Deformation theory

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In mathematics, deformation theory is the study of infinitesimal conditions associated with varying a solution P of a problem to slightly different solutions Pε, where ε is a small number, or vector of small quantities. The infinitesimal conditions are therefore the result of applying the approach of differential calculus to solving a problem with constraints. One might think, in analogy, of a structure that is not completely rigid, and that deforms slightly to accommodate forces applied from the outside; this explains the name.

Some characteristic phenomena are: the derivation of first-order equations by treating the ε quantities as having negligible squares; the possibility of isolated solutions, in that varying a solution may not be possible, or does not bring anything new; and the question of whether the infinitesimal constraints actually 'integrate', so that their solution does provide small variations. In some form these considerations have a history of centuries in mathematics, but also in physics and engineering. For example, in the geometry of numbers a class of results called isolation theorems was recognised, with the topological interpretation of an open orbit (of a group action) around a given solution. Perturbation theory also looks at deformations, in general of operators.

Deformations of complex manifolds

The most salient deformation theory in mathematics has been that of complex manifolds and algebraic varieties. This was put on a firm basis by foundational work of Kunihiko Kodaira and D. C. Spencer, after deformation techniques had received a great deal of more tentative application in the Italian school of algebraic geometry. One expects, intuitively, that deformation theory of the first order should equate the Zariski tangent space with a moduli space. The phenomena turn out to be rather subtle, though, in the general case.

In the case of Riemann surfaces, one can explain that the complex structure on the Riemann sphere is isolated (no moduli). For genus 1, an elliptic curve has a one-parameter family of complex structures, as shown in elliptic function theory. The general Kodaira-Spencer theory identifies as the key to the deformation theory the sheaf cohomology group


where Θ is (the sheaf of germs of sections of) the holomorphic tangent bundle. There is an obstruction in the H2 of the same sheaf; which is always zero in case of a curve, for general reasons of dimension. In the case of genus 0 the H1 vanishes, also. For genus 1 the dimension is the Hodge number h1,0 which is therefore 1. It is known that all curves of genus one have equations of form y2 = x3 + ax + b. These obviously depend on two parameters, a and b, whereas the isomorphism classes of such curves have only one parameter. Hence there must be an equation relating those a and b which describe isomorphic elliptic curves. It turns out that curves for which b2a−3 has the same value, describe isomorphic curves. I.e. varying a and b is one way to deform the structure of the curve y2 = x3 + ax + b, but not all variations of a,b actually change the isomorphism class of the curve.

One can go further with the case of genus g > 1, using Serre duality to relate the H1 to


where Ω is the holomorphic cotangent bundle and the notation Ω[2] means the tensor square (not the second exterior power). In other words, deformations are regulated by holomorphic quadratic differentials on a Riemann surface, again something known classically. The dimension of the moduli space, called Teichmüller space in this case, is computed as 3g − 3, by the Riemann-Roch theorem.

These examples are the beginning of a theory applying to holomorphic families of complex manifolds, of any dimension. Further developments included: the extension by Spencer of the techniques to other structures of differential geometry; the assimilation of the Kodaira-Spencer theory into the abstract algebraic geometry of Grothendieck, with a consequent substantive clarification of earlier work; and deformation theory of other structures, such as algebras.

Functorial Description

Another method for formalizing deformation theory is using functors on the category of local Artin algebras over a field. A pre-deformation functor is defined as a functor

such that is a point. The intuition is that we want to study the infinitesimal structure of some module space around a point where lying above that point is the space of interest. It is typically the case that it is easier to described the functor for a moduli problem instead of finding an actual space. For example, if we want to consider the moduli-space of hypersurfaces of degree in , then we could consider the functor


Although in general, it is more convenient/required to work with functor of groupoids instead of sets. This is true for moduli of curves.

Technical Remarks About Infinitesimals

Infinitesimals have long been in use by mathematicians for non-rigorous arguments in calculus. The idea is that if we consider polynomials with an infinitesimal , then only the first order terms really matter; that is, we can consider

A simple application of this is that we can find the derivatives of monomials using infinitesimals:

the term contains the derivative of the monomial, demonstrating its use in calculus. We could also interpret this equation as the first two terms of the Taylor expansion of the monomial. Infinitesimals can be made rigorous using nilpotent elements in local artin algebras. In the ring we see that arguments with infinitesimals can work. This motivates the notation . Note that these arguments only work over characteristic since

Moreover, if we want to consider higher-order terms of a taylor approximation then we could consider the artin algebras . For our monomial, suppose we want to write out the second order expansion, then

Recall that a Taylor expansion (at zero) can be written out as

hence the previous two equations show that the second derivative of is .

In general, since we want to consider arbitrary order Taylor expansions in any number of variables, we will consider the category of all local artin algebras over a field.


To motivative the definition of a pre-deformation functor, consider the projective hypersurface over a field

If we want to consider an infinitesimal deformation of this space, then we could write down a cartesian square

where . Then, the space on the right hand corner is one example of an infinitesimal deformation: the extra scheme theoretic structure of the nilpotent elements in (which is topologically a point) allows us to organize this infinitesimal data. Since we want to consider all possible expansions, we will let our predeformation functor be defined on objects as

where is a local Artin -algebra.

Smooth Pre-Deformation Functors

A pre-deformation functor is called smooth if for any surjection such that the square of any element in the kernel is zero, there is a surjection

This is motivated by the following question: given a deformation

does there exist an extension of this cartesian diagram to the cartesian diagrams

the name smooth comes from the lifting criterion of a smooth morphism of schemes.

Tangent Space

Recall that the tangent space of a scheme can be described as the -set

Since we are considering the tangent space of a point of some moduli space, we can define the tangent space of our (pre)-deformation functor as

Applications of Deformation Theory

Arithmetic Deformations

One of the major applications of deformation theory is in arithmetic. It can be used to answer the following question: if we have a variety , what are the possible extensions ? If our variety is a curve, then the vanishing implies that every deformation induces a variety over ; that is, if we have a smooth curve

and a deformation

then we can always extend it to a diagram of the form

This implies that we can construct a formal scheme giving a curve over .

Galois Deformations

Another application of deformation theory is with Galois deformations. It allows us to answer the question: If we have a Galois representation

how can we extend it to a representation


Relationship to string theory

The so-called Deligne conjecture arising in the context of algebras (and Hochschild cohomology) stimulated much interest in deformation theory in relation to string theory (roughly speaking, to formalise the idea that a string theory can be regarded as a deformation of a point-particle theory). This is now accepted as proved, after some hitches with early announcements. Maxim Kontsevich is among those who have offered a generally accepted proof of this.

See also



  • Studying Deformation Theory of Schemes
  • Sernesi, Eduardo, Deformations of Algebraic Schemes 
  • Hartshorne, Robin, Deformation Theory 
  • Notes from Hartshorne's Course on Deformation Theory
  • MSRI - Deformation Theory and Moduli in Algebraic Geometry

Survey Articles

  • Mazur, Berry, Perturbations, Deformations, and Variations (and "Near-Misses" in Geometry, Physics, and Number Theory (PDF) 
  • Anel, M., Why deformations are cohomological (PDF) 


External links

  • "A glimpse of deformation theory" (PDF). , lecture notes by Brian Osserman
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