I’ve been thinking a lot about something called Serre-Tate theory lately. I want to do some posts on the “classical” case of elliptic curves. Before starting though we’ll go through some preliminaries on why one would ever want to use the fppf site and how to compute with it. It seems that today’s post is extremely well known, but not really spelled out anywhere.

Let’s say you’ve been reading stuff having to do with arithmetic geometry for awhile. Then without a doubt you’ve encountered étale cohomology. In fact, I’ve used it tons on this blog already. Here’s a standard way in which it comes up. Suppose you have some (smooth, projective) variety . You want to understand the -torsion in the Picard group or the (cohomological) Brauer group where is a prime not equal to the characteristic of the field.

What you do is take the Kummer sequence:

This is an exact sequence of sheaves in the étale topology. Thus it gives you a long exact sequence of cohomology. But since and . Just writing down the long exact sequence you get that the image of is exactly , and similarly with the Brauer group. In fact, people usually work with the truncated short exact sequence:

Fiddling around with other related things can help you figure out what is happening with the -torsion. That isn’t the point of this post though. The point is what do you do when you want to figure out the -torsion where is the characteristic of the ground field? It looks like you’re in big trouble, because the above Kummer sequence is not exact in the étale topology.

It turns out that you can switch to a finer topology called the fppf topology (or site). This is similar to the étale site, except instead of making your covering families using étale maps you make them with faithfully flat and locally of finite presentation maps (i.e. fppf for short when translated to french). When using this finer topology the sequence of sheaves actually becomes exact again.

A proof is here, and a quick read through will show you exactly why you can’t use the étale site. You need to extract -th roots for the -th power map to be surjective which will give you some sort of infinitesimal cover (for example if ) that looks like .

Thus you can try to figure out the -torsion again now using “flat cohomology” which will be denoted . We get the same long exact sequences to try to fiddle with:

But what the heck is ? I mean, how do you compute this? We have tons of books and things to compute with the étale topology. But this fppf thing is weird. So secretly we really want to translate this flat cohomology back to some étale cohomology. I saw the following claimed in several places without really explaining it, so we’ll prove it here:

Actually, let’s just prove something much more general. We actually get that

The proof is really just a silly “trick” once you see it. Since the Kummer sequence is exact on the fppf site, by definition this just means that the complex thought of as concentrated in degree is quasi-isomorphic to the complex . It looks like this is a useless and more complicated thing to say, but this means that the hypercohomology (still fppf) is isomorphic:

Now here’s the trick. The left side is the group we want to compute. The right hand side only involves smooth group schemes, so a theorem of Grothendieck tells us that we can compute this hypercohomology using fpqc, fppf, étale, Zariski … it doesn’t matter. We’ll get the same answer. Thus we can switch to the étale site. But of course, just by definition we now extend the -th power map (injective on the etale site) to an exact sequence

Thus we get another quasi-isomorphism of complexes. This time to . This is a complex concentrated in a single degree, so the hypercohomology is just the etale cohomology. The shift by decreases the cohomology by one and we get the desired isomorphism . In particular, we were curious about , so we want to figure out .

Alright. You’re now probably wondering what in the world to I do with the étale cohomology of ? It might be on the étale site, but it is a weird sheaf. Ah. But here’s something great, and not used all that much to my knowledge. There is something called the multiplicative de Rham complex. On the étale site we actually have an exact sequence of sheaves via the “dlog” map:

This now gives us something nice because if we understand the Cartier operator (which is Serre dual to the Frobenius!) and know things how many global -forms are on the variety (maybe none?) we have a hope of computing our original flat cohomology!