Topological Crystals (Part 3)

6 August, 2016


k4_crystal

Last time I explained how to create the ‘maximal abelian cover’ of a connected graph. Now I’ll say more about a systematic procedure for embedding this into a vector space. That will give us a topological crystal, like the one above.

Some remarkably symmetrical patterns arise this way! For example, starting from this graph:

we get this:

Nature uses this pattern for crystals of graphene.

Starting from this graph:

we get this:

Nature uses this for crystals of diamond! Since the construction depends only on the topology of the graph we start with, we call this embedded copy of its maximal abelian cover a topological crystal.

Today I’ll remind you how this construction works. I’ll also outline a proof that it gives an embedding of the maximal abelian cover if and only if the graph has no bridges: that is, edges that disconnect the graph when removed. I’ll skip all the hard steps of the proof, but they can be found here:

• John Baez, Topological crystals.

The homology of graphs

I’ll start with some standard stuff that’s good to know. Let X be a graph. Remember from last time that we’re working in a setup where every edge e goes from a vertex called its source s(e) to a vertex called its target t(e). We write e: x \to y to indicate that e is going from x to y. You can think of the edge as having an arrow on it, and if you turn the arrow around you get the inverse edge, e^{-1}: y \to x. Also, e^{-1} \ne e.

The group of integral 0-chains on X, C_0(X,\mathbb{Z}), is the free abelian group on the set of vertices of X. The group of integral 1-chains on X, C_1(X,\mathbb{Z}), is the quotient of the free abelian group on the set of edges of X by relations e^{-1} = -e for every edge e. The boundary map is the homomorphism

\partial : C_1(X,\mathbb{Z}) \to C_0(X,\mathbb{Z})

such that

\partial e = t(e) - s(e)

for each edge e, and

Z_1(X,\mathbb{Z}) =  \ker \partial

is the group of integral 1-cycles on X.

Remember, a path in a graph is a sequence of edges, the target of each one being the source of the next. Any path \gamma = e_1 \cdots e_n in X determines an integral 1-chain:

c_\gamma = e_1 + \cdots + e_n

For any path \gamma we have

c_{\gamma^{-1}} = -c_{\gamma},

and if \gamma and \delta are composable then

c_{\gamma \delta} = c_\gamma + c_\delta

Last time I explained what it means for two paths to be ‘homologous’. Here’s the quick way to say it. There’s groupoid called the fundamental groupoid of X, where the objects are the vertices of X and the morphisms are freely generated by the edges except for relations saying that the inverse of e: x \to y really is e^{-1}: y \to x. We can abelianize the fundamental groupoid by imposing relations saying that \gamma \delta = \delta \gamma whenever this equation makes sense. Each path \gamma : x \to y gives a morphism which I’ll call [[\gamma]] : x \to y in the abelianized fundamental groupoid. We say two paths \gamma, \gamma' : x \to y are homologous if [[\gamma]] = [[\gamma']].

Here’s a nice thing:

Lemma A. Let X be a graph. Two paths \gamma, \delta : x \to y in X are homologous if and only if they give the same 1-chain: c_\gamma = c_\delta.

Proof. See the paper. You could say they give ‘homologous’ 1-chains, too, but for graphs that’s the same as being equal.   █

We define vector spaces of 0-chains and 1-chains by

C_0(X,\mathbb{R}) = C_0(X,\mathbb{Z}) \otimes \mathbb{R}, \qquad C_1(X,\mathbb{R}) = C_1(X,\mathbb{Z}) \otimes \mathbb{R},

respectively. We extend the boundary map to a linear map

\partial :  C_1(X,\mathbb{R}) \to C_0(X,\mathbb{R})

We let Z_1(X,\mathbb{R}) be the kernel of this linear map, or equivalently,

Z_1(X,\mathbb{R}) = Z_0(X,\mathbb{Z}) \otimes \mathbb{R}  ,

and we call elements of this vector space 1-cycles. Since Z_1(X,\mathbb{Z}) is a free abelian group, it forms a lattice in the space of 1-cycles. Any edge of X can be seen as a 1-chain, and there is a unique inner product on C_1(X,\mathbb{R}) such that edges form an orthonormal basis (with each edge e^{-1} counting as the negative of e.) There is thus an orthogonal projection

\pi : C_1(X,\mathbb{R}) \to Z_1(X,\mathbb{R}) .

This is the key to building topological crystals!

The embedding of atoms

We now come to the main construction, first introduced by Kotani and Sunada. To build a topological crystal, we start with a connected graph X with a chosen basepoint x_0. We define an atom to be a homology class of paths starting at the basepoint, like

[[\alpha]] : x_0 \to x

Last time I showed that these atoms are the vertices of the maximal abelian cover of X. Now let’s embed these atoms in a vector space!

Definition. Let X be a connected graph with a chosen basepoint. Let A be its set of atoms. Define the map

i : A \to Z_1(X,\mathbb{R})

by

i([[ \alpha ]]) = \pi(c_\alpha) .

That i is well-defined follows from Lemma A. The interesting part is this:

Theorem A. The following are equivalent:

(1) The graph X has no bridges.

(2) The map i : A \to Z_1(X,\mathbb{R}) is one-to-one.

Proof. The map i is one-to-one if and only if for any atoms [[ \alpha ]] and [[ \beta ]], i([[ \alpha ]])  = i([[ \beta ]]) implies [[ \alpha ]]= [[ \beta ]]. Note that \gamma = \beta^{-1} \alpha is a path in X with c_\gamma = c_{\alpha} - c_\beta, so

\pi(c_\gamma) = \pi(c_{\alpha} - c_\beta) =   i([[ \alpha ]]) - i([[ \beta ]])

Since \pi(c_\gamma) vanishes if and only if c_\gamma is orthogonal to every 1-cycle, we have

c_{\gamma} \textrm{ is orthogonal to every 1-cycle}   \; \iff \;   i([[ \alpha ]])  = i([[ \beta ]])

On the other hand, Lemma A says

c_\gamma = 0 \; \iff \; [[ \alpha ]]= [[ \beta ]].

Thus, to prove (1)\iff(2), it suffices to that show that X has no bridges if and only if every 1-chain c_\gamma orthogonal to every 1-cycle has c_\gamma =0. This is Lemma D below.   █

The following lemmas are the key to the theorem above — and also a deeper one saying that if X has no bridges, we can extend i : A \to Z_1(X,\mathbb{R}) to an embedding of the whole maximal abelian cover of X.

For now, we just need to show that any nonzero 1-chain coming from a path in a bridgeless graph has nonzero inner product with some 1-cycle. The following lemmas, inspired by an idea of Ilya Bogdanov, yield an algorithm for actually constructing such a 1-cycle. This 1-cycle also has other desirable properties, which will come in handy later.

To state these, let a simple path be one in which each vertex appears at most once. Let a simple loop be a loop \gamma : x \to x in which each vertex except x appears at most once, while x appears exactly twice, as the starting point and ending point. Let the support of a 1-chain c, denoted \mathrm{supp}(c), be the set of edges e such that \langle c, e\rangle> 0. This excludes edges with \langle c, e \rangle= 0 , but also those with \langle c , e \rangle < 0, which are inverses of edges in the support. Note that

c = \sum_{e \in \mathrm{supp}(c)} \langle c, e \rangle  .

Thus, \mathrm{supp}(c) is the smallest set of edges such that c can be written as a positive linear combination of edges in this set.

Okay, here are the lemmas!

Lemma B. Let X be any graph and let c be an integral 1-cycle on X. Then for some n we can write

c = c_{\sigma_1} + \cdots +  c_{\sigma_n}

where \sigma_i are simple loops with \mathrm{supp}(c_{\sigma_i}) \subseteq \mathrm{supp}(c).

Proof. See the paper. The proof is an algorithm that builds a simple loop \sigma_1 with\mathrm{supp}(c_{\sigma_1}) \subseteq \mathrm{supp}(c). We subtract this from c, and if the result isn’t zero we repeat the algorithm, continuing to subtract off 1-cycles c_{\sigma_i} until there’s nothing left.   █

Lemma C. Let \gamma: x \to y be a path in a graph X. Then for some n \ge 0 we can write

c_\gamma = c_\delta + c_{\sigma_1} + \cdots +  c_{\sigma_n}

where \delta: x \to y is a simple path and \sigma_i are simple loops with \mathrm{supp}(c_\delta), \mathrm{supp}(c_{\sigma_i}) \subseteq \mathrm{supp}(c_\gamma).

Proof. This relies on the previous lemma, and the proof is similar — but when we can’t subtract off any more c_{\sigma_i}’s we show what’s left is c_\delta for a simple path \delta: x \to y.   █

Lemma D. Let X be a graph. Then the following are equivalent:

(1) X has no bridges.

(2) For any path \gamma in X, if c_\gamma is orthogonal to every 1-cycle then c_\gamma = 0.

Proof. It’s easy to show a bridge e gives a nonzero 1-chain c_e that’s orthogonal to all 1-cycles, so the hard part is showing that for a bridgeless graph, if c_\gamma is orthogonal to every 1-cycle then c_\gamma = 0. The idea is to start with a path for which c_\gamma \ne 0. We hit this path with Lemma C, which lets us replace \gamma by a simple path \delta. The point is that a simple path is a lot easier to deal with than a general path: a general path could wind around crazily, passing over every edge of our graph multiple times.

Then, assuming X has no bridges, we use Ilya Bogdanov’s idea to build a 1-cycle that’s not orthogonal to c_\delta. The basic idea is to take the path \delta : x \to y and write it out as \delta = e_1 \cdots e_n. Since the last edge e_n is not a bridge, there must be a path from y back to x that does not use the edge e_n or its inverse. Combining this path with \delta we can construct a loop, which gives a cycle having nonzero inner product with c_\delta and thus with c_\gamma.

I’m deliberately glossing over some difficulties that can arise, so see the paper for details!   █

Embedding the whole crystal

Okay: so far, we’ve taken a connected bridgeless graph X and embedded its atoms into the space of 1-cycles via a map

i : A \to Z_1(X,\mathbb{R})  .

These atoms are the vertices of the maximal abelian cover \overline{X}. Now we’ll extend i to an embedding of the whole graph \overline{X} — or to be precise, its geometric realization |\overline{X}|. Remember, for us a graph is an abstract combinatorial gadget; its geometric realization is a topological space where the edges become closed intervals.

The idea is that just as i maps each atom to a point in the vector space Z_1(X,\mathbb{R}), j maps each edge of |\overline{X}| to a straight line segment between such points. These line segments serve as the ‘bonds’ of a topological crystal. The only challenge is to show that these bonds do not cross each other.

Theorem B. If X is a connected graph with basepoint, the map i : A \to Z_1(X,\mathbb{R}) extends to a continuous map

j : |\overline{X}| \to Z_1(X,\mathbb{R})

sending each edge of |\overline{X}| to a straight line segment in Z_1(X,\mathbb{R}). If X has no bridges, then j is one-to-one.

Proof. The first part is easy; the second part takes real work! The problem is to show the edges don’t cross. Greg Egan and I couldn’t do it using just Lemma D above. However, there’s a nice argument that goes back and uses Lemma C — read the paper for details.

As usual, history is different than what you read in math papers: David Speyer gave us a nice proof of Lemma D, and that was good enough to prove that atoms are mapped into the space of 1-cycles in a one-to-one way, but we only came up with Lemma C after weeks of struggling to prove the edges don’t cross.   █

Connections to tropical geometry

Tropical geometry sets up a nice analogy between Riemann surfaces and graphs. The Abel–Jacobi map embeds any Riemann surface \Sigma in its Jacobian, which is the torus H_1(\Sigma,\mathbb{R})/H_1(\Sigma,\mathbb{Z}). We can similarly define the Jacobian of a graph X to be H_1(X,\mathbb{R})/H_1(X,\mathbb{Z}). Theorem B yields a way to embed a graph, or more precisely its geometric realization |X|, into its Jacobian. This is the analogue, for graphs, of the Abel–Jacobi map.

After I put this paper on the arXiv, I got an email from Matt Baker saying that he had already proved Theorem A — or to be precise, something that’s clearly equivalent. It’s Theorem 1.8 here:

• Matthew Baker and Serguei Norine, Riemann–Roch and Abel–Jacobi theory on a finite graph.

This says that the vertices of a bridgeless graph X are embedded in its Jacobian by means of the graph-theoretic analogue of the Abel–Jacobi map.

What I really want to know is whether someone’s written up a proof that this map embeds the whole graph, not just its vertices, into its Jacobian in a one-to-one way. That would imply Theorem B. For more on this, try my conversation with David Speyer.

Anyway, there’s a nice connection between topological crystallography and tropical geometry, and not enough communication between the two communities. Once I figure out what the tropical folks have proved, I will revise my paper to take that into account.

Next time I’ll talk about more examples of topological crystals!


Renewable Energy News

1 August, 2016

Some good news:

• Ed Crooks, Balance of power tilts from fossil fuels to renewable energy, Financial Times, 26 July 2016.

These are strange days in the energy business. Startling headlines are emerging from the sector that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago.

The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority said in May it had received bids to develop solar power projects that would deliver electricity costing less than three cents per kilowatt hour. This established a new worldwide low for the contracted cost of delivering solar power to the grid—and is priced well below the benchmark of what the emirate and other countries typically pay for electricity from coal-fired stations.

In the UK, renowned for its miserable overcast weather, solar panels contributed more power to the grid than coal plants for the month of May.

In energy-hungry Los Angeles, the electricity company AES is installing the world’s largest battery, with capacity to power hundreds of thousands of homes at times of high demand, replacing gas-fired plants which are often used at short notice to increase supply to the grid.

Trina Solar, the Chinese company that is the world’s largest solar panel manufacturer, said it had started selling in 20 new markets last year, from Poland to Mauritius and Nepal to Uruguay.

[…]

Some new energy technologies, meanwhile, are not making much progress, such as the development of power plants that capture and store the carbon dioxide they produce. It is commonly assumed among policymakers that carbon capture has become essential if humankind is to enjoy the benefits of fossil fuels while avoiding their polluting effects.

It is clear, too, that the growth of renewables and other low-carbon energy sources will not follow a straight line. Investment in “clean” energy has been faltering this year after hitting a record in 2015, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. For the first half of 2016, it is down 23 per cent from the equivalent period last year.

Even so, the elements are being put in place for what could be a quite sudden and far-reaching energy transition, which could be triggered by an unexpected and sustained surge in oil prices. If China or India were to make large-scale policy commitments to electric vehicles, they would have a dramatic impact on the outlook for oil demand.

I’m also interested in Elon Musk’s Gigafactory: a lithium-ion battery factory in Nevada with a projected capacity of 50 gigawatt-hours/year of battery packs in 2018, ultimately ramping up to 150 GWh/yr. These battery packs are mainly designed for Musk’s electric car company, Tesla.

So far, Tesla is having trouble making lots of cars: its Fremont, California plant theoretically has the capacity to make 500,000 cars per year, but last year it only built 50,000. For some of the reasons, see this:

• Matthew Debord, Tesla has to overcome a major problem for its massive new Gigafactory to succeed, Singapore Business Insider, 1 August 2016.

Basically, it’s hard to make cars as efficiently as traditional auto companies have learned to do, and as long as people don’t buy many electric cars, it’s hard to get better quickly.

Still, Musk has big dreams for his Gigafactory, which I can only applaud. Here’s what it should look like when it’s done:




Topological Crystals (Part 2)

27 July, 2016

k4_crystal

We’re building crystals, like diamonds, purely from topology. Last time I said how: you take a graph X and embed its maximal abelian cover into the vector space H_1(X,\mathbb{R}). Now let me say a bit more about the maximal abelian cover. It’s not nearly as famous as the universal cover, but it’s very nice.

First I’ll whiz though the basic idea, and then I’ll give the details.

The basic idea

By ‘space’ let me mean a connected topological space that’s locally nice. The basic idea is that if X is some space, its universal cover \widetilde{X} is a covering space of X that covers all other covering spaces of X. The maximal abelian cover \overline{X} has a similar universal property—but it’s abelian, and it covers all abelian connected covers. A cover is abelian if its group of deck transformations is abelian.

The cool part is that universal covers are to homotopy theory as maximal abelian covers are to homology theory.

What do I mean by that? For starters, points in \widetilde{X} are just homotopy classes of paths in X starting at some chosen basepoint. And the points in \overline{X} are just ‘homology classes’ of paths starting at the basepoint.

But people don’t talk so much about ‘homology classes’ of paths. So what do I mean by that? Here a bit of category theory comes in handy. Homotopy classes of paths in X are morphisms in the fundamental groupoid of X. Homology classes of paths are morphisms in the abelianized version of the fundamental groupoid!

But wait a minute — what does that mean? Well, we can abelianize any groupoid by imposing the relations

f g = g f

whenever it makes sense to do so. It makes sense to do so when you can compose the morphisms f : x \to y and g : x' \to y' in either order, and the resulting morphisms f g and g f have the same source and the same target. And if you work out what that means, you’ll see it means

x = y = x' = y'

But now let me say it all much more slowly, for people who want a more relaxed treatment.

The details

There are lots of slightly different things called ‘graphs’ in mathematics, but in topological crystallography it’s convenient to work with one that you’ve probably never seen before. This kind of graph has two copies of each edge, one pointing in each direction.

So, we’ll say a graph X = (E,V,s,t,i) has a set V of vertices, a set E of edges, maps s,t : E \to V assigning to each edge its source and target, and a map i : E \to E sending each edge to its inverse, obeying

s(i(e)) = t(e), \quad t(i(e)) = s(e) , \qquad i(i(e)) = e

and

i(e) \ne e

for all e \in E.

That inequality at the end will make category theorists gag: definitions should say what’s true, not what’s not true. But category theorists should be able to see what’s really going on here, so I leave that as a puzzle.

For ordinary folks, let me repeat the definition using more words. If s(e) = v and t(e) = w we write e : v \to w, and draw e as an interval with an arrow on it pointing from v to w. We write i(e) as e^{-1}, and draw e^{-1} as the same interval as e, but with its arrow reversed. The equations obeyed by i say that taking the inverse of e : v \to w gives an edge e^{-1} : w \to v and that (e^{-1})^{-1} = e. No edge can be its own inverse.

A map of graphs, say f : X \to X', is a pair of functions, one sending vertices to vertices and one sending edges to edges, that preserve the source, target and inverse maps. By abuse of notation we call both of these functions f.

I started out talking about topology; now I’m treating graphs very combinatorially, but we can bring the topology back in. From a graph X we can build a topological space |X| called its geometric realization. We do this by taking one point for each vertex and gluing on one copy of [0,1] for each edge e : v \to w, gluing the point 0 to v and the point 1 to w, and then identifying the interval for each edge e with the interval for its inverse by means of the map t \mapsto 1 - t.

Any map of graphs gives rise to a continuous map between their geometric realizations, and we say a map of graphs is a cover if this continuous map is a covering map. For simplicity we denote the fundamental group of |X| by \pi_1(X), and similarly for other topological invariants of |X|. However, sometimes I’ll need to distinguish between a graph X and its geometric realization |X|.

Any connected graph X has a universal cover, meaning a connected cover

p : \widetilde{X} \to X

that covers every other connected cover. The geometric realization of \widetilde{X} is connected and simply connected. The fundamental group \pi_1(X) acts as deck transformations of \widetilde{X}, meaning invertible maps g : \widetilde{X} \to \widetilde{X} such that p \circ g = p. We can take the quotient of \widetilde{X} by the action of any subgroup G \subseteq \pi_1(X) and get a cover q : \widetilde{X}/G \to X.

In particular, if we take G to be the commutator subgroup of \pi_1(X), we call the graph \widetilde{X}/G the maximal abelian cover of the graph X, and denote it by \overline{X}. We obtain a cover

q : \overline{X} \to X

whose group of deck transformations is the abelianization of \pi_1(X). This is just the first homology group H_1(X,\mathbb{Z}). In particular, if the space corresponding to X has n holes, this is the free abelian group on
n generators.

I want a concrete description of the maximal abelian cover! I’ll build it starting with the universal cover, but first we need some preliminaries on paths in graphs.

Given vertices x,y in X, define a path from x to y to be a word of edges \gamma = e_1 \cdots e_\ell with e_i : v_{i-1} \to v_i for some vertices v_0, \dots, v_\ell with v_0 = x and v_\ell = y. We allow the word to be empty if and only if x = y; this gives the trivial path from x to itself.

Given a path \gamma from x to y we write \gamma : x \to y, and we write the trivial path from x to itself as 1_x : x \to x. We define the composite of paths \gamma : x \to y and \delta : y \to z via concatenation of words, obtaining a path we call \gamma \delta : x \to z. We call a path from a vertex x to itself a loop based at x.

We say two paths from x to y are homotopic if one can be obtained from the other by repeatedly introducing or deleting subwords of the form e_i e_{i+1} where e_{i+1} = e_i^{-1}. If [\gamma] is a homotopy class of paths from x to y, we write [\gamma] : x \to y. We can compose homotopy classes [\gamma] : x \to y and [\delta] : y \to z by setting [\gamma] [\delta] = [\gamma \delta].

If X is a connected graph, we can describe the universal cover \widetilde{X} as follows. Fix a vertex x_0 of X, which we call the basepoint. The vertices of \widetilde{X} are defined to be the homotopy classes of paths [\gamma] : x_0 \to x where x is arbitrary. The edges in \widetilde{X} from the vertex [\gamma] : x_0 \to x to the vertex [\delta] : x_0 \to y are defined to be the edges e \in E with [\gamma e] = [\delta]. In fact, there is always at most one such edge. There is an obvious map of graphs

p : \widetilde{X} \to X

sending each vertex [\gamma] : x_0 \to x of \widetilde{X} to the vertex
x of X. This map is a cover.

Now we are ready to construct the maximal abelian cover \overline{X}. For this, we impose a further equivalence relation on paths, which is designed to make composition commutative whenever possible. However, we need to be careful. If \gamma : x \to y and \delta : x' \to y' , the composites \gamma \delta and \delta \gamma are both well-defined if and only if x' = y and y' = x. In this case, \gamma \delta and \delta \gamma share the same starting point and share the same ending point if and only if x = x' and y = y'. If all four of these equations hold, both \gamma and \delta are loops based at x. So, we shall impose the relation \gamma \delta = \delta \gamma only in this case.

We say two paths are homologous if one can be obtained from another by:

• repeatedly introducing or deleting subwords e_i e_{i+1} where
e_{i+1} = e_i^{-1}, and/or

• repeatedly replacing subwords of the form

e_i \cdots e_j e_{j+1} \cdots e_k

by those of the form

e_{j+1} \cdots e_k e_i \cdots e_j

where e_i \cdots e_j and e_{j+1} \cdots e_k are loops based at the same vertex.

My use of the term ‘homologous’ is a bit nonstandard here!

We denote the homology class of a path \gamma by [[ \gamma ]]. Note that if two paths \gamma : x \to y, \delta : x' \to y' are homologous then x = x' and y = y'. Thus, the starting and ending points of a homology class of paths are well-defined, and given any path \gamma : x \to y we write [[ \gamma ]] : x \to y . The composite of homology classes is also well-defined if we set

[[ \gamma ]] [[ \delta ]] = [[ \gamma \delta ]]

We construct the maximal abelian cover of a connected graph X just as we constructed its universal cover, but using homology classes rather than homotopy classes of paths. And now I’ll introduce some jargon that should make you start thinking about crystals!

Fix a basepoint x_0 for X. The vertices of \overline{X}, or atoms, are defined to be the homology classes of paths [[\gamma]] : x_0 \to x where x is arbitrary. Any edge of \overline{X}, or bond, goes from some atom [[ \gamma]] : x_0 \to x to the some atom [[ \delta ]] : x_0 \to y. The bonds from [[ \gamma]] to [[ \delta ]] are defined to be the edges e \in E with [[ \gamma e ]] = [[ \delta ]]. There is at most one bond between any two atoms. Again we have a covering map

q : \overline{X} \to X .

The homotopy classes of loops based at x_0 form a group, with composition as the group operation. This is the fundamental group \pi_1(X) of the graph X. This is isomorphic as the fundamental group of the space associated to X. By our construction of the universal cover, \pi_1(X) is also the set of vertices of \widetilde{X} that are mapped to x_0 by p. Furthermore, any element [\gamma] \in \pi_1(X) defines a deck transformation of \widetilde{X} that sends each vertex [\delta] : x_0 \to x to the vertex [\gamma] [\delta] : x_0 \to x.

Similarly, the homology classes of loops based at x_0 form a group with composition as the group operation. Since the additional relation used to define homology classes is precisely that needed to make composition of homology classes of loops commutative, this group is the abelianization of \pi_1(X). It is therefore isomorphic to the first homology group H_1(X,\mathbb{Z}) of the geometric realization of X.

By our construction of the maximal abelian cover, H_1(X,\mathbb{Z}) is also the set of vertices of \overline{X} that are mapped to x_0 by q. Furthermore, any element [[\gamma]] \in H_1(X,\mathbb{Z}) defines a deck transformation of \overline{X} that sends each vertex [[\delta]] : x_0 \to x to the vertex [[\gamma]] [[\delta]] : x_0 \to x.

So, it all works out! The fundamental group \pi_1(X) acts as deck transformations of the universal cover, while the first homology group H_1(X,\mathbb{Z}) acts as deck transformations of the maximal abelian cover.

Puzzle for experts: what does this remind you of in Galois theory?

We’ll get back to crystals next time.


Topological Crystals (Part 1)

22 July, 2016

k4_crystal

A while back, we started talking about crystals:

• John Baez, Diamonds and triamonds, Azimuth, 11 April 2016.

In the comments on that post, a bunch of us worked on some puzzles connected to ‘topological crystallography’—a subject that blends graph theory, topology and mathematical crystallography. You can learn more about that subject here:

• Tosio Sunada, Crystals that nature might miss creating, Notices of the AMS 55 (2008), 208–215.

I got so interested that I wrote this paper about it, with massive help from Greg Egan:

• John Baez, Topological crystals.

I’ll explain the basic ideas in a series of posts here.

First, a few personal words.

I feel a bit guilty putting so much work into this paper when I should be developing network theory to the point where it does our planet some good. I seem to need a certain amount of beautiful pure math to stay sane. But this project did at least teach me a lot about the topology of graphs.

For those not in the know, applying homology theory to graphs might sound fancy and interesting. For people who have studied a reasonable amount of topology, it probably sounds easy and boring. The first homology of a graph of genus g is a free abelian group on g generators: it’s a complete invariant of connected graphs up to homotopy equivalence. Case closed!

But there’s actually more to it, because studying graphs up to homotopy equivalence kills most of the fun. When we’re studying networks in real life we need a more refined outlook on graphs. So some aspects of this project might pay off, someday, in ways that have nothing to do with crystallography. But right now I’ll just talk about it as a fun self-contained set of puzzles.

I’ll start by quickly sketching how to construct topological crystals, and illustrate it with the example of graphene, a 2-dimensional form of carbon:


I’ll precisely state our biggest result, which says when this construction gives a crystal where the atoms don’t bump into each other and the bonds between atoms don’t cross each other. Later I may come back and add detail, but for now you can find details in our paper.

Constructing topological crystals

The ‘maximal abelian cover’ of a graph plays a key role in Sunada’s work on topological crystallography. Just as the universal cover of a connected graph X has the fundamental group \pi_1(X) as its group of deck transformations, the maximal abelian cover, denoted \overline{X}, has the abelianization of \pi_1(X) as its group of deck transformations. It thus covers every other connected cover of X whose group of deck transformations is abelian. Since the abelianization of \pi_1(X) is the first homology group H_1(X,\mathbb{Z}), there is a close connection between the maximal abelian cover and homology theory.

In our paper, Greg and I prove that for a large class of graphs, the maximal abelian cover can naturally be embedded in the vector space H_1(X,\mathbb{R}). We call this embedded copy of \overline{X} a ‘topological crystal’. The symmetries of the original graph can be lifted to symmetries of its topological crystal, but the topological crystal also has an n-dimensional lattice of translational symmetries. In 2- and 3-dimensional examples, the topological crystal can serve as the blueprint for an actual crystal, with atoms at the vertices and bonds along the edges.

The general construction of topological crystals was developed by Kotani and Sunada, and later by Eon. Sunada uses ‘topological crystal’ for an even more general concept, but we only need a special case.

Here’s how it works. We start with a graph X. This has a space C_0(X,\mathbb{R}) of 0-chains, which are formal linear combinations of vertices, and a space C_1(X,\mathbb{R}) of 1-chains, which are formal linear combinations of edges. There is a boundary operator

\partial \colon C_1(X,\mathbb{R}) \to C_0(X,\mathbb{R})

This is the linear operator sending any edge to the difference of its two endpoints. The kernel of this operator is called the space of 1-cycles, Z_1(X,\mathbb{R}). There is an inner product on the space of 1-chains such that edges form an orthonormal basis. This determines an orthogonal projection

\pi \colon C_1(X,\mathbb{R}) \to Z_1(X,\mathbb{R})

For a graph, Z_1(X,\mathbb{R}) is isomorphic to the first homology group H_1(X,\mathbb{R}). So, to obtain the topological crystal of X, we need only embed its maximal abelian cover \overline{X} in Z_1(X,\mathbb{R}). We do this by embedding \overline{X} in C_1(X,\mathbb{R}) and then projecting it down via \pi.

To accomplish this, we need to fix a basepoint for X. Each path \gamma in X starting at this basepoint determines a 1-chain c_\gamma. These 1-chains correspond to the vertices of \overline{X}. The graph \overline{X} has an edge from c_\gamma to c_{\gamma'} whenever the path \gamma' is obtained by adding an extra edge to \gamma. This edge is a straight line segment from the point c_\gamma to the point c_{\gamma'}.

The hard part is checking that the projection \pi maps this copy of \overline{X} into Z_1(X,\mathbb{R}) in a one-to-one manner. In Theorems 6 and 7 of our paper we prove that this happens precisely when the graph X has no ‘bridges’: that is, edges whose removal would disconnect X.

Kotani and Sunada noted that this condition is necessary. That’s actually pretty easy to see. The challenge was to show that it’s sufficient! For this, our main technical tool is Lemma 5, which for any path \gamma decomposes the 1-chain c_\gamma into manageable pieces.

We call the resulting copy of \overline{X} embedded in Z_1(X,\mathbb{R}) a topological crystal.

Let’s see how it works in an example!

Take X to be this graph:

Since X has 3 edges, the space of 1-chains is 3-dimensional. Since X has 2 holes, the space of 1-cycles is a 2-dimensional plane in this 3-dimensional space. If we consider paths \gamma in X starting at the red vertex, form the 1-chains c_\gamma, and project them down to this plane, we obtain the following picture:

Here the 1-chains c_\gamma are the white and red dots. These are the vertices of \overline{X}, while the line segments between them are the edges of \overline{X}. Projecting these vertices and edges onto the plane of 1-cycles, we obtain the topological crystal for X. The blue dots come from projecting the white dots onto the plane of 1-cycles, while the red dots already lie on this plane. The resulting topological crystal provides the pattern for graphene:

That’s all there is to the basic idea! But there’s a lot more to say about it, and a lot of fun examples to look at: diamonds, triamonds, hyperquartz and more.


Frigatebirds

18 July, 2016

 

Frigatebirds are amazing!

They have the largest ratio of wing area to body weight of any bird. This lets them fly very long distances while only rarely flapping their wings. They often stay in the air for weeks at time. And one being tracked by satellite in the Indian Ocean stayed aloft for two months.

Surprisingly for sea birds, they don’t go into the water. Their feathers aren’t waterproof. They are true creatures of the air. They snatch fish from the ocean surface using their long, hooked bills—and they often eat flying fish! They clean themselves in flight by flying low and wetting themselves at the water’s surface before preening themselves.

They live a long time: often over 35 years.

But here’s the cool new discovery:

Since the frigatebird spends most of its life at sea, its habits outside of when it breeds on land aren’t well-known—until researchers started tracking them around the Indian Ocean. What the researchers discovered is that the birds’ flying ability almost defies belief.

Ornithologist Henri Weimerskirch put satellite tags on a couple of dozen frigatebirds, as well as instruments that measured body functions such as heart rate. When the data started to come in, he could hardly believe how high the birds flew.

“First, we found, ‘Whoa, 1,500 meters. Wow. Excellent, fantastique,’ ” says Weimerskirch, who is with the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. “And after 2,000, after 3,000, after 4,000 meters — OK, at this altitude they are in freezing conditions, especially surprising for a tropical bird.”

Four thousand meters is more than 12,000 feet, or as high as parts of the Rocky Mountains. “There is no other bird flying so high relative to the sea surface,” he says.

Weimerskirch says that kind of flying should take a huge amount of energy. But the instruments monitoring the birds’ heartbeats showed that the birds weren’t even working up a sweat. (They wouldn’t, actually, since birds don’t sweat, but their heart rate wasn’t going up.)

How did they do it? By flying into a cloud.

“It’s the only bird that is known to intentionally enter into a cloud,” Weimerskirch says. And not just any cloud—a fluffy, white cumulus cloud. Over the ocean, these clouds tend to form in places where warm air rises from the sea surface. The birds hitch a ride on the updraft, all the way up to the top of the cloud.

[…]

“Absolutely incredible,” says Curtis Deutsch, an oceanographer at the University of Washington. “They’re doing it right through these cumulus clouds. You know, if you’ve ever been on an airplane, flying through turbulence, you know it can be a little bit nerve-wracking.”

One of the tagged birds soared 40 miles without a wing-flap. Several covered more than 300 miles a day on average, and flew continuously for weeks.

• Christopher Joyce, Nonstop flight: how the frigatebird can soar for weeks without stopping, All Things Considered, National Public Radio, 30 June 2016.

Frigatebirds aren’t admirable in every way. They’re kleptoparasites—now there’s a word you don’t hear every day! That’s a name for animals that steal food:

Frigatebirds will rob other seabirds such as boobies, particularly the red-footed booby, tropicbirds, shearwaters, petrels, terns, gulls and even ospreys of their catch, using their speed and maneuverability to outrun and harass their victims until they regurgitate their stomach contents. They may either assail their targets after they have caught their food or circle high over seabird colonies waiting for parent birds to return laden with food.

Frigatebird, Wikipedia.


Operads for “Systems of Systems”

13 July, 2016

“Systems of systems” is a fashionable buzzword for complicated systems that are themselves made of complicated systems, often of disparate sorts. They’re important in modern engineering, and it takes some thought to keep them from being unmanageable. Biology and ecology are full of systems of systems.

David Spivak has been working a lot on operads as a tool for describing systems of systems. Here’s a nice programmatic talk advocating this approach:

• David Spivak, Operads as a potential foundation for
systems of systems
.

This was a talk he gave at the Generalized Network Structures and Dynamics Workshop at the Mathematical Biosciences Institute at Ohio State University this spring.

You won’t learn what operads are from this talk—for that, try this:

• Wikipedia, Operad.

But if you know a bit about operads, it may help give you an idea of their flexibility as a formalism for describing ways of sticking together components to form bigger systems!

I’ll probably talk about this kind of thing more pretty soon. So far I’ve been using category theory to study networked systems like electrical circuits, Markov processes and chemical reaction networks. The same ideas handle all these different kind of systems in a unified way. But I want to push toward biology. Here we need more sophisticated ideas. My philosophy is that while biology seems “messy” to physicists, living systems actually operate at higher levels of abstraction, which call for new mathematics.


Large Countable Ordinals (Part 3)

7 July, 2016

Last time we saw why it’s devilishly hard to give names to large countable ordinals.

An obvious strategy is to make up a function f from ordinals to ordinals that grows really fast, so that f(x) is a lot bigger than the ordinal x indexing it. This is indeed a good idea. But something funny tends to happen! Eventually x catches up with f(x). In other words, you eventually hit a solution of

x = f(x)

This is called a fixed point of f. At this point, there’s no way to use f(x) as a name for x unless you already have a name for x. So, your scheme fizzles out!

For example, we started by looking at powers of \omega, the smallest infinite ordinal. But eventually we ran into ordinals x that obey

x = \omega^x

There’s an obvious work-around: we make up a new name for ordinals x that obey

x = \omega^x

We call them epsilon numbers. In our usual nerdy way we start counting at zero, so we call the smallest solution of this equation \epsilon_0, and the next one \epsilon_1, and so on.

But eventually we run into ordinals x that are fixed points of the function \epsilon_x, meaning that

x = \epsilon_x

There’s an obvious work-around: we make up a new name for ordinals x that obey

x = \epsilon_x

But by now you can guess that this problem will keep happening, so we’d better get systematic about making up new names! We should let

\phi_0(\alpha) = \omega^\alpha

and let \phi_{n+1}(\alpha) be the \alphath fixed point of \phi_n.

Oswald Veblen, a mathematician at Princeton, came up with this idea around 1908, based on some thoughts of G. H. Hardy:

• Oswald Veblen, Continuous increasing functions of finite and transfinite ordinals, Trans. Amer. Math. Soc. 9 (1908), 280–292.

He figured out how to define \phi_\gamma(\alpha) even when the index \gamma is infinite.

Last time we saw how to name a lot of countable ordinals using this idea: in fact, all ordinals less than the ‘Feferman–Schütte ordinal’. This time I want go further, still using Veblen’s work.

First, however, I feel an urge to explain things a bit more precisely.

Veblen’s fixed point theorem

There are three kinds of ordinals. The first is a successor ordinal, which is one more than some other ordinal. So, we say \alpha is a successor ordinal if

\alpha = \beta + 1

for some \beta. The second is 0, which is not a successor ordinal. And the third is a limit ordinal, which is neither 0 nor a successor ordinal. The smallest example is

\omega = \{1, 2, 3, \dots \}

Every limit ordinal is the ‘limit’ of ordinals less than it. What does that mean, exactly? Remember, each ordinal is a set: the set of all smaller ordinals. We can define the limit of a set of ordinals to be the union of that set. Alternatively, it’s the smallest ordinal that’s greater than or equal to every ordinal in that set.

Now for Veblen’s key idea:

Veblen’s Fixed Point Theorem. Suppose a function f from ordinals to ordinals is:

strictly increasing: if x < y then f(x) < f(y)

and

continuous: if x is a limit ordinal, f(x) is the limit of the ordinals f(\alpha) where \alpha < x.

Then f must have a fixed point.

Why? For starters, we always have this fact:

x \le f(x)

After all, if this weren’t true, there’d be a smallest x with the property that f(x) < x, since every nonempty set of ordinals has a smallest element. But since f is strictly increasing,

f(f(x)) < f(x)

so f(x) would be an even smaller ordinal with this property. Contradiction!

Using this fact repeatedly, we get

0 \le f(0) \le f(f(0)) \le \cdots

Let \alpha be the limit of the ordinals

0, f(0), f(f(0)), \dots

Then by continuity, f(\alpha) is the limit of the sequence

f(0), f(f(0)), f(f(f(0))),\dots

So f(\alpha) equals \alpha. Voilà! A fixed point!

This construction gives the smallest fixed point of f. There are infinitely many more, since we can start not with 0 but with \alpha+1 and repeat the same argument, etc. Indeed if we try to list these fixed points, we find there is one for each ordinal.

So, we can make up a new function that lists these fixed points. Just to be cute, people call this the derivative of f, so that f'(\alpha) is the \alphath fixed point of f. Beware: while the derivative of a polynomial grows more slowly than the original polynomial, the derivative of a continuous increasing function f from ordinals to ordinals generally grows more quickly than f. It doesn’t really act like a derivative; people just call it that.

Veblen proved another nice theorem:

Theorem. If f is a continuous and strictly increasing function from ordinals to ordinals, so is f'.

So, we can take the derivative repeatedly! This is the key to the Veblen hierarchy.

If you want to read more about this, it helps to know that a function from ordinals to ordinals that’s continuous and strictly increasing is called normal. ‘Normal’ is an adjective that mathematicians use when they haven’t had enough coffee in the morning and aren’t feeling creative—it means a thousand different things. In this case, a better term would be ‘differentiable’.

Armed with that buzzword, you can try this:

• Wikipedia, Fixed-point lemma for normal functions.

Okay, enough theory. On to larger ordinals!

The Feferman–Schütte barrier

First let’s summarize how far we got last time, and why we got stuck. We inductively defined the \alphath ordinal of the \gammath kind by:

\phi_0(\alpha) = \omega^\alpha

and

\phi_{\gamma+1}(\alpha) = \phi'_\gamma(\alpha)

meaning that \phi_{\gamma+1}(\alpha) is the \alphath fixed point of \phi_\gamma.

This handles the cases where \gamma is zero or a successor ordinal. When \gamma is a limit ordinal we let \phi_{\gamma}(\alpha) be the \alphath ordinal that’s a fixed point of all the functions \phi_\beta for \beta < \gamma.

Last time I explained how these functions \phi_\gamma give a nice notation for ordinals less than the Feferman–Schütte ordinal, which is also called \Gamma_0. This ordinal is the smallest solution of

x = \phi_x(0)

So it’s a fixed point, but of a new kind, because now the x appears as a subscript of the \phi function.

We can get our hands on the Feferman–Schütte ordinal by taking the limit of the ordinals

\phi_0(0), \; \phi_{\phi_0(0)}(0) , \; \phi_{\phi_{\phi_0(0)}(0)}(0), \dots

(If you’re wondering why we use the number 0 here, instead of some other ordinal, I believe the answer is: it doesn’t really matter, we would get the same result if we used any ordinal less than the Feferman–Schütte ordinal.)

The ‘Feferman–Schütte barrier’ is the combination of these two facts:

• On the one hand, every ordinal \beta less than \Gamma_0 can be written as a finite sum of guys \phi_\gamma(\alpha) where \alpha and \gamma are even smaller than \beta. Using this fact repeatedly, we can get a finite expression for any ordinal less than the Feferman–Schütte ordinal in terms of the \phi function, addition, and the ordinal 0.

• On the other hand, if \alpha and \gamma are less than \Gamma_0 then \phi_\gamma(\alpha) is less than \Gamma_0. So we can’t use the \phi function to name the Feferman–Schütte ordinal in terms of smaller ordinals.

But now let’s break the Feferman–Schütte barrier and reach some bigger countable ordinas!

The Γ function

The function \phi_x(0) is strictly increasing and continuous as a function of x. So, using Veblen’s theorems, we can define \Gamma_\alpha to be the \alphath solution of

x = \phi_x(0)

We can then define a bunch of enormous countable ordinals:

\Gamma_0, \Gamma_1, \Gamma_2, \dots

and still bigger ones:

\Gamma_\omega, \; \Gamma_{\omega^2}, \; \Gamma_{\omega^3} , \dots

and even bigger ones:

\Gamma_{\omega^\omega}, \; \Gamma_{\omega^{\omega^\omega}}, \; \Gamma_{\omega^{\omega^{\omega^\omega}}}, \dots

and even bigger ones:

\Gamma_{\epsilon_0}, \Gamma_{\epsilon_1}, \Gamma_{\epsilon_2}, \dots

But since \epsilon_\alpha is just \phi_1(\alpha), we can reach much bigger countable ordinals with the help of the \phi function:

\Gamma_{\phi_2(0)}, \; \Gamma_{\phi_3(0)}, \; \Gamma_{\phi_4(0)}, \dots

and we can do vastly better using the \Gamma function itself:

\Gamma_{\Gamma_0}, \Gamma_{\Gamma_{\Gamma_0}}, \Gamma_{\Gamma_{\Gamma_{\Gamma_0}}} , \dots

The limit of all these is the smallest solution of

x = \Gamma_x

As usual, this ordinal is still countable, but there’s no way to express it in terms of the \Gamma function and smaller ordinals. So we are stuck again.

In short: we got past the Feferman–Schütte barrier by introducing a name for the \alphath solution of x = \phi_x(0). We called it \Gamma_\alpha. This made us happy for about two minutes…

…. but then we ran into another barrier of the same kind.

So what we really need is a more general notation: one that gets us over not just this particular bump in the road, but all bumps of this kind! We don’t want to keep randomly choosing goofy new letters like \Gamma. We need something systematic.

The multi-variable Veblen hierarchy

We were actually doing pretty well with the \phi function. It was nice and systematic. It just wasn’t powerful enough. But if you’re trying to keep track of how far you’re driving on a really long trip, you want an odometer with more digits. So, let’s try that.

In other words, let’s generalize the \phi function to allow more subscripts. Let’s rename \Gamma_\alpha and call it \phi_{1,0}(\alpha). The fact that we’re using two subscripts says that we’re going beyond the old \phi functions with just one subscript. The subscripts 1 and 0 should remind you of what happens when you drive more than 9 miles: if your odometer has two digits, it’ll say you’re on mile 10.

Now we proceed as before: we make up new functions, each of which enumerates the fixed points of the previous one:

\phi_{1,1} = \phi'_{1,0}
\phi_{1,2} = \phi'_{1,1}
\phi_{1,3} = \phi'_{1,2}

and so on. In general, we let

\phi_{1,\gamma+1} = \phi'_{1,\gamma}

and when \gamma is a limit ordinal, we let

\displaystyle{ \phi_{1,\gamma}(\alpha) = \lim_{\beta \to \gamma} \phi_{1,\beta}(\alpha) }

Are you confused?

How could you possibly be confused???

Okay, maybe an example will help. In the last section, our notation fizzled out when we took the limit of these ordinals:

\Gamma_{\Gamma_0}, \Gamma_{\Gamma_{\Gamma_0}}, \Gamma_{\Gamma_{\Gamma_{\Gamma_0}}} , \dots

The limit of these is the smallest solution of x = \Gamma_x. But now we’re writing \Gamma_x = \phi_{1,0}(x), so this limit is the smallest fixed point of \phi_{1,0}. So, it’s \phi_{1,1}(0).

We can now ride happily into the sunset, defining \phi_{1,\gamma}(\alpha) for all ordinals \alpha, \gamma. Of course, this will never give us a notation for ordinals with

x = \phi_{1,x}(0)

But we don’t let that stop us! This is where the new extra subscript really comes in handy. We now define \phi_{2,0}(\alpha) to be the \alphath solution of

x = \phi_{1,x}(0)

Then we drive on as before. We let

\phi_{2,\gamma+1} = \phi'_{2,\gamma}

and when \gamma is a limit ordinal, we say

\displaystyle{ \phi_{2,\gamma}(\alpha) = \lim_{\beta \to \gamma} \phi_{2,\beta}(\alpha) }

I hope you get the idea. Keep doing this!

We can inductively define \phi_{\beta,\gamma}(\alpha) for all \alpha, \beta and \gamma. Of course, these functions will never give a notation for solutions of

x = \phi_{x,0}(0)

To describe these, we need a function with one more subscript! So let \phi_{1,0,0}(\alpha) be the \alphath solution of

x = \phi_{x,0}(0)

We can then proceed on and on and on, adding extra subscripts as needed.

This is called the multi-variable Veblen hierarchy.

Examples

To help you understand the multi-variable Veblen hierarchy, I’ll use it to describe lots of ordinals. Some are old friends. Starting with finite ones, we have:

\phi_0(0) = 1

\phi_0(0) + \phi_0(0) = 2

and so on, so we don’t need separate names for natural numbers… but I’ll use them just to save space.

\phi_0(1) = \omega

\phi_0(2) = \omega^2

and so on, so we don’t need separate names for \omega and its powers, but I’ll use them just to save space.

\phi_0(\omega) = \omega^\omega

\phi_0(\omega^\omega) = \omega^{\omega^\omega}

\phi_1(0) = \epsilon_0

\phi_1(1) = \epsilon_1

\displaystyle{ \phi_1(\phi_1(0)) = \epsilon_{\epsilon_0} }

\phi_2(0) = \zeta_0

\phi_2(1) = \zeta_1

where I should remind you that \zeta_\alpha is a name for the \alphath solution of x = \epsilon_x.

\phi_{1,0}(0) = \Gamma_0

\phi_{1,0}(1) = \Gamma_1

\displaystyle{ \phi_{1,0}(\phi_{1,0}(0)) = \Gamma_{\Gamma_0} }

\phi_{1,1}(0) is the limit of \Gamma_{\Gamma_0}, \Gamma_{\Gamma_{\Gamma_0}}, \Gamma_{\Gamma_{\Gamma_{\Gamma_0}}} , \dots

\phi_{1,0,0}(0) is called the Ackermann ordinal.

Apparently Wilhelm Ackermann, the logician who invented a very fast-growing function called Ackermann’s function, had a system for naming ordinals that fizzled out at this ordinal.

The small Veblen ordinal

There are obviously lots more ordinals that can be described using the multi-variable Veblen hierarchy, but I don’t have anything interesting to say about them. And you’re probably more interested in this question: what’s next?

The limit of these ordinals

\phi_1(0), \; \phi_{1,0}(0), \; \phi_{1,0,0}(0), \dots

is called the small Veblen ordinal. Yet again, it’s a countable ordinal. It’s the smallest ordinal that cannot be named in terms of smaller ordinals using the multi-variable Veblen hierarchy…. at least, not the version I described. And here’s a nice fact:

Theorem. Every ordinal \beta less than the small Veblen ordinal can be written as a finite expression in terms of the multi-variable \phi function, addition, and 0.

For example,

\Gamma_0 + \epsilon_{\epsilon_0} + \omega^\omega + 2

is equal to

\displaystyle{  \phi_{\phi_0(0),0}(0) + \phi_{\phi_0(0)}(\phi_{\phi_0(0)}(0)) +  \phi_0(\phi_0(\phi_0(0))) + \phi_0(0) + \phi_0(0)  }

On the one hand, this notation is quite tiresome to read. On the other hand, it’s amazing that it gets us so far!

Furthermore, if you stare at expressions like the above one for a while, and think about them abstractly, they should start looking like trees. So you should find it easy to believe that ordinals less than the small Veblen ordinal correspond to trees, perhaps labelled in some way.

Indeed, this paper describes a correspondence of this sort:

• Herman Ruge Jervell, Finite trees as ordinals, in New Computational Paradigms, Lecture Notes in Computer Science 3526, Springer, Berlin, 2005, pp. 211–220.

However, I don’t think his idea is quite same as what you’d come up with by staring at expressions like

\displaystyle{  \phi_{\phi_0(0),0}(0) + \phi_{\phi_0(0)}(\phi_{\phi_0(0)}(0)) +  \phi_0(\phi_0(\phi_0(0))) + \phi_0(0) + \phi_0(0)  }

Beyond the small Veblen ordinal

We’re not quite done yet. The modifier ‘small’ in the term ‘small Veblen ordinal’ should make you suspect that there’s more in Veblen’s paper. And indeed there is!

Veblen actually extended his multi-variable function \phi_{\gamma_1, \dots, \gamma_n}(\alpha) to the case where there are infinitely many variables. He requires that all but finitely many of these variables equal zero, to keep things under control. Using this, one can set up a notation for even bigger countable ordinals! This notation works for all ordinals less than the large Veblen ordinal.

We don’t need to stop here. The large Veblen ordinal is just the first of a new series of even larger countable ordinals!

These can again be defined as fixed points. Yes: it’s déjà vu all over again. But around here, people usually switch to a new method for naming these fixed points, called ‘ordinal collapsing functions’. One interesting thing about this notation is that it makes use of uncountable ordinal. The first uncountable ordinal is called \Omega, and it dwarfs all those we’ve seen here.

We can use the ordinal collapsing function \psi to name many of our favorite countable ordinals, and more:

\psi(\Omega) is \zeta_0, the smallest solution of x = \epsilon_x.

\psi(\Omega^\Omega) is \Gamma_0, the Feferman–Schütte ordinal.

\psi(\Omega^{\Omega^2}) is the Ackermann ordinal.

\psi(\Omega^{\Omega^\omega}) is the small Veblen ordinal.

\psi(\Omega^{\Omega^\Omega}) is the large Veblen ordinal.

\psi(\epsilon_{\Omega+1}) is called the Bachmann–Howard ordinal. This is the limit of the ordinals

\psi(\Omega), \psi(\Omega^\Omega), \psi(\Omega^{\Omega^\Omega}), \dots

I won’t explain this now. Maybe later! But not tonight. As Bilbo Baggins said:

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

For more

But perhaps you’re impatient and want to begin a new journey now!

The people who study notations for very large countable ordinals tend to work on proof theory, because these ordinals have nice applications to that branch of logic. For example, Peano arithmetic is powerful enough to work with ordinals up to but not including \epsilon_0, so we call \epsilon_0 the proof-theoretic ordinal of Peano arithmetic. Stronger axiom systems have bigger proof-theoretic ordinals.

Unfortunately this makes it a bit hard to learn about large countable ordinals without learning, or at least bumping into, a lot of proof theory. And this subject, while interesting in principle, is quite tough. So it’s hard to find a readable introduction to large countable ordinals.

The bibliography of the Wikipedia article on large countable ordinals gives this half-hearted recommendation:

Wolfram Pohlers, Proof theory, Springer 1989 ISBN 0-387-51842-8 (for Veblen hierarchy and some impredicative ordinals). This is probably the most readable book on large countable ordinals (which is not saying much).

Unfortunately, Pohlers does not seem to give a detailed account of ordinal collapsing functions. If you want to read something fun that goes further than my posts so far, try this:

• Hilbert Levitz, Transfinite ordinals and their notations: for the uninitiated.

(Anyone whose first name is Hilbert must be born to do logic!)

This is both systematic and clear:

• Wikipedia, Ordinal collapsing functions.

And if you want to explore countable ordinals using a computer program, try this:

• Paul Budnik, Ordinal calculator and research tool.

Among other things, this calculator can add, multiply and exponentiate ordinals described using the multi-variable Veblen hierarchy—even the version with infinitely many variables!


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