My All 2020 Mathematics A to Z: K-Theory


I should have gone with Vayuputrii’s proposal that I talk about the Kronecker Delta. But both Jacob Siehler and Mr Wu proposed K-Theory as a topic. It’s a big and an important one. That was compelling. It’s also a challenging one. This essay will not teach you K-Theory, or even get you very far in an introduction. It may at least give some idea of what the field is about.

Color cartoon illustration of a coati in a beret and neckerchief, holding up a director's megaphone and looking over the Hollywood hills. The megaphone has the symbols + x (division obelus) and = on it. The Hollywood sign is, instead, the letters MATHEMATICS. In the background are spotlights, with several of them crossing so as to make the letters A and Z; one leg of the spotlights has 'TO' in it, so the art reads out, subtly, 'Mathematics A to Z'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

K-Theory.

This is a difficult topic to discuss. It’s an important theory. It’s an abstract one. The concrete examples are either too common to look interesting or are already deep into things like “tangent bundles of Sn-1”. There are people who find tangent bundles quite familiar concepts. My blog will not be read by a thousand of them this month. Those who are familiar with the legends grown around Alexander Grothendieck will nod on hearing he was a key person in the field. Grothendieck was of great genius, and also spectacular indifference to practical mathematics. Allegedly he once, pressed to apply something to a particular prime number for an example, proposed 57, which is not prime. (One does not need to be a genius to make a mistake like that. If I proposed 447 or 449 as prime numbers, how long would you need to notice I was wrong?)

K-Theory predates Grothendieck. Now that we know it’s a coherent mathematical idea we can find elements leading to it going back to the 19th century. One important theorem has Bernhard Riemann’s name attached. Henri Poincaré contributed early work too. Grothendieck did much to give the field a particular identity. Also a name, the K coming from the German Klasse. Grothendieck pioneered what we now call Algebraic K-Theory, working on the topic as a field of abstract algebra. There is also a Topological K-Theory, early work on which we thank Michael Atiyah and Friedrick Hirzebruch for. Topology is, popularly, thought of as the mathematics of flexible shapes. It is, but we get there from thinking about relationships between sets, and these are the topologies of K-Theory. We understand these now as different ways of understandings structures.

Still, one text I found described (topological) K-Theory as “the first generalized cohomology theory to be studied thoroughly”. I remember how much handwaving I had to do to explain what a cohomology is. The subject looks intimidating because of the depth of technical terms. Every field is deep in technical terms, though. These look more rarefied because we haven’t talked much, or deeply, into the right kinds of algebra and topology.

You find at the center of K-Theory either “coherent sheaves” or “vector bundles”. Which alternative depends on whether you prefer Algebraic or Topological K-Theory. Both alternatives are ways to encode information about the space around a shape. Let me talk about vector bundles because I find that easier to describe. Take a shape, anything you like. A closed ribbon. A torus. A Möbius strip. Draw a curve on it. Every point on that curve has a tangent plane, the plane that just touches your original shape, and that’s guaranteed to touch your curve at one point. What are the directions you can go in that plane? That collection of directions is a fiber bundle — a tangent bundle — at that point. (As ever, do not use this at your thesis defense for algebraic topology.)

Now: what are all the tangent bundles for all the points along that curve? Does their relationship tell you anything about the original curve? The question is leading. If their relationship told us nothing, this would not be a subject anyone studies. If you pick a point on the curve and look at its tangent bundle, and you move that point some, how does the tangent bundle change?

If we start with the right sorts of topological spaces, then we can get some interesting sets of bundles. What makes them interesting is that we can form them into a ring. A ring means that we have a set of things, and an operation like addition, and an operation like multiplication. That is, the collection of things works somewhat like the integers do. This is a comfortable familiar behavior after pondering too much abstraction.

Why create such a thing? The usual reasons. Often it turns out calculating something is easier on the associated ring than it is on the original space. What are we looking to calculate? Typically, we’re looking for invariants. Things that are true about the original shape whatever ways it might be rotated or stretched or twisted around. Invariants can be things as basic as “the number of holes through the solid object”. Or they can be as ethereal as “the total energy in a physics problem”. Unfortunately if we’re looking at invariants that familiar, K-Theory is probably too much overhead for the problem. I confess to feeling overwhelmed by trying to learn enough to say what it is for.

There are some big things which it seems well-suited to do. K-Theory describes, in its way, how the structure of a set of items affects the functions it can have. This links it to modern physics. The great attention-drawing topics of 20th century physics were quantum mechanics and relativity. They still are. The great discovery of 20th century physics has been learning how much of it is geometry. How the shape of space affects what physics can be. (Relativity is the accessible reflection of this.)

And so K-Theory comes to our help in string theory. String theory exists in that grand unification where mathematics and physics and philosophy merge into one. I don’t toss philosophy into this as an insult to philosophers or to string theoreticians. Right now it is very hard to think of ways to test whether a particular string theory model is true. We instead ponder what kinds of string theory could be true, and how we might someday tell whether they are. When we ask what things could possibly be true, and how to tell, we are working for the philosophy department.

My reading tells me that K-Theory has been useful in condensed matter physics. That is, when you have a lot of particles and they interact strongly. When they act like liquids or solids. I can’t speak from experience, either on the mathematics or the physics side.

I can talk about an interesting mathematical application. It’s described in detail in section 2.3 of Allen Hatcher’s text Vector Bundles and K-Theory, here. It comes about from consideration of the Hopf invariant, named for Heinz Hopf for what I trust are good reasons. It also comes from consideration of homomorphisms. A homomorphism is a matching between two sets of things that preserves their structure. This has a precise definition, but I can make it casual. If you have noticed that, every (American, hourlong) late-night chat show is basically the same? The host at his desk, the jovial band leader, the monologue, the show rundown? Two guests and a band? (At least in normal times.) Then you have noticed the homomorphism between these shows. A mathematical homomorphism is more about preserving the products of multiplication. Or it preserves the existence of a thing called the kernel. That is, you can match up elements and how the elements interact.

What’s important is Adams’ Theorem of the Hopf Invariant. I’ll write this out (quoting Hatcher) to give some taste of K-Theory:

The following statements are true only for n = 1, 2, 4, and 8:
a. R^n is a division algebra.
b. S^{n - 1} is parallelizable, ie, there exist n – 1 tangent vector fields to S^{n - 1} which are linearly independent at each point, or in other words, the tangent bundle to S^{n - 1} is trivial.

This is, I promise, low on jargon. “Division algebra” is familiar to anyone who did well in abstract algebra. It means a ring where every element, except for zero, has a multiplicative inverse. That is, division exists. “Linearly independent” is also a familiar term, to the mathematician. Almost every subject in mathematics has a concept of “linearly independent”. The exact definition varies but it amounts to the set of things having neither redundant nor missing elements.

The proof from there sprawls out over a bunch of ideas. Many of them I don’t know. Some of them are simple. The conditions on the Hopf invariant all that S^{n - 1} stuff eventually turns into finding values of n for for which 2^n divides 3^n - 1 . There are only three values of ‘n’ that do that. For example.

What all that tells us is that if you want to do something like division on ordered sets of real numbers you have only a few choices. You can have a single real number, R^1 . Or you can have an ordered pair, R^2 . Or an ordered quadruple, R^4 . Or you can have an ordered octuple, R^8 . And that’s it. Not that other ordered sets can’t be interesting. They will all diverge far enough from the way real numbers work that you can’t do something that looks like division.

And now we come back to the running theme of this year’s A-to-Z. Real numbers are real numbers, fine. Complex numbers? We have some ways to understand them. One of them is to match each complex number with an ordered pair of real numbers. We have to define a more complicated multiplication rule than “first times first, second times second”. This rule is the rule implied if we come to R^2 through this avenue of K-Theory. We get this matching between real numbers and the first great expansion on real numbers.

The next great expansion of complex numbers is the quaternions. We can understand them as ordered quartets of real numbers. That is, as R^4 . We need to make our multiplication rule a bit fussier yet to do this coherently. Guess what fuss we’d expect coming through K-Theory?

R^8 seems the odd one out; who does anything with that? There is a set of numbers that neatly matches this ordered set of octuples. It’s called the octonions, sometimes called the Cayley Numbers. We don’t work with them much. We barely work with quaternions, as they’re a lot of fuss. Multiplication on them doesn’t even commute. (They’re very good for understanding rotations in three-dimensional space. You can also also use them as vectors. You’ll do that if your programming language supports quaternions already.) Octonions are more challenging. Not only does their multiplication not commute, it’s not even associative. That is, if you have three octonions — call them p, q, and r — you can expect that p times the product of q-and-r would be different from the product of p-and-q times r. Real numbers don’t work like that. Complex numbers or quaternions don’t either.

Octonions let us have a meaningful division, so we could write out p \div q and know what it meant. We won’t see that for any bigger ordered set of R^n . And K-Theory is one of the tools which tells us we may stop looking.

This is hardly the last word in the field. It’s barely the first. It is at least an understandable one. The abstractness of the field works against me here. It does offer some compensations. Broad applicability, for example; a theorem tied to few specific properties will work in many places. And pure aesthetics too. Much work, in statements of theorems and their proofs, involve lovely diagrams. You’ll see great lattices of sets relating to one another. They’re linked by chains of homomorphisms. And, in further aesthetics, beautiful words strung into lovely sentences. You may not know what it means to say “Pontryagin classes also detect the nontorsion in \pi_k(SO(n)) outside the stable range”. I know I don’t. I do know when I hear a beautiful string of syllables and that is a joy of mathematics never appreciated enough.


Thank you for reading. The All 2020 A-to-Z essays should be available at this link. The essays from all A-to-Z sequence, 2015 to present, should be at this link. And I am still open for M, N, and O essay topics. Thanks for your attention.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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