Unitary group integrals, surfaces, and mapping class groups

10 June 2019
Michael Magee

For any word w in a free group of rank r>0, and any compact group G, w induces a `word map' from G^r to G by substitutions of elements of G for the letters of w. We may also choose the r elements of G independently with respect to Haar measure on G, and then apply the word map. This gives a random element of G whose distribution depends on w. An interesting observation is that this distribution doesn't change if we change w by an automorphism of the free group. It is a wide open question whether the measures induced by w on compact groups determine w up to automorphisms.
My talk will be mostly about the case G = U(n), the n by n complex unitary matrices. The technical tool we use is a precise formula for the moments of the distribution induced by w on U(n). In the formula, there is a surprising appearance of concepts from infinite group theory, more specifically, Euler characteristics of mapping class groups of surfaces. I'll explain how our formula allows us to make progress on the question described above.
This is joint work with Doron Puder (Tel Aviv).