To continue from the previous post

Twisted Differential Cohomology

Ulrich Bunke gave a talk introducing differential cohomology theories, and Thomas Nikolaus gave one about a twisted version of such theories (unfortunately, perhaps in the wrong order). The idea here is that cohomology can give a classification of field theories, and if we don’t want the theories to be purely topological, we would need to refine this. A cohomology theory is a (contravariant) functorial way of assigning to any space $X$, which we take to be a manifold, a $\mathbb{Z}$-graded group: that is, a tower of groups of “cocycles”, one group for each $n$, with some coboundary maps linking them. (In some cases, the groups are also rings) For example, the group of differential forms, graded by degree.

Cohomology theories satisfy some axioms – for example, the Mayer-Vietoris sequence has to apply whenever you cut a manifold into parts. Differential cohomology relaxes one axiom, the requirement that cohomology be a homotopy invariant of $X$. Given a differential cohomology theory, one can impose equivalence relations on the differential cocycles to get a theory that does satisfy this axiom – so we say the finer theory is a “differential refinement” of the coarser. So, in particular, ordinary cohomology theories are classified by spectra (this is related to the Brown representability theorem), whereas the differential ones are represented by sheaves of spectra – where the constant sheaves represent the cohomology theories which happen to be homotopy invariants.

The “twisting” part of this story can be applied to either an ordinary cohomology theory, or a differential refinement of one (though this needs similarly refined “twisting” data). The idea is that, if $R$ is a cohomology theory, it can be “twisted” over $X$ by a map $\tau: X \rightarrow Pic_R$ into the “Picard group” of $R$. This is the group of invertible $R$-modules (where an $R$-module means a module for the cohomology ring assigned to $X$) – essentially, tensoring with these modules is what defines the “twisting” of a cohomology element.

An example of all this is twisted differential K-theory. Here the groups are of isomorphism classes of certain vector bundles over $X$, and the twisting is particularly simple (the Picard group in the topological case is just $\mathbb{Z}_2$). The main result is that, while topological twists are classified by appropriate gerbes on $X$ (for K-theory, $U(1)$-gerbes), the differential ones are classified by gerbes with connection.

Fusion Categories

Scott Morrison gave a talk about Classifying Fusion Categories, the point of which was just to collect together a bunch of results constructing particular examples. The talk opens with a quote by Rutherford: “All science is either physics or stamp collecting” – that is, either about systematizing data and finding simple principles which explain it, or about collecting lots of data. This talk was unabashed stamp-collecting, on the grounds that we just don’t have a lot of data to systematically understand yet – and for that very reason I won’t try to summarize all the results, but the slides are well worth a look-over. The point is that fusion categories are very useful in constructing TQFT’s, and there are several different constructions that begin “given a fusion category $\mathcal{C}$“… and yet there aren’t all that many examples, and very few large ones, known.

Scott also makes the analogy that fusion categories are “noncommutative finite groups” – which is a little confusing, since not all finite groups are commutative anyway – but the idea is that the symmetric fusion categories are exactly the representation categories of finite groups. So general fusion categories are a non-symmetric generalization of such groups. Since classifying finite groups turned out to be difficult, and involve a laundry-list of sporadic groups, it shouldn’t be too surprising that understanding fusion categories (which, for the symmetric case, include the representation categories of all these examples) should be correspondingly tricky. Since, as he points out, we don’t have very many non-symmetric examples beyond rank 12 (analogous to knowing only finite groups with at most 12 elements), it’s likely that we don’t have a very good understanding of these categories in general yet.

There were a couple of talks – one during the workshop by Sonia Natale, and one the previous week by Sebastian Burciu, whom I also had the chance to talk with that week – about “Equivariantization” of fusion categories, and some fairly detailed descriptions of what results. The two of them have a paper on this which gives more details, which I won’t summarize – but I will say a bit about the construction.

An “equivariantization” of a category $C$ acted on by a group $G$ is supposed to be a generalization of the notion of the set of fixed points for a group acting on a set.  The category $C^G$ has objects which consist of an object $x \in C$ which is fixed by the action of $G$, together with an isomorphism $\mu_g : x \rightarrow x$ for each $g \in G$, satisfying a bunch of unsurprising conditions like being compatible with the group operation. The morphisms are maps in $C$ between the objects, which form commuting squares for each $g \in G$. Their paper, and the talks, described how this works when $C$ is a fusion category – namely, $C^G$ is also a fusion category, and one can work out its fusion rules (i.e. monoidal structure). In some cases, it’s a “group theoretical” fusion category (it looks like $Rep(H)$ for some group $H$) – or a weakened version of such a thing (it’s Morita equivalent to ).

A nice special case of this is if the group action happens to be trivial, so that every object of $C$ is a fixed point. In this case, $C^G$ is just the category of objects of $C$ equipped with a $G$-action, and the intertwining maps between these. For example, if $C = Vect$, then $C^G = Rep(G)$ (in particular, a “group-theoretical fusion category”). What’s more, this construction is functorial in $G$ itself: given a subgroup $H \subset G$, we get an adjoint pair of functors between $C^G$ and $C^H$, which in our special case are just the induced-representation and restricted-representation functors for that subgroup inclusion. That is, we have a Mackey functor here. These generalize, however, to any fusion category $C$, and to nontrivial actions of $G$ on $C$. The point of their paper, then, is to give a good characterization of the categories that come out of these constructions.

Quantizing with Higher Categories

The last talk I’d like to describe was by Urs Schreiber, called Linear Homotopy Type Theory for Quantization. Urs has been giving evolving talks on this topic for some time, and it’s quite a big subject (see the long version of the notes above if there’s any doubt). However, I always try to get a handle on these talks, because it seems to be describing the most general framework that fits the general approach I use in my own work. This particular one borrows a lot from the language of logic (the “linear” in the title alludes to linear logic).

Basically, Urs’ motivation is to describe a good mathematical setting in which to construct field theories using ingredients familiar to the physics approach to “field theory”, namely… fields. (See the description of Kevin Walker’s talk.) Also, Lagrangian functionals – that is, the notion of a physical action. Constructing TQFT from modular tensor categories, for instance, is great, but the fields and the action seem to be hiding in this picture. There are many conceptual problems with field theories – like the mathematical meaning of path integrals, for instance. Part of the approach here is to find a good setting in which to locate the moduli spaces of fields (and the spaces in which path integrals are done). Then, one has to come up with a notion of quantization that makes sense in that context.

The first claim is that the category of such spaces should form a differentially cohesive infinity-topos which we’ll call $\mathbb{H}$. The “infinity” part means we allow morphisms between field configurations of all orders (2-morphisms, 3-morphisms, etc.). The “topos” part means that all sorts of reasonable constructions can be done – for example, pullbacks. The “differentially cohesive” part captures the sort of structure that ensures we can really treat these as spaces of the suitable kind: “cohesive” means that we have a notion of connected components around (it’s implemented by having a bunch of adjoint functors between spaces and points). The “differential” part is meant to allow for the sort of structures discussed above under “differential cohomology” – really, that we can capture geometric structure, as in gauge theories, and not just topological structure.

In this case, we take $\mathbb{H}$ to have objects which are spectral-valued infinity-stacks on manifolds. This may be unfamiliar, but the main point is that it’s a kind of generalization of a space. Now, the sort of situation where quantization makes sense is: we have a space (i.e. $\mathbb{H}$-object) of field configurations to start, then a space of paths (this is WHERE “path-integrals” are defined), and a space of field configurations in the final system where we observe the result. There are maps from the space of paths to identify starting and ending points. That is, we have a span:

$A \leftarrow X \rightarrow B$

Now, in fact, these may all lie over some manifold, such as $B^n(U(1))$, the classifying space for $U(1)$ $(n-1)$-gerbes. That is, we don’t just have these “spaces”, but these spaces equipped with one of those pieces of cohomological twisting data discussed up above. That enters the quantization like an action (it’s WHAT you integrate in a path integral).

Aside: To continue the parallel, quantization is playing the role of a cohomology theory, and the action is the twist. I really need to come back and complete an old post about motives, because there’s a close analogy here. If quantization is a cohomology theory, it should come by factoring through a universal one. In the world of motives, where “space” now means something like “scheme”, the target of this universal cohomology theory is a mild variation on just the category of spans I just alluded to. Then all others come from some functor out of it.

Then the issue is what quantization looks like on this sort of scenario. The Atiyah-Singer viewpoint on TQFT isn’t completely lost here: quantization should be a functor into some monoidal category. This target needs properties which allow it to capture the basic “quantum” phenomena of superposition (i.e. some additivity property), and interference (some actual linearity over $\mathbb{C}$). The target category Urs talked about was the category of $E_{\infty}$-rings. The point is that these are just algebras that live in the world of spectra, which is where our spaces already lived. The appropriate target will depend on exactly what $\mathbb{H}$ is.

But what Urs did do was give a characterization of what the target category should be LIKE for a certain construction to work. It’s a “pull-push” construction: see the link way above on Mackey functors – restriction and induction of representations are an example . It’s what he calls a “(2-monoidal, Beck-Chevalley) Linear Homotopy-Type Theory”. Essentially, this is a list of conditions which ensure that, for the two morphisms in the span above, we have a “pull” operation for some and left and right adjoints to it (which need to be related in a nice way – the jargon here is that we must be in a Wirthmuller context), satisfying some nice relations, and that everything is functorial.

The intuition is that if we have some way of getting a “linear gadget” out of one of our configuration spaces of fields (analogous to constructing a space of functions when we do canonical quantization over, let’s say, a symplectic manifold), then we should be able to lift it (the “pull” operation) to the space of paths. Then the “push” part of the operation is where the “path integral” part comes in: many paths might contribute to the value of a function (or functor, or whatever it may be) at the end-point of those paths, because there are many ways to get from A to B, and all of them contribute in a linear way.

So, if this all seems rather abstract, that’s because the point of it is to characterize very generally what has to be available for the ideas that appear in physics notions of path-integral quantization to make sense. Many of the particulars – spectra, $E_{\infty}$-rings, infinity-stacks, and so on – which showed up in the example are in a sense just placeholders for anything with the right formal properties. So at the same time as it moves into seemingly very abstract terrain, this approach is also supposed to get out of the toy-model realm of TQFT, and really address the trouble in rigorously defining what’s meant by some of the standard practice of physics in field theory by analyzing the logical structure of what this practice is really saying. If it turns out to involve some unexpected math – well, given the underlying issues, it would have been more surprising if it didn’t.

It’s not clear to me how far along this road this program gets us, as far as dealing with questions an actual physicist would like to ask (for the most part, if the standard practice works as an algorithm to produce results, physicists seldom need to ask what it means in rigorous math language), but it does seem like an interesting question.