# You Could Have Invented Spectral Sequences

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1 You Could Have Invented Spectral Sequences Timothy Y Chow Introduction The subject of spectral sequences has a reputation for being difficult for the beginner Even G W Whitehead (quoted in John McCleary [4]) once remarked, The machinery of spectral sequences, stemming from the algebraic work of Lyndon and Koszul, seemed complicated and obscure to many topologists Why is this? David Eisenbud [] suggests an explanation: The subject of spectral sequences is elementary, but the notion of the spectral sequence of a double complex involves so many objects and indices that it seems at first repulsive I have heard others make similar complaints about the proliferation of subscripts and superscripts My own explanation, however, is that spectral sequences are often not taught in a way that explains how one might have come up with the inition in the first place For example, John McCleary s excellent text [4] says, The user, however, needs to get acquainted with the manipulation of these gadgets without the formidable issue of their origins Without an understanding of where spectral sequences come from, one naturally finds them mysterious Conversely, if one does see where they come from, the notation should not be a stumbling block Timothy Y Chow is a member of the research staff at the Center for Communications Research in Princeton, New Jersey His address is Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, so my goal below is to make you, the reader, feel that you could have invented spectral sequences (on a very good day, to be sure!) I assume familiarity with homology groups, but little more Everything here is known to the cognoscenti, but my hope is to make the ideas accessible to more than the lucky few who are able to have the right conversation with the right expert at the right time Readers who are interested in the history of spectral sequences and how they were in fact invented should read [3], which gives a initive account Simplifying Assumptions Throughout, we work over a field All chain groups are finite-dimensional, and all filtrations (explained below) have only finitely many levels In the real world, these assumptions may fail, but the essential ideas are easier to grasp in this simpler context Graded Complexes Chain complexes that occur in nature often come with extra structure in addition to the boundary map Certain kinds of extra structure are particularly common, so it makes sense to find a systematic method for exploiting such features Then we do not have to reinvent the wheel each time we want to compute a homology group JANUARY 26 NOTICES OF THE AMS 5

3 Analyzing the Discrepancy This is a little disappointing, but let s not give up just yet The associated graded complex is so closely related to the original complex that even if its homology isn t exactly what we want, it ought to be a reasonably good approximation Let s carefully examine the discrepancy to see if we can fix the problem Moreover, to keep things as simple as possible, let us begin by considering the case n =2 Then the array in diagram (4) has only two levels, which we shall call the upstairs (p = 2) and downstairs (p =) levels The homology group H d that we really want is Z d /B d, where Z d is the space of cycles in C d and B d is the space of boundaries in C d Since C d is filtered, there is also a natural filtration on Z d and B d : = Z d, Z d, Z d,2 = Z d and = B d, B d, B d,2 = B d Recall that we have been trying to find a natural way of decomposing H d into a direct sum Just as we observed before that C d is not a direct sum of C d, and C d,2, we observe now that Z d /B d is not a direct sum of Z d, /B d, and Z d,2 /B d,2 ; indeed, Z d,2 /B d,2 by itself is already the entire homology group But again we can use the same trick of modding out by the downstairs part and then direct summing with the downstairs part itself: Z d B d Z d + C d, B d + C d, Z d C d, B d C d, = Z d,2 + C d, Z d, B d, Now, the naïve hope would be that (7) E d,2 and (8) E d,? Z d,2 + C d,? Z d, B d,, and even that the numerators and denominators in equations (7) and (8) are precisely the cycles and boundaries in the inition (equation (5) above) of Ed,p For then expression (6) would give us a direct sum decomposition of H d Unfortunately, in general, neither (7) nor (8) holds Corrections are needed Let us first look downstairs at Ed, The cycles of Ed, are the cycles in E d,, and the boundaries are the image I of the map : E d+, E d, The space of cycles in E d, is Z d,, which is the numerator in equation (8) However, the image I is not B d,, for B d, is the part of B d that lies in C d,, and while this contains I, it may also contain other things Specifically, the map may carry some elements x C d+ down from upstairs to downstairs, whereas I only captures boundaries of elements that were already downstairs to begin with Therefore, Z d, /B d, is a quotient of Ed, Now let us look upstairs at Ed,2 In this case, the space of boundaries of Ed,2 is, which is the denominator in equation (7) However, the space of cycles in this case is the kernel K of the map : E d,2 E d,2, which, by inition of E, is the map : C d,2 C d, C d,2 C d, Thus we see that K contains not only chains that sends to zero but also any chains that sends downstairs to C d, In contrast, the elements of Z d,2 + C d, are more special: their boundaries are boundaries of chains that come from C d, Hence Z d,2 + C d, is a subspace of Ed,2, the subspace of elements whose boundaries are boundaries of C d, -chains Intuitively, the problem is that the associated graded complex only sees activity that is confined to a single horizontal level; everything above and below that level is chopped off But in the original complex, the boundary map may carry things down one or more levels (it cannot carry things up one or more levels because respects the filtration), and one must therefore correct for this inter-level activity The Emergence of Spectral Sequences The beautiful fact that makes the machinery of spectral sequences work is that both of the above corrections to the homology groups Ed,p can be regarded as homology groups of homology groups! Notice that induces a natural map let us call it from Ed+,2 to E d,, for all d, for the boundary of any element in Ed+,2 is a cycle that lies in C d,, and thus it ines an element of Ed, The key claims (for n =2) are the following Claim If we take Ed, and mod out by the image of, then we obtain Z d, /B d, To see this, just check that the image of gives all the boundaries that lie in C d, Claim 2 The kernel of is a subspace of Ed,2 isomorphic to Z d+,2 + C d+, B d+,2 + C d+, JANUARY 26 NOTICES OF THE AMS 7

5 5 knowing that Q is Cohen-Macaulay gives us information about H d In order to deduce something about Hd from the information we have about H d, we seek a relationship between H d and Hd Given γ as in equation (), Hanlon s key idea is to let ρ(γ) be the rank of α i, where i is maximal subject to the condition that αi = α j for some j>i Then ρ(γ) = if and only if γ is isotropic, but more importantly, applying the boundary map can clearly only decrease ρ, so ρ induces a filtration on Specifically, we obtain the pth level of the filtration by restricting to those γ such that ρ(γ) p Therefore we obtain a spectral sequence! This gives a relationship between Hd = E d, and the limit H d of the spectral sequence The heart of Hanlon s proof is to analyze E He shows that Ed,p = except possibly for certain pairs (d,p) For instance, when m =, Ed,p = except possibly for the pairs (d,p) marked by dots in the diagram to the right If you imagine the 45 boundary maps, then you can see that some potentially complicated things may be happening for d 5=m/2, but for m/2 >d, Ed,p 2 will be isomorphic to E d,p for all p In fact, Ed,p r E d,p for all r when m/2 >d; the boundary maps slant more and more as r increases, but this makes no difference Therefore just by computing E, we have computed the full homology group for certain values of d In particular, Hd H d for m/2 >d It turns out that the Cohen-Macaulay condition easily implies that H d =for m/2 >d, so this completes the proof A Glimpse Beyond When our simplifying assumptions are dropped, a lot of complications can arise Over an arbitrary commutative ring, equation (3) need not hold; not every short exact sequence splits, so there may be extension issues When our finiteness conditions are relaxed, one may need to consider E r for arbitrarily large r, and the spectral sequence may not converge Even if it does converge, it may not converge to the desired homology So in many applications, life is not as easy as it may have seemed from the above discussion; nevertheless, our simplified setting can still be thought of as the ideal situation, of which more realistic situations are perturbations We should also mention that spectral sequences turn out to be such natural gadgets that they arise not only from filtered complexes, but also from double complexes, exact couples, etc We cannot even begin to explore all these ramifications here, but hope that our tutorial will help you tackle the textbook treatments with more confidence d Why the Adjective Spectral? A question that often comes up is where the term spectral comes from The adjective is due to Leray, but he apparently never published an explanation of why he chose the word John McCleary (personal communication) and others have speculated that since Leray was an analyst, he may have viewed the data in each term of a spectral sequence as playing a role that the eigenvalues, revealed one at a time, have for an operator If any reader has better information, I would be glad to hear it Acknowledgments This paper started life as some lecture notes accompanying a talk I gave while I was a general member of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in the spring of 997, supported in part by a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship Many thanks go to Art Duval, who went through the notes with a fine-toothed comb and provided detailed suggestions for improving the exposition, as well as repeatedly encouraging me to publish a proper writeup I thank John McCleary for pointing out references [3] and [5] to me; the latter is another exposition of spectral sequences that is targeted at the beginner Finally, I thank Phil Hanlon for helping me understand spectral sequences in the first place He deserves at least as much credit as I do for any merits of the approach expounded in this paper References [] DAVID EISENBUD, Commutative Algebra With a View Toward Algebraic Geometry, Springer-Verlag, 995 [2] PHIL HANLON, A note on the homology of signed posets, J Algebraic Combin 5 (996), [3] JOHN MCCLEARY, A history of spectral sequences: Origins to 953, in History of Topology, edited by Ioan M James, North Holland, 999, [4], A User s Guide to Spectral Sequences, 2nd ed, Cambridge University Press, 2 [5] BARRY MITCHELL, Spectral sequences for the layman, Amer Math Monthly 76 (969), p JANUARY 26 NOTICES OF THE AMS 9

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