higher gauge theory

Why Higher Geometric Quantization

The largest single presentation was a pair of talks on “The Motivation for Higher Geometric Quantum Field Theory” by Urs Schreiber, running to about two and a half hours, based on these notes. This was probably the clearest introduction I’ve seen so far to the motivation for the program he’s been developing for several years. Broadly, the idea is to develop a higher-categorical analog of geometric quantization (GQ for short).

One guiding idea behind this is that we should really be interested in quantization over (higher) stacks, rather than merely spaces. This leads inexorably to a higher-categorical version of GQ itself. The starting point, though, is that the defining features of stacks capture two crucial principles from physics: the gauge principle, and locality. The gauge principle means that we need to keep track not just of connections, but gauge transformations, which form respectively the objects and morphisms of a groupoid. “Locality” means that these groupoids of configurations of a physical field on spacetime is determined by its local configuration on regions as small as you like (together with information about how to glue together the data on small regions into larger regions).

Some particularly simple cases can be described globally: a scalar field gives the space of all scalar functions, namely maps into \mathbb{C}; sigma models generalise this to the space of maps \Sigma \rightarrow M for some other target space. These are determined by their values pointwise, so of course are local.

More generally, physicists think of a field theory as given by a fibre bundle V \rightarrow \Sigma (the previous examples being described by trivial bundles \pi : M \times \Sigma \rightarrow \Sigma), where the fields are sections of the bundle. Lagrangian physics is then described by a form on the jet bundle of V, i.e. the bundle whose fibre over p \in \Sigma consists of the space describing the possible first k derivatives of a section over that point.

More generally, a field theory gives a procedure F for taking some space with structure – say a (pseudo-)Riemannian manifold \Sigma – and produce a moduli space X = F(\Sigma) of fields. The Sigma models happen to be representable functors: F(\Sigma) = Maps(\Sigma,M) for some M, the representing object. A prestack is just any functor taking \Sigma to a moduli space of fields. A stack is one which has a “descent condition”, which amounts to the condition of locality: knowing values on small neighbourhoods and how to glue them together determines values on larger neighborhoods.

The Yoneda lemma says that, for reasonable notions of “space”, the category \mathbf{Spc} from which we picked target spaces M embeds into the category of stacks over \mathbf{Spc} (Riemannian manifolds, for instance) and that the embedding is faithful – so we should just think of this as a generalization of space. However, it’s a generalization we need, because gauge theories determine non-representable stacks. What’s more, the “space” of sections of one of these fibred stacks is also a stack, and this is what plays the role of the moduli space for gauge theory! For higher gauge theories, we will need higher stacks.

All of the above is the classical situation: the next issue is how to quantize such a theory. It involves a generalization of Geometric Quantization (GQ for short). Now a physicist who actually uses GQ will find this perspective weird, but it flows from just the same logic as the usual method.

In ordinary GQ, you have some classical system described by a phase space, a manifold X equipped with a pre-symplectic 2-form \omega \in \Omega^2(X). Intuitively, \omega describes how the space, locally, can be split into conjugate variables. In the phase space for a particle in n-space, these “position” and “momentum” variables, and \omega = \sum_x dx^i \wedge dp^i; many other systems have analogous conjugate variables. But what really matters is the form \omega itself, or rather its cohomology class.

Then one wants to build a Hilbert space describing the quantum analog of the system, but in fact, you need a little more than (X,\omega) to do this. The Hilbert space is a space of sections of some bundle whose sections look like copies of the complex numbers, called the “prequantum line bundle“. It needs to be equipped with a connection, whose curvature is a 2-form in the class of \omega: in general, . (If \omega is not symplectic, i.e. is degenerate, this implies there’s some symmetry on X, in which case the line bundle had better be equivariant so that physically equivalent situations correspond to the same state). The easy case is the trivial bundle, so that we get a space of functions, like L^2(X) (for some measure compatible with \omega). In general, though, this function-space picture only makes sense locally in X: this is why the choice of prequantum line bundle is important to the interpretation of the quantized theory.

Since the crucial geometric thing here is a bundle over the moduli space, when the space is a stack, and in the context of higher gauge theory, it’s natural to seek analogous constructions using higher bundles. This would involve, instead of a (pre-)symplectic 2-form \omega, an (n+1)-form called a (pre-)n-plectic form (for an introductory look at this, see Chris Rogers’ paper on the case n=2 over manifolds). This will give a higher analog of the Hilbert space.

Now, maps between Hilbert spaces in QG come from Lagrangian correspondences – these might be maps of moduli spaces, but in general they consist of a “space of trajectories” equipped with maps into a space of incoming and outgoing configurations. This is a span of pre-symplectic spaces (equipped with pre-quantum line bundles) that satisfies some nice geometric conditions which make it possible to push a section of said line bundle through the correspondence. Since each prequantum line bundle can be seen as maps out of the configuration space into a classifying space (for U(1), or in general an n-group of phases), we get a square. The action functional is a cell that fills this square (see the end of 2.1.3 in Urs’ notes). This is a diagrammatic way to describe the usual GQ construction: the advantage is that it can then be repeated in the more general setting without much change.

This much is about as far as Urs got in his talk, but the notes go further, talking about how to extend this to infinity-stacks, and how the Dold-Kan correspondence tells us nicer descriptions of what we get when linearizing – since quantization puts us into an Abelian category.

I enjoyed these talks, although they were long and Urs came out looking pretty exhausted, because while I’ve seen several others on this program, this was the first time I’ve seen it discussed from the beginning, with a lot of motivation. This was presumably because we had a physically-minded part of the audience, whereas I’ve mostly seen these for mathematicians, and usually they come in somewhere in the middle and being more time-limited miss out some of the details and the motivation. The end result made it quite a natural development. Overall, very helpful!

Continuing from the previous post, we’ll take a detour in a different direction. The physics-oriented talks were by Martin Wolf, Sam Palmer, Thomas Strobl, and Patricia Ritter. Since my background in this subject isn’t particularly physics-y, I’ll do my best to summarize the ones that had obvious connections to other topics, but may be getting things wrong or unbalanced here…

Dirac Sigma Models

Thomas Strobl’s talk, “New Methods in Gauge Theory” (based on a whole series of papers linked to from the conference webpage), started with a discussion of of generalizing Sigma Models. Strobl’s talk was a bit high-level physics for me to do it justice, but I came away with the impression of a fairly large program that has several points of contact with more mathematical notions I’ll discuss later.

In particular, Sigma models are physical theories in which a field configuration on spacetime \Sigma is a map X : \Sigma \rightarrow M into some target manifold, or rather (M,g), since we need a metric to integrate and find differentials. Given this, we can define the crucial physics ingredient, an action functional
S[X] = \int_{\Sigma} g_{ij} dX^i \wedge (\star d X^j)
where the dX^i are the differentials of the map into M.

In string theory, \Sigma is the world-sheet of a string and M is ordinary spacetime. This generalizes the simpler example of a moving particle, where \Sigma = \mathbb{R} is just its worldline. In that case, minimizing the action functional above says that the particle moves along geodesics.

The big generalization introduced is termed a “Dirac Sigma Model” or DSM (the paper that introduces them is this one).

In building up to these DSM, a different generalization notes that if there is a group action G \rhd M that describes “rigid” symmetries of the theory (for Minkowski space we might pick the Poincare group, or perhaps the Lorentz group if we want to fix an origin point), then the action functional on the space Maps(\Sigma,M) is invariant in the direction of any of the symmetries. One can use this to reduce (M,g), by “gauging out” the symmetries to get a quotient (N,h), and get a corresponding S_{gauged} to integrate over N.

To generalize this, note that there’s an action groupoid associated with G \rhd M, and replace this with some other (Poisson) groupoid instead. That is, one thinks of the real target for a gauge theory not as M, but the action groupoid M \/\!\!\/ G, and then just considers replacing this with some generic groupoid that doesn’t necessarily arise from a group of rigid symmetries on some underlying M. (In this regard, see the second post in this series, about Urs Schreiber’s talk, and stacks as classifying spaces for gauge theories).

The point here seems to be that one wants to get a nice generalization of this situation – in particular, to be able to go backward from N to M, to deal with the possibility that the quotient N may be geometrically badly-behaved. Or rather, given (N,h), to find some (M,g) of which it is a reduction, but which is better behaved. That means needing to be able to treat a Sigma model with symmetry information attached.

There’s also an infinitesimal version of this: locally, invariance means the Lie derivative of the action in the direction of any of the generators of the Lie algebra of G – so called Killing vectors – is zero. So this equation can generalize to a case where there are vectors where the Lie derivative is zero – a so-called “generalized Killing equation”. They may not generate isometries, but can be treated similarly. What they do give, if you integrate these vectors, is a foliation of M. The space of leaves is the quotient N mentioned above.

The most generic situation Thomas discussed is when one has a Dirac structure on M – this is a certain kind of subbundle D \subset TM \oplus T^*M of the tangent-plus-cotangent bundle over M.

Supersymmetric Field Theories

Another couple of physics-y talks related higher gauge theory to some particular physics models, namely N=(2,0) and N=(1,0) supersymmetric field theories.

The first, by Martin Wolf, was called “Self-Dual Higher Gauge Theory”, and was rooted in generalizing some ideas about twistor geometry – here are some lecture notes by the same author, about how twistor geometry relates to ordinary gauge theory.

The idea of twistor geometry is somewhat analogous to the idea of a Fourier transform, which is ultimately that the same space of fields can be described in two different ways. The Fourier transform goes from looking at functions on a position space, to functions on a frequency space, by way of an integral transform. The Penrose-Ward transform, analogously, transforms a space of fields on Minkowski spacetime, satisfying one set of equations, to a set of fields on “twistor space”, satisfying a different set of equations. The theories represented by those fields are then equivalent (as long as the PW transform is an isomorphism).

The PW transform is described by a “correspondence”, or “double fibration” of spaces – what I would term a “span”, such that both maps are fibrations:

P \stackrel{\pi_1}{\leftarrow} K \stackrel{\pi_2}{\rightarrow} M

The general story of such correspondences is that one has some geometric data on P, which we call Ob_P – a set of functions, differential forms, vector bundles, cohomology classes, etc. They are pulled back to K, and then “pushed forward” to M by a direct image functor. In many cases, this is given by an integral along each fibre of the fibration \pi_2, so we have an integral transform. The image of Ob_P we call Ob_M, and it consists of data satisfying, typically, some PDE’s.In the case of the PW transform, P is complex projective 3-space \mathbb{P}^3/\mathbb{P}^1 and Ob_P is the set of holomorphic principal G bundles for some group G; M is (complexified) Minkowski space \mathbb{C}^4 and the fields are principal G-bundles with connection. The PDE they satisfy is F = \star F, where F is the curvature of the bundle and \star is the Hodge dual). This means cohomology on twistor space (which classifies the bundles) is related self-dual fields on spacetime. One can also find that a point in M corresponds to a projective line in P, while a point in P corresponds to a null plane in M. (The space K = \mathbb{C}^4 \times \mathbb{P}^1).

Then the issue to to generalize this to higher gauge theory: rather than principal G-bundles for a group, one is talking about a 2-group \mathcal{G} with connection. Wolf’s talk explained how there is a Penrose-Ward transform between a certain class of higher gauge theories (on the one hand) and an N=(2,0) supersymmetric field theory (on the other hand). Specifically, taking M = \mathbb{C}^6, and P to be (a subspace of) 6D projective space \mathbb{P}^7 / \mathbb{P}^1, there is a similar correspondence between certain holomorphic 2-bundles on P and solutions to some self-dual field equations on M (which can be seen as constraints on the curvature 3-form F for a principal 2-bundle: the self-duality condition is why this only makes sense in 6 dimensions).

This picture generalizes to supermanifolds, where there are fermionic as well as bosonic fields. These turn out to correspond to a certain 6-dimensional N = (2,0) supersymmetric field theory.

Then Sam Palmer gave a talk in which he described a somewhat similar picture for an N = (1,0) supersymmetric theory. However, unlike the N=(2,0) theory, this one gives, not a higher gauge theory, but something that superficially looks similar, but in fact is quite different. It ends up being a theory of a number of fields – form valued in three linked vector spaces

\mathfrak{g}^* \stackrel{g}{\rightarrow} \mathfrak{h} \stackrel{h}{\rightarrow} \mathfrak{g}

equipped with a bunch of maps that give the whole setup some structure. There is a collection of seven fields in groups (“multiplets”, in physics jargon) valued in each of these spaces. They satisfy a large number of identities. It somewhat resembles the higher gauge theory that corresponds to the N=(1,0) case, so this situation gets called a “(1,0)-gauge model”.

There are some special cases of such a setup, including Courant-Dorfman algebras and Lie 2-algebras. The talk gave quite a few examples of solutions to the equations that fall out. The overall conclusion is that, while there are some similarities between (1,0)-gauge models and the way Higher Gauge Theory appears at the level of algebra-valued forms and the equations they must satisfy, there are some significant differences. I won’t try to summarize this in more depth, because (a) I didn’t follow the nitty-gritty technical details very well, and (b) it turns out to be not HGT, but some new theory which is less well understood at summary-level.


Since I moved to Hamburg,   Alessandro Valentino and I have been organizing one series of seminar talks whose goal is to bring people (mostly graduate students, and some postdocs and others) up to speed on the tools used in Jacob Lurie’s big paper on the classification of TQFT and proof of the Cobordism Hypothesis.  This is part of the Forschungsseminar (“research seminar”) for the working groups of Christoph Schweigert, Ingo Runkel, and Christoph Wockel.  First, I gave one introducing myself and what I’ve done on Extended TQFT. In our main series We’ve had a series of four so far – two in which Alessandro outlined a sketch of what Lurie’s result is, and another two by Sebastian Novak and Marc Palm that started catching our audience up on the simplicial methods used in the theory of (\infty,n)-categories which it uses.  Coming up in the New Year, Nathan Bowler and I will be talking about first (\infty,1)-categories, and then (\infty,n)-categories.   I’ll do a few posts summarizing the talks around then.

Some people in the group have done some work on quantum field theories with defects, in relation to which, there’s this workshop coming up here in February!  The idea here is that one could have two regions of space where different field theories apply, which are connected along a boundary. We might imagine these are theories which are different approximations to what’s going on physically, with a different approximation useful in each region.  Whatever the intuition, the regions will be labelled by some category, and boundaries between regions are labelled by functors between categories.  Where different boundary walls meet, one can have natural transformations.  There’s a whole theory of how a 3D TQFT can be associated to modular tensor categories, in sort of the same sense that a 2D TQFT is associated to a Frobenius algebra. This whole program is intimately connected with the idea of “extending” a given TQFT, in the sense that it deals with theories that have inputs which are spaces (or, in the case of defects, sub-spaces of given ones) of many different dimensions.  Lurie’s paper describing the n-dimensional cobordism category, is very much related to the input to a theory like this.

Brno Visit

This time, I’d like to mention something which I began working on with Roger Picken in Lisbon, and talked about for the first time in Brno, Czech Republic, where I was invited to visit at Masaryk University.  I was in Brno for a week or so, and on Thursday, December 13, I gave this talk, called “Higher Gauge Theory and 2-Group Actions”.  But first, some pictures!

This fellow was near the hotel I stayed in:


Since this sculpture is both faceless and hard at work on nonspecific manual labour, I assume he’s a Communist-era artwork, but I don’t really know for sure.

The Christmas market was on in Náměstí Svobody (Freedom Square) in the centre of town.  This four-headed dragon caught my eye:


On the way back from Brno to Hamburg, I met up with my wife to spend a couple of days in Prague.  Here’s the Christmas market in the Old Town Square of Prague:


Anyway, it was a good visit to the Czech Republic.  Now, about the talk!

Moduli Spaces in Higher Gauge Theory

The motivation which I tried to emphasize is to define a specific, concrete situation in which to explore the concept of “2-Symmetry”.  The situation is supposed to be, if not a realistic physical theory, then at least one which has enough physics-like features to give a good proof of concept argument that such higher symmetries should be meaningful in nature.  The idea is that Higher Gauge theory is a field theory which can be understood as one in which the possible (classical) fields on a space/spacetime manifold consist of maps from that space into some target space X.  For the topological theory, they are actually just homotopy classes of maps.  This is somewhat related to Sigma models used in theoretical physics, and mathematically to Homotopy Quantum Field Theory, which considers these maps as geometric structure on a manifold.  An HQFT is a functor taking such structured manifolds and cobordisms into Hilbert spaces and linear maps.  In the paper Roger and I are working on, we don’t talk about this stage of the process: we’re just considering how higher-symmetry appears in the moduli spaces for fields of this kind, which we think of in terms of Higher Gauge Theory.

Ordinary topological gauge theory – the study of flat connections on G-bundles for some Lie group G, can be looked at this way.  The target space X = BG is the “classifying space” of the Lie group – homotopy classes of maps in Hom(M,BG) are the same as groupoid homomorphisms in Hom(\Pi_1(M),G).  Specifically, the pair of functors \Pi_1 and B relating groupoids and topological spaces are adjoints.  Now, this deals with the situation where X = BG is a homotopy 1-type, which is to say that it has a fundamental groupoid \Pi_1(X) = G, and no other interesting homotopy groups.  To deal with more general target spaces X, one should really deal with infinity-groupoids, which can capture the whole homotopy type of X – in particular, all its higher homotopy groups at once (and various relations between them).  What we’re talking about in this paper is exactly one step in that direction: we deal with 2-groupoids.

We can think of this in terms of maps into a target space X which is a 2-type, with nontrivial fundamental groupoid \Pi_1(X), but also interesting second homotopy group \pi_2(X) (and nothing higher).  These fit together to make a 2-groupoid \Pi_2(X), which is a 2-group if X is connected.  The idea is that X is the classifying space of some 2-group \mathcal{G}, which plays the role of the Lie group G in gauge theory.  It is the “gauge 2-group”.  Homotopy classes of maps into X = B \mathcal{G} correspond to flat connections in this 2-group.

For practical purposes, we use the fact that there are several equivalent ways of describing 2-groups.  Two very directly equivalent ways to define them are as group objects internal to \mathbf{Cat}, or as categories internal to \mathbf{Grp} – which have a group of objects and a group of morphisms, and group homomorphisms that define source, target, composition, and so on.  This second way is fairly close to the equivalent formulation as crossed modules (G,H,\rhd,\partial).  The definition is in the slides, but essentially the point is that G is the group of objects, and with the action G \rhd H, one gets the semidirect product G \ltimes H which is the group of morphisms.  The map \partial : H \rightarrow G makes it possible to speak of G and H acting on each other, and that these actions “look like conjugation” (the precise meaning of which is in the defining properties of the crossed module).

The reason for looking at the crossed-module formulation is that it then becomes fairly easy to understand the geometric nature of the fields we’re talking about.  In ordinary gauge theory, a connection can be described locally as a 1-form with values in Lie(G), the Lie algebra of G.  Integrating such forms along curves gives another way to describe the connection, in terms of a rule assigning to every curve a holonomy valued in G which describes how to transport something (generally, a fibre of a bundle) along the curve.  It’s somewhat nontrivial to say how this relates to the classic definition of a connection on a bundle, which can be described locally on “patches” of the manifold via 1-forms together with gluing functions where patches overlap.  The resulting categories are equivalent, though.

In higher gauge theory, we take a similar view. There is a local view of “connections on gerbes“, described by forms and gluing functions (the main difference in higher gauge theory is that the gluing functions related to higher cohomology).  But we will take the equivalent point of view where the connection is described by G-valued holonomies along paths, and H-valued holonomies over surfaces, for a crossed module (G,H,\rhd,\partial), which satisfy some flatness conditions.  These amount to 2-functors of 2-categories \Pi_2(M) \rightarrow \mathcal{G}.

The moduli space of all such 2-connections is only part of the story.  2-functors are related by natural transformations, which are in turn related by “modifications”.  In gauge theory, the natural transformations are called “gauge transformations”, and though the term doesn’t seem to be in common use, the obvious term for the next layer would be “gauge modifications”. It is possible to assemble a 2-groupoid Hom(\Pi_2(M),\mathcal{G}, whose space of objects is exactly the moduli space of 2-connections, and whose 1- and 2-morphisms are exactly these gauge transformations and modifications.  So the question is, what is the meaning of the extra information contained in the 2-groupoid which doesn’t appear in the moduli space itself?

Our claim is that this information expresses how the moduli space carries “higher symmetry”.

2-Group Actions and the Transformation Double Category

What would it mean to say that something exhibits “higher” symmetry? A rudimentary way to formalize the intuition of “symmetry” is to say that there is a group (of “symmetries”) which acts on some object. One could get more subtle, but this should be enough to begin with. We already noted that “higher” gauge theory uses 2-groups (and beyond into n-groups) in the place of ordinary groups.  So in this context, the natural way to interpret it is by saying that there is an action of a 2-group on something.

Just as there are several equivalent ways to define a 2-group, there are different ways to say what it means for it to have an action on something.  One definition of a 2-group is to say that it’s a 2-category with one object and all morphisms and 2-morphisms invertible.  This definition makes it clear that a 2-group has to act on an object of some 2-category \mathcal{C}. For our purposes, just as we normally think of group actions on sets, we will focus on 2-group actions on categories, so that \mathcal{C} = \mathbf{Cat} is the 2-category of interest. Then an action is just a map:

\Phi : \mathcal{G} \rightarrow \mathbf{Cat}

The unique object of \mathcal{G} – let’s call it \star, gets taken to some object \mathbf{C} = \Phi(\star) \in \mathbf{Cat}.  This object \mathbf{C} is the thing being “acted on” by \mathcal{G}.  The existence of the action implies that there are automorphisms \Phi(g) : \mathbf{C} \rightarrow \mathbf{C} for every morphism in \mathbf{G} (which correspond to the elements of the group G of the crossed module).  This would be enough to describe ordinary symmetry, but the higher symmetry is also expressed in the images of 2-morphisms \Phi( \eta : g \rightarrow g') = \Phi(\eta) : \Phi(g) \rightarrow \Phi(g'), which we might call 2-symmetries relating 1-symmetries.

What we want to do in our paper, which the talk summarizes, is to show how this sort of 2-group action gives rise to a 2-groupoid (actually, just a 2-category when the \mathbf{C} being acted on is a general category).  Then we claim that the 2-groupoid of connections can be seen as one that shows up in exactly this way.  (In the following, I have to give some credit to Dany Majard for talking this out and helping to find a better formalism.)

To make sense of this, we use the fact that there is a diagrammatic way to describe the transformation groupoid associated to the action of a group G on a set S.  The set of morphisms is built as a pullback of the action map, \rhd : (g,s) \mapsto g(s).


This means that morphisms are pairs (g,s), thought of as going from s to g(s).  The rule for composing these is another pullback.  The diagram which shows how it’s done appears in the slides.  The whole construction ends up giving a cubical diagram in \mathbf{Sets}, whose top and bottom faces are mere commuting diagrams, and whose four other faces are all pullback squares.

To construct a 2-category from a 2-group action is similar. For now we assume that the 2-group action is strict (rather than being given by \Phi a weak 2-functor).  In this case, it’s enough to think of our 2-group \mathcal{G} not as a 2-category, but as a group-object in \mathbf{Cat} – the same way that a 1-group, as well as being a category, can be seen as a group object in \mathbf{Set}.  The set of objects of this category is the group G of morphisms of the 2-category, and the morphisms make up the group G \ltimes H of 2-morphisms.  Being a group object is the same as having all the extra structure making up a 2-group.

To describe a strict action of such a \mathcal{G} on \mathbf{C}, we just reproduce in \mathbf{Cat} the diagram that defines an action in \mathbf{Sets}:


The fact that \rhd is an action just means this commutes. In principle, we could define a weak action, which would mean that this commutes up to isomorphism, but we won’t be looking at that here.

Constructing the same diagram which describes the structure of a transformation groupoid (p29 in the slides for the talk), we get a structure with a “category of objects” and a “category of morphisms”.  The construction in \mathbf{Set} gives us directly a set of morphisms, while S itself is the set of objects. Similarly, in \mathbf{Cat}, the category of objects is just \mathbf{C}, while the construction gives a category of morphisms.

The two together make a category internal to \mathbf{Cat}, which is to say a double category.  By analogy with S / \!\! / G, we call this double category \mathbf{C} / \!\! / \mathcal{G}.

We take \mathbf{C} as the category of objects, as the “horizontal category”, whose morphisms are the horizontal arrows of the double category. The category of morphisms of \mathbf{C} /\!\!/ \mathcal{G} shows up by letting its objects be the vertical arrows of the double category, and its morphisms be the squares.  These look like this:


The vertical arrows are given by pairs of objects (\gamma, x), and just like the transformation 1-groupoid, each corresponds to the fact that the action of \gamma takes x to \gamma \rhd x. Each square (morphism in the category of morphisms) is given by a pair ( (\gamma, \eta), f) of morphisms, one from \mathcal{G} (given by an element in G \rtimes H), and one from \mathbf{C}.

The horizontal arrow on the bottom of this square is:

(\partial \eta) \gamma \rhd f \circ \Phi(\gamma,\eta)_x = \Phi(\gamma,\eta)_y \circ \gamma \rhd f

The fact that these are equal is exactly the fact that \Phi(\gamma,\eta) is a natural transformation.

The double category \mathbf{C} /\!\!/ \mathcal{G} turns out to have a very natural example which occurs in higher gauge theory.

Higher Symmetry of the Moduli Space

The point of the talk is to show how the 2-groupoid of connections, previously described as Hom(\Pi_2(M),\mathcal{G}), can be seen as coming from a 2-group action on a category – the objects of this category being exactly the connections. In the slides above, for various reasons, we did this in a discretized setting – a manifold with a decomposition into cells. This is useful for writing things down explicitly, but not essential to the idea behind the 2-symmetry of the moduli space.

The point is that there is a category we call \mathbf{Conn}, whose objects are the connections: these assign G-holonomies to edges of our discretization (in general, to paths), and H-holonomies to 2D faces. (Without discretization, one would describe these in terms of Lie(G)-valued 1-forms and Lie(H)-valued 2-forms.)

The morphisms of \mathbf{Conn} are one type of “gauge transformation”: namely, those which assign H-holonomies to edges. (Or: Lie(H)-valued 1-forms). They affect the edge holonomies of a connection just like a 2-morphism in \mathcal{G}.  Face holonomies are affected by the H-value that comes from the boundary of the face.

What’s physically significant here is that both objects and morphisms of \mathbf{Conn} describe nonlocal geometric information.  They describe holonomies over edges and surfaces: not what happens at a point.  The “2-group of gauge transformations”, which we call \mathbf{Gauge}, on the other hand, is purely about local transformations.  If V is the vertex set of the discretized manifold, then \mathbf{Gauge} = \mathcal{G}^V: one copy of the gauge 2-group at each vertex.  (Keeping this finite dimensional and avoiding technical details was one main reason we chose to use a discretization.  In principle, one could also talk about the 2-group of \mathcal{G}-valued functions, whose objects and morphisms, thinking of it as a group object in \mathbf{Cat}, are functions valued in morphisms of \mathcal{G}.)

Now, the way \mathbf{Gauge} acts on \mathbf{Conn} is essentially by conjugation: edge holonomies are affected by pre- and post-multiplication by the values at the two vertices on the edge – whether objects or morphisms of \mathbf{Gauge}.  (Face holonomies are unaffected).  There are details about this in the slides, but the important thing is that this is a 2-group of purely local changes.  The objects of \mathbf{Gauge} are gauge transformations of this other type.  In a continuous setting, they would be described by G-valued functions.  The morphisms are gauge modifications, and could be described by H-valued functions.

The main conceptual point here is that we have really distinguished between two kinds of gauge transformation, which are the horizontal and vertical arrows of the double category \mathbf{Conn} /\!\!/ \mathbf{Gauge}.  This expresses the 2-symmetry by moving some gauge transformations into the category of connections, and others into the 2-group which acts on it.  But physically, we would like to say that both are “gauge transformations”.  So one way to do this is to “collapse” the double category to a bicategory: just formally allow horizontal and vertical arrows to compose, so that there is only one kind of arrow.  Squares become 2-cells.

So then if we collapse the double category expressing our 2-symmetry relation this way, the result is exactly equivalent to the functor category way of describing connections.  (The morphisms will all be invertible because \mathbf{Conn} is a groupoid and \mathbf{Gauge} is a 2-group).

I’m interested in this kind of geometrical example partly because it gives a good way to visualize something new happening here.  There appears to be some natural 2-symmetry on this space of fields, which is fairly easy to see geometrically, and distinguishes in a fundamental way between two types of gauge transformation.  This sort of phenomenon doesn’t occur in the world of \mathbf{Sets} – a set S has no morphisms, after all, so the transformation groupoid for a group action on it is much simpler.

In broad terms, this means that 2-symmetry has qualitatively new features that familiar old 1-symmetry doesn’t have.  Higher categorical versions – n-groups acting on n-groupoids, as might show up in more complicated HQFT – will certainly be even more complicated.  The 2-categorical version is just the first non-trivial situation where this happens, so it gives a nice starting point to understand what’s new in higher symmetry that we didn’t already know.

As usual, this write-up process has been taking a while since life does intrude into blogging for some reason.  In this case, because for a little less than a week, my wife and I have been on our honeymoon, which was delayed by our moving to Lisbon.  We went to the Azores, or rather to São Miguel, the largest of the nine islands.  We had a good time, roughly like so:

Now that we’re back, I’ll attempt to wrap up with the summaries of things discussed at the workshop on Higher Gauge Theory, TQFT, and Quantum Gravity.  In the previous post I described talks which I roughly gathered under TQFT and Higher Gauge Theory, but the latter really ramifies out in a few different ways.  As began to be clear before, higher bundles are classified by higher cohomology of manifolds, and so are gerbes – so in fact these are two slightly different ways of talking about the same thing.  I also remarked, in the summary of Konrad Waldorf’s talk, the idea that the theory of gerbes on a manifold is equivalent to ordinary gauge theory on its loop space – which is one way to make explicit the idea that categorification “raises dimension”, in this case from parallel transport of points to that of 1-dimensional loops.  Next we’ll expand on that theme, and then finally reach the “Quantum Gravity” part, and draw the connection between this and higher gauge theory toward the end.

Gerbes and Cohomology

The very first workshop speaker, in fact, was Paolo Aschieri, who has done a lot of work relating noncommutative geometry and gravity.  In this case, though, he was talking about noncommutative gerbes, and specifically referred to this work with some of the other speakers.  To be clear, this isn’t about gerbes with noncommutative group G, but about gerbes on noncommutative spaces.  To begin with, it’s useful to express gerbes in the usual sense in the right language.  In particular, he explain what a gerbe on a manifold X is in concrete terms, giving Hitchin’s definition (viz).  A U(1) gerbe can be described as “a cohomology class” but it’s more concrete to present it as:

  • a collection of line bundles L_{\alpha \beta} associated with double overlaps U_{\alpha \beta} = U_{\alpha} \cap U_{\beta}.  Note this gets an algebraic structure (multiplication \star of bundles is pointwise \otimes, with an inverse given by the dual, L^{-1} = L^*, so we can require…
  • L_{\alpha \beta}^{-1} \cong L_{\beta \alpha}, which helps define…
  • transition functions \lambda _{\alpha \beta \gamma} on triple overlaps U_{\alpha \beta \gamma}, which are sections of L_{\alpha \beta \gamma} = L_{\alpha \beta} \star L_{\beta \gamma} \star L_{\gamma \alpha}.  If this product is trivial, there’d be a 1-cocycle condition here, but we only insist on the 2-cocycle condition…
  • \lambda_{\beta \gamma \delta} \lambda_{\alpha \gamma \delta}^{-1} \lambda_{\alpha \beta \delta} \lambda_{\alpha \beta \gamma}^{-1} = 1

This is a U(1)-gerbe on a commutative space.  The point is that one can make a similar definition for a noncommutative space.  If the space X is associated with the algebra A=C^{\infty}(X) of smooth functions, then a line bundle is a module for A, so if A is noncommutative (thought of as a “space” X), a “bundle over X is just defined to be an A-module.  One also has to define an appropriate “covariant derivative” operator D on this module, and the \star-product must be defined as well, and will be noncommutative (we can think of it as a deformation of the \star above).  The transition functions are sections: that is, elements of the modules in question.  his means we can describe a gerbe in terms of a big stack of modules, with a chosen algebraic structure, together with some elements.  The idea then is that gerbes can give an interpretation of cohomology of noncommutative spaces as well as commutative ones.

Mauro Spera spoke about a point of view of gerbes based on “transgressions”.  The essential point is that an n-gerbe on a space X can be seen as the obstruction to patching together a family of  (n-1)-gerbes.  Thus, for instance, a U(1) 0-gerbe is a U(1)-bundle, which is to say a complex line bundle.  As described above, a 1-gerbe can be understood as describing the obstacle to patching together a bunch of line bundles, and the obstacle is the ability to find a cocycle \lambda satisfying the requisite conditions.  This obstacle is measured by the cohomology of the space.  Saying we want to patch together (n-1)-gerbes on the fibre.  He went on to discuss how this manifests in terms of obstructions to string structures on manifolds (already discussed at some length in the post on Hisham Sati’s school talk, so I won’t duplicate here).

A talk by Igor Bakovic, “Stacks, Gerbes and Etale Groupoids”, gave a way of looking at gerbes via stacks (see this for instance).  The organizing principle is the classification of bundles by the space maps into a classifying space – or, to get the category of principal G-bundles on, the category Top(Sh(X),BG), where Sh(X) is the category of sheaves on X and BG is the classifying topos of G-sets.  (So we have geometric morphisms between the toposes as the objects.)  Now, to get further into this, we use that Sh(X) is equivalent to the category of Étale spaces over X – this is a refinement of the equivalence between bundles and presheaves.  Taking stalks of a presheaf gives a bundle, and taking sections of a bundle gives a presheaf – and these operations are adjoint.

The issue at hand is how to categorify this framework to talk about 2-bundles, and the answer is there’s a 2-adjunction between the 2-category 2-Bun(X) of such things, and Fib(X) = [\mathcal{O}(X)^{op},Cat], the 2-category of fibred categories over X.  (That is, instead of looking at “sheaves of sets”, we look at “sheaves of categories” here.)  The adjunction, again, involves talking stalks one way, and taking sections the other way.  One hard part of this is getting a nice definition of “stalk” for stacks (i.e. for the “sheaves of categories”), and a good part of the talk focused on explaining how to get a nice tractable definition which is (fibre-wise) equivalent to the more natural one.

Bakovic did a bunch of this work with Branislav Jurco, who was also there, and spoke about “Nonabelian Bundle 2-Gerbes“.  The paper behind that link has more details, which I’ve yet to entirely absorb, but the essential point appears to be to extend the description of “bundle gerbes” associated to crossed modules up to 2-crossed modules.  Bundles, with a structure-group G, are classified by the cohomology H^1(X,G) with coefficients in G; and whereas “bundle-gerbes” with a structure-crossed-module H \rightarrow G can likewise be described by cohomology H^1(X,H \rightarrow G).  Notice this is a bit different from the description in terms of higher cohomology H^2(X,G) for a G-gerbe, which can be understood as a bundle-gerbe using the shifted crossed module G \rightarrow 1 (when G is abelian.  The goal here is to generalize this part to nonabelian groups, and also pass up to “bundle 2-gerbes” based on a 2-crossed module, or crossed complex of length 2, L \rightarrow H \rightarrow G as I described previously for Joao Martins’ talk.  This would be classified in terms of cohomology valued in the 2-crossed module.  The point is that one can describe such a thing as a bundle over a fibre product, which (I think – I’m not so clear on this part) deals with the same structure of overlaps as the higher cohomology in the other way of describing things.

Finally,  a talk that’s a little harder to classify than most, but which I’ve put here with things somewhat related to string theory, was Alexander Kahle‘s on “T-Duality and Differential K-Theory”, based on work with Alessandro Valentino.  This uses the idea of the differential refinement of cohomology theories – in this case, K-theory, which is a generalized cohomology theory, which is to say that K-theory satisfies the Eilenberg-Steenrod axioms (with the dimension axiom relaxed, hence “generalized”).  Cohomology theories, including generalized ones, can have differential refinements, which pass from giving topological to geometrical information about a space.  So, while K-theory assigns to a space the Grothendieck ring of the category of vector bundles over it, the differential refinement of K-theory does the same with the category of vector bundles with connection.  This captures both local and global structures, which turns out to be necessary to describe fields in string theory – specifically, Ramond-Ramond fields.  The point of this talk was to describe what happens to these fields under T-duality.  This is a kind of duality in string theory between a theory with large strings and small strings.  The talk describes how this works, where we have a manifold with fibres at each point M\times S^1_r with fibres strings of radius r and M \times S^1_{1/r} with radius 1/r.  There’s a correspondence space M \times S^1_r \times S^1_{1/r}, which has projection maps down into the two situations.  Fields, being forms on such a fibration, can be “transferred” through this correspondence space by a “pull-back and push-forward” (with, in the middle, a wedge with a form that mixes the two directions, exp( d \theta_r + d \theta_{1/r})).  But to be physically the right kind of field, these “forms” actually need to be representing cohomology classes in the differential refinement of K-theory.

Quantum Gravity etc.

Now, part of the point of this workshop was to try to build, or anyway maintain, some bridges between the kind of work in geometry and topology which I’ve been describing and the world of physics.  There are some particular versions of physical theories where these ideas have come up.  I’ve already touched on string theory along the way (there weren’t many talks about it from a physicist’s point of view), so this will mostly be about a different sort of approach.

Benjamin Bahr gave a talk outlining this approach for our mathematician-heavy audience, with his talk on “Spin Foam Operators” (see also for instance this paper).  The point is that one approach to quantum gravity has a theory whose “kinematics” (the description of the state of a system at a given time) is described by “spin networks” (based on SU(2) gauge theory), as described back in the pre-school post.  These span a Hilbert space, so the “dynamical” issue of such models is how to get operators between Hilbert spaces from “foams” that interpolate between such networks – that is, what kind of extra data they might need, and how to assign amplitudes to faces and edges etc. to define an operator, which (assuming a “local” theory where distant parts of the foam affect the result independently) will be of the form:

Z(K,\rho,P) = (\prod_f A_f) \prod_v Tr_v(\otimes P_e)

where K is a particular complex (foam), \rho is a way of assigning irreps to faces of the foam, and P is the assignment of intertwiners to edges.  Later on, one can take a discrete version of a path integral by summing over all these (K, \rho, P).  Here we have a product over faces and one over vertices, with an amplitude A_f assigned (somehow – this is the issue) to faces.  The trace is over all the representation spaces assigned to the edges that are incident to a vertex (this is essentially the only consistent way to assign an amplitude to a vertex).  If we also consider spacetimes with boundary, we need some amplitudes B_e at the boundary edges, as well.  A big part of the work with such models is finding such amplitudes that meet some nice conditions.

Some of these conditions are inherently necessary – to ensure the theory is invariant under gauge transformations, or (formally) changing orientations of faces.  Others are considered optional, though to me “functoriality” (that the way of deriving operators respects the gluing-together of foams) seems unavoidable – it imposes that the boundary amplitudes have to be found from the A_f in one specific way.  Some other nice conditions might be: that Z(K, \rho, P) depends only on the topology of K (which demands that the P operators be projections); that Z is invariant under subdivision of the foam (which implies the amplitudes have to be A_f = dim(\rho_f)).

Assuming all these means the only choice is exactly which sub-projection P_e is of the projection onto the gauge-invariant part of the representation space for the faces attached to edge e.  The rest of the talk discussed this, including some examples (models for BF-theory, the Barrett-Crane model and the more recent EPRL/FK model), and finished up by discussing issues about getting a nice continuum limit by way of “coarse graining”.

On a related subject, Bianca Dittrich spoke about “Dynamics and Diffeomorphism Symmetry in Discrete Quantum Gravity”, which explained the nature of some of the hard problems with this sort of discrete model of quantum gravity.  She began by asking what sort of models (i.e. which choices of amplitudes) in such discrete models would actually produce a nice continuum theory – since gravity, classically, is described in terms of spacetimes which are continua, and the quantum theory must look like this in some approximation.  The point is to think of these as “coarse-graining” of a very fine (perfect, in the limit) approximation to the continuum by a triangulation with a very short length-scale for the edges.  Coarse graining means discarding some of the edges to get a coarser approximation (perhaps repeatedly).  If the Z happens to be triangulation-independent, then coarse graining makes no difference to the result, nor does the converse process of refining the triangulation.  So one question is:  if we expect the continuum limit to be diffeomorphism invariant (as is General Relativity), what does this say at the discrete level?  The relation between diffeomorphism invariance and triangulation invariance has been described by Hendryk Pfeiffer, and in the reverse direction by Dittrich et al.

Actually constructing the dynamics for a system like this in a nice way (“canonical dynamics with anomaly-free constraints”) is still a big problem, which Bianca suggested might be approached by this coarse-graining idea.  Now, if a theory is topological (here we get the link to TQFT), such as electromagnetism in 2D, or (linearized) gravity in 3D, coarse graining doesn’t change much.  But otherwise, changing the length scale means changing the action for the continuum limit of the theory.  This is related to renormalization: one starts with a “naive” guess at a theory, then refines it (in this case, by the coarse-graining process), which changes the action for the theory, until arriving at (or approximating to) a fixed point.  Bianca showed an example, which produces a really huge, horrible action full of very complicated terms, which seems rather dissatisfying.  What’s more, she pointed out that, unless the theory is topological, this always produces an action which is non-local – unlike the “naive” discrete theory.  That is, the action can’t be described in terms of a bunch of non-interacting contributions from the field at individual points – instead, it’s some function which couples the field values at distant points (albeit in a way that falls off exponentially as the points get further apart).

In a more specific talk, Aleksandr Mikovic discussed “Finiteness and Semiclassical Limit of EPRL-FK Spin Foam Models”, looking at a particular example of such models which is the (relatively) new-and-improved candidate for quantum gravity mentioned above.  This was a somewhat technical talk, which I didn’t entirely follow, but  roughly, the way he went at this was through the techniques of perturbative QFT.  That is, by looking at the theory in terms of an “effective action”, instead of some path integral over histories \phi with action S(\phi) – which looks like \int d\phi  e^{iS(\phi)}.  Starting with some classical history \bar{\phi} – a stationary point of the action S – the effective action \Gamma(\bar{\phi}) is an integral over small fluctuations \phi around it of e^{iS(\bar{\phi} + \phi)}.

He commented more on the distinction between the question of triangulation independence (which is crucial for using spin foams to give invariants of manifolds) and the question of whether the theory gives a good quantum theory of gravity – that’s the “semiclassical limit” part.  (In light of the above, this seems to amount to asking if “diffeomorphism invariance” really extends through to the full theory, or is only approximately true, in the limiting case).  Then the “finiteness” part has to do with the question of getting decent asymptotic behaviour for some of those weights mentioned above so as to give a nice effective action (if not necessarily triangulation independence).  So, for instance, in the Ponzano-Regge model (which gives a nice invariant for manifolds), the vertex amplitudes A_v are found by the 6j-symbols of representations.  The asymptotics of the 6j symbols then becomes an issue – Alekandr noted that to get a theory with a nice effective action, those 6j-symbols need to be scaled by a certain factor.  This breaks triangulation independence (hence means we don’t have a good manifold invariant), but gives a physically nicer theory.  In the case of 3D gravity, this is not what we want, but as he said, there isn’t a good a-priori reason to think it can’t give a good theory of 4D gravity.

Now, making a connection between these sorts of models and higher gauge theory, Aristide Baratin spoke about “2-Group Representations for State Sum Models”.  This is a project Baez, Freidel, and Wise, building on work by Crane and Sheppard (see my previous post, where Derek described the geometry of the representation theory for some 2-groups).  The idea is to construct state-sum models where, at the kinematical level, edges are labelled by 2-group representations, faces by intertwiners, and tetrahedra by 2-intertwiners.  (This assumes the foam is a triangulation – there’s a certain amount of back-and-forth in this area between this, and the Poincaré dual picture where we have 4-valent vertices).  He discussed this in a couple of related cases – the Euclidean and Poincaré 2-groups, which are described by crossed modules with base groups SO(4) or SO(3,1) respectively, acting on the abelian group (of automorphisms of the identity) R^4 in the obvious way.  Then the analogy of the 6j symbols above, which are assigned to tetrahedra (or dually, vertices in a foam interpolating two kinematical states), are now 10j symbols assigned to 4-simplexes (or dually, vertices in the foam).

One nice thing about this setup is that there’s a good geometric interpretation of the kinematics – irreducible representations of these 2-groups pick out orbits of the action of the relevant SO on R^4.  These are “mass shells” – radii of spheres in the Euclidean case, or proper length/time values that pick out hyperboloids in the Lorentzian case of SO(3,1).  Assigning these to edges has an obvious geometric meaning (as a proper length of the edge), which thus has a continuous spectrum.  The areas and volumes interpreting the intertwiners and 2-intertwiners start to exhibit more of the discreteness you see in the usual formulation with representations of the SO groups themselves.  Finally, Aristide pointed out that this model originally arose not from an attempt to make a quantum gravity model, but from looking at Feynman diagrams in flat space (a sort of “quantum flat space” model), which is suggestively interesting, if not really conclusively proving anything.

Finally, Laurent Freidel gave a talk, “Classical Geometry of Spin Network States” which was a way of challenging the idea that these states are exclusively about “quantum geometries”, and tried to give an account of how to interpret them as discrete, but classical.  That is, the quantization of the classical phase space T^*(A/G) (the cotangent bundle of connections-mod-gauge) involves first a discretization to a spin-network phase space \mathcal{P}_{\Gamma}, and then a quantization to get a Hilbert space H_{\Gamma}, and the hard part is the first step.  The point is to see what the classical phase space is, and he describes it as a (symplectic) quotient T^*(SU(2)^E)//SU(2)^V, which starts by assigning $T^*(SU(2))$ to each edge, then reduced by gauge transformations.  The puzzle is to interpret the states as geometries with some discrete aspect.

The answer is that one thinks of edges as describing (dual) faces, and vertices as describing some polytopes.  For each p, there’s a 2(p-3)-dimensional “shape space” of convex polytopes with p-faces and a given fixed area j.  This has a canonical symplectic structure, where lengths and interior angles at an edge are the canonically conjugate variables.  Then the whole phase space describes ways of building geometries by gluing these things (associated to vertices) together at the corresponding faces whenever the two vertices are joined by an edge.  Notice this is a bit strange, since there’s no particular reason the faces being glued will have the same shape: just the same area.  An area-1 pentagon and an area-1 square associated to the same edge could be glued just fine.  Then the classical geometry for one of these configurations is build of a bunch of flat polyhedra (i.e. with a flat metric and connection on them).  Measuring distance across a face in this geometry is a little strange.  Given two points inside adjacent cells, you measure orthogonal distance to the matched faces, and add in the distance between the points you arrive at (orthogonally) – assuming you glued the faces at the centre.  This is a rather ugly-seeming geometry, but it’s symplectically isomorphic to the phase space of spin network states – so it’s these classical geometries that spin-foam QG is a quantization of.  Maybe the ugliness should count against this model of quantum gravity – or maybe my aesthetic sense just needs work.

(Laurent also gave another talk, which was originally scheduled as one of the school talks, but ended up being a very interesting exposition of the principle of “Relativity of Localization”, which is hard to shoehorn into the themes I’ve used here, and was anyway interesting enough that I’ll devote a separate post to it.)

Now for a more sketchy bunch of summaries of some talks presented at the HGTQGR workshop.  I’ll organize this into a few themes which appeared repeatedly and which roughly line up with the topics in the title: in this post, variations on TQFT, plus 2-group and higher forms of gauge theory; in the next post, gerbes and cohomology, plus talks on discrete models of quantum gravity and suchlike physics.

TQFT and Variations

I start here for no better reason than the personal one that it lets me put my talk first, so I’m on familiar ground to start with, for which reason also I’ll probably give more details here than later on.  So: a TQFT is a linear representation of the category of cobordisms – that is, a (symmetric monoidal) functor nCob \rightarrow Vect, in the notation I mentioned in the first school post.  An Extended TQFT is a higher functor nCob_k \rightarrow k-Vect, representing a category of cobordisms with corners into a higher category of k-Vector spaces (for some definition of same).  The essential point of my talk is that there’s a universal construction that can be used to build one of these at k=2, which relies on some way of representing nCob_2 into Span(Gpd), whose objects are groupoids, and whose morphisms in Hom(A,B) are pairs of groupoid homomorphisms A \leftarrow X \rightarrow B.  The 2-morphisms have an analogous structure.  The point is that there’s a 2-functor \Lambda : Span(Gpd) \rightarrow 2Vect which is takes representations of groupoids, at the level of objects; for morphisms, there is a “pull-push” operation that just uses the restricted and induced representation functors to move a representation across a span; the non-trivial (but still universal) bit is the 2-morphism map, which uses the fact that the restriction and induction functors are bi-ajdoint, so there are units and counits to use.  A construction using gauge theory gives groupoids of connections and gauge transformations for each manifold or cobordism.  This recovers a form of the Dijkgraaf-Witten model.  In principle, though, any way of getting a groupoid (really, a stack) associated to a space functorially will give an ETQFT this way.  I finished up by suggesting what would need to be done to extend this up to higher codimension.  To go to codimension 3, one would assign an object (codimension-3 manifold) a 3-vector space which is a representation 2-category of 2-groupoids of connections valued in 2-groups, and so on.  There are some theorems about representations of n-groupoids which would need to be proved to make this work.

The fact that different constructions can give groupoids for spaces was used by the next speaker, Thomas Nicklaus, whose talk described another construction that uses the \Lambda I mentioned above.  This one produces “Equivariant Dijkgraaf-Witten Theory”.  The point is that one gets groupoids for spaces in a new way.  Before, we had, for a space M a groupoid \mathcal{A}_G(M) whose objects are G-connections (or, put another way, bundles-with-connection) and whose morphisms are gauge transformations.  Now we suppose that there’s some group J which acts weakly (i.e. an action defined up to isomorphism) on \mathcal{A}_G(M).  We think of this as describing “twisted bundles” over M.  This is described by a quotient stack \mathcal{A}_G // J (which, as a groupoid, gets some extra isomorphisms showing where two objects are related by the J-action).  So this gives a new map nCob \rightarrow Span(Gpd), and applying \Lambda gives a TQFT.  The generating objects for the resulting 2-vector space are “twisted sectors” of the equivariant DW model.  There was some more to the talk, including a description of how the DW model can be further mutated using a cocycle in the group cohomology of G, but I’ll let you look at the slides for that.

Next up was Jamie Vicary, who was talking about “(1,2,3)-TQFT”, which is another term for what I called “Extended” TQFT above, but specifying that the objects are 1-manifolds, the morphisms 2-manifolds, and the 2-morphisms are 3-manifolds.  He was talking about a theorem that identifies oriented TQFT’s of this sort with “anomaly-free modular tensor categories” – which is widely believed, but in fact harder than commonly thought.  It’s easy enough that such a TQFT Z corresponds to a MTC – it’s the category Z(S^1) assigned to the circle.  What’s harder is showing that the TQFT’s are equivalent functors iff the categories are equivalent.  This boils down, historically, to the difficulty of showing the category is rigid.  Jamie was talking about a project with Bruce Bartlett and Chris Schommer-Pries, whose presentation of the cobordism category (described in the school post) was the basis of their proof.

Part of it amounts to giving a description of the TQFT in terms of certain string diagrams.  Jamie kindly credited me with describing this point of view to him: that the codimension-2 manifolds in a TQFT can be thought of as “boundaries in space” – codimension-1 manifolds are either time-evolving boundaries, or else slices of space in which the boundaries live; top-dimension cobordisms are then time-evolving slices of space-with-boundary.  (This should be only a heuristic way of thinking – certainly a generic TQFT has no literal notion of “time-evolution”, though in that (2+1) quantum gravity can be seen as a TQFT, there’s at least one case where this picture could be taken literally.)  Then part of their proof involves showing that the cobordisms can be characterized by taking vector spaces on the source and target manifolds spanned by the generating objects, and finding the functors assigned to cobordisms in terms of sums over all “string diagrams” (particle worldlines, if you like) bounded by the evolving boundaries.  Jamie described this as a “topological path integral”.  Then one has to describe the string diagram calculus – ridigidy follows from the “yanking” rule, for instance, and this follows from Morse theory as in Chris’ presentation of the cobordism category.

There was a little more discussion about what the various properties (proved in a similar way) imply.  One is “cloaking” – the fact that a 2-morphism which “creates a handle” is invisible to the string diagrams in the sense that it introduces a sum over all diagrams with a string “looped” around the new handle, but this sum gives a result that’s equal to the original map (in any “pivotal” tensor category, as here).

Chronologically before all these, one of the first talks on such a topic was by Rafael Diaz, on Homological Quantum Field Theory, or HLQFT for short, which is a rather different sort of construction.  Remember that Homotopy QFT, as described in my summary of Tim Porter’s school sessions, is about linear representations of what I’ll for now call Cob(d,B), whose morphisms are d-dimensional cobordisms equipped with maps into a space B up to homotopy.  HLQFT instead considers cobordisms equipped with maps taken up to homology.

Specifically, there’s some space M, say a manifold, with some distinguished submanifolds (possibly boundary components; possibly just embedded submanifolds; possibly even all of M for a degenerate case).  Then we define Cob_d^M to have objects which are (d-1)-manifolds equipped with maps into M which land on the distinguished submanifolds (to make composition work nicely, we in fact assume they map to a single point).  Morphisms in Cob_d^M are trickier, and look like (N,\alpha, \xi): a cobordism N in this category is likewise equipped with a map \alpha from its boundary into M which recovers the maps on its objects.  That \xi is a homology class of maps from N to M, which agrees with \alpha.  This forms a monoidal category as with standard cobordisms.  Then HLQFT is about representations of this category.  One simple case Rafael described is the dimension-1 case, where objects are (ordered sets of) points equipped with maps that pick out chosen submanifolds of M, and morphisms are just braids equipped with homology classes of “paths” joining up the source and target submanifolds.  Then a representation might, e.g., describe how to evolve a homology class on the starting manifold to one on the target by transporting along such a path-up-to-homology.  In higher dimensions, the evolution is naturally more complicated.

A slightly looser fit to this section is the talk by Thomas Krajewski, “Quasi-Quantum Groups from Strings” (see this) – he was talking about how certain algebraic structures arise from “string worldsheets”, which are another way to describe cobordisms.  This does somewhat resemble the way an algebraic structure (Frobenius algebra) is related to a 2D TQFT, but here the string worldsheets are interacting with 3-form field, H (the curvature of that 2-form field B of string theory) and things needn’t be topological, so the result is somewhat different.

Part of the point is that quantizing such a thing gives a higher version of what happens for quantizing a moving particle in a gauge field.  In the particle case, one comes up with a line bundle (of which sections form the Hilbert space) and in the string case one comes up with a gerbe; for the particle, this involves associated 2-cocycle, and for the string a 3-cocycle; for the particle, one ends up producing a twisted group algebra, and for the string, this is where one gets a “quasi-quantum group”.  The algebraic structures, as in the TQFT situation, come from, for instance, the “pants” cobordism which gives a multiplication and a comultiplication (by giving maps H \otimes H \rightarrow H or the reverse, where H is the object assigned to a circle).

There is some machinery along the way which I won’t describe in detail, except that it involves a tricomplex of forms – the gradings being form degree, the degree of a cocycle for group cohomology, and the number of overlaps.  As observed before, gerbes and their higher versions have transition functions on higher numbers of overlapping local neighborhoods than mere bundles.  (See the paper above for more)

Higher Gauge Theory

The talks I’ll summarize here touch on various aspects of higher-categorical connections or 2-groups (though at least one I’ll put off until later).  The division between this and the section on gerbes is a little arbitrary, since of course they’re deeply connected, but I’m making some judgements about emphasis or P.O.V. here.

Apart from giving lectures in the school sessions, John Huerta also spoke on “Higher Supergroups for String Theory”, which brings “super” (i.e. \mathbb{Z}_2-graded) objects into higher gauge theory.  There are “super” versions of vector spaces and manifolds, which decompose into “even” and “odd” graded parts (a.k.a. “bosonic” and “fermionic” parts).  Thus there are “super” variants of Lie algebras and Lie groups, which are like the usual versions, except commutation properties have to take signs into account (e.g. a Lie superalgebra’s bracket is commutative if the product of the grades of two vectors is odd, anticommutative if it’s even).  Then there are Lie 2-algebras and 2-groups as well – categories internal to this setting.  The initial question has to do with whether one can integrate some Lie 2-algebra structures to Lie 2-group structures on a spacetime, which depends on the existence of some globally smooth cocycles.  The point is that when spacetime is of certain special dimensions, this can work, namely dimensions 3, 4, 6, and 10.  These are all 2 more than the real dimensions of the four real division algebras, \mathbb{R}, \mathbb{C}, \mathbb{H} and \mathbb{O}.  It’s in these dimensions that Lie 2-superalgebras can be integrated to Lie 2-supergroups.  The essential reason is that a certain cocycle condition will hold because of the properties of a form on the Clifford algebras that are associated to the division algebras.  (John has some related material here and here, though not about the 2-group case.)

Since we’re talking about higher versions of Lie groups/algebras, an important bunch of concepts to categorify are those in representation theory.  Derek Wise spoke on “2-Group Representations and Geometry”, based on work with Baez, Baratin and Freidel, most fully developed here, but summarized here.  The point is to describe the representation theory of Lie 2-groups, in particular geometrically.  They’re to be represented on (in general, infinite-dimensional) 2-vector spaces of some sort, which is chosen to be a category of measurable fields of Hilbert spaces on some measure space, which is called H^X (intended to resemble, but not exactly be the same as, Hilb^X, the space of “functors into Hilb from the space X, the way Kapranov-Voevodsky 2-vector spaces can be described as Vect^k).  The first work on this was by Crane and Sheppeard, and also Yetter.  One point is that for 2-groups, we have not only representations and intertwiners between them, but 2-intertwiners between these.  One can describe these geometrically – part of which is a choice of that measure space (X,\mu).

This done, we can say that a representation of a 2-group is a 2-functor \mathcal{G} \rightarrow H^X, where \mathcal{G} is seen as a one-object 2-category.  Thinking about this geometrically, if we concretely describe \mathcal{G} by the crossed module (G,H,\rhd,\partial), defines an action of G on X, and a map X \rightarrow H^* into the character group, which thereby becomes a G-equivariant bundle.  One consequence of this description is that it becomes possible to distinguish not only irreducible representations (bundles over a single orbit) and indecomposible ones (where the fibres are particularly simple homogeneous spaces), but an intermediate notion called “irretractible” (though it’s not clear how much this provides).  An intertwining operator between reps over X and Y can be described in terms of a bundle of Hilbert spaces – which is itself defined over the pullback of X and Y seen as G-bundles over H^*.  A 2-intertwiner is a fibre-wise map between two such things.  This geometric picture specializes in various ways for particular examples of 2-groups.  A physically interesting one, which Crane and Sheppeard, and expanded on in that paper of [BBFW] up above, deals with the Poincaré 2-group, and where irreducible representations live over mass-shells in Minkowski space (or rather, the dual of H \cong \mathbb{R}^{3,1}).

Moving on from 2-group stuff, there were a few talks related to 3-groups and 3-groupoids.  There are some new complexities that enter here, because while (weak) 2-categories are all (bi)equivalent to strict 2-categories (where things like associativity and the interchange law for composing 2-cells hold exactly), this isn’t true for 3-categories.  The best strictification result is that any 3-category is (tri)equivalent to a Gray category – where all those properties hold exactly, except for the interchange law (\alpha \circ \beta) \cdot (\alpha ' \circ \beta ') = (\alpha \cdot \alpha ') \circ (\beta \circ \beta ') for horizontal and vertical compositions of 2-cells, which is replaced by an “interchanger” isomorphism with some coherence properties.  John Barrett gave an introduction to this idea and spoke about “Diagrams for Gray Categories”, describing how to represent morphisms, 2-morphisms, and 3-morphisms in terms of higher versions of “string” diagrams involving (piecewise linear) surfaces satisfying some properties.  He also carefully explained how to reduce the dimensions in order to make them both clearer and easier to draw.  Bjorn Gohla spoke on “Mapping Spaces for Gray Categories”, but since it was essentially a shorter version of a talk I’ve already posted about, I’ll leave that for now, except to point out that it linked to the talk by Joao Faria Martins, “3D Holonomy” (though see also this paper with Roger Picken).

The point in Joao’s talk starts with the fact that we can describe holonomies for 3-connections on 3-bundles valued in Gray-groups (i.e. the maximally strict form of a general 3-group) in terms of Gray-functors hol: \Pi_3(M) \rightarrow \mathcal{G}.  Here, \Pi_3(M) is the fundamental 3-groupoid of M, which turns points, paths, homotopies of paths, and homotopies of homotopies into a Gray groupoid (modulo some technicalities about “thin” or “laminated”  homotopies) and \mathcal{G} is a gauge Gray-group.  Just as a 2-group can be represented by a crossed module, a Gray (3-)group can be represented by a “2-crossed module” (yes, the level shift in the terminology is occasionally confusing).  This is a chain of groups L \stackrel{\delta}{\rightarrow} E \stackrel{\partial}{\rightarrow} G, where G acts on the other groups, together with some structure maps (for instance, the Peiffer commutator for a crossed module becomes a lifting \{ ,\} : E \times E \rightarrow L) which all fit together nicely.  Then a tri-connection can be given locally by forms valued in the Lie algebras of these groups: (\omega , m ,\theta) in  \Omega^1 (M,\mathfrak{g} ) \times \Omega^2 (M,\mathfrak{e}) \times \Omega^3(M,\mathfrak{l}).  Relating the global description in terms of hol and local description in terms of (\omega, m, \theta) is a matter of integrating forms over paths, surfaces, or 3-volumes that give the various j-morphisms of \Pi_3(M).  This sort of construction of parallel transport as functor has been developed in detail by Waldorf and Schreiber (viz. these slides, or the full paper), some time ago, which is why, thematically, they’re the next two speakers I’ll summarize.

Konrad Waldorf spoke about “Abelian Gauge Theories on Loop Spaces and their Regression”.  (For more, see two papers by Konrad on this)  The point here is that there is a relation between two kinds of theories – string theory (with B-field) on a manifold M, and ordinary U(1) gauge theory on its loop space LM.  The relation between them goes by the name “regression” (passing from gauge theory on LM to string theory on M), or “transgression”, going the other way.  This amounts to showing an equivalence of categories between [principal U(1)-bundles with connection on LM] and [U(1)-gerbes with connection on M].  This nicely gives a way of seeing how gerbes “categorify” bundles, since passing to the loop space – whose points are maps S^1 \rightarrow M means a holonomy functor is now looking at objects (points in LM) which would be morphisms in the fundamental groupoid of M, and morphisms which are paths of loops (surfaces in M which trace out homotopies).  So things are shifted by one level.  Anyway, Konrad explained how this works in more detail, and how it should be interpreted as relating connections on loop space to the B-field in string theory.

Urs Schreiber kicked the whole categorification program up a notch by talking about \infty-Connections and their Chern-Simons Functionals .  So now we’re getting up into \infty-categories, and particularly \infty-toposes (see Jacob Lurie’s paper, or even book if so inclined to find out what these are), and in particular a “cohesive topos”, where derived geometry can be developed (Urs suggested people look here, where a bunch of background is collected). The point is that \infty-topoi are good for talking about homotopy theory.  We want a setting which allows all that structure, but also allows us to do differential geometry and derived geometry.  So there’s a “cohesive” \infty-topos called Smooth\infty Gpds, of “sheaves” (in the \infty-topos sense) of \infty-groupoids on smooth manifolds.  This setting is the minimal common generalization of homotopy theory and differential geometry.

This is about a higher analog of this setup: since there’s a smooth classifying space (in fact, a Lie groupoid) for G-bundles, BG, there’s also an equivalence between categories G-Bund of G-principal bundles, and SmoothGpd(X,BG) (of functors into BG).  Moreover, there’s a similar setup with BG_{conn} for bundles with connection.  This can be described topologically, or there’s also a “differential refinement” to talk about the smooth situation.  This equivalence lives within a category of (smooth) sheaves of groupoids.  For higher gauge theory, we want a higher version as in Smooth \infty Gpds described above.  Then we should get an equivalence – in this cohesive topos – of hom(X,B^n U(1)) and a category of U(1)(n-1)-gerbes.

Then the part about the  “Chern-Simons functionals” refers to the fact that CS theory for a manifold (which is a kind of TQFT) is built using an action functional that is found as an integral of the forms that describe some U(1)-connection over the manifold.  (Then one does a path-integral of this functional over all connections to find partition functions etc.)  So the idea is that for these higher U(1)-gerbes, whose classifying spaces we’ve just described, there should be corresponding functionals.  This is why, as Urs remarked in wrapping up, this whole picture has an explicit presentation in terms of forms.  Actually, in terms of Cech-cocycles (due to the fact we’re talking about gerbes), whose coefficients are taken in sheaves of complexes (this is the derived geometry part) of differential forms whose coefficients are in L_\infty-algebroids (the \infty-groupoid version of Lie algebras, since in general we’re talking about a theory with gauge \infty-groupoids now).

Whew!  Okay, that’s enough for this post.  Next time, wrapping up blogging the workshop, finally.

Continuing from the previous post, there are a few more lecture series from the school to talk about.

Higher Gauge Theory

The next was John Huerta’s series on Higher Gauge Theory from the point of view of 2-groups.  John set this in the context of “categorification”, a slightly vague program of replacing set-based mathematical ideas with category-based mathematical ideas.  The general reason for this is to get an extra layer of “maps between things”, or “relations between relations”, etc. which tend to be expressed by natural transformations.  There are various ways to go about this, but one is internalization: given some sort of structure, the relevant example in this case being “groups”, one has a category {Groups}, and can define a 2-group as a “category internal to {Groups}“.  So a 2-group has a group of objects, a group of morphisms, and all the usual maps (source and target for morphisms, composition, etc.) which all have to be group homomorphisms.  It should be said that this all produces a “strict 2-group”, since the objects G necessarily form a group here.  In particular, m : G \times G \rightarrow G satisfies group axioms “on the nose” – which is the only way to satisfy them for a group made of the elements of a set, but for a group made of the elements of a category, one might require only that it commute up to isomorphism.  A weak 2-group might then be described as a “weak model” of the theory of groups in Cat, but this whole approach is much less well-understood than the strict version as one goes to general n-groups.

Now, as mentioned in the previous post, there is a 1-1 correspondence between 2-groups and crossed modules (up to equivalence): given a crossed module (G,H,\partial,\rhd), there’s a 2-group \mathcal{G} whose objects are G and whose morphisms are G \ltimes H; given a 2-group \mathcal{G} with objects G, there’s a crossed module (G, Aut(1_G),1,m).  (The action m acts on a morphism in such as way as to act by multiplication on its source and target).  Then, for instance, the Peiffer identity for crossed modules (see previous post) is a consequence of the fact that composition of morphisms is supposed to be a group homomorphism.

Looking at internal categories in [your favourite setting here] isn’t the only way to do categorification, but it does produce some interesting examples.  Baez-Crans 2-vector spaces are defined this way (in Vect), and built using these are Lie 2-algebras.  Looking for a way to integrate Lie 2-algebras up to Lie 2-groups (which are internal categories in Lie groups) brings us back to the current main point.  This is the use of 2-groups to do higher gauge theory.  This requires the use of “2-bundles”.  To explain these, we can say first of all that a “2-space” is an internal category in Spaces (whether that be manifolds, or topological spaces, or what-have-you), and that a (locally trivial) 2-bundle should have a total 2-space E, a base 2-space M, and a (functorial) projection map p : E \rightarrow M, such that there’s some open cover of M by neighborhoods U_i where locally the bundle “looks like” \pi_i : U_i \times F \rightarrow U_i, where F is the fibre of the bundle.  In the bundle setting, “looks like” means “is isomorphic to” by means of isomorphisms f_i : E_{U_i} \rightarrow U_i \times F.  With 2-bundles, it’s interpreted as “is equivalent to” in the categorical sense, likewise by maps f_i.

Actually making this precise is a lot of work when M is a general 2-space – even defining open covers and setting up all the machinery properly is quite hard.  This has been done, by Toby Bartels in his thesis, but to keep things simple, John restricted his talk to the case where M is just an ordinary manifold (thought of as a 2-space which has only identity morphisms).   Then a key point is that there’s an analog to how (principal) G-bundles (where F \cong G as a G-set) are classified up to isomorphism by the first Cech cohomology of the manifold, \check{H}^1(M,G).  This works because one can define transition functions on double overlaps U_{ij} := U_i \cap U_j, by g_{ij} = f_i f_j^{-1}.  Then these g_{ij} will automatically satisfy the 1-cocycle condidion (g_{ij} g_{jk} = g_{ik} on the triple overlap U_{ijk}) which means they represent a cohomology class [g] = \in \check{H}^1(M,G).

A comparable thing can be said for the “transition functors” for a 2-bundle – they’re defined superficially just as above, except that being functors, we can now say there’s a natural isomorphism h_{ijk} : g_{ij}g_{jk} \rightarrow g_{ik}, and it’s these h_{ijk}, defined on triple overlaps, which satisfy a 2-cocycle condition on 4-fold intersections (essentially, the two ways to compose them to collapse g_{ij} g_{jk} g_{kl} into g_{il} agree).  That is, we have g_{ij} : U_{ij} \rightarrow Ob(\mathcal{G}) and h_{ijk} : U_{ijk} \rightarrow Mor(\mathcal{G}) which fit together nicely.  In particular, we have an element [h] \in \check{H}^2(M,G) of the second Cech cohomology of M: “principal \mathcal{G}-bundles are classified by second Cech cohomology of M“.  This sort of thing ties in to an ongoing theme of the later talks, the relationship between gerbes and higher cohomology – a 2-bundle corresponds to a “gerbe”, or rather a “1-gerbe”.  (The consistent terminology would have called a bundle a “0-gerbe”, but as usual, terminology got settled before the general pattern was understood).

Finally, having defined bundles, one usually defines connections, and so we do the same with 2-bundles.  A connection on a bundle gives a parallel transport operation for paths \gamma in M, telling how to identify the fibres at points along \gamma by means of a functor hol : P_1(M) \rightarrow G, thinking of G as a category with one object, and where P_1(M) is the path groupoid whose objects are points in M and whose morphisms are paths (up to “thin” homotopy). At least, it does so once we trivialize the bundle around \gamma, anyway, to think of it as M \times G locally – in general we need to get the transition functions involved when we pass into some other local neighborhood.  A connection on a 2-bundle is similar, but tells how to parallel transport fibres not only along paths, but along homotopies of paths, by means of hol : P_2(M) \rightarrow \mathcal{G}, where \mathcal{G} is seen as a 2-category with one object, and P_2(M) now has 2-morphisms which are (essentially) homotopies of paths.

Just as connections can be described by 1-forms A valued in Lie(G), which give hol by integrating, a similar story exists for 2-connections: now we need a 1-form A valued in Lie(G) and a 2-form B valued in Lie(H).  These need to satisfy some relations, essentially that the curvature of A has to be controlled by B.   Moreover, that B is related to the B-field of string theory, as I mentioned in the post on the pre-school… But really, this is telling us about the Lie 2-algebra associated to \mathcal{G}, and how to integrate it up to the group!

Infinite Dimensional Lie Theory and Higher Gauge Theory

This series of talks by Christoph Wockel returns us to the question of “integrating up” to a Lie group G from a Lie algebra \mathfrak{g} = Lie(G), which is seen as the tangent space of G at the identity.  This is a well-understood, well-behaved phenomenon when the Lie algebras happen to be finite dimensional.  Indeed the classification theorem for the classical Lie groups can be got at in just this way: a combinatorial way to characterize Lie algebras using Dynkin diagrams (which describe the structure of some weight lattice), followed by a correspondence between Lie algebras and Lie groups.  But when the Lie algebras are infinite dimensional, this just doesn’t have to work.  It may be impossible to integrate a Lie algebra up to a full Lie group: instead, one can only get a little neighborhood of the identity.  The point of such infinite-dimensional groups, and ultimately their representation theory, is to deal with string groups that have to do with motions of extended objects.  Christoph Wockel was describing a result which says that, going to 2-groups, this problem can be overcome.  (See the relevant paper here.)

The first lecture in the series presented some background on a setting for infinite dimensional manifolds.  There are various approaches, a popular one being Frechet manifolds, but in this context, the somewhat weaker notion of locally convex spaces is sufficient.  These are “locally modelled” by (infinite dimensional) locally convex vector spaces, the way finite dimensonal manifolds are locally modelled by Euclidean space.  Being locally convex is enough to allow them to support a lot of differential calculus: one can find straight-line paths, locally, to define a notion of directional derivative in the direction of a general vector.  Using this, one can build up definitions of differentiable and smooth functions, derivatives, and integrals, just by looking at the restrictions to all such directions.  Then there’s a fundamental theorem of calculus, a chain rule, and so on.

At this point, one has plenty of differential calculus, and it becomes interesting to bring in Lie theory.  A Lie group is defined as a group object in the category of manifolds and smooth maps, just as in the finite-dimensional case.  Some infinite-dimensional Lie groups of interest would include: G = Diff(M), the group of diffeomorphisms of some compact manifold M; and the group of smooth functions G = C^{\infty}(M,K) from M into some (finite-dimensional) Lie group K (perhaps just \mathbb{R}), with the usual pointwise multiplication.  These are certainly groups, and one handy fact about such groups is that, if they have a manifold structure near the identity, on some subset that generates G as a group in a nice way, you can extend the manifold structure to the whole group.  And indeed, that happens in these examples.

Well, next we’d like to know if we can, given an infinite dimensional Lie algebra X, “integrate up” to a Lie group – that is, find a Lie group G for which X \cong T_eG is the “infinitesimal” version of G.  One way this arises is from central extensions.  A central extension of Lie group G by Z is an exact sequence Z \hookrightarrow \hat{G} \twoheadrightarrow G where (the image of) Z is in the centre of \hat{G}.  The point here is that \hat{G} extends G.  This setup makes \hat{G} is a principal Z-bundle over G.

Now, finding central extensions of Lie algebras is comparatively easy, and given a central extension of Lie groups, one always falls out of the induced maps.  There will be an exact sequence of Lie algebras, and now the special condition is that there must exist a continuous section of the second map.  The question is to go the other way: given one of these, get back to an extension of Lie groups.  The problem of finding extensions of G by Z, in particular as a problem of finding a bundle with connection having specified curvature, which brings us back to gauge theory.  One type of extension is the universal cover of G, which appears as \pi_1(G) \hookrightarrow \hat{G} \twoheadrightarrow G, so that the fibre is \pi_1(G).

In general, whether an extension can exist comes down to a question about a cocycle: that is, if there’s a function f : G \times G \rightarrow Z which is locally smooth (i.e. in some neighborhood in G), and is a cocyle (so that f(g,h) + f(gh,k) = f(g,hk) + f(h,k)), by the same sorts of arguments we’ve already seen a bit of.  For this reason, central extensions are classified by the cohomology group H^2(G,Z).  The cocycle enables a “twisting” of the multiplication associated to a nontrivial loop in G, and is used to construct \hat{G} (by specifying how multiplication on G lifts to \hat{G}).  Given a  2-cocycle \omega at the Lie algebra level (easier to do), one would like to lift that up the Lie group.  It turns out this is possible if the period homomorphism per_{\omega} : \Pi_2(G) \rightarrow Z – which takes a chain [\sigma] (with \sigma : S^2 \rightarrow G) to the integral of the original cocycle on it, \int_{\sigma} \omega – lands in a discrete subgroup of Z. A popular example of this is when Z is just \mathbb{R}, and the discrete subgroup is \mathbb{Z} (or, similarly, U(1) and 1 respectively).  This business of requiring a cocycle to be integral in this way is sometimes called a “prequantization” problem.

So suppose we wanted to make the “2-connected cover” \pi_2(G) \hookrightarrow \pi_2(G) \times_{\gamma} G \twoheadrightarrow G as a central extension: since \pi_2(G) will be abelian, this is conceivable.  If the dimension of G is finite, this is trivial (since \pi_2(G) = 0 in finite dimensions), which is why we need some theory  of infinite-dimensional manifolds.  Moreover, though, this may not work in the context of groups: the \gamma in the extension \pi_2(G) \times_{\gamma} G above needs to be a “twisting” of associativity, not multiplication, being lifted from G.  Such twistings come from the THIRD cohomology of G (see here, e.g.), and describe the structure of 2-groups (or crossed modules, whichever you like).  In fact, the solution (go read the paper for more if you like) to define a notion of central extension for 2-groups (essentially the same as the usual definition, but with maps of 2-groups, or crossed modules, everywhere).  Since a group is a trivial kind of 2-group (with only trivial automorphisms of any element), the usual notion of central extension turns out to be a special case.  Then by thinking of \pi_2(G) and G as crossed modules, one can find a central extension which is like the 2-connected cover we wanted – though it doesn’t work as an extension of groups because we think of G as the base group of the crossed module, and \pi_2(G) as the second group in the tower.

The pattern of moving to higher group-like structures, higher cohomology, and obstructions to various constructions ran all through the workshop, and carried on in the next school session…

Higher Spin Structures in String Theory

Hisham Sati gave just one school-lecture in addition to his workshop talk, but it was packed with a lot of material.  This is essentially about cohomology and the structures on manifolds to which cohomology groups describe the obstructions.  The background part of the lecture referenced this book by Fridrich, and the newer parts were describing some of Sati’s own work, in particular a couple of papers with Schreiber and Stasheff (also see this one).

The basic point here is that, for physical reasons, we’re often interested in putting some sort of structure on a manifold, which is really best described in terms of a bundle.  For instance, a connection or spin connection on spacetime lets us transport vectors or spinors, respectively, along paths, which in turn lets us define derivatives.  These two structures really belong on vector bundles or spinor bundles.  Now, if these bundles are trivial, then one can make the connections on them trivial as well by gauge transformation.  So having nontrivial bundles really makes this all more interesting.  However, this isn’t always possible, and so one wants to the obstruction to being able to do it.  This is typically a class in one of the cohomology groups of the manifold – a characteristic class.  There are various examples: Chern classes, Pontrjagin classes, Steifel-Whitney classes, and so on, each of which comes in various degrees i.  Each one corresponds to a different coefficient group for the cohomology groups – in these examples, the groups U and O which are the limits of the unitary and orthogonal groups (such as O := O(\infty) \supset \dots \supset O(2) \supset O(1))

The point is that these classes are obstructions to building certain structures on the manifold X – which amounts to finding sections of a bundle.  So for instance, the first Steifel-Whitney classes, w_1(E) of a bundle E are related to orientations, coming from cohomology with coefficients in O(n).  Orientations for the manifold X can be described in terms of its tangent bundle, which is an O(n)-bundle (tangent spaces carry an action of the rotation group).  Consider X = S^1, where we have actually O(1) \simeq \mathbb{Z}_2.  The group H^1(S^1, \mathbb{Z}_2) has two elements, and there are two types of line bundle on the circle S^1: ones with a nowhere-zero section, like the trivial bundle; and ones without, like the Moebius strip.  The circle is orientable, because its tangent bundle is of the first sort.

Generally, an orientation can be put on X if the tangent bundle, as a map f : X \rightarrow B(O(n)), can be lifted to a map \tilde{f} : X \rightarrow B(SO(n)) – that is, it’s “secretly” an SO(n)-bundle – the special orthogonal group respects orientation, which is what the determinant measures.  Its two values, \pm 1, are what’s behind the two classes of bundles.  (In short, this story relates to the exact sequence 1 \rightarrow SO(n) \rightarrow O(n) \stackrel{det}{\rightarrow} O(1) = \mathbb{Z}_2 \rightarrow 1; in just the same way we have big groups SO, Spin, and so forth.)

So spin structures have a story much like the above, but where the exact sequence 1 \rightarrow \mathbb{Z}_2 \rightarrow Spin(n) \rightarrow SO(n) \rightarrow 1 plays a role – the spin groups are the universal covers (which are all double-sheeted covers) of the special rotation groups.  A spin structure on some SO(n) bundle E, let’s say represented by f : X \rightarrow B(SO(n)) is thus, again, a lifting to \tilde{f} : X \rightarrow B(Spin(n)).  The obstruction to doing this (the thing which must be zero for the lifting to exist) is the second Stiefel-Whitney class, w_2(E).  Hisham Sati also explained the example of “generalized” spin structures in these terms.  But the main theme is an analogous, but much more general, story for other cohomology groups as obstructions to liftings of some sort of structures on manifolds.  These may be bundles, for the lower-degree cohomology, or they may be gerbes or n-bundles, for higher-degree, but the setup is roughly the same.

The title’s term “higher spin structures” comes from the fact that we’ve so far had a tower of classifying spaces (or groups), B(O) \leftarrow B(SO) \leftarrow B(Spin), and so on.  Then the problem of putting various sorts of structures on X has been turned into the problem of lifting a map f : X \rightarrow S(O) up this tower.  At each point, the obstruction to lifting is some cohomology class with coefficients in the groups (O, SO, etc.)  So when are these structures interesting?

This turns out to bring up another theme, which is that of special dimensions – it’s just not true that the same phenomena happen in every dimension.  In this case, this has to do with the homotopy groups  – of O and its cousins.  So it turns out that the homotopy group \pi_k(O) (which is the same as \pi_k(O_n) as long as n is bigger than k) follows a pattern, where \pi_k(O) = \mathbb{Z}_2 if k = 0,1 (mod 8), and \pi_k(O) = \mathbb{Z} if k = 3,7 (mod 8).  The fact that this pattern repeats mod-8 is one form of the (real) Bott Periodicity theorem.  These homotopy groups reflect that, wherever there’s nontrivial homotopy in some dimension, there’s an obstruction to contracting maps into O from such a sphere.

All of this plays into the question of what kinds of nontrivial structures can be put on orthogonal bundles on manifolds of various dimensions.  In the dimensions where these homotopy groups are non-trivial, there’s an obstruction to the lifting, and therefore some interesting structure one can put on X which may or may not exist.  Hisham Sati spoke of “killing” various homotopy groups – meaning, as far as I can tell, imposing conditions which get past these obstructions.  In string theory, his application of interest, one talks of “anomaly cancellation” – an anomaly being the obstruction to making these structures.  The first part of the punchline is that, since these are related to nontrivial cohomology groups, we can think of them in terms of defining structures on n-bundles or gerbes.  These structures are, essentially, connections – they tell us how to parallel-transport objects of various dimensions.  It turns out that the \pi_k homotopy group is related to parallel transport along (k-1)-dimensional surfaces in X, which can be thought of as the world-sheets of (k-2)-dimensional “particles” (or rather, “branes”).

So, for instance, the fact that \pi_1(O) is nontrivial means there’s an obstruction to a lifting in the form of a class in H^2(X,\mathbb{Z}), which has to do with spin structure – as above.  “Cancelling” this “anomaly” means that for a theory involving such a spin structure to be well-defined, then this characteristic class for X must be zero.  The fact that \pi_3(O) = \mathbb{Z} is nontrivial means there’s an obstruction to a lifting in the form of a class in H^4(X, \mathbb{Z}).  This has to do with “string bundles”, where the string group is a higher analog of Spin in exactly the sense we’ve just described.  If such a lifting exists, then there’s a “string-structure” on X which is compatible with the spin structure we lifted (and with the orientation a level below that).  Similarly, \pi_7(O) = \mathbb{Z} being nontrivial, by way of an obstruction in H^8, means there’s an interesting notion of “five-brane” structure, and a Fivebrane group, and so on.  Personally, I think of these as giving a geometric interpretation for what the higher cohomology groups actually mean.

A slight refinement of the above, and actually more directly related to “cancellation” of the anomalies, is that these structures can be defined in a “twisted” way: given a cocycle in the appropriate cohomology group, we can ask that a lifting exist, not on the nose, but as a diagram commuting only up to a higher cell, which is exactly given by the cocycle.  I mentioned, in the previous section, a situation where the cocycle gives an associator, so that instead of being exactly associative, a structure has a “twisted” associativity.  This is similar, except we’re twisting the condition that makes a spin structure (or higher spin structure) well-defined.  So if X has the wrong characteristic class, we can only define one of these twisted structures at that level.

This theme of higher cohomology and gerbes, and their geometric interpretation, was another one that turned up throughout the talks in the workshop…

And speaking of that: coming up soon, some descriptions of the actual workshop.

I’d like to continue describing the talks that made up the HGTQGR workshop, in particular the ones that took place during the school portion of the event.  I’ll save one “school” session, by Laurent Freidel, to discuss with the talks because it seems to more nearly belong there. This leaves five people who gave between two and four lectures each over a period of a few days, all intermingled. Here’s a very rough summary in the order of first appearance:

2D Extended TQFT

Chris Schommer-Pries gave the longest series of talks, about the classification of 2D extended TQFT’s.  A TQFT is a kind of topological invariant for manifolds, which has a sort of “locality” property, in that you can decompose the manifold, compute the invariant on the parts, and find the whole by gluing the pieces back together.  This is expressed by saying it’s a monoidal functor Z : (Cob_d, \sqcup) \rightarrow (Vect, \otimes), where the “locality” property is now functoriality property that composition is preserved.  The key thing here is the cobordism category Cob_d, which has objects (d-1)-dimensional manifolds, and morphisms d-dimensional cobordisms (manifolds with boundary, where the objects are components of the boundary).  Then a closed d-manifold is just a cobordism from $latex\emptyset$ to itself.

Making this into a category is actually a bit nontrivial: gluing bits of smooth manifolds, for instance, won’t necessarily give something smooth.  There are various ways of handling this, such as giving the boundaries “collars”, but Chris’ preferred method is to give boundaries (and, ultimately, corners, etc.) a”halation”.  This word originally means the halo of light around bright things you sometimes see in photos, but in this context, a halation for X is an equivalence class of embeddings into neighborhoods U \subset \mathbb{R}^d.  The equivalence class says two such embeddings into U and V are equivalent if there’s a compatible refinement into some common W that embeds into both U and V.  The idea is that a halation is a kind of d-dimensional “halo”, or the “germ of a d-manifold” around X.  Then gluing compatibly along (d-1)-boundaries with halations ensures that we get smooth d-manifolds.  (One can also extend this setup so that everything in sight is oriented, or has some other such structure on it.)

In any case, an extended TQFT will then mean an n-functor Z : (Bord_d,\sqcup) \rightarrow (\mathcal{C},\otimes), where (\mathcal{C},\otimes) is some symmetric monoidal n-category (which is supposed to be similar to Vect).  Its exact nature is less important than that of Bord_d, which has:

  • 0-Morphisms (i.e. Objects): 0-manifolds (collections of points)
  • 1-Morphisms: 1-dimensional cobordisms between 0-manifolds (curves)
  • 2-Morphisms: 2-dim cobordisms with corners between 1-Morphisms (surfaces with boundary)
  • d-Morphisms: d-dimensional cobordisms between (d-1)-Morphisms (n-manifolds with corners), up to isomorphism

(Note: the distinction between “Bord” and “Cobord” is basically a matter of when a given terminology came in.  “Cobordism” and “Bordism”, unfortunately, mean the same thing, except that “bordism” has become popular more recently, since the “co” makes it sound like it’s the opposite category of something else.  This is kind of regrettable, but that’s what happened.  Sorry.)

The crucial point, is that Chris wanted to classify all such things, and his approach to this is to give a presentation of Bord_d.  This is based on stuff in his thesis.  The basic idea is to use Morse theory, and its higher-dimensional generalization, Cerf theory.  The idea is that one can put a Morse function  on a cobordism (essentially, a well-behaved “time order” on points) and look at its critical points.  Classifying these tells us what the generators for the category of cobordisms must be: there need to be enough to capture all the most general sorts of critical points.

Cerf theory does something similar, but one dimension up: now we’re talking about “stratified” families of Morse functions.  Again one studies critical points, but, for instance, on a 2-dim surface, there can be 1- and 0-dimensional parts of the set of cricical points.  In general, this gets into the theory of higher-dimensional singularities, catastrophe theory, and so on.  Each extra dimension one adds means looking at how the sets of critical points in the previous dimension can change over “time” (i.e. within some stratified family of Cerf functions).  Where these changes themselves go through critical points, one needs new generators for the various j-morphisms of the cobordism category.  (See some examples of such “catastrophes”, such as folds, cusps, swallowtails, etc. linked from here, say.)  Showing what such singularities can be like in the “generic” situation, and indeed, even defining “generic” in a way that makes sense in any dimension, required some discussion of jet bundles.  These are generalizations of tangent bundles that capture higher derivatives the way tangent bundles capture first-derivatives.  The essential point is that one can find a way to decompose these into a direct sum of parts of various dimensions (capturing where various higher derivatives are zero, say), and these will eventually tell us the dimension of a set of critical points for a Cerf function.

Now, this gives a characterization of what cobordisms can be like – part of the work in the theorem is to show that this is sufficient: that is, given a diagram showing the critical points for some Morse/Cerf function, one needs to be able to find the appropriate generators and piece together the cobordism (possibly a closed manifold) that it came from.  Chris showed how this works – a slightly finicky process involving cutting a diagram of the singular points (with some extra labelling information) into parts, and using a graphical calculus to work out how pasting works – and showed an example reconstruction of a surface this way.  This amounts to a construction of an equivalence between an “abstract” cobordism category given in terms of generators (and relations) which come from Cerf theory, and the concrete one.  The theorem then says that there’s a correspondence between equivalence classes of 2D cobordisms, and certain planar diagrams, up to some local moves.  To show this properly required a digression through some theory of symmetric monoidal bicategories, and what the right notion of equivalence for them is.

This all done, the point is that Bord_d has a characterization in terms of a universal property, and so any ETQFT Z : Bord_d \rightarrow \mathcal{C} amounts to a certain kind of object in \mathcal{C} (corresponding to the image of the point – the generating object in Bord_d).  For instance, in the oriented situation this object needs to be “fully dualizable”: it should have a dual (the point with opposite orientation), and a whole bunch of maps that specify the duality: a cobordism from (+,-) to nothing (just the “U”-shaped curve), which has a dual – and some 2-D cobordisms which specify that duality, and so on.  Specifying all this dualizability structure amounts to giving the image of all the generators of cobordisms, and determines the functors Z, and vice versa.

This is a rapid summary of six hours of lectures, of course, so for more precise versions of these statements, you may want to look into Chris’ thesis as linked above.

Homotopy QFT and the Crossed Menagerie

The next series of lectures in the school was Tim Porter’s, about relations between Homotopy Quantum Field Theory (HQFT) and various sort of crossed gizmos.  HQFT is an idea introduced by Vladimir Turaev, (see his paper with Tim here, for an intro, though Turaev also now has a book on the subject).  It’s intended to deal with similar sorts of structures to TQFT, but with various sorts of extra structure.  This structure is related to the “Crossed Menagerie”, on which Tim has written an almost unbelievably extensive bunch of lecture notes, of which a special short version was made for this lecture series that’s a mere 350 pages long.

Anyway, the cobordism category Bord_d described above is replaced by one Tim called HCobord(d,B) (see above comment about “bord” and “cobord”, which mean the same thing).  Again, this has d-dimensional cobordisms as its morphisms and (d-1)-dimensional manifolds as its objects, but now everything in sight is equipped with a map into a space B – almost.  So an object is X \rightarrow B, and a morphism is a cobordism with a homotopy class of maps M \rightarrow B which are compatible with the ones at the boundaries.  Then just as a d-TQFT is a representation (i.e. a functor) of Cob_d into Vect, a (d,B)-HQFT is a representation of HCobord(d,B).

The motivating example here is when B = B(G), the classifying space of a group.  These spaces are fairly complicated when you describe them as built from gluing cells (in homotopy theory, one typically things of spaces as something like CW-complexes: a bunch of cells in various dimensions glued together with face maps etc.), but B(G) has the property that its fundamental group is G, and all other homotopy groups are trivial (ensuring this part is what makes the cellular decomposition description tricky).

The upshot is that there’s a correspondence between (homotopy classes of) maps Map(X ,B(G)) \simeq Hom(\pi(X),G) (this makes a good alternative definition of the classifying space, though one needs to ).  Since a map from the fundamental group into G amounts to a flat principal G-bundle, we can say that HCobord(d,B(G)) is a category of manifolds and cobordisms carrying such a bundle.  This gets us into gauge theory.

But we can go beyond and into higher gauge theory (and other sorts of structures) by picking other sorts of B.  To begin with, notice that the correspondence above implies that mapping into B(G) means that when we take maps up to homotopy, we can only detect the fundamental group of X, and not any higher homotopy groups.  We say we can only detect the “homotopy 1-type” of the space.  The “homotopy n-type” of a given space X is just the first n homotopy groups (\pi_1(X), \dots, \pi_n(X)).  Alternatively, an “n-type” is an equivalence class of spaces which all have the same such groups.  Or, again, an “n-type” is a particular representative of one of these classes where these are the only nonzero homotopy groups.

The point being that if we’re considering maps X \rightarrow B up to homotopy, we may only be detecting the n-type of X (and therefore may as well assume X is an n-type in the last sense when it’s convenient).  More precisely, there are “Postnikov functors” P_n(-) which take a space X and return the corresponding n-type.  This can be done by gluing in “patches” of higher dimensions to “fill in the holes” which are measured by the higher homotopy groups (in general, the result is infinite dimensional as a cell complex).  Thus, there are embeddings X \hookrightarrow P_n(X), which get along with the obvious chain

\dots \rightarrow P_{n+1}(X) \rightarrow P_n(X) \rightarrow P_{n-1}(X) \rightarrow \dots

There was a fairly nifty digression here explaining how this is a “coskeleton” of X, in that P_n is a right adjoint to the “n-skeleton” functor (which throws away cells above dimension n, not homotopy groups), so that S(Sk_n(M),X) \cong S(M,P_n(X)).  To really explain it properly, though I would have to really explain what that S is (it refers to maps in the category of simplicial sets, which are another nice model of spaces up to homotopy).  This digression would carry us away from higher gauge theory, which is where I’m going.

One thing to say is that if X is d-dimensional, then any HQFT is determined entirely by the d-type of B.  Any extra jazz going on in B‘s higher homotopy groups won’t be detected when we’re only mapping a d-dimensional space X into it.  So one might as well assume that B is just a d-type.

We want to say we can detect a homotopy n-type of a space if, for example, B = B(\mathcal{G}) where \mathcal{G} is an “n-group”.  A handy way to account for this is in terms of a “crossed complex”.  The first nontrivial example of this would be a crossed module, which consists of

  • Two groups, G and H with
  • A map \partial : H \rightarrow G and
  • An action of G on H by automorphisms, G \rhd H
  • all such that action looks as much like conjugation as possible:
    • \partial(g \rhd h) = g (\partial h) g^{-1} (so that \partial is G-equivariant)
    • \partial h \rhd h' = h h' h^{-1} (the “Peiffer identity”)

This definition looks a little funny, but it does characterize “2-groups” in the sense of categories internal to \mathbf{Groups} (the definition used elsewhere), by taking G to be the group of objects, and H the group of automorphisms of the identity of G.  In the description of John Huerta’s lectures, I’ll get back to how that works.

The immediate point is that there are a bunch of natural examples of crossed modules.  For instance: from normal subgroups, where \partial: H \subset G is inclusion and the action really is conjugation; from fibrations, using fundamental groups of base and fibre; from a canonical case where H = Aut(G)  and \partial = 1 takes everything to the identity; from modules, taking H to be a G-module as an abelian group and \partial = 1 again.  The first and last give the classical intuition of these guys: crossed modules are simultaneous generalizations of (a) normal subgroups of G, and (b) G-modules.

There are various other examples, but the relevant thing here is a theorem of MacLane and Whitehead, that crossed modules model all connected homotopy 2-types.  That is, there’s a correspondence between crossed modules up to isomorphism and 2-types.  Of course, groups model 1-types: any group is the fundmental group for a 1-type, and any 1-type is the classifying space for some group.  Likewise, any crossed module determines a 2-type, and vice versa.  So this theorem suggests why crossed modules might deserve to be called “2-groups” even if they didn’t naturally line up with the alternative definition.

To go up to 3-types and 4-types, the intuitive idea is: “do for crossed modules what we did for groups”.  That is, instead of a map of groups \partial : H \rightarrow G, we consider a map of crossed modules (which is given by a pair of maps between the groups in each) and so forth.  The resulting structure is a square diagram in \mathbf{Groups} with a bunch of actions.  Each of these maps is the \partial map for a crossed module.  (We can think of the normal subgroup situation: there are two normal subgroups H,K of G, and in each of them, the intersection H \cap K is normal, so it determines a crossed module).  This is a “crossed square”, and things like this correspond exactly to homotopy 3-types.  This works roughly as before, since there is a notion of a classifying space B(\mathcal{G}) where \mathcal{G} =   (G,H,\partial,\rhd), and similarly on for crossed n-cubes.   We can carry on in this way to define a “crossed n-cube”, which correspond to homotopy (n+1)-types.  The correspondence is a little bit more fiddly than it was for groups, but it still exists: any (n+1)-type is the classifying space for a crossed n-cube, and any such crossed n-cube has an (n+1)-type for its classifying space.

This correspondence is the point here.  As we said, when looking at HQFT’s from HCobord(d,B), we may as well assume that B is a d-type.  But then, it’s a classifying space for some crossed (d-1)-cube.  This is a sensible sort of B to use in an HQFT, and it ends up giving us a theory which is related to higher gauge theory: a map X \rightarrow B(\mathcal{G}) up to homotopy, where \mathcal{G} is a crossed n-cube will correspond to the structure of a flat (n+1)-bundle on X, and similarly for cobordisms.  HQFT’s let us look at the structure of this structured cobordism category by means of its linear representations.  Now, it may be that this crossed-cube point of view isn’t the best way to look at B, but it is there, and available.

To say more about this, I’ll have to talk more directly about higher gauge theory in its own terms – which I’ll do in part IIb, since this is already pretty long.

A more substantial post is upcoming, but I wanted to get out this announcement for a conference I’m helping to organise, along with Roger Picken, João Faria Martins, and Aleksandr Mikovic.  Its website: https://sites.google.com/site/hgtqgr/home has more details, and will have more as we finalise them, but here are some of them:

Workshop and School on Higher Gauge Theory, TQFT and Quantum Gravity

Lisbon, 10-13 February, 2011 (Workshop), 7-13 February, 2011 (School)

Description from the website:

Higher gauge theory is a fascinating generalization of ordinary abelian and non-abelian gauge theory, involving (at the first level) connection 2-forms, curvature 3-forms and parallel transport along surfaces. This ladder can be continued to connection forms of higher degree and transport along extended objects of the corresponding dimension. On the mathematical side, higher gauge theory is closely tied to higher algebraic structures, such as 2-categories, 2-groups etc., and higher geometrical structures, known as gerbes or n-gerbes with connection. Thus higher gauge theory is an example of the categorification phenomenon which has been very influential in mathematics recently.

There have been a number of suggestions that higher gauge theory could be related to (4D) quantum gravity, e.g. by Baez-Huerta (in the QG^2 Corfu school lectures), and Baez-Baratin-Freidel-Wise in the context of state-sums. A pivotal role is played by TQFTs in these approaches, in particular BF theories and variants thereof, as well as extended TQFTs, constructed from suitable geometric or algebraic data. Another route between higher gauge theory and quantum gravity is via string theory, where higher gauge theory provides a setting for n-form fields, worldsheets for strings and branes, and higher spin structures (i.e. string structures and generalizations, as studied e.g. by Sati-Schreiber-Stasheff). Moving away from point particles to higher-dimensional extended objects is a feature both of loop quantum gravity and string theory, so higher gauge theory should play an important role in both approaches, and may allow us to probe a deeper level of symmetry, going beyond normal gauge symmetry.

Thus the moment seems ripe to bring together a group of researchers who could shed some light on these issues. Apart from the courses and lectures given by the invited speakers, we plan to incorporate discussion sessions in the afternoon throughout the week, for students to ask questions and to stimulate dialogue between participants from different backgrounds.

Provisional list of speakers:

  • Paolo Aschieri (Alessandria)
  • Benjamin Bahr (Cambridge)
  • Aristide Baratin (Paris-Orsay)
  • John Barrett (Nottingham)
  • Rafael Diaz (Bogotá)
  • Bianca Dittrich (Potsdam)
  • Laurent Freidel (Perimeter)
  • John Huerta (California)
  • Branislav Jurco (Prague)
  • Thomas Krajewski (Marseille)
  • Tim Porter (Bangor)
  • Hisham Sati (Maryland)
  • Christopher Schommer-Pries (MIT)
  • Urs Schreiber (Utrecht)
  • Jamie Vicary (Oxford)
  • Konrad Waldorf (Regensburg)
  • Derek Wise (Erlangen)
  • Christoph Wockel (Hamburg)

The workshop portion will have talks by the speakers above (those who can make it), and any contributed talks.  The “school” portion is, roughly, aimed at graduate students in a field related to the topics, but not necessarily directly in them.  You don’t need to be a student to attend the school, of course, but they are the target audience.  The only course that has been officially announced so far will be given by Christopher Schommer-Pries, on TQFT.  We hope/expect to also have minicourses on Higher Gauge Theory, and Quantum Gravity as well, but details aren’t settled yet.

If you’re interested, the deadline to register is Jan 8 (hence the rush to announce).  Some funding is available for those who need it.

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.