# What is a covering space?

14 Nov

We’ve briefly covered fundamental groups before, and also I’ve talked about what geometric group theory is (using spaces to explore groups and vice versa). One way to connect a group to a space is to look at a covering space associated to that group. So in this post, we’ll come up with some covering spaces and talk about their properties. This is in preparation for talking about separability (we already have an advanced post about that).

Aside: you might catch me slipping into the royal we during my math posts.  This is standard practice in math papers and posts, even if a paper is written by a single author.  Instead of saying “I will show” and proving stuff to you the reader, we say “we will show” and we go on a journey together.  I’m sure that’s not why mathematicians do this, but I like to think of it that way.

Also, sometimes I say “group” when I’m obviously referring to a space, and then I mean the Cayley graph of that group (which changes depending on generating set, but if it’s a finite generating set then all Cayley graphs are quasi-isometric).

Let’s start with an example, and then we’ll go on to the definition.  Here’s an old picture to get us in the mood:

This blue curve goes around the circle three times.

This picture was from the short fundamental groups post: you’re supposed to see that the blue spiral up above represents a curve going three times around the circle below.  Now consider this next picture:

Blue line covering the happy circle below

Here the blue spiral goes on forever in both directions.  If you unwound it, you’d get a line stretching on forever in both directions, which we’ll call the real line (the same number line you’re used to, with real numbers along it).  This picture sums up the intuition that the real line covers the circle: for any point on the circle, there are a bunch of points on the real line directly above it that project down to that point.  In fact, it does more than that:

Pink parts of blue line cover the pink part of the circle

For any point on the circle, there’s a neighborhood (the pink part) so that up in the real line, there are a bunch of neighborhoods that map down to that pink part.  And those neighborhoods aren’t next to each other nor all up in each other’s business: they’re disjoint.  So here’s the definition:

A covering space X of a space Y is a space with a map p: X->Y such that any point in Y has a neighborhood N whose preimage in $p^{-1}(N)\subset$ X is a collection of disjoint sets which are homeomorphic to N.

So why is this helpful?  Well, in our example we can say that the real line covers the circle, from the pink pictures.  We could also say that the circle wound around itself three times covers the circle, from the first picture in this post:

The three highlighted parts up above are homeomorphic to the the pink part on the bottom circle’s chin

The picture I just drew might not convince you, because every point on the bottom space needs to have a neighborhood that lifts up to the top space, and what about the left most point of the circle?  Well, up above that neighborhood just winds around between the top and bottom copies:

Still a cover: each of those pink things up above are homeomorphic to the bottom cheek

The fundamental group of the circle is the integers, so maybe using geometric group theory (or algebraic topology, really) we can come up with conclusions about the integers using facts about the circle or the line, and vice versa.  In fact, there’s a correspondence between group structures and covering spaces!  With some conditions, covering spaces correspond to subgroups of fundamental group.

Let’s see how this correspondence works in our example with the integers.  We know that the even integers are a subgroup of the integers, and so are $3\mathbb{Z}, 4\mathbb{Z}$, etc.  In fact, these are all of the subgroups (and the trivial subgroup, which is just the element {0}).  Above, we drew two covering spaces of the circle: the real line, where each neighborhood of the circle has infinitely many homeomorphic copies hanging out in the real line, and the circle wound around itself three times, where each neighborhood has three copies.  The number of copies is called the degree of the cover, and sometimes one says the cover is an n-fold covering.  You can wind the circle around itself times for any n, which will correspond to the $n\mathbb{Z}$ subgroup.  How does this correspondence work?  Well, looking at the degree three/3-fold picture again, if you go around the covering circle once, you’ll project down to going around the base circle three times.  So if you go around the covering circle and count, you’ll get 0, 3, 6, 9… In contrast, the real line corresponds to the trivial subgroup (and is an infinite degree cover), and it’s called the universal cover of the circle.  Every space has a unique universal cover, which is a covering space with trivial fundamental group.

Now a preview of why we’ll like this.  Sometimes spaces are tricky and not fun and it’s easier to look upstairs at a cover, and then go back downstairs.  Let’s let the downstairs space be two circles pinched together at a point.

First, you should get convinced that the picture above is a cover; I colored the homeomorphic copies in order to highlight what’s happening.  Also, pretend the branching part goes on forever, a la the Cayley graph of the free group on 2 generators:

from wikipedia

So here’s an example: let’s say we have a path downstairs that goes around the green circle several times.  And maybe we don’t want this path to hit itself over and over again, so we look at a cover upstairs so it turns into a line instead.  So instead of just being immersed (locally injective), the path is embedded (injective) in the cover upstairs.

The orange scribble downstairs goes around the green loop over and over again, hitting itself. Upstairs, it’s a line and doesn’t hit itself

Next time I write about current math research, I’ll be using covering spaces a lot!  In fact, one of the main questions is this: if you have a path downstairs that hits itself (is immersed), what’s the minimum degree cover you need to ensure that the path is embedded in the cover?  This question isn’t explicitly answered yet for loops on surfaces, but the research I’ll blog about gives some bounds on the degree.