In the most recent TQFT Club seminar, we had a couple of talks – one was the second in a series of three by Marco Mackaay, which as promised previously I’ll write up together after the third one.

The other was by Björn Gohla, a student of João Faria Martins, giving an overview on the subject of “Tricategories and Trifunctors”, a mostly expository talk explaining some definitions.  Actually, this was a bit more specific than a general introduction – the point of it was to describe a certain kind of mapping space.  I’ve talked here before about representing the “configuration space” of a gauge theory as a groupoid: the objects are (optionally, flat) connections on a manifold $M$, and the morphisms are gauge transformations taking one connection to another.  The reason for the things Björn was talking about is analogous, except that in this case, the goal is to describe the configuration space of a higher gauge theory.

There are at least two ways I know of to talk about higher gauge theory.  One is in terms of categorical (or n-categorical) groups – which makes it a “categorification” of gauge theory in the sense of reproducing in $\mathbf{Cat}$ (or $\mathbf{nCat}$) an analog of a sturcture, gauge theory, originally formulated in $\mathbf{Set}$.  Among other outlines, you might look at this one by John Baez and John Huerta for an introduction.  Another uses the lingo of crossed modules or crossed complexes.  In either case, the essential point is the same: there is some collection of groups (or groupoids, but let’s say groups to keep everything clear) which play the role of the single gauge group in ordinary gauge theory.

In the first language, we can speak of a “2-group”, or “categorical group” – a group internal to $\mathbf{Cat}$, or what is equivalent, a category internal to $\mathbf{Grp}$, which would have a group of objects and a group of morphisms (and, in higher settings still, groups of 2-morphisms, 3-morphisms, and so on).  The structure maps of the category (source, target, composition, etc.) have to live in the category of groups.

A crossed complex of groups (again, we could generalize to groupoids, but I won’t) is a nonabelian variation on a chain complex: a sequence of groups with maps from one to the next.  There are also a bunch more structures, which ultimately serve to reproduce all the kind of composition, source, and target maps in the $n$-categorical groups: some groups act on others, there are “bracket” operations on one group valued in another, and so forth.  This paper by Brown and Higgins explains how the two concepts are related when most of the groups are abelian, and there’s a lot more about crossed complexes and related stuff in Tim Porter’s “Crossed Menagerie“.

The point of all this right now is that these things play the role of the gauge group in higher gauge theory.  The idea is that in gauge theory, you have a connection.  Typically this is described in terms of a form valued in the Lie algebra of the gauge group.  Then a (thin) homotopy classes of curves, gets a holonomy valued in the group by integrating that form.  Alternatively, you can just think of the path groupoid of a manifold $\mathcal{P}_1(M)$, where those classes of curves form the morphisms between the objects, which are just points of $M$.  Then a connection defines a functor $\Gamma : \mathcal{P}_1(M) \rightarrow G$, where $G$ is the gauge group thought of as a category (groupoid in fact) with one object.  Or, you can just define a connection that way in the first place.  In higher gauge theory, a similar principle exists: begin with the $n$-path groupoid $\mathcal{P}_n(M)$ where the morphisms are (thin homotopy classes of) paths, the 2-morphisms are surfaces (really homotopy classes of homotopies of paths), and so on, so the $k$-morphisms are $k$-dimensional bits of $M$.  Then you could define an $n$-connection as a $n$-functor into an $n$-group as defined above.  OR, you could define it in terms of a tower of differential $k$-forms valued in the crossed complex of Lie algebras associated to the crossed complex of Lie groups that replaces the gauge group.  You can then use an integral to get an element of the group at level $k$ of the complex for any given $k$-morphism in $\mathcal{P}_n(M)$, which (via the equivalence I mentioned) amounts to the same thing as the other definition of connection.

João Martins has done some work on this sort of thing when $n$ is dimension 2 (with Tim Porter) and 3 (with Roger Picken), which I guess is how Björn came to work on this question.  The question is, roughly, how to describe the moduli space of these connections.  The gist of the answer is that it’s a functor $n$-category $[\mathcal{P}_n(M),\mathcal{G}]$, where $\mathcal{G}$ is the $n$-group.  A little more generally, the question is how to describe mapping spaces for higher categories.  In particular, he was talking about the case $n=3$, which is where certain tricky issues start to show up.  In particular every bicategory (the weakest form of 2-category) is (bi)equivalent to a strict 2-category, so there’s no real need to worry about weakening things like associativity so that they only work up to isomorphism – these are all equalities.  With 3-categories, this fails: the weakest kind of 3-category is a tricategory (introduced by Gordon, Power and Street, though also see the references beyond that link).  These are always tri-equivalent to something stricter than general, but not completely strict: Gray-categories.  The only equation from 2-categories which has to be weakened to an isomorphism here is the interchange law: given a square of four morphisms, we can either compose vertically first, and then horizontally, or vice versa.  In a Gray-category, there’s an “interchanger” isomorphism

$I_{\alpha,\alpha ',\beta,\beta'} : (\alpha \circ \beta) \cdot (\alpha ' \circ \beta ') \Rightarrow (\alpha \cdot \alpha ') \circ (\beta \cdot \beta ')$

where $\cdot$ is vertical composition of 2-cells, and $\circ$ is horizontal (i.e. the same direction as 1-cells).  This is supposed to satisfy a compatibility condition.  It’s essentially the only one you can come up with starting with $(\alpha \cdot \alpha ') \circ \beta$ (and composing it in different orders by throwing in identities in various places).

There’s another way to look at things, as Björn explained, in terms of enriched category theory.  If you have a monoidal category $(\mathcal{V},\otimes)$, then a $(\mathcal{V},\otimes)$-enriched category $\mathbb{G}$ is one in which, for any two objects $x,y$, there is an object $\mathbb{G}(x,y) \in \mathcal{V}$ of morphisms, and composition gives morphisms $\circ_{x,y,z} : \mathbb{G}(y,z) \otimes \mathbb{G}(x,y) \rightarrow \mathbb{G}(x,z)$.  A strict 3-category is enriched in $\mathbf{2Cat}$, with its usual tensor product, dual to its internal hom $[-,-]$ (which gives the mapping 2-category of functors, natural transformations, and modifications, between any two 2-categories).  A Gray category is similar, except that it is enriched in $\mathbf{Gray}$, a version of $\mathbf{2Cat}$ with a different tensor product, dual to the hom functor $[-,-]'$ which gives the mapping 2-category with pseudonatural transformations (the weak version of the concept, where the naturality square only has to commute up to a specified 2-cell) as morphisms.  These are not the same, which is where the unavoidability of weakening 3-categories “really” comes from.   The upshot of this is as above: it matters which order we compose things in.

Having defined Gray-categories, let’s say $A$ and $B$ (which, in the applications I mentioned above, tend to actually be Gray-groupoids, though this doesn’t change the theory substantially), the point is to talk about “mapping spaces” – that is, Gray-categories of Gray-functors (etc.) from $A$ to $B$.

Since they’ve been defined terms of enriched category theory, one wants to use the general theory of enriched functors, transformations, and so forth – which is a lot easier than trying to work out the correct definitions from scratch using a low-level description.  So then a Gray-functor $F : A \rightarrow B$ has an object map $F_0 : A_0 \rightarrow B_0$, mapping objects of $A$ to objects of $B$, and then for each $x,y \in A_0$, a morphism in $\mathbf{Gray}$ (which is our $\mathcal{V}$), namely $F_{x,y} : A(x,y) \rightarrow B(F(x),F(y))$.  There are a bunch of compatibility conditions, which can be expressed for any monoidal category $\mathcal{V}$ (since they involve diagrams with the map $\circ_{x,y,z}$ for any triple, and the like).  Similar comments apply to defining $\mathcal{V}$-natural transformations.

There is a slight problem here, which is that in this case, $\mathcal{V} = \mathbf{Gray}$ is a 2-category, so we really need to use a form of weakly enriched categories…  All the compatibility diagrams should have 2-cells in them, and so forth.  This, too, gets complicated.  So Björn explained is a shortcut from drawing $n$-dimensional diagrams for these mapping $n$-categories in terms of the arrow category $\vec{B}$. This is the category whose objects are the morphisms of $B$, and whose morphisms are commuting squares, or when $B$ is a 2-category, squares with a 2-cell, so a morphism in $\vec{B}$ from $f: x \rightarrow y$ to $f' : x' \rightarrow y'$ is a triple $g = (g_x,g_y,g_f)$ like so:

Morphism in arrow category

The 2-morphisms in $\vec{B}$ are commuting “pillows”, where the front and back face are morphisms like the above. So $\beta : g \Rightarrow g'$ is $\beta = (\beta_x,\beta_y)$, where $\beta_x : g_x \Rightarrow g_{x'}$ is a 2-cell, and the whole “pillow” commutes.  When $B$ is a tricategory, then we need to go further – these 2-morphsims should be triples including a 3-cell $\beta_f$ filling the “pillow”, and then 3-morphisms are commuting structures between these. These diagrams get hard to draw pretty quickly. This is the point of having an ordinary 2D diagram with at most 1-dimensional cells: pushing all the nasty diagrams into these arrow categories, we can replace a 2-cell representing a natural transformation with a diagram involving the arrow category.

This uses that there are source and target maps (which are Gray-functors, of course) which we’ll call $d_0, d_1: \vec{B} \rightarrow B$. So then here (in one diagram) we have two ways of depicting a natural transformation $\alpha : F \rightarrow G$ between functors $F,G : A \Rightarrow B$:

One is the 2-cell, and the other is the functor into $\vec{B}$, such that $d_0 \circ \alpha = F$ and $d_1 \circ \alpha = G$.
To depict a modification between natural transformations (a 3-cell between 2-cells) just involves building the arrow category of $\vec{B}$, say $\vec{\vec{B}}$, and drawing an arrow from $A$ into it. And so on: in principle, there is a tower above $B$ built by iterating the arrow category construction, and all the different levels of “functor”, “natural transformation”, “modification”, and all the higher equivalents are just functors into different levels of this tower.  (The generic term for the $k^{th}$ level of maps-between-maps-etc between $n$-categories is “$(n,k)$-transfor“, a handy term coined here.)
The advantage here is that at least the general idea can be extended pretty readily to higher values of $n$ than 3.  Naturally, no matter which way one decides to do it, things will get complicated – either there’s a combinatorial explosion of things to consider, or one has to draw higher-dimensional diagrams, or whatever.  This exploding complexity of $n$-categories (in this case, globular ones) is one of the reasons why simplicial appreaches – quasicategories or $\infty$-categories – are good.  They allow you to avoid talking about those problems, or at least fold them into fairly well-understood aspects of simplicial sets.  A lot of things – limits, colimits, mapping spaces, etc. are pretty well understood in that case (see, for instance, the first chapter of Joshua Nicholls-Barrer’s thesis for the basics, or Jacob Lurie’s humongous book for something more comprehensive).  But sometimes, as in this case, they just don’t happen to be the things you want for your application.  So here we have some tools for talking about mapping spaces in the world of globular $n$-categories – and as the work by Martins/Porter/Picken show, it’s motivated by some fairly specific work about invariants of manifolds, differential geometry, and so on.