Counting essential surfaces in 3-manifolds

Nathan M M. Dunfield, Stavros Garoufalidis, J.  Hyam Rubinstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We consider the natural problem of counting isotopy classes of essential surfaces in 3-manifolds, focusing on closed essential surfaces in a broad class of hyperbolic 3-manifolds. Our main result is that the count of (possibly disconnected) essential surfaces in terms of their Euler characteristic always has a short generating function and hence has quasi-polynomial behavior. This gives remarkably concise formulae for the number of such surfaces, as well as detailed asymptotics. We give algorithms that allow us to compute these generating functions and the underlying surfaces, and apply these to almost 60,000 manifolds, providing a wealth of data about them. We use this data to explore the delicate question of counting only connected essential surfaces and propose some conjectures. Our methods involve normal and almost normal surfaces, especially the work of Tollefson and Oertel, combined with techniques pioneered by Ehrhart for counting lattice points in polyhedra with rational vertices. We also introduce a new way of testing if a normal surface in an ideal triangulation is essential that avoids cutting the manifold open along the surface; rather, we use almost normal surfaces in the original triangulation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)717-775
Number of pages59
JournalInventiones Mathematicae
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Mathematics(all)


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