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Let R be a commutative ring. From R we can construct the category R\text{-Mod} of R-modules, which becomes a symmetric monoidal category when equipped with the tensor product of R-modules. Now, whenever we have a monoidal operation (for example, the multiplication on a ring), it’s interesting to look at the invertible things with respect to that operation (for example, the group of units of a ring). This suggests the following definition.

Definition: The Picard group \text{Pic}(R) of R is the group of isomorphism classes of R-modules which are invertible with respect to the tensor product.

By invertible we mean the following: for L \in \text{Pic}(R) there exists some L^{-1} such that the tensor product L \otimes_R L^{-1} is isomorphic to the identity for the tensor product, namely R.

In this post we’ll meander through some facts about this Picard group as well as several variants, all of which capture various notions of line bundle on various kinds of spaces (where the above definition captures the notion of a line bundle on the affine scheme \text{Spec } R).

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A student I’m tutoring was working unsuccessfully on the following problem from the 2011 Mandelbrot Competition:

Let a, b be positive integers such that \log_a b = (\log 23)(\log_6 7) + \log_2 3 + \log_6 7. Find the minimum value of ab.

After some tinkering, I concluded that the problem as stated has no solution. I am now almost certain it was printed incorrectly: \log 23 should be replaced by \log_2 3, and then we can solve the problem as follows:

\log_a b + 1 = (\log_2 3 + 1)(\log_6 7 + 1) = \log_2 6 \log_6 42 = \log_2 42.

It follows that \log_a b = \log_2 21. Since a, b are positive integers we must have a \ge 2, and then it follows that the smallest solution occurs when a = 2, b = 21. But what I’d like to discuss, briefly, is the argument showing that the misprinted problem has no solution.

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Suppose I hand you a commutative ring R. I stipulate that you are only allowed to work in the language of the category of commutative rings; you can only refer to objects and morphisms. (That means you can’t refer directly to elements of R, and you also can’t refer directly to the multiplication or addition maps R \times R \to R, since these aren’t morphisms.) Geometrically, I might equivalently say that you are only allowed to work in the language of the category of affine schemes, since the two are dual. Can you recover R as a set, and can you recover the ring operations on R?

The answer turns out to be yes. Today we’ll discuss how this works, and along the way we’ll run into some interesting ideas.

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Recently, I have begun to appreciate the use of ultrafilters to clean up proofs in certain areas of mathematics. I’d like to talk a little about how this works, but first I’d like to give a hefty amount of motivation for the definition of an ultrafilter.

Terence Tao has already written a great introduction to ultrafilters with an eye towards nonstandard analysis. I’d like to introduce them from a different perspective. Some of the topics below are also covered in these posts by Todd Trimble.

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In this post I’d like to give a better (by which I mean category-theoretic) definition of the lattice of ideals than the standard one. We know that the lattice of ideals has meets and joins defined by intersection and sum, respectively, and that if a lattice is viewed as a category whose arrows are the order relation, then meet and join are the product and coproduct, respectively. But we also know that the lattice of radical ideals of a finitely-generated reduced integral \mathbb{C}-algebra R is dual to the lattice of algebraic subsets of \text{MaxSpec } R (and that the lattice of prime ideals is dual to the lattice of algebraic subvarieties), and there is a very general category-theoretic formalism for understanding subobjects in a category. It turns out that this formalism reproduces the lattice of ideals of an arbitrary commutative ring – as long as we run it in the opposite category \text{CRing}^{op}.

Edit, 2/9/10: The above claim is wrong. But let me tell you the construction I had in mind and you can judge whether it is more natural than the usual definition.

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A basic idea in topology and analysis is to study a space by restricting attention to arbitrarily small neighborhoods of a point. It is desirable, therefore, to have a notion of looking at small neighborhoods of a point which can be stated in entirely ring-theoretic terms. More generally, we’d like to have a way to ignore some points and only think about others. The tool that allows us to do this is called localization, and it offers a conceptual proof of the strong Nullstellensatz from the weak Nullstellensatz, which, as you’ll recall, is the tool that allows us to describe the category of affine varieties as the opposite of a category of algebras.

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MaxSpec is not a functor

For commutative unital C*-algebras and for finitely-generated reduced integral \mathbb{C}-algebras, we have seen that \text{MaxSpec} is a functor which sends homomorphisms to continuous functions. However, this is not true for general commutative rings. What we want is for a ring homomorphism \phi : R \to S to be sent to a continuous function

M(\phi) : \text{MaxSpec } S \to \text{MaxSpec } R

via contraction. Unfortunately, the contraction of a maximal ideal is not always a maximal ideal. The issue here is that a maximal ideal of S is just a surjective homomorphism S \to F where F is some field, and the contracted ideal is just the kernel of the homomorphism R \xrightarrow{\phi} S \to F. However, this homomorphism need no longer be surjective, so it may land in a subring of F which may not be a field. For a specific example, consider the inclusion \mathbb{Z} \to \mathbb{Q}. The ideal (0) is maximal in \mathbb{Q}, but its contraction is the ideal (0) in \mathbb{Z}, which is prime but not maximal.

In other words, if we want to think of ring homomorphisms as continuous functions on spectra, then we cannot work with maximal ideals alone. Prime ideals are more promising: a prime ideal is just a surjective homomorphism S \to D where D is some integral domain, and the contracted ideal of a prime ideal is always prime because a subring of an integral domain is still an integral domain. Now, therefore, is an appropriate time to replace \text{MaxSpec} with \text{Spec}, the space of all prime ideals equipped with the Zariski topology, and this time \text{Spec} is a legitimate contravariant functor \text{CommRing} \to \text{Top}.

In this post we’ll discuss this choice. I should mention that the Secret Blogging Seminar has discussed this point very thoroughly already, but from a much more high-brow perspective.

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