Differential geometry is the study of "smooth shapes", e.g. curved surfaces that have no rough edges or sharp bends. A surface is a 2dimensional object, and one can similarly imagine smooth shapes that are 1dimensional, such as a line, or curve, or circle. What is much harder to imagine, but can nonetheless be described in precise mathematical terms, is a smooth shape in an arbitrary number of dimensions: these objects are called "manifolds".
A specific example of a 2dimensional manifold is a disk, i.e. the region inside a circle, and its "boundary" is a 1dimensional manifold, namely the circle. Similarly, for any positive integer n, an ndimensional manifold may have a boundary which is an (n1)dimensional manifold. All the 3dimensional manifolds that we can easily picture are of this type: e.g. if we imagine any surface in 3dimensional space, such as a sphere or a "torus" (the shape of the surface of a doughnut), then the region inside that surface is a 3dimensional manifold whose boundary is the surface.
We can now ask one of the most basic questions concerning manifolds: given an ndimensional manifold, is it the boundary of something? This is actually not just a geometric question, but really a question of "topology", which is a certain way of studying the "overall shape" of geometric objects. As in the example given above, most 2dimensional manifolds that we can easily imagine are boundaries of the 3dimensional regions they enclose. But for a more interesting example, we can try to imagine a "Klein bottle": this is a surface formed by taking an ordinary bottle and bending its opening around and through the glass into the inside, then connecting the opening to the floor of the bottle by curving the floor upward. The result is a surface that is not a boundary of anything, as its inside is not distinct from its outside; like a Moebius strip, but closed in on itself.
The subject of this proposal concerns a more elaborate version of the above question about boundaries: we deal with a particular type of manifold in an even number of dimensions, called "symplectic" manifolds, and their odddimensional boundaries are called "contact" manifolds. The idea of a symplectic manifold comes originally from physics: a century ago, symplectic manifolds were understood to be the natural geometric setting in which to study Hamilton's 19th century reformulation of Newton's classical mechanics. Today symplectic manifolds are considered interesting in their own right, and they retain a connection to physics, but of a very different and nonclassical sort: by studying certain special surfaces in symplectic manifolds with contact boundary, one can define a socalled "Symplectic Field Theory" (or "SFT" for short), which bears a strong but mysterious resemblance to some of the theories that modern physics uses to describe elementary particles and their interactions. Unlike those theories, SFT does not help us to predict what will happen in a particle accelerator, but it can help us answer a basic question in the area of "Symplectic and Contact Topology": given a contact manifold, is it the boundary of any symplectic manifold?
More generally, one way to study contact manifolds themselves is to consider the following relation: we say that two such manifolds are "symplectically cobordant" if they form two separate pieces of the boundary of a symplectic manifold. The question of whether two given contact manifolds are cobordant helps us understand what kinds of contact manifolds can exist in the first place, and Symplectic Field Theory is one of the most powerful methods we have for studying this. The goal of this project is thus to use this and related tools to learn as much as we can about the symplectic cobordism relation on contact manifolds. Since most previous results on this subject have focused on 4dimensional manifolds with 3dimensional boundaries, we aim especially to gain new insights in higher dimensions.
