So I’ve posted some slides from my talk at Groupoidfest. I also gave this talk here at Western in the Algebra seminar on Wednesday. It seemed to go over fairly well, although it was a bit of an outlier for the conference. However, I’m getting used to that consequence of trying to talk to both physicists and mathematicians. Anyway, after I got back from GFest (as they call it), it took me a few days to get caught up on lecturing and grading and so forth, but here are some slightly belated comments on what went on there. A lot of the content of the talks went over my head, as happens. However, at lunch of the first day, Arlan Ramsay gave me and a couple other beginning researchers some good advice about learning at conferences where you only grasp about 10% of what’s going on: be like a baby learning to walk. Don’t be afraid of looking stupid – just grab the 10% you understand, and then do it again. (Since I spent part the weekend watching a baby learn to walk, this was quite apropos).

So this I’ll comment a bit on some of the general themes I did manage to pick up, and in a subsequent post I may say more about some of the talks that seemed particularly relevant and/or comprehensible to me.GFest was held at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City – by happenstance, a friend from UCR, Erin Pearse, recently started there as a VIGRE postdoc, so I managed to stay with him and his family while I was in town, which was good. I was a little surprised at first that he was interested in sitting in on the talks at the conference, since his research is mostly in fractal geometry, and I didn’t initally see the relevance. However, I guess it shouldn’t have been too surprising, since part of the great thing about groupoids is their ability to represent symmetry. The kinds of fractals in question are the self-similar kind, which have various interesting types of symmetry.

In particular, Erin explained to me that the connection has something to do with shift operators. These operators, which shift a sequence of numbers and insert a new value in it, can be used iteratively to build up, for instance, the Cantor set. (Which is a set of sequences of 0’s and 2’s in ternary notation – the shift operators take you from a point in the whole set, to a point in one of its pieces, which resemble the whole.)

This was one reflection of a more general theme: since there’s a Hilbert space of sequences, namely l^2, the shift operators can be taken as operators on a Hilbert space. So in particular, they generate an algebra of operators – a C^*-algebra (see also some notes). The general theme is that most of the people at the GFest were interested in groupoids as a way of saying something about C^*-algebras. I probably heard this term bandied about more than the actual term “groupoid” while I was there.

One reason my point of view was an outlier is that I was talking about finite, topologically discrete groupoids. However, this is kind of beside the point, since I’m really more interested in ones that come from Lie groups, and have some interesting topology. But I avoid getting into that so far because I’ve been postponing extending this stuff to smooth groupoids, since that leads to infinite-dimensional 2-Hilbert spaces, and gets more complicated than what I’ve been talking about so far. The theory of these does exist – Crane and Yetter develop a lot of the theory needed under the aegis of “measurable categories” – but it involves a lot more analysis.

In fact, while I’m used to thinking of groupoids as a special kind of category, a lot of the talk about them at GFest emphasized exactly this analysis a lot more. It seems to be bread-and-butter for people who work with groupoids arising in C^*-algebras. Paul Muhly, who organized the conference, kindly gave me the current working draft of a book he’s writing on this stuff, where a lot of the important ideas people were using are collected together and explained. (Note that I’ve only started reading it, so I may be mistaking things here).

One point seems to be that these algebras coming from groupoids are related to the C^*-algebras coming from transformation groups: situations where a (locally compact topological) group G acts on a (locally compact Hausdorff) space X. These can automatically be thought of as groupoids, taking objects to be points in the space, and morphisms from x \in X to y \in X to be group elements whose action takes x to y. Now as for C^*-algebras, you can build them by taking algebras C_c(X \times G) of compactly supported complex functions on X. This becomes an algebra with the convolution product, given by integrating over the group (so we’re assuming G has a nice invariant measure like Haar measure on a Lie group):

f \star g (x,t) = \int_G f(x,s)g(xs,s^{-1}t) ds

and the “star” operation is just complex conjugation.

You can do something similar for groupoids generally, since groupoids decompose into isomorphism classes, each of which looks just like a set with the action of some particular group on it. For this to really make sense, you must be talking about topological groupoids. Here, they think of groupoids as a set G of all morphisms, with G^{(2)} \subset G \times G being the set of composable pairs. Given a topology on G, this G^{(2)} gets the subspace topology on the product. This is making use of the fact that objects of the groupoid needn’t be defined separately – they correspond to the “identity” morphisms x (with x = x^{-1} = x^2), which again gets the subspace topology automatically (which makes source and target maps continuous).

Then we’d like to again define a C^*-algebra on G using something like the above definition. But then we need to define a convolution product, and for that, we needed a Haar measure on the group. Fortunately, for topologically reasonable groups, you’re guaranteed to have one, and it’s unique (maybe up to a scalar multiple); unfortunately, you don’t have either existence or uniqueness guaranteed for groupoids. So instead you need to have a Haar system.

This is a family of measures on G (the set of all morphisms), one for each object: \{ \lambda^{u} \}, which we’ll use to do convolution at the x \in X which correspond to the object u. The measure \lambda^{u} is supported on the component of the object u. The whole system needs to have some nice properties. One is that for any function f, the function taking u to the integral of f with respect to \lambda^{u} should be in C_c(G)9. The other is that \lambda is equivariant, in the sense that if x : u \rightarrow v,

\int f(xy) d \lambda^{u}(y) = \int f(y) d \lambda^{v}(y)

(shifting which measure we use by x is the same as shifting the function by x).

This is a bit obscure to me at the moment, but it’s clear enough that you need some family of measures to define a convolution. The first property just ensures that the algebra is closed under this product. The second is just the kind of property you should expect from groupoids: if you’ve defined something that’s not equivariant, you’re just asking for aggravation. So then finally, making a bunch of assumptions, such as that G is locally compact, Hausdorff, and so on, we get C_c(G), the set of smooth, compactly supported complex functions with a convolution product:

f \star g (y) = \int f(yx)g(x^{-1})d \lambda^{s(y)}(x)

(where s(y) is the source object of the morphism y). The star operation is still complex conjugation.

So, while I’m running a bit long here, this is the basic setup behind most of what people were talking about at Groupoidfest. Either studying these C*-algebras in their own right, or using groupoids to think of already existing algebras as coming from this setup for some groupoid G. The point, I suppose, is that representations of these algebras, and of the groupoids they come from, are closely related, just as representations of groups and their group algebras are.

This subject – representations of groupoids, is exactly what my talk was about, except that I ignored all the topology to simplify certain things. Right after my talk, Marius Ionescu gave one about irreducible representations of groupoid C^*-algebras, which I’m trying to get up to speed on to see how these things are done in the case with more interesting topology. (For my purposes, it’ll also be necessary to understand infinite-dimensional 2-Hilbert spaces better, but that’s another story…) Maybe when I see what that’s about, I’ll say something further on that subject.

There were a number of other good talks – perhaps soon I’ll see if I can summarize what I gathered from some of them.