I’m still thinking aloud (or the bloggerly equivalent thereof) about the topic of my last post, and I’m at this delightful stage of guessing there may well be interesting questions there, and yet not knowing too precisely which ones are easy, which are impossible, or even which are already hidden in the maze of MathSciNet under cleverly disguised search terms.
So consider the case of G=SL(2,Z) again, and assume given a subgroup H. In broadest terms, we’re trying to identify which conjugacy classes in G have representatives in H. We can’t exclude that all of them do; if that happens, we know that (1) H is of infinite index (see the first comment by D. Speyer to the earlier post); (2) but H surjects, by reduction modulo p, to SL(2,Fp) for every p. The latter condition implies in particular that H be Zariski-dense in SL(2) (otherwise, its reduction would be in G(Fp) for some proper algebraic subgroup, and this would be strictly contained in SL(2,Fp) if p is large enough). Nicely enough, such subgroups (especially when finitely generated) are currently the topic of much work in terms of spectral theory, expansion and the like (see for instance these recent preprints by Bourgain, Gamburd and Sarnak, and by Bourgain and Kantorovich).
The conjugacy classes of G have been classified for a long time (for instance, this is needed for the Selberg Trace Formula). The most interesting, or at least those I’m going to look at first, are the so-called hyperbolic ones, which are characterized by the fact that, for some (unique) a>1, they contain a representative which is conjugate in SL(2,R) to
which acts as a dilation
on the Poincaré upper half-plane. A more direct characterization, in terms of an arbitrary representative g of the conjugacy class, is that
So, for instance, we can take the conjugacy class of
In the case of a conjugacy class in G, the dilation a is a real quadratic integer (it is the largest eigenvalue of the matrix, and the determinant, which gives the constant term of the minimal polynomial, is 1). In the example above, we get
In SL(2,R), the dilation is the unique invariant of a hyperbolic conjugacy class (and visibly any a>1 occurs as a dilation). In G, things get a bit more arithmetic (which means more complicated, though the two words are maybe not quite synonyms). Essentially (I am here forgetting or glossing over some important semi-technical issues), for a given discriminant
there are only finitely many G-conjugacy classes, and the number of them is the class number of the associated real quadratic field. (Precise details are given in this old paper of Sarnak).
From my point of view of conjugacy classes, the following seems the obvious salient features:
(1) to have a chance to find a given hyperbolic conjugacy class in a subgroup H, a necessary condition is that H contains a matrix with a certain trace (up to sign; if we assume that minus the identity is in H, the sign ambiguity disappears); this condition, in turn, is obviously susceptible to local congruence obstructions — but we know that for a Zariski-dense (finitely generated) subgroup of G, all but finitely many of these congruence obstructions modulo primes will vanish by Strong Approximation.
(2) if we have a subgroup where all local obstructions disappear (for instance, all reductions modulo primes are surjective; not I don’t actually have an example of a proper subgroup of infinite index where this holds…), we are led to wonder whether all ideal classes associated with hyperbolic elements of G have representatives in H; this question is reminiscent of the representation problem for integers by ternary definite quadratic forms (where there are fairly simple necessary conditions for this to happen, and those are fairly classically also sufficient for an integer to be representation by some form in the same genus as the given one, which means by some form everywhere locally equivalent to it, while the representability by the given form holds for sufficiently large integers by much deeper work involving Fourier coefficients of half-integral modular forms — a very beautiful story, where crucial work is due to Iwaniec and Duke and Schulze-Pillot).
As before, hopefully more to come…