloaded from my github repository at
and then compiled from the command line with “make”. It should work out of the box on OS X; Alden Walker tells me he has successfully gotten it to compile on (Ubuntu) Linux, which required tinkering with the makefile a bit, and installing freeglut3-dev. There is a manual on the github page with a detailed description of file formats and so on.
In this post I hope to start talking in a bit more depth about the global geometry of compact Kähler manifolds and their covers. Basic references for much of this post are the book Fundamental groups of compact Kähler manifolds by Amoros-Burger-Corlette-Kotschick-Toledo, and the paper Kähler hyperbolicity and L2 Hodge theory by Gromov. It turns out that there is a basic distinction in the world of compact Kähler manifolds between those that admit a holomorphic surjection with connected fibers to a compact Riemann surface of genus at least 2, and those that don’t. The existence or non-existence of such a fibration turns out to depend only on the fundamental group of the manifold, and in fact only on the algebraic structure of the cup product on ; thus one talks about fibered or nonfibered Kähler groups.
If X is a connected CW complex, by successively attaching cells of dimension 3 and higher to X we may obtain a CW complex Y for which the inclusion of X into Y induces an isomorphism on fundamental groups, while the universal cover of Y is contractible (i.e. Y is a with the fundamental group of X). The (co)-homology of Y is (by definition) the group (co)-homology of the fundamental group of X. Since Y is obtained from X by attaching cells of dimension at least 3, the map induced by inclusion is an isomorphism in dimension 0 and 1, and an injection in dimension 2 (dually, the map is a surjection, whose kernel is the image of under the Hurewicz map; so the cokernel of measures the pairing of the 2-dimensional cohomology of X with essential 2-spheres).
A surjective map f from a space X to a space S with connected fibers is surjective on fundamental groups. This basically follows from the long exact sequence in homotopy groups for a fibration; more prosaically, first note that 1-manifolds in S can be lifted locally to 1-manifolds in X, then distinct lifts of endpoints of small segments can be connected in their fibers in X. A surjection on fundamental groups induces an injection on in the other direction, and by naturality of cup product, if is a subspace of on which the cup product vanishes identically — i.e. if it is isotropic — then is also isotropic. If S is a closed oriented surface of genus g then cup product makes into a symplectic vector space of (real) dimension 2g, and any Lagrangian subspace V is isotropic of dimension g. Thus: a surjective map with connected fibers from a space X to a closed Riemann surface S of genus at least 2 gives rise to an isotropic subspace of of dimension at least 2.
So in a nutshell: the purpose of this blog post is to explain how the existence of isotropic subspaces in 1-dimensional cohomology of Kähler manifolds imposes very strong geometric constraints. This is true for “ordinary” cohomology on compact manifolds, and also for more exotic (i.e. ) cohomology on noncompact covers.
After a couple years of living out of suitcases, we recently sold our house in Pasadena, and bought a new one in Hyde Park. All our junk was shipped to us, and the boxes we didn’t feel like unpacking are all sitting around in the attic, where the kids have been spending a lot of time this summer. Every so often they root through some box and uncover some archaeological treasure; so it was that I found Lisa and Anna the other day, mucking around with a Rubik’s cube. They had persisted with it, and even managed to get the first layer done.
I remember seeing my first cube some time in early 1980; my Dad brought one home from work. He said I could have a play with it if I was careful not to scramble it (of course, I scrambled it). After a couple of hours of frustration trying to restore the initial state, I gave up and went to bed. In the morning the cube had been solved – I remember being pretty impressed with Dad for this (later he admitted that he had just taken the pieces out of their sockets). Within a year, Rubik’s cube fever had taken over – my Mum bought me a little book explaining how to solve the cube, and I memorized a small list of moves. I remember taking part in an “under 10” cube-solving competition; in the heat of the moment, I panicked and got stuck with only two layers done (since there were only two competitors, I came second anyway, and won a prize: a vinyl single of the Barron Knights performing “Mr. Rubik”). The solution in the book was a procedure for completing the cube layer by layer, by judiciously applying in order some sequence of operations, each of which had a precise effect on only a small number of cubelets, leaving the others untouched. In retrospect I find it a bit surprising – in view of how much effort I put into memorizing sequences, reproducing patterns (from the book), and trying to improve my speed – that I never had the curiosity to wonder how someone had come up with this list of “magic” operations in the first place. At the time it seemed a baffling mystery, and I wouldn’t have known where to get started to come up with such moves on my own. So the appearance of my kids playing with a cube 33 years later is the perfect opportunity for me to go back and work out a solution from first principles.
Last week I was at Oberwolfach for a meeting on geometric group theory. My friend and collaborator Koji Fujiwara gave a very nice talk about constructing actions of groups on quasi-trees (i.e. spaces quasi-isometric to trees). The construction is inspired by the famous subsurface projection construction, due to Masur-Minsky, which was a key step in their proof that the complex of curves (a natural simplicial complex on which the mapping class group acts cocompactly) is hyperbolic. Koji’s talk was very stimulating, and shook up my thinking about a few related matters; the purpose of this blog post is therefore for me to put some of my thoughts in order: to describe the Masur-Minsky construction, to point out a connection to certain geometric phenomena like winding numbers of curves on surfaces, and to note that a variation on their construction gives rise directly to certain natural chiral invariants of surface automorphisms (and their generalizations) which should be relevant to 4-manifold topologists.
A few weeks ago, Ian Agol, Vlad Markovic, Ursula Hamenstadt and I organized a “hot topics” workshop at MSRI with the title Surface subgroups and cube complexes. The conference was pretty well attended, and (I believe) was a big success; the organizers clearly deserve a great deal of credit. The talks were excellent, and touched on a wide range of subjects, and to those of us who are mid-career or older it was a bit shocking to see how quickly the landscape of low-dimensional geometry/topology and geometric group theory has been transformed by the recent breakthrough work of (Kahn-Markovic-Haglund-Wise-Groves-Manning-etc.-) Agol. Incidentally, when I first started as a graduate student, I had a vague sense that I had somehow “missed the boat” — all the exciting developments in geometry due to Thurston, Sullivan, Gromov, Freedman, Donaldson, Eliashberg etc. had taken place 10-20 years earlier, and the subject now seemed to be a matter of fleshing out the consequences of these big breakthroughs. 20 years and several revolutions later, I no longer feel this way. (Another slightly shocking aspect of the workshop was for me to realize that I am older or about as old as 75% of the speakers . . .)
The rationale for the workshop (which I had some hand in drafting, and therefore feel comfortable quoting here) was the following:
Recently there has been substantial progress in our understanding of the related questions of which hyperbolic groups are cubulated on the one hand, and which contain a surface subgroup on the other. The most spectacular combination of these two ideas has been in 3-manifold topology, which has seen the resolution of many long-standing conjectures. In turn, the resolution of these conjectures has led to a new point of view in geometric group theory, and the introduction of powerful new tools and structures. The goal of this conference will be to explore the further potential of these new tools and perspectives, and to encourage communication between researchers working in various related fields.
I have blogged a bit about cubulated groups and surface subgroups previously, and I even began this blog (almost 4 years ago now) initially with the idea of chronicling my efforts to attack Gromov’s surface subgroup question. This question asks the following:
Gromov’s Surface Subgroup Question: Does every one-ended hyperbolic group contain a subgroup which is isomorphic to the fundamental group of a closed surface of genus at least 2?
The restriction to one-ended groups is just meant to rule out silly examples, like finite or virtually cyclic groups (i.e. “elementary” hyperbolic groups), or free products of simpler hyperbolic groups. Asking for the genus of the closed surface to be at least 2 rules out the sphere (whose fundamental group is trivial) and the torus (whose fundamental group cannot be a subgroup of a hyperbolic group). It is the purpose of this blog post to say that Alden Walker and I have managed to show that Gromov’s question has a positive answer for “most” hyperbolic groups; more precisely, we show that a random group (in the sense of Gromov) contains a surface subgroup (in fact, many surface subgroups) with probability going to 1 as a certain natural parameter (the “length” of the random relators) goes to infinity. (update April 8: the preprint is available from the arXiv here.)
There is an old puzzle which starts by asking: what is the next number in the sequence 1,2,4,? We are supposed to recognize the start of the sequence and answer that the next number is surely 8, because the first three numbers are consecutive powers of 2, and so the next number should be the cube of 2 which is 8. The puzzler then explains (contrary to expectations) that the successive terms in the sequence are actually the number of regions into which the plane is divided by a collection of lines in general position (so that any two lines intersect, and no three lines intersect in a single point). Thus:
So the “correct” answer to the puzzle is 7 (and the sequence continues 11, 26, ). This is somehow meant to illustrate some profound point; I don’t quite see it myself. Anyway, I would like to suggest that there is a natural sense in which the “real” answer should actually be 8 after all, and it’s the point of this short blog post to describe some connections between this puzzle, the theory of cube complexes (which is at the heart of Agol’s recent proof of the Virtual Haken Conjecture), and the location of the missing 8th region.