Algebraic geometry

Algebraic geometry is a branch of mathematics which, as the name suggests, combines techniques of abstract algebra, especially commutative algebra, with the language and the problems of geometry. It occupies a central place in modern mathematics and has multiple conceptual connections with such diverse fields as complex analysis, topology and number theory. Initially a study of polynomial equations in many variables, the subject of algebraic geometry starts where equation solving leaves off, and it becomes at least as important to understand the totality of solutions of a system of equations, as to find some solution; this leads into some of the deepest waters in the whole of mathematics, both conceptually and in terms of technique.

The fundamental objects of study in algebraic geometry are algebraic varieties, geometric manifestations of solutions of systems of polynomial equations. Plane algebraic curves, which include lines, circles, parabolas, lemniscates, and Cassini ovals, form one of the best studied classes of algebraic varieties. A point of the plane belongs to an algebraic curve if its coordinates satisfy a given polynomial equation. Basic questions involve relative position of different curves and relations between the curves given by different equations.

Descartes's idea of coordinates is central to algebraic geometry, but it has undergone a series of remarkable transformations beginning in the early 19th century. Before then, the coordinates were assumed to be tuples of real numbers, but first complex numbers, and then elements of an arbitrary field became acceptable. Homogeneous coordinates of projective geometry offered an extension of the notion of coordinate system in a different direction, and enriched the scope of algebraic geometry. Much of the development of algebraic geometry in the 20th century occurred within an abstract algebraic framework, with increasing emphasis being placed on 'intrinsic' properties of algebraic varieties not dependent on any particular way of embedding the variety in an ambient coordinate space; this parallels developments in topology and complex geometry. One key distinction between classical projective geometry of 19th century and modern algebraic geometry, in the form given to it by Grothendieck and Serre, is that the former is concerned with the more geometric notion of a point, while the latter emphasizes the more analytic concepts of a regular function and a regular map and extensively draws on sheaf theory. Another important difference lies in the scope of the subject. Grothendieck's idea of scheme provides the language and the tools for geometric treatment of arbitrary commutative rings and, in particular, bridges algebraic geometry with algebraic number theory. Andrew Wiles's celebrated proof of Fermat's last theorem is a vivid testament to the power of this approach. André Weil, Grothendieck, and Deligne also demonstrated that the fundamental ideas of topology of manifolds have deep analogues in algebraic geometry over finite fields.

Zeros of simultaneous polynomials

In classical algebraic geometry, the main objects of interest are the vanishing sets of collections of polynomials, meaning the set of all points that simultaneously satisfy one or more polynomial equations. For instance, the two-dimensional sphere in three-dimensional Euclidean space R3 could be defined as the set of all points (x,y,z) with


A "slanted" circle in R3 can be defined as the set of all points (x,y,z) which satisfy the two polynomial equations


Affine varieties

First we start with a field k. In classical algebraic geometry, this field was always the complex numbers C, but many of the same results are true if we assume only that k is algebraically closed. We define An(k) (or more simply An, when k is clear from the context), called the affine n-space over k, to be kn. The purpose of this apparently superfluous notation is to emphasize that one `forgets' the vector space structure that kn carries. Abstractly speaking, An is, for the moment, just a collection of points.

A function f : AnA1 is said to be regular if it can be written as a polynomial, that is, if there is a polynomial p in k[x1,...,xn] such that f(t1,...,tn) = p(t1,...,tn) for every point (t1,...,tn) of An.

Regular functions on affine n-space are thus exactly the same as polynomials over k in n variables. We will write the regular functions on An as k[An].

We say that a polynomial vanishes at a point if evaluating it at that point gives zero. Let S be a set of polynomials in k[An]. The vanishing set of S (or vanishing locus) is the set V(S) of all points in An where every polynomial in S vanishes. In other words,

V(S) = {(t_1,dots,t_n)|forall pin S, p(t_1,dots,t_n) = 0}.,

A subset of An which is V(S), for some S, is called an algebraic set. The V stands for variety (a specific type of algebraic set to be defined below).

Given a subset U of An, can one recover the set of polynomials which generate it? If U is any subset of An, define I(U) to be the set of all polynomials whose vanishing set contains U. The I stands for ideal: if two polynomials f and g both vanish on U, then f+g vanishes on U, and if h is any polynomial, then hf vanishes on U, so I(U) is always an ideal of k[An].

Two natural questions to ask are:

  • Given a subset U of An, when is U = V(I(U))?
  • Given a set S of polynomials, when is S = I(V(S))?

The answer to the first question is provided by introducing the Zariski topology, a topology on An which directly reflects the algebraic structure of k[An]. Then U = V(I(U)) if and only if U is a Zariski-closed set. The answer to the second question is given by Hilbert's Nullstellensatz. In one of its forms, it says that I(V(S)) is the prime radical of the ideal generated by S. In more abstract language, there is a Galois connection, giving rise to two closure operators; they can be identified, and naturally play a basic role in the theory; the example is elaborated at Galois connection.

For various reasons we may not always want to work with the entire ideal corresponding to an algebraic set U. Hilbert's basis theorem implies that ideals in k[An] are always finitely generated.

An algebraic set is called irreducible if it cannot be written as the union of two smaller algebraic sets. An irreducible algebraic set is also called a variety. It turns out that an algebraic set is a variety if and only if the polynomials defining it generate a prime ideal of the polynomial ring.

Regular functions

Just as continuous functions are the natural maps on topological spaces and smooth functions are the natural maps on differentiable manifolds, there is a natural class of functions on an algebraic set, called regular functions. A regular function on an algebraic set V contained in An is defined to be the restriction of a regular function on An, in the sense we defined above.

It may seem unnaturally restrictive to require that a regular function always extend to the ambient space, but it is very similar to the situation in a normal topological space, where the Tietze extension theorem guarantees that a continuous function on a closed subset always extends to the ambient topological space.

Just as with the regular functions on affine space, the regular functions on V form a ring, which we denote by k[V]. This ring is called the coordinate ring of V.

Since regular functions on V come from regular functions on An, there should be a relationship between their coordinate rings. Specifically, to get a function in k[V] we took a function in k[An], and we said that it was the same as another function if they gave the same values when evaluated on V. This is the same as saying that their difference is zero on V. From this we can see that k[V] is the quotient k[An]/I(V).

The category of affine varieties

Using regular functions from an affine variety to A1, we can define regular functions from one affine variety to another. First we will define a regular function from a variety into affine space: Let V be a variety contained in An. Choose m regular functions on V, and call them f1, ..., fm. We define a regular function f from V to Am by letting f(t1, ..., tn) = (f1, ..., fm). In other words, each fi determines one coordinate of the range of f.

If V' is a variety contained in Am, we say that f is a regular function from V to V' if the range of f is contained in V'.

This makes the collection of all affine varieties into a category, where the objects are affine varieties and the morphisms are regular maps. The following theorem characterizes the category of affine varieties:

The category of affine varieties is the opposite category to the category of finitely generated integral k-algebras and their homomorphisms.

Projective space

Consider the variety V(y - x2). If we draw it, we get a parabola. As x increases, the slope of the line from the origin to the point (xx2) becomes larger and larger. As x decreases, the slope of the same line becomes smaller and smaller.

Compare this to the variety V(y - x3). This is a cubic equation. As x increases, the slope of the line from the origin to the point (xx3) becomes larger and larger just as before. But unlike before, as x decreases, the slope of the same line again becomes larger and larger. So the behavior "at infinity" of V(y-x3) is different from the behavior "at infinity" of V(y - x2). It is, however, difficult to make the concept of "at infinity" meaningful, if we restrict to working in affine space.

The remedy to this is to work in projective space. Projective space has properties analogous to those of a compact Hausdorff space. Among other things, it lets us make precise the notion of "at infinity" by including extra points. The behavior of a variety at those extra points then gives us more information about it. As it turns out, V(y - x3) has a singularity at one of those extra points, but V(y - x2) is smooth.

While projective geometry was originally established on a synthetic foundation, the use of homogeneous coordinates allowed the introduction of algebraic techniques. Furthermore, the introduction of projective techniques made many theorems in algebraic geometry simpler and sharper: For example, Bézout's theorem on the number of intersection points between two varieties can be stated in its sharpest form only in projective space. For this reason, projective space plays a fundamental role in algebraic geometry.

The modern viewpoint

The modern approach to algebraic geometry redefines the basic objects. Varieties are subsumed in Alexander Grothendieck's concept of a scheme. Schemes start with the observation that if finitely generated reduced k-algebras are geometrical objects, then perhaps arbitrary commutative rings should also be geometrical objects. As such, schemes become both a more general algebro-geometric object, and a convenient language to describe those objects. This language of schemes has proved to be a valuable way of dealing with geometric concepts and has become a cornerstone of modern algebraic geometry.

A further generalization is possible to Universal algebraic geometry in which every variety of algebra has its own algebraic geometry. The term variety of algebra should not be confused with algebraic variety.


Prehistory: Before the 19th century

Some of the roots of algebraic geometry date back to the work of the Hellenistic Greeks from the 5th century BC. The Delic problem, for instance, was to construct a length x so that the cube of side x contained the same volume as the rectangular box a2b for given sides a and b. Menechmus (circa 350 BC) considered the problem geometrically by intersecting the pair of plane conics ay = x2 and xy = ab. The later work, in the 3rd century BC, of Archimedes and Apollonius studied more systematically problems on conic sections, and also involved the use of coordinates. The Arab mathematicians were able to solve by purely algebraic means certain cubic equations, and then to interpret the results geometrically. This was done, for instance, by Ibn al-Haytham in the 10th century AD. Subsequently, Persian mathematician Omar Khayyám (born 1048 A.D.) discovered the general method of solving cubic equations by intersecting a parabola with a circle. Each of these primordial developments in algebraic geometry dealt with questions of finding and describing the intersections of algebraic curves.

Such techniques of applying geometrical constructions to algebraic problems were also adopted by a number of Renaissance mathematicians such as Cardano and Niccolo Fontana "Tartaglia" on their studies of the cubic equation. The geometrical approach to construction problems, rather than the algebraic one, was favored by most 16th and 17th century mathematicians, notably Blaise Pascal who argued against the use of algebraic and analytical methods in geometry. The French mathematicians Franciscus Vieta and later René Descartes and Pierre de Fermat revolutionized the conventional way of thinking about construction problems through the introduction of coordinate geometry. They were interested primarily in the properties of algebraic curves, such as those defined by Diophantine equations (in the case of Fermat), and the algebraic reformulation of the classical Greek works on conics and cubics (in the case of Descartes).

During the same period, Blaise Pascal and Desargues approached geometry from a different perspective, developing the synthetic notions of Projections. Pascal and Desargues also studied curves, but from the purely geometrical point of view: the analog of the Greek ruler and compass construction. Ultimately, the analytic geometry of Descartes and Fermat won out, for it supplied the 18th century mathematicians with concrete quantitative tools needed to study physical problems using the new calculus of Newton and Leibniz. However, by the end of the 18th century, most of the algebraic character of coordinate geometry was subsumed by the calculus of infinitesimals of Lagrange and Euler.

Nineteenth and early 20th century

It took the simultaneous 19th century developments of non-Euclidean geometry and Abelian integrals in order to bring the old algebraic ideas back into the geometrical fold. The first of these new developments was seized up by Edmond Laguerre and Arthur Cayley, who attempted to ascertain the generalized metric properties of projective space. Cayley introduced the idea of homogeneous polynomial forms, and more specifically quadratic forms, on projective space. Subsequently, Felix Klein studied projective geometry (along with other sorts of geometry) from the viewpoint that the geometry on a space is encoded in a certain class of transformations on the space. By the end of the 19th century, projective geometers were studying more general kinds of transformations on figures in projective space. Rather than the projective linear transformations which were normally regarded as giving the fundamental Kleinian geometry on projective space, they concerned themselves also with the higher degree birational transformations. This weaker notion of congruence would later lead members of the 20th century Italian school of algebraic geometry to classify algebraic surfaces up to birational isomorphism.

The second early 19th century development, that of Abelian integrals, would lead Bernhard Riemann to the development of Riemann surfaces.

Twentieth century

B. L. van der Waerden, Oscar Zariski, André Weil and others attempted to develop a rigorous foundation for algebraic geometry based on contemporary commutative algebra, including valuation theory and the theory of ideals.

In the 1950s and 1960s Jean-Pierre Serre and Alexander Grothendieck recast the foundations making use of sheaf theory. Later, from about 1960, the idea of schemes was worked out, in conjunction with a very refined apparatus of homological techniques. After a decade of rapid development the field stabilised in the 1970s, and new applications were made, both to number theory and to more classical geometric questions on algebraic varieties, singularities and moduli.

An important class of varieties, not easily understood directly from their defining equations, are the abelian varieties, which are the projective varieties whose points form an abelian group. The prototypical examples are the elliptic curves, which have a rich theory. They were instrumental in the proof of Fermat's last theorem and are also used in elliptic curve cryptography.

While much of algebraic geometry is concerned with abstract and general statements about varieties, methods for effective computation with concretely-given polynomials have also been developed. The most important is the technique of Gröbner bases which is employed in all computer algebra systems.

See also



A classical textbook, predating schemes:

Modern textbooks that do not use the language of schemes:

Textbooks and references for schemes:

On the Internet:

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