string theory


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.

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The main thing happening in my end of the world is that it’s relocated from Europe back to North America. I’m taking up a teaching postdoc position in the Mathematics and Computer Science department at Mount Allison University starting this month. However, amidst all the preparations and moving, I was also recently in Edinburgh, Scotland for a workshop on Higher Gauge Theory and Higher Quantization, where I gave a talk called 2-Group Symmetries on Moduli Spaces in Higher Gauge Theory. That’s what I’d like to write about this time.

Edinburgh is a beautiful city, though since the workshop was held at Heriot-Watt University, whose campus is outside the city itself, I only got to see it on the Saturday after the workshop ended. However, John Huerta and I spent a while walking around, and as it turned out, climbing a lot: first the Scott Monument, from which I took this photo down Princes Street:

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And then up a rather large hill called Arthur’s Seat, in Holyrood Park next to the Scottish Parliament.

The workshop itself had an interesting mix of participants. Urs Schreiber gave the most mathematically sophisticated talk, and mine was also quite category-theory-minded. But there were also some fairly physics-minded talks that are interesting to me as well because they show the source of these ideas. In this first post, I’ll begin with my own, and continue with David Roberts’ talk on constructing an explicit string bundle. …

2-Group Symmetries of Moduli Spaces

My own talk, based on work with Roger Picken, boils down to a couple of observations about the notion of symmetry, and applies them to a discrete model in higher gauge theory. It’s the kind of model you might use if you wanted to do lattice gauge theory for a BF theory, or some other higher gauge theory. But the discretization is just a convenience to avoid having to deal with infinite dimensional spaces and other issues that don’t really bear on the central point.

Part of that point was described in a previous post: it has to do with finding a higher analog for the relationship between two views of symmetry: one is “global” (I found the physics-inclined part of the audience preferred “rigid”), to do with a group action on the entire space; the other is “local”, having to do with treating the points of the space as objects of a groupoid who show how points are related to each other. (Think of trying to describe the orbit structure of just the part of a group action that relates points in a little neighborhood on a manifold, say.)

In particular, we’re interested in the symmetries of the moduli space of connections (or, depending on the context, flat connections) on a space, so the symmetries are gauge transformations. Now, here already some of the physically-inclined audience objected that these symmetries should just be eliminated by taking the quotient space of the group action. This is based on the slogan that “only gauge-invariant quantities matter”. But this slogan has some caveats: in only applies to closed manifolds, for one. When there are boundaries, it isn’t true, and to describe the boundary we need something which acts as a representation of the symmetries. Urs Schreiber pointed out a well-known example: the Chern-Simons action, a functional on a certain space of connections, is not gauge-invariant. Indeed, the boundary terms that show up due to this not-invariance explain why there is a Wess-Zumino-Witt theory associated with the boundaries when the bulk is described by Chern-Simons.

Now, I’ve described a lot of the idea of this talk in the previous post linked above, but what’s new has to do with how this applies to moduli spaces that appear in higher gauge theory based on a 2-group \mathcal{G}. The points in these space are connections on a manifold M. In particular, since a 2-group is a group object in categories, the transformation groupoid (which captures global symmetries of the moduli space) will be a double category. It turns out there is another way of seeing this double category by local descriptions of the gauge transformations.

In particular, general gauge transformations in HGT are combinations of two special types, described geometrically by G-valued functions, or Lie(H)-valued 1-forms, where G is the group of objects of \mathcal{G}, and H is the group of morphisms based at 1_G. If we think of connections as functors from the fundamental 2-groupoid \Pi_2(M) into \mathcal{G}, these correspond to pseudonatural transformations between these functors. The main point is that there are also two special types of these, called “strict”, and “costrict”. The strict ones are just natural transformations, where the naturality square commutes strictly. The costrict ones, also called ICONs (for “identity component oplax natural transformations” – see the paper by Steve Lack linked from the nlab page above for an explanation of “costrictness”). They assign the identity morphism to each object, but the naturality square commutes only up to a specified 2-cell. Any pseudonatural transformation factors into a strict and costrict part.

The point is that taking these two types of transformation to be the horizontal and vertical morphisms of a double category, we get something that very naturally arises by the action of a big 2-group of symmetries on a category. We also find something which doesn’t happen in ordinary gauge theory: that only the strict gauge transformations arise from this global symmetry. The costrict ones must already be the morphisms in the category being acted on. This category plays the role of the moduli space in the normal 1-group situation. So moving to 2-groups reveals that in general we should distinguish between global/rigid symmetries of the moduli space, which are strict gauge transformations, and costrict ones, which do not arise from the global 2-group action and should be thought of as intrinsic to the moduli space.

String Bundles

David Roberts gave a rather interesting talk called “Constructing Explicit String Bundles”. There are some notes for this talk here. The point is simply to give an explicit construction of a particular 2-group bundle. There is a lot of general abstract theory about 2-bundles around, and a fair amount of work that manipulates physically-motivated descriptions of things that can presumably be modelled with 2-bundles. There has been less work on giving a mathematically rigorous description of specific, concrete 2-bundles.

This one is of interest because it’s based on the String 2-group. Details are behind that link, but roughly the classifying space of String(G) (a homotopy 2-type) is fibred over the classifying space for G (a 1-type). The exact map is determined by taking a pullback along a certain characteristic class (which is a map out of BG). Saying “the” string 2-group is a bit of a misnomer, by the way, since such a 2-group exists for every simply connected compact Lie group G. The group that’s involved here is a String(n), the string 2-group associated to Spin(n), the universal cover of the rotation group SO(n). This is the one that determines whether a given manifold can support a “string structure”. A string structure on M, therefore, is a lift of a spin structure, which determines whether one can have a spin bundle over M, hence consistently talk about a spin connection which gives parallel transport for spinor fields on M. The string structure determines if one can consistently talk about a string-bundle over M, and hence a 2-group connection giving parallel transport for strings.

In this particular example, the idea was to find, explicitly, a string bundle over Minkowski space – or its conformal compactification. In point of fact, this particular one is for $latek String(5)$, and is over 6-dimensional Minkowski space, whose compactification is M = S^5 \times S^1. This particular M is convenient because it’s possible to show abstractly that it has exactly one nontrivial class of string bundles, so exhibiting one gives a complete classification. The details of the construction are in the notes linked above. The technical details rely on the fact that we can coordinatize M nicely using the projective quaternionic plane, but conceptually it relies on the fact that S^5 \cong SU(3)/SU(2), and because of how the lifting works, this is also String(SU(3))/String(SU(2)). This quotient means there’s a string bundle String(SU(3)) \rightarrow S^5 whose fibre is String(SU(2)).

While this is only one string bundle, and not a particularly general situation, it’s nice to see that there’s a nice elegant presentation which gives such a bundle explicitly (by constructing cocycles valued in the crossed module associated to the string 2-group, which give its transition functions).

(Here endeth Part I of this discussion of the workshop in Edinburgh. Part II will talk about Urs Schreiber’s very nice introduction to Higher Geometric Quantization)

(This ends the first part of this update – the next will describe the physics-oriented talks, and the third will describe Urs Schreiber’s series on higher geometric quantization)

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

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

Gerbes and Cohomology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quantum Gravity etc.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

So I had a busy week from Feb 7-13, which was when the workshop Higher Gauge Theory, TQFT, and Quantum Gravity (or HGTQGR) was held here in Lisbon.  It ended up being a full day from 0930h to 1900h pretty much every day, except the last.  We’d tried to arrange it so that there were coffee breaks and discussion periods, but there was also a plethora of talks.  Most of the people there seemed to feel that it ended up pretty well.  Since then I’ve been occupied with other things – family visiting the country, for one, so it’s taken a while to get around to writing it up.  Since there were several parts to the event, I’ll do this in several parts as well, of which this is the first one.

Part of the point of the workshop was to bring together a few related subjects in which category theoretic ideas come into areas of mathematics which play a role in physics, and hopefully to build some bridges toward applications.  While it leaned pretty strongly on the mathematical side of this bridge, I think we did manage to get some interaction at the overlap.  Roger Picken drew a nifty picture on the whiteboard at the end of the workshop summarizing how a lot of the themes of the talks clustered around the three areas mentioned in the title, and suggesting how TQFT really does form something of a bridge between the other two – one reason it’s become a topic of some interest recently.  I’ll try to build this up to a similar punchline.

Pre-School

Before the actual event began, though, we had a bunch of talks at IST for a local audience, to try to explain to mathematicians what the physics part of the workshop was about.  Aleksandr Mikovic gave a two-talk introduction to Quantum Gravity, and Sebastian Guttenberg gave a two-part intro to String Theory.  These are two areas where higher gauge theory (in the form of n-connections and n-bundles, or of n-gerbes) has made an appearance, and were the main physics content of the workshop talks.  They set up the basics to help put those talks in context.

Quantum Gravity

Aleksandr’s first talk set out the basic problem of quantizing the gravitational field (this isn’t the only attitude to what the problem of quantum gravity is, but it’s a good starting point), starting with the basic ingredients.  He summarized how general relativity describes gravity in terms of a metric g_{\mu \nu} which is supposed to satisfy the Einstein equation, relating the curvature of the metric to a source field T_{\mu \nu} which comes from matter.  Quantization then, starting from a classical picture involving trajectories of particles (or sections of fibre bundles to describe fields), one gets a picture where states are vectors in a Hilbert space, and there’s an algebra of operators including observables (self-adjoint operators) and time-evolution (hermitian ones).   An initial try at quantum gravity was to do this using the metric as the field, using the methods of perturbative QFT: treating the metric in terms of “small” fluctuations from some background metric like the flat Minkowski metric.  This uses the Einstein-Hilbert action S=\frac{1}{G} \int \sqrt{det(g)}R, where G is the gravitational constant and R is the Ricci scalar that summarizes the curvature of g.  This runs into problems: things diverge in various calculations, and since the coupling constant G has units, one can’t “renormalize” the divergences away.  So one needs a non-perturbative approach,  one of which is “canonical quantization“.

After some choice of coordinates (so-called “lapse” and “shift” functions), this involves describing the action in terms of the (space part of) the metric g_{kl} and some canonically conjugate “momentum” variables \pi_{kl} which describe its extrinsic curvature.  The Euler-Lagrange equations (found as usual by variational calculus methods) then turn out to give the “Hamiltonian constraint” that certain functions of g are always zero.  Then the program is to get a Poisson algebra giving commutators of the \pi and g variables, then turn it into an algebra of operators in a standard way.  This also runs into problems because the space of metrics isn’t a Hilbert space.  One solution is to not use the metric, but instead a connection and a “frame field” – the so-called Ashtekar variables for GR.  This works better, and gives the “Loop Quantum Gravity” setup, since observables tend to be expressed as holonomies around loops.

Finally, Aleksandr outlined the spin foam approach to quantizing gravity.  This is based on the idea of a quantum geometry as a network (graph) with edges labelled by spins, i.e. representations of SU(2) (which are labelled by half-integers).  Vertices labelled by intertwining operators (which imposes triangle inequalities, as it happens).  The spin foam approach takes a Hilbert space with a basis given by these spin networks.  These are supposed to be an alternative way of describing geometries given by SU(2)-connections. The representations arise because, as the Peter-Weyl theorem shows, they form a nice basis for L^2(SU(2)).  Then to get operators associated to “foams” that interpolate the spacetime between two such geometries (i.e. linear combinations of spin networks).  These are 2-complexes where faces are labelled with spins, and edges with intertwiners for the spins on the faces incident to them.  The operators arise from  a discrete variant of the Feynman path-integral, where time-evolution comes from integrating an action over a space of (classical) trajectories, which in this case are foams.  This needs an action to integrate – in the discrete world, this corresponds to ways of choosing weights A_e for edges and A_f for faces in a generic partition function:

Z = \sum_{J,I} \prod_{faces} A_f(j_f) \prod_{edges}A_e(i_l)

which is a sum over the labels for representations and intertwiners.  Some of the talks that came later in the conference (e.g. by Benjamin Bahr and Bianca Dittrich) came back to discuss principles behind how these A functions could be chosen.  (Aristide Baratin’s talk described a similar but more general kind of model based on 2-groups.)

String Theory

In parallel with these, Sebastian Guttenberg gave us a two-lecture introduction to string theory.  His starting point is the intuition that a lot of classical physics studies particles living on a background of some field.  The field can be understood as an approximate way of talking about a large number of quantum-mechanical particles, rather as the dynamics of a large number of classical particles can be approximated by the equations of state for a fluid or gas (depending on how much they interact with one another, among other things).  In string theory and “string field theory”, we have a similar setup, except we replace the particles with small strings – either open strings (which look like intervals) or closed ones (which look like circles).

To begin with, he introduced the basic tools of “classical” string theory – the analog of classical mechanics of point particles.  This is the string analog of the following: one can describe a moving particle by its worldline – a path x : \mathbb{R} \rightarrow M^{(D)} from a “generic” worldline into a (D-dimensional) manifold M^{(D)}.  This M^{(D)} is generally taken to be like physical spacetime, which in this context means that it has a metric g with signature (-1,1,\dots,1) (that is, locally there’s a basis for tangent spaces with one timelike vector and D-1 spacelike ones).  Then one can define an action for a moving particle which is just determined by the length of the line’s image.  The nicest way to say this is S[x] = m \int d\tau \sqrt{x*g}, where x*g means the pullback of the metric along the map x, \tau is some parameter along the generic worldline, and m, the particle’s mass, is a coupling constant which doesn’t happen to affect the result in this simple case, but eventually becomes important.  One can do the usual variational-calculus of the Lagrangian approach here, finding a critical point of the action occurs when the particle is travelling in a geodesic – a straight line, in flat space, or the closest available approximation.  In paritcular, the Euler-Lagrange equations say that the covariant derivative of the path should be zero.

There’s an analogous action for a string, the Nambu-Goto action.  Instead of a single-parameter x, we now have an embedding of a “generic string worldsheet” – let’s say \Sigma^{(2)} \cong S^1 \times \mathbb{R} into spacetime: x : \Sigma^{(2)} \rightarrow M^{(D)}.  Then then the analogous action is just S[x] = \int_{\Sigma^{(2)}} \star_{x*g} 1.  This is pretty much the same as before: we pull back the metric to get x*g, and integrate over the generic worldsheet.  A slight subtlety comes because we’re taking the Hodge dual \star.  This is conceptually clean, but expands out to a fairly big integral when you express it in coordinates, where the leading term  involves \sqrt{det(\partial_{\mu} x^m \partial_{\nu} x^n g_{mn}} (the determinant is taken over (\mu,\nu).  Varying this to get the equations of motion produces:

0 = \partial_{\mu} \partial^{\mu} x^k + \partial_{\mu} x^m \partial^{\mu} x^n \Gamma_{mn}^k

which is the two-dimensional analog of the geodesic equation for a point particle (the \Gamma are the Christoffel symbols associated to the connection that goes with the metric).  The two-dimensional analog says we have a critical point for the area of the surface which is the image of \Sigma^{(2)} – in fact, a “maximum”, given the sign of the metric.  For solutions like this, the pullback metric on the worldsheet, x*g, looks flat.  (Naturally, the metric looks flat along a geodesic, too, but this is stronger in 2 dimensions, where there can be intrinsic curvature.)

A souped up version of the Nambu-Goto action is the Polyakov action, which is a natural variation that comes up when \Sigma^{(2)} has a metric of its own, h.  You can check out the details behind that link, but part of what makes this action nice is that the corresponding Euler-Lagrange equation from varying h says that x*g \sim h.  That is, the worldsheet \Sigma^{(2)} will have an image with a shape such that its own metric agrees with the one induced from the spacetime M^{(D)}.   This action is called the Polyakov action (even though it was introduced by Deser and Zumino, among others) because Polyakov used it for quantizing the string.

Other variations on this action add additional terms which represent fields which the string might be affected by: a scalar \phi(x), and a 2-form field B_{mn}(x) (here we’re using the physics convention where x represents both the function, and its values at particular points, in this case, values of parameters (\sigma_0,\sigma_1) on \Sigma^{(2)}).

That 2-form, the “B-field”, is an important field in string theory, and eventually links up with higher gauge theory, which we’ll get to as we go on: one can interpret the B-field as part of a higher connection, to which the string is coupled (as in Baez and Perez, say).  The scalar field \phi essentially determines how strongly the shape of the string itself affects the action – it’s a “string coupling” term, or string coupling “constant” if it’s chosen to be just a number \phi_0.  (In such a case, the action includes a term that looks like \phi_0 times the Euler characteristic of the surface \Sigma^{(2)}.)

Sebastian briefly explained some of the physical intuition for why these are the kinds of couplings which it makes sense to introduce.  Essentially, any coupling one writes in coordinates has to get along with gauge symmetries, changes of coordinates, etc.  That is, there should be no physical difference between the class of solutions one finds in a given set of coordinates, and the coordinates one gets by doing some diffeomorphism on the spacetime M^{(D)}, or by changing the metric on \Sigma^{(2)} by some conformal transformation h_{\mu \nu} \mapsto exp(2 \omega(\sigma^0,\sigma^1)) h_{\mu \nu} (that is, scaling by some function of position on the worldsheet – underlying string theory is Conformal Field Theory in that the scale of the generic worldsheet is irrelevant – only the light-cones).  Anything a string couples to should be a field that transforms in a way that respects this.  One important upshot for the quantum theory is that when one quantizes a string coupled to such a field, this makes sure that time evolution is unitary.

How this is done is a bit more complicated than Sebastian wanted to go into in detail (and I got a little lost in the summary) so I won’t attempt to do it justice here.  The end results include a partition function:

Z = \sum_{topologies} dx dh \frac{exp(-S[x,h])}{V_{diff} V_{weyl}}

Remember: if one is finding amplitudes for various observables, the partition function is a normalizing factor, and finding the value of any observables means squeezing them into a similar-looking integral (and normalizing by this factor).  So this says that they’re found by summing over all the string topologies which go from the input to the output, and integrating over all embeddings x : \Sigma^{(2)} \rightarrow M^{(D)} and metrics on \Sigma^{(2)}.  (The denominator in that fraction is dividing out by the volumes of the symmetry groups, as usual is quantum field theory since these symmetries mean one is “overcounting” physically identical situations.)

This is just the beginning of string field theory, of course: just as the dynamics of a free moving particle, or even a particle coupled to a background field, are only the beginning of quantum field theory.  But many later additions can be understood as adding various terms to the action S in some such formalism.  These would be analogs of giving a point-particle attributes like charge, spin, “colour” and so forth in the Standard Model: these define how it couples to, hence is affected by, various kinds of fields.  Such fields can be understood in terms of connections (or, in general, higher connections, as we’ll get to later), which define how structures are “parallel-transported” along a path (or higher-dimensional surface).


Coming up in In Part II… I’ll summarize the School portion of the HGTQGR workshop, including lecture series by: Christopher Schommer-Pries on Classifying 2D Extended TQFT, which among other things explained Chris’ proof of the Cobordism Hypothesis using Cerf theory; Tim Porter on Homotopy QFT and the “Crossed Menagerie”, which describe a general framework for talking about quantum theories on cobordisms with structure; John Huerta on Higher Gauge Theory, which gave an introductory account of 2-groups and 2-bundles with 2-connections; Christoph Wockel on connections between Higher Gauge Theory and Infinite Dimensional Lie Theory, which described how some infinite-dimensional Lie algebras can’t be integrated to Lie groups, but only to 2-groups; and one by Hisham Sati on Higher Spin Structures in String Theory, which among other things described how cohomological obstructions to putting certain kinds of structure on manifolds motivates the use of particular higher dimensions.