The Summer 2017 Mathematics A To Z: Height Function (elliptic curves)


I am one letter closer to the end of Gaurish’s main block of requests. They’re all good ones, mind you. This gets me back into elliptic curves and Diophantine equations. I might be writing about the wrong thing.

Height Function.

My love’s father has a habit of asking us to rate our hobbies. This turned into a new running joke over a family vacation this summer. It’s a simple joke: I shuffled the comparables. “Which is better, Bon Jovi or a roller coaster?” It’s still a good question.

But as genial yet nasty as the spoof is, my love’s father asks natural questions. We always want to compare things. When we form a mathematical construct we look for ways to measure it. There’s typically something. We’ll put one together. We call this a height function.

We start with an elliptic curve. The coordinates of the points on this curve satisfy some equation. Well, there are many equations they satisfy. We pick one representation for convenience. The convenient thing is to have an easy-to-calculate height. We’ll write the equation for the curve as

y^2 = x^3 + Ax + B

Here both ‘A’ and ‘B’ are some integers. This form might be unique, depending on whether a slightly fussy condition on prime numbers hold. (Specifically, if ‘p’ is a prime number and ‘p4‘ divides into ‘A’, then ‘p6‘ must not divide into ‘B’. Yes, I know you realized that right away. But I write to a general audience, some of whom are learning how to see these things.) Then the height of this curve is whichever is the larger number, four times the cube of the absolute value of ‘A’, or 27 times the square of ‘B’. I ask you to just run with it. I don’t know the implications of the height function well enough to say why, oh, 25 times the square of ‘B’ wouldn’t do as well. The usual reason for something like that is that some obvious manipulation makes the 27 appear right away, or disappear right away.

This idea of height feeds in to a measure called rank. “Rank” is a term the young mathematician encounters first while learning matrices. It’s the number of rows in a matrix that aren’t equal to some sum or multiple of other rows. That is, it’s how many different things there are among a set. You can see why we might find that interesting. So many topics have something called “rank” and it measures how many different things there are in a set of things. In elliptic curves, the rank is a measure of how complicated the curve is. We can imagine the rational points on the elliptic curve as things generated by some small set of starter points. The starter points have to be of infinite order. Starter points that don’t, don’t count for the rank. Please don’t worry about what “infinite order” means here. I only mention this infinite-order business because if I don’t then something I have to say about two paragraphs from here will sound daft. So, the rank is how many of these starter points you need to generate the elliptic curve. (WARNING: Call them “generating points” or “generators” during your thesis defense.)

There’s no known way of guessing what the rank is if you just know ‘A’ and ‘B’. There are algorithms that can calculate the rank given a particular ‘A’ and ‘B’. But it’s not something like the quadratic formula where you can just do a quick calculation and know what you’re looking for. We don’t even know if the algorithms we have will work for every elliptic curve.

We think that there’s no limit to the height of elliptic curves. We don’t know this. We know there exist curves with ranks as high as 28. They seem to be rare [*]. I don’t know if that’s proven. But we do know there are elliptic curves with rank zero. A lot of them, in fact. (See what I meant two paragraphs back?) These are the elliptic curves that have only finitely many rational points on them.

And there’s a lot of those. There’s a well-respected that the average rank, of all the elliptic curves there are, is ½. It might be. What we have been able to prove is that the average rank is less than or equal to 1.17. Also that it should be larger than zero. So we’re maybe closing in on the ½ conjecture? At least we know something. I admit this essay I’ve started wondering what we do know of elliptic curves.

What do the height, and through it the rank, get us? I worry I’m repeating myself. By themselves they give us families of elliptic curves. Shapes that are similar in a particular and not-always-obvious way. And they feed into the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture, which is the hipster’s Riemann Hypothesis. That is, it’s this big, unanswered, important problem that would, if answered, tell us things about a lot of questions that I’m not sure can be concisely explained. At least not why they’re interesting. We know some special cases, at least. Wikipedia tells me nothing’s proved for curves with rank greater than 1. Humanity’s ignorance on this point makes me feel slightly better pondering what I don’t know about elliptic curves.

(There are some other things within the field of elliptic curves called height functions. There’s particularly a height of individual points. I was unsure which height Gaurish found interesting so chose one. The other starts by measuring something different; it views, for example, \frac{1}{2} as having a lower height than does \frac{51}{101} , even though the numbers are quite close in value. It develops along similar lines, trying to find classes of curves with similar behavior. And it gets into different unsolved conjectures. We have our ideas about how to think of fields.).


[*] Wikipedia seems to suggest we only know of one, provided by Professor Noam Elkies in 2006, and let me quote it in full. I apologize that it isn’t in the format I suggested at top was standard. Elkies way outranks me academically so we have to do things his way:

y^2 + xy + y = x^3 - x^2 -  20,067,762,415,575,526,585,033,208,209,338,542,750,930,230,312,178,956,502 x + 34,481,611,795,030,556,467,032,985,690,390,720,374,855,944,359,319,180,361,266,008,296,291,939,448,732,243,429

I can’t figure how to get WordPress to present that larger. I sympathize. I’m tired just looking at an equation like that. This page lists records of known elliptic curve ranks. I don’t know if the lack of any records more recent than 2006 reflects the page not having been updated or nobody having found a rank-29 curve. I fully accept the field might be more difficult than even doing maintenance on a web page’s content is.

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