This morning I heard the awful news that Bill Thurston died last night. Many of us knew that Bill was very ill, but we all hoped (or imagined?) that he would still be with us for a while yet, and the suddenness of this is very harsh. As Sarah Koch put it in an email to me, “Although this was not unexpected, it is still shocking.” On the other hand, I am glad to hear that he was surrounded by family, and died peacefully.

I counted Bill as my friend, as well as my mentor, and I have many vivid and happy memories of time I spent with him. I hope that writing down a few of these reminiscences will be cathartic for me, and for others who are coping with this loss.

I am spending a few months in Göttingen as a Courant Distinguished Visiting Professor, and talking a bit to Laurent Bartholdi about rational functions — i.e. holomorphic maps from the Riemann sphere $\widehat{\mathbb C}$ to itself. A rational function is determined (up to multiplication by a constant) by its zeroes and poles, and can therefore generically be put in the form $f:z \to P(z)/Q(z)$ where P and Q are polynomials of degree $d$. If $d=1$ then $f$ is invertible, and is called a fractional linear transformation (or, sometimes, a Mobius transformation). The critical points are the zeroes of $P'Q-Q'P$; note that this is a polynomial of degree $\le 2d-2$ (not $2d-1$) and the images of these points under $f$ are the critical values. Again, generically, there will be $2d-2$ critical values; let’s call them $V$. Precomposing $f$ with a fractional linear transformation will not change the set of critical values.

The map $f$ cannot usually be recovered from $V$ (even up to precomposition with a fractional linear transformation); one needs to specify some extra global topological information. If we let $\overline{C}$ denote the preimage of $V$ under $f$, and let $C$ denote the subset consisting of critical points, then the restriction $f:\widehat{\mathbb C} - \overline{C} \to \widehat{\mathbb C} - V$ is a covering map of degree $d$, and to specify the rational map we must specify both $V$ and the topological data of this covering. Let’s assume for convenience that 0 is not a critical value. To specify the rational map is to give both $V$ and a representation $\rho:\pi_1(\widehat{\mathbb C} - V,0) \to S_d$ (here $S_d$ denotes the group of permutations of the set $\lbrace 1,2,\cdots,d\rbrace$) which describes how the branches of $f^{-1}$ are permuted by monodromy about $V$. Such a representation is not arbitrary, of course; first of all it must be irreducible (i.e. not conjugate into $S_e \times S_{d-e}$ for any $1\le e \le d-1$) so that the cover is connected. Second of all, the cover must be topologically a sphere. Let’s call the (branched) cover $\Sigma$ for the moment, before we know what it is. The Riemann-Hurwitz formula lets one compute the Euler characteristic of $\Sigma$ from the representation $\rho$. A nice presentation for $\pi_1(\widehat{\mathbb C}-V,0)$ has generators $e_i$ represented by small loops around the points $v_i \in V$, and the relation $\prod_{i=1}^{|V|} e_i = 1$. For each $e_i$ define $o_i$ to be the number of orbits of $\rho(e_i)$ on the set $\lbrace 1,2,\cdots,d\rbrace$. Then

$\chi(\Sigma) = d\chi(S^2) - \sum_i (d-o_i)$

If each $\rho(e_i)$ is a transposition (i.e. in the generic case), then $o_i=d-1$ and we recover the fact that $|V|=2d-2$.

This raises the following natural question:

Basic Question: Given a set of points $V$ in the Riemann sphere, and an irreducible representation $\rho:\pi_1(\widehat{\mathbb C} - V,0) \to S_d$ satisfying $\sum_i (d-o_i) = 2d-2$, what are the coefficients of the rational function $z \to P(z)/Q(z)$ that they determine (up to precomposition by a fractional linear transformation)?

Ian gave his second and third talks this afternoon, completing his (quite detailed) sketch of the proof of the Virtual Haken Theorem. Recall that after work of Kahn-Markovic, Wise, Haglund-Wise and Bergeron-Wise, the proof reduces to showing the following:

Theorem (Agol): Let G be a hyperbolic group acting properly discontinuously and cocompactly on a CAT(0) cube complex X. Then there is a finite index subgroup G’ so that X/G’ is special; in other words, G is virtually special.

Today Jason Manning gave a talk on a vital ingredient in the proof of Agol’s theorem, which is a result in geometric group theory. The theorem is a joint project of Agol-Groves-Manning, and generalizes some earlier work they did a few years ago. Jason referred to the main theorem during his talk as the “Goal Theorem” (I guess it was the goal of his lecture), but I’m going to call it the Weak Separation Theorem, since that is a somewhat more descriptive name. The statement of the theorem is as follows.

Weak Separation Theorem (Agol-Groves-Manning): Let G be a hyperbolic group, let H be a subgroup of G which is quasiconvex, and isomorphic to the fundamental group of a virtually special NPC cube complex, and let g be an element of G which is not contained in H. Then there is a surjection $\phi:G \to \bar{G}$ so that

1. $\bar{G}$ is hyperbolic;
2. $\phi(H)$ is finite; and
3. $\phi(g)$ is not contained in $\phi(H)$.

In the remainder of this post I will try to explain the proof of this theorem, to the extent that I understand it. Basically, this amounts to my summarizing Manning’s talk (or the part of it that I managed to get down in my notes); again, any errors, foolishness, silly blog post titles etc. are due to me.

I am in Paris attending a workshop at the IHP where Ian Agol has just given the first of three talks outlining his proof of the Virtual Haken Conjecture and Virtual Fibration Conjecture in 3-manifold topology (hat tip to Henry Wilton at the Low Dimensional Topology blog from whom I first learned about Ian’s announcement last week). I think it is no under overstatement to say that this marks the end of an era in 3-manifold topology, since the proof ties up just about every loose end left over on the list of problems in 3-manifold topology from Thurston’s famous Bulletin article (with the exception of problem 23 — to show that volumes of closed hyperbolic 3-manifolds are not rationally related — which is very close to some famous open problems in number theory). The purpose of this blog post is to say what the Virtual Haken Conjecture is, and some of the background that goes into Ian’s argument. I hope to follow this up with more details in another post (after Agol gives talks 2 and 3 this coming Wednesday). Needless to say this post has been written in a bit of a hurry, and I have probably messed up some crucial details; but if that caveat is not enough to dissuade you, then read on.

I recently learned from Jim Carlson’s blog of the passing of Harsh Pittie on January 16 this year. I never met Harsh, but he is very familiar to me through his work, in particular for his classic book Characteristic classes of foliations. I first encountered this book as a graduate student, late last millenium. The book has several features which make it very attractive. First of all, it is short — only 105 pages. My strong instinct is always to read books cover-to-cover from start to finish, and the motivated reader can go through Harsh’s book in its entirety in maybe 4 hours. Second of all, the exposition is quite lovely: an excellent balance is struck between providing enough details to meet the demands of rigor, and sustaining the arc of an idea so that the reader can get the point. Third of all, the book achieves a difficult synthesis of two “opposing” points of view, namely the (differential-)geometric and the algebraic. In fact, this achievement is noted and praised in the MathSciNet review of the book (linked above) by Dmitri Fuks.

Patrick Foulon and Boris Hasselblatt recently posted a preprint entitled “Nonalgebraic contact Anosov flows on 3-manifolds”. These are flows which are at the same time Anosov (i.e. the tangent bundle splits in a flow-invariant way into stable, unstable and flow directions) and contact (i.e. they preserve a contact form — that is, a 1-form $\alpha$ for which $\alpha \wedge d\alpha$ is a volume form). Their preprint gives some very interesting new constructions of such flows, obtained by surgery along a Legendrian knot (one tangent to the kernel of the contact form) which is transverse to the stable/unstable foliations of the Anosov flow.

My student Steven Frankel has just posted his paper Quasigeodesic flows and Mobius-like groups on the arXiv. This heartbreaking work of staggering genius interesting paper makes a deep connection between dynamics, hyperbolic geometry, and group theory, and represents the first significant progress that I know of on a conjectural program I formulated a few years ago.

One of the main results of the paper is to show that every quasigeodesic flow on a closed hyperbolic 3-manifold either has a closed orbit, or the fundamental group of the manifold admits an action on a circle with some very peculiar properties, namely that it is Mobius-like but not Mobius. The problem of giving necessary and sufficient conditions on a vector field on a 3-manifold to guarantee the existence of a closed orbit is a long and interesting one, and the introduction to the paper gives a brief sketch of this history as follows: