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Maybe this question is not suitable for here, but I don't think I would receive a satisfactory answer in Math StackExchange. I could never understand the intuition behind polarization of abelian varieties and how it arises. I know that there is an analogy roughly with a prequantum line bundle, but I think the concept of polarization of abelian varieties came first. Furthermore, I know that an embedding in the projective space is equivalent to a Riemann form (in the complex analytic case).

Why the word "polarization"? Is there any partition of the abelian variety (as in the case of a geometric quantization, for instance)? How can I think geometrically (in the lattice) about fixing a polarization?

Thanks in advance.

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Weil introduced the term "polarization" in connection with his study of abelian varieties with complex multiplication. His definition is slightly different from what one sees today; one might call it a polarization up to isogeny instead of a polarization. One can find a discussion in Weil's article "On the theory of complex multiplication" ([1955d] in volume 2 of his Oeuvres Scientifiques). There are a few notes on the context of that article (and its relation to the work of Shimura and Taniyama) at the end of the volume. Weil says in the article itself (and again in the notes) that "the word 'polarization' is chosen so as to suggest an analogy with the concept of 'oriented manifold' in topology."

As Weil mentions in the article, Matsusaka (who might be described as a student of Weil) also did some important early work on polarized varieties apparently around the time that Weil invited him to Chicago (1954). Kollár, a student of Matsusaka, wrote a nice memorial article for the Notices in 2006, which discusses the work of Matsusaka, especially in relation to the theory of moduli. One can find Matsusaka's early work on polarizations in his "Polarized varieties, fields of moduli, and generalized Kummer varieties of polarized abelian varieties" in American J. of Math. vol. 80 No. 1, 1958. The introduction starts as follows:

"In studying theta-functions and abelian functions, we sometimes fix the set of scalar multiples of a principal matrix attached to the given Riemann Matrix. This implies that we fix one divisor class and scalar multiples of it with respect to homology on the corresponding complex torus. In this paper we shall introduce the corresponding notion in the abstract case, not only to abelian varieties, but also to arbitrary varieties as done in Weil [22]."

(Reference [22] is Weil's paper on complex multiplication mentioned above.)

For independent confirmation of Weil and Matsusaka as the origin of the notion of polarization, one may see various articles of Shimura from around the same time, where he repeatedly cites these two. For example, at the end of "Modules des variétés abéliennes polarisées et fonctions modulaires," he writes, "Les notions d'une variété polarisée, d'un corps du module et d'une variété de Kummer sont dues à Weil et Matsusaka; ce dernier a traité le cas général de variétés quelconques."


For intuition about polarizations, it may be helpful to think like this: the category of abelian varieties over a field $k$ (say up to isogeny) acts like a full subcategory of the category of representations of a group $G$ on $\mathbb{Q}$-vector spaces. (To show the shift in thinking we can write $V(A)$ when we think of $A$ as like a vector space.) The category of abelian varieties is too small to admit anything like the tensor products that exist in the larger category of $G$-representations, but one can see some multilinear structures. In particular, the dual abelian variety is like a dual representation---or at least a dual representation twisted by a character. A divisorial correspondence between abelian varieties $A$ and $B$ (a sufficiently rigidified line bundle on $A\times_k B$---a biextension of $(A,B)$ by $\mathbf{G}_m$) is like a $G$-invariant bilinear form on $V(A)\times V(B)$. A polarization on $A$ is a divisorial correspondence on $A\times_k A$ satisfying a symmetry and positivity condition (ampleness of pullback along the diagonal), which is like a $G$-invariant bilinear form on $V(A)\times V(A)$ satisfying a symmetry and positivity condition. There are some subtleties in the translation; for example, the symmetry on side of $A$ corresponds to antisymmetry on the side of $V(A)$. We know from the early pages of books on representation theory that $G$-invariant bilinear forms satisfying positivity conditions are useful---they give us complete reducibility, for example---and Weil used polarizations in a similar way in [1955d]. The fact that abelian varieties are polarizable corresponds to something like the fact that $G$ is a compact group, but the aforementioned subtleties mean that statement is not quite right.

These vague remarks can be made precise when $k = \mathbb{C}$ in the way that Francesco Polizzi suggests: take $V(A)$ to be $H_1(A^{\rm an},\mathbb{Q})$ equipped with its standard Hodge structure, and the above remarks correspond to some of the theory of theta functions (which is what Matsusaka had in mind in his introduction).


A final remark: I've always been a bit suspicious of how Weil justifies the polarization terminology, since there is a notion in classical projective geometry with a similar flavor called a "polarity." I wonder if Weil also had this classical terminology in mind when coining the term "polarization." (A polarity on the projective space associated to a vector space $V/k$ is a geometric structure related to a non-degenerate symmetric bilinear form $B:V\times V\to k$. A polarization on an abelian variety $A/\mathbb{C}$ is a geometric structure related to a certain type of alternating bilinear form on the period lattice of $A$. Both geometric structures are symmetric divisorial correspondences.)

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer. Do you know any references (preferably modern ones) that consider abelian varieties as a full subcategory of representations? Furthermore, how is defined $V(A)$ in the non-complex case? $\endgroup$ – user40276 Jul 30 '14 at 3:15
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Let me answer your last question "How can I think geometrically (in the lattice) about fixing a polarization?". I will follow the treatment given in [Birkenhake-Lange, Complex Abelian Varieties, Chapter 3].

Let $X = V / \Lambda$ be a complex torus of dimension $g$ and $L$ a line bundle on $X$ with first Chern class $H$. Then $H$ is an Hermitian form on $V$, whose alternating form $E:= \textrm{Im } H$ is integer-valued on the lattice $\Lambda$.

By standard linear algebra there is a basis $\lambda_i, \ldots, \lambda_g$, $\mu_1, \ldots, \mu_g$ of $\Lambda$, with respect to which $E$ is represented by the matrix $$D=\begin{pmatrix} 0 & D \cr -D & 0 \end{pmatrix},$$ where $D=\textrm{diag}(d_1, \ldots, d_g)$ and the $d_i$ are non-negative integers satisfying $d_i | d_{i+1}$. Moreover, the $d_i$ are uniquely determined by $E$ and $\Lambda$ and thus by $L$.

The vector $(d_1, \ldots, d_g)$ is called the type of $L$; the line bundle $L$ is a polarization (i.e, $L$ is ample) if and only if all the $d_i$ are strictly positive. The basis $\lambda_i, \ldots, \lambda_g$, $\mu_1, \ldots, \mu_g$ is called a symplectic basis for $\Lambda$. Setting $$\Lambda_1 := \langle \lambda_1, \ldots, \lambda_g \rangle, \quad \Lambda_2 := \langle \mu_1, \ldots, \mu_g \rangle$$ we obtain a decomposition $$\Lambda = \Lambda_1 \oplus \Lambda_2,$$ where the $\Lambda_i$ are isotropic with respect to $E$.

Finally, the Riemann conditions can be expressed as follows: set $e_j= \lambda_j /d_j$ for $j = 1, \ldots, g.$ Then $\mathscr{B} = \{e_1, \ldots , e_g \}$ is a basis for $V$, and with respect to this basis the lattice $\Lambda$ can be written as $$\Lambda = \tau \mathbf{Z}^g \oplus D \mathbf{Z}^g,$$ where $\tau$ is a complex, symmetric square matrix of order $g$ whose imaginary part is positive defined. From this, it follows that the moduli space of abelian varieties with polarization of type $(d_1, \ldots, d_g)$ is a quotient $$\mathcal{A}_{g, D} = G_D \backslash \mathscr{H}_g,$$ where $$\mathscr{H}_g :=\{ \tau \in M_{g \times g}(\mathbf{C}) \, | \, \tau = {}^t\tau, \, \, \textrm{Im }\tau >0 \}$$ is the Siegel upper half-space and $G_{D}$ is a suitable discrete subgroup of the symplectic group $\textrm{Sp}_{2g}(\mathbf{R})$. Here the left action of $\textrm{Sp}_{2g}(\mathbf{R})$ on $\mathscr{H}_g$ is the natural one, namely $$\begin{pmatrix} a & b \cr c & d \end{pmatrix} \cdot \tau := (a \tau + b)(c \tau + d)^{-1}.$$

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for answer. Any ideas on why the word "polarization"? I don´t where it first have appeared and who named it. $\endgroup$ – user40276 Jul 28 '14 at 21:45
  • $\begingroup$ You are welcome. Good question, unfortunately I do not know the answer. $\endgroup$ – Francesco Polizzi Jul 29 '14 at 7:38

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