We will describe a surprising phenomenon discovered by Zagier on values of quadratic polynomials. We will then provide an explanation using modular forms. Quadratic polynomials are quite simple objects everybody knew since childhood. Modular forms are less elementary but ubiquitous in modern number theory. In just one sentence, modular forms are special functions satisfying many symmetries. In particular they are periodic like the trigonometric function , and so a modular form has a Fourier expansion where . The most famous example of a modular form is Ramanujan's -function The coefficients are of great arithmetic interest. If you never saw a modular form before, just remember the first few values of for the purpose of this talk.
Let be a quadratic polynomial with . Its discriminant is a always congruent to 0 or 1 modulo 4, which is not a perfect square when is irreducible. We will focus on the case and . So geometrically it corresponds to a cap-shape parabola intersecting with -axis at two points.
Let us consider the simplest case . Zagier came up with the following sum of values of quadratic polynomials with discriminant 5, Here taking only positive values makes the sum more likely to converge. Assume there is no convergence issue for the moment. Notice that by construction (as is also a polynomial with ) and (change to ). So is an even and periodic function (of period 1). Can one make a wild guess what function this is?
This is rather surprising. To convince you this is reasonable, let us compute for some specific . Since is even and periodic, we can focus on .
Now the same argument generalizes to any to show that the sum is in fact a finite sum. However, this sum can be infinite in general.
Variant I. Of course there should be nothing special about . One can do experiments for other and one obtain similar pattern. Namely the function is always a constant function. Denoted this constant by . Assuming we can even figure out the value by computing Here is the sum of divisor powers. The first few values of are:
Variant II. Fix but let us change the sum using a higher power (Here we don't take an even power as it makes less sense to pick out the positive values, and the sum would diverge.) This is easier to prove to be converge (since by the previous identity).
The surprise happens again.
Again there should be nothing special about , in fact the function should be again a constant given by The first few values are given by
Variant III. Fix . Again there should be nothing special about 3rd powers. Let us consider the case of 5th powers We would expect is again a constant function, given by the sum , which can be recognized as .
However, we get another surprise:
You probably already smell something like this, as it is impossible for a fixed collection of rational numbers to have all their -th powers sum up to 2.
Let us stare at the 5th power sum more carefully. Let us subtract the expected value from the constant term,
Notice the pattern: the second column is actually times the first column. More numerical data strongly suggest that where is independent of (the previous table shows ). Moreover, (of period 1) has average value 0. So its Fourier expansion has the form All these 's are transcendental numbers, but the ratio turns out to be very close to rational numbers numerically: Now the miracle happens if we multiply by : These are exactly Ramanujan's for ! At the end we have produced the modular form out of (the Fourier expansion of) the 5th power sum of values of quadratic polynomials!
As we have seen, the function (normalized version of ) is closely related to Ramanujan's , a modular form for the group of weight 12. More precisely,
A fundamental theorem in the theory of modular forms is the space of modular forms of weight is finite dimensional. Its dimension can be easily computed.
One can see weight 12 is the smallest weight for a cusp form to exist, which is exactly spanned by Ramanujan's .
More generally, consider the function So , and . Then the normalized version of is closely related to the modular forms of level . The reason (or more generally ) behaves differently from is exactly due to the fact that there are cusp forms of weight for but not for .
To briefly explain the connection with modular forms, let us come back to the case of .
For more general , we similarly consider It is no longer obvious what the last sum is, but must satisfy the following functional equation (since is even and has period 1):
This is known as the space of period polynomials as they are related to period integrals of modular forms. One can produce polynomials in by period integrals of modular forms.
The fundamental theorem in the theory of modular forms is the following.
From quadratic functions to modular functions, Number theory in progress, Vol. 2 (Zakopane-Ko\'scielisko, 1997), de Gruyter, Berlin, 1999, 1147--1178.