### 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.

One talk at the workshop was nominally a school talk by Laurent Freidel, but it’s interesting and distinctive enough in its own right that I wanted to consider it by itself.  It was based on this paper on the “Principle of Relative Locality”. This isn’t so much a new theory, as an exposition of what ought to happen when one looks at a particular limit of any putative theory that has both quantum field theory and gravity as (different) limits of it. This leads through some ideas, such as curved momentum space, which have been kicking around for a while. The end result is a way of accounting for apparently non-local interactions of particles, by saying that while the particles themselves “see” the interactions as local, distant observers might not.

Whereas Einstein’s gravity describes a regime where Newton’s gravitational constant $G_N$ is important but Planck’s constant $\hbar$ is negligible, and (special-relativistic) quantum field theory assumes $\hbar$ significant but $G_N$ not.  Both of these assume there is a special velocity scale, given by the speed of light $c$, whereas classical mechanics assumes that all three can be neglected (i.e. $G_N$ and $\hbar$ are zero, and $c$ is infinite).   The guiding assumption is that these are all approximations to some more fundamental theory, called “quantum gravity” just because it accepts that both $G_N$ and $\hbar$ (as well as $c$) are significant in calculating physical effects.  So GR and QFT incorporate two of the three constants each, and classical mechanics incorporates neither.  The “principle of relative locality” arises when we consider a slightly different approximation to this underlying theory.

This approximation works with a regime where $G_N$ and $\hbar$ are each negligible, but the ratio is not – this being related to the Planck mass $m_p \sim \sqrt{\frac{\hbar}{G_N}}$.  The point is that this is an approximation with no special length scale (“Planck length”), but instead a special energy scale (“Planck mass”) which has to be preserved.   Since energy and momentum are different parts of a single 4-vector, this is also a momentum scale; we expect to see some kind of deformation of momentum space, at least for momenta that are bigger than this scale.  The existence of this scale turns out to mean that momenta don’t add linearly – at least, not unless they’re very small compared to the Planck scale.

So what is “Relative Locality”?  In the paper linked above, it’s stated like so:

Physics takes place in phase space and there is no invariant global projection that gives a description of processes in spacetime.  From their measurements local observers can construct descriptions of particles moving and interacting in a spacetime, but different observers construct different spacetimes, which are observer-dependent slices of phase space.

Motivation

This arises from taking the basic insight of general relativity – the requirement that physical principles should be invariant under coordinate transformations (i.e. diffeomorphisms) – and extend it so that instead of applying just to spacetime, it applies to the whole of phase space.  Phase space (which, in this limit where $\hbar = 0$, replaces the Hilbert space of a truly quantum theory) is the space of position-momentum configurations (of things small enough to treat as point-like, in a given fixed approximation).  Having no $G_N$ means we don’t need to worry about any dynamical curvature of “spacetime” (which doesn’t exist), and having no Planck length means we can blithely treat phase space as a manifold with coordinates valued in the real line (which has no special scale).  Yet, having a special mass/momentum scale says we should see some purely combined “quantum gravity” effects show up.

The physical idea is that phase space is an accurate description of what we can see and measure locally.  Observers (whom we assume small enough to be considered point-like) can measure their own proper time (they “have a clock”) and can detect momenta (by letting things collide with them and measuring the energy transferred locally and its direction).  That is, we “see colors and angles” (i.e. photon energies and differences of direction).  Beyond this, one shouldn’t impose any particular theory of what momenta do: we can observe the momenta of separate objects and see what results when they interact and deduce rules from that.  As an extension of standard physics, this model is pretty conservative.  Now, conventionally, phase space would be the cotangent bundle of spacetime $T^*M$.  This model is based on the assumption that objects can be at any point, and wherever they are, their space of possible momenta is a vector space.  Being a bundle, with a global projection onto $M$ (taking $(x,v)$ to $x$), is exactly what this principle says doesn’t necessarily obtain.  We still assume that phase space will be some symplectic manifold.   But we don’t assume a priori that momentum coordinates give a projection whose fibres happen to be vector spaces, as in a cotangent bundle.

Now, a symplectic manifold  still looks locally like a cotangent bundle (Darboux’s theorem). So even if there is no universal “spacetime”, each observer can still locally construct a version of “spacetime”  by slicing up phase space into position and momentum coordinates.  One can, by brute force, extend the spacetime coordinates quite far, to distant points in phase space.  This is roughly analogous to how, in special relativity, each observer can put their own coordinates on spacetime and arrive at different notions of simultaneity.  In general relativity, there are issues with trying to extend this concept globally, but it can be done under some conditions, giving the idea of “space-like slices” of spacetime.  In the same way, we can construct “spacetime-like slices” of phase space.

Geometrizing Algebra

Now, if phase space is a cotangent bundle, momenta can be added (the fibres of the bundle are vector spaces).  Some more recent ideas about “quasi-Hamiltonian spaces” (initially introduced by Alekseev, Malkin and Meinrenken) conceive of momenta as “group-valued” – rather than taking values in the dual of some Lie algebra (the way, classically, momenta are dual to velocities, which live in the Lie algebra of infinitesimal translations).  For small momenta, these are hard to distinguish, so even group-valued momenta might look linear, but the premise is that we ought to discover this by experiment, not assumption.  We certainly can detect “zero momentum” and for physical reasons can say that given two things with two momenta $(p,q)$, there’s a way of combining them into a combined momentum $p \oplus q$.  Think of doing this physically – transfer all momentum from one particle to another, as seen by a given observer.  Since the same momentum at the observer’s position can be either coming in or going out, this operation has a “negative” with $(\ominus p) \oplus p = 0$.

We do have a space of momenta at any given observer’s location – the total of all momenta that can be observed there, and this space now has some algebraic structure.  But we have no reason to assume up front that $\oplus$ is either commutative or associative (let alone that it makes momentum space at a given observer’s location into a vector space).  One can interpret this algebraic structure as giving some geometry.  The commutator for $\oplus$ gives a metric on momentum space.  This is a bilinear form which is implicitly defined by the “norm” that assigns a kinetic energy to a particle with a given momentum. The associator given by $p \oplus ( q \oplus r ) - (p \oplus q ) \oplus r)$, infinitesimally near $0$ where this makes sense, gives a connection.  This defines a “parallel transport” of a finite momentum $p$ in the direction of a momentum $q$ by saying infinitesimally what happens when adding $dq$ to $p$.

Various additional physical assumptions – like the momentum-space “duals” of the equivalence principle (that the combination of momenta works the same way for all kinds of matter regardless of charge), or the strong equivalence principle (that inertial mass and rest mass energy per the relation $E = mc^2$ are the same) and so forth can narrow down the geometry of this metric and connection.  Typically we’ll find that it needs to be Lorentzian.  With strong enough symmetry assumptions, it must be flat, so that momentum space is a vector space after all – but even with fairly strong assumptions, as with general relativity, there’s still room for this “empty space” to have some intrinsic curvature, in the form of a momentum-space “dual cosmological constant”, which can be positive (so momentum space is closed like a sphere), zero (the vector space case we usually assume) or negative (so momentum space is hyperbolic).

This geometrization of what had been algebraic is somewhat analogous to what happened with velocities (i.e. vectors in spacetime)) when the theory of special relativity came along.  Insisting that the “invariant” scale $c$ be the same in every reference system meant that the addition of velocities ceased to be linear.  At least, it did if you assume that adding velocities has an interpretation along the lines of: “first, from rest, add velocity v to your motion; then, from that reference frame, add velocity w”.  While adding spacetime vectors still worked the same way, one had to rephrase this rule if we think of adding velocities as observed within a given reference frame – this became $v \oplus w = (v + w) (1 + uv)$ (scaling so $c =1$ and assuming the velocities are in the same direction).  When velocities are small relative to $c$, this looks roughly like linear addition.  Geometrizing the algebra of momentum space is thought of a little differently, but similar things can be said: we think operationally in terms of combining momenta by some process.  First transfer (group-valued) momentum $p$ to a particle, then momentum $q$ – the connection on momentum space tells us how to translate these momenta into the “reference frame” of a new observer with momentum shifted relative to the starting point.  Here again, the special momentum scale $m_p$ (which is also a mass scale since a momentum has a corresponding kinetic energy) is a “deformation” parameter – for momenta that are small compared to this scale, things seem to work linearly as usual.

There’s some discussion in the paper which relates this to DSR (either “doubly” or “deformed” special relativity), which is another postulated limit of quantum gravity, a variation of SR with both a special velocity and a special mass/momentum scale, to consider “what SR looks like near the Planck scale”, which treats spacetime as a noncommutative space, and generalizes the Lorentz group to a Hopf algebra which is a deformation of it.  In DSR, the noncommutativity of “position space” is directly related to curvature of momentum space.  In the “relative locality” view, we accept a classical phase space, but not a classical spacetime within it.

Physical Implications

We should understand this scale as telling us where “quantum gravity effects” should start to become visible in particle interactions.  This is a fairly large scale for subatomic particles.  The Planck mass as usually given is about 21 micrograms: small for normal purposes, about the size of a small sand grain, but very large for subatomic particles.  Converting to momentum units with $c$, this is about 6 kg m/s: on the order of the momentum of a kicked soccer ball or so.  For a subatomic particle this is a lot.

This scale does raise a question for many people who first hear this argument, though – that quantum gravity effects should become apparent around the Planck mass/momentum scale, since macro-objects like the aforementioned soccer ball still seem to have linearly-additive momenta.  Laurent explained the problem with this intuition.  For interactions of big, extended, but composite objects like soccer balls, one has to calculate not just one interaction, but all the various interactions of their parts, so the “effective” mass scale where the deformation would be seen becomes $N m_p$ where $N$ is the number of particles in the soccer ball.  Roughly, the point is that a soccer ball is not a large “thing” for these purposes, but a large conglomeration of small “things”, whose interactions are “fundamental”.  The “effective” mass scale tells us how we would have to alter the physical constants to be able to treat it as a “thing”.  (This is somewhat related to the question of “effective actions” and renormalization, though these are a bit more complicated.)

There are a number of possible experiments suggested in the paper, which Laurent mentioned in the talk.  One involves a kind of “twin paradox” taking place in momentum space.  In “spacetime”, a spaceship travelling a large loop at high velocity will arrive where it started having experienced less time than an observer who remained there (because of the Lorentzian metric) – and a dual phenomenon in momentum space says that particles travelling through loops (also in momentum space) should arrive displaced in space because of the relativity of localization.  This could be observed in particle accelerators where particles make several transits of a loop, since the effect is cumulative.  Another effect could be seen in astronomical observations: if an observer is observing some distant object via photons of different wavelengths (hence momenta), she might “localize” the object differently – that is, the two photons travel at “the same speed” the whole way, but arrive at different times because the observer will interpret the object as being at two different distances for the two photons.

This last one is rather weird, and I had to ask how one would distinguish this effect from a variable speed of light (predicted by certain other ideas about quantum gravity).  How to distinguish such effects seems to be not quite worked out yet, but at least this is an indication that there are new, experimentally detectible, effects predicted by this “relative locality” principle.  As Laurent emphasized, once we’ve noticed that not accepting this principle means making an a priori assumption about the geometry of momentum space (even if only in some particular approximation, or limit, of a true theory of quantum gravity), we’re pretty much obliged to stop making that assumption and do the experiments.  Finding our assumptions were right would simply be revealing which momentum space geometry actually obtains in the approximation we’re studying.

A final note about the physical interpretation: this “relative locality” principle can be discovered by looking (in the relevant limit) at a Lagrangian for free particles, with interactions described in terms of momenta.  It so happens that one can describe this without referencing a “real” spacetime: the part of the action that allows particles to interact when “close” only needs coordinate functions, which can certainly exist here, but are an observer-dependent construct.  The conservation of (non-linear) momenta is specified via a Lagrange multiplier.  The whole Lagrangian formalism for the mechanics of colliding particles works without reference to spacetime.  Now, even though all the interactions (specified by the conservation of momentum terms) happen “at one location”, in that there will be an observer who sees them happening in the momentum space of her own location.  But an observer at a different point may disagree about whether the interaction was local – i.e. happened at a single point in spacetime.  Thus “relativity of localization”.

Again, this is no more bizarre (mathematically) than the fact that distant, relatively moving, observers in special relativity might disagree about simultaneity, whether two events happened at the same time.  They have their own coordinates on spacetime, and transferring between them mixes space coordinates and time coordinates, so they’ll disagree whether the time-coordinate values of two events are the same.  Similarly, in this phase-space picture, two different observers each have a coordinate system for splitting phase space into “spacetime” and “energy-momentum” coordinates, but switching between them may mix these two pieces.  Thus, the two observers will disagree about whether the spacetime-coordinate values for the different interacting particles are the same.  And so, one observer says the interaction is “local in spacetime”, and the other says it’s not.  The point is that it’s local for the particles themselves (thinking of them as observers).  All that’s going on here is the not-very-astonishing fact that in the conventional picture, we have no problem with interactions being nonlocal in momentum space (particles with very different momenta can interact as long as they collide with each other)… combined with the inability to globally and invariantly distinguish position and momentum coordinates.

What this means, philosophically, can be debated, but it does offer some plausibility to the claim that space and time are auxiliary, conceptual additions to what we actually experience, which just account for the relations between bits of matter.  These concepts can be dispensed with even where we have a classical-looking phase space rather than Hilbert space (where, presumably, this is even more true).

Edit: On a totally unrelated note, I just noticed this post by Alex Hoffnung over at the n-Category Cafe which gives a lot of detail on issues relating to spans in bicategories that I had begun to think more about recently in relation to developing a higher-gauge-theoretic version of the construction I described for ETQFT. In particular, I’d been thinking about how the 2-group analog of restriction and induction for representations realizes the various kinds of duality properties, where we have adjunctions, biadjunctions, and so forth, in which units and counits of the various adjunctions have further duality. This observation seems to be due to Jim Dolan, as far as I can see from a brief note in HDA II. In that case, it’s really talking about the star-structure of the span (tri)category, but looking at the discussion Alex gives suggests to me that this theme shows up throughout this subject. I’ll have to take a closer look at the draft paper he linked to and see if there’s more to say…