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

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

As a Representation

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

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

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

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

The Combinatorial Model

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So this is basically how the combinatorial model works.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve written here before about building topological quantum field theories using groupoidification, but I haven’t yet gotten around to discussing a refinement of this idea, which is in the most recent version of my paper on the subject.  I also gave a talk about this last year in Erlangen. The main point of the paper is to pull apart some constructions which are already fairly well known into two parts, as part of setting up a category which is nice for supporting models of fairly general physical systems, using an extension of the  concept of groupoidification. So here’s a somewhat lengthy post which tries to unpack this stuff a bit.

Factoring TQFT

The older version of this paper talked about the untwisted version of the Dijkgraaf-Witten (DW for short) model, which is a certain kind of TQFT based on a gauge theory with a finite gauge group.  (Freed and Quinn put it as: “Chern-Simons theory with finite gauge group”).  The new version gets the general – that is, the twisted – form in the same way: factoring the theory into two parts. So, the DW model, which was originally described by Dijkgraaf and Witten in terms of a state-sum, is a functor

$Z : 3Cob \rightarrow Vect$

The “twisting” is the point of their paper, “Topological Gauge Theories and Group Cohomology”.  The twisting has to do with the action for some physical theory. Now, for a gauge theory involving flat connections, the kind of gauge-theory actions which involve the curvature of a connection make no sense: the curvature is zero.  So one wants an action which reflects purely global features of connections.  The cohomology of the gauge group is where this comes from.

Now, the machinery I describe is based on a point of view which has been described in a famous paper by Freed, Hopkins, Lurie and Teleman (FHLT for short – see further discussion here) in terms in which the two stages are called the “classical field theory” (which has values in groupoids), and the “quantization functor”, which takes one into Hilbert spaces.

Actually, we really want to have an “extended” TQFT: a TQFT gives a Hilbert space for each 2D manifold (“space”), and a linear map for a 3D cobordism (“spacetime”) between them. An extended TQFT will assign (higher) algebraic data to lower-dimension boundaries still.  My paper talks only about the case where we’ve extended down to codimension 2, whereas FHLT talk about extending “down to a point”. The point of this first stopping point is to unpack explicitly and computationally what the factorization into two parts looks like at the first level beyond the usual TQFT.

In the terminology I use, the classical field theory is:

$A^{\omega} : nCob_2 \rightarrow Span_2(Gpd)^{U(1)}$

This depends on a cohomology class $[\omega] \in H^3(G,U(1))$. The “quantization functor” (which in this case I call “2-linearization”):

$\Lambda^{U(1)} : Span_2(Gpd)^{U(1)} \rightarrow 2Vect$

The middle stage involves the monoidal 2-category I call $Span_2(Gpd)^{U(1)}$.  (In FHLT, they use different terminology, for instance “families” rather than “spans”, but the principle is the same.)

Freed and Quinn looked at the quantization of the “extended” DW model, and got a nice geometric picture. In it, the action is understood as a section of some particular line-bundle over a moduli space. This geometric picture is very elegant once you see how it works, which I found was a little easier in light of a factorization through $Span_2(Gpd)$.

This factorization isolates the geometry of this particular situation in the “classical field theory” – and reveals which of the features of their setup (the line bundle over a moduli space) are really part of some more universal construction.

In particular, this means laying out an explicit definition of both $Span_2(Gpd)^{U(1)}$ and $\Lambda^{U(1)}$.

2-Linearization Recalled

While I’ve talked about it before, it’s worth a brief recap of how 2-linearization works with a view to what happens when you twist it via groupoid cohomology. Here we have a 2-category $Span(Gpd)$, whose objects are groupoids ($A$, $B$, etc.), whose morphisms are spans of groupoids:

$A \stackrel{s}{\leftarrow} X \stackrel{t}{\rightarrow} B$

and whose 2-morphisms are spans of span-maps (taken up to isomorphism), which look like so:

(And, by the by: how annoying that WordPress doesn’t appear to support xypic figures…)

These form a (symmetric monoidal) 2-category, where composition of spans works by taking weak pullbacks.  Physically, the idea is that a groupoid has objects which are configurations (in the cause of gauge theory, connections on a manifold), and morphisms which are symmetries (gauge transformations, in this case).  Then a span is a groupoid of histories (connections on a cobordism, thought of as spacetime), and the maps $s,t$ pick out its starting and ending configuration.  That is, $A = A_G(S)$ is the groupoid of flat $G$-connections on a manifold $S$, and $X = A_G(\Sigma)$ is the groupoid of flat $G$-connections on some cobordism $\Sigma$, of which $S$ is part of the boundary.  So any such connection can be restricted to the boundary, and this restriction is $s$.

Now 2-linearization is a 2-functor:

$\Lambda : Span_2(Gpd)^{U(1)} \rightarrow 2Vect$

It gives a 2-vector space (a nice kind of category) for each groupoid $G$.  Specifically, the category of its representations, $Rep(G)$.  Then a span turns into a functor which comes from “pulling” back along $s$ (the restricted representation where $X$ acts by first applying $s$ then the representation), then “pushing” forward along $t$ (to the induced representation).

What happens to the 2-morphisms is conceptually more complicated, but it depends on the fact that “pulling” and “pushing” are two-sided adjoints. Concretely, it ends up being described as a kind of “sum over histories” (where “histories” are the objects of $Y$), which turns out to be exactly the path integral that occurs in the TQFT.

Or at least, it’s the path integral when the action is trivial! That is, if $S=0$, so that what’s integrated over paths (“histories”) is just $e^{iS}=1$. So one question is: is there a way to factor things in this way if there’s a nontrivial action?

Cohomological Twisting

The answer is by twisting via cohomology. First, let’s remember what that means…

We’re talking about groupoid cohomology for some groupoid $G$ (which you can take to be a group, if you like).  “Cochains” will measure how much some nice algebraic fact, such as being a homomorphism, or being associative, “fails to occur”.  “Twisting by a cocycle” is a controlled way to force some such failure to happen.

So, an $n$-cocycle is some function of $n$ composable morphisms of $G$ (or, if there’s only one object, “group elements”, which amounts to the same thing).  It takes values in some group of coefficients, which for us is always $U(1)$

The trivial case where $n=0$ is actually slightly subtle: a 0-cocycle is an invariant function on the objects of a groupoid. (That is, it takes the same value on any two objects related by an (iso)morphism. (Think of the object as a sequence of zero composable morphisms: it tells you where to start, but nothing else.)

The case $n=1$ is maybe a little more obvious. A 1-cochain $f \in Z^1_{gpd}(G,U(1))$ can measure how a function $h$ on objects might fail to be a 0-cocycle. It is a $U(1)$-valued function of morphisms (or, if you like, group elements).  The natural condition to ask for is that it be a homomorphism:

$f(g_1 \circ g_2) = f(g_1) f(g_2)$

This condition means that a cochain $f$ is a cocycle. They form an abelian group, because functions satisfying the cocycle condition are closed under pointwise multiplication in $U(1)$. It will automatically by satisfied for a coboundary (i.e. if $f$ comes from a function $h$ on objects as $f(g) = \delta h (g) = h(t(g)) - h(s(g))$). But not every cocycle is a coboundary: the first cohomology $H^1(G,U(1))$ is the quotient of cocycles by coboundaries. This pattern repeats.

It’s handy to think of this condition in terms of a triangle with edges $g_1$, $g_2$, and $g_1 \circ g_2$.  It says that if we go from the source to the target of the sequence $(g_1, g_2)$ with or without composing, and accumulate $f$-values, our $f$ gives the same result.  Generally, a cocycle is a cochain satisfying a “coboundary” condition, which can be described in terms of an $n$-simplex, like this triangle. What about a 2-cocycle? This describes how composition might fail to be respected.

So, for instance, a twisted representation $R$ of a group is not a representation in the strict sense. That would be a map into $End(V)$, such that $R(g_1) \circ R(g_2) = R(g_1 \circ g_2)$.  That is, the group composition rule gets taken directly to the corresponding rule for composition of endomorphisms of the vector space $V$.  A twisted representation $\rho$ only satisfies this up to a phase:

$\rho(g_1) \circ \rho(g_2) = \theta(g_1,g_2) \rho(g_1 \circ g_2)$

where $\theta : G^2 \rightarrow U(1)$ is a function that captures the way this “representation” fails to respect composition.  Still, we want some nice properties: $\theta$ is a “cocycle” exactly when this twisting still makes $\rho$ respect the associative law:

$\rho(g_1) \rho( g_2 \circ g_3) = \rho( g_1 \circ g_2) \circ \rho( g_3)$

Working out what this says in terms of $\theta$, the cocycle condition says that for any composable triple $(g_1, g_2, g_3)$ we have:

$\theta( g_1, g_2 \circ g_3) \theta (g_2,g_3) = \theta(g_1,g_2) \theta(g_1 \circ g_2, g_3)$

So $H^2_{grp}(G,U(1))$ – the second group-cohomology group of $G$ – consists of exactly these $\theta$ which satisfy this condition, which ensures we have associativity.

Given one of these $\theta$ maps, we get a category $Rep^{\theta}(G)$ of all the $\theta$-twisted representations of $G$. It behaves just like an ordinary representation category… because in fact it is one! It’s the category of representations of a twisted version of the group algebra of $G$, called $C^{\theta}(G)$. The point is, we can use $\theta$ to twist the convolution product for functions on $G$, and this is still an associative algebra just because $\theta$ satisfies the cocycle condition.

The pattern continues: a 3-cocycle captures how some function of 2 variable may fail to be associative: it specifies an associator map (a function of three variables), which has to satisfy some conditions for any four composable morphisms. A 4-cocycle captures how a map might fail to satisfy this condition, and so on. At each stage, the cocycle condition is automatically satisfied by coboundaries. Cohomology classes are elements of the quotient of cocycles by coboundaries.

So the idea of “twisted 2-linearization” is that we use this sort of data to change 2-linearization.

Twisted 2-Linearization

The idea behind the 2-category $Span(Gpd)^{U(1)}$ is that it contains $Span(Gpd)$, but that objects and morphisms also carry information about how to “twist” when applying the 2-linearization $\Lambda$.  So in particular, what we have is a (symmetric monoidal) 2-category where:

• Objects consist of $(A, \theta)$, where $A$ is a groupoid and $\theta \in Z^2(A,U(1))$
• Morphisms from $A$ to $B$ consist of a span $(X,s,t)$ from $A$ to $B$, together with $\alpha \in Z^1(X,U(1))$
• 2-Morphisms from $X_1$ to $X_2$ consist of a span $(Y,\sigma,\tau)$ from $X$, together with $\beta \in Z^0(Y,U(1))$

The cocycles have to satisfy some compatibility conditions (essentially, pullbacks of the cocycles from the source and target of a span should land in the same cohomology class).  One way to see the point of this requirement is to make twisted 2-linearization well-defined.

One can extend the monoidal structure and composition rules to objects with cocycles without too much trouble so that $Span(Gpd)$ is a subcategory of $Span(Gpd)^{U(1)}$. The 2-linearization functor extends to $\Lambda^{U(1)} : Span(Gpd)^{U(1)} \rightarrow 2Vect$:

• On Objects: $\Lambda^{U(1)} (A, \theta) = Rep^{\theta}(A)$, the category of $\theta$-twisted representation of $A$
• On Morphisms: $\Lambda^{U(1)} ( (X,s,t) , \alpha )$ comes by pulling back a twisted representation in $Rep^{\theta_A}(A)$ to one in $Rep^{s^{\ast}\theta_A}(X)$, pulling it through the algebra map “multiplication by $\alpha$“, and pushing forward to $Rep^{\theta_B}(B)$
• On 2-Morphisms: For a span of span maps, one uses the usual formula (see the paper for details), but a sum over the objects $y \in Y$ picks up a weight of $\beta(y)$ at each object

When the cocycles are trivial (evaluate to 1 always), we get back the 2-linearization we had before. Now the main point here is that the “sum over histories” that appears in the 2-morphisms now carries a weight.

So the twisted form of 2-linearization uses the same “pull-push” ideas as 2-linearization, but applied now to twisted representations. This twisting (at the object level) uses a 2-cocycle. At the morphism level, we have a “twist” between “pull” and “push” in constructing . What the “twist” actually means depends on which cohomology degree we’re in – in other words, whether it’s applied to objects, morphisms, or 2-morphisms.

The “twisting” by a 0-cocycle just means having a weight for each object – in other words, for each “history”, or connection on spacetime, in a big sum over histories. Physically, the 0-cocycle is playing the role of the Lagrangian functional for the DW model. Part of the point in the FHLT program can be expressed by saying that what Freed and Quinn are doing is showing how the other cocycles are also the Lagrangian – as it’s seen at higher codimension in the more “local” theory.

For a TQFT, the 1-cocycles associated to morphisms describe how to glue together values for the Lagrangian that are associated to histories that live on different parts of spacetime: the action isn’t just a number. It is a number only “locally”, and when we compose 2-morphisms, the 0-cocycle on the composite picks up a factor from the 1-morphism (or 0-morphism, for a horizontal composite) where they’re composed.

This has to do with the fact that connections on bits of spacetime can be glued by particular gauge transformations – that is, morphisms of the groupoid of connections. Just as the gauge transformations tell how to glue connections, the cocycles associated to them tell how to glue the actions. This is how the cohomological twisting captures the geometric insight that the action is a section of a line bundle – not just a function, which is a section of a trivial bundle – over the moduli space of histories.

So this explains how these cocycles can all be seen as parts of the Lagrangian when we quantize: they explain how to glue actions together before using them in a sum-over histories. Gluing them this way is essential to make sure that $\Lambda^{U(1)}$ is actually a functor. But if we’re really going to see all the cocycles as aspects of “the action”, then what is the action really? Where do they come from, that they’re all slices of this bigger thing?

Twisting as Lagrangian

Now the DW model is a 3D theory, whose action is specified by a group-cohomology class $[\omega] \in H^3_{grp}(G,U(1))$. But this is the same thing as a class in the cohomology of the classifying space: $[\omega] \in H^3(BG,U(1))$. This takes a little unpacking, but certainly it’s helpful to understand that what cohomology classes actually classify are… gerbes. So another way to put a key idea of the FHLT paper, as Urs Schreiber put it to me a while ago, is that “the action is a gerbe on the classifying space for fields“.

What does this mean?

This map is given as a path integral over all connections on the space(-time) $S$, which is actually just a sum, since the gauge group is finite and so all the connections are flat.  The point is that they’re described by assigning group elements to loops in $S$:

$A : \pi_1(M) \rightarrow G$

But this amounts to the same thing as a map into the classifying space of $G$:

$f_A : M \rightarrow BG$

This is essentially the definition of $BG$, and it implies various things, such as the fact that $BG$ is a space whose fundamental group is $G$, and has all other homotopy groups trivial. That is, $BG$ is the Eilenberg-MacLane space $K(G,1)$. But the point is that the groupoid of connections and gauge transformations on $S$ just corresponds to the mapping space $Maps(S,BG)$. So the groupoid cohomology classes we get amount to the same thing as cohomology classes on this space. If we’re given $[\omega] \in H^3(BG,U(1))$, then we can get at these by “transgression” – which is very nicely explained in a paper by Simon Willerton.

The essential idea is that a 3-cocycle $\omega$ (representing the class $[\omega]$) amounts to a nice 3-form on $BG$ which we can integrate over a 3-dimentional submanifold to get a number. For a $d$-dimensional $S$, we get such a 3-manifold from a $(3-d)$-dimensional submanifold of $Maps(S,BG)$: each point gives a copy of $S$ in $BG$. Then we get a $(3-d)$-cocycle on $Maps(S,BG)$ whose values come from integrating $\omega$ over this image. Here’s a picture I used to illustrate this in my talk:

Now, it turns out that this gives 2-cocycles for 1-manifolds (the objects of $3Cob_2$, 1-cocycles on 2D cobordisms between them, and 0-cocycles on 3D cobordisms between these cobordisms. The cocycles are for the groupoid of connections and gauge transformations in each case. In fact, because of Stokes’ theorem in $BG$, these have to satisfy all the conditions that make them into objects, morphisms, and 2-morphisms of $Span^{U(1)}(Gpd)$. This is the geometric content of the Lagrangian: all the cocycles are really “reflections” of $\omega$ as seen by transgression: pulling back along the evaluation map $ev$ from the picture. Then the way you use it in the quantization is described exactly by $\Lambda^{U(1)}$.

What I like about this is that $\Lambda^{U(1)}$ is a fairly universal sort of thing – so while this example gets its cocycles from the nice geometry of $BG$ which Freed and Quinn talk about, the insight that an action is a section of a (twisted) line bundle, that actions can be glued together in particular ways, and so on… These presumably can be moved to other contexts.

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…

(Note: WordPress seems to be having some intermittent technical problem parsing my math markup in this post, so please bear with me until it, hopefully, goes away…)

As August is the month in which Portugal goes on vacation, and we had several family visitors toward the end of the summer, I haven’t posted in a while, but the term has now started up at IST, and seminars are underway, so there should be some interesting stuff coming up to talk about.

New Blog

First, I’ll point out that that Derek Wise has started a new blog, called simply “Simplicity“, which is (I imagine) what it aims to contain: things which seem complex explained so as to reveal their simplicity.  Unless I’m reading too much into the title.  As of this writing, he’s posted only one entry, but a lengthy one that gives a nice explanation of a program for categorified Klein geometries which he’s been thinking a bunch about.  Klein’s program for describing the geometry of homogeneous spaces (such as spherical, Euclidean, and hyperbolic spaces with constant curvature, for example) was developed at Erlangen, and goes by the name “The Erlangen Program”.  Since Derek is now doing a postdoc at Erlangen, and this is supposed to be a categorification of Klein’s approach, he’s referred to it the “2-Erlangen Program”.  There’s more discussion about it in a (somewhat) recent post by John Baez at the n-Category Cafe.  Both of them note the recent draft paper they did relating a higher gauge theory based on the Poincare 2-group to a theory known as teleparallel gravity.  I don’t know this theory so well, except that it’s some almost-equivalent way of formulating General Relativity

I’ll refer you to Derek’s own post for full details of what’s going on in this approach, but the basic motivation isn’t too hard to set out.  The Erlangen program takes the view that a homogeneous space is a space $X$ (let’s say we mean by this a topological space) which “looks the same everywhere”.  More precisely, there’s a group action by some $G$, which we understand to be “symmetries” of the space, which is transitive.  Since every point is taken to every other point by some symmetry, the space is “homogeneous”.  Some symmetries leave certain points $x \in X$ where they are – they form the stabilizer subgroup $H = Stab(x)$.  When the space is homogeneous, it is isomorphic to the coset space, $X \cong G / H$.  So Klein’s idea is to say that any time you have a Lie group $G$ and a closed subgroup $H < G$, this quotient will be called a “homogeneous space”.  A familiar example would be Euclidean space, $\mathbb{R}^n \cong E(n) / O(n)$, where $E$ is the Euclidean group and $O$ is the orthogonal group, but there are plenty of others.

This example indicates what Cartan geometry is all about, though – this is the next natural step after Klein geometry (Edit:  Derek’s blog now has a visual explanation of Cartan geometry, a.k.a. “generalized hamsterology”, new since I originally posted this).  We can say that Cartan is to Klein as Riemann is to Euclid.  (Or that Cartan is to Riemann as Klein is to Euclid – or if you want to get maybe too-precisely metaphorical, Cartan is the pushout of Klein and Riemann over Euclid).  The point is that Riemannian geometry studies manifolds – spaces which are not homogeneous, but look like Euclidean space locally.  Cartan geometry studies spaces which aren’t homogeneous, but can be locally modelled by Klein geometries.  Now, a Riemannian geometry is essentially a manifold with a metric, describing how it locally looks like Euclidean space.  An equivalent way to talk about it is a manifold with a bundle of Euclidean spaces (the tangent spaces) with a connection (the Levi-Civita connection associated to the metric).  A Cartan geometry can likewise be described as a $G$-bundle with fibre $X$ with a connection

Then the point of the “2-Erlangen program” is to develop similar geometric machinery for 2-groups (a.k.a. categorical groups).  This is, as usual, a bit more complicated since actions of 2-groups are trickier than group-actions.  In their paper, though, the point is to look at spaces which are locally modelled by some sort of 2-Klein geometry which derives from the Poincare 2-group.  By analogy with Cartan geometry, one can talk about such Poincare 2-group connections on a space – that is, some kind of “higher gauge theory”.  This is the sort of framework where John and Derek’s draft paper formulates teleparallel gravity.  It turns out that the 2-group connection ends up looking like a regular connection with torsion, and this plays a role in that theory.  Their draft will give you a lot more detail.

Talk on Manifold Calculus

On a different note, one of the first talks I went to so far this semester was one by Pedro Brito about “Manifold Calculus and Operads” (though he ran out of time in the seminar before getting to talk about the connection to operads).  This was about motivating and introducing the Goodwillie Calculus for functors between categories of spaces.  (There are various references on this, but see for instance these notes by Hal Sadofsky). In some sense this is a generalization of calculus from functions to functors, and one of the main results Goodwillie introduced with this subject, is a functorial analog of Taylor’s theorem.  I’d seen some of this before, but this talk was a nice and accessible intro to the topic.

So the starting point for this “Manifold Calculus” is that we’d like to study functors from spaces to spaces (in fact this all applies to spectra, which are more general, but Pedro Brito’s talk was focused on spaces).  The sort of thing we’re talking about is a functor which, given a space $M$, gives a moduli space of some sort of geometric structures we can put on $M$, or of mappings from $M$.  The main motivating example he gave was the functor

$Imm(-,N) : [Spaces] \rightarrow [Spaces]$

for some fixed manifold $N$. Given a manifold $M$, this gives the mapping space of all immersions of $M$ into $N$.

(Recalling some terminology: immersions are maps of manifolds where the differential is nondegenerate – the induced map of tangent spaces is everywhere injective, meaning essentially that there are no points, cusps, or kinks in the image, but there might be self-intersections. Embeddings are, in addition, local homeomorphisms.)

Studying this functor $Imm(-,N)$ means, among other things, looking at the various spaces $Imm(M,N)$ of immersions of each $M$ into $N$. We might first ask: can $M$ be immersed in $N$ at all – in other words, is $\pi_0(Imm(M,N))$ nonempty?

So, for example, the Whitney Embedding Theorem says that if $dim(N)$ is at least $2 dim(M)$, then there is an embedding of $M$ into $N$ (which is therefore also an immersion).

In more detail, we might want to know what $\pi_0(Imm(M,N))$ is, which tells how many connected components of immersions there are: in other words, distinct classes of immersions which can’t be deformed into one another by a family of immersions. Or, indeed, we might ask about all the homotopy groups of $Imm(M,N)$, not just the zeroth: what’s the homotopy type of $Imm(M,N)$? (Once we have a handle on this, we would then want to vary $M$).

It turns out this question is manageable, party due to a theorem of Smale and Hirsch, which is a generalization of Gromov’s h-principle – the original principle applies to solutions of certain kinds of PDE’s, saying that any solution can be deformed to a holomorphic one, so if you want to study the space of solutions up to homotopy, you may as well just study the holomorphic solutions.

The Smale-Hirsch theorem likewise gives a homotopy equivalence of two spaces, one of which is $Imm(M,N)$. The other is the space of “formal immersions”, called $Imm^f(M,N)$. It consists of all $(f,F)$, where $f : M \rightarrow N$ is smooth, and $F : TM \rightarrow TN$ is a map of tangent spaces which restricts to $f$, and is injective. These are “formally” like immersions, and indeed $Imm(M,N)$ has an inclusion into $Imm^f(M,N)$, which happens to be a homotopy equivalence: it induces isomorphisms of all the homotopy groups. These come from homotopies taking each “formal immersion” to some actual immersion. So we’ve approximated $Imm(-,N)$, up to homotopy, by $Imm^f(-,N)$. (This “homotopy” of functors makes sense because we’re talking about an enriched functor – the source and target categories are enriched in spaces, where the concepts of homotopy theory are all available).

We still haven’t got to manifold calculus, but it will be all about approximating one functor by another – or rather, by a chain of functors which are supposed to be like the Taylor series for a function. The way to get this series has to do with sheafification, so first it’s handy to re-describe what the Smale-Hirsch theorem says in terms of sheaves. This means we want to talk about some category of spaces with a Grothendieck topology.

So lets let $\mathcal{E}$ be the category whose objects are $d$-dimensional manifolds and whose morphisms are embeddings (which, of course, are necessarily codimension 0). Now, the point here is that if $f : M \rightarrow M'$ is an embedding in $\mathcal{E}$, and $M'$ has an immersion into $N$, this induces an immersion of $M$ into $N$. This amounst to saying $Imm(-,N)$ is a contravariant functor:

$Imm(-,N) : \mathcal{E}^{op} \rightarrow [Spaces]$

That makes $Imm(-,N)$ a presheaf. What the Smale-Hirsch theorem tells us is that this presheaf is a homotopy sheaf – but to understand that, we need a few things first.

First, what’s a homotopy sheaf? Well, the condition for a sheaf says that if we have an open cover of $M$, then

So to say how $Imm(-,N) : \mathcal{E}^{op} \rightarrow [Spaces]$ is a homotopy sheaf, we have to give $\mathcal{E}$ a topology, which means defining a “cover”, which we do in the obvious way – a cover is a collection of morphisms $f_i : U_i \rightarrow M$ such that the union of all the images $\cup f_i(U_i)$ is just $M$. The topology where this is the definition of a cover can be called $J_1$, because it has the property that given any open cover and choice of 1 point in $M$, that point will be in some $U_i$ of the cover.

This is part of a family of topologies, where $J_k$ only allows those covers with the property that given any choice of $k$ points in $M$, some open set of the cover contains them all. These conditions, clearly, get increasingly restrictive, so we have a sequence of inclusions (a “filtration”):

$J_1 \leftarrow J_2 \leftarrow J_3 \leftarrow \dots$

Now, with respect to any given one of these topologies $J_k$, we have the usual situation relating sheaves and presheaves.  Sheaves are defined relative to a given topology (i.e. a notion of cover).  A presheaf on $\mathcal{E}$ is just a contravariant functor from $\mathcal{E}$ (in this case valued in spaces); a sheaf is one which satisfies a descent condition (I’ve discussed this before, for instance here, when I was running the Stacks Seminar at UWO).  The point of a descent condition, for a given topology is that if we can take the values of a functor $F$ “locally” – on the various objects of a cover for $M$ – and “glue” them to find the value for $M$ itself.  In particular, given a cover for $M \in \mathcal{E}$, and a cover, there’s a diagram consisting of the inclusions of all the double-overlaps of sets in the cover into the original sets.  Then the descent condition for sheaves of spaces is that

The general fact is that there’s a reflective inclusion of sheaves into presheaves (see some discussion about reflective inclusions, also in an earlier post).  Any sheaf is a contravariant functor – this is the inclusion of $Sh( \mathcal{E} )$ into $latex PSh( \mathcal{E} )$.  The reflection has a left adjoint, sheafification, which takes any presheaf in $PSh( \mathcal{E} )$ to a sheaf which is the “best approximation” to it.  It’s the fact this is an adjoint which makes the inclusion “reflective”, and provides the sense in which the sheafification is an approximation to the original functor.

The way sheafification works can be worked out from the fact that it’s an adjoint to the inclusion, but it also has a fairly concrete description.  Given any one of the topologies $J_k$,  we have a whole collection of special diagrams, such as:

$U_i \leftarrow U_{ij} \rightarrow U_j$

(using the usual notation where $U_{ij} = U_i \cap U_j$ is the intersection of two sets in a cover, and the maps here are the inclusions of that intersection).  This and the various other diagrams involving these inclusions are special, given the topology $J_k$.  The descent condition for a sheaf $F$ says that if we take the image of this diagram:

$F(U_i) \rightarrow F(U_{ij}) \leftarrow F(U_j)$

then we can “glue together” the objects $F(U_i)$ and $F(U_j)$ on the overlap to get one on the union.  That is, $F$ is a sheaf if $F(U_i \cup U_j)$ is a colimit of the diagram above (intuitively, by “gluing on the overlap”).  In a presheaf, it would come equipped with some maps into the $F(U_i)$ and $F(U_j)$: in a sheaf, this object and the maps satisfy some universal property.  Sheafification takes a presheaf $F$ to a sheaf $F^{(k)}$ which does this, essentially by taking all these colimits.  More accurately, since these sheaves are valued in spaces, what we really want are homotopy sheaves, where we can replace “colimit” with “homotopy colimit” in the above – which satisfies a universal property only up to homotopy, and which has a slightly weaker notion of “gluing”.   This (homotopy) sheaf is called $F^{(k)}$ because it depends on the topology $J_k$ which we were using to get the class of special diagrams.

One way to think about $F^{(k)}$ is that we take the restriction to manifolds which are made by pasting together at most $k$ open balls.  Then, knowing only this part of the functor $F$, we extend it back to all manifolds by a Kan extension (this is the technical sense in which it’s a “best approximation”).

Now the point of all this is that we’re building a tower of functors that are “approximately” like $F$, agreeing on ever-more-complicated manifolds, which in our motivating example is $F = Imm(-,N)$.  Whichever functor we use, we get a tower of functors connected by natural transformations:

$F^{(1)} \leftarrow F^{(2)} \leftarrow F^{(3)} \leftarrow \dots$

This happens because we had that chain of inclusions of the topologies $J_k$.  Now the idea is that if we start with a reasonably nice functor (like $F = Imm(-,N)$ for example), then $F$ is just the limit of this diagram.  That is, it’s the universal thing $F$ which has a map into each $F^{(k)}$ commuting with all these connecting maps in the tower.  The tower of approximations – along with its limit (as a diagram in the category of functors) – is what Goodwillie called the “Taylor tower” for $F$.  Then we say the functor $F$ is analytic if it’s just (up to homotopy!) the limit of this tower.

By analogy, think of an inclusion of a vector space $V$ with inner product into another such space $W$ which has higher dimension.  Then there’s an orthogonal projection onto the smaller space, which is an adjoint (as a map of inner product spaces) to the inclusion – so these are like our reflective inclusions.  So the smaller space can “reflect” the bigger one, while not being able to capture anything in the orthogonal complement.  Now suppose we have a tower of inclusions $V \leftarrow V' \leftarrow V'' \dots$, where each space is of higher dimension, such that each of the $V$ is included into $W$ in a way that agrees with their maps to each other.  Then given a vector $w \in W$, we can take a sequence of approximations $(v,v',v'',\dots)$ in the $V$ spaces.  If $w$ was “nice” to begin with, this series of approximations will eventually at least converge to it – but it may be that our tower of $V$ spaces doesn’t let us approximate every $w$ in this way.

That’s precisely what one does in calculus with Taylor series: we have a big vector space $W$ of smooth functions, and a tower of spaces we use to approximate.  These are polynomial functions of different degrees: first linear, then quadratic, and so forth.  The approximations to a function $f$ are orthogonal projections onto these smaller spaces.  The sequence of approximations, or rather its limit (as a sequence in the inner product space $W$), is just what we mean by a “Taylor series for $f$“.  If $f$ is analytic in the first place, then this sequence will converge to it.

The same sort of phenomenon is happening with the Goodwillie calculus for functors: our tower of sheafifications of some functor $F$ are just “projections” onto smaller categories (of sheaves) inside the category of all contravariant functors.  (Actually, “reflections”, via the reflective inclusions of the sheaf categories for each of the topologies $J_k$).  The Taylor Tower for this functor is just like the Taylor series approximating a function.  Indeed, this analogy is fairly close, since the topologies $J_k$ will give approximations of $F$ which are in some sense based on $k$ points (so-called $k$-excisive functors, which in our terminology here are sheaves in these topologies).  Likewise, a degree-$k$ polynomial approximation approximates a smooth function, in general in a way that can be made to agree at $k$ points.

Finally, I’ll point out that I mentioned that the Goodwillie calculus is actually more general than this, and applies not only to spaces but to spectra. The point is that the functor $Imm(-,N)$ defines a kind of generalized cohomology theory – the cohomology groups for $M$ are the $\pi_i(Imm(M,N))$. So the point is, functors satisfying the axioms of a generalized cohomology theory are represented by spectra, whereas $N$ here is a special case that happens to be a space.

Lots of geometric problems can be thought of as classified by this sort of functor – if $N = BG$, the classifying space of a group, and we drop the requirement that the map be an immersion, then we’re looking at the functor that gives the moduli space of $G$-connections on each $M$.  The point is that the Goodwillie calculus gives a sense in which we can understand such functors by simpler approximations to them.

So apparently the “Integral” gamma-ray observatory has put some pretty strong limits on predictions of a “grain size” for spacetime, like in Loop Quantum Gravity, or other theories predicting similar violations of Lorentz invariants which would be detectable in higher- and lower-energy photons coming from distant sources.  (Original paper.)  I didn’t actually hear much about such predictions when I was the conference “Quantum Theory and Gravitation” last month in Zurich, though partly that was because it was focused on bringing together people from a variety of different approaches , so the Loop QG and String Theory camps were smaller than at some other conferences on the same subject.  It was a pretty interesting conference, however (many of the slides and such material can be found here).  As one of the organizers, Jürg Fröhlich, observed in his concluding remarks, it gave grounds for optimism about physics, in that it was clear that we’re nowhere near understanding everything about the universe.  Which seems like a good attitude to have to the situation – and it informs good questions: he asked questions in many of the talks that went right to the heart of the most problematic things about each approach.

Often after attending a conference like that, I’d take the time to do a blog about all the talks – which I was tempted to do, but I’ve been busy with things I missed while I was away, and now it’s been quite a while.  I will probably come back at some point and think about the subject of conformal nets, because there were some interesting talks by Andre Henriques at one workshop I was at, and another by Roberto Longo at this one, which together got me interested in this subject.  But that’s not what I’m going to write about this time.

This time, I want to talk about a different kind of topic.  Talking  in Zurich with various people – John Barrett, John Baez, Laurent Freidel, Derek Wise, and some others, on and off – we kept coming back to kept coming back to various seemingly strange algebraic structures.  One such structure is a “loop“, also known (maybe less confusingly) as a “quasigroup” (in fact, a loop is a quasigroup with a unit).  This was especially confusing, because we were talking about these gadgets in the context of gauge theory, where you might want to think about assigning an element of one as the holonomy around a LOOP in spacetime.  Limitations of the written medium being what they are, I’ll just avoid the problem and say “quasigroup” henceforth, although actually I tend to use “loop” when I’m speaking.

The axioms for a quasigroup look just like the axioms for a group, except that the axiom of associativity is missing.  That is, it’s a set with a “multiplication” operation, and each element $x$ has a left and a right inverse, called $x^{\lambda}$ and $x^{\rho}$.  (I’m also assuming the quasigroup is unital from here on in).  Of course, in a group (which is a special kind of quasigroup where associativity holds), you can use associativity to prove that $x^{\lambda} = x^{\rho}$, but we don’t assume it’s true in a quasigroup.  Of course, you can consider the special case where it IS true: this is a “quasigroup with two-sided inverse”, which is a weaker assumption than associativity.

In fact, this is an example of a kind of question one often asks about quasigroups: what are some extra properties we can suppose which, if they hold for a quasigroup $Q$, make life easier?  Associativity is a strong condition to ask, and gives the special case of a group, which is a pretty well-understood area.  So mostly one looks for something weaker than associativity.  Probably the most well-known, among people who know about such things, is the Moufang axiom, named after Ruth Moufang, who did a lot of the pioneering work studying quasigroups.

There are several equivalent ways to state the Moufang axiom, but a nice one is:

$y(x(yz)) = ((yx)y)z$

Which you could derive from the associative law if you had it, but which doesn’t imply associativity.   With associators, one can go from a fully-right-bracketed to a fully-left-bracketed product of four things: $w(x(yz)) \rightarrow (wx)(yz) \rightarrow ((wx)y)z$.  There’s no associator here (a quasigroup is a set, not a category – though categorifying this stuff may be a nice thing to try), but the Moufang axiom says this is an equation when $w=y$.  One might think of the stronger condition that says it’s true for all $(w,x,y,z)$, but the Moufang axiom turns out to be the more handy one.

One way this is so is found in the division algebras.  A division algebra is a (say, real) vector space with a multiplication for which there’s an identity and a notion of division – that is, an inverse for nonzero elements.  We can generalize this enough that we allow different left and right inverses, but in any case, even if we relax this (and the assumption of associativity), it’s a well-known theorem that there are still only four finite dimensional ones.  Namely, they are $\mathbb{R}$, $\mathbb{C}$, $\mathbb{H}$, and $\mathbb{O}$: the real numbers, complex numbers, quaternions, and octonions, with real dimensions 1, 2, 4, and 8 respectively.

So the pattern goes like this.  The first two, $\mathbb{R}$ and $\mathbb{C}$, are commutative and associative.  The quaternions $\mathbb{H}$ are noncommutative, but still associative.  The octonions $\mathbb{O}$ are neither commutative nor associative.  They also don’t satisfy that stronger axiom $w(x(yz)) = ((wx)y)z$.  However, the octonions do satisfy the Moufang axiom.  In each case, you can get a quasigroup by taking the nonzero elements – or, using the fact that there’s a norm around in the usual way of presenting these algebras, the elements of unit norm.  The unit quaternions, in fact, form a group – specifically, the group $SU(2)$.  The unit reals and complexes form abelian groups (respectively, $\mathbb{Z}_2$, and $U(1)$).  These groups all have familiar names.  The quasigroup of unit octonions doesn’t have any other more familiar name.  If you believe in the fundamental importance of this sequence of four division algebras, though, it does suggest that a natural sequence in which to weaken axioms for “multiplication” goes: commutative-and-associative, associative, Moufang.

The Moufang axiom does imply some other commonly suggested weakenings of associativity, as well.  For instance, a quasigroup that satisfies the Moufang axiom must also be alternative (a restricted form of associativity when two copies of one element are next to each other: i.e. the left alternative law $x(xy) = (xx)y$, and right alternative law $x(yy) = (xy)y$).

Now, there are various ways one could go with this; the one I’ll pick is toward physics.  The first three entries in that sequence of four division algebras – and the corresponding groups – all show up all over the place in physics.  $\mathbb{Z}_2$ is the simplest nontrivial group, so this could hardly fail to be true, but at any rate, it appears as, for instance, the symmetry group of the set of orientations on a manifold, or the grading in supersymmetry (hence plays a role distinguishing bosons and fermions), and so on.  $U(1)$ is, among any number of other things, the group in which action functionals take their values in Lagrangian quantum mechanics; in the Hamiltonian setup, it’s the group of phases that characterizes how wave functions evolve in time.  Then there’s $SU(2)$, which is the (double cover of the) group of rotations of 3-space; as a consequence, its representation theory classifies the “spins”, or angular momenta, that a quantum particle can have.

What about the octonions – or indeed the quasigroup of unit octonions?  This is a little less clear, but I will mention this: John Baez has been interested in octonions for a long time, and in Zurich, gave a talk about what kind of role they might play in physics.  This is supposed to partially explain what’s going on with the “special dimensions” that appear in string theory – these occur where the dimension of a division algebra (and a Clifford algebra that’s associated to it) is the same as the codimension of a string worldsheet.  J.B.’s student, John Huerta, has also been interested in this stuff, and spoke about it here in Lisbon in February – it’s the subject of his thesis, and a couple of papers they’ve written.  The role of the octonions here is not nearly so well understood as elsewhere, and of course whether this stuff is actually physics, or just some interesting math that resembles it, is open to experiment – unlike those other examples, which are definitely physics if anything is!

So at this point, the foregoing sets us up to wonder about two questions.  First: are there any quasigroups that are actually of some intrinsic interest which don’t satisfy the Moufang axiom?  (This might be the next step in that sequence of successively weaker axioms).  Second: are there quasigroups that appear in genuine, experimentally tested physics?  (Supposing you don’t happen to like the example from string theory).

Well, the answer is yes on both counts, with one common example – a non-Moufang quasigroup which is of interest precisely because it has a direct physical interpretation.  This example is the composition of velocities in Special Relativity, and was pointed out to me by Derek Wise as a nice physics-based example of nonassociativity.  That it’s also non-Moufang is also true, and not too surprising once you start trying to check it by a direct calculation: in each case, the reason is that the interpretation of composition is very non-symmetric.  So how does this work?

Well, if we take units where the speed of light is 1, then Special Relativity tells us that relative velocities of two observers are vectors in the interior of $B_1(0) \subset \mathbb{R}^3$.  That is, they’re 3-vectors with length less than 1, since the magnitude of the relative velocity must be less than the speed of light.  In any elementary course on Relativity, you’d learn how to compose these velocities, using the “gamma factor” that describes such things as time-dilation.  This can be derived from first principles, nor is it too complicated, but in any case the end result is a new “addition” for vectors:

$\mathbf{v} \oplus_E \mathbf{u} = \frac{ \mathbf{v} + \mathbf{u}_{\parallel} + \alpha_{\mathbf{v}} \mathbf{u}_{\perp}}{1 + \mathbf{v} \cdot \mathbf{u}}$

where $\alpha_{\mathbf{v}} = \sqrt{1 - \mathbf{v} \cdot \mathbf{v}}$  is the reciprocal of the aforementioned “gamma” factor.  The vectors $\mathbf{u}_{\parallel}$ and $\mathbf{u}_{\perp}$ are the components of the vector $\mathbf{u}$ which are parallel to, and perpendicular to, $\mathbf{v}$, respectively.

The way this is interpreted is: if $\mathbf{v}$ is the velocity of observer B as measured by observer A, and $\mathbb{u}$ is the velocity of observer C as measured by observer B, then $\mathbf{v} \oplus_E \mathbf{u}$ is the velocity of observer C as measured by observer A.

Clearly, there’s an asymmetry in how $\mathbf{v}$ and $\mathbf{u}$ are treated: the first vector, $\mathbf{v}$, is a velocity as seen by the same observer who sees the velocity in the final answer.  The second, $\mathbf{u}$, is a velocity as seen by an observer who’s vanished by the time we have $\mathbf{v} \oplus_e \mathbf{u}$ in hand.  Just looking at the formular, you can see this is an asymmetric operation that distinguishes the left and right inputs.  So the fact (slightly onerous, but not conceptually hard, to check) that it’s noncommutative, and indeed nonassociative, and even non-Moufang, shouldn’t come as a big shock.

The fact that it makes $B_1(0)$ into a quasigroup is a little less obvious, unless you’ve actually worked through the derivation – but from physical principles, $B_1(0)$ is closed under this operation because the final relative velocity will again be less than the speed of light.  The fact that this has “division” (i.e. cancellation), is again obvious enough from physical principles: if we have $\mathbf{v} \oplus _E \mathbf{u}$, the relative velocity of A and C, and we have one of $\mathbf{v}$ or $\mathbf{u}$ – the relative velocity of B to either A or C – then the relative velocity of B to the other one of these two must exist, and be findable using this formula.  That’s the “division” here.

So in fact this non-Moufang quasigroup, exotic-sounding algebraic terminology aside, is one that any undergraduate physics student will have learned about and calculated with.

One point that Derek was making in pointing this example out to me was as a comment on a surprising claim someone (I don’t know who) had made, that mathematical abstractions like “nonassociativity” don’t really appear in physics.  I find the above a pretty convincing case that this isn’t true.

In fact, physics is full of Lie algebras, and the Lie bracket is a nonassociative multiplication (except in trivial cases).  But I guess there is an argument against this: namely, people often think of a Lie algebra as living inside its universal enveloping algebra.  Then the Lie bracket is defined as $[x,y] = xy - yx$, using the underlying (associative!) multiplication.  So maybe one can claim that nonassociativity doesn’t “really” appear in physics because you can treat it as a derived concept.

An even simpler example of this sort of phenomenon: the integers with subtraction (rather than addition) are nonassociative, in that $x-(y-z) \neq (x-y)-z$.  But this only suggests that subtraction is the wrong operation to use: it was derived from addition, which of course is commutative and associative.

In which case, the addition of velocities in relativity is also a derived concept.  Because, of course, really in SR there are no 3-space “velocities”: there are tangent vectors in Minkowski space, which is a 4-dimensional space.  Adding these vectors in $\mathbb{R}^4$ is again, of course, commutative and associative.  The concept of “relative velocity” of two observers travelling along given vectors is a derived concept which gets its strange properties by treating the two arguments asymmetrically, just like like “commutator” and “subtraction” do: you first use one vector to decide on a way of slicing Minkowski spacetime into space and time, and then use this to measure the velocity of the other.

Even the octonions, seemingly the obvious “true” example of nonassociativity, could be brushed aside by someone who really didn’t want to accept any example: they’re constructed from the quaternions by the Cayley-Dickson construction, so you can think of them as pairs of quaternions (or 4-tuples of complex numbers).  Then the nonassociative operation is built from associative ones, via that construction.

So are there any “real” examples of “true” nonassociativity (let alone non-Moufangness) that can’t simply be dismissed as not a fundamental operation by someone sufficiently determined?  Maybe, but none I know of right now.  It may be quite possible to consistently hold that anything nonassociative can’t possibly be fundamental (for that matter, elements of noncommutative groups can be represented by matrices of commuting real numbers).  Maybe it’s just my attitude to fundamentals, but somehow this doesn’t move me much.  Even if there are no “fundamentals” examples, I think those given above suggest a different point: these derived operations have undeniable and genuine meaning – in some cases more immediate than the operations they’re derived from.  Whether or not subtraction, or the relative velocity measured by observers, or the bracket of (say) infinitesimal rotations, are “fundamental” ideas is less important than that they’re practical ones that come up all the time.

So Dan Christensen, who used to be my supervisor while I was a postdoc at the University of Western Ontario, came to Lisbon last week and gave a talk about a topic I remember hearing about while I was there.  This is the category $Diff$ of diffeological spaces as a setting for homotopy theory.  Just to make things scan more nicely, I’m going to say “smooth space” for “diffeological space” here, although this term is in fact ambiguous (see Andrew Stacey’s “Comparative Smootheology” for lots of details about options).  There’s a lot of information about $Diff$ in Patrick Iglesias-Zimmour’s draft-of-a-book.

Motivation

The point of the category $Diff$, initially, is that it extends the category of manifolds while having some nicer properties.  Thus, while all manifolds are smooth spaces, there are others, which allow $Diff$ to be closed under various operations.  These would include taking limits and colimits: for instance, any subset of a smooth space becomes a smooth space, and any quotient of a smooth space by an equivalence relation is a smooth space.  Then too, $Diff$ has exponentials (that is, if $A$ and $B$ are smooth spaces, so is $A^B = Hom(B,A)$).

So, for instance, this is a good context for constructing loop spaces: a manifold $M$ is a smooth space, and so is its loop space $LM = M^{S^1} = Hom(S^1,M)$, the space of all maps of the circle into $M$.  This becomes important for talking about things like higher cohomology, gerbes, etc.  When starting with the category of manifolds, doing this requires you to go off and define infinite dimensional manifolds before $LM$ can even be defined.  Likewise, the irrational torus is hard to talk about as a manifold: you take a torus, thought of as $\mathbb{R}^2 / \mathbb{Z}^2$.  Then take a direction in $\mathbb{R}^2$ with irrational slope, and identify any two points which are translates of each other in $\mathbb{R}^2$ along the direction of this line.  The orbit of any point is then dense in the torus, so this is a very nasty space, certainly not a manifold.  But it’s a perfectly good smooth space.

Well, these examples motivate the kinds of things these nice categorical properties allow us to do, but $Diff$ wouldn’t deserve to be called a category of “smooth spaces” (Souriau’s original name for them) if they didn’t allow a notion of smooth maps, which is the basis for most of what we do with manifolds: smooth paths, derivatives of curves, vector fields, differential forms, smooth cohomology, smooth bundles, and the rest of the apparatus of differential geometry.  As with manifolds, this notion of smooth map ought to get along with the usual notion for $\mathbb{R}^n$ in some sense.

Smooth Spaces

Thus, a smooth (i.e. diffeological) space consists of:

• A set $X$ (of “points”)
• A set $\{ f : U \rightarrow X \}$ (of “plots”) for every n and open $U \subset \mathbb{R}^n$ such that:
1. All constant maps are plots
2. If $f: U \rightarrow X$ is a plot, and $g : V \rightarrow U$ is a smooth map, $f \circ g : V \rightarrow X$ is a plot
3. If $\{ g_i : U_i \rightarrow U\}$ is an open cover of $U$, and $f : U \rightarrow X$ is a map, whose restrictions $f \circ g_i : U_i \rightarrow X$ are all plots, so is $f$

A smooth map between smooth spaces is one that gets along with all this structure (i.e. the composite with every plot is also a plot).

These conditions mean that smooth maps agree with the usual notion in $\mathbb{R}^n$, and we can glue together smooth spaces to produce new ones.  A manifold becomes a smooth space by taking all the usual smooth maps to be plots: it’s a full subcategory (we introduce new objects which aren’t manifolds, but no new morphisms between manifolds).  A choice of a set of plots for some space $X$ is a “diffeology”: there can, of course, be many different diffeologies on a given space.

So, in particular, diffeologies can encode a little more than the charts of a manifold.  Just for one example, a diffeology can have “stop signs”, as Dan put it – points with the property that any smooth map from $I= [0,1]$ which passes through them must stop at that point (have derivative zero – or higher derivatives, if you like).  Along the same lines, there’s a nonstandard diffeology on $I$ itself with the property that any smooth map from this $I$ into a manifold $M$ must have all derivatives zero at the endpoints.  This is a better object for defining smooth fundamental groups: you can concatenate these paths at will and they’re guaranteed to be smooth.

As a Quasitopos

An important fact about these smooth spaces is that they are concrete sheaves (i.e. sheaves with underlying sets) on the concrete site (i.e. a Grothendieck site where objects have underlying sets) whose objects are the $U \subset \mathbb{R}^n$.  This implies many nice things about the category $Diff$.  One is that it’s a quasitopos.  This is almost the same as a topos (in particular, it has limits, colimits, etc. as described above), but where a topos has a “subobject classifier”, a quasitopos has a weak subobject classifier (which, perhaps confusingly, is “weak” because it only classifies the strong subobjects).

So remember that a subobject classifier is an object with a map $t : 1 \rightarrow \Omega$ from the terminal object, so that any monomorphism (subobject) $A \rightarrow X$ is the pullback of $t$ along some map $X \rightarrow \Omega$ (the classifying map).  In the topos of sets, this is just the inclusion of a one-element set $\{\star\}$ into a two-element set $\{T,F\}$: the classifying map for a subset $A \subset X$ sends everything in $A$ (i.e. in the image of the inclusion map) to $T = Im(t)$, and everything else to $F$.  (That is, it’s the characteristic function.)  So pulling back $T$

Any topos has one of these – in particular the topos of sheaves on the diffeological site has one.  But $Diff$ consists of the concrete sheaves, not all sheaves.  The subobject classifier of the topos won’t be concrete – but it does have a “concretification”, which turns out to be the weak subobject classifier.  The subobjects of a smooth space $X$ which it classifies (i.e. for which there’s a classifying map as above) are exactly the subsets $A \subset X$ equipped with the subspace diffeology.  (Which is defined in the obvious way: the plots are the plots of $X$ which land in $A$).

We’ll come back to this quasitopos shortly.  The main point is that Dan and his graduate student, Enxin Wu, have been trying to define a different kind of structure on $Diff$.  We know it’s good for doing differential geometry.  The hope is that it’s also good for doing homotopy theory.

As a Model Category

The basic idea here is pretty well supported: naively, one can do a lot of the things done in homotopy theory in $Diff$: to start with, one can define the “smooth homotopy groups” $\pi_n^s(X;x_0)$ of a pointed space.  It’s a theorem by Dan and Enxin that several possible ways of doing this are equivalent.  But, for example, Iglesias-Zimmour defines them inductively, so that $\pi_0^s(X)$ is the set of path-components of $X$, and $\pi_k^s(X) = \pi_{k-1}^s(LX)$ is defined recursively using loop spaces, mentioned above.  The point is that this all works in $Diff$ much as for topological spaces.

In particular, there are analogs for the $\pi_k^s$ for standard theorems like the long exact sequence of homotopy groups for a bundle.  Of course, you have to define “bundle” in $Diff$ – it’s a smooth surjective map $X \rightarrow Y$, but saying a diffeological bundle is “locally trivial” doesn’t mean “over open neighborhoods”, but “under pullback along any plot”.  (Either of these converts a bundle over a whole space into a bundle over part of $\mathbb{R}^n$, where things are easy to define).

Less naively, the kind of category where homotopy theory works is a model category (see also here).  So the project Dan and Enxin have been working on is to give $Diff$ this sort of structure.  While there are technicalities behind those links, the essential point is that this means you have a closed category (i.e. with all limits and colimits, which $Diff$ does), on which you’ve defined three classes of morphisms: fibrations, cofibrations, and weak equivalences.  These are supposed to abstract the properties of maps in the homotopy theory of topological spaces – in that case weak equivalences being maps that induce isomorphisms of homotopy groups, the other two being defined by having some lifting properties (i.e. you can lift a homotopy, such as a path, along a fibration).

So to abstract the situation in $Top$, these classes have to satisfy some axioms (including an abstract form of the lifting properties).  There are slightly different formulations, but for instance, the “2 of 3″ axiom says that if two of $f$, latex $g$ and $f \circ g$ are weak equivalences, so is the third.  Or, again, there should be a factorization for any morphism into a fibration and an acyclic cofibration (i.e. one which is also a weak equivalence), and also vice versa (that is, moving the adjective “acyclic” to the fibration).  Defining some classes of maps isn’t hard, but it tends to be that proving they satisfy all the axioms IS hard.

Supposing you could do it, though, you have things like the homotopy category (where you formally allow all weak equivalences to have inverses), derived functors(which come from a situation where homotopy theory is “modelled” by categories of chain complexes), and various other fairly powerful tools.  Doing this in $Diff$ would make it possible to use these things in a setting that supports differential geometry.  In particular, you’d have a lot of high-powered machinery that you could apply to prove things about manifolds, even though it doesn’t work in the category $Man$ itself – only in the larger setting $Diff$.

Dan and Enxin are still working on nailing down some of the proofs, but it appears to be working.  Their strategy is based on the principle that, for purposes of homotopy, topological spaces act like simplicial complexes.  So they define an affine “simplex”, $\mathbb{A}^n = \{ (x_0, x_1, \dots, x_n) \in \mathbb{R}^{n+1} | \sum x_i = 1 \}$.  These aren’t literally simplexes: they’re affine planes, which we understand as smooth spaces – with the subspace diffeology from $\mathbb{R}^{n+1}$.  But they behave like simplexes: there are face and degeneracy maps for them, and the like.  They form a “cosimplicial object”, which we can think of as a functor $\Delta \rightarrow Diff$, where $\Delta$ is the simplex category).

Then the point is one can look at, for a smooth space $X$, the smooth singular simplicial set $S(X)$: it’s a simplicial set where the sets are sets of smooth maps from the affine simplex into $X$.  Likewise, for a simplicial set $S$, there’s a smooth space, the “geometric realization” $|S|$.  These give two functors $|\cdot |$ and $S$, which are adjoints ($| \cdot |$ is the left adjoint).  And then, weak equivalences and fibrations being defined in simplicial sets (w.e. are homotopy equivalences of the realization in $Top$, and fibrations are “Kan fibrations”), you can just pull the definition back to $Diff$: a smooth map is a w.e. if its image under $S$ is one.  The cofibrations get indirectly defined via the lifting properties they need to have relative to the other two classes.

So it’s still not completely settled that this definition actually gives a model category structure, but it’s pretty close.  Certainly, some things are known.  For instance, Enxin Wu showed that if you have a fibrant object $X$ (i.e. one where the unique map to the terminal object is a fibration – these are generally the “good” objects to define homotopy groups on), then the smooth homotopy groups agree with the simplicial ones for $S(X)$.  This implies that for these objects, the weak equivalences are exactly the smooth maps that give isomorphisms for homotopy groups.  And so forth.  But notice that even some fairly nice objects aren’t fibrant: two lines glued together at a point isn’t, for instance.

There are various further results.  One, a consquences of a result Enxin proved, is that all manifolds are fibrant objects, where these nice properties apply.  It’s interesting that this comes from the fact that, in $Diff$, every (connected) manifold is a homogeneous space.  These are quotients of smooth groups, $G/H$ – the space is a space of cosets, and $H$ is understood to be the stabilizer of the point.  Usually one thinks of homogenous spaces as fairly rigid things: the Euclidean plane, say, where $G$ is the whole Euclidean group, and $H$ the rotations; or a sphere, where $G$ is all n-dimensional rotations, and $H$ the ones that fix some point on the sphere.  (Actually, this gives a projective plane, since opposite points on the sphere get identified.  But you get the idea).  But that’s for Lie groups.  The point is that $G = Diff(M,M)$, the space of diffeomorphisms from $M$ to itself, is a perfectly good smooth group.  Then the subgroup $H$ of diffeomorphisms that fix any point is a fine smooth subgroup, and $G/H$ is a homogeneous space in $Diff$.  But that’s just $M$, with $G$ acting transitively on it – any point can be taken anywhere on $M$.

Cohesive Infinity-Toposes

One further thing I’d mention here is related to a related but more abstract approach to the question of how to incorporate homotopy-theoretic tools with a setting that supports differential geometry.  This is the notion of a cohesive topos, and more generally of a cohesive infinity-topos.  Urs Schreiber has advocated for this approach, for instance.  It doesn’t really conflict with the kind of thing Dan was talking about, but it gives a setting for it with lot of abstract machinery.  I won’t try to explain the details (which anyway I’m not familiar with), but just enough to suggest how the two seem to me to fit together, after discussing it a bit with Dan.

The idea of a cohesive topos seems to start with Bill Lawvere, and it’s supposed to characterize something about those categories which are really “categories of spaces” the way $Top$ is.  Intuitively, spaces consist of “points”, which are held together in lumps we could call “pieces”.  Hence “cohesion”: the points of a typical space cohere together, rather than being a dust of separate elements.  When that happens, in a discrete space, we just say that each piece happens to have just one point in it – but a priori we distinguish the two ideas.  So we might normally say that $Top$ has an “underlying set” functor $U : Top \rightarrow Set$, and its left adjoint, the “discrete space” functor $Disc: Set \rightarrow Top$ (left adjoint since set maps from $S$ are the same as continuous maps from $Disc(S)$ – it’s easy for maps out of $Disc(S)$ to be continuous, since every subset is open).

In fact, any topos of sheaves on some site has a pair of functors like this (where $U$ becomes $\Gamma$, the “set of global sections” functor), essentially because $Set$ is the topos of sheaves on a single point, and there’s a terminal map from any site into the point.  So this adjoint pair is the “terminal geometric morphism” into $Set$.

But this omits there are a couple of other things that apply to $Top$: $U$ has a right adjoint, $Codisc: Set \rightarrow Top$, where $Codisc(S)$ has only $S$ and $\emptyset$ as its open sets.  In $Codisc(S)$, all the points are “stuck together” in one piece.  On the other hand, $Disc$ itself has a left adjoint, $\Pi_0: Top \rightarrow Set$, which gives the set of connected components of a space.  $\Pi_0(X)$ is another kind of “underlying set” of a space.  So we call a topos $\mathcal{E}$ “cohesive” when the terminal geometric morphism extends to a chain of four adjoint functors in just this way, which satisfy a few properties that characterize what’s happening here.  (We can talk about “cohesive sites”, where this happens.)

Now $Diff$ isn’t exactly a category of sheaves on a site: it’s the category of concrete sheaves on a (concrete) site.  There is a cohesive topos of all sheaves on the diffeological site.  (What’s more, it’s known to have a model category structure).  But now, it’s a fact that any cohesive topos $\mathcal{E}$ has a subcategory of concrete objects (ones where the canonical unit map $X \rightarrow Codisc(\Gamma(X))$ is mono: roughly, we can characterize the morphisms of $X$ by what they do to its points).  This category is always a quasitopos (and it’s a reflective subcategory of $\mathcal{E}$: see the previous post for some comments about reflective subcategories if interested…)  This is where $Diff$ fits in here.  Diffeologies define a “cohesion” just as topologies do: points are in the same “piece” if there’s some plot from a connected part of $\mathbb{R}^n$ that lands on both.  Why is $Diff$ only a quasitopos?  Because in general, the subobject classifier in $\mathcal{E}$ isn’t concrete – but it will have a “concretification”, which is the weak subobject classifier I mentioned above.

Where the “infinity” part of “infinity-topos” comes in is the connection to homotopy theory.  Here, we replace the topos $Sets$ with the infinity-topos of infinity-groupoids.  Then the “underlying” functor captures not just the set of points of a space $X$, but its whole fundamental infinity-groupoid.  Its objects are points of $X$, its morphisms are paths, 2-morphisms are homotopies of paths, and so on.  All the homotopy groups of $X$ live here.  So a cohesive inifinity-topos is defined much like above, but with $\infty-Gpd$ playing the role of $Set$, and with that $\Pi_0$ functor replaced by $\Pi$, something which, implicitly, gives all the homotopy groups of $X$.  We might look for cohesive infinity-toposes to be given by the (infinity)-categories of simplicial sheaves on cohesive sites.

This raises a point Dan made in his talk over the diffeological site $D$, we can talk about a cube of different structures that live over it, starting with presheaves: $PSh(D)$.  We can add different modifiers to this: the sheaf condition; the adjective “concrete”; the adjective “simplicial”.  Various combinations of these adjectives (e.g. simplicial presheaves) are known to have a model structure.  $Diff$ is the case where we have concrete sheaves on $D$.  So far, it hasn’t been proved, but it looks like it shortly will be, that this has a model structure.  This is a particularly nice one, because these things really do seem a lot like spaces: they’re just sets with some easy-to-define and well-behaved (that’s what the sheaf condition does) structure on them, and they include all the examples a differential geometer requires, the manifolds.