Geometry of the Complex of Curves I: Hyperbolicity

Howard Masur and Yair Minsky


The Complex of Curves on a Surface is a simplicial complex whose vertices are homotopy classes of simple closed curves, and whose simplices are sets of homotopy classes which can be realized disjointly. It is not hard to see that the complex is finite-dimensional, but locally infinite. It was introduced by Harvey as an analogy, in the context of Teichmuller space, for Tits buildings for symmetric spaces, and has been studied by Harer and Ivanov as a tool for understanding mapping class groups of surfaces. In this paper we prove that, endowed with a natural metric, the complex is hyperbolic in the sense of Gromov.

In a certain sense this hyperbolicity is an explanation of why the Teichmuller space has some negative-curvature properties in spite of not being itself hyperbolic: Hyperbolicity in the Teichmuller space fails most obviously in the regions corresponding to surfaces where some curve is extremely short. The complex of curves exactly encodes the intersection patterns of this family of regions (it is the "nerve" of the family), and we show that its hyperbolicity means that the Teichmuller space is "relatively hyperbolic" with respect to this family. A similar relative hyperbolicity result is proved for the mapping class group of a surface.

A current draft of the paper is available as a Postscript file(877K), or (without the figures) as a dvi file(217K). See also the LANL XXX Math Archives.

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