# The Atiyah–Singer index theorem

In memory of Michael Atiyah

## Abstract

The Atiyah–Singer index theorem, a landmark achievement of the early 1960s, brings together ideas in analysis, geometry, and topology. We recount some antecedents and motivations, various forms of the theorem, and some of its implications, which extend to the present.

## 1. Introduction

Consider the Riemann sphere Let . be a finite set, and to each suppose a nonzero integer is given. A classical problem asks for a meromorphic function with a zero or pole at each If . then , is a zero of multiplicity if ; then , is a pole of order The solution is straightforward. Namely, . is a rational function, unique up to the constant In other words, now allowing . the solutions form a one-dimensional complex vector space. If we replace , by a closed Riemann surface of positive genus, then there is an obstruction to existence of a meromorphic function with specified zeros and poles. For example, an elliptic curve can be realized as a quotient of the complex line by the full lattice generated by for some with A meromorphic function on . lifts to a doubly periodic function on and the single constraint on the zeros and poles of a meromorphic function is , Proceeding from . to a general closed Riemann surface we encounter more constraints. In fact, the constraints form a vector space whose dimension is the genus of , a topological invariant. Meromorphic functions are solutions to the Cauchy–Riemann equation, a linear elliptic partial differential equation. The solutions and obstructions to this elliptic PDE are “counted” via topology. In a more general form, this is the classical Riemann–Roch theorem. ,

The Atiyah–Singer index theorem, formulated and proved in 1962–63, is a vast generalization to arbitrary elliptic operators on compact manifolds of arbitrary dimension. The Fredholm index in question is the dimension of the kernel minus the dimension of the cokernel of a linear elliptic operator. The Atiyah–Singer theorem computes the index in terms of topological invariants of the operator and topological invariants of the underlying manifold. The theorem weaves together concepts and results in algebraic topology, algebraic geometry, differential geometry, and linear analysis; its ramifications go far beyond, in number theory, representation theory, operator algebras, nonlinear analysis, and theoretical physics. Furthermore, index theory itself is a sprawling enterprise. The basic Atiyah–Singer theorem spawned numerous generalizations and novel pathways. This paper—a tribute to Michael Atiyah—naturally focuses on aspects of his work and his influence. Even thus restricted, we can only skim the surface of this rich story.

There are antecedents of the index theorem from algebraic geometry and topology on the one hand, and from analysis on the other. We discuss these in turn in §2 and §3. The basic Atiyah–Singer theorem is the subject of §4. The first proof is based on cobordism and in broad outline follows Hirzebruch’s proofs of his signature and Riemann–Roch theorems. The second proof is based on it is inspired by Grothendieck’s Riemann–Roch theorem. In § -theory;5 we take up some of the extensions and variations of the basic theorem. These include an equivariant index theorem, the index theorem for parametrized families of operators, the index theorem for manifolds with boundary, and a few more. At this point our exposition makes a transition from global topological invariants of general linear elliptic operators to local geometric invariants of Dirac operators. Heat equation methods are the subject of §6, the first application being a local index theorem. New geometric invariants of Dirac operators appear in §7. In §8 we turn to physics, which was Atiyah’s focus after the mid-1980s and which provided an unanticipated playground for the circle of ideas surrounding the index theorem. We focus on anomalies in quantum theory, a subject to which Atiyah and Singer made an early contribution.

Each section of this paper has more introductory material, which we recommend even to the casual reader. Also, a lecture based on this paper may be viewed at Reference F1.

Michael had great mathematical and personal charisma. His writings capture his vibrancy, as did his lectures, some of which are available online. He wrote many wonderful expository articles about the index theorem, especially of the early period; you will enjoy perusing them.

I warmly thank Simon Donaldson, Charlie Reid, and Graeme Segal for their careful reading of and comments on an earlier version.

## 2. Antecedents and motivations from algebraic geometry and topology

Enumerative problems in algebraic geometry often lead to integers that have a topological interpretation. A classical example is the Riemann–Roch formula, which is our starting point in §2.1. The higher-dimensional generalization was taken up by Fritz Hirzebruch in the early 1950s, as we recount in §2.2. A few years later Alexander Grothendieck extended Hirzebruch’s theorem to a relative version, that is, to proper maps of complex manifolds. In the process he introduced for sheaves. His ideas, briefly presented in § -theory2.3, play a fundamental role in variations of the Atiyah–Singer index theorem a decade later. More immediately, as Graeme Segal writes in this volume Reference Seg4, Atiyah and Hirzebruch transported Grothendieck’s over to algebraic topology. Raoul Bott’s computation of the stable homotopy groups of Lie groups, which took place during the same period as Hirzebruch’s and Grothendieck’s work on the Riemann–Roch theorem, is the cornerstone of their theory. Crucial for the index theorem are the resulting integrality theorems, of which we mention a few in § -theory2.4. This led to a question—Why is the an integer for a spin manifold?—which in early 1962 was the immediate catalyst for Atiyah and Singer’s collaboration. -genus

### 2.1. The Riemann–Roch theorem

Let be a smooth projective curve over i.e., a one-dimensional closed complex submanifold of a complex projective space. A divisor , is a finite set of points on with an integer attached to each point A divisor determines a holomorphic line bundle on . let ; denote the space of holomorphic sections of this bundle. We can describe as the space of meromorphic functions on which have a pole of order at each A basic problem in the theory of curves is: Compute the dimension of . While this is quite difficult in general, there is a .*topological* formula for where , is a *canonical divisor* of (The zero set of a holomorphic 1-form, weighted by the orders of the zeros, is a canonical divisor.) .

Here is the genus of the curve its fundamental topological invariant, which is defined to be , Also, . is the sum of the integers which define the divisor If . it can be shown that , so that in that case ,Equation 2.2 provides a complete solution to the problem of computing Theorem .2.1 is the classical Riemann–RochFootnote^{1} formula. The Atiyah–Singer index theorem is a vast generalization of Equation 2.2, as we will see.

^{1}

Riemann Reference Ri proved the inequality and then Roch ,Reference Ro proved the more precise Equation 2.2. Sadly, Roch died of tuberculosis at the age of 26, just months after the 39-year-old Riemann succumbed to tuberculosis.

**Backlinks**: Reference 1, Reference 2, Reference 3.

Let us immediately note one consequence of the Riemann–Roch formula. Take to be the trivial divisor consisting of no points. Then is the space of constant functions and is the space of holomorphic differentials. We deduce from Equation 2.2 that the latter has dimension It follows that . is an integer, i.e., is even. Therefore, one-half the Euler number is an integer, our first example of an *integrality theorem*. The proof is noteworthy: is an integer because it is the dimension of a vector space, namely .

In the last decade of the century, Noether, Enriques, and Castelnuovo generalized the Riemann–Roch inequality and equality to algebraic surfaces; see Equation 2.4 below.

### 2.2. Hirzebruch’s Riemann–Roch and signature theorems

We skip far ahead to the years 1945–1954 and the work of young Hirzebruch, based on two important developments in geometry. The first, initiated by Leray, is the theory of sheaves. The second are the results in Thom’s thesis, particularly those concerning bordismFootnote^{2} groups of smooth manifolds. We state two of Hirzebruch’s main results, which are recounted in Reference H1.

^{2}

Thom, Hirzebruch, and many others use “cobordism” in place of “bordism”; Atiyah Reference A10 clarified the relationship.

**Backlinks**: Reference 1, Reference 2, Reference 3.

Let be a nonsingular projective variety of complex dimension and let , be a holomorphic vector bundle. (In our discussion of curves we used divisors; recall that a divisor determines a holomorphic line bundle, which makes the link to our formulation here.) Then the cohomology groups are defined via sheaf theory: is the vector space of holomorphic sections of and , for are derived from resolutions of the sheaf of holomorphic sections of The cohomology groups are finite dimensional, which can be proved using the theory of elliptic differential operators and Dolbeault’s theorem. (See §§ .3.1–3.2.) The *Euler characteristic* is defined as the alternating sum

As for the case

In Equation 2.4 the Chern classes are evaluated on the fundamental class of

The solution to the Riemann–Roch problem for all *Todd class* is

This is a cohomology class of (mixed) even degree. Similarly, if *Chern character* is

The splitting principle in the theory of characteristic classes allows us to extend these definitions to

Hirzebruch’s second main theorem, which is a step in the proof of Theorem 2.7, is now called Hirzebruch’s signature theorem. Let

The signature

where *Chern roots* of the complexified tangent bundle.Footnote^{3} This is analogous to Equation 2.5: one first defines

Hirzebruch’s proof uses Thom’s bordism theory Reference T1 in an essential way. Both sides of Equation 2.12 are invariant under oriented bordism and are multiplicative; for the signature, the former is a theorem of Thom Reference T2, §IV. Therefore, it suffices to verify Equation 2.12 on a set of generators of the (rational) oriented bordism ring, which had been computed by Thom. The even projective spaces

### 2.3. Grothendieck’s Riemann–Roch theorem

Hirzebruch’s Riemann–Roch theorem was extended in a new direction by Grothendieck Reference BS in 1957. A decisive step was Grothendieck’s introduction of *Chow ring* of

extends to a homomorphism of abelian groups

Now let *proper* morphism between nonsingular irreducible quasiprojective varieties. There is a pushforward

This reduces to Hirzebruch’s Riemann–Roch Theorem 2.7 upon taking

One route to the Todd class is the special case in which

leads to the equality

in

On the other hand

Thus

of vector bundles on

This is what we checked in Equation 2.18 and Equation 2.19 for

It is instructive at this stage to consider the inclusion of the zero section

of sheaves over

where

### 2.4. Integrality theorems in topology

One consequence of Hirzebruch’s Riemann–Roch Theorem 2.7 is that the characteristic number on the right hand side of Equation 2.8, which *a priori* is a rational number, is actually an integer. This integer is identified as a sum and difference of dimensions of vector spaces by the left hand side. On the other hand, the right hand side is defined for any almost complex manifold. Hirzebruch was led to ask (as early as 1954) whether the *Todd genus* Footnote

^{4}of a real manifold

^{4}

Hirzebruch had previously defined an

where

In particular, ^{5} This was proved true (initially up to a power of 2 in Reference BH2) by Borel and Hirzebruch Reference BH3 in the late 1950s using results of Milnor on cobordism Reference Mi1.

^{5}

In Reference H3 Hirzebruch only asks a less sharp divisibility question (Problem 7 of that paper). The more precise form came later, along with the more general question: If a closed real manifold

The integrality proved, the obvious question presented itself:

A first answer to this question came from within algebraic topology, though not from traditional Eilenberg–MacLane cohomology theory. When Atiyah and Hirzebruch learned about Grothendieck’s work, they immediately set out to investigate possible ramifications in topology. The first step was to define *periodicity theorem* became the cornerstone of the new topological

Returning to the Grothendieck program, Atiyah and Hirzebruch formulated a version of the Riemann–Roch theorem for smooth manifolds Reference AH2, Reference H2. Let

Recall that Grothendieck’s theorem Equation 2.15 is stated in terms of a map ^{6} Here we restrict our attention to embeddings of complex manifolds to simplify the presentation.Footnote^{7} Then Equation 2.17 and Equation 2.23 motivate the definition of *Thom complex*

^{6}

The definition of

^{7}

General case: Embed a closed manifold

Notice that Equation 2.28 is exact for

The Atiyah-Hirzebruch Riemann–Roch theorem for smooth manifolds states

Once

Still, that explanation was not considered satisfactory. As reported by Atiyah Reference A1, Hirzebruch realized that the signature is the difference in dimensions of spaces of harmonic differential forms, and he asked for a similar analytic interpretation of the

## 3. Antecedents in analysis

The Atiyah–Singer index theorem brings the worlds of algebraic geometry and algebraic topology together with the worlds of differential geometry and global analysis. Our introduction to the latter in §3.1 begins with foundational theorems about harmonic differential forms and their relationship to cohomology. Geometric elliptic differential operators on Riemannian manifolds play a central role. We take up more general elliptic operators in §3.2, where we also recall basic facts about Fredholm operators. The Fredholm index, an integer-valued deformation invariant of a Fredholm operator, is the eponymous character of index theory. In §3.3 we give the reader an inkling of the activity around indices of elliptic operators during the years 1920–1963.

### 3.1. De Rham, Hodge, and Dolbeault

We begin with the de Rham and Hodge theorems, which exemplify the relationship between elliptic linear differential equations and topology. Let