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I was in Stony Brook last week, visiting Moira Chas and Dennis Sullivan, and have been away from blogging for a while; this week I plan to write a few posts about some of the things I discussed with Moira and Dennis. This is an introductory post about the Goldman bracket, an extraordinary mathematical object made out of the combinatorics of immersed curves on surfaces. I don’t have anything original to say about this object, but for my own benefit I thought I would try to explain what it is, and why Goldman was interested in it.

In his study of symplectic structures on character varieties , where is the fundamental group of a closed oriented surface and is a Lie group satisfying certain (quite general) conditions, Bill Goldman discovered a remarkable Lie algebra structure on the free abelian group generated by conjugacy classes in . Let denote the set of homotopy classes of closed oriented curves on , where is itself a compact oriented surface, and let denote the free abelian group with generating set . If are immersed oriented closed curves which intersect transversely (i.e. in double points), define the formal sum

In this formula, are thought of as based loops at the point , represents their product in , and represents the resulting conjugacy class in . Moreover, is the oriented intersection number of and at .

This operation turns out to depend only on the free homotopy classes of and , and extends by linearity to a bilinear map . Goldman shows that this bracket makes into a Lie algebra over , and that there are natural Lie algebra homomorphisms from to the Lie algebra of functions on with its Poisson bracket.

The connection with character varieties can be summarized as follows. Let be a (smooth) class function (i.e. a function which is constant on conjugacy classes) on a Lie group . Define the variation function by the formula

where is some (fixed) -invariant orthogonal structure on the Lie algebra (for example, if is reductive (eg if is semisimple), one can take ). The tangent space to the character variety at is the first cohomology group of with coefficients in , thought of as a module with the action, and then as a module by the representation . Cup product and the pairing determine a pairing

where the last equality uses the fact that is a closed surface group; this pairing defines the symplectic structure on .

Every element determines a function by sending a (conjugacy class of) representation to . Note that only depends on the conjugacy class of in . It is natural to ask: what is the Hamiltonian flow on generated by the function ? It turns out that when is a *simple* closed curve, it is very easy to describe this Hamiltonian flow. If is nonseparating, then define a flow by when is represented by a curve disjoint from , and if intersects exactly once with a positive orientation (there is a similar formula when is separating). In other words, the representation is constant on the fundamental group of the surface “cut open” along the curve , and only deforms in the way the two conjugacy classes of in the cut open surface are identified in .

In the important motivating case that , so that one component of is the Teichmüller space of hyperbolic structures on the surface , one can take , and then is just the length of the geodesic in the free homotopy class of , in the hyperbolic structure on associated to a representation. In this case, the symplectic structure on the character variety restricts to the Weil-Petersson symplectic structure on Teichmüller space, and the Hamiltonian flow associated to the length function is a family of Fenchel-Nielsen twists, i.e. the deformations of the hyperbolic structure obtained by cutting along the geodesic , rotating through some angle, and regluing. This latter observation recovers a famous theorem of Wolpert, connected in an obvious way to his formula for the symplectic form where is angle and is length, and the sum is taken over a maximal system of disjoint essential simple curves for the surface .

The combinatorial nature of the Goldman bracket suggests that it might have applications in combinatorial group theory. Turaev discovered a Lie cobracket on , and showed that together with the Goldman bracket, one obtains a Lie bialgebra. Motivated by Stallings’ reformulation of the Poincaré conjecture in terms of group theory, Turaev asked whether a free homotopy class contains a power of a simple curve if and only if the cobracket of the class is zero. The answer to this question is negative, as shown by Chas; on the other hand, Chas and Krongold showed that a class is simple if and only if is zero. Nevertheless, the full geometric meaning of the Goldman bracket remains mysterious, and a topic worthy of investigation.

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