So as I mentioned in my previous post, I attended 80% of the conference “Categories, Quanta, Concepts”, hosted by the Perimeter Institute.  Videos of many of the talks are online, but on the assumption that not everyone will watch them all, I’ll comment anyway… 😉

It dealt with various takes on the uses of category theory in fundamental physics, and quantum physics particularly. One basic theme is that the language of categories can organize and clarify the concepts that show up here. Since there doesn’t seem to be a really universal agreement on what “fundamental” physics is, or what the concepts involved might be, this is probably a good thing.

There were a lot of talks, so I’ll split this into a couple of posts – this first one dealing with two obvious category-related themes – monoidal categories and toposes.  The next post will cover most of the others – roughly, focused on fundamentals of quantum mechanics, and on categories for logic and language.

Monoidal Categories

So a large contingent came from Oxford’s Comlab, many of them looking at ideas that I first saw popularized by Abramsky and Coecke about describing the features of quantum mechanics that appear in any dagger-compact category. This yields a “string diagram” notation for quantum systems. (An explanation of this system is given by Abramsky and Coecke – – or more concisely by Coecke –

Samson Abramsky talked about diagonal arguments. This is a broad class of arguments including Cantor’s theorem (that the real line is uncountable), Russell’s paradox in set theory (about the “set” of non-self-membered sets), Godel’s incompleteness theorem, and others. Abramsky’s talk was based on Bill Lawvere’s analysis of these arguments in general cartesian closed categories (CCC’s). The relevance to quantum theory has to do with “no-cloning” theorems – that quantum states can’t be duplicated. Diagonal arguments involve two capabilitiess: the ability to duplicate objects, and the ability to represent predicates (think of Godel numbering, for instance) which is related to a fixed point property. Generalizing to other monoidal categories, one still has representability: linear functionals on Hilbert spaces can be represented by vectors. But diagonal arguments fail since there is no diagonal \Delta : H \rightarrow H \otimes H.

Bob Coecke and Ross Duncan both spoke about “complementary observables”. Part of this comes from their notion of an “observable structure”, or “classical structure” for a quantum system. The intuition here is that this is some collection of observables which we can simultaneously observe, and such that, if we restrict to those observables, and states which are eigenstates for them, we can treat the whole system as if it were classical. In particular, this gives us “copy” and “destroy” operations for states – these maps and their duals actually turn out to define a Frobenius algebra. In finite-dimensional Hilbert spaces, this is equivalent to choosing an orthonormal basis.

Complementary observables is related to the concept of mutually unbiased bases. So the bases \{v_i\} and \{w_j\} are unbiased if all the inner products \langle v_i , w_j \rangle have the same magnitude. If these bases are associated to observables (say, they form a basis of eigenvectors), then knowing a classical value of one observable gives no information about the other – all eigenstates are equally likely. For a visual image, think of two sets of bases for the plane, rotated 45 degrees relative to each other. Each basis vector in one has a projection of equal length onto both basis vectors of the other.

Thinking of the orthonormal bases as “observable structures”, the mutually unbiased ones correspond to “complementary” observables: a state which is classical for one observable (i.e. is an eigenstate for that operator) is unbiased (i.e. has equal probablities of having any value) for the other observable. Labelling the different structures with colours (red and green, usually), they could diagrammatically represent states being classical or unbiased in particular systems.

This is where “phase groups” come into play. The setup is that we’re given some system – the toy model they often referred to was a spinning particle in 3D – and an observable system (say, just containing the observable “spin in the X direction”). Then there’s a group of symmetries of the system which leave that observable untouched (in that example, the symmetries are rotation about the X axis). This is the “phase group” for that observable.

Bill Edwards talked about phase groups and how they can be used to classify systems. He gave an example of a couple of toy models with six states each. One was based on spin (the six states describe spins about each axis in 3-space in each direction). The other, due to Robert Spekkens, is a “hidden variable” theory, where there are four possible “ontic” states (the “hidden” variable), but the six “epistemic” states only register whether the state lies in of six possible PAIRS of ontic states. The two toy models resemble each other at the level of states, but the phase groups are different: the truly “quantum” one has a cyclic group \mathbb{Z}_4 (for the X-spin observable, it’s generated by a right-angled rotation about the X axis); the “hidden variable” model, which has some quantum-mechanics-like features, but not all, has phase group \mathbb{Z}_2 \times \mathbb{Z}_2. The suggestion of the talk was that this phase group distinguishes “local” from “nonlocal” systems (i.e. ones with hidden variable models and ones without).

Marni Sheppard also gave a talk about Mutually Unbiased Bases, p-adic arithmetic, and algebraic geometry over finite fields, which I find hard to summarize because I don’t understand all those fields very well. Roughly, her talk made a link between quantum mechanics and an axiomatic version of projective geometry (Hilbert spaces in QM ought to be projective, after all, so this makes sense).  There was also a connection between mutually unbiased bases and finite fields, but again, this sort of escaped me.

Also in this group was Jamie Vicary, whom I’ve been working with on a project about the categorified harmonic oscillator.  His talk, however, was about n-Hilbert spaces, and n-categorical extended TQFT.  The basic point is that a TQFT assigns a number to a closed n-manifold, and a Hilbert space to each (n-1)-manifold (such as a boundary between two parts of a closed one), and if the TQFT is fully local (i.e. can be derived from, say, a triangulation), this can be continued to have it assign k-Hilbert spaces to (n-k)-manifolds for all k up to n.  He described the structure of 2-Hilbert spaces, and also monoidal ones (as many interesting cases are), and how they can all be realized (in finite dimensions, at least) as categories of representations of supergroupoids.  Part of the point of this talk was to suggest how not just dagger-compact categories, but general n-categories should be useful for quantum theory.


The monoidal category setting is popular for dealing with quantum theories, since it abstracts some properties of Hilbert spaces, which they’re usually modelled in.  Topos theory is usually thought of as a generalization of the category of sets, and in particular they model intuitionistic classical, not quantum, logic.  So the talk by Andreas Döring (based on work with Christopher Isham – see many of Andreas’ recent papers) called “Why Topos Theory in the Foundations of Physics?” is surprising if you haven’t heard this idea before.  One motivation could be described in terms of the Kochen-Specker theorem, which, roughly, says that a quantum theory – involving observables which are operators on a Hilbert space of dimension at least three – can’t be modeled by a “state space”.  That is, it’s not the case that you can simultaneously give definite values to all the observables in a consistent way – in ANY state!  (That is, it’s not just the generic state: there is no state at all which corresponds to the classical picture of a “point” in some space parametrized by the observables.)

Now, part of the point is that there’s no “state space” in the category of sets – but maybe there is in some other topos!  And sure enough, the equivalent of a state space turns out to be a thing they call the “spectral presheaf” for the theory.  It’s an object in some topos.  The KS theorem becomes a statement that it has no “global points”.  To see what this means, you have to know what the spectral presheaf is.

This is based on the assumption that one has a (noncommutative) von Neumann algebra of operators on a Hilbert space – among them, the observables we might be interested in.  The structure of this algebra is supposed to describe some system.  Now you might want to look for subalgebras of it which are abelian.  Why?  Because a system of commuting operators, should they be observables, are ones which we CAN assign values to simultaneously – there’s no issue of which order we do measurements in.  Call this a “context” – a choice of subalgebra making the system look classical.  So maybe we can describe a “state space” in a context: so what?

Well, the collection of all such contexts forms a poset – in fact, lattice – in fact, a complete Heyting algebra.  These objects are just the same (object-wise) as “locales” (a generalization from topological spaces, and their lattice of open sets).  The topos in question is the category of presheaves on this locale, which is to say, of contravariant functors to Set.  Which is to say… a way of assigning a set (the “state space” I mentioned), with a way of restricting sets along inclusion maps.  This restriction can be a bit rough (in fact, the fact that restriction can be quite approximate is just where uncertainty principles and the like come from).  The main point is that this “spectral presheaf” (the assignment of local state spaces to each context) supports a concept of logic, for reasoning about the system it describes.  It’s a lot like the logic of sets, but operations happen “context-by-context”.  A proposition has a truth value which is a “downset” in the lattice of contexts – the collection of contexts where the proposition is true.  A proposition just amounts to a subobject of the spectral presheaf by what they call “daseinization” – it’s the equivalent of a proposition being a subset of a configuration space (where the statement is true).

One could say a lot more, but this is a blog post, after all.

There are philosophical issues that this subject seems to provoke – the sign of an interesting theory is that it gets people arguing, I suppose.  One is the characterization of this as a “neo-realist interpretation” of quantum theory.  A “naive realist” interpretation would be one that says a “state” is just a way of saying what all the values of all the observable quantities is – to put it another way, of giving definite truth values to all definite “yes/no” questions.  This is just what the KS theorem says can’t happen.  The spectral presheaf is supposedly “neo-realist” because it does almost these things, but in an exotic topos (of presheaves on the locale of all classical contexts).  As you might expect, this is a bit of a head-scratcher.