First, the obligatory excuse found in most sporadic blogs: I haven’t taken the time to write anything here recently. I was busy for a while, between the trip to UC Davis to speak (giving a form of this talk) at the “Strings and Gravity” seminar there, and then catching up on teaching – the end of the term is coming up. There: now that’s out of the way.

Right now I want to say something a bit broader than I have been doing – somewhere between “intuitive justification” and “philosophy”. The motivation is that whenever I talk about ETQFT’s and how to see them as introducing matter into quantum gravity, there’s always some puzzlement about this “categorification” business. To people who think a lot about category theory, it may seem natural, but many of those interested in physical questions don’t fall in this category, and the whole idea of “categorifying” a theory seems like a weird, arbitrary imposition.

So talking to these different audiences has forced me to think about how to give an intuitive account of why this might be a good idea. Ideally this will not be so precise as to be incomprehensible, or so vague as to be useless. In reality, this will be at best a rough sketch of such a justification.

Stuff, Structure, and Properties

One aspect of the relationship which I wanted to comment on, one that almost seems like a pun, is the trichotomy which John Baez and Jim Dolan like to use in describing mathematical, um, widgets (I would use the more standard term “objects”, or maybe “structures”, but both of these words have technical meanings in the following) in categorical terms. This is the distinction between “stuff”, “structure”, and “properties”. (More details here and via subsequent links – some of which shows up in my first paper). Almost any usual mathematical widget can be broken down this way: (1) they consist of some “stuff”, often in the form of some sets; (2) the stuff is equipped with “structure”, often described by some functions; (3) the structure satisfies some “properties”, often expressed as equations.

For example: a group is (1) a set G of elements, equipped with (2) a group operation (expressed as a function m : G \times G \rightarrow G), and a special identity element (picked out by a function from the one-element set, 1 : \star \rightarrow G), and an inverse for each element (given by an inverse function inv : G \rightarrow G. These satisfy (3) the group axioms, which are some equations involving expressing some properties – associativity, the properties of 1 and inverses.

In this case, the structure live inside the category of sets and functions – but similar things could be said in any other category. For instance, in the category of topological spaces and continuous functions, the same setup gives the definition of a topological group, likewise divided into “stuff” (objects, in this case topological spaces), “structure” (some morphisms), and “properties” (equations between morphisms).

Widgets which live in an n-category of some kind have more of these layers – such a widget will be specified by one or more objects, equipped with specified morphisms and 2-morphisms, satisfying some equations. A monoidal category, for instance, is this kind of widget: it has a category worth of “elements”, equipped with a monoidal operation given as a functor, equipped in turn with specified 2-isomorphisms such as the “associator”, which satisfies some equations such as the Pentagon identity. There are now FOUR levels to specify. I think it was Jim Dolan who came up with the following way of extending the “stuff/structure/properties” terminology (his explanation).

The highest level – equations – always deserves the name “properties”, since they either hold, or don’t (at least, there’s a truth value associated to them – but let’s not worry about multiple-valued logics). By analogy, this suggests the data for our widget given by the n-morphisms in the n-category where it lives should be called “structure”. The (n-1)-morphisms (which are the objects in a 1-category) should be called “stuff”.

For the (n-2), (n-3), and generally k-morphisms, Jim introduces the prefix “eka”, as in “eka-stuff”, which follows Mendeleev’s nomenclature for elements predicted by his form of the periodic table of elements which were heavier than known ones. This nomenclature in turn comes from the Sanskrit “eka”, meaning “one” – the new elements were one level lower on the periodic table.

So specifying a widget in a 2-category involves “eka-stuff/stuff/structure/properties”. This is suggestive, in that it seems as if categorification – adding a new level – is like digging out a new sub-basement beneath a house. First “eka-stuff”, then “eka-eka-stuff”, and so on, to “ekak-stuff”. Since, in many versions of n-category, given two objects x and y, the totality of morphisms hom(x,y) form an (n-1)-category, this is somewhat correct: there is an (n-1)-categorical structure describing each hom(x,y).

(The periodic-table analogy, I suppose, is meant to imply that the best-understood layer is the layer of equations – which describe properties. This opposes what is probably the more common intuition people have when first encountering higher categories, that we know what “objects” are, but find “higher morphisms” confusing. But when writing things concretely, it’s the highest-level morphisms which look most familiar, like functions.)

A key point here is that “stuff having structure satisfying properties” is a fairly intuitive framework for talking about things. Categorification gives us a more nuanced layering. It may seem odd to speak of “eka-stuff equipped with stuff equipped with structure satisfying properties” (even worse if you want to be consistent, and say “equipped with” instead of “satisfying”). But now the second layer – stuff, refers to 1-morphisms. Here is a layer which has some aspects we associate with “structure”: it describes relations between the eka-stuff (objects). On the other hand, it also has aspects we associate with “stuff” (it can be equipped with its own structure). When would one want something that is on the one hand something like a relational attribute between things (structure), and on the other hand something like an object in its own right (stuff).

One answer: to describe space. As a good Leibnizian, I prefer to think of space relationally: it describes how objects are situated in terms of structural relationships. On the other hand, General Relativity tells us that if we think about space, rather than spacetime, we need to describe it as having dynamics which satisfy some property. From this point of view, space is like material stuff that changes over time, according to some differential equation (classically, at least).

Matter = Stuff?

Now, part of the point of applying extended TQFT ideas to gravity is that the categorification introduces matter into the formerly empty background of topological gravity – in particular, the state of a bit matter is described by looking at the boundary conditions on a codimension-2 surface in spacetime (or codimension-1 surface in space) surrounding it. The “pun” I alluded to above is the idea that introducing matter amounts to introducing a new layer of “stuff”. Adding matter means adding “stuff”…

The pun isn’t quite dead on, however, because in the ETQFT setup, adding matter is actually adding “eka-stuff”: digging out a sub-basement on which the “stuff” of geometrized space and its dynamics can rest.

So how does the periodic table of stuff/structure/properties relate to an extended TQFT? To start with, consider the case of an ordinary TQFT in 2 dimensions. It’s well known that such TQFT’s correspond to commutative Frobenius algebras (though see e.g. this paper by Aaron Lauda and Hendryk Pfeiffer, where they explain this, and a generalization of it). That is, a TQFT defines an object with (1) Stuff: a vector space, equipped with (2) Structure: unit, counit, multiplication, and comultiplication maps, satisfying (3) Properties: a bunch of axioms, including the Frobenius relation, commutativity, and algebra axioms like associativity.

The key thing is that this correspondence comes from the fact that a 2D TQFT is a functor into \mathbf{Vect} from the category \mathbf{2Cob}, which happens to be a symmetric monoidal category freely generated by one object (the circle), and some morphisms (corresponding to four cobordisms: the cap, cup, “pair of pants”, and “inverted pair of pants”), subject to just the topological relations making the circle with these maps into a “Frobenius object”. (Since the cobordisms are only defined up to diffeomorphism).

Then any actual “physical” setting will look like: a bunch of circles, say n of them, connected to another bunch of circles, say m of them, by some cobordism. We could call this a “string world sheet” (although not in the sense of string theory, exactly, since over there one typically has conformal structure on the cobordisms too, and talks about a CFT, not a TQFT, living on the sheet). In general, the cobordism will be an n+m-punctured, genus-g torus (with orientations that distinguish the n inputs from the m outputs). So if the dynamics of the “physical” world are described by a TQFT corresponding to Frobenius algebra F, this topology will mean the space of states of the world is given by F^{\otimes n} at the beginning and F^{\otimes m} at the end (this is “stuff”). A state evolves through “time” by the morphism (“structure”) corresponding to the cobordism C – a particular combination of multiplication and comultiplication maps for the

In a theory of gravity without matter, we can see three levels as well – “slices” of space with some geometric information, connected by spacetimes with geometric information, which satisfy some equations. In particular, the geometric information on spacetime has to satisfy Einstein’s equation, if we’re talking about the classical world, or some sort of Hamiltonian constraint in (some approaches to) quantum gravity. In any case, it must have some property to be admissible. So this suggests the classifications: “space geometry” – stuff; “spacetime geometry” – structure; “dynamical laws” – properties.

Categorification suggests adding to this list: “matter/boundary conditions” – eka-stuff. That is, the eka-stuff in a specific physical setting will be a “2-space of states” for matter as measured at a particular boundary. In a 3D ETQFT, for instance, the boundaries to space will be unions of circles (just as in a 2D TQFT), so this will be generated by a 2-space of states for a circle. The circle could be thought of as the boundary around a single excised particle, but in fact that only covers the irreducible 2-states: in general, it’s a boundary around some region containing a system. Space geometry relates such boundaries to each other: it is “stuff” relating the “eka-stuff”. That stuff (space geometry), in turn, can be equipped with structure – maps associated to a spacetime topology, which describe how it evolves in “time” (though a-priori there’s no special time direction – the “stuff” could equally well describe the world-sheet of the system boundary, and the structure describing how that evolution extends outward spatially).

It seems to me there’s a lot here, but to really say it properly would require being much more technically precise than I’m up to at the moment. So that’s about all I have to say about that.

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