### 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.

To continue from the previous post

Twisted Differential Cohomology

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

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

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

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

Fusion Categories

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

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

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

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

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

Quantizing with Higher Categories

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

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

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

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

$A \leftarrow X \rightarrow B$

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I spent a few weeks at the Erwin Schrodinger Institute in Vienna, doing a short residence as part of the program “Modern Trends in Topological Quantum Field Theory” leading up to a workshop this week. There were quite a few interesting talks – some on topics that I’ve written about elsewhere in this blog, so I’ll gloss over those. For example, Catherine Meusburger spoke about the project with Barrett and Schaumann to give a diagrammatic language for Gray categories with duals – I’ve written about John Barrett’s talks on this elsewhere. Similarly, I’ve written about Chris Schommer-Pries’ talks about fully-extended TQFT’s and the cobordism hypothesis for structured cobordisms . I’d like to just describe some of the other highlights that connect nicely to themes I find interesting. In Part 1 of this post, the more topological themes…

TQFTs with Boundary

On the first day, Kevin Walker gave a talk called “Premodular TQFTs” which was quite interesting. The key idea here is that a fairly big class of different constructions of 3D TQFT’s turn out to actually be aspects of one 4D TQFT, which comes about by a construction based on the 3D construction of Crane-Yetter-Kauffman.  The term “premodular” refers to the fact that 3D TQFT’s can be related to modular tensor categories. “Tensor” includes several concepts, like being abelian, having vector spaces of morphisms, a monoidal structure that gets along with these – typical examples being the categories of vector spaces, or of representations of some fixed group. “Modular” means that there is a braiding, and that a certain string diagram (which looks like two linked rings) built using the braiding can be represented as an invertible matrix. These will show up as a special case of the “premodular” theory.

The basic idea is to use an approach that is based on local fields (which respects the physics-land concept of what “field theory” means), avoids the path integral approach (which is hard to make rigorous), and can be shown to connect back to the Atyiah-Singer approach in which a TQFT is a kind of functor out of a cobordism category.

That is, given a manifold $X$ we must be able to find the fields on $X$, called $F(X)$. For example, $F(X)$ could be the maps into a classifying space $BG$, for a gauge theory, or a category of diagrams on $X$ with labels in some appropriate sort of category. Then one has some relations which say when given fields are the same. For each manifold $Y$, this defines a vector space of linear combinations of fields, modulo relations, called $A(Y;c)$, where $c \in F(\partial Y)$. The dual space of $A(Y;c)$ is called $Z(Y;c)$ – in keeping with the principle that quantum states are functionals that we can evaluate on “classical” fields.

Walker’s talk develops, from this starting point, a view that includes a whole range of theories – the Dijkgraaf-Witten model (fields are maps to $BG$); diagrams in a semisimple 1-category (“Euler characteristic theory”), in a pivotal 2-category (a Turaev-Viro model), or a premodular 3-category (a “Crane-Yetter model”), among others. In particular, some familiar theories appear as living on 3D boundaries to a 4D manifold, where such a  premodular theory is defined. The talk goes on to describe a kind of “theory with defects”, where two different theories live on different parts of a manifold (this is a common theme to a number of the talks), and in particular it describes a bimodule which gives a Morita equivalence between two sorts of theory – one based on graphs labelled in representations of a group $G$, and the other based on $G$-connections. The bimodule is, effectively, a kind of “Fourier transform” which relates dimension-$k$ structures on one side to codimension-$k$ structures on the other: a line labelled by a $G$-representation on one side gets acted upon by $G$-holonomies for a hypersurface on the other side.

On a related note Alessandro Valentino gave a talk called “Boundary Conditions for 3d TQFT and module categories” This related to a couple of papers with Jurgen Fuchs and Christoph Schweigert. The basic idea starts with the fact that one can build (3,2,1)-dimensional TQFT’s from modular tensor categories $\mathcal{C}$, getting a Reshitikhin-Turaev type theory which assigns $\mathcal{C}$ to the circle. The modular tensor structure tells you what gets assigned to higher-dimensional cobordisms. (This is a higher-categorical analog of the fact that a (2,1)-dimensional TQFT is determined by a Frobenius algebra). Then the motivating question is: how can we extend this theory all the way down to a point (i.e. have it assign something to a point, so that $\mathcal{C}$ is somehow composed of naturally occurring morphisms).

So the question is: if we know what $\mathcal{C}$ is, what does that tell us about the “colours” that could be assigned to a boundary. There’s a fairly elegant way to take on this question by looking at what’s assigned to Wilson lines, the observables that matter in defining RT-type theories, when the line where we’re observing gets pushed onto the boundary. (See around p14 of the first paper linked above). The colours on lines inside the manifold could be objects of $\mathcal{C}$, and fusing them illustrates the monoidal structure of $\mathcal{C}$. Then the question is what kind of category can be attached to a boundary and be consistent with this.This should be functorial with respect to fusing two lines (i.e. doing this before or after projecting to the boundary should be the same).

They don’t completely characterize the situation, but they give some reasonable arguments which suggest that the result is that the boundary category, a braided monoidal category, ought to be the Drinfel’d centre of something. This is actually a stronger constraint for categories than groups (any commutative group is the centre of something – namely itself – but this isn’t true for monoidal categories).

2-Knots

Joost Slingerland gave a talk called “Local Representations of the Loop Braid Group”, which was quite nice. The Loop Braid Group was introduced by the late Xiao-Song Lin (whom I had the pleasure to know at UCR) as an interesting generalization of the braid group $B_n$. $B_n$ is the “motion group” of isomorphism classes of motions of $n$ particles in a plane: in such a motion, we let the particles move around arbitrarily, before ending up occupying the same points occupied initially. (In the “pure braid group”, each individual point must end up where it started – in the braid group, they can swap places). Up to diffeomorphism, this keeps track of how they move around each other – not just how they exchange places, but which one crosses in front of which, etc. The loop braid group does the same for loops embedded in 3D space. Now, if the loops always stay far away from each other, one possibility is that a motion amounts to a permutation in which the loops switch places: two paths through 3D space (or 4D spacetime) can always be untangled. On the other hand, loops can pass THROUGH each other, as seen at the beginning of this video:

This is analogous to two points braiding in 2D space (i.e. strands twisting around each other in 3D spacetime), although in fact these “slide moves” form a group which is different from just the pure braid group – but $PB_n$ fits inside them. In particular, the slide moves satisfy some of the same relations as the braid group – the Yang-Baxter equations.

The final thing that can happen is that loops might move, “flip over”, and return to their original position with reversed orientation. So the loop braid group can be broken down as $LB_n = Slide_n \rtimes (\mathbb{Z}_2)^n \rtimes S_n$. Every loop braid could be “closed up” to a 4D knotted surface, though not every knotted surface would be of this form. For one thing, our loops have a trivial embedding in 3D space here – to get every possible knotted surface, we’d need to have knots and links sliding around, braiding through each other, merging and splitting, etc. Knotted surfaces are much more complex than knotted circles, just as the topology of embedded circles is more complex than that of embedded points.

The talk described some work on the “local representations” of $LB_n$: representations on spaces where each loop is attached some $k$-dimensional vector space $V$ (this is the “local dimension”), so that the motions of $n$ loops gets represented on $V^{\otimes n}$ (a tensor product of $n$ copies of $V$). This is already rather complex, but is much easier than looking for arbitrary representations of $LB_n$ on any old vector space (“nonlocal” representations, if you like). Now, in particular, for local dimension 2, this boils down to some simple matrices which can be worked out – the slide moves are either represented by some permutation matrices, or some tensor products of rotation matrices, or a few other cases which can all be classified.

Toward the end, Dror Bar-Natan also gave a talk that touched on knotted surfaces, called “A Partial Reduction of BF Theory to Combinatorics“. The mention of BF theory – a kind of higher gauge theory that can be described locally in terms of a 1-form and a 2-form on a manifold – is basically to set up some discussion of knotted surfaces (the combinatorics it reduces to). The point is that, like many field theories, BF theory amplitudes can be calculated using a sum over certain Feynman diagrams – but these ones are diagrams that lie partly in certain knotted surfaces. (See the rather remarkable handout in the link above for lots of pictures). This is sort of analogous to how some gauge theories in 3D boil down to knot invariants – for knots that live on the boundary of a region cut out of the 3-manifold. This is similar, for a knotted surface in a 4-manifold.

The “combinatorics” boils down to showing some diagram presentations of these knotted surfaces – particularly, a special type called a “ribbon knot”, which is a certain kind of knotted sphere. The combinatorics show that these special knotted surfaces all correspond to ordinary knotted circles in 3D (in the handout, you’ll see the Gauss diagram for a knot – a picture which shows which points along a line cross over or under each other in a presentation of the knot – used to construct a corresponding ribbon knot). But do check out the handout for some pictures which show several different ways of presenting 2-knots.

(…To be continued in Part 2…)

This entry is a by-special-request blog, which Derek Wise invited me to write for the blog associated with the International Loop Quantum Gravity Seminar, and it will appear over there as well.  The ILQGS is a long-running regular seminar which runs as a teleconference, with people joining in from various countries, on various topics which are more or less closely related to Loop Quantum Gravity and the interests of people who work on it.  The custom is that when someone gives a talk, someone else writes up a description of the talk for the ILQGS blog, and Derek invited me to write up a description of his talk.  The audio file of the talk itself is available in .aiff and .wav formats, and the slides are here.

The talk that Derek gave was based on a project of his and Steffen Gielen’s, which has taken written form in a few papers (two shorter ones, “Spontaneously broken Lorentz symmetry for Hamiltonian gravity“, “Linking Covariant and Canonical General Relativity via Local Observers“, and a new, longer one called “Lifting General Relativity to Observer Space“).

The key idea behind this project is the notion of “observer space”, which is exactly what it sounds like: a space of all observers in a given universe.  This is easiest to picture when one has a spacetime – a manifold with a Lorentzian metric, $(M,g)$ – to begin with.  Then an observer can be specified by choosing a particular point $(x_0,x_1,x_2,x_3) = \mathbf{x}$ in spacetime, as well as a unit future-directed timelike vector $v$.  This vector is a tangent to the observer’s worldline at $\mathbf{x}$.  The observer space is therefore a bundle over $M$, the “future unit tangent bundle”.  However, using the notion of a “Cartan geometry”, one can give a general definition of observer space which makes sense even when there is no underlying $(M,g)$.

The result is a surprising, relatively new physical intuition is that “spacetime” is a local and observer-dependent notion, which in some special cases can be extended so that all observers see the same spacetime.  This is somewhat related to the relativity of locality, which I’ve blogged about previously.  Geometrically, it is similar to the fact that a slicing of spacetime into space and time is not unique, and not respected by the full symmetries of the theory of Relativity, even for flat spacetime (much less for the case of General Relativity).  Similarly, we will see a notion of “observer space”, which can sometimes be turned into a bundle over an objective spacetime $M$, but not in all cases.

So, how is this described mathematically?  In particular, what did I mean up there by saying that spacetime becomes observer-dependent?

### Cartan Geometry

The answer uses Cartan geometry, which is a framework for differential geometry that is slightly broader than what is commonly used in physics.  Roughly, one can say “Cartan geometry is to Klein geometry as Riemannian geometry is to Euclidean geometry”.  The more familiar direction of generalization here is the fact that, like Riemannian geometry, Cartan is concerned with manifolds which have local models in terms of simple, “flat” geometries, but which have curvature, and fail to be homogeneous.  First let’s remember how Klein geometry works.

Klein’s Erlangen Program, carried out in the mid-19th-century, systematically brought abstract algebra, and specifically the theory of Lie groups, into geometry, by placing the idea of symmetry in the leading role.  It describes “homogeneous spaces”, which are geometries in which every point is indistinguishable from every other point.  This is expressed by the existence of a transitive action of some Lie group $G$ of all symmetries on an underlying space.  Any given point $x$ will be fixed by some symmetries, and not others, so one also has a subgroup $H = Stab(x) \subset G$.  This is the “stabilizer subgroup”, consisting of all symmetries which fix $x$.  That the space is homogeneous means that for any two points $x,y$, the subgroups $Stab(x)$ and $Stab(y)$ are conjugate (by a symmetry taking $x$ to $y$).  Then the homogeneous space, or Klein geometry, associated to $(G,H)$ is, up to isomorphism, just the same as the quotient space $G/H$ of the obvious action of $H$ on $G$.

The advantage of this program is that it has a great many examples, but the most relevant ones for now are:

• $n$-dimensional Euclidean space. the Euclidean group $ISO(n) = SO(n) \ltimes \mathbb{R}^n$ is precisely the group of transformations that leave the data of Euclidean geometry, lengths and angles, invariant.  It acts transitively on $\mathbb{R}^n$.  Any point will be fixed by the group of rotations centred at that point, which is a subgroup of $ISO(n)$ isomorphic to $SO(n)$.  Klein’s insight is to reverse this: we may define Euclidean space by $R^n \cong ISO(n)/SO(n)$.
• $n$-dimensional Minkowski space.  Similarly, we can define this space to be $ISO(n-1,1)/SO(n-1,1)$.  The Euclidean group has been replaced by the Poincaré group, and rotations by the Lorentz group (of rotations and boosts), but otherwise the situation is essentially the same.
• de Sitter space.  As a Klein geometry, this is the quotient $SO(4,1)/SO(3,1)$.  That is, the stabilizer of any point is the Lorentz group – so things look locally rather similar to Minkowski space around any given point.  But the global symmetries of de Sitter space are different.  Even more, it looks like Minkowski space locally in the sense that the Lie algebras give representations $so(4,1)/so(3,1)$ and $iso(3,1)/so(3,1)$ are identical, seen as representations of $SO(3,1)$.  It’s natural to identify them with the tangent space at a point.  de Sitter space as a whole is easiest to visualize as a 4D hyperboloid in $\mathbb{R}^5$.  This is supposed to be seen as a local model of spacetime in a theory in which there is a cosmological constant that gives empty space a constant negative curvature.
• anti-de Sitter space. This is similar, but now the quotient is $SO(3,2)/SO(3,1)$ – in fact, this whole theory goes through for any of the last three examples: Minkowski; de Sitter; and anti-de Sitter, each of which acts as a “local model” for spacetime in General Relativity with the cosmological constant, respectively: zero; positive; and negative.

Now, what does it mean to say that a Cartan geometry has a local model?  Well, just as a Lorentzian or Riemannian manifold is “locally modelled” by Minkowski or Euclidean space, a Cartan geometry is locally modelled by some Klein geometry.  This is best described in terms of a connection on a principal $G$-bundle, and the associated $G/H$-bundle, over some manifold $M$.  The crucial bundle in a Riemannian or Lorenztian geometry is the frame bundle: the fibre over each point consists of all the ways to isometrically embed a standard Euclidean or Minkowski space into the tangent space.  A connection on this bundle specifies how this embedding should transform as one moves along a path.  It’s determined by a 1-form on $M$, valued in the Lie algebra of $G$.

Given a parametrized path, one can apply this form to the tangent vector at each point, and get a Lie algebra-valued answer.  Integrating along the path, we get a path in the Lie group $G$ (which is independent of the parametrization).  This is called a “development” of the path, and by applying the $G$-values to the model space $G/H$, we see that the connection tells us how to move through a copy of $G/H$ as we move along the path.  The image this suggests is of “rolling without slipping” – think of the case where the model space is a sphere.  The connection describes how the model space “rolls” over the surface of the manifold $M$.  Curvature of the connection measures the failure to commute of the processes of rolling in two different directions.  A connection with zero curvature describes a space which (locally at least) looks exactly like the model space: picture a sphere rolling against its mirror image.  Transporting the sphere-shaped fibre around any closed curve always brings it back to its starting position. Now, curvature is defined in terms of transports of these Klein-geometry fibres.  If curvature is measured by the development of curves, we can think of each homogeneous space as a flat Cartan geometry with itself as a local model.

This idea, that the curvature of a manifold depends on the model geometry being used to measure it, shows up in the way we apply this geometry to physics.

### Gravity and Cartan Geometry

MacDowell-Mansouri gravity can be understood as a theory in which General Relativity is modelled by a Cartan geometry.  Of course, a standard way of presenting GR is in terms of the geometry of a Lorentzian manifold.  In the Palatini formalism, the basic fields are a connection $A$ and a vierbein (coframe field) called $e$, with dynamics encoded in the Palatini action, which is the integral over $M$ of $R[\omega] \wedge e \wedge e$, where $R$ is the curvature 2-form for $\omega$.

This can be derived from a Cartan geometry, whose model geometry is de Sitter space $SO(4,1)/SO(3,1)$.   Then MacDowell-Mansouri gravity gets $\omega$ and $e$ by splitting the Lie algebra as $so(4,1) = so(3,1) \oplus \mathbb{R^4}$.  This “breaks the full symmetry” at each point.  Then one has a fairly natural action on the $so(4,1)$-connection:

$\int_M tr(F_h \wedge \star F_h)$

Here, $F_h$ is the $so(3,1)$ part of the curvature of the big connection.  The splitting of the connection means that $F_h = R + e \wedge e$, and the action above is rewritten, up to a normalization, as the Palatini action for General Relativity (plus a topological term, which has no effect on the equations of motion we get from the action).  So General Relativity can be written as the theory of a Cartan geometry modelled on de Sitter space.

The cosmological constant in GR shows up because a “flat” connection for a Cartan geometry based on de Sitter space will look (if measured by Minkowski space) as if it has constant curvature which is exactly that of the model Klein geometry.  The way to think of this is to take the fibre bundle of homogeneous model spaces as a replacement for the tangent bundle to the manifold.  The fibre at each point describes the local appearance of spacetime.  If empty spacetime is flat, this local model is Minkowski space, $ISO(3,1)/SO(3,1)$, and one can really speak of tangent “vectors”.  The tangent homogeneous space is not linear.  In these first cases, the fibres are not vector spaces, precisely because the large group of symmetries doesn’t contain a group of translations, but they are Klein geometries constructed in just the same way as Minkowski space. Thus, the local description of the connection in terms of $Lie(G)$-valued forms can be treated in the same way, regardless of which Klein geometry $G/H$ occurs in the fibres.  In particular, General Relativity, formulated in terms of Cartan geometry, always says that, in the absence of matter, the geometry of space is flat, and the cosmological constant is included naturally by the choice of which Klein geometry is the local model of spacetime.

### Observer Space

The idea in defining an observer space is to combine two symmetry reductions into one.  The reduction from $SO(4,1)$ to $SO(3,1)$ gives de Sitter space, $SO(4,1)/SO(3,1)$ as a model Klein geometry, which reflects the “symmetry breaking” that happens when choosing one particular point in spacetime, or event.  Then, the reduction of $SO(3,1)$ to $SO(3)$ similarly reflects the symmetry breaking that occurs when one chooses a specific time direction (a future-directed unit timelike vector).  These are the tangent vectors to the worldline of an observer at the chosen point, so $SO(3,1)/SO(3)$ the model Klein geometry, is the space of such possible observers.  The stabilizer subgroup for a point in this space consists of just the rotations of space around the corresponding observer – the boosts in $SO(3,1)$ translate between observers.  So locally, choosing an observer amounts to a splitting of the model spacetime at the point into a product of space and time. If we combine both reductions at once, we get the 7-dimensional Klein geometry $SO(4,1)/SO(3)$.  This is just the future unit tangent bundle of de Sitter space, which we think of as a homogeneous model for the “space of observers”

A general observer space $O$, however, is just a Cartan geometry modelled on $SO(4,1)/SO(3)$.  This is a 7-dimensional manifold, equipped with the structure of a Cartan geometry.  One class of examples are exactly the future unit tangent bundles to 4-dimensional Lorentzian spacetimes.  In these cases, observer space is naturally a contact manifold: that is, it’s an odd-dimensional manifold equipped with a 1-form $\alpha$, the contact form, which is such that the top-dimensional form $\alpha \wedge d \alpha \wedge \dots \wedge d \alpha$ is nowhere zero.  This is the odd-dimensional analog of a symplectic manifold.  Contact manifolds are, intuitively, configuration spaces of systems which involve “rolling without slipping” – for instance, a sphere rolling on a plane.  In this case, it’s better to think of the local space of observers which “rolls without slipping” on a spacetime manifold $M$.

Now, Minkowski space has a slicing into space and time – in fact, one for each observer, who defines the time direction, but the time coordinate does not transform in any meaningful way under the symmetries of the theory, and different observers will choose different ones.  In just the same way, the homogeneous model of observer space can naturally be written as a bundle $SO(4,1)/SO(3) \rightarrow SO(4,1)/SO(3,1)$.  But a general observer space $O$ may or may not be a bundle over an ordinary spacetime manifold, $O \rightarrow M$.  Every Cartan geometry $M$ gives rise to an observer space $O$ as the bundle of future-directed timelike vectors, but not every Cartan geometry $O$ is of this form, in any natural way. Indeed, without a further condition, we can’t even reconstruct observer space as such a bundle in an open neighborhood of a given observer.

This may be intuitively surprising: it gives a perfectly concrete geometric model in which “spacetime” is relative and observer-dependent, and perhaps only locally meaningful, in just the same way as the distinction between “space” and “time” in General Relativity. It may be impossible, that is, to determine objectively whether two observers are located at the same base event or not. This is a kind of “Relativity of Locality” which is geometrically much like the by-now more familiar Relativity of Simultaneity. Each observer will reach certain conclusions as to which observers share the same base event, but different observers may not agree.  The coincident observers according to a given observer are those reached by a good class of geodesics in $O$ moving only in directions that observer sees as boosts.

When one can reconstruct $O \rightarrow M$, two observers will agree whether or not they are coincident.  This extra condition which makes this possible is an integrability constraint on the action of the Lie algebra $H$ (in our main example, $H = SO(3,1)$) on the observer space $O$.  In this case, the fibres of the bundle are the orbits of this action, and we have the familiar world of Relativity, where simultaneity may be relative, but locality is absolute.

### Lifting Gravity to Observer Space

Apart from describing this model of relative spacetime, another motivation for describing observer space is that one can formulate canonical (Hamiltonian) GR locally near each point in such an observer space.  The goal is to make a link between covariant and canonical quantization of gravity.  Covariant quantization treats the geometry of spacetime all at once, by means of a Lagrangian action functional.  This is mathematically appealing, since it respects the symmetry of General Relativity, namely its diffeomorphism-invariance.  On the other hand, it is remote from the canonical (Hamiltonian) approach to quantization of physical systems, in which the concept of time is fundamental. In the canonical approach, one gets a Hilbert space by quantizing the space of states of a system at a given point in time, and the Hamiltonian for the theory describes its evolution.  This is problematic for diffeomorphism-, or even Lorentz-invariance, since coordinate time depends on a choice of observer.  The point of observer space is that we consider all these choices at once.  Describing GR in $O$ is both covariant, and based on (local) choices of time direction.

This is easiest to describe in the case of a bundle $O \rightarrow M$.  Then a “field of observers” to be a section of the bundle: a choice, at each base event in $M$, of an observer based at that event.  A field of observers may or may not correspond to a particular decomposition of spacetime into space evolving in time, but locally, at each point in $O$, it always looks like one.  The resulting theory describes the dynamics of space-geometry over time, as seen locally by a given observer.  In this case, a Cartan connection on observer space is described by to a $Lie(SO(4,1))$-valued form.  This decomposes into four Lie-algebra valued forms, interpreted as infinitesimal transformations of the model observer by: (1) spatial rotations; (2) boosts; (3) spatial translations; (4) time translation.  The four-fold division is based on two distinctions: first, between the base event at which the observer lives, and the choice of observer (i.e. the reduction of $SO(4,1)$ to $SO(3,1)$, which symmetry breaking entails choosing a point); and second, between space and time (i.e. the reduction of $SO(3,1)$ to $SO(3)$, which symmetry breaking entails choosing a time direction).

This splitting, along the same lines as the one in MacDowell-Mansouri gravity described above, suggests that one could lift GR to a theory on an observer space $O$.  This amount to describing fields on $O$ and an action functional, so that the splitting of the fields gives back the usual fields of GR on spacetime, and the action gives back the usual action.  This part of the project is still under development, but this lifting has been described.  In the case when there is no “objective” spacetime, the result includes some surprising new fields which it’s not clear how to deal with, but when there is an objective spacetime, the resulting theory looks just like GR.

Since the last post, I’ve been busily attending some conferences, as well as moving to my new job at the University of Hamburg, in the Graduiertenkolleg 1670, “Mathematics Inspired by String Theory and Quantum Field Theory”.  The week before I started, I was already here in Hamburg, at the conference they were organizing “New Perspectives in Topological Quantum Field Theory“.  But since I last posted, I was also at the 20th Oporto Meeting on Geometry, Topology, and Physics, as well as the third Higher Structures in China workshop, at Jilin University in Changchun.  Right now, I’d like to say a few things about some of the highlights of that workshop.

Higher Structures in China III

So last year I had a bunch of discussions I had with Chenchang Zhu and Weiwei Pan, who at the time were both in Göttingen, about my work with Jamie Vicary, which I wrote about last time when the paper was posted to the arXiv.  In that, we showed how the Baez-Dolan groupoidification of the Heisenberg algebra can be seen as a representation of Khovanov’s categorification.  Chenchang and Weiwei and I had been talking about how these ideas might extend to other examples, in particular to give nice groupoidifications of categorified Lie algebras and quantum groups.

That is still under development, but I was invited to give a couple of talks on the subject at the workshop.  It was a long trip: from Lisbon, the farthest-west of the main cities of (continental) Eurasia all the way to one of the furthest-East.   (Not quite the furthest, but Changchun is in the northeast of China, just a few hours north of Korea, and it took just about exactly 24 hours including stopovers to get there).  It was a long way to go for a three day workshop, but as there were also three days of a big excursion to Changbai Mountain, just on the border with North Korea, for hiking and general touring around.  So that was a sort of holiday, with 11 other mathematicians.  Here is me with Dany Majard, in a national park along the way to the mountains:

Here’s me with Alex Hoffnung, on Changbai Mountain (in the background is China):

And finally, here’s me a little to the left of the previous picture, where you can see into the volcanic crater.  The lake at the bottom is cut out of the picture, but you can see the crater rim, of which this particular part is in North Korea, as seen from China:

Well, that was fun!

Anyway, the format of the workshop involved some talks from foreigners and some from locals, with a fairly big local audience including a good many graduate students from Jilin University.  So they got a chance to see some new work being done elsewhere – mostly in categorification of one kind or another.  We got a chance to see a little of what’s being done in China, although not as much as we might have. I gather that not much is being done yet that fit the theme of the workshop, which was part of the reason to organize the workshop, and especially for having a session aimed specially at the graduate students.

### Categorified Algebra

This is a sort of broad term, but certainly would include my own talk.  The essential point is to show how the groupoidification of the Heisenberg algebra is a representation of Khovanov’s categorification of the same algebra, in a particular 2-category.  The emphasis here is on the fact that it’s a representation in a 2-category whose objects are groupoids, but whose morphisms aren’t just functors, but spans of functors – that is, composites of functors and co-functors.  This is a pretty conservative weakening of “representations on categories” – but it lets one build really simple combinatorial examples.  I’ve discussed this general subject in recent posts, so I won’t elaborate too much.  The lecture notes are here, if you like, though – they have more detail than my previous post, but are less technical than the paper with Jamie Vicary.

Aaron Lauda gave a nice introduction to the program of categorifying quantum groups, mainly through the example of the special case $U_q(sl_2)$, somewhat along the same lines as in his introductory paper on the subject.  The story which gives the motivation is nice: one has knot invariants such as the Jones polynomial, based on representations of groups and quantum groups.  The Jones polynomial can be categorified to give Khovanov homology (which assigns a complex to a knot, whose graded Euler characteristic is the Jones polynomial) – but also assigns maps of complexes to cobordisms of knots.  One then wants to categorify the representation theory behind it – to describe actions of, for instance, quantum $sl_2$ on categories.  This starting point is nice, because it can work by just mimicking the construction of $sl_2$ and $U_q(sl_2)$ representations in terms of weight spaces: one gets categories $V_{-N}, \dots, V_N$ which correspond to the “weight spaces” (usually just vector spaces), and the $E$ and $F$ operators give functors between them, and so forth.

Finding examples of categories and functors with this structure, and satisfying the right relations, gives “categorified representations” of the algebra – the monoidal categories of diagrams which are the “categorifications of the algebra” then are seen as the abstraction of exactly which relations these are supposed to satisfy.  One such example involves flag varieties.  A flag, as one might eventually guess from the name, is a nested collection of subspaces in some $n$-dimensional space.  A simple example is the Grassmannian $Gr(1,V)$, which is the space of all 1-dimensional subspaces of $V$ (i.e. the projective space $P(V)$), which is of course an algebraic variety.  Likewise, $Gr(k,V)$, the space of all $k$-dimensional subspaces of $V$ is a variety.  The flag variety $Fl(k,k+1,V)$ consists of all pairs $W_k \subset W_{k+1}$, of a $k$-dimensional subspace of $V$, inside a $(k+1)$-dimensional subspace (the case $k=2$ calls to mind the reason for the name: a plane intersecting a given line resembles a flag stuck to a flagpole).  This collection is again a variety.  One can go all the way up to the variety of “complete flags”, $Fl(1,2,\dots,n,V)$ (where $V$ is $n$-dimenisonal), any point of which picks out a subspace of each dimension, each inside the next.

The way this relates to representations is by way of geometric representation theory. One can see those flag varieties of the form $Fl(k,k+1,V)$ as relating the Grassmanians: there are projections $Fl(k,k+1,V) \rightarrow Gr(k,V)$ and $Fl(k,k+1,V) \rightarrow Gr(k+1,V)$, which act by just ignoring one or the other of the two subspaces of a flag.  This pair of maps, by way of pulling-back and pushing-forward functions, gives maps between the cohomology rings of these spaces.  So one gets a sequence $H_0, H_1, \dots, H_n$, and maps between the adjacent ones.  This becomes a representation of the Lie algebra.  Categorifying this, one replaces the cohomology rings with derived categories of sheaves on the flag varieties – then the same sort of “pull-push” operation through (derived categories of sheaves on) the flag varieties defines functors between those categories.  So one gets a categorified representation.

Heather Russell‘s talk, based on this paper with Aaron Lauda, built on the idea that categorified algebras were motivated by Khovanov homology.  The point is that there are really two different kinds of Khovanov homology – the usual kind, and an Odd Khovanov Homology, which is mainly different in that the role played in Khovanov homology by a symmetric algebra is instead played by an exterior (antisymmetric) algebra.  The two look the same over a field of characteristic 2, but otherwise different.  The idea is then that there should be “odd” versions of various structures that show up in the categorifications of $U_q(sl_2)$ (and other algebras) mentioned above.

One example is the fact that, in the “even” form of those categorifications, there is a natural action of the Nil Hecke algebra on composites of the generators.  This is an algebra which can be seen to act on the space of polynomials in $n$ commuting variables, $\mathbb{C}[x_1,\dots,x_n]$, generated by the multiplication operators $x_i$, and the “divided difference operators” based on the swapping of two adjacent variables.  The Hecke algebra is defined in terms of “swap” generators, which satisfy some $q$-deformed variation of the relations that define the symmetric group (and hence its group algebra).   The Nil Hecke algebra is so called since the “swap” (i.e. the divided difference) is nilpotent: the square of the swap is zero.  The way this acts on the objects of the diagrammatic category is reflected by morphisms drawn as crossings of strands, which are then formally forced to satisfy the relations of the Nil Hecke algebra.

The ODD Nil Hecke algebra, on the other hand, is an analogue of this, but the $x_i$ are anti-commuting, and one has different relations satisfied by the generators (they differ by a sign, because of the anti-commutation).  This sort of “oddification” is then supposed to happen all over.  The main point of the talk was to to describe the “odd” version of the categorified representation defined using flag varieties.  Then the odd Nil Hecke algebra acts on that, analogously to the even case above.

Marco Mackaay gave a couple of talks about the $sl_3$ web algebra, describing the results of this paper with Weiwei Pan and Daniel Tubbenhauer.  This is the analog of the above, for $U_q(sl_3)$, describing a diagram calculus which accounts for representations of the quantum group.  The “web algebra” was introduced by Greg Kuperberg – it’s an algebra built from diagrams which can now include some trivalent vertices, along with rules imposing relations on these.  When categorifying, one gets a calculus of “foams” between such diagrams.  Since this is obviously fairly diagram-heavy, I won’t try here to reproduce what’s in the paper – but an important part of is the correspondence between webs and Young Tableaux, since these are labels in the representation theory of the quantum group – so there is some interesting combinatorics here as well.

### Algebraic Structures

Some of the talks were about structures in algebra in a more conventional sense.

Jiang-Hua Lu: On a class of iterated Poisson polynomial algebras.  The starting point of this talk was to look at Poisson brackets on certain spaces and see that they can be found in terms of “semiclassical limits” of some associative product.  That is, the associative product of two elements gives a power series in some parameter $h$ (which one should think of as something like Planck’s constant in a quantum setting).  The “classical” limit is the constant term of the power series, and the “semiclassical” limit is the first-order term.  This gives a Poisson bracket (or rather, the commutator of the associative product does).  In the examples, the spaces where these things are defined are all spaces of polynomials (which makes a lot of explicit computer-driven calculations more convenient). The talk gives a way of constructing a big class of Poisson brackets (having some nice properties: they are “iterated Poisson brackets”) coming from quantum groups as semiclassical limits.  The construction uses words in the generating reflections for the Weyl group of a Lie group $G$.

Li Guo: Successors and Duplicators of Operads – first described a whole range of different algebra-like structures which have come up in various settings, from physics and dynamical systems, through quantum field theory, to Hopf algebras, combinatorics, and so on.  Each of them is some sort of set (or vector space, etc.) with some number of operations satisfying some conditions – in some cases, lots of operations, and even more conditions.  In the slides you can find several examples – pre-Lie and post-Lie algebras, dendriform algebras, quadri- and octo-algebras, etc. etc.  Taken as a big pile of definitions of complicated structures, this seems like a terrible mess.  The point of the talk is to point out that it’s less messy than it appears: first, each definition of an algebra-like structure comes from an operad, which is a formal way of summing up a collection of operations with various “arities” (number of inputs), and relations that have to hold.  The second point is that there are some operations, “successor” and “duplicator”, which take one operad and give another, and that many of these complicated structures can be generated from simple structures by just these two operations.  The “successor” operation for an operad introduces a new product related to old ones – for example, the way one can get a Lie bracket from an associative product by taking the commutator.  The “duplicator” operation takes existing products and introduces two new products, whose sum is the previous one, and which satisfy various nice relations.  Combining these two operations in various ways to various starting points yields up a plethora of apparently complicated structures.

Dany Majard gave a talk about algebraic structures which are related to double groupoids, namely double categories where all the morphisms are invertible.  The first part just defined double categories: graphically, one has horizontal and vertical 1-morphisms, and square 2-morphsims, which compose in both directions.  Then there are several special degenerate cases, in the same way that categories have as degenerate cases (a) sets, seen as categories with only identity morphisms, and (b) monoids, seen as one-object categories.  Double categories have ordinary categories (and hence monoids and sets) as degenerate cases.  Other degenerate cases are 2-categories (horizontal and vertical morphisms are the same thing), and therefore their own special cases, monoidal categories and symmetric monoids.  There is also the special degenerate case of a double monoid (and the extra-special case of a double group).  (The slides have nice pictures showing how they’re all degenerate cases).  Dany then talked about some structure of double group(oids) – and gave a list of properties for double groupoids, (such as being “slim” – having at most one 2-cell per boundary configuration – as well as two others) which ensure that they’re equivalent to the semidirect product of an abelian group with the “bicrossed product”  $H \bowtie K$ of two groups $H$ and $K$ (each of which has to act on the other for this to make sense).  He gave the example of the Poincare double group, which breaks down as a triple bicrossed product by the Iwasawa decomposition:

$Poinc = (SO(3) \bowtie (SO(1; 1) \bowtie N)) \ltimes \mathbb{R}_4$

($N$ is certain group of matrices).  So there’s a unique double group which corresponds to it – it has squares labelled by $\mathbb{R}_4$, and the horizontial and vertical morphisms by elements of $SO(3)$ and $N$ respectively.  Dany finished by explaining that there are higher-dimensional analogs of all this – $n$-tuple categories can be defined recursively by internalization (“internal categories in $(n-1)$-tuple-Cat”).  There are somewhat more sophisticated versions of the same kind of structure, and finally leading up to a special class of $n$-tuple groups.  The analogous theorem says that a special class of them is just the same as the semidirect product of an abelian group with an $n$-fold iterated bicrossed product of groups.

Also in this category, Alex Hoffnung talked about deformation of formal group laws (based on this paper with various collaborators).  FGL’s are are structures with an algebraic operation which satisfies axioms similar to a group, but which can be expressed in terms of power series.  (So, in particular they have an underlying ring, for this to make sense).  In particular, the talk was about formal group algebras – essentially, parametrized deformations of group algebras – and in particular for Hecke Algebras.  Unfortunately, my notes on this talk are mangled, so I’ll just refer to the paper.

### Physics

I’m using the subject-header “physics” to refer to those talks which are most directly inspired by physical ideas, though in fact the talks themselves were mathematical in nature.

Fei Han gave a series of overview talks intorducing “Equivariant Cohomology via Gauged Supersymmetric Field Theory”, explaining the Stolz-Teichner program.  There is more, using tools from differential geometry and cohomology to dig into these theories, but for now a summary will do.  Essentially, the point is that one can look at “fields” as sections of various bundles on manifolds, and these fields are related to cohomology theories.  For instance, the usual cohomology of a space $X$ is a quotient of the space of closed forms (so the $k^{th}$ cohomology, $H^{k}(X) = \Omega^{k}$, is a quotient of the space of closed $k$-forms – the quotient being that forms differing by a coboundary are considered the same).  There’s a similar construction for the $K$-theory $K(X)$, which can be modelled as a quotient of the space of vector bundles over $X$.  Fei Han mentioned topological modular forms, modelled by a quotient of the space of “Fredholm bundles” – bundles of Banach spaces with a Fredholm operator around.

The first two of these examples are known to be related to certain supersymmetric topological quantum field theories.  Now, a TFT is a functor into some kind of vector spaces from a category of $(n-1)$-dimensional manifolds and $n$-dimensional cobordisms

$Z : d-Bord \rightarrow Vect$

Intuitively, it gives a vector space of possible fields on the given space and a linear map on a given spacetime.  A supersymmetric field theory is likewise a functor, but one changes the category of “spacetimes” to have both bosonic and fermionic dimension.  A normal smooth manifold is a ringed space $(M,\mathcal{O})$, since it comes equipped with a sheaf of rings (each open set has an associated ring of smooth functions, and these glue together nicely).  Supersymmetric theories work with manifolds which change this sheaf – so a $d|\delta$-dimensional space has the sheaf of rings where one introduces some new antisymmetric coordinate functions $\theta_i$, the “fermionic dimensions”:

$\mathcal{O}(U) = C^{\infty}(U) \otimes \bigwedge^{\ast}[\theta_1,\dots,\theta_{\delta}]$

Then a supersymmetric TFT is a functor:

$E : (d|\delta)-Bord \rightarrow STV$

(where $STV$ is the category of supersymmetric topological vector spaces – defined similarly).  The connection to cohomology theories is that the classes of such field theories, up to a notion of equivalence called “concordance”, are classified by various cohomology theories.  Ordinary cohomology corresponds then to $0|1$-dimensional extended TFT (that is, with 0 bosonic and 1 fermionic dimension), and $K$-theory to a $1|1$-dimensional extended TFT.  The Stoltz-Teichner Conjecture is that the third example (topological modular forms) is related in the same way to a $2_1$-dimensional extended TFT – so these are the start of a series of cohomology theories related to various-dimension TFT’s.

Last but not least, Chris Rogers spoke about his ideas on “Higher Geometric Quantization”, on which he’s written a number of papers.  This is intended as a sort of categorification of the usual ways of quantizing symplectic manifolds.  I am still trying to catch up on some of the geometry This is rooted in some ideas that have been discussed by Brylinski, for example.  Roughly, the message here is that “categorification” of a space can be thought of as a way of acting on the loop space of a space.  The point is that, if points in a space are objects and paths are morphisms, then a loop space $L(X)$ shifts things by one categorical level: its points are loops in $X$, and its paths are therefore certain 2-morphisms of $X$.  In particular, there is a parallel to the fact that a bundle with connection on a loop space can be thought of as a gerbe on the base space.  Intuitively, one can “parallel transport” things along a path in the loop space, which is a surface given by a path of loops in the original space.  The local description of this situation says that a 1-form (which can give transport along a curve, by integration) on the loop space is associated with a 2-form (giving transport along a surface) on the original space.

Then the idea is that geometric quantization of loop spaces is a sort of higher version of quantization of the original space. This “higher” version is associated with a form of higher degree than the symplectic (2-)form used in geometric quantization of $X$.   The general notion of n-plectic geometry, where the usual symplectic geometry is the case $n=1$, involves a $(n+1)$-form analogous to the usual symplectic form.  Now, there’s a lot more to say here than I properly understand, much less can summarize in a couple of paragraphs.  But the main theorem of the talk gives a relation between n-plectic manifolds (i.e. ones endowed with the right kind of form) and Lie n-algebras built from the complex of forms on the manifold.  An important example (a theorem of Chris’ and John Baez) is that one has a natural example of a 2-plectic manifold in any compact simple Lie group $G$ together with a 3-form naturally constructed from its Maurer-Cartan form.

At any rate, this workshop had a great proportion of interesting talks, and overall, including the chance to see a little more of China, was a great experience!

This blog has been on hiatus for a while, as I’ve been doing various other things, including spending some time in Hamburg getting set up for the move there. Another of these things has been working with Jamie Vicary on our project on the groupoidified Quantum Harmonic Oscillator (QHO for short). We’ve now put the first of two papers on the arXiv – this one is a relatively nonrigorous look at how this relates to categorification of the Heisenberg Algebra. Since John Baez is a high-speed blogging machine, he’s already beaten me to an overview of what the paper says, and there’s been some interesting discussion already. So I’ll try to say some different things about what it means, and let you take a look over there, or read the paper, for details.

I’ve given some talks about this project, but as we’ve been writing it up, it’s expanded considerably, including a lot of category-theoretic details which are going to be in the second paper in this series. But the basic point of this current paper is essentially visual and, in my opinion, fairly simple. The groupoidification of the QHO has a nice visual description, since it is all about the combinatorics of finite sets. This was described originally by Baez and Dolan, and in more detail in my very first paper. The other visual part here is the relation to Khovanov’s categorification of the Heisenberg algebra using a graphical calculus. (I wrote about this back when I first became aware of it.)

As a Representation

The scenario here actually has some common features with my last post. First, we have a monoidal category with duals, let’s say $C$ presented in terms of some generators and relations. Then, we find some concrete model of this abstractly-presented monoidal category with duals in a specific setting, namely $Span(Gpd)$.

Calling this “concrete” just refers to the fact that the objects in $Span(Gpd)$ have some particular structure in terms of underlying sets and so on. By a “model” I just mean a functor $C \rightarrow Span(Gpd)$ (“model” and “representation” mean essentially the same thing in this context). In fact, for this to make sense, I think of $C$ as a 2-category with one object. Then a model is just some particular choices: a groupoid to represent the unique object, spans of groupoids to represent the generating morphisms, spans of spans to represent the generating 2-morphisms, all chosen so that the defining relations hold.

In my previous post, $C$ was a category of cobordisms, but in this case, it’s essentially Khovanov’s monoidal category $H'$ whose objects are (oriented) dots and whose morphisms are certain classes of diagrams. The nice fact about the particular model we get is that the reasons these relations hold are easy to see in terms of a the combinatorics of sets. This is why our title describes what we got as “a combinatorial representation” Khovanov’s category $H'$ of diagrams, for which the ring of isomorphism classes of objects is the integral form of the algebra. This uses that $Span(Gpd)$ is not just a monoidal category: it can be a monoidal 2-category. What’s more, the monoidal category $H'$ “is” also a 2-category – with one object. The objects of $H'$ are really the morphisms of this 2-category.

So $H'$ is in some sense a universal theory (because it’s defined freely in terms of generators and relations) of what a categorification of the Heisenberg algebra must look like. Baez-Dolan groupoidification of the QHO then turns out to be a representation or model of it. In fact, the model is faithful, so that we can even say that it provides a combinatorial interpretation of that category.

The Combinatorial Model

Between the links above, you can find a good summary of the situation, so I’ll be a bit cursory. The model is described in terms of structures on finite sets. This is why our title calls this a “combinatorial representation” of Khovanov’s categorification.

This means that the one object of $H$ (as a 2-category) is taken to the groupoid $FinSet_0$ of finite sets and bijections (which we just called $S$ in the paper for brevity). This is the “Fock space” object. For simplicity, we can take an equivalent groupoid, which has just one $n$-element set for each $n$.

Now, a groupoid represents a system, whose possible configurations are the objects and whose symmetries are the morphisms. In this case, the possible configurations are the different numbers of “quanta”, and the symmetries (all set-bijections) show that all the quanta are interchangeable. I imagine a box containing some number of ping-pong balls.

A span of groupoids represents a process. It has a groupoid whose objects are histories (and morphisms are symmetries of histories). This groupoid has a pair of maps: to the system the process starts in, and to the system it ends in. In our model, the most important processes (which generate everything else) are the creation and annihilation operators, $a^{\dagger}$ and $a$ – and their categorified equivalents, $A$ and $A^{\dagger}$. The spans that represent them are very simple: they are processes which put a new ball into the box, or take one out, respectively. (Algebraically, they’re just a way to organize all the inclusions of symmetric groups $S_n \subset S_{n+1}$.)

The “canonical commutation relation“, which we write without subtraction thus:

$A A^{\dagger} = A^{\dagger} A + 1$

is already understood in the Baez-Dolan story: it says that there is one more way to remove a ball from a box after putting a new one into it (one more history for the process $A A^{\dagger}$) than to remove a ball and then add a new one (histories for $a^{\dagger} a$). This is fairly obvious: in the first instance, you have one more to choose from when removing the ball.

But the original Baez-Dolan story has no interesting 2-morphisms (the actual diagrams which are the 1-morphisms in $H$), whereas these are absolutely the whole point of a categorification in the sense Khovanov gets one, since the 1-morphisms of $H'$ determine what the isomorphism classes of objects even are.

So this means that we need to figure out what the 2-morphisms in $Span(Gpd)$ need to be – first in general, and second in our particular representation of $H$.

In general, a 2-morphism in $Span(Gpd)$ is a span of span-maps. You’ll find other people who take it to be a span-map. This would be a functor between the groupoids of histories: roughly, a map which assigns a history in the source span to a history in the target span (and likewise for symmetries), in a way that respects how they’re histories. But we don’t want just a map: we want a process which has histories of its own. We want to describe a “movie of processes” which change one process into another. These can have many histories of their own.

In fact, they’re not too complicated. Here’s one of Khovanov’s relation in $H'$ which forms part of how the commutation relation is expressed (shuffled to get rid of negatives, which we constantly need to do in the combinatorial model since we have no negative sets):

We read an upward arrow as “add a ball to the box”, and a downward arrow as “remove a ball”, and read right-to-left.  Both processes begin and end with“add then remove”. The right-hand side just leaves this process alone: it’s the identity.

The left-hand side shows a process-movie whose histories have two different cases. Suppose we begin with a history for which we add $x$ and then remove $y$. The first case is that $x = y$: we remove the same ball we put in. This amounts to doing nothing, so the first part of the movie eliminates all the adding and removing. The second part puts the add-remove pair back in.

The second case ensures that $x \neq y$, since it takes the initial history to the history (of a different process!) in which we remove $y$ and then add $x$ (impossible if $y = x$, since we can’t remove this ball before adding it). This in turn is taken to the history (of the original process!) where we add $x$ and then remove $y$; so this relates every history to itself, except for the case that $x = y$. Overall the sum of these relations give the identity on histories, which is the right hand side.

This picture includes several of the new 2-morphisms that we need to add to the Baez-Dolan picture: swapping the order of two generators, and adding or removing a pair of add/remove operations. Finding spans of spans which accomplish this (and showing they satisfy the right relations) is all that’s needed to finish up the combinatorial model.  So, for instance, the span of spans which adds a “remove-then-add” pair is this one:

If this isn’t clear, well, it’s explained in more detail in the paper.  (Do notice, though, that this is a diagram in groupoids: we need to specify that there are identity 2-cells in the span, rather than some other 2-cells.)

So this is basically how the combinatorial model works.

But in fact this description is (as often happens) chronologically backwards: what actually happened was that we had worked out what the 2-morphisms should be for different reasons. While trying to to understand what kind of structure this produced, we realized (thanks to Marco Mackaay) that the result was related to $H$, which in turn shed more light on the 2-morphisms we’d found.

So far so good. But what makes it possible to represent the kind of monoidal category we’re talking about in this setting is adjointness. This is another way of saying what I meant up at the top by saying we start with a monoidal category with duals.  This means morphisms each have a partner – a dual, or adjoint – going in the opposite direction.  The representations of the raising and lowering operators of the Heisenberg algebra on the Hilbert space for the QHO are linear adjoints. Their categorifications also need to be adjoints in the sense of adjoint 1-morphisms in a 2-category.

This is an abstraction of what it means for two functors $F$ and $G$ to be adjoint. In particular, it means there have to be certain 2-cells such as the unit $\eta : Id \Rightarrow G \circ F$ and counit $\epsilon : F \circ G \Rightarrow Id$ satisfying some nice relations. In fact, this only makes $F$ a left adjoint and $G$ a right adjoint – in this situation, we also have another pair which makes $F$ a right adjoint and $G$ a left one. That is, they should be “ambidextrous adjoints”, or “ambiadjoints” for short. This is crucial if they’re going to represent any graphical calculus of the kind that’s involved here (see the first part of this paper by Aaron Lauda, for instance).

So one of the theorems in the longer paper will show concretely that any 1-morphism in $Span(Gpd)$ has an ambiadjoint – which happens to look like the same span, but thought of as going in the reverse direction. This is somewhat like how the adjoint of a real linear map, expressed as a matrix relative to well-chosen bases, is just the transpose of the same matrix. In particular, $A$ and $A^{\dagger}$ are adjoints in just this way. The span-of-span-maps I showed above is exactly the unit for one side of this ambi-adjunction – but it is just a special case of something that will work for any span and its adjoint.

Finally, there’s something a little funny here. Since the morphisms of $Span(Gpd)$ aren’t functors or maps, this combinatorial model is not exactly what people often mean by a “categorified representation”. That would be an action on a category in terms of functors and natural transformations. We do talk about how to get one of these on a 2-vector space out of our groupoidal representation toward the end.

In particular, this amounts to a functor into $2Vect$ – the objects of $2Vect$ being categories of a particular kind, and the morphisms being functors that preserve all the structure of those categories. As it turns out, the thing about this setting which is good for this purpose is that all those functors have ambiadjoints. The “2-linearization” that takes $Span(Gpd)$ into $2Vect$ is a 2-functor, and this means that all the 2-cells and equations that make two morphisms ambiadjoints carry over. In $2Vect$, it’s very easy for this to happen, since all those ambiadjoints are already present. So getting representations of categorified algebras that are made using these monoidal categories of diagrams on 2-vector spaces is fairly natural – and it agrees with the usual intuition about what “representation” means.

Anything I start to say about this is in danger of ballooning, but since we’re already some 40 pages into the second paper, I’ll save the elaboration for that…

I’ve written here before about building topological quantum field theories using groupoidification, but I haven’t yet gotten around to discussing a refinement of this idea, which is in the most recent version of my paper on the subject.  I also gave a talk about this last year in Erlangen. The main point of the paper is to pull apart some constructions which are already fairly well known into two parts, as part of setting up a category which is nice for supporting models of fairly general physical systems, using an extension of the  concept of groupoidification. So here’s a somewhat lengthy post which tries to unpack this stuff a bit.

Factoring TQFT

The older version of this paper talked about the untwisted version of the Dijkgraaf-Witten (DW for short) model, which is a certain kind of TQFT based on a gauge theory with a finite gauge group.  (Freed and Quinn put it as: “Chern-Simons theory with finite gauge group”).  The new version gets the general – that is, the twisted – form in the same way: factoring the theory into two parts. So, the DW model, which was originally described by Dijkgraaf and Witten in terms of a state-sum, is a functor

$Z : 3Cob \rightarrow Vect$

The “twisting” is the point of their paper, “Topological Gauge Theories and Group Cohomology”.  The twisting has to do with the action for some physical theory. Now, for a gauge theory involving flat connections, the kind of gauge-theory actions which involve the curvature of a connection make no sense: the curvature is zero.  So one wants an action which reflects purely global features of connections.  The cohomology of the gauge group is where this comes from.

Now, the machinery I describe is based on a point of view which has been described in a famous paper by Freed, Hopkins, Lurie and Teleman (FHLT for short – see further discussion here) in terms in which the two stages are called the “classical field theory” (which has values in groupoids), and the “quantization functor”, which takes one into Hilbert spaces.

Actually, we really want to have an “extended” TQFT: a TQFT gives a Hilbert space for each 2D manifold (“space”), and a linear map for a 3D cobordism (“spacetime”) between them. An extended TQFT will assign (higher) algebraic data to lower-dimension boundaries still.  My paper talks only about the case where we’ve extended down to codimension 2, whereas FHLT talk about extending “down to a point”. The point of this first stopping point is to unpack explicitly and computationally what the factorization into two parts looks like at the first level beyond the usual TQFT.

In the terminology I use, the classical field theory is:

$A^{\omega} : nCob_2 \rightarrow Span_2(Gpd)^{U(1)}$

This depends on a cohomology class $[\omega] \in H^3(G,U(1))$. The “quantization functor” (which in this case I call “2-linearization”):

$\Lambda^{U(1)} : Span_2(Gpd)^{U(1)} \rightarrow 2Vect$

The middle stage involves the monoidal 2-category I call $Span_2(Gpd)^{U(1)}$.  (In FHLT, they use different terminology, for instance “families” rather than “spans”, but the principle is the same.)

Freed and Quinn looked at the quantization of the “extended” DW model, and got a nice geometric picture. In it, the action is understood as a section of some particular line-bundle over a moduli space. This geometric picture is very elegant once you see how it works, which I found was a little easier in light of a factorization through $Span_2(Gpd)$.

This factorization isolates the geometry of this particular situation in the “classical field theory” – and reveals which of the features of their setup (the line bundle over a moduli space) are really part of some more universal construction.

In particular, this means laying out an explicit definition of both $Span_2(Gpd)^{U(1)}$ and $\Lambda^{U(1)}$.

2-Linearization Recalled

While I’ve talked about it before, it’s worth a brief recap of how 2-linearization works with a view to what happens when you twist it via groupoid cohomology. Here we have a 2-category $Span(Gpd)$, whose objects are groupoids ($A$, $B$, etc.), whose morphisms are spans of groupoids:

$A \stackrel{s}{\leftarrow} X \stackrel{t}{\rightarrow} B$

and whose 2-morphisms are spans of span-maps (taken up to isomorphism), which look like so:

(And, by the by: how annoying that WordPress doesn’t appear to support xypic figures…)

These form a (symmetric monoidal) 2-category, where composition of spans works by taking weak pullbacks.  Physically, the idea is that a groupoid has objects which are configurations (in the cause of gauge theory, connections on a manifold), and morphisms which are symmetries (gauge transformations, in this case).  Then a span is a groupoid of histories (connections on a cobordism, thought of as spacetime), and the maps $s,t$ pick out its starting and ending configuration.  That is, $A = A_G(S)$ is the groupoid of flat $G$-connections on a manifold $S$, and $X = A_G(\Sigma)$ is the groupoid of flat $G$-connections on some cobordism $\Sigma$, of which $S$ is part of the boundary.  So any such connection can be restricted to the boundary, and this restriction is $s$.

Now 2-linearization is a 2-functor:

$\Lambda : Span_2(Gpd)^{U(1)} \rightarrow 2Vect$

It gives a 2-vector space (a nice kind of category) for each groupoid $G$.  Specifically, the category of its representations, $Rep(G)$.  Then a span turns into a functor which comes from “pulling” back along $s$ (the restricted representation where $X$ acts by first applying $s$ then the representation), then “pushing” forward along $t$ (to the induced representation).

What happens to the 2-morphisms is conceptually more complicated, but it depends on the fact that “pulling” and “pushing” are two-sided adjoints. Concretely, it ends up being described as a kind of “sum over histories” (where “histories” are the objects of $Y$), which turns out to be exactly the path integral that occurs in the TQFT.

Or at least, it’s the path integral when the action is trivial! That is, if $S=0$, so that what’s integrated over paths (“histories”) is just $e^{iS}=1$. So one question is: is there a way to factor things in this way if there’s a nontrivial action?

Cohomological Twisting

The answer is by twisting via cohomology. First, let’s remember what that means…

We’re talking about groupoid cohomology for some groupoid $G$ (which you can take to be a group, if you like).  “Cochains” will measure how much some nice algebraic fact, such as being a homomorphism, or being associative, “fails to occur”.  “Twisting by a cocycle” is a controlled way to force some such failure to happen.

So, an $n$-cocycle is some function of $n$ composable morphisms of $G$ (or, if there’s only one object, “group elements”, which amounts to the same thing).  It takes values in some group of coefficients, which for us is always $U(1)$

The trivial case where $n=0$ is actually slightly subtle: a 0-cocycle is an invariant function on the objects of a groupoid. (That is, it takes the same value on any two objects related by an (iso)morphism. (Think of the object as a sequence of zero composable morphisms: it tells you where to start, but nothing else.)

The case $n=1$ is maybe a little more obvious. A 1-cochain $f \in Z^1_{gpd}(G,U(1))$ can measure how a function $h$ on objects might fail to be a 0-cocycle. It is a $U(1)$-valued function of morphisms (or, if you like, group elements).  The natural condition to ask for is that it be a homomorphism:

$f(g_1 \circ g_2) = f(g_1) f(g_2)$

This condition means that a cochain $f$ is a cocycle. They form an abelian group, because functions satisfying the cocycle condition are closed under pointwise multiplication in $U(1)$. It will automatically by satisfied for a coboundary (i.e. if $f$ comes from a function $h$ on objects as $f(g) = \delta h (g) = h(t(g)) - h(s(g))$). But not every cocycle is a coboundary: the first cohomology $H^1(G,U(1))$ is the quotient of cocycles by coboundaries. This pattern repeats.

It’s handy to think of this condition in terms of a triangle with edges $g_1$, $g_2$, and $g_1 \circ g_2$.  It says that if we go from the source to the target of the sequence $(g_1, g_2)$ with or without composing, and accumulate $f$-values, our $f$ gives the same result.  Generally, a cocycle is a cochain satisfying a “coboundary” condition, which can be described in terms of an $n$-simplex, like this triangle. What about a 2-cocycle? This describes how composition might fail to be respected.

So, for instance, a twisted representation $R$ of a group is not a representation in the strict sense. That would be a map into $End(V)$, such that $R(g_1) \circ R(g_2) = R(g_1 \circ g_2)$.  That is, the group composition rule gets taken directly to the corresponding rule for composition of endomorphisms of the vector space $V$.  A twisted representation $\rho$ only satisfies this up to a phase:

$\rho(g_1) \circ \rho(g_2) = \theta(g_1,g_2) \rho(g_1 \circ g_2)$

where $\theta : G^2 \rightarrow U(1)$ is a function that captures the way this “representation” fails to respect composition.  Still, we want some nice properties: $\theta$ is a “cocycle” exactly when this twisting still makes $\rho$ respect the associative law:

$\rho(g_1) \rho( g_2 \circ g_3) = \rho( g_1 \circ g_2) \circ \rho( g_3)$

Working out what this says in terms of $\theta$, the cocycle condition says that for any composable triple $(g_1, g_2, g_3)$ we have:

$\theta( g_1, g_2 \circ g_3) \theta (g_2,g_3) = \theta(g_1,g_2) \theta(g_1 \circ g_2, g_3)$

So $H^2_{grp}(G,U(1))$ – the second group-cohomology group of $G$ – consists of exactly these $\theta$ which satisfy this condition, which ensures we have associativity.

Given one of these $\theta$ maps, we get a category $Rep^{\theta}(G)$ of all the $\theta$-twisted representations of $G$. It behaves just like an ordinary representation category… because in fact it is one! It’s the category of representations of a twisted version of the group algebra of $G$, called $C^{\theta}(G)$. The point is, we can use $\theta$ to twist the convolution product for functions on $G$, and this is still an associative algebra just because $\theta$ satisfies the cocycle condition.

The pattern continues: a 3-cocycle captures how some function of 2 variable may fail to be associative: it specifies an associator map (a function of three variables), which has to satisfy some conditions for any four composable morphisms. A 4-cocycle captures how a map might fail to satisfy this condition, and so on. At each stage, the cocycle condition is automatically satisfied by coboundaries. Cohomology classes are elements of the quotient of cocycles by coboundaries.

So the idea of “twisted 2-linearization” is that we use this sort of data to change 2-linearization.

Twisted 2-Linearization

The idea behind the 2-category $Span(Gpd)^{U(1)}$ is that it contains $Span(Gpd)$, but that objects and morphisms also carry information about how to “twist” when applying the 2-linearization $\Lambda$.  So in particular, what we have is a (symmetric monoidal) 2-category where:

• Objects consist of $(A, \theta)$, where $A$ is a groupoid and $\theta \in Z^2(A,U(1))$
• Morphisms from $A$ to $B$ consist of a span $(X,s,t)$ from $A$ to $B$, together with $\alpha \in Z^1(X,U(1))$
• 2-Morphisms from $X_1$ to $X_2$ consist of a span $(Y,\sigma,\tau)$ from $X$, together with $\beta \in Z^0(Y,U(1))$

The cocycles have to satisfy some compatibility conditions (essentially, pullbacks of the cocycles from the source and target of a span should land in the same cohomology class).  One way to see the point of this requirement is to make twisted 2-linearization well-defined.

One can extend the monoidal structure and composition rules to objects with cocycles without too much trouble so that $Span(Gpd)$ is a subcategory of $Span(Gpd)^{U(1)}$. The 2-linearization functor extends to $\Lambda^{U(1)} : Span(Gpd)^{U(1)} \rightarrow 2Vect$:

• On Objects: $\Lambda^{U(1)} (A, \theta) = Rep^{\theta}(A)$, the category of $\theta$-twisted representation of $A$
• On Morphisms: $\Lambda^{U(1)} ( (X,s,t) , \alpha )$ comes by pulling back a twisted representation in $Rep^{\theta_A}(A)$ to one in $Rep^{s^{\ast}\theta_A}(X)$, pulling it through the algebra map “multiplication by $\alpha$“, and pushing forward to $Rep^{\theta_B}(B)$
• On 2-Morphisms: For a span of span maps, one uses the usual formula (see the paper for details), but a sum over the objects $y \in Y$ picks up a weight of $\beta(y)$ at each object

When the cocycles are trivial (evaluate to 1 always), we get back the 2-linearization we had before. Now the main point here is that the “sum over histories” that appears in the 2-morphisms now carries a weight.

So the twisted form of 2-linearization uses the same “pull-push” ideas as 2-linearization, but applied now to twisted representations. This twisting (at the object level) uses a 2-cocycle. At the morphism level, we have a “twist” between “pull” and “push” in constructing . What the “twist” actually means depends on which cohomology degree we’re in – in other words, whether it’s applied to objects, morphisms, or 2-morphisms.

The “twisting” by a 0-cocycle just means having a weight for each object – in other words, for each “history”, or connection on spacetime, in a big sum over histories. Physically, the 0-cocycle is playing the role of the Lagrangian functional for the DW model. Part of the point in the FHLT program can be expressed by saying that what Freed and Quinn are doing is showing how the other cocycles are also the Lagrangian – as it’s seen at higher codimension in the more “local” theory.

For a TQFT, the 1-cocycles associated to morphisms describe how to glue together values for the Lagrangian that are associated to histories that live on different parts of spacetime: the action isn’t just a number. It is a number only “locally”, and when we compose 2-morphisms, the 0-cocycle on the composite picks up a factor from the 1-morphism (or 0-morphism, for a horizontal composite) where they’re composed.

This has to do with the fact that connections on bits of spacetime can be glued by particular gauge transformations – that is, morphisms of the groupoid of connections. Just as the gauge transformations tell how to glue connections, the cocycles associated to them tell how to glue the actions. This is how the cohomological twisting captures the geometric insight that the action is a section of a line bundle – not just a function, which is a section of a trivial bundle – over the moduli space of histories.

So this explains how these cocycles can all be seen as parts of the Lagrangian when we quantize: they explain how to glue actions together before using them in a sum-over histories. Gluing them this way is essential to make sure that $\Lambda^{U(1)}$ is actually a functor. But if we’re really going to see all the cocycles as aspects of “the action”, then what is the action really? Where do they come from, that they’re all slices of this bigger thing?

Twisting as Lagrangian

Now the DW model is a 3D theory, whose action is specified by a group-cohomology class $[\omega] \in H^3_{grp}(G,U(1))$. But this is the same thing as a class in the cohomology of the classifying space: $[\omega] \in H^3(BG,U(1))$. This takes a little unpacking, but certainly it’s helpful to understand that what cohomology classes actually classify are… gerbes. So another way to put a key idea of the FHLT paper, as Urs Schreiber put it to me a while ago, is that “the action is a gerbe on the classifying space for fields“.

What does this mean?

This map is given as a path integral over all connections on the space(-time) $S$, which is actually just a sum, since the gauge group is finite and so all the connections are flat.  The point is that they’re described by assigning group elements to loops in $S$:

$A : \pi_1(M) \rightarrow G$

But this amounts to the same thing as a map into the classifying space of $G$:

$f_A : M \rightarrow BG$

This is essentially the definition of $BG$, and it implies various things, such as the fact that $BG$ is a space whose fundamental group is $G$, and has all other homotopy groups trivial. That is, $BG$ is the Eilenberg-MacLane space $K(G,1)$. But the point is that the groupoid of connections and gauge transformations on $S$ just corresponds to the mapping space $Maps(S,BG)$. So the groupoid cohomology classes we get amount to the same thing as cohomology classes on this space. If we’re given $[\omega] \in H^3(BG,U(1))$, then we can get at these by “transgression” – which is very nicely explained in a paper by Simon Willerton.

The essential idea is that a 3-cocycle $\omega$ (representing the class $[\omega]$) amounts to a nice 3-form on $BG$ which we can integrate over a 3-dimentional submanifold to get a number. For a $d$-dimensional $S$, we get such a 3-manifold from a $(3-d)$-dimensional submanifold of $Maps(S,BG)$: each point gives a copy of $S$ in $BG$. Then we get a $(3-d)$-cocycle on $Maps(S,BG)$ whose values come from integrating $\omega$ over this image. Here’s a picture I used to illustrate this in my talk:

Now, it turns out that this gives 2-cocycles for 1-manifolds (the objects of $3Cob_2$, 1-cocycles on 2D cobordisms between them, and 0-cocycles on 3D cobordisms between these cobordisms. The cocycles are for the groupoid of connections and gauge transformations in each case. In fact, because of Stokes’ theorem in $BG$, these have to satisfy all the conditions that make them into objects, morphisms, and 2-morphisms of $Span^{U(1)}(Gpd)$. This is the geometric content of the Lagrangian: all the cocycles are really “reflections” of $\omega$ as seen by transgression: pulling back along the evaluation map $ev$ from the picture. Then the way you use it in the quantization is described exactly by $\Lambda^{U(1)}$.

What I like about this is that $\Lambda^{U(1)}$ is a fairly universal sort of thing – so while this example gets its cocycles from the nice geometry of $BG$ which Freed and Quinn talk about, the insight that an action is a section of a (twisted) line bundle, that actions can be glued together in particular ways, and so on… These presumably can be moved to other contexts.

Well, as promised in the previous post, I’d like to give a summary of some of what was discussed at the conference I attended (quite a while ago now, late last year) in Erlangen, Germany.  I was there also to visit Derek Wise, talking about a project we’ve been working on for some time.

(I’ve also significantly revised this paper about Extended TQFT since then, and it now includes some stuff which was the basis of my talk at Erlangen on cohomological twisting of the category $Span(Gpd)$.  I’ll get to that in the next post.  Also coming up, I’ll be describing some new things I’ve given some talks about recently which relate the Baez-Dolan groupoidification program to Khovanov-Lauda categorification of algebras – at least in one example, hopefully in a way which will generalize nicely.)

In the meantime, there were a few themes at the conference which bear on the Extended TQFT project in various ways, so in this post I’ll describe some of them.  (This isn’t an exhaustive description of all the talks: just of a selection of illustrative ones.)

Categories with Structures

A few talks were mainly about facts regarding the sorts of categories which get used in field theory contexts.  One important type, for instance, are fusion categories is a monoidal category which is enriched in vector spaces, generated by simple objects, and some other properties: essentially, monoidal 2-vector spaces.  The basic example would be categories of representations (of groups, quantum groups, algebras, etc.), but fusion categories are an abstraction of (some of) their properties.  Many of the standard properties are described and proved in this paper by Etingof, Nikshych, and Ostrik, which also poses one of the basic conjectures, the “ENO Conjecture”, which was referred to repeatedly in various talks.  This is the guess that every fusion category can be given a “pivotal” structure: an isomorphism from $Id$ to $**$.  It generalizes the theorem that there’s always such an isomorphism into $****$.  More on this below.

Hendryk Pfeiffer talked about a combinatorial way to classify fusion categories in terms of certain graphs (see this paper here).  One way I understand this idea is to ask how much this sort of category really does generalize categories of representations, or actually comodules.  One starting point for this is the theorem that there’s a pair of functors between certain monoidal categories and weak Hopf algebras.  Specifically, the monoidal categories are $(Cat \downarrow Vect)^{\otimes}$, which consists of monoidal categories equipped with a forgetful functor into $Vect$.  Then from this one can get (via a coend), a weak Hopf algebra over the base field $k$(in the category $WHA_k$).  From a weak Hopf algebra $H$, one can get back such a category by taking all the modules of $H$.  These two processes form an adjunction: they’re not inverses, but we have maps between the two composites and the identity functors.

The new result Hendryk gave is that if we restrict our categories over $Vect$ to be abelian, and the functors between them to be linear, faithful, and exact (that is, roughly, that we’re talking about concrete monoidal 2-vector spaces), then this adjunction is actually an equivalence: so essentially, all such categories $C$ may as well be module categories for weak Hopf algebras.  Then he gave a characterization of these in terms of the “dimension graph” (in fact a quiver) for $(C,M)$, where $M$ is one of the monoidal generators of $C$.  The vertices of $\mathcal{G} = \mathcal{G}_{(C,M)}$ are labelled by the irreducible representations $v_i$ (i.e. set of generators of the category), and there’s a set of edges $j \rightarrow l$ labelled by a basis of $Hom(v_j, v_l \otimes M)$.  Then one can carry on and build a big graded algebra $H[\mathcal{G}]$ whose $m$-graded part consists of length-$m$ paths in $\mathcal{G}$.  Then the point is that the weak Hopf algebra of which $C$ is (up to isomorphism) the module category will be a certain quotient of $H[\mathcal{G}]$ (after imposing some natural relations in a systematic way).

The point, then, is that the sort of categories mostly used in this area can be taken to be representation categories, but in general only of these weak Hopf algebras: groups and ordinary algebras are special cases, but they show up naturally for certain kinds of field theory.

Tensor Categories and Field Theories

There were several talks about the relationship between tensor categories of various sorts and particular field theories.  The idea is that local field theories can be broken down in terms of some kind of n-category: $n$-dimensional regions get labelled by categories, $(n-1)$-D boundaries between regions, or “defects”, are labelled by functors between the categories (with the idea that this shows how two different kinds of field can couple together at the defect), and so on (I think the highest-dimension that was discussed explicitly involved 3-categories, so one has junctions between defects, and junctions between junctions, which get assigned some higher-morphism data).  Alteratively, there’s the dual picture where categories are assigned to points, functors to 1-manifolds, and so on.  (This is just Poincaré duality in the case where the manifolds come with a decomposition into cells, which they often are if only for convenience).

Victor Ostrik gave a pair of talks giving an overview role tensor categories play in conformal field theory.  There’s too much material here to easily summarize, but the basics go like this: CFTs are field theories defined on cobordisms that have some conformal structure (i.e. notion of angles, but not distance), and on the algebraic side they are associated with vertex algebras (some useful discussion appears on mathoverflow, but in this context they can be understood as vector spaces equipped with exactly the algebraic operations needed to model cobordisms with some local holomorphic structure).

In particular, the irreducible representations of these VOA’s determine the “conformal blocks” of the theory, which tell us about possible correlations between observables (self-adjoint operators).  A VOA $V$ is “rational” if the category $Rep(V)$ is semisimple (i.e. generated as finite direct sums of these conformal blocks).  For good VOA’s, $Rep(V)$ will be a modular tensor category (MTC), which is a fusion category with a duality, braiding, and some other strucutre (see this for more).   So describing these gives us a lot of information about what CFT’s are possible.

The full data of a rational CFT are given by a vertex algebra, and a module category $M$: that is, a fusion category is a sort of categorified ring, so it can act on $M$ as an ring acts on a module.  It turns out that choosing an $M$ is equivalent to finding a certain algebra (i.e. algebra object) $\mathcal{L}$, a “Lagrangian algebra” inside the centre of $Rep(V)$.  The Drinfel’d centre $Z(C)$ of a monoidal category $C$ is a sort of free way to turn a monoidal category into a braided one: but concretely in this case it just looks like $Rep(V) \otimes Rep(V)^{\ast}$.  Knowing the isomorphism class $\mathcal{L}$ determines a “modular invariant”.  It gets “physics” meaning from how it’s equipped with an algebra structure (which can happen in more than one way), but in any case $\mathcal{L}$ has an underlying vector space, which becomes the Hilbert space of states for the conformal field theory, which the VOA acts on in the natural way.

Now, that was all conformal field theory.  Christopher Douglas described some work with Chris Schommer-Pries and Noah Snyder about fusion categories and structured topological field theories.  These are functors out of cobordism categories, the most important of which are $n$-categories, where the objects are points, morphisms are 1D cobordisms, and so on up to $n$-morphisms which are $n$-dimensional cobordisms.  To keep things under control, Chris Douglas talked about the case $Bord_0^3$, which is where $n=3$, and a “local” field theory is a 3-functor $Bord_0^3 \rightarrow \mathcal{C}$ for some 3-category $\mathcal{C}$.  Now, the (Baez-Dolan) Cobordism Hypothesis, which was proved by Jacob Lurie, says that $Bord_0^3$ is, in a suitable sense, the free symmetric monoidal 3-category with duals.  What this amounts to is that a local field theory whose target 3-category is $\mathcal{C}$ is “just” a dualizable object of $\mathcal{C}$.

The handy example which links this up to the above is when $\mathcal{C}$ has objects which are tensor categories, morphisms which are bimodule categories (i.e. categories acted), 2-morphisms which are functors, and 3-morphisms which are natural transformations.  Then the issue is to classify what kind of tensor categories these objects can be.

The story is trickier if we’re talking about, not just topological cobordisms, but ones equipped with some kind of structure regulated by a structure group $G$(for instance, orientation by $G=SO(n)$, spin structure by its universal cover $G= Spin(n)$, and so on).  This means the cobordisms come equipped with a map into $BG$.  They take $O(n)$ as the starting point, and then consider groups $G$ with a map to $O(n)$, and require that the map into $BG$ is a lift of the map to $BO(n)$.  Then one gets that a structured local field theory amounts to a dualizable objects of $\mathcal{C}$ with a homotopy-fixed point for some $G$-action – and this describes what gets assigned to the point by such a field theory.  What they then show is a correspondence between $G$ and classes of categories.  For instance, fusion categories are what one gets by imposing that the cobordisms be oriented.

Liang Kong talked about “Topological Orders and Tensor Categories”, which used the Levin-Wen models, from condensed matter phyiscs.  (Benjamin Balsam also gave a nice talk describing these models and showing how they’re equivalent to the Turaev-Viro and Kitaev models in appropriate cases.  Ingo Runkel gave a related talk about topological field theories with “domain walls”.).  Here, the idea of a “defect” (and topological order) can be understood very graphically: we imagine a 2-dimensional crystal lattice (of atoms, say), and the defect is a 1-dimensional place where the two lattices join together, with the internal symmetry of each breaking down at the boundary.  (For example, a square lattice glued where the edges on one side are offset and meet the squares on the other side in the middle of a face, as you typically see in a row of bricks – the slides linked above have some pictures).  The Levin-Wen models are built using a hexagonal lattice, starting with a tensor category with several properties: spherical (there are dualities satisfying some relations), fusion, and unitary: in fact, historically, these defining properties were rediscovered independently here as the requirement for there to be excitations on the boundary which satisfy physically-inspired consistency conditions.

These abstract the properties of a category of representations.  A generalization of this to “topological orders” in 3D or higher is an extended TFT in the sense mentioned just above: they have a target 3-category of tensor categories, bimodule categories, functors and natural transformations.  The tensor categories (say, $\mathcal{C}$, $\mathcal{D}$, etc.) get assigned to the bulk regions; to “domain walls” between different regions, namely defects between lattices, we assign bimodule categories (but, for instance, to a line within a region, we get $\mathcal{C}$ understood as a $\mathcal{C}-\mathcal{C}$-bimodule); then to codimension 2 and 3 defects we attach functors and natural transformations.  The algebra for how these combine expresses the ways these topological defects can go together.  On a lattice, this is an abstraction of a spin network model, where typically we have just one tensor category $\mathcal{C}$ applied to the whole bulk, namely the representations of a Lie group (say, a unitary group).  Then we do calculations by breaking down into bases: on codimension-1 faces, these are simple objects of $\mathcal{C}$; to vertices we assign a Hom space (and label by a basis for intertwiners in the special case); and so on.

Thomas Nickolaus spoke about the same kind of $G$-equivariant Dijkgraaf-Witten models as at our workshop in Lisbon, so I’ll refer you back to my earlier post on that.  However, speaking of equivariance and group actions:

Michael Müger  spoke about “Orbifolds of Rational CFT’s and Braided Crossed $G$-Categories” (see this paper for details).  This starts with that correspondence between rational CFT’s (strictly, rational chiral CFT’s) and modular categories $Rep(F)$.  (He takes $F$ to be the name of the CFT).  Then we consider what happens if some finite group $G$ acts on $F$ (if we understand $F$ as a functor, this is an action by natural transformations; if as an algebra, then ).  This produces an “orbifold theory” $F^G$ (just like a finite group action on a manifold produces an orbifold), which is the “$G$-fixed subtheory” of $F$, by taking $G$-fixed points for every object, and is also a rational CFT.  But that means it corresponds to some other modular category $Rep(F^G)$, so one would like to know what category this is.

A natural guess might be that it’s $Rep(F)^G$, where $C^G$ is a “weak fixed-point” category that comes from a weak group action on a category $C$.  Objects of $C^G$ are pairs $(c,f_g)$ where $c \in C$ and $f_g : g(c) \rightarrow c$ is a specified isomorphism.  (This is a weak analog of $S^G$, the set of fixed points for a group acting on a set).  But this guess is wrong – indeed, it turns out these categories have the wrong dimension (which is defined because the modular category has a trace, which we can sum over generating objects).  Instead, the right answer, denoted by $Rep(F^G) = G-Rep(F)^G$, is the $G$-fixed part of some other category.  It’s a braided crossed $G$-category: one with a grading by $G$, and a $G$-action that gets along with it.  The identity-graded part of $Rep(F^G)$ is just the original $Rep(F)$.

State Sum Models

This ties in somewhat with at least some of the models in the previous section.  Some of these were somewhat introductory, since many of the people at the conference were coming from a different background.  So, for instance, to begin the workshop, John Barrett gave a talk about categories and quantum gravity, which started by outlining the historical background, and the development of state-sum models.  He gave a second talk where he began to relate this to diagrams in Gray-categories (something he also talked about here in Lisbon in February, which I wrote about then).  He finished up with some discussion of spherical categories (and in particular the fact that there is a Gray-category of spherical categories, with a bunch of duals in the suitable sense).  This relates back to the kind of structures Chris Douglas spoke about (described above, but chronologically right after John).  Likewise, Winston Fairbairn gave a talk about state sum models in 3D quantum gravity – the Ponzano Regge model and Turaev-Viro model being the focal point, describing how these work and how they’re constructed.  Part of the point is that one would like to see that these fit into the sort of framework described in the section above, which for PR and TV models makes sense, but for the fancier state-sum models in higher dimensions, this becomes more complicated.

Higher Gauge Theory

There wasn’t as much on this topic as at our own workshop in Lisbon (though I have more remarks on higher gauge theory in one post about it), but there were a few entries.  Roger Picken talked about some work with Joao Martins about a cubical formalism for parallel transport based on crossed modules, which consist of a group $G$ and abelian group $H$, with a map $\partial : H \rightarrow G$ and an action of $G$ on $H$ satisfying some axioms.  They can represent categorical groups, namely group objects in $Cat$ (equivalently, categories internal to $Grp$), and are “higher” analogs of groups with a set of elements.  Roger’s talk was about how to understand holonomies and parallel transports in this context.  So, a “connection” lets on transport things with $G$-symmetries along paths, and with $H$-symmetries along surfaces.  It’s natural to describe this with squares whose edges are labelled by $G$-elements, and faces labelled by $H$-elements (which are the holonomies).  Then the “cubical approach” means that we can describe gauge transformations, and higher gauge transformations (which in one sense are the point of higher gauge theory) in just the same way: a gauge transformation which assigns $H$-values to edges and $G$-values to vertices can be drawn via the holonomies of a connection on a cube which extends the original square into 3D (so the edges become squares, and so get $H$-values, and so on).  The higher gauge transformations work in a similar way.  This cubical picture gives a good way to understand the algebra of how gauge transformations etc. work: so for instance, gauge transformations look like “conjugation” of a square by four other squares – namely, relating the front and back faces of a cube by means of the remaining faces.  Higher gauge transformations can be described by means of a 4D hypercube in an analogous way, and their algebraic properties have to do with the 2D faces of the hypercube.

Derek Wise gave a short talk outlining his recent paper with John Baez in which they show that it’s possible to construct a higher gauge theory based on the Poincare 2-group which turns out to have fields, and dynamics, which are equivalent to teleparallel gravity, a slightly unusal theory which nevertheless looks in practice just like General Relativity.  I discussed this in a previous post.

So next time I’ll talk about the new additions to my paper on ETQFT which were the basis of my talk, which illustrates a few of the themes above.

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.

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