Let E be an elliptic curve, let $L(s) = \sum a_n n^{-s}$ denote its L-function, and set $$ f(x) = \sum a_n \frac{x^n}{n}. $$ Then Honda has observed that $$ F(X,Y) = f^{-1}(f(X) + f(Y)) $$ defines a formal group law.

The formal group law of an elliptic curve has applications to the theory of torsion points, apparently because formal groups are useful tools for studying such objects over discrete valuation domains.

Nevertheless I would appreciate it if someone could point out the intuition behind this approach. What is the connection between the L-series and the group law on the curve given by the formal group law? Do formal group laws just give a streamlined proof of basic properties of the elliptic curve over $p$-adic fields, or is there more to them?

I've also seen the work of Lubin-Tate in local class field theory, and I do remember that I found the material as frightening as cohomology at first. It would be nice if the answers had something from a salesman's point of view: why should I buy formal group laws at all?

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    $\begingroup$ I think there is a misunderstanding here. The coefficients of the formal group law of an elliptic curve are not the same as the coefficients of the L-series. Your $f$ is $g(q)/q$ for the associated newform $g$. I don't see why this should give a formal group. $\endgroup$ Jan 16, 2011 at 16:14
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, but these formal group laws are isomorphic. $\endgroup$ Jan 16, 2011 at 16:25
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    $\begingroup$ @ Chris: I believe that it is a theorem of Honda that the L-series gives a formal group over the integers in this way, and that this is isomorphic to the usual group law of the curve. See Honda, Formal group laws and zeta-functions, Osaka J. Math, 5 (1968) 199-213. $\endgroup$ Jan 16, 2011 at 18:30
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    $\begingroup$ I think one should have $f(x)=\sum n^{-1}a_nx^n$. $\endgroup$ Jan 16, 2011 at 18:38
  • $\begingroup$ Ok, now I see. @Charles, thanks for the reference. $\endgroup$ Jan 16, 2011 at 20:25

2 Answers 2


Okay, here's a few words about the relation between the $L$-series and the formal group. In general, if $F(X,Y)$ is the formal group law for $\hat G$, then there is an associated formal invariant differential $\omega(T)=P(T)dT$ given by $P(T)=F_X(0,T)^{-1}$. Formally integrating the power series $\omega(T)$ gives the formal logarithm $\ell(T)=\int_0^T\omega(T)$. The logarithm maps $\hat G$ to the additive formal group, so we can recover the formal group as $$ F(X,Y) = \ell^{-1}(\ell(X)+\ell(Y))$$. (See, e.g., Chapter IV of Arithmetic of Elliptic Curves for details.)

Now let $E$ be an elliptic curve and $\omega=dx/(2y+a_1x+a_3)$ be an invariant differential on $E$. If $E$ is modular, say corresponding to the cusp form $g(q)$, then we have (maybe up to a constant scaling factor) $\omega = g(q) dq/q = \sum_{n=1}^{\infty} a_nq^{n-1}$. Eichler-Shimura tell us that the coefficients of $g(q)$ are the coefficients of the $L$-series $L(s)=\sum_{n=1}^\infty a_n n^{-s}$. Integrating $\omega$ gives the elliptic logarithm, which is the function you denoted by $f$, i.e., $f(q)=\sum_{n=1}^\infty a_nq^n/n$, and then the formal group law on $E$ is $F(X,Y)=f^{-1}(f(X)+f(Y))$.

To me, the amazing thing here is that the Mellin transform of the invariant differential gives the $L$-series. Going from the invariant differential to the formal group law via the logarithm is quite natural.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a very good intuitive explanation (which today is an actual proof). I just want to point out that Honda's original proof used the fact that the formal group law is determined by the characteristic polynomial of the Frobenius for all $p$ and that this polynomial is essentially the $p$-Euler factor of $L$. (This is, to me at least, not very intuitive.) $\endgroup$ Jan 17, 2011 at 5:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Joe Silverman, I have a simple question but can't answer. I want to show that $\frac{dx}{1+x}$ is invariant differential for the $1$-dimensional formal group law $M(x,y)=x+y+xy$. Can you help me with little calculation ? $\endgroup$
    – MAS
    Aug 25, 2019 at 16:52
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    $\begingroup$ @M.A.SARKAR Your question is really more appropriate for MathStackExchange. But in general, if $F(X,Y)$ is a formal group law, then the invariant differential is $$\frac{1}{\frac{\partial F}{\partial X}(0,T)}\,dT.$$ See for example Proposition IV.4.2 in my Arithmetic of Elliptic Curves book. $\endgroup$ Aug 25, 2019 at 20:27

The usual(?), or at least more prosaic, way to define the formal group law on an elliptic curve $E$ is to take a Weierstrass equation and expand the addition law in terms of the formal parameter $z = -x/y$, which is a uniformizer at the identity element of $E$. Then one studies formal groups abstractly, proves various properties, and uses them to deduce things about the elliptic curve. This is all spelled out in my book The Arithmetic of Elliptic Curves (Chapters IV and VII), as well as lots of other places. In particular, if $\hat G$ is a formal group over a ring $R$ of characteristic prime to $m$, then multiplication by $m$ is invertible. So if $R$ is a complete DVR with maximal ideal $M$ and residue characteristic $p$, then $\hat G(M)$ has no prime-to-$p$ torsion.

The reason this is important for elliptic curves is because we have an exact sequence in which the formal group is the kernel of the reduction mod $M$ map. So for example, if $E$ has good reduction modulo $M$, then there is an exact sequence $$ 0 \to \hat E(M) \to E(K) \to E(R/M) \to 0.$$ One can use this sequence to deduce ramification information about the fields generated by torsion points, and this in turn is a crucial ingredient in the proof of the (weak) Mordell-Weil theorem (op cit Chapter VIII).

So I guess my answer as to why you should "buy a formal group law" is that on an algebraic group $G$ over a (complete local) field $K$ with ring of integers $R$, maximal ideal $M$, and residue field $k$, the group $G(K)$ is complicated, so we can analyze it by breaking it up into the smaller group $G(k)$ and the formal group $\hat G(M)$. And formal groups are much easier to understand than algebraic groups.

I know this only partially answers your question, but the relation between this definition of the formal group of an elliptic curve and the coefficients of the $L$-series will have to wait for another post.


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