Local system

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In mathematics, local coefficients is an idea from algebraic topology, a kind of half-way stage between homology theory or cohomology theory with coefficients in the usual sense, in a fixed abelian group A, and general sheaf cohomology which, roughly speaking, allows coefficients to vary from point to point in a topological space X. Such a concept was introduced by Norman Steenrod.


A local system of modules on space X is

1. A locally constant sheaf of modules on X. That is, every point has an open neighborhood such that is a constant sheaf.

If X is path-connected, this the same as

2. A homomorphism ( in the above).

Another (stronger, nonequivalent) definition generalising 2, and working for nonconnected X, is

3. A functor
from the fundamental groupoid of to the category of modules over a commutative ring . Typically . What this is saying is that at every point we should assign a module : with a representations of such that these representations are compatible with change of basepoint for the fundamental group.

Here's a proof that 1 and 2 are the same if X is path-connected.

  • Take as in 1 and a loop at x. It's easy so show that any (definition 1)-local system on is constant. For instance, . So we get an isomorphism . But gives an isomorphism between both sides and , whence an endomorphism of .
  • Take homomorphism . Consider the constant sheaf on the universal cover of with cover , and let be the deck-transform-ρ-equivariant part:

The proof shows that (for X path-connected) another equivalent definition of a local system is

4. A sheaf whose pullback by the universal cover is the constant sheaf.

Call the map the monodromy representation of the local system.


  • Constant sheaves. For instance, . This is a useful tool for computing cohomology since the sheaf cohomology
is isomorphic to the singular cohomology of .
  • . Since , there are -many linear systems on X, the one given by monodromy representation
by sending
  • Horizontal sections of vector bundles with a flat connection. If is a vector bundle with flat connection , then
is a local system.
For instance, take and the trivial bundle. Sections of E are n-tuples of functions on X, so defines a flat connection on E, as does for any matrix of one-forms on X. The horizontal sections are then
i.e. the solutions to the linear differential equation .
If extends to a one-form on the above will also define a local system on , so will be trivial since . So to give an interesting example, choose one with a pole at 0:
in which case for ,
  • An n-sheeted covering map is a local system with sections locally the set . Similarly, a fibre bundle with discrete fibre is a local system, because each path lifts uniquely to a given lift of its basepoint. (The definition adjusts to include set-valued local systems in the obvious way).
  • A local system of k-vector spaces on X is the same as a k-linear representation of the group .
  • If X is a variety, local systems are the same thing as D-modules that are in addition coherent as O-modules.

If the connection is not flat, parallel transporting a fibre around a contractible loop at x may give a nontrivial automorphism of the fibre at the base point x, so there is no chance to define a locally constant sheaf this way.

The Gauss-Manin connection is a very interesting example of a connection, whose horizontal sections occur in the study of variation of Hodge structures.


Local systems have a mild generalization to constructible sheaves. A constructible sheaf on a locally path connected topological space is a sheaf such that there exists a stratification of

where is a local system. These are typically found by taking the cohomology of the derived pushforward for some continuous map . For example, if we look at the complex points of the morphism

then the fibers over

are the smooth plane curve given by , but the fibers over are . If we take the derived pushforward then we get a constructible sheaf. Over we have the local systems

while over we have the local systems

where is the genus of the plane curve (which is ).


The cohomology with local coefficients in the module corresponding to the orientation covering can be used to formulate Poincaré duality for non-orientable manifolds: see Twisted Poincaré duality.

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