Well, it’s been a while, but it’s now a new semester here in Hamburg, and I wanted to go back and look at some of what we talked about in last semester’s research seminar. This semester, Susama Agarwala and I are sharing the teaching in a topics class on “Category Theory for Geometry“, in which I’ll be talking about categories of sheaves, and building up the technology for Susama to talk about Voevodsky’s theory of motives (enough to give a starting point to read something like this).
As for last semester’s seminar, one of the two main threads, the one which Alessandro Valentino and I helped to organize, was a look at some of the material needed to approach Jacob Lurie’s paper on the classification of topological quantum field theories. The idea was for the research seminar to present the basic tools that are used in that paper to a larger audience, mostly of graduate students – enough to give a fairly precise statement, and develop the tools needed to follow the proof. (By the way, for a nice and lengthier discussion by Chris Schommer-Pries about this subject, which includes more details on much of what’s in this post, check out this video.)
So: the key result is a slightly generalized form of the Cobordism Hypothesis.
The sort of theory which the paper classifies are those which “extend down to a point”. So what does this mean? A topological field theory can be seen as a sort of “quantum field theory up to homotopy”, which abstract away any geometric information about the underlying space where the fields live – their local degrees of freedom. We do this by looking only at the classes of fields up to the diffeomorphism symmetries of the space. The local, geometric, information gets thrown away by taking this quotient of the space of solutions.
In spite of reducing the space of fields this way, we want to capture the intuition that the theory is still somehow “local”, in that we can cut up spaces into parts and make sense of the theory on those parts separately, and determine what it does on a larger space by gluing pieces together, rather than somehow having to take account of the entire space at once, indissolubly. This reasoning should apply to the highest-dimensional space, but also to boundaries, and to any figures we draw on boundaries when cutting them up in turn.
Carrying this on to the logical end point, this means that a topological quantum field theory in the fully extended sense should assign some sort of data to every geometric entity from a zero-dimensional point up to an -dimensional cobordism. This is all expressed by saying it’s an -functor:
Well, once we know what this means, we’ll know (in principle) what a TQFT is. It’s less important, for the purposes of Lurie’s paper, what is than what is. The reason is that we want to classify these field theories (i.e. functors). It will turn out that has the sort of structure that makes it easy to classify the functors out of it into any target -category . A guess about what kind of structure is actually there was expressed by Baez and Dolan as the Cobordism Hypothesis. It’s been slightly rephrased from the original form to get a form which has a proof. The version Lurie proves says:
The -category is equivalent to the free symmetric monoidal -category generated by one fully-dualizable object.
The basic point is that, since is a free structure, the classification means that the extended TQFT’s amount precisely to the choice of a fully-dualizable object of (which includes a choice of a bunch of morphisms exhibiting the “dualizability”). However, to make sense of this, we need to have a suitable idea of an -category, and know what a fully dualizable object is. Let’s begin with the first.
In one sense, the Cobordism Hypothesis, which was originally made about -categories at a time when these were only beginning to be defined, could be taken as a criterion for an acceptable definition. That is, it expressed an intuition which was important enough that any definition which wouldn’t allow one to prove the Cobordism Hypothesis in some form ought to be rejected. To really make it work, one had to bring in the “infinity” part of -categories. The point here is that we are talking about category-like structures which have morphisms between objects, 2-morphisms between morphisms, and so on, with -morphisms between -morphisms for every possible degree. The inspiration for this comes from homotopy theory, where one has maps, homotopies of maps, homotopies of homotopies, etc.
Nowadays, there are several possible concrete models for -categories (see this survey article by Julie Bergner for a summary of four of them). They are all equivalent definitions, in a suitable up-to-homotopy way, but for purposes of the proof, Lurie is taking the definition that an -category is an n-fold complete Segal space. One theme that shows up in all the definitions is that of simplicial methods. (In our seminar, we started with a series of two talks introducing the notions of simplicial sets, simplicial objects in a category, and Kan complexes. If you don’t already know this, essentially everything we need is nicely explained in here.)
One of the underlying ideas is that a category can be associated with a simplicial set, its nerve , where the set of -dimensional simplexes is just the set of composable -tuples of morphisms in . If is a groupoid (everything is invertible), then the simplicial set is a Kan complex – it satisfies some filling conditions, which ensure that any morphism has an inverse. Not every Kan complex is the nerve of a groupoid, but one can think of them as weak versions of groupoids – -groupoids, or -categories – where the higher morphisms may not be completely trivial (as with a groupoid), but where at least they’re all invertible. This leads to another desirable feature in any definition of -category, which is the Homotopy Hypothesis: that the -category of -categories, also called -groupoids, should be equivalent (in the same weak sense) to a category of Hausdorff spaces with some other nice properties, which we call for short. This is true of Kan complexes.
Thus, up to homotopy, specifying an -groupoid is the same as specifying a space.
The data which defines a Segal space (which was however first explicitly defined by Charlez Rezk) is a simplicial space : for each , there are spaces , thought of as the space of composable -tuples of morphisms. To keep things tame, we suppose that , the space of objects, is discrete – that is, we have only a set of objects. Being a simplicial space means that the come equipped with a collection of face maps , which we should think of as compositions: to get from an -tuple to an -tuple of morphisms, one can compose two morphisms together at any of positions in the tuple.
One condition which a simplicial space has to satisfy to be a Segal space has to do with the “weakening” which makes a Segal space a weaker notion than just a category lies in the fact that the cannot be arbitrary, but must be homotopy equivalent to the “actual” space of -tuples, which is a strict pullback . That is, in a Segal space, the pullback which defines these tuples for a category is weakened to be a homotopy pullback. Combining this with the various face maps, we therefore get a weakened notion of composition: . Because we start by replacing the space of -tuples with the homotopy-equivalent , the composition rule will only satisfy all the relations which define composition (associativity, for instance) up to homotopy.
To be complete, the Segal space must have a notion of equivalence for which agrees with that for Kan complexes seen as -groupoids. In particular, there is a sub-simplicial object , which we understand to consist of the spaces of invertible -morphisms. Since there should be nothing interesting happening above the top dimension, we ask that, for these spaces, the face and degeneracy maps are all homotopy equivalences: up to homotopy, the space of invertible higher morphisms has no new information.
Then, an -fold complete Segal space is defined recursively, just as one might define -categories (without the infinitely many layers of invertible morphisms “at the top”). In that case, we might say that a double category is just a category internal to : it has a category of objects, and a category of morphims, and the various maps and operations, such as composition, which make up the definition of a category are all defined as functors. That turns out to be the same as a structure with objects, horizontal and vertical morphisms, and square-shaped 2-cells. If we insist that the category of objects is discrete (i.e. really just a set, with no interesting morphisms), then the result amounts to a 2-category. Then we can define a 3-category to be a category internal to (whose 2-category of objects is discrete), and so on. This approach really defines an -fold category (see e.g. Chapter 5 of Cheng and Lauda to see a variation of this approach, due to Tamsamani and Simpson), but imposing the condition that the objects really amount to a set at each step gives exactly the usual intuition of a (strict!) -category.
This is exactly the approach we take with -fold complete Segal spaces, except that some degree of weakness is automatic. Since a C.S.S. is a simplicial object with some properties (we separately define objects of -tuples of morphisms for every , and all the various composition operations), the same recursive approach leads to a definition of an “-fold complete Segal space” as simply a simplicial object in -fold C.S.S.’s (with the same properties), such that the objects form a set. In principle, this gives a big class of “spaces of morphisms” one needs to define – one for every -fold product of simplexes of any dimension – but all those requirements that any space of objects “is just a set” (i.e. is homotopy-equivalent to a discrete set of points) simplifies things a bit.
Cobordism Category as -Category
So how should we think of cobordisms as forming an -category? There are a few stages in making a precise definition, but the basic idea is simple enough. One starts with manifolds and cobordisms embedded in some fixed finite-dimensional vector space , and then takes a limit over all . In each , the coordinates of the factor give ways of cutting the cobordism into pieces, and gluing them back together defines composition in a different direction. Now, this won’t actually produce a complete Segal space: one has to take a certain kind of completion. But the idea is intuitive enough.
We want to define an -fold C.S.S. of cobordisms (and cobordisms between cobordisms, and so on, up to -morphisms). To start with, think of the case : then the space of objects of consists of all embeddings of a -dimensional manifold into . The space of -simplexes (of -tuples of morphisms) consists of all ways of cutting up a -dimensional cobordism embedded in by choosing , where we think of the cobordism having been glued from two pieces, where at the slice , we have the object where the two pieces were composed. (One has to be careful to specify that the Morse function on the cobordisms, got by projection only , has its critical points away from the – the generic case – to make sure that the objects where gluing happens are actual manifolds.)
Now, what about the higher morphisms of the -category? The point is that one needs to have an -groupoid – that is, a space! – of morphisms between two cobordisms and . To make sense of this, we just take the space of diffeomorphisms – not just as a set of morphisms, but including its topology as well. The higher morphisms, therefore, can be thought of precisely as paths, homotopies, homotopies between homotopies, and so on, in these spaces. So the essential difference between the 1-category of cobordisms and the -category is that in the first case, morphisms are diffeomorphism classes of cobordisms, whereas in the latter, the higher morphisms are made precisely of the space of diffeomorphisms which we quotient out by in the first case.
Now, -categories, can have non-invertible morphisms between morphisms all the way up to dimension , after which everything is invertible. An -fold C.S.S. does this by taking the definition of a complete Segal space and copying it inside -fold C.S.S’s: that is, one has an -fold Complete Segal Space of -tuples of morphisms, for each , they form a simplicial object, and so forth.
Now, if we want to build an -category of cobordisms, the idea is the same, except that we have a simplicial object, in a category of simplicial objects, and so on. However, the way to define this is essentially similar. To specify an -fold C.S.S., we have to specify a whole collection of spaces associated to cobordisms equipped with embeddings into . In particular, for each tuple , we have the space of such embeddings, such that for each one has special points along the coordinate axis. These are the ways of breaking down a given cobordism into a composite of pieces. Again, one has to make sure that these critical points of the Morse functions defined by the projections onto these coordinate axes avoid these special which define the manifolds where gluing takes place. The composition maps which make these into a simplical object are quite natural – they just come by deleting special points.
Finally, we take a limit over all (to get around limits to embeddings due to the dimension of ). So we know (at least abstractly) what the -category of cobordisms should be. The cobordism hypothesis claims it is equivalent to one defined in a free, algebraically-flavoured way, namely as the free symmetric monoidal -category on a fully-dualizable object. (That object is “the point” – which, up to the kind of homotopically-flavoured equivalence that matters here, is the only object when our highest-dimensional cobordisms have dimension ).
So what does that mean, a “fully dualizable object”?
First, to get the idea, let’s think of the 1-dimensional example. Instead of “-category”, we would like to just think of this as a statement about a category. Then is the 1-category of framed bordisms. For a manifold (or cobordism, which is a manifold with boundary), a framing is a trivialization of the tangent bundle. That is, it amounts to a choice of isomorphism at each point between the tangent space there and the corresponding . So the objects of are collections of (signed) points, and the morphisms are equivalence classes of framed 1-dimensional cobordisms. These amount to oriented 1-manifolds with boundary, where the points (objects) on the boundary are the source and target of the cobordism.
Now we want to classify what TQFT’s live on this category. These are functors . We have two generating objects, and , the two signed points. A TQFT must assign these objects vector spaces, which we’ll call and . Collections of points get assigned tensor products of all the corresponding vector spaces, since the functor is monoidal, so knowing these two vector spaces determines what does to all objects.
What does do to morphisms? Well, some generating morphsims of interest are cups and caps: these are lines which connect a positive to a negative point, but thought of as cobordisms taking two points to the empty set, and vice versa. That is, we have an evaluation:This statement is what is generalized to say that -dimensional TQFT’s are classified by “fully” dualizable objects.
and a coevaluation:
Now, since cobordisms are taken up to equivalence, which in particular includes topological deformations, we get a bunch of relations which these have to satisfy. The essential one is the “zig-zag” identity, reflecting the fact that a bent line can be straightened out, and we have the same 1-morphism in . This implies that:
is the same as the identity. This in turn means that the evaluation and coevaluation maps define a nondegenerate pairing between and . The fact that this exists means two things. First, is the dual of : . Second, this only makes sense if both and its dual are finite dimensional (since the evaluation will just be the trace map, which is not even defined on the identity if is infinite dimensional).
On the other hand, once we know, , this determines up to isomorphism, as well as the evaluation and coevaluation maps. In fact, this turns out to be enough to specify entirely. The classification then is: 1-D TQFT’s are classified by finite-dimensional vector spaces . Crucially, what made finiteness important is the existence of the dual and the (co)evaluation maps which express the duality.
In an -category, to say that an object is “fully dualizable” means more that the object has a dual (which, itself, implies the existence of the morphisms and ). It also means that and have duals themselves – or rather, since we’re talking about morphisms, “adjoints”. This in turn implies the existence of 2-morphisms which are the unit and counit of the adjunctions (the defining properties are essentially the same as those for morphisms which define a dual). In fact, every time we get a morphism of degree less than in this process, “fully dualizable” means that it too must have a dual (i.e. an adjoint).
This does run out eventually, though, since we only require this goes up to dimension : the -morphisms which this forces to exist (quite a few) aren’t required to have duals. This is good, because if they were, since all the higher morphisms available are invertible, this would mean that the dual -morphisms would actually be weak inverses (that is, their composite is isomorphic to the identity)… But that would mean that the dual -morphisms which forced them to exist would also be weak inverses (their composite would be weakly isomorphic to the identity)… and so on! In fact, if the property of “having duals” didn’t stop, then everything would be weakly invertible: we’d actually have a (weak) -groupoid!
So finally, the point of the Cobordism Hypothesis is that a (fully extended) TQFT is a functor out of this into some target -category . There are various options, but whatever we pick, the functor must assign something in to the point, say , and something to each of and , as well as all the higher morphisms which must exist. Then functoriality means that all these images have to again satisfy the properties which make a fully dualizable object. Furthermore, since is the free gadget with all these properties on the single object , this is exactly what it means that is a functor. Saying that is fully dualizable, by implication, includes all the choices of morphisms like etc. which show it as fully dualizable. (Conceivably one could make the same object fully dualizable in more than one way – these would be different functors).
So an extended -dimensional TQFT is exactly the choice of a fully dualizable object , for some -category . This object is “what the TQFT assigns to a point”, but if we understand the structure of the object as a fully dualizable object, then we know what the TQFT assigns to any other manifold of any dimension up to , the highest dimension in the theory. This is how this algebraic characterization of cobordisms helps to classify such theories.