From: baez@math.removethis.ucr.andthis.edu (John Baez)
Subject: This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics (Week 275)
Organization: University of California, Riverside
Sender: baez@math.removethis.ucr.andthis.edu (John Baez)
Newsgroups: sci.physics.research,sci.physics,sci.math
Also available at http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/week275.html
June 14, 2009
This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics (Week 275)
John Baez
Long time no see! I've been really busy, but now classes are over and
I'm visiting Paul-Andre Mellies, who works on logic, computer science
and categories.
I should be finishing up some more papers, but let me take a little
break, and tell you about an old dream that's starting to come true.
People are finally starting to understand extended topological
quantum field theories using n-categories!
Back in 1995, Jim Dolan and I argued that n-dimensional extended
TQFTS were representations of a certain n-category called nCob in
which:
objects are 0-dimensional manifolds: that is, collections of points
morphisms are 1-dimensional manifolds with boundary going between
collections of points
2-morphisms are 2-dimensional manifolds with corners going between
1-dimensional manifolds with boundary going between collections of
points
... and so on, up to dimension n. In particular, any n-dimensional
manifolds is an n-morphism in nCob.
And, we thought we could glimpse a purely algebraic description of
nCob. We called this the "cobordism hypothesis", and we explained
it here:
1) John Baez and James Dolan, Higher-dimensional algebra and
topological quantum field theory, J. Math. Phys. 36 (1995),
6073-6105. Also available as q-alg/9503002.
I talked about this back in "week49". For more, try these talks:
2) Eugenia Cheng, n-Categories with duals and TQFT, 4 lectures at the Fields Institute, January 2007. Audio available at http://www.fields.utoronto.ca/audio/06-07/#crs-ncategories
and lecture notes by Chris Brav at
http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/fields/eugenia.pdf
Now Jacob Lurie has come out with a draft of an expository paper that
outlines a massive program, developed with help from Mike Hopkins, to
reformulate the cobordism hypothesis using more ideas from homotopy
theory, and prove it:
3) Jacob Lurie, On the classification of topological field theories,
available as arXiv:0905.0465.
He's running around giving talks about this work, and you can see some
here:
4) Jacob Lurie, TQFT and the cobordism hypothesis, four lectures at
the Geometry Research Group of the University of Texas at Austin,
January 2009. Videos available at
http://lab54.ma.utexas.edu:8080/video/lurie.html
and lecture notes by Braxton Collier, Parker Lowrey and Michael
Williams at
http://www.ma.utexas.edu/users/plowrey/dev/rtg/notes/perspectives_TQFT_notes.html
Excited by this new progress, I decided to run around giving some
talks about it myself - just to explain the basic intuitions to
people who'd never thought about this stuff before. You can see
my slides here:
5) John Baez, Categorification and topology, available at
http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/cat/
A key feature of Lurie's approach is that instead of using n-categories
he uses (infinity,n)-categories, which are infinity-categories where
everything is invertible above dimension n. This is what gets ideas
from homotopy theory into the game. I should talk about this more
someday.
Meanwhile, Chris Schommer-Pries has written a thesis on 2d extended
TQFTs - you can see it here:
6) Chris Schommer-Pries, The Classification of Two-Dimensional
Extended Topological Field Theories, Ph.D. theis, U.C. Berkeley, 2009.
Available at http://sites.google.com/site/chrisschommerpriesmath/
Instead of (infinity,n)-categories, Schommer-Pries just uses n-
categories - and since he's doing 2d TQFTs, that means 2-categories.
Or more precisely, "weak" 2-categories, where all the laws hold
only up to equivalence. Like most people, he calls these
"bicategories". And one of the charms of his thesis is that he
gives a detailed treatment of the n = 2 column of the periodic
table of n-categories - which in his language looks like this:
k-tuply monoidal n-categories
n = 0 n = 1 n = 2
k = 0 sets categories bicategories
k = 1 monoids monoidal monoidal
categories bicategories
k = 2 commutative braided braided
monoids monoidal monoidal
categories bicategories
k = 3 " " symmetric sylleptic
monoidal monoidal
categories bicategories
k = 4 " " " " symmetric
monoidal
bicategories
k = 5 " " " " " "
A k-tuply monoidal n-category is an (n+k)-category that's boring
at the bottom k levels. For example, a category with just one
object is a monoid. As we increase k, we get more and more
commutative flavors of n-category. But after k hits n+2, we
expect that increasing k further has no effect. At this point we
say our n-category is "stable".
If the cobordism hypothesis is true, nCob is a stable n-category.
For n = 2, such a gadget is often called a "symmetric monoidal
bicategory". Schommer-Pries shows that 2Cob is indeed a symmetric
monoidal bicategory. Even better, he gives a "generators and
relations" description of this gadget, which is just the sort of thing
we need for the 2d version of the cobordism hypothesis. At this point,
any n-category theorist could finish off the job.
(Well, the really nice statement of the cobordism hypothesis involves
*framed* oriented cobordisms, and we may need a topologist to tell us
how those work - but there's also a version of the hypothesis for plain
old oriented cobordisms, and that's what Schommer-Pries' thesis will
give.)
For more on nCob as an n-category, try this:
7) Eugenia Cheng and Nick Gurski, Toward an n-category of cobordisms,
Theory and Applications of Categories 18 (2007), 274-302. Available at
http://www.tac.mta.ca/tac/volumes/18/10/18-10abs.html
I should add that a lot of the 2-category theory in Schommer-Pries'
thesis relies on a thesis by a student of Ross Street:
8) Paddy McCrudden, Balanced coalgebroids, Theory and Applications of
Categories 7 (2000), 71-147. Available at
http://www.tac.mta.ca/tac/volumes/7/n6/7-06abs.html
Two students of mine should read the stuff about symmetric monoidal
bicategories in this thesis! One is Alex Hoffnung, whose work on
Hecke algebras uses the symmetric monoidal bicategory where:
objects are groupoids,
morphisms are spans of groupoids where the legs are fibrations,
2-morphisms are maps of spans of groupoids.
The other is Mike Stay, whose work on computer science uses
the symmetric monoidal bicategory where:
objects are categories,
morphisms are profunctors,
2-morphisms are natural transformations between profunctors.
A profunctor is a categorified version of a matrix. More precisely,
a profunctor from C to D is a functor
F: C x D^{op} -> Set
so it's like a matrix of sets. A span of groupoids where the
legs are fibrations is also a categorified version of a matrix,
since by a theorem of Grothendieck we can reinterpret it as a
weak 2-functor
F: C x D^{op} -> Gpd
where now C and D are groupoids. So, both these students are
studying aspects of "categorified matrix mechanics"... and we
need symmetric monoidal bicategories to provide the proper context
for such work. This should connect up to the 2d version of the
cobordism hypothesis in some interesting ways.
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Quote of the Week:
As for your problems... I am so tired of mathematics and hold it in
such low regard, that I could no longer take the trouble to solve them
myself. - Descartes to Mersenne
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