Why Higher Geometric Quantization

The largest single presentation was a pair of talks on “The Motivation for Higher Geometric Quantum Field Theory” by Urs Schreiber, running to about two and a half hours, based on these notes. This was probably the clearest introduction I’ve seen so far to the motivation for the program he’s been developing for several years. Broadly, the idea is to develop a higher-categorical analog of geometric quantization (GQ for short).

One guiding idea behind this is that we should really be interested in quantization over (higher) stacks, rather than merely spaces. This leads inexorably to a higher-categorical version of GQ itself. The starting point, though, is that the defining features of stacks capture two crucial principles from physics: the gauge principle, and locality. The gauge principle means that we need to keep track not just of connections, but gauge transformations, which form respectively the objects and morphisms of a groupoid. “Locality” means that these groupoids of configurations of a physical field on spacetime is determined by its local configuration on regions as small as you like (together with information about how to glue together the data on small regions into larger regions).

Some particularly simple cases can be described globally: a scalar field gives the space of all scalar functions, namely maps into \mathbb{C}; sigma models generalise this to the space of maps \Sigma \rightarrow M for some other target space. These are determined by their values pointwise, so of course are local.

More generally, physicists think of a field theory as given by a fibre bundle V \rightarrow \Sigma (the previous examples being described by trivial bundles \pi : M \times \Sigma \rightarrow \Sigma), where the fields are sections of the bundle. Lagrangian physics is then described by a form on the jet bundle of V, i.e. the bundle whose fibre over p \in \Sigma consists of the space describing the possible first k derivatives of a section over that point.

More generally, a field theory gives a procedure F for taking some space with structure – say a (pseudo-)Riemannian manifold \Sigma – and produce a moduli space X = F(\Sigma) of fields. The Sigma models happen to be representable functors: F(\Sigma) = Maps(\Sigma,M) for some M, the representing object. A prestack is just any functor taking \Sigma to a moduli space of fields. A stack is one which has a “descent condition”, which amounts to the condition of locality: knowing values on small neighbourhoods and how to glue them together determines values on larger neighborhoods.

The Yoneda lemma says that, for reasonable notions of “space”, the category \mathbf{Spc} from which we picked target spaces M embeds into the category of stacks over \mathbf{Spc} (Riemannian manifolds, for instance) and that the embedding is faithful – so we should just think of this as a generalization of space. However, it’s a generalization we need, because gauge theories determine non-representable stacks. What’s more, the “space” of sections of one of these fibred stacks is also a stack, and this is what plays the role of the moduli space for gauge theory! For higher gauge theories, we will need higher stacks.

All of the above is the classical situation: the next issue is how to quantize such a theory. It involves a generalization of Geometric Quantization (GQ for short). Now a physicist who actually uses GQ will find this perspective weird, but it flows from just the same logic as the usual method.

In ordinary GQ, you have some classical system described by a phase space, a manifold X equipped with a pre-symplectic 2-form \omega \in \Omega^2(X). Intuitively, \omega describes how the space, locally, can be split into conjugate variables. In the phase space for a particle in n-space, these “position” and “momentum” variables, and \omega = \sum_x dx^i \wedge dp^i; many other systems have analogous conjugate variables. But what really matters is the form \omega itself, or rather its cohomology class.

Then one wants to build a Hilbert space describing the quantum analog of the system, but in fact, you need a little more than (X,\omega) to do this. The Hilbert space is a space of sections of some bundle whose sections look like copies of the complex numbers, called the “prequantum line bundle“. It needs to be equipped with a connection, whose curvature is a 2-form in the class of \omega: in general, . (If \omega is not symplectic, i.e. is degenerate, this implies there’s some symmetry on X, in which case the line bundle had better be equivariant so that physically equivalent situations correspond to the same state). The easy case is the trivial bundle, so that we get a space of functions, like L^2(X) (for some measure compatible with \omega). In general, though, this function-space picture only makes sense locally in X: this is why the choice of prequantum line bundle is important to the interpretation of the quantized theory.

Since the crucial geometric thing here is a bundle over the moduli space, when the space is a stack, and in the context of higher gauge theory, it’s natural to seek analogous constructions using higher bundles. This would involve, instead of a (pre-)symplectic 2-form \omega, an (n+1)-form called a (pre-)n-plectic form (for an introductory look at this, see Chris Rogers’ paper on the case n=2 over manifolds). This will give a higher analog of the Hilbert space.

Now, maps between Hilbert spaces in QG come from Lagrangian correspondences – these might be maps of moduli spaces, but in general they consist of a “space of trajectories” equipped with maps into a space of incoming and outgoing configurations. This is a span of pre-symplectic spaces (equipped with pre-quantum line bundles) that satisfies some nice geometric conditions which make it possible to push a section of said line bundle through the correspondence. Since each prequantum line bundle can be seen as maps out of the configuration space into a classifying space (for U(1), or in general an n-group of phases), we get a square. The action functional is a cell that fills this square (see the end of 2.1.3 in Urs’ notes). This is a diagrammatic way to describe the usual GQ construction: the advantage is that it can then be repeated in the more general setting without much change.

This much is about as far as Urs got in his talk, but the notes go further, talking about how to extend this to infinity-stacks, and how the Dold-Kan correspondence tells us nicer descriptions of what we get when linearizing – since quantization puts us into an Abelian category.

I enjoyed these talks, although they were long and Urs came out looking pretty exhausted, because while I’ve seen several others on this program, this was the first time I’ve seen it discussed from the beginning, with a lot of motivation. This was presumably because we had a physically-minded part of the audience, whereas I’ve mostly seen these for mathematicians, and usually they come in somewhere in the middle and being more time-limited miss out some of the details and the motivation. The end result made it quite a natural development. Overall, very helpful!

Continuing from the previous post, we’ll take a detour in a different direction. The physics-oriented talks were by Martin Wolf, Sam Palmer, Thomas Strobl, and Patricia Ritter. Since my background in this subject isn’t particularly physics-y, I’ll do my best to summarize the ones that had obvious connections to other topics, but may be getting things wrong or unbalanced here…

Dirac Sigma Models

Thomas Strobl’s talk, “New Methods in Gauge Theory” (based on a whole series of papers linked to from the conference webpage), started with a discussion of of generalizing Sigma Models. Strobl’s talk was a bit high-level physics for me to do it justice, but I came away with the impression of a fairly large program that has several points of contact with more mathematical notions I’ll discuss later.

In particular, Sigma models are physical theories in which a field configuration on spacetime \Sigma is a map X : \Sigma \rightarrow M into some target manifold, or rather (M,g), since we need a metric to integrate and find differentials. Given this, we can define the crucial physics ingredient, an action functional
S[X] = \int_{\Sigma} g_{ij} dX^i \wedge (\star d X^j)
where the dX^i are the differentials of the map into M.

In string theory, \Sigma is the world-sheet of a string and M is ordinary spacetime. This generalizes the simpler example of a moving particle, where \Sigma = \mathbb{R} is just its worldline. In that case, minimizing the action functional above says that the particle moves along geodesics.

The big generalization introduced is termed a “Dirac Sigma Model” or DSM (the paper that introduces them is this one).

In building up to these DSM, a different generalization notes that if there is a group action G \rhd M that describes “rigid” symmetries of the theory (for Minkowski space we might pick the Poincare group, or perhaps the Lorentz group if we want to fix an origin point), then the action functional on the space Maps(\Sigma,M) is invariant in the direction of any of the symmetries. One can use this to reduce (M,g), by “gauging out” the symmetries to get a quotient (N,h), and get a corresponding S_{gauged} to integrate over N.

To generalize this, note that there’s an action groupoid associated with G \rhd M, and replace this with some other (Poisson) groupoid instead. That is, one thinks of the real target for a gauge theory not as M, but the action groupoid M \/\!\!\/ G, and then just considers replacing this with some generic groupoid that doesn’t necessarily arise from a group of rigid symmetries on some underlying M. (In this regard, see the second post in this series, about Urs Schreiber’s talk, and stacks as classifying spaces for gauge theories).

The point here seems to be that one wants to get a nice generalization of this situation – in particular, to be able to go backward from N to M, to deal with the possibility that the quotient N may be geometrically badly-behaved. Or rather, given (N,h), to find some (M,g) of which it is a reduction, but which is better behaved. That means needing to be able to treat a Sigma model with symmetry information attached.

There’s also an infinitesimal version of this: locally, invariance means the Lie derivative of the action in the direction of any of the generators of the Lie algebra of G – so called Killing vectors – is zero. So this equation can generalize to a case where there are vectors where the Lie derivative is zero – a so-called “generalized Killing equation”. They may not generate isometries, but can be treated similarly. What they do give, if you integrate these vectors, is a foliation of M. The space of leaves is the quotient N mentioned above.

The most generic situation Thomas discussed is when one has a Dirac structure on M – this is a certain kind of subbundle D \subset TM \oplus T^*M of the tangent-plus-cotangent bundle over M.

Supersymmetric Field Theories

Another couple of physics-y talks related higher gauge theory to some particular physics models, namely N=(2,0) and N=(1,0) supersymmetric field theories.

The first, by Martin Wolf, was called “Self-Dual Higher Gauge Theory”, and was rooted in generalizing some ideas about twistor geometry – here are some lecture notes by the same author, about how twistor geometry relates to ordinary gauge theory.

The idea of twistor geometry is somewhat analogous to the idea of a Fourier transform, which is ultimately that the same space of fields can be described in two different ways. The Fourier transform goes from looking at functions on a position space, to functions on a frequency space, by way of an integral transform. The Penrose-Ward transform, analogously, transforms a space of fields on Minkowski spacetime, satisfying one set of equations, to a set of fields on “twistor space”, satisfying a different set of equations. The theories represented by those fields are then equivalent (as long as the PW transform is an isomorphism).

The PW transform is described by a “correspondence”, or “double fibration” of spaces – what I would term a “span”, such that both maps are fibrations:

P \stackrel{\pi_1}{\leftarrow} K \stackrel{\pi_2}{\rightarrow} M

The general story of such correspondences is that one has some geometric data on P, which we call Ob_P – a set of functions, differential forms, vector bundles, cohomology classes, etc. They are pulled back to K, and then “pushed forward” to M by a direct image functor. In many cases, this is given by an integral along each fibre of the fibration \pi_2, so we have an integral transform. The image of Ob_P we call Ob_M, and it consists of data satisfying, typically, some PDE’s.In the case of the PW transform, P is complex projective 3-space \mathbb{P}^3/\mathbb{P}^1 and Ob_P is the set of holomorphic principal G bundles for some group G; M is (complexified) Minkowski space \mathbb{C}^4 and the fields are principal G-bundles with connection. The PDE they satisfy is F = \star F, where F is the curvature of the bundle and \star is the Hodge dual). This means cohomology on twistor space (which classifies the bundles) is related self-dual fields on spacetime. One can also find that a point in M corresponds to a projective line in P, while a point in P corresponds to a null plane in M. (The space K = \mathbb{C}^4 \times \mathbb{P}^1).

Then the issue to to generalize this to higher gauge theory: rather than principal G-bundles for a group, one is talking about a 2-group \mathcal{G} with connection. Wolf’s talk explained how there is a Penrose-Ward transform between a certain class of higher gauge theories (on the one hand) and an N=(2,0) supersymmetric field theory (on the other hand). Specifically, taking M = \mathbb{C}^6, and P to be (a subspace of) 6D projective space \mathbb{P}^7 / \mathbb{P}^1, there is a similar correspondence between certain holomorphic 2-bundles on P and solutions to some self-dual field equations on M (which can be seen as constraints on the curvature 3-form F for a principal 2-bundle: the self-duality condition is why this only makes sense in 6 dimensions).

This picture generalizes to supermanifolds, where there are fermionic as well as bosonic fields. These turn out to correspond to a certain 6-dimensional N = (2,0) supersymmetric field theory.

Then Sam Palmer gave a talk in which he described a somewhat similar picture for an N = (1,0) supersymmetric theory. However, unlike the N=(2,0) theory, this one gives, not a higher gauge theory, but something that superficially looks similar, but in fact is quite different. It ends up being a theory of a number of fields – form valued in three linked vector spaces

\mathfrak{g}^* \stackrel{g}{\rightarrow} \mathfrak{h} \stackrel{h}{\rightarrow} \mathfrak{g}

equipped with a bunch of maps that give the whole setup some structure. There is a collection of seven fields in groups (“multiplets”, in physics jargon) valued in each of these spaces. They satisfy a large number of identities. It somewhat resembles the higher gauge theory that corresponds to the N=(1,0) case, so this situation gets called a “(1,0)-gauge model”.

There are some special cases of such a setup, including Courant-Dorfman algebras and Lie 2-algebras. The talk gave quite a few examples of solutions to the equations that fall out. The overall conclusion is that, while there are some similarities between (1,0)-gauge models and the way Higher Gauge Theory appears at the level of algebra-valued forms and the equations they must satisfy, there are some significant differences. I won’t try to summarize this in more depth, because (a) I didn’t follow the nitty-gritty technical details very well, and (b) it turns out to be not HGT, but some new theory which is less well understood at summary-level.

So I spent a few weeks at the Erwin Schrodinger Institute in Vienna, doing a short residence as part of the program “Modern Trends in Topological Quantum Field Theory” leading up to a workshop this week. There were quite a few interesting talks – some on topics that I’ve written about elsewhere in this blog, so I’ll gloss over those. For example, Catherine Meusburger spoke about the project with Barrett and Schaumann to give a diagrammatic language for Gray categories with duals – I’ve written about John Barrett’s talks on this elsewhere. Similarly, I’ve written about Chris Schommer-Pries’ talks about fully-extended TQFT’s and the cobordism hypothesis for structured cobordisms . I’d like to just describe some of the other highlights that connect nicely to themes I find interesting. In Part 1 of this post, the more topological themes…

TQFTs with Boundary

On the first day, Kevin Walker gave a talk called “Premodular TQFTs” which was quite interesting. The key idea here is that a fairly big class of different constructions of 3D TQFT’s turn out to actually be aspects of one 4D TQFT, which comes about by a construction based on the 3D construction of Crane-Yetter-Kauffman.  The term “premodular” refers to the fact that 3D TQFT’s can be related to modular tensor categories. “Tensor” includes several concepts, like being abelian, having vector spaces of morphisms, a monoidal structure that gets along with these – typical examples being the categories of vector spaces, or of representations of some fixed group. “Modular” means that there is a braiding, and that a certain string diagram (which looks like two linked rings) built using the braiding can be represented as an invertible matrix. These will show up as a special case of the “premodular” theory.

The basic idea is to use an approach that is based on local fields (which respects the physics-land concept of what “field theory” means), avoids the path integral approach (which is hard to make rigorous), and can be shown to connect back to the Atyiah-Singer approach in which a TQFT is a kind of functor out of a cobordism category.

That is, given a manifold X we must be able to find the fields on X, called F(X). For example, F(X) could be the maps into a classifying space BG, for a gauge theory, or a category of diagrams on X with labels in some appropriate sort of category. Then one has some relations which say when given fields are the same. For each manifold Y, this defines a vector space of linear combinations of fields, modulo relations, called A(Y;c), where c \in F(\partial Y). The dual space of A(Y;c) is called Z(Y;c) – in keeping with the principle that quantum states are functionals that we can evaluate on “classical” fields.

Walker’s talk develops, from this starting point, a view that includes a whole range of theories – the Dijkgraaf-Witten model (fields are maps to BG); diagrams in a semisimple 1-category (“Euler characteristic theory”), in a pivotal 2-category (a Turaev-Viro model), or a premodular 3-category (a “Crane-Yetter model”), among others. In particular, some familiar theories appear as living on 3D boundaries to a 4D manifold, where such a  premodular theory is defined. The talk goes on to describe a kind of “theory with defects”, where two different theories live on different parts of a manifold (this is a common theme to a number of the talks), and in particular it describes a bimodule which gives a Morita equivalence between two sorts of theory – one based on graphs labelled in representations of a group G, and the other based on G-connections. The bimodule is, effectively, a kind of “Fourier transform” which relates dimension-k structures on one side to codimension-k structures on the other: a line labelled by a G-representation on one side gets acted upon by G-holonomies for a hypersurface on the other side.

On a related note Alessandro Valentino gave a talk called “Boundary Conditions for 3d TQFT and module categories” This related to a couple of papers with Jurgen Fuchs and Christoph Schweigert. The basic idea starts with the fact that one can build (3,2,1)-dimensional TQFT’s from modular tensor categories \mathcal{C}, getting a Reshitikhin-Turaev type theory which assigns \mathcal{C} to the circle. The modular tensor structure tells you what gets assigned to higher-dimensional cobordisms. (This is a higher-categorical analog of the fact that a (2,1)-dimensional TQFT is determined by a Frobenius algebra). Then the motivating question is: how can we extend this theory all the way down to a point (i.e. have it assign something to a point, so that \mathcal{C} is somehow composed of naturally occurring morphisms).

So the question is: if we know what \mathcal{C} is, what does that tell us about the “colours” that could be assigned to a boundary. There’s a fairly elegant way to take on this question by looking at what’s assigned to Wilson lines, the observables that matter in defining RT-type theories, when the line where we’re observing gets pushed onto the boundary. (See around p14 of the first paper linked above). The colours on lines inside the manifold could be objects of \mathcal{C}, and fusing them illustrates the monoidal structure of \mathcal{C}. Then the question is what kind of category can be attached to a boundary and be consistent with this.This should be functorial with respect to fusing two lines (i.e. doing this before or after projecting to the boundary should be the same).

They don’t completely characterize the situation, but they give some reasonable arguments which suggest that the result is that the boundary category, a braided monoidal category, ought to be the Drinfel’d centre of something. This is actually a stronger constraint for categories than groups (any commutative group is the centre of something – namely itself – but this isn’t true for monoidal categories).


Joost Slingerland gave a talk called “Local Representations of the Loop Braid Group”, which was quite nice. The Loop Braid Group was introduced by the late Xiao-Song Lin (whom I had the pleasure to know at UCR) as an interesting generalization of the braid group B_n. B_n is the “motion group” of isomorphism classes of motions of n particles in a plane: in such a motion, we let the particles move around arbitrarily, before ending up occupying the same points occupied initially. (In the “pure braid group”, each individual point must end up where it started – in the braid group, they can swap places). Up to diffeomorphism, this keeps track of how they move around each other – not just how they exchange places, but which one crosses in front of which, etc. The loop braid group does the same for loops embedded in 3D space. Now, if the loops always stay far away from each other, one possibility is that a motion amounts to a permutation in which the loops switch places: two paths through 3D space (or 4D spacetime) can always be untangled. On the other hand, loops can pass THROUGH each other, as seen at the beginning of this video:

This is analogous to two points braiding in 2D space (i.e. strands twisting around each other in 3D spacetime), although in fact these “slide moves” form a group which is different from just the pure braid group – but PB_n fits inside them. In particular, the slide moves satisfy some of the same relations as the braid group – the Yang-Baxter equations.

The final thing that can happen is that loops might move, “flip over”, and return to their original position with reversed orientation. So the loop braid group can be broken down as LB_n = Slide_n \rtimes (\mathbb{Z}_2)^n \rtimes S_n. Every loop braid could be “closed up” to a 4D knotted surface, though not every knotted surface would be of this form. For one thing, our loops have a trivial embedding in 3D space here – to get every possible knotted surface, we’d need to have knots and links sliding around, braiding through each other, merging and splitting, etc. Knotted surfaces are much more complex than knotted circles, just as the topology of embedded circles is more complex than that of embedded points.

The talk described some work on the “local representations” of LB_n: representations on spaces where each loop is attached some k-dimensional vector space V (this is the “local dimension”), so that the motions of n loops gets represented on V^{\otimes n} (a tensor product of n copies of V). This is already rather complex, but is much easier than looking for arbitrary representations of LB_n on any old vector space (“nonlocal” representations, if you like). Now, in particular, for local dimension 2, this boils down to some simple matrices which can be worked out – the slide moves are either represented by some permutation matrices, or some tensor products of rotation matrices, or a few other cases which can all be classified.

Toward the end, Dror Bar-Natan also gave a talk that touched on knotted surfaces, called “A Partial Reduction of BF Theory to Combinatorics“. The mention of BF theory – a kind of higher gauge theory that can be described locally in terms of a 1-form and a 2-form on a manifold – is basically to set up some discussion of knotted surfaces (the combinatorics it reduces to). The point is that, like many field theories, BF theory amplitudes can be calculated using a sum over certain Feynman diagrams – but these ones are diagrams that lie partly in certain knotted surfaces. (See the rather remarkable handout in the link above for lots of pictures). This is sort of analogous to how some gauge theories in 3D boil down to knot invariants – for knots that live on the boundary of a region cut out of the 3-manifold. This is similar, for a knotted surface in a 4-manifold.

The “combinatorics” boils down to showing some diagram presentations of these knotted surfaces – particularly, a special type called a “ribbon knot”, which is a certain kind of knotted sphere. The combinatorics show that these special knotted surfaces all correspond to ordinary knotted circles in 3D (in the handout, you’ll see the Gauss diagram for a knot – a picture which shows which points along a line cross over or under each other in a presentation of the knot – used to construct a corresponding ribbon knot). But do check out the handout for some pictures which show several different ways of presenting 2-knots.

(…To be continued in Part 2…)


Since I moved to Hamburg,   Alessandro Valentino and I have been organizing one series of seminar talks whose goal is to bring people (mostly graduate students, and some postdocs and others) up to speed on the tools used in Jacob Lurie’s big paper on the classification of TQFT and proof of the Cobordism Hypothesis.  This is part of the Forschungsseminar (“research seminar”) for the working groups of Christoph Schweigert, Ingo Runkel, and Christoph Wockel.  First, I gave one introducing myself and what I’ve done on Extended TQFT. In our main series We’ve had a series of four so far – two in which Alessandro outlined a sketch of what Lurie’s result is, and another two by Sebastian Novak and Marc Palm that started catching our audience up on the simplicial methods used in the theory of (\infty,n)-categories which it uses.  Coming up in the New Year, Nathan Bowler and I will be talking about first (\infty,1)-categories, and then (\infty,n)-categories.   I’ll do a few posts summarizing the talks around then.

Some people in the group have done some work on quantum field theories with defects, in relation to which, there’s this workshop coming up here in February!  The idea here is that one could have two regions of space where different field theories apply, which are connected along a boundary. We might imagine these are theories which are different approximations to what’s going on physically, with a different approximation useful in each region.  Whatever the intuition, the regions will be labelled by some category, and boundaries between regions are labelled by functors between categories.  Where different boundary walls meet, one can have natural transformations.  There’s a whole theory of how a 3D TQFT can be associated to modular tensor categories, in sort of the same sense that a 2D TQFT is associated to a Frobenius algebra. This whole program is intimately connected with the idea of “extending” a given TQFT, in the sense that it deals with theories that have inputs which are spaces (or, in the case of defects, sub-spaces of given ones) of many different dimensions.  Lurie’s paper describing the n-dimensional cobordism category, is very much related to the input to a theory like this.

Brno Visit

This time, I’d like to mention something which I began working on with Roger Picken in Lisbon, and talked about for the first time in Brno, Czech Republic, where I was invited to visit at Masaryk University.  I was in Brno for a week or so, and on Thursday, December 13, I gave this talk, called “Higher Gauge Theory and 2-Group Actions”.  But first, some pictures!

This fellow was near the hotel I stayed in:


Since this sculpture is both faceless and hard at work on nonspecific manual labour, I assume he’s a Communist-era artwork, but I don’t really know for sure.

The Christmas market was on in Náměstí Svobody (Freedom Square) in the centre of town.  This four-headed dragon caught my eye:


On the way back from Brno to Hamburg, I met up with my wife to spend a couple of days in Prague.  Here’s the Christmas market in the Old Town Square of Prague:


Anyway, it was a good visit to the Czech Republic.  Now, about the talk!

Moduli Spaces in Higher Gauge Theory

The motivation which I tried to emphasize is to define a specific, concrete situation in which to explore the concept of “2-Symmetry”.  The situation is supposed to be, if not a realistic physical theory, then at least one which has enough physics-like features to give a good proof of concept argument that such higher symmetries should be meaningful in nature.  The idea is that Higher Gauge theory is a field theory which can be understood as one in which the possible (classical) fields on a space/spacetime manifold consist of maps from that space into some target space X.  For the topological theory, they are actually just homotopy classes of maps.  This is somewhat related to Sigma models used in theoretical physics, and mathematically to Homotopy Quantum Field Theory, which considers these maps as geometric structure on a manifold.  An HQFT is a functor taking such structured manifolds and cobordisms into Hilbert spaces and linear maps.  In the paper Roger and I are working on, we don’t talk about this stage of the process: we’re just considering how higher-symmetry appears in the moduli spaces for fields of this kind, which we think of in terms of Higher Gauge Theory.

Ordinary topological gauge theory – the study of flat connections on G-bundles for some Lie group G, can be looked at this way.  The target space X = BG is the “classifying space” of the Lie group – homotopy classes of maps in Hom(M,BG) are the same as groupoid homomorphisms in Hom(\Pi_1(M),G).  Specifically, the pair of functors \Pi_1 and B relating groupoids and topological spaces are adjoints.  Now, this deals with the situation where X = BG is a homotopy 1-type, which is to say that it has a fundamental groupoid \Pi_1(X) = G, and no other interesting homotopy groups.  To deal with more general target spaces X, one should really deal with infinity-groupoids, which can capture the whole homotopy type of X – in particular, all its higher homotopy groups at once (and various relations between them).  What we’re talking about in this paper is exactly one step in that direction: we deal with 2-groupoids.

We can think of this in terms of maps into a target space X which is a 2-type, with nontrivial fundamental groupoid \Pi_1(X), but also interesting second homotopy group \pi_2(X) (and nothing higher).  These fit together to make a 2-groupoid \Pi_2(X), which is a 2-group if X is connected.  The idea is that X is the classifying space of some 2-group \mathcal{G}, which plays the role of the Lie group G in gauge theory.  It is the “gauge 2-group”.  Homotopy classes of maps into X = B \mathcal{G} correspond to flat connections in this 2-group.

For practical purposes, we use the fact that there are several equivalent ways of describing 2-groups.  Two very directly equivalent ways to define them are as group objects internal to \mathbf{Cat}, or as categories internal to \mathbf{Grp} – which have a group of objects and a group of morphisms, and group homomorphisms that define source, target, composition, and so on.  This second way is fairly close to the equivalent formulation as crossed modules (G,H,\rhd,\partial).  The definition is in the slides, but essentially the point is that G is the group of objects, and with the action G \rhd H, one gets the semidirect product G \ltimes H which is the group of morphisms.  The map \partial : H \rightarrow G makes it possible to speak of G and H acting on each other, and that these actions “look like conjugation” (the precise meaning of which is in the defining properties of the crossed module).

The reason for looking at the crossed-module formulation is that it then becomes fairly easy to understand the geometric nature of the fields we’re talking about.  In ordinary gauge theory, a connection can be described locally as a 1-form with values in Lie(G), the Lie algebra of G.  Integrating such forms along curves gives another way to describe the connection, in terms of a rule assigning to every curve a holonomy valued in G which describes how to transport something (generally, a fibre of a bundle) along the curve.  It’s somewhat nontrivial to say how this relates to the classic definition of a connection on a bundle, which can be described locally on “patches” of the manifold via 1-forms together with gluing functions where patches overlap.  The resulting categories are equivalent, though.

In higher gauge theory, we take a similar view. There is a local view of “connections on gerbes“, described by forms and gluing functions (the main difference in higher gauge theory is that the gluing functions related to higher cohomology).  But we will take the equivalent point of view where the connection is described by G-valued holonomies along paths, and H-valued holonomies over surfaces, for a crossed module (G,H,\rhd,\partial), which satisfy some flatness conditions.  These amount to 2-functors of 2-categories \Pi_2(M) \rightarrow \mathcal{G}.

The moduli space of all such 2-connections is only part of the story.  2-functors are related by natural transformations, which are in turn related by “modifications”.  In gauge theory, the natural transformations are called “gauge transformations”, and though the term doesn’t seem to be in common use, the obvious term for the next layer would be “gauge modifications”. It is possible to assemble a 2-groupoid Hom(\Pi_2(M),\mathcal{G}, whose space of objects is exactly the moduli space of 2-connections, and whose 1- and 2-morphisms are exactly these gauge transformations and modifications.  So the question is, what is the meaning of the extra information contained in the 2-groupoid which doesn’t appear in the moduli space itself?

Our claim is that this information expresses how the moduli space carries “higher symmetry”.

2-Group Actions and the Transformation Double Category

What would it mean to say that something exhibits “higher” symmetry? A rudimentary way to formalize the intuition of “symmetry” is to say that there is a group (of “symmetries”) which acts on some object. One could get more subtle, but this should be enough to begin with. We already noted that “higher” gauge theory uses 2-groups (and beyond into n-groups) in the place of ordinary groups.  So in this context, the natural way to interpret it is by saying that there is an action of a 2-group on something.

Just as there are several equivalent ways to define a 2-group, there are different ways to say what it means for it to have an action on something.  One definition of a 2-group is to say that it’s a 2-category with one object and all morphisms and 2-morphisms invertible.  This definition makes it clear that a 2-group has to act on an object of some 2-category \mathcal{C}. For our purposes, just as we normally think of group actions on sets, we will focus on 2-group actions on categories, so that \mathcal{C} = \mathbf{Cat} is the 2-category of interest. Then an action is just a map:

\Phi : \mathcal{G} \rightarrow \mathbf{Cat}

The unique object of \mathcal{G} – let’s call it \star, gets taken to some object \mathbf{C} = \Phi(\star) \in \mathbf{Cat}.  This object \mathbf{C} is the thing being “acted on” by \mathcal{G}.  The existence of the action implies that there are automorphisms \Phi(g) : \mathbf{C} \rightarrow \mathbf{C} for every morphism in \mathbf{G} (which correspond to the elements of the group G of the crossed module).  This would be enough to describe ordinary symmetry, but the higher symmetry is also expressed in the images of 2-morphisms \Phi( \eta : g \rightarrow g') = \Phi(\eta) : \Phi(g) \rightarrow \Phi(g'), which we might call 2-symmetries relating 1-symmetries.

What we want to do in our paper, which the talk summarizes, is to show how this sort of 2-group action gives rise to a 2-groupoid (actually, just a 2-category when the \mathbf{C} being acted on is a general category).  Then we claim that the 2-groupoid of connections can be seen as one that shows up in exactly this way.  (In the following, I have to give some credit to Dany Majard for talking this out and helping to find a better formalism.)

To make sense of this, we use the fact that there is a diagrammatic way to describe the transformation groupoid associated to the action of a group G on a set S.  The set of morphisms is built as a pullback of the action map, \rhd : (g,s) \mapsto g(s).


This means that morphisms are pairs (g,s), thought of as going from s to g(s).  The rule for composing these is another pullback.  The diagram which shows how it’s done appears in the slides.  The whole construction ends up giving a cubical diagram in \mathbf{Sets}, whose top and bottom faces are mere commuting diagrams, and whose four other faces are all pullback squares.

To construct a 2-category from a 2-group action is similar. For now we assume that the 2-group action is strict (rather than being given by \Phi a weak 2-functor).  In this case, it’s enough to think of our 2-group \mathcal{G} not as a 2-category, but as a group-object in \mathbf{Cat} – the same way that a 1-group, as well as being a category, can be seen as a group object in \mathbf{Set}.  The set of objects of this category is the group G of morphisms of the 2-category, and the morphisms make up the group G \ltimes H of 2-morphisms.  Being a group object is the same as having all the extra structure making up a 2-group.

To describe a strict action of such a \mathcal{G} on \mathbf{C}, we just reproduce in \mathbf{Cat} the diagram that defines an action in \mathbf{Sets}:


The fact that \rhd is an action just means this commutes. In principle, we could define a weak action, which would mean that this commutes up to isomorphism, but we won’t be looking at that here.

Constructing the same diagram which describes the structure of a transformation groupoid (p29 in the slides for the talk), we get a structure with a “category of objects” and a “category of morphisms”.  The construction in \mathbf{Set} gives us directly a set of morphisms, while S itself is the set of objects. Similarly, in \mathbf{Cat}, the category of objects is just \mathbf{C}, while the construction gives a category of morphisms.

The two together make a category internal to \mathbf{Cat}, which is to say a double category.  By analogy with S / \!\! / G, we call this double category \mathbf{C} / \!\! / \mathcal{G}.

We take \mathbf{C} as the category of objects, as the “horizontal category”, whose morphisms are the horizontal arrows of the double category. The category of morphisms of \mathbf{C} /\!\!/ \mathcal{G} shows up by letting its objects be the vertical arrows of the double category, and its morphisms be the squares.  These look like this:


The vertical arrows are given by pairs of objects (\gamma, x), and just like the transformation 1-groupoid, each corresponds to the fact that the action of \gamma takes x to \gamma \rhd x. Each square (morphism in the category of morphisms) is given by a pair ( (\gamma, \eta), f) of morphisms, one from \mathcal{G} (given by an element in G \rtimes H), and one from \mathbf{C}.

The horizontal arrow on the bottom of this square is:

(\partial \eta) \gamma \rhd f \circ \Phi(\gamma,\eta)_x = \Phi(\gamma,\eta)_y \circ \gamma \rhd f

The fact that these are equal is exactly the fact that \Phi(\gamma,\eta) is a natural transformation.

The double category \mathbf{C} /\!\!/ \mathcal{G} turns out to have a very natural example which occurs in higher gauge theory.

Higher Symmetry of the Moduli Space

The point of the talk is to show how the 2-groupoid of connections, previously described as Hom(\Pi_2(M),\mathcal{G}), can be seen as coming from a 2-group action on a category – the objects of this category being exactly the connections. In the slides above, for various reasons, we did this in a discretized setting – a manifold with a decomposition into cells. This is useful for writing things down explicitly, but not essential to the idea behind the 2-symmetry of the moduli space.

The point is that there is a category we call \mathbf{Conn}, whose objects are the connections: these assign G-holonomies to edges of our discretization (in general, to paths), and H-holonomies to 2D faces. (Without discretization, one would describe these in terms of Lie(G)-valued 1-forms and Lie(H)-valued 2-forms.)

The morphisms of \mathbf{Conn} are one type of “gauge transformation”: namely, those which assign H-holonomies to edges. (Or: Lie(H)-valued 1-forms). They affect the edge holonomies of a connection just like a 2-morphism in \mathcal{G}.  Face holonomies are affected by the H-value that comes from the boundary of the face.

What’s physically significant here is that both objects and morphisms of \mathbf{Conn} describe nonlocal geometric information.  They describe holonomies over edges and surfaces: not what happens at a point.  The “2-group of gauge transformations”, which we call \mathbf{Gauge}, on the other hand, is purely about local transformations.  If V is the vertex set of the discretized manifold, then \mathbf{Gauge} = \mathcal{G}^V: one copy of the gauge 2-group at each vertex.  (Keeping this finite dimensional and avoiding technical details was one main reason we chose to use a discretization.  In principle, one could also talk about the 2-group of \mathcal{G}-valued functions, whose objects and morphisms, thinking of it as a group object in \mathbf{Cat}, are functions valued in morphisms of \mathcal{G}.)

Now, the way \mathbf{Gauge} acts on \mathbf{Conn} is essentially by conjugation: edge holonomies are affected by pre- and post-multiplication by the values at the two vertices on the edge – whether objects or morphisms of \mathbf{Gauge}.  (Face holonomies are unaffected).  There are details about this in the slides, but the important thing is that this is a 2-group of purely local changes.  The objects of \mathbf{Gauge} are gauge transformations of this other type.  In a continuous setting, they would be described by G-valued functions.  The morphisms are gauge modifications, and could be described by H-valued functions.

The main conceptual point here is that we have really distinguished between two kinds of gauge transformation, which are the horizontal and vertical arrows of the double category \mathbf{Conn} /\!\!/ \mathbf{Gauge}.  This expresses the 2-symmetry by moving some gauge transformations into the category of connections, and others into the 2-group which acts on it.  But physically, we would like to say that both are “gauge transformations”.  So one way to do this is to “collapse” the double category to a bicategory: just formally allow horizontal and vertical arrows to compose, so that there is only one kind of arrow.  Squares become 2-cells.

So then if we collapse the double category expressing our 2-symmetry relation this way, the result is exactly equivalent to the functor category way of describing connections.  (The morphisms will all be invertible because \mathbf{Conn} is a groupoid and \mathbf{Gauge} is a 2-group).

I’m interested in this kind of geometrical example partly because it gives a good way to visualize something new happening here.  There appears to be some natural 2-symmetry on this space of fields, which is fairly easy to see geometrically, and distinguishes in a fundamental way between two types of gauge transformation.  This sort of phenomenon doesn’t occur in the world of \mathbf{Sets} – a set S has no morphisms, after all, so the transformation groupoid for a group action on it is much simpler.

In broad terms, this means that 2-symmetry has qualitatively new features that familiar old 1-symmetry doesn’t have.  Higher categorical versions – n-groups acting on n-groupoids, as might show up in more complicated HQFT – will certainly be even more complicated.  The 2-categorical version is just the first non-trivial situation where this happens, so it gives a nice starting point to understand what’s new in higher symmetry that we didn’t already know.

This entry is a by-special-request blog, which Derek Wise invited me to write for the blog associated with the International Loop Quantum Gravity Seminar, and it will appear over there as well.  The ILQGS is a long-running regular seminar which runs as a teleconference, with people joining in from various countries, on various topics which are more or less closely related to Loop Quantum Gravity and the interests of people who work on it.  The custom is that when someone gives a talk, someone else writes up a description of the talk for the ILQGS blog, and Derek invited me to write up a description of his talk.  The audio file of the talk itself is available in .aiff and .wav formats, and the slides are here.

The talk that Derek gave was based on a project of his and Steffen Gielen’s, which has taken written form in a few papers (two shorter ones, “Spontaneously broken Lorentz symmetry for Hamiltonian gravity“, “Linking Covariant and Canonical General Relativity via Local Observers“, and a new, longer one called “Lifting General Relativity to Observer Space“).

The key idea behind this project is the notion of “observer space”, which is exactly what it sounds like: a space of all observers in a given universe.  This is easiest to picture when one has a spacetime – a manifold with a Lorentzian metric, (M,g) – to begin with.  Then an observer can be specified by choosing a particular point (x_0,x_1,x_2,x_3) = \mathbf{x} in spacetime, as well as a unit future-directed timelike vector v.  This vector is a tangent to the observer’s worldline at \mathbf{x}.  The observer space is therefore a bundle over M, the “future unit tangent bundle”.  However, using the notion of a “Cartan geometry”, one can give a general definition of observer space which makes sense even when there is no underlying (M,g).

The result is a surprising, relatively new physical intuition is that “spacetime” is a local and observer-dependent notion, which in some special cases can be extended so that all observers see the same spacetime.  This is somewhat related to the relativity of locality, which I’ve blogged about previously.  Geometrically, it is similar to the fact that a slicing of spacetime into space and time is not unique, and not respected by the full symmetries of the theory of Relativity, even for flat spacetime (much less for the case of General Relativity).  Similarly, we will see a notion of “observer space”, which can sometimes be turned into a bundle over an objective spacetime M, but not in all cases.

So, how is this described mathematically?  In particular, what did I mean up there by saying that spacetime becomes observer-dependent?

Cartan Geometry

The answer uses Cartan geometry, which is a framework for differential geometry that is slightly broader than what is commonly used in physics.  Roughly, one can say “Cartan geometry is to Klein geometry as Riemannian geometry is to Euclidean geometry”.  The more familiar direction of generalization here is the fact that, like Riemannian geometry, Cartan is concerned with manifolds which have local models in terms of simple, “flat” geometries, but which have curvature, and fail to be homogeneous.  First let’s remember how Klein geometry works.

Klein’s Erlangen Program, carried out in the mid-19th-century, systematically brought abstract algebra, and specifically the theory of Lie groups, into geometry, by placing the idea of symmetry in the leading role.  It describes “homogeneous spaces”, which are geometries in which every point is indistinguishable from every other point.  This is expressed by the existence of a transitive action of some Lie group G of all symmetries on an underlying space.  Any given point x will be fixed by some symmetries, and not others, so one also has a subgroup H = Stab(x) \subset G.  This is the “stabilizer subgroup”, consisting of all symmetries which fix x.  That the space is homogeneous means that for any two points x,y, the subgroups Stab(x) and Stab(y) are conjugate (by a symmetry taking x to y).  Then the homogeneous space, or Klein geometry, associated to (G,H) is, up to isomorphism, just the same as the quotient space G/H of the obvious action of H on G.

The advantage of this program is that it has a great many examples, but the most relevant ones for now are:

  • n-dimensional Euclidean space. the Euclidean group ISO(n) = SO(n) \ltimes \mathbb{R}^n is precisely the group of transformations that leave the data of Euclidean geometry, lengths and angles, invariant.  It acts transitively on \mathbb{R}^n.  Any point will be fixed by the group of rotations centred at that point, which is a subgroup of ISO(n) isomorphic to SO(n).  Klein’s insight is to reverse this: we may define Euclidean space by R^n \cong ISO(n)/SO(n).
  • n-dimensional Minkowski space.  Similarly, we can define this space to be ISO(n-1,1)/SO(n-1,1).  The Euclidean group has been replaced by the Poincaré group, and rotations by the Lorentz group (of rotations and boosts), but otherwise the situation is essentially the same.
  • de Sitter space.  As a Klein geometry, this is the quotient SO(4,1)/SO(3,1).  That is, the stabilizer of any point is the Lorentz group – so things look locally rather similar to Minkowski space around any given point.  But the global symmetries of de Sitter space are different.  Even more, it looks like Minkowski space locally in the sense that the Lie algebras give representations so(4,1)/so(3,1) and iso(3,1)/so(3,1) are identical, seen as representations of SO(3,1).  It’s natural to identify them with the tangent space at a point.  de Sitter space as a whole is easiest to visualize as a 4D hyperboloid in \mathbb{R}^5.  This is supposed to be seen as a local model of spacetime in a theory in which there is a cosmological constant that gives empty space a constant negative curvature.
  • anti-de Sitter space. This is similar, but now the quotient is SO(3,2)/SO(3,1) – in fact, this whole theory goes through for any of the last three examples: Minkowski; de Sitter; and anti-de Sitter, each of which acts as a “local model” for spacetime in General Relativity with the cosmological constant, respectively: zero; positive; and negative.

Now, what does it mean to say that a Cartan geometry has a local model?  Well, just as a Lorentzian or Riemannian manifold is “locally modelled” by Minkowski or Euclidean space, a Cartan geometry is locally modelled by some Klein geometry.  This is best described in terms of a connection on a principal G-bundle, and the associated G/H-bundle, over some manifold M.  The crucial bundle in a Riemannian or Lorenztian geometry is the frame bundle: the fibre over each point consists of all the ways to isometrically embed a standard Euclidean or Minkowski space into the tangent space.  A connection on this bundle specifies how this embedding should transform as one moves along a path.  It’s determined by a 1-form on M, valued in the Lie algebra of G.

Given a parametrized path, one can apply this form to the tangent vector at each point, and get a Lie algebra-valued answer.  Integrating along the path, we get a path in the Lie group G (which is independent of the parametrization).  This is called a “development” of the path, and by applying the G-values to the model space G/H, we see that the connection tells us how to move through a copy of G/H as we move along the path.  The image this suggests is of “rolling without slipping” – think of the case where the model space is a sphere.  The connection describes how the model space “rolls” over the surface of the manifold M.  Curvature of the connection measures the failure to commute of the processes of rolling in two different directions.  A connection with zero curvature describes a space which (locally at least) looks exactly like the model space: picture a sphere rolling against its mirror image.  Transporting the sphere-shaped fibre around any closed curve always brings it back to its starting position. Now, curvature is defined in terms of transports of these Klein-geometry fibres.  If curvature is measured by the development of curves, we can think of each homogeneous space as a flat Cartan geometry with itself as a local model.

This idea, that the curvature of a manifold depends on the model geometry being used to measure it, shows up in the way we apply this geometry to physics.

Gravity and Cartan Geometry

MacDowell-Mansouri gravity can be understood as a theory in which General Relativity is modelled by a Cartan geometry.  Of course, a standard way of presenting GR is in terms of the geometry of a Lorentzian manifold.  In the Palatini formalism, the basic fields are a connection A and a vierbein (coframe field) called e, with dynamics encoded in the Palatini action, which is the integral over M of R[\omega] \wedge e \wedge e, where R is the curvature 2-form for \omega.

This can be derived from a Cartan geometry, whose model geometry is de Sitter space SO(4,1)/SO(3,1).   Then MacDowell-Mansouri gravity gets \omega and e by splitting the Lie algebra as so(4,1) = so(3,1) \oplus \mathbb{R^4}.  This “breaks the full symmetry” at each point.  Then one has a fairly natural action on the so(4,1)-connection:

\int_M tr(F_h \wedge \star F_h)

Here, F_h is the so(3,1) part of the curvature of the big connection.  The splitting of the connection means that F_h = R + e \wedge e, and the action above is rewritten, up to a normalization, as the Palatini action for General Relativity (plus a topological term, which has no effect on the equations of motion we get from the action).  So General Relativity can be written as the theory of a Cartan geometry modelled on de Sitter space.

The cosmological constant in GR shows up because a “flat” connection for a Cartan geometry based on de Sitter space will look (if measured by Minkowski space) as if it has constant curvature which is exactly that of the model Klein geometry.  The way to think of this is to take the fibre bundle of homogeneous model spaces as a replacement for the tangent bundle to the manifold.  The fibre at each point describes the local appearance of spacetime.  If empty spacetime is flat, this local model is Minkowski space, ISO(3,1)/SO(3,1), and one can really speak of tangent “vectors”.  The tangent homogeneous space is not linear.  In these first cases, the fibres are not vector spaces, precisely because the large group of symmetries doesn’t contain a group of translations, but they are Klein geometries constructed in just the same way as Minkowski space. Thus, the local description of the connection in terms of Lie(G)-valued forms can be treated in the same way, regardless of which Klein geometry G/H occurs in the fibres.  In particular, General Relativity, formulated in terms of Cartan geometry, always says that, in the absence of matter, the geometry of space is flat, and the cosmological constant is included naturally by the choice of which Klein geometry is the local model of spacetime.

Observer Space

The idea in defining an observer space is to combine two symmetry reductions into one.  The reduction from SO(4,1) to SO(3,1) gives de Sitter space, SO(4,1)/SO(3,1) as a model Klein geometry, which reflects the “symmetry breaking” that happens when choosing one particular point in spacetime, or event.  Then, the reduction of SO(3,1) to SO(3) similarly reflects the symmetry breaking that occurs when one chooses a specific time direction (a future-directed unit timelike vector).  These are the tangent vectors to the worldline of an observer at the chosen point, so SO(3,1)/SO(3) the model Klein geometry, is the space of such possible observers.  The stabilizer subgroup for a point in this space consists of just the rotations of space around the corresponding observer – the boosts in SO(3,1) translate between observers.  So locally, choosing an observer amounts to a splitting of the model spacetime at the point into a product of space and time. If we combine both reductions at once, we get the 7-dimensional Klein geometry SO(4,1)/SO(3).  This is just the future unit tangent bundle of de Sitter space, which we think of as a homogeneous model for the “space of observers”

A general observer space O, however, is just a Cartan geometry modelled on SO(4,1)/SO(3).  This is a 7-dimensional manifold, equipped with the structure of a Cartan geometry.  One class of examples are exactly the future unit tangent bundles to 4-dimensional Lorentzian spacetimes.  In these cases, observer space is naturally a contact manifold: that is, it’s an odd-dimensional manifold equipped with a 1-form \alpha, the contact form, which is such that the top-dimensional form \alpha \wedge d \alpha \wedge \dots \wedge d \alpha is nowhere zero.  This is the odd-dimensional analog of a symplectic manifold.  Contact manifolds are, intuitively, configuration spaces of systems which involve “rolling without slipping” – for instance, a sphere rolling on a plane.  In this case, it’s better to think of the local space of observers which “rolls without slipping” on a spacetime manifold M.

Now, Minkowski space has a slicing into space and time – in fact, one for each observer, who defines the time direction, but the time coordinate does not transform in any meaningful way under the symmetries of the theory, and different observers will choose different ones.  In just the same way, the homogeneous model of observer space can naturally be written as a bundle SO(4,1)/SO(3) \rightarrow SO(4,1)/SO(3,1).  But a general observer space O may or may not be a bundle over an ordinary spacetime manifold, O \rightarrow M.  Every Cartan geometry M gives rise to an observer space O as the bundle of future-directed timelike vectors, but not every Cartan geometry O is of this form, in any natural way. Indeed, without a further condition, we can’t even reconstruct observer space as such a bundle in an open neighborhood of a given observer.

This may be intuitively surprising: it gives a perfectly concrete geometric model in which “spacetime” is relative and observer-dependent, and perhaps only locally meaningful, in just the same way as the distinction between “space” and “time” in General Relativity. It may be impossible, that is, to determine objectively whether two observers are located at the same base event or not. This is a kind of “Relativity of Locality” which is geometrically much like the by-now more familiar Relativity of Simultaneity. Each observer will reach certain conclusions as to which observers share the same base event, but different observers may not agree.  The coincident observers according to a given observer are those reached by a good class of geodesics in O moving only in directions that observer sees as boosts.

When one can reconstruct O \rightarrow M, two observers will agree whether or not they are coincident.  This extra condition which makes this possible is an integrability constraint on the action of the Lie algebra H (in our main example, H = SO(3,1)) on the observer space O.  In this case, the fibres of the bundle are the orbits of this action, and we have the familiar world of Relativity, where simultaneity may be relative, but locality is absolute.

Lifting Gravity to Observer Space

Apart from describing this model of relative spacetime, another motivation for describing observer space is that one can formulate canonical (Hamiltonian) GR locally near each point in such an observer space.  The goal is to make a link between covariant and canonical quantization of gravity.  Covariant quantization treats the geometry of spacetime all at once, by means of a Lagrangian action functional.  This is mathematically appealing, since it respects the symmetry of General Relativity, namely its diffeomorphism-invariance.  On the other hand, it is remote from the canonical (Hamiltonian) approach to quantization of physical systems, in which the concept of time is fundamental. In the canonical approach, one gets a Hilbert space by quantizing the space of states of a system at a given point in time, and the Hamiltonian for the theory describes its evolution.  This is problematic for diffeomorphism-, or even Lorentz-invariance, since coordinate time depends on a choice of observer.  The point of observer space is that we consider all these choices at once.  Describing GR in O is both covariant, and based on (local) choices of time direction.

This is easiest to describe in the case of a bundle O \rightarrow M.  Then a “field of observers” to be a section of the bundle: a choice, at each base event in M, of an observer based at that event.  A field of observers may or may not correspond to a particular decomposition of spacetime into space evolving in time, but locally, at each point in O, it always looks like one.  The resulting theory describes the dynamics of space-geometry over time, as seen locally by a given observer.  In this case, a Cartan connection on observer space is described by to a Lie(SO(4,1))-valued form.  This decomposes into four Lie-algebra valued forms, interpreted as infinitesimal transformations of the model observer by: (1) spatial rotations; (2) boosts; (3) spatial translations; (4) time translation.  The four-fold division is based on two distinctions: first, between the base event at which the observer lives, and the choice of observer (i.e. the reduction of SO(4,1) to SO(3,1), which symmetry breaking entails choosing a point); and second, between space and time (i.e. the reduction of SO(3,1) to SO(3), which symmetry breaking entails choosing a time direction).

This splitting, along the same lines as the one in MacDowell-Mansouri gravity described above, suggests that one could lift GR to a theory on an observer space O.  This amount to describing fields on O and an action functional, so that the splitting of the fields gives back the usual fields of GR on spacetime, and the action gives back the usual action.  This part of the project is still under development, but this lifting has been described.  In the case when there is no “objective” spacetime, the result includes some surprising new fields which it’s not clear how to deal with, but when there is an objective spacetime, the resulting theory looks just like GR.

Well, as promised in the previous post, I’d like to give a summary of some of what was discussed at the conference I attended (quite a while ago now, late last year) in Erlangen, Germany.  I was there also to visit Derek Wise, talking about a project we’ve been working on for some time.

(I’ve also significantly revised this paper about Extended TQFT since then, and it now includes some stuff which was the basis of my talk at Erlangen on cohomological twisting of the category Span(Gpd).  I’ll get to that in the next post.  Also coming up, I’ll be describing some new things I’ve given some talks about recently which relate the Baez-Dolan groupoidification program to Khovanov-Lauda categorification of algebras – at least in one example, hopefully in a way which will generalize nicely.)

In the meantime, there were a few themes at the conference which bear on the Extended TQFT project in various ways, so in this post I’ll describe some of them.  (This isn’t an exhaustive description of all the talks: just of a selection of illustrative ones.)

Categories with Structures

A few talks were mainly about facts regarding the sorts of categories which get used in field theory contexts.  One important type, for instance, are fusion categories is a monoidal category which is enriched in vector spaces, generated by simple objects, and some other properties: essentially, monoidal 2-vector spaces.  The basic example would be categories of representations (of groups, quantum groups, algebras, etc.), but fusion categories are an abstraction of (some of) their properties.  Many of the standard properties are described and proved in this paper by Etingof, Nikshych, and Ostrik, which also poses one of the basic conjectures, the “ENO Conjecture”, which was referred to repeatedly in various talks.  This is the guess that every fusion category can be given a “pivotal” structure: an isomorphism from Id to **.  It generalizes the theorem that there’s always such an isomorphism into ****.  More on this below.

Hendryk Pfeiffer talked about a combinatorial way to classify fusion categories in terms of certain graphs (see this paper here).  One way I understand this idea is to ask how much this sort of category really does generalize categories of representations, or actually comodules.  One starting point for this is the theorem that there’s a pair of functors between certain monoidal categories and weak Hopf algebras.  Specifically, the monoidal categories are (Cat \downarrow Vect)^{\otimes}, which consists of monoidal categories equipped with a forgetful functor into Vect.  Then from this one can get (via a coend), a weak Hopf algebra over the base field k(in the category WHA_k).  From a weak Hopf algebra H, one can get back such a category by taking all the modules of H.  These two processes form an adjunction: they’re not inverses, but we have maps between the two composites and the identity functors.

The new result Hendryk gave is that if we restrict our categories over Vect to be abelian, and the functors between them to be linear, faithful, and exact (that is, roughly, that we’re talking about concrete monoidal 2-vector spaces), then this adjunction is actually an equivalence: so essentially, all such categories C may as well be module categories for weak Hopf algebras.  Then he gave a characterization of these in terms of the “dimension graph” (in fact a quiver) for (C,M), where M is one of the monoidal generators of C.  The vertices of \mathcal{G} = \mathcal{G}_{(C,M)} are labelled by the irreducible representations v_i (i.e. set of generators of the category), and there’s a set of edges j \rightarrow l labelled by a basis of Hom(v_j, v_l \otimes M).  Then one can carry on and build a big graded algebra H[\mathcal{G}] whose m-graded part consists of length-m paths in \mathcal{G}.  Then the point is that the weak Hopf algebra of which C is (up to isomorphism) the module category will be a certain quotient of H[\mathcal{G}] (after imposing some natural relations in a systematic way).

The point, then, is that the sort of categories mostly used in this area can be taken to be representation categories, but in general only of these weak Hopf algebras: groups and ordinary algebras are special cases, but they show up naturally for certain kinds of field theory.

Tensor Categories and Field Theories

There were several talks about the relationship between tensor categories of various sorts and particular field theories.  The idea is that local field theories can be broken down in terms of some kind of n-category: n-dimensional regions get labelled by categories, (n-1)-D boundaries between regions, or “defects”, are labelled by functors between the categories (with the idea that this shows how two different kinds of field can couple together at the defect), and so on (I think the highest-dimension that was discussed explicitly involved 3-categories, so one has junctions between defects, and junctions between junctions, which get assigned some higher-morphism data).  Alteratively, there’s the dual picture where categories are assigned to points, functors to 1-manifolds, and so on.  (This is just Poincaré duality in the case where the manifolds come with a decomposition into cells, which they often are if only for convenience).

Victor Ostrik gave a pair of talks giving an overview role tensor categories play in conformal field theory.  There’s too much material here to easily summarize, but the basics go like this: CFTs are field theories defined on cobordisms that have some conformal structure (i.e. notion of angles, but not distance), and on the algebraic side they are associated with vertex algebras (some useful discussion appears on mathoverflow, but in this context they can be understood as vector spaces equipped with exactly the algebraic operations needed to model cobordisms with some local holomorphic structure).

In particular, the irreducible representations of these VOA’s determine the “conformal blocks” of the theory, which tell us about possible correlations between observables (self-adjoint operators).  A VOA V is “rational” if the category Rep(V) is semisimple (i.e. generated as finite direct sums of these conformal blocks).  For good VOA’s, Rep(V) will be a modular tensor category (MTC), which is a fusion category with a duality, braiding, and some other strucutre (see this for more).   So describing these gives us a lot of information about what CFT’s are possible.

The full data of a rational CFT are given by a vertex algebra, and a module category M: that is, a fusion category is a sort of categorified ring, so it can act on M as an ring acts on a module.  It turns out that choosing an M is equivalent to finding a certain algebra (i.e. algebra object) \mathcal{L}, a “Lagrangian algebra” inside the centre of Rep(V).  The Drinfel’d centre Z(C) of a monoidal category C is a sort of free way to turn a monoidal category into a braided one: but concretely in this case it just looks like Rep(V) \otimes Rep(V)^{\ast}.  Knowing the isomorphism class \mathcal{L} determines a “modular invariant”.  It gets “physics” meaning from how it’s equipped with an algebra structure (which can happen in more than one way), but in any case \mathcal{L} has an underlying vector space, which becomes the Hilbert space of states for the conformal field theory, which the VOA acts on in the natural way.

Now, that was all conformal field theory.  Christopher Douglas described some work with Chris Schommer-Pries and Noah Snyder about fusion categories and structured topological field theories.  These are functors out of cobordism categories, the most important of which are n-categories, where the objects are points, morphisms are 1D cobordisms, and so on up to n-morphisms which are n-dimensional cobordisms.  To keep things under control, Chris Douglas talked about the case Bord_0^3, which is where n=3, and a “local” field theory is a 3-functor Bord_0^3 \rightarrow \mathcal{C} for some 3-category \mathcal{C}.  Now, the (Baez-Dolan) Cobordism Hypothesis, which was proved by Jacob Lurie, says that Bord_0^3 is, in a suitable sense, the free symmetric monoidal 3-category with duals.  What this amounts to is that a local field theory whose target 3-category is \mathcal{C} is “just” a dualizable object of \mathcal{C}.

The handy example which links this up to the above is when \mathcal{C} has objects which are tensor categories, morphisms which are bimodule categories (i.e. categories acted), 2-morphisms which are functors, and 3-morphisms which are natural transformations.  Then the issue is to classify what kind of tensor categories these objects can be.

The story is trickier if we’re talking about, not just topological cobordisms, but ones equipped with some kind of structure regulated by a structure group G(for instance, orientation by G=SO(n), spin structure by its universal cover G= Spin(n), and so on).  This means the cobordisms come equipped with a map into BG.  They take O(n) as the starting point, and then consider groups G with a map to O(n), and require that the map into BG is a lift of the map to BO(n).  Then one gets that a structured local field theory amounts to a dualizable objects of \mathcal{C} with a homotopy-fixed point for some G-action – and this describes what gets assigned to the point by such a field theory.  What they then show is a correspondence between G and classes of categories.  For instance, fusion categories are what one gets by imposing that the cobordisms be oriented.

Liang Kong talked about “Topological Orders and Tensor Categories”, which used the Levin-Wen models, from condensed matter phyiscs.  (Benjamin Balsam also gave a nice talk describing these models and showing how they’re equivalent to the Turaev-Viro and Kitaev models in appropriate cases.  Ingo Runkel gave a related talk about topological field theories with “domain walls”.).  Here, the idea of a “defect” (and topological order) can be understood very graphically: we imagine a 2-dimensional crystal lattice (of atoms, say), and the defect is a 1-dimensional place where the two lattices join together, with the internal symmetry of each breaking down at the boundary.  (For example, a square lattice glued where the edges on one side are offset and meet the squares on the other side in the middle of a face, as you typically see in a row of bricks – the slides linked above have some pictures).  The Levin-Wen models are built using a hexagonal lattice, starting with a tensor category with several properties: spherical (there are dualities satisfying some relations), fusion, and unitary: in fact, historically, these defining properties were rediscovered independently here as the requirement for there to be excitations on the boundary which satisfy physically-inspired consistency conditions.

These abstract the properties of a category of representations.  A generalization of this to “topological orders” in 3D or higher is an extended TFT in the sense mentioned just above: they have a target 3-category of tensor categories, bimodule categories, functors and natural transformations.  The tensor categories (say, \mathcal{C}, \mathcal{D}, etc.) get assigned to the bulk regions; to “domain walls” between different regions, namely defects between lattices, we assign bimodule categories (but, for instance, to a line within a region, we get \mathcal{C} understood as a \mathcal{C}-\mathcal{C}-bimodule); then to codimension 2 and 3 defects we attach functors and natural transformations.  The algebra for how these combine expresses the ways these topological defects can go together.  On a lattice, this is an abstraction of a spin network model, where typically we have just one tensor category \mathcal{C} applied to the whole bulk, namely the representations of a Lie group (say, a unitary group).  Then we do calculations by breaking down into bases: on codimension-1 faces, these are simple objects of \mathcal{C}; to vertices we assign a Hom space (and label by a basis for intertwiners in the special case); and so on.

Thomas Nickolaus spoke about the same kind of G-equivariant Dijkgraaf-Witten models as at our workshop in Lisbon, so I’ll refer you back to my earlier post on that.  However, speaking of equivariance and group actions:

Michael Müger  spoke about “Orbifolds of Rational CFT’s and Braided Crossed G-Categories” (see this paper for details).  This starts with that correspondence between rational CFT’s (strictly, rational chiral CFT’s) and modular categories Rep(F).  (He takes F to be the name of the CFT).  Then we consider what happens if some finite group G acts on F (if we understand F as a functor, this is an action by natural transformations; if as an algebra, then ).  This produces an “orbifold theory” F^G (just like a finite group action on a manifold produces an orbifold), which is the “G-fixed subtheory” of F, by taking G-fixed points for every object, and is also a rational CFT.  But that means it corresponds to some other modular category Rep(F^G), so one would like to know what category this is.

A natural guess might be that it’s Rep(F)^G, where C^G is a “weak fixed-point” category that comes from a weak group action on a category C.  Objects of C^G are pairs (c,f_g) where c \in C and f_g : g(c) \rightarrow c is a specified isomorphism.  (This is a weak analog of S^G, the set of fixed points for a group acting on a set).  But this guess is wrong – indeed, it turns out these categories have the wrong dimension (which is defined because the modular category has a trace, which we can sum over generating objects).  Instead, the right answer, denoted by Rep(F^G) = G-Rep(F)^G, is the G-fixed part of some other category.  It’s a braided crossed G-category: one with a grading by G, and a G-action that gets along with it.  The identity-graded part of Rep(F^G) is just the original Rep(F).

State Sum Models

This ties in somewhat with at least some of the models in the previous section.  Some of these were somewhat introductory, since many of the people at the conference were coming from a different background.  So, for instance, to begin the workshop, John Barrett gave a talk about categories and quantum gravity, which started by outlining the historical background, and the development of state-sum models.  He gave a second talk where he began to relate this to diagrams in Gray-categories (something he also talked about here in Lisbon in February, which I wrote about then).  He finished up with some discussion of spherical categories (and in particular the fact that there is a Gray-category of spherical categories, with a bunch of duals in the suitable sense).  This relates back to the kind of structures Chris Douglas spoke about (described above, but chronologically right after John).  Likewise, Winston Fairbairn gave a talk about state sum models in 3D quantum gravity – the Ponzano Regge model and Turaev-Viro model being the focal point, describing how these work and how they’re constructed.  Part of the point is that one would like to see that these fit into the sort of framework described in the section above, which for PR and TV models makes sense, but for the fancier state-sum models in higher dimensions, this becomes more complicated.

Higher Gauge Theory

There wasn’t as much on this topic as at our own workshop in Lisbon (though I have more remarks on higher gauge theory in one post about it), but there were a few entries.  Roger Picken talked about some work with Joao Martins about a cubical formalism for parallel transport based on crossed modules, which consist of a group G and abelian group H, with a map \partial : H \rightarrow G and an action of G on H satisfying some axioms.  They can represent categorical groups, namely group objects in Cat (equivalently, categories internal to Grp), and are “higher” analogs of groups with a set of elements.  Roger’s talk was about how to understand holonomies and parallel transports in this context.  So, a “connection” lets on transport things with G-symmetries along paths, and with H-symmetries along surfaces.  It’s natural to describe this with squares whose edges are labelled by G-elements, and faces labelled by H-elements (which are the holonomies).  Then the “cubical approach” means that we can describe gauge transformations, and higher gauge transformations (which in one sense are the point of higher gauge theory) in just the same way: a gauge transformation which assigns H-values to edges and G-values to vertices can be drawn via the holonomies of a connection on a cube which extends the original square into 3D (so the edges become squares, and so get H-values, and so on).  The higher gauge transformations work in a similar way.  This cubical picture gives a good way to understand the algebra of how gauge transformations etc. work: so for instance, gauge transformations look like “conjugation” of a square by four other squares – namely, relating the front and back faces of a cube by means of the remaining faces.  Higher gauge transformations can be described by means of a 4D hypercube in an analogous way, and their algebraic properties have to do with the 2D faces of the hypercube.

Derek Wise gave a short talk outlining his recent paper with John Baez in which they show that it’s possible to construct a higher gauge theory based on the Poincare 2-group which turns out to have fields, and dynamics, which are equivalent to teleparallel gravity, a slightly unusal theory which nevertheless looks in practice just like General Relativity.  I discussed this in a previous post.

So next time I’ll talk about the new additions to my paper on ETQFT which were the basis of my talk, which illustrates a few of the themes above.

So I’ve been travelling a lot in the last month, spending more than half of it outside Portugal. I was in Ottawa, Canada for a Fields Institute workshop, “Categorical Methods in Representation Theory“. Then a little later I was in Erlangen, Germany for one called “Categorical and Representation-Theoretic Methods in Quantum Geometry and CFT“. Despite the similar-sounding titles, these were on fairly different themes, though Marco Mackaay was at both, talking about categorifying the q-Schur algebra by diagrams.  I’ll describe the meetings, but for now I’ll start with the first.  Next post will be a summary of the second.

The Ottawa meeting was organized by Alistair Savage, and Alex Hoffnung (like me, a former student of John Baez). Alistair gave a talk here at IST over the summer about a q-deformation of Khovanov’s categorification of the Heisenberg Algebra I discussed in an earlier entry. A lot of the discussion at the workshop was based on the Khovanov-Lauda program, which began with categorifying quantum version of the classical Lie groups, and is now making lots of progress in the categorification of algebras, representation theory, and so on.

The point of this program is to describe “categorifications” of particular algebras. This means finding monoidal categories with the property that when you take the Grothendieck ring (the ring of isomorphism classes, with a multiplication given by the monoidal structure), you get back the integral form of some algebra. (And then recover the original by taking the tensor over \mathbb{Z} with \mathbb{C}). The key thing is how to represent the algebra by generators and relations. Since free monoidal categories with various sorts of structures can be presented as categories of string diagrams, it shouldn’t be surprising that the categories used tend to have objects that are sequences (i.e. monoidal products) of dots with various sorts of labelling data, and morphisms which are string diagrams that carry those labels on strands (actually, usually they’re linear combinations of such diagrams, so everything is enriched in vector spaces). Then one imposes relations on the “free” data given this way, by saying that the diagrams are considered the same morphism if they agree up to some local moves. The whole problem then is to find the right generators (labelling data) and relations (local moves). The result will be a categorification of a given presentation of the algebra you want.

So for instance, I was interested in Sabin Cautis and Anthony Licata‘s talks connected with this paper, “Heisenberg Categorification And Hilbert Schemes”. This is connected with a generalization of Khovanov’s categorification linked above, to include a variety of other algebras which are given a similar name. The point is that there’s such a “Heisenberg algebra” associated to different subgroups \Gamma \subset SL(2,\mathbf{k}), which in turn are classified by Dynkin diagrams. The vertices of these Dynkin diagrams correspond to some generators of the Heisenberg algebra, and one can modify Khovanov’s categorification by having strands in the diagram calculus be labelled by these vertices. Rules for local moves involving strands with different labels will be governed by the edges of the Dynkin diagram. Their paper goes on to describe how to represent these categorifications on certain categories of Hilbert schemes.

Along the same lines, Aaron Lauda gave a talk on the categorification of the NilHecke algebra. This is defined as a subalgebra of endomorphisms of P_a = \mathbb{Z}[x_1,\dots,x_a], generated by multiplications (by the x_i) and the divided difference operators \partial_i. There are different from the usual derivative operators: in place of the differences between values of a single variable, they measure how a function behaves under the operation s_i which switches variables x_i and x_{i+1} (that is, the reflection in the hyperplane where x_i = x_{i+1}). The point is that just like differentiation, this operator – together with multiplication – generates an algebra in End(\mathbb{Z}[x_1,\dots,x_a]. Aaron described how to categorify this presentation of the NilHecke algebra with a string-diagram calculus.

So anyway, there were a number of talks about the explosion of work within this general program – for instance, Marco Mackaay’s which I mentioned, as well as that of Pedro Vaz about the same project. One aspect of this program is that the relatively free “string diagram categories” are sometimes replaced with categories where the objects are bimodules and morphisms are bimodule homomorphisms. Making the relationship precise is then a matter of proving these satisfy exactly the relations on a “free” category which one wants, but sometimes they’re a good setting to prove one has a nice categorification. Thus, Ben Elias and Geordie Williamson gave two parts of one talk about “Soergel Bimodules and Kazhdan-Lusztig Theory” (see a blog post by Ben Webster which gives a brief intro to this notion, including pointing out that Soergel bimodules give a categorification of the Hecke algebra).

One of the reasons for doing this sort of thing is that one gets invariants for manifolds from algebras – in particular, things like the Jones polynomial, which is related to the Temperley-Lieb algebra. A categorification of it is Khovanov homology (which gives, for a manifold, a complex, with the property that the graded Euler characteristic of the complex is the Jones polynomial). The point here is that categorifying the algebra lets you raise the dimension of the kind of manifold your invariants are defined on.

So, for instance, Scott Morrison described “Invariants of 4-Manifolds from Khonanov Homology“.  This was based on a generalization of the relationship between TQFT’s and planar algebras.  The point is, planar algebras are described by the composition of diagrams of the following form: a big circle, containing some number of small circles.  The boundaries of each circle are labelled by some number of marked points, and the space between carries curves which connect these marked points in some way.  One composes these diagrams by gluing big circles into smaller circles (there’s some further discussion here including a picture, and much more in this book here).  Scott Morrison described these diagrams as “spaghetti and meatball” diagrams.  Planar algebras show up by associating a vector spaces to “the” circle with n marked points, and linear maps to each way (up to isotopy) of filling in edges between such circles.  One can think of the circles and marked-disks as a marked-cobordism category, and so a functorial way of making these assignments is something like a TQFT.  It also gives lots of vector spaces and lots of linear maps that fit together in a particular way described by this category of marked cobordisms, which is what a “planar algebra” actually consists of.  Clearly, these planar algebras can be used to get some manifold invariants – namely the “TQFT” that corresponds to them.

Scott Morrison’s talk described how to get invariants of 4-dimensional manifolds in a similar way by boosting (almost) everything in this story by 2 dimensions.  You start with a 4-ball, whose boundary is a 3-sphere, and excise some number of 4-balls (with 3-sphere boundaries) from the interior.  Then let these 3D boundaries be “marked” with 1-D embedded links (think “knots” if you like).  These 3-spheres with embedded links are the objects in a category.  The morphisms are 4-balls which connect them, containing 2D knotted surfaces which happen to intersect the boundaries exactly at their embedded links.  By analogy with the image of “spaghetti and meatballs”, where the spaghetti is a collection of 1D marked curves, Morrison calls these 4-manifolds with embedded 2D surfaces “lasagna diagrams” (which generalizes to the less evocative case of “(n,k) pasta diagrams”, where we’ve just mentioned the (2,1) and (4,2) cases, with k-dimensional “pasta” embedded in n-dimensional balls).  Then the point is that one can compose these pasta diagrams by gluing the 4-balls along these marked boundaries.  One then gets manifold invariants from these sorts of diagrams by using Khovanov homology, which assigns to

Ben Webster talked about categorification of Lie algebra representations, in a talk called “Categorification, Lie Algebras and Topology“. This is also part of categorifying manifold invariants, since the Reshitikhin-Turaev Invariants are based on some monoidal category, which in this case is the category of representations of some algebra.  Categorifying this to a 2-category gives higher-dimensional equivalents of the RT invariants.  The idea (which you can check out in those slides) is that this comes down to describing the analog of the “highest-weight” representations for some Lie algebra you’ve already categorified.

The Lie theory point here, you might remember, is that representations of Lie algebras \mathfrak{g} can be analyzed by decomposing them into “weight spaces” V_{\lambda}, associated to weights \lambda : \mathfrak{g} \rightarrow \mathbf{k} (where \mathbf{k} is the base field, which we can generally assume is \mathbb{C}).  Weights turn Lie algebra elements into scalars, then.  So weight spaces generalize eigenspaces, in that acting by any element g \in \mathfrak{g} on a “weight vector” v \in V_{\lambda} amounts to multiplying by \lambda{g}.  (So that v is an eigenvector for each g, but the eigenvalue depends on g, and is given by the weight.)  A weight can be the “highest” with respect to a natural order that can be put on weights (\lambda \geq \mu if the difference is a nonnegative combination of simple weights).  Then a “highest weight representation” is one which is generated under the action of \mathfrak{g} by a single weight vector v, the “highest weight vector”.

The point of the categorification is to describe the representation in the same terms.  First, we introduce a special strand (which Ben Webster draws as a red strand) which represents the highest weight vector.  Then we say that the category that stands in for the highest weight representation is just what we get by starting with this red strand, and putting all the various string diagrams of the categorification of \mathfrak{g} next to it.  One can then go on to talk about tensor products of these representations, where objects are found by amalgamating several such diagrams (with several red strands) together.  And so on.  These categorified representations are then supposed to be usable to give higher-dimensional manifold invariants.

Now, the flip side of higher categories that reproduce ordinary representation theory would be the representation theory of higher categories in their natural habitat, so to speak. Presumably there should be a fairly uniform picture where categorifications of normal representation theory will be special cases of this. Vlodymyr Mazorchuk gave an interesting talk called 2-representations of finitary 2-categories.  He gave an example of one of the 2-categories that shows up a lot in these Khovanov-Lauda categorifications, the 2-category of Soergel Bimodules mentioned above.  This has one object, which we can think of as a category of modules over the algebra \mathbb{C}[x_1, \dots, x_n]/I (where I  is some ideal of homogeneous symmetric polynomials).  The morphisms are endofunctors of this category, which all amount to tensoring with certain bimodules – the irreducible ones being the Soergel bimodules.  The point of the talk was to explain the representations of 2-categories \mathcal{C} – that is, 2-functors from \mathcal{C} into some “classical” 2-category.  Examples would be 2-categories like “2-vector spaces”, or variants on it.  The examples he gave: (1) [small fully additive \mathbf{k}-linear categories], (2) the full subcategory of it with finitely many indecomposible elements, (3) [categories equivalent to module categories of finite dimensional associative \mathbf{k}-algebras].  All of these have some claim to be a 2-categorical analog of [vector spaces].  In general, Mazorchuk allowed representations of “FIAT” categories: Finitary (Two-)categories with Involutions and Adjunctions.

Part of the process involved getting a “multisemigroup” from such categories: a set S with an operation which takes pairs of elements, and returns a subset of S, satisfying some natural associativity condition.  (Semigroups are the case where the subset contains just one element – groups are the case where furthermore the operation is invertible).  The idea is that FIAT categories have some set of generators – indecomposable 1-morphisms – and that the multisemigroup describes which indecomposables show up in a composite.  (If we think of the 2-category as a monoidal category, this is like talking about a decomposition of a tensor product of objects).  So, for instance, for the 2-category that comes from the monoidal category of \mathfrak{sl}(2) modules, we get the semigroup of nonnegative integers.  For the Soergel bimodule 2-category, we get the symmetric group.  This sort of thing helps characterize when two objects are equivalent, and in turn helps describe 2-representations up to some equivalence.  (You can find much more detail behind the link above.)

On the more classical representation-theoretic side of things, Joel Kamnitzer gave a talk called “Spiders and Buildings”, which was concerned with some geometric and combinatorial constructions in representation theory.  These involved certain trivalent planar graphs, called “webs”, whose edges carry labels between 1 and (n-1).  They’re embedded in a disk, and the outgoing edges, with labels (k_1, \dots, k_m) determine a representation space for a group G, say G = SL_n, namely the tensor product of a bunch of wedge products, \otimes_j \wedge^{k_j} \mathbb{C}^n, where SL_n acts on \mathbb{C}^n as usual.  Then a web determines an invariant vector in this space.  This comes about by having invariant vectors for each vertex (the basic case where m =3), and tensoring them together.  But the point is to interpret this construction geometrically.  This was a bit outside my grasp, since it involves the Langlands program and the geometric Satake correspondence, neither of which I know much of anything about, but which give geometric/topological ways of constructing representation categories.  One thing I did pick up is that it uses the “Langlands dual group” \check{G} of G to get a certain metric space called Gn_{\check{G}}.  Then there’s a correspondence between the category of representations of G and the category of (perverse, constructible) sheaves on this space.  This correspondence can be used to describe the vectors that come out of these webs.

Jim Dolan gave a couple of talks while I was there, which actually fit together as two parts of a bigger picture – one was during the workshop itself, and one at the logic seminar on the following Monday. It helped a lot to see both in order to appreciate the overall point, so I’ll mix them a bit indiscriminately. The first was called “Dimensional Analysis is Algebraic Geometry”, and the second “Toposes of Quasicoherent Sheaves on Toric Varieties”. For the purposes of the logic seminar, he gave the slogan of the second talk as “Algebraic Geometry is a branch of Categorical Logic”. Jim’s basic idea was inspired by Bill Lawvere’s concept of a “theory”, which is supposed to extend both “algebraic theories” (such as the “theory of groups”) and theories in the sense of physics.  Any given theory is some structured category, and “models” of the theory are functors into some other category to represent it – it thus has a functor category called its “moduli stack of models”.  A physical theory (essentially, models which depict some contents of the universe) has some parameters.  The “theory of elastic scattering”, for instance, has the masses, and initial and final momenta, of two objects which collide and “scatter” off each other.  The moduli space for this theory amounts to assignments of values to these parameters, which must satisfy some algebraic equations – conservation of energy and momentum (for example, \sum_i m_i v_i^{in} = \sum_i m_i v_i^{out}, where i \in 1, 2).  So the moduli space is some projective algebraic variety.  Jim explained how “dimensional analysis” in physics is the study of line bundles over such varieties (“dimensions” are just such line bundles, since a “dimension” is a 1-dimensional sort of thing, and “quantities” in those dimensions are sections of the line bundles).  Then there’s a category of such bundles, which are organized into a special sort of symmetric monoidal category – in fact, it’s contrained so much it’s just a graded commutative algebra.

In his second talk, he generalized this to talk about categories of sheaves on some varieties – and, since he was talking in the categorical logic seminar, he proposed a point of view for looking at algebraic geometry in the context of logic.  This view could be summarized as: Every (generalized) space studied by algebraic geometry “is” the moduli space of models for some theory in some doctrine.  The term “doctrine” is Bill Lawvere’s, and specifies what kind of structured category the theory and the target of its models are supposed to be (and of course what kind of functors are allowed as models).  Thus, for instance, toposes (as generalized spaces) are supposed to be thought of as “geometric theories”.  He explained that his “dimensional analysis doctrine” is a special case of this.  As usual when talking to Jim, I came away with the sense that there’s a very large program of ideas lurking behind everything he said, of which only the tip of the iceberg actually made it into the talks.

Next post, when I have time, will talk about the meeting at Erlangen…

Next Page »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 46 other followers