This blog has been on hiatus for a while, as I’ve been doing various other things, including spending some time in Hamburg getting set up for the move there. Another of these things has been working with Jamie Vicary on our project on the groupoidified Quantum Harmonic Oscillator (QHO for short). We’ve now put the first of two papers on the arXiv – this one is a relatively nonrigorous look at how this relates to categorification of the Heisenberg Algebra. Since John Baez is a high-speed blogging machine, he’s already beaten me to an overview of what the paper says, and there’s been some interesting discussion already. So I’ll try to say some different things about what it means, and let you take a look over there, or read the paper, for details.

I’ve given some talks about this project, but as we’ve been writing it up, it’s expanded considerably, including a lot of category-theoretic details which are going to be in the second paper in this series. But the basic point of this current paper is essentially visual and, in my opinion, fairly simple. The groupoidification of the QHO has a nice visual description, since it is all about the combinatorics of finite sets. This was described originally by Baez and Dolan, and in more detail in my very first paper. The other visual part here is the relation to Khovanov’s categorification of the Heisenberg algebra using a graphical calculus. (I wrote about this back when I first became aware of it.)

As a Representation

The scenario here actually has some common features with my last post. First, we have a monoidal category with duals, let’s say C presented in terms of some generators and relations. Then, we find some concrete model of this abstractly-presented monoidal category with duals in a specific setting, namely Span(Gpd).

Calling this “concrete” just refers to the fact that the objects in Span(Gpd) have some particular structure in terms of underlying sets and so on. By a “model” I just mean a functor C \rightarrow Span(Gpd) (“model” and “representation” mean essentially the same thing in this context). In fact, for this to make sense, I think of C as a 2-category with one object. Then a model is just some particular choices: a groupoid to represent the unique object, spans of groupoids to represent the generating morphisms, spans of spans to represent the generating 2-morphisms, all chosen so that the defining relations hold.

In my previous post, C was a category of cobordisms, but in this case, it’s essentially Khovanov’s monoidal category H' whose objects are (oriented) dots and whose morphisms are certain classes of diagrams. The nice fact about the particular model we get is that the reasons these relations hold are easy to see in terms of a the combinatorics of sets. This is why our title describes what we got as “a combinatorial representation” Khovanov’s category H' of diagrams, for which the ring of isomorphism classes of objects is the integral form of the algebra. This uses that Span(Gpd) is not just a monoidal category: it can be a monoidal 2-category. What’s more, the monoidal category H' “is” also a 2-category – with one object. The objects of H' are really the morphisms of this 2-category.

So H' is in some sense a universal theory (because it’s defined freely in terms of generators and relations) of what a categorification of the Heisenberg algebra must look like. Baez-Dolan groupoidification of the QHO then turns out to be a representation or model of it. In fact, the model is faithful, so that we can even say that it provides a combinatorial interpretation of that category.

The Combinatorial Model

Between the links above, you can find a good summary of the situation, so I’ll be a bit cursory. The model is described in terms of structures on finite sets. This is why our title calls this a “combinatorial representation” of Khovanov’s categorification.

This means that the one object of H (as a 2-category) is taken to the groupoid FinSet_0 of finite sets and bijections (which we just called S in the paper for brevity). This is the “Fock space” object. For simplicity, we can take an equivalent groupoid, which has just one n-element set for each n.

Now, a groupoid represents a system, whose possible configurations are the objects and whose symmetries are the morphisms. In this case, the possible configurations are the different numbers of “quanta”, and the symmetries (all set-bijections) show that all the quanta are interchangeable. I imagine a box containing some number of ping-pong balls.

A span of groupoids represents a process. It has a groupoid whose objects are histories (and morphisms are symmetries of histories). This groupoid has a pair of maps: to the system the process starts in, and to the system it ends in. In our model, the most important processes (which generate everything else) are the creation and annihilation operators, a^{\dagger} and a – and their categorified equivalents, A and A^{\dagger}. The spans that represent them are very simple: they are processes which put a new ball into the box, or take one out, respectively. (Algebraically, they’re just a way to organize all the inclusions of symmetric groups S_n \subset S_{n+1}.)

The “canonical commutation relation“, which we write without subtraction thus:

A A^{\dagger} = A^{\dagger} A + 1

is already understood in the Baez-Dolan story: it says that there is one more way to remove a ball from a box after putting a new one into it (one more history for the process A A^{\dagger}) than to remove a ball and then add a new one (histories for a^{\dagger} a). This is fairly obvious: in the first instance, you have one more to choose from when removing the ball.

But the original Baez-Dolan story has no interesting 2-morphisms (the actual diagrams which are the 1-morphisms in H), whereas these are absolutely the whole point of a categorification in the sense Khovanov gets one, since the 1-morphisms of H' determine what the isomorphism classes of objects even are.

So this means that we need to figure out what the 2-morphisms in Span(Gpd) need to be – first in general, and second in our particular representation of H.

In general, a 2-morphism in Span(Gpd) is a span of span-maps. You’ll find other people who take it to be a span-map. This would be a functor between the groupoids of histories: roughly, a map which assigns a history in the source span to a history in the target span (and likewise for symmetries), in a way that respects how they’re histories. But we don’t want just a map: we want a process which has histories of its own. We want to describe a “movie of processes” which change one process into another. These can have many histories of their own.

In fact, they’re not too complicated. Here’s one of Khovanov’s relation in H' which forms part of how the commutation relation is expressed (shuffled to get rid of negatives, which we constantly need to do in the combinatorial model since we have no negative sets):

We read an upward arrow as “add a ball to the box”, and a downward arrow as “remove a ball”, and read right-to-left.  Both processes begin and end with“add then remove”. The right-hand side just leaves this process alone: it’s the identity.

The left-hand side shows a process-movie whose histories have two different cases. Suppose we begin with a history for which we add x and then remove y. The first case is that x = y: we remove the same ball we put in. This amounts to doing nothing, so the first part of the movie eliminates all the adding and removing. The second part puts the add-remove pair back in.

The second case ensures that x \neq y, since it takes the initial history to the history (of a different process!) in which we remove y and then add x (impossible if y = x, since we can’t remove this ball before adding it). This in turn is taken to the history (of the original process!) where we add x and then remove y; so this relates every history to itself, except for the case that x = y. Overall the sum of these relations give the identity on histories, which is the right hand side.

This picture includes several of the new 2-morphisms that we need to add to the Baez-Dolan picture: swapping the order of two generators, and adding or removing a pair of add/remove operations. Finding spans of spans which accomplish this (and showing they satisfy the right relations) is all that’s needed to finish up the combinatorial model.  So, for instance, the span of spans which adds a “remove-then-add” pair is this one:

If this isn’t clear, well, it’s explained in more detail in the paper.  (Do notice, though, that this is a diagram in groupoids: we need to specify that there are identity 2-cells in the span, rather than some other 2-cells.)

So this is basically how the combinatorial model works.


But in fact this description is (as often happens) chronologically backwards: what actually happened was that we had worked out what the 2-morphisms should be for different reasons. While trying to to understand what kind of structure this produced, we realized (thanks to Marco Mackaay) that the result was related to H, which in turn shed more light on the 2-morphisms we’d found.

So far so good. But what makes it possible to represent the kind of monoidal category we’re talking about in this setting is adjointness. This is another way of saying what I meant up at the top by saying we start with a monoidal category with duals.  This means morphisms each have a partner – a dual, or adjoint – going in the opposite direction.  The representations of the raising and lowering operators of the Heisenberg algebra on the Hilbert space for the QHO are linear adjoints. Their categorifications also need to be adjoints in the sense of adjoint 1-morphisms in a 2-category.

This is an abstraction of what it means for two functors F and G to be adjoint. In particular, it means there have to be certain 2-cells such as the unit \eta : Id \Rightarrow G \circ F and counit \epsilon : F \circ G \Rightarrow Id satisfying some nice relations. In fact, this only makes F a left adjoint and G a right adjoint – in this situation, we also have another pair which makes F a right adjoint and G a left one. That is, they should be “ambidextrous adjoints”, or “ambiadjoints” for short. This is crucial if they’re going to represent any graphical calculus of the kind that’s involved here (see the first part of this paper by Aaron Lauda, for instance).

So one of the theorems in the longer paper will show concretely that any 1-morphism in Span(Gpd) has an ambiadjoint – which happens to look like the same span, but thought of as going in the reverse direction. This is somewhat like how the adjoint of a real linear map, expressed as a matrix relative to well-chosen bases, is just the transpose of the same matrix. In particular, A and A^{\dagger} are adjoints in just this way. The span-of-span-maps I showed above is exactly the unit for one side of this ambi-adjunction – but it is just a special case of something that will work for any span and its adjoint.

Finally, there’s something a little funny here. Since the morphisms of Span(Gpd) aren’t functors or maps, this combinatorial model is not exactly what people often mean by a “categorified representation”. That would be an action on a category in terms of functors and natural transformations. We do talk about how to get one of these on a 2-vector space out of our groupoidal representation toward the end.

In particular, this amounts to a functor into 2Vect – the objects of 2Vect being categories of a particular kind, and the morphisms being functors that preserve all the structure of those categories. As it turns out, the thing about this setting which is good for this purpose is that all those functors have ambiadjoints. The “2-linearization” that takes Span(Gpd) into 2Vect is a 2-functor, and this means that all the 2-cells and equations that make two morphisms ambiadjoints carry over. In 2Vect, it’s very easy for this to happen, since all those ambiadjoints are already present. So getting representations of categorified algebras that are made using these monoidal categories of diagrams on 2-vector spaces is fairly natural – and it agrees with the usual intuition about what “representation” means.

Anything I start to say about this is in danger of ballooning, but since we’re already some 40 pages into the second paper, I’ll save the elaboration for that…