Lecture 76 - The Grand Synthesis

Lecture 76 - The Grand Synthesis

I spent a lot of time in this course explaining two big ideas:

These are both great ideas... but amazingly, they are two aspects of the same idea!

To see this, start with a pair of adjoint functors:

[ F \colon \mathcal{A} \to \mathcal{B}, \quad G \colon \mathcal{B} \to \mathcal{A} ]

By definition, there's a bijection between these sets:

[ \alpha_{a,b} \colon \mathcal{B}(F(a),b) \to \mathcal{A}(a,G(b)) ]

for any objects \(a\) in \(\mathcal{A}\) and \(b\) in \(\mathcal{B}\). Moreover this is a natural isomorphism.

What can we do with this? Not much until we know some elements of these sets! So let's take \(b = F(a)\):

[ \alpha_{a,F(a)} : \mathcal{B}(F(a),F(a)) \to \mathcal{A}(a,G(F(a))) ]

There's an obvious element of \(\mathcal{B}(F(a),F(a))\), namely the identity \(1_{F(a)}\). Our bijection maps this to some morphism from \(a\) to \(G(F(a))\), which we write as

[ \eta_a \colon a \to G(F(a)) .]

You get such a morphism for any \(a\). And using the fact that \(\alpha\) is natural, you can prove these morphisms define a natural transformation

[ \eta \colon 1_{\mathcal{A}} \to G F ]

This is called the unit. (I'm sorry; that word that is used for too many different things in mathematics.)

Amazingly, the unit is a lot like a cap. Why? Remember that when we have an object \(x\) in a compact closed category, the cap is a morphism

[ \cap_x \colon I \to x \otimes x^\ast.]

This resembles the unit, with \(x\) playing the role of \(G\), and \(x^\ast\) playing the role of \(F\). The surprise is that this resemblance is significant, not just superficial!

What about the cup? Well, we can take our bijection

[ \alpha_{a,b} : \mathcal{B}(F(a),b) \to \mathcal{A}(a,G(b)) ]

and let \(a = G(b)\), getting

[ \alpha_{G(b),b} : \mathcal{B}(F(G(b)),b) \to \mathcal{A}(G(b),G(b)) .]

There's an obvious element of \( \mathcal{A}(G(b),G(b))\), namely the identity \(1_{G(b)}\). It must come from some morphism from \(F(G(b))\) to \(b\), which we write as

[ \epsilon_b \colon F(G(b)) \to b, ]

and you can prove such morphisms define a natural transformation

[ \epsilon \colon F G \Rightarrow 1_{\mathcal{B}} ]

called the counit. This should remind you of how any object \(x\) in a compact closed category has a cup:

[ \cup_x \colon x^\ast \otimes x \to I .]

So far our evidence for an analogy between the unit and counit and the cap and cup is pretty thin. The real test is the snake equation. If we can prove the unit and counit obey that, something real must be going on!

We can do it. Of course, first we need to state the snake equation for the unit and counit. I don't have room to do this here, so watch these short videos by my friends Eugenia Cheng and Simon Willerton:

where they call the snake equations the 'triangle equations' - you'll see why. They start by defining an 'adjunction' to be a pair of functors \( F \colon \mathcal{A} \to \mathcal{B}\), \( G \colon \mathcal{B} \to \mathcal{A} \) equipped with a unit and counit \(\eta \colon 1_{\mathcal{A}} \to GF \), \( \epsilon \colon FG \to 1_{\mathcal{B}}\) obeying the triangle equations. Then they show this definition is equivalent to the definition of adjoint functors we've been using!

The success of this analogy suggests that maybe we could use string diagrams to work with categories, functors and natural transformations. It's true! To learn how, watch these:

After setting up string diagrams for category theory, Simon describes adjunctions using string diagrams in part 3. You'll see exactly why the unit is like a cap and the counit like a cup - and you'll see the snake equations pop out at the end! In parts 4 and 5 he uses string diagrams to get monads from adjunctions. Monads are very popular in programming languages like Haskell, but this will give a completely different outlook on them.

I should warn you: all this is a different idea than using string diagrams to study enriched categories and enriched profunctors, as we'd been doing in Chapter 4. So don't get them mixed up. But everything fits together in the end - as you've probably seen, category theory keeps generalizing everything in order to unify it and eventually simplify it.

There's much more to say; you can see my own take on it by reading this:

You'll see how adjunctions and monads and compact closed categories all fit nicely into the framework of 2-categories. Just as you need categories to work efficiently with set-based mathematics, you need 2-categories to work efficiently with category-based mathematics. These days my students and I have been using 2-categories (and related gadgets like double categories) to study Markov processes, Petri nets and other kinds of networks.

I'm tempted to go on, but this course was meant to give you just a tiny taste of the grand meal of category theory and its many applications, so I will restrain myself and stop here. I've been getting very abstract, but next time I'll give you some suggestions to read more about applications.

To read other lectures go here.

© 2018 John Baez