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This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics (Week 245)

  1. Feb 25, 2007 #1
    Also available as http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/week245.html

    February 11, 2007
    This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics (Week 245)
    John Baez

    The University of Toronto is an urban campus, rather grey and chilly
    at this time of year. Nestled amid other buildings at the southern
    edge of campus, the Fields Institute doesn't stand out.

    But inside, you'll find a spacious and peaceful atrium, with a
    fireplace to keep you cozy. A spiral staircase winds up three or
    four stories. Hanging from the ceiling far above is a 3d model of
    the "120-cell": a beautiful 4-dimensional solid with 120 regular
    dodecahedra as faces.

    This is a tribute to the great geometer H. S. M. Coxeter, master of
    polyhedra, who worked for 60 years at the University of Toronto after
    studying philosophy at Cambridge under Wittgenstein. You'll also
    find Coxeter's piano sitting at the base of the spiral staircase.
    It's out of tune, but resting on it there's a wonderful strange
    portrait of him playing the very same piano - at the age of three.
    He looks a bit like the child Mozart. And indeed, at the age of 12
    Coxeter composed an opera!

    The Fields Institute specializes in having conferences, and it's
    a great place for that. A friendly and efficient staff, public
    workstations, wireless internet everywhere, a nice little cafe in
    the back, and the centerpiece: a large lecture room with 3 double
    blackboards. Unfortunately the middle blackboard doesn't stay up -
    it's needed that repair for years, old-timers say. But apart from
    that, everything is as close to mathematician's heaven as could be

    Eugenia Cheng, Peter May and I ran a workshop at the Fields
    Institute from January 9th to 13th:

    1) Higher Categories and Their Applications,

    You can see photos of people and abstracts of their talks
    at this site. You can also see PDF files of many of their
    talks - and even listen to talks!

    The first day, Tuesday, was all about 2-categories and 3-categories -
    "lower category theory", you might say. While some are
    eagerly sailing into the stratosphere of n-categories for
    general n, or even n = infinity, there's still a lot to
    understand for n = 2 and 3.

    For starters, Tom Leinster spoke about strict 2-categories versus
    weak ones (also known as bicategories). It's a famous fact - a
    generalization of Mac Lane's coherence theorem - that every weak
    2-category C is equivalent to a strict one st(C). However, this is
    true *if* your notion of equivalence is suitably weak! In short,
    what we've got is an inclusion of weak 3-categories:

    i: Strict2Cat -> Weak2Cat


    Strict2Cat = [strict 2-categories,
    strict 2-functors,
    strict natural transformations,


    Weak2Cat = [weak 2-categories,
    weak 2-functors,
    weak natural transformations,

    Every object in Weak2Cat is equivalent to one in the image of
    this inclusion. But, the inclusion is not itself an equivalence!

    Steve Lack spoke about Gray-categories, also known as "semistrict"
    3-categories - a convenient middle ground between the strict
    3-categories and the weak ones (also known as tricategories).

    The idea here goes back to John Gray. In the usual Cartesian
    product of categories, whenever we have a morphism

    f: A -> B

    in the first category and a morphism

    f': A' -> B'

    in the second, we get a commuting square:

    (A,A') -------> (B,A')
    | |
    (1,g)| |(1,g)
    | |
    v v
    (A,B') -------> (B,B')

    in their Cartesian product. The same is true for the Cartesian
    product of 2-categories. But in the "Gray" tensor product of
    2-categories, these squares commute only up to 2-isomorphism.
    And, we can use this weakening of the Cartesian product to weaken
    the concept of strict 3-category, and obtain the concept of
    "semistrict" 3-category, or "Gray-category".

    Here's how. A strict 3-category is a gizmo with:

    a) a bunch of objects,

    b) for any pair of objects x,y, a 2-category hom(x,y),


    c) for any triple of objects x,y,z, a 2-functor

    o: hom(x,y) x hom(y,z) -> hom(x,z)

    such that

    d) associativity and the unit laws hold.

    A semistrict 3-category is a gizmo with:

    a) a bunch of objects,

    b) for any pair of objects x,y, a 2-category hom(x,y),


    c) for any triple of objects x,y,z, a 2-functor

    o: hom(x,y) tensor hom(y,z) -> hom(x,z)

    where "tensor" is the Gray tensor product, such that

    d) associativity and the unit laws hold.

    The slight difference is very important. Not every weak 3-category
    is equivalent to a strict one. But, they're all equivalent to
    semistrict ones!

    There are, alas, some deficiencies in the semistrict world, which
    Steve Lack has recently noted:

    2) Steve Lack, Bicat is not triequivalent to Gray, available as

    To understand this, you may need a little warmup. Given strict
    2-categories B and C there's a strict 2-category hom(B,C) such that
    strict 2-functors

    A x B -> C

    are in natural 1-1 correspondence with strict 2-functors

    A -> hom(B,C)

    Here's what hom(B,C) is like:

    hom(B,C) has strict 2-functors from B to C as objects,
    strict natural transformations between these as morphisms,
    modifications between these as 2-morphisms.

    We can pose the same question with the Gray tensor product replacing
    the Cartesian product. Given 2-categories B and C there's a
    2-category [B,C] such that strict 2-functors

    A tensor B -> C

    are in natural 1-1 correspondence with strict 2-functors

    A -> [B,C]

    Here's what [B,C] is like:

    [B,C] has strict 2-functors from B to C as objects,
    weak natural transformations between these as morphisms,
    modifications between these as 2-morphisms.

    This suggests that we consider a 3-category intermediate between
    Strict2Cat and Weak2Cat. It's called Gray, and it goes like this:

    Gray = [strict 2-categories,
    strict 2-functors,
    weak natural transformations,

    We have inclusions of weak 3-categories:

    Strict2Cat -> Gray -> Weak2Cat

    and Lack shows, not only that the second inclusion fails to be an
    equivalence, but that there's *no* equivalence between Gray and

    All this suggests that for some purposes we really need to face up
    to weak 2-categories: the strict and semistrict setups aren't flexible
    enough for every job. The same is undoubtedly true at the 3-category
    level - and that's where the next talk comes in!

    In the next talk, Nick Gurski spoke about weak 3-categories. He wrote
    his thesis about these, and I'm starting to really wish he'd put his
    thesis on the arXiv, so everyone can see how cool it is and learn more
    about 3-categories. But, I guess he wants to perfect it.

    In his talk, Nick not only explained the definition of weak 3-category,
    which is famously complicated - he did his best to convince us that
    we could reinvent this definition ourselves if we tried! Then he
    went ahead and discussed various proofs that every weak 3-category is
    equivalent to a semistrict one.

    An interesting theme of all three talks was the idea of treating
    the "strictification" functor implicit in Mac Lane's coherence

    st: Weak2Cat -> Strict2Cat

    as the left adjoint of the inclusion

    i: Strict2Cat -> Weak2Cat

    where now we think of both Strict2Cat and Weak2Cat as mere
    1-categories. You can read more about this idea here:

    3) Miles Gould, Coherence for categorified operadic theories,
    available as math.CT/0607423.

    On Tuesday night, Mike Shulman gave an introduction to model
    categories, which are a tool developed by Quillen in the late
    1960s to unify homotopy theory and homological algebra.
    If you want to understand the basics of model categories, you
    should probably start by listening to his talk, and then read

    4) W. G. Dwyer and J. Spalinski, Homotopy theories and model
    categories, available at

    For more references, try "week170".

    Here's the rough idea:

    In homotopy theory we study topological spaces; in homological
    algebra we study chain complexes. But, in both cases we study
    them in a funny way. There's a category of topological spaces
    and continuous maps, and there's a category of chain complexes
    and chain maps, but these categories are not everything that
    counts. Normally, we say two objects in a category are "the
    same" if they're isomorphic. But in this case we often use a
    weaker concept of equivalence!

    In homotopy theory, we say a map between spaces

    f: X -> Y

    is a "weak homotopy equivalence" if it induces isomorphisms on
    homotopy groups:

    pi_n(f): pi_n(X) -> pi_n(Y)

    In homological algebra, we say a map between chain complexes

    f: X -> Y

    is a "quasi-isomorphism" if it induces isomorphisms on homology

    H_n(f): H_n(X) -> H_n(Y)

    Model category theory formalizes this by speaking of a category
    C equipped with a classes of morphisms called "weak equivalences".
    We can formally invert these and get a new category Ho(C) where
    the weak equivalences are isomorphisms: this is called the
    "homotopy category" or "derived category" of our model category.
    But this loses information, so it's often good *not* to do this.

    In a model category, we also have a class of morphisms called
    "fibrations", which you should imagine as being like fiber bundles.
    Dually, we have a class of morphisms called "cofibrations", which you
    should imagine as well-behaved inclusions, like the inclusion of
    the closed unit interval in the real line - not the inclusion of
    the rationals into the real line.

    Finally, the weak equivalences, fibrations and cofibrations
    satisfy some axioms that make them interlock in a powerful way.
    These axioms are a bit mind-numbing at first glance, so I won't
    list them. But, they encapsulate a lot of wisdom about homotopy
    theory and homological algebra!

    On Wednesday the talks were about n-categories and homotopy
    theory. I kicked them off with a general introduction to the
    "Homotopy Hypothesis": Grothendieck's idea that homotopy theory
    was secretly about infinity-groupoids - that is, infinity-categories
    where all the j-morphisms have weak inverses.

    5) John Baez, The homotopy hypothesis,

    Part of the idea is that if you hand me a space X, I can cook up
    an infinity-groupoid which has:

    points of X as objects,
    paths in X as morphisms,
    homotopies between paths in X as 2-morphisms,
    homotopies between homotopies between paths in X as 3-morphisms,

    This is called the "fundamental infinity-groupoid of X".

    But another part of the idea is that if you hand me a model
    category C, I can cook up an infinity-category which has:

    nice objects of C as objects,
    morphisms in C as morphisms,
    homotopies between morphisms in C as 2-morphisms,
    homotopies between homotopies between morphisms in C as 3-morphisms,

    The basic idea here is simple: we're studying homotopies between
    homotopies between... and so on.

    (But, there's a little technicality - this "nice object" business.
    An object of C is "fibrant" if its unique morphism from the initial
    object is a fibration, and "cofibrant" if its unique morphism to
    terminal object is a cofibration. Objects with both properties
    are what I'm calling "nice". For example, in the category of
    topological spaces, the "cell complexes" (made by gluing balls
    together) are nice. In the category of chain complexes, the
    "projective" chain complexes are nice. Only for these nice
    objects do homotopies work as well as you'd hope. Luckily,
    every object in C is weakly equivalent to one of these nice ones.)

    The interesting thing about the above infinity-category is that it's
    an "(infinity,1)-category", meaning that all its j-morphisms are
    weakly invertible for j > 1. For example, maps between spaces
    aren't necessarily invertible, even up to homotopy - but homotopies
    are always invertible.

    We can define "(infinity,k)-categories" for any k in the same way,
    and we see that (infinity,0)-categories are just infinity-groupoids.
    So, the Homotopy Hypothesis reveals the beginning of what might be
    a very nice pattern. Roughly:

    Topological spaces, as studied in homotopy theory, are secretly

    Model categories, as studied in homotopy theory, are secretly

    ????, as studied in homotopy theory (not yet?), are secretly


    Presumably the ???? should be filled in with something like
    "model 2-categories", with the primordial example being the
    2-category of model categories, just as the primordial example
    of a model category is the category of spaces.

    But, there's only been a little study of this sort of "meta-homotopy
    theory" so far. For example:

    6) Julie Bergner, Three models for the homotopy theory of homotopy
    theories, available as math.AT/0504334.

    After my talk, Simona Paoli spoke about her work on turning the
    homotopy hypothesis from a dream into a reality:

    7) Simona Paoli, Semistrict models of connected 3-types and
    Tamsamani's weak 3-groupoids, available as math.AT/0607330.

    8) Simona Paoli, Semistrict Tamsamani n-groupoids and connected
    n-types, available as math.AT/0701655.

    Eugenia Cheng then spent the afternoon leading us through another

    9) Clemens Berger, A cellular nerve for higher categories,
    available at http://citeseer.ist.psu.edu/383423.html

    10) Denis-Charles Cisinski, Batanin higher groupoids and homotopy
    types, available as math.AT/0604442.

    I would love to explain this stuff, mainly as an excuse for
    learning it better! But alas, I'm getting a bit tired and we're
    only on the second day of the workshop... I must hurry on.

    On Wednesday evening, Peter May spoke about some applications of
    weak 2-categories that appear in his new book:

    11) Peter May and J. Sigurdsson, Parametrized Homotopy Theory,
    American Mathematical Society, 2006.

    The rough idea is that we have a weak 2-category with:

    spaces as objects,
    spectra over X x Y as morphisms from X to Y,
    maps between spectra over X x Y as 2-morphisms.

    Lots of ideas from "parametrized" stable homotopy theory are
    neatly encoded as results about this 2-category.

    Thursday was all about (infinity,1)-categories. The first talk
    was by Mike Shulman, who gave a nice intuitive treatment of Andre
    Joyal's approach to (infinity,1)-categories.

    In 1957, Daniel Kan figured out a nice way to describe
    infinity-groupoids as simplicial sets with a certain property:
    now they're called "Kan complexes". They're very popular among
    homotopy theorists. You can read about them here:

    12) Paul G. Goerss and J. F. Jardine, Simplicial Homotopy Theory,
    Birkhaeuser, Basel, 1999.

    Given this, it's not so surprising that we can describe
    (infinity,1)-categories as simplicial sets with some more
    general property. In fact this was done by Boardmann and Vogt
    back in 1973. In the last decade or so, Joyal has developed
    an enormous body of results about these (infinity,1)-categories,
    which he calls "quasicategories". He is writing a book on the
    subject, which is not quite done yet - but it's already enormously
    influenced the state of higher category theory, and I expect it
    will continue to do so.

    Next Julie Bergner compared different approaches to (infinity,1)-
    categories. I mentioned a while back that she's one of the few
    people who has worked hard on "meta-homotopy theory". That was
    very much in evidence in her talk.

    She began by describing a bunch of different definitions of
    (infinity,1)-category. But then she showed these definitions
    weren't really so different! For each definition, she constructed
    a model category of all (infinity,1)-categories of that type.
    And then, she sketched the proof that all these model categories
    were "Quillen equivalent".

    For details, listen to her talk or try this paper:

    13) Julie Bergner, A survey of (infinity, 1)-categories,
    available as math.AT/0610239.

    In the afternoon, Andre Joyal spoke about quasicategories.
    I urge you to listen to his talk and also the minicourse he
    later gave on this subject:

    14) Andre Joyal, Graduate course on basic aspects of
    quasicategories, http://www.fields.utoronto.ca/audio/#crs-quasibasic

    I can't possibly summarize this stuff! It basically amounts to
    taking the whole of category theory and extending it to

    (Well, I guess I just summarized it, but....)

    After Joyal's talk, Joshua Nichols-Barrer spoke about using
    quasicategories as an approach to understanding "stacks", which
    are like sheaves, only categorified.

    In the evening, Kathryn Hess spoke about some work she's doing
    with Steve Lack, on parallel transport in bundles of bicategories.
    Sounds like physics, but they came to the subject from a completely
    different motivation!

    Finally, Dorette Pronk spoke about weak 2-categories and weak
    3-categories of fractions. The notion of a "calculus of fractions"
    goes back at least to the work of Gabriel and Zisman in 1967:

    15) P. Gabriel and M. Zisman, Categories of Fractions and Homotopy
    Theory, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 1967.

    Say you have a category and you want to throw in formal inverses to
    some morphisms. Well, you can do it! But in general, the morphisms
    in the resulting category will be arbitrarily long "zig-zag" diagrams
    in your original category, like this:

    X_1 ---> X_2 <--- X_3 ---> X_4 <--- X_5 ---> X_6

    The arrows pointing backwards are the ones you threw in formal
    inverses for.

    This is a nuisance! But luckily, in nice cases, you only need to use
    zig-zags of length two. This is what a "calculus of fractions"
    achieves. A classic example is when you start with a model category
    C, and you throw in formal inverses for the weak equivalences to
    get the "homotopy category" Ho(C).

    Dorette Pronk has been looking at how all this generalizes when
    you have a weak 2-category or weak 3-category and you throw in
    *weak* inverses to some morphisms. This has some interesting
    applications to stacks:

    16) Dorette A. Pronk, Etendues and stacks as bicategories of
    fractions, Compositio Mathematica, 102 (1996), 243-303. Also
    available at http://www.numdam.org/numdam-bin/recherche?h=nc&id=CM_1996__102_3_243_0 [Broken]

    Dorette's talk ended at 9 pm, and everyone went home and collapsed
    after a hard day's work. Actually not: a bunch of us went out and
    partied! One of the great things about working on n-categories is the
    sense of camaraderie among the small crowd that does this.

    Friday's talks were about higher gauge theory. Since I've discussed
    this many times here, I'll be terse. Alissa Crans explained Lie
    2-groups and Lie 2-algebras, and then Danny Stevenson explained his
    work on connections, 2-connections and Schreier theory (see
    "week223"). In the afternoon, Urs Schreiber described his ideas
    on higher-dimensional parallel transport and local trivializations,
    with a little help from Toby Bartels.

    Friday evening, we heard talks from Simon Willerton (on Hopf monads)
    and Igor Bakovic (on 2-bundles). Quite an evening! Bakovic is an
    impressive young Croatian fellow who seems to have taught himself
    n-categories. We were all horrified when it became clear he had over
    30 pages of transparencies, but his talk was actually quite nice.

    And if you like higher-dimensional diagrams anywhere near as much
    as I do, you've got to take a look at Willerton's slides:

    17) Simon Willerton, The diagrammatics of Hopf monads,

    Again the talks ended at 9 pm.

    Finally, on Saturday morning, spoke about Frobenius algebras and
    their relation to Khovanov homology:

    18) Aaron Lauda, Frobenius algebras, quantum topology and higher
    categories, available at
    http://www.math.columbia.edu/~lauda/talks/Fields/ [Broken]

    Urs Schreiber then wrapped things up with a talk about the
    quantization of strings from a higher category viewpoint.
    You can get a good feeling for this from his blog entries at
    the n-Category Cafe, which are all listed on my webpage for
    this workshop - the first webpage mentioned this Week.

    Speaking of the n-Category Cafe - after the workshop ended, Bruce
    Bartlett interviewed Urs and I about this blog, which we run
    together with David Corfield. You can see the interview here:

    19) John Baez and Urs Schreiber, Interview by Bruce Bartlett,

    Previous issues of "This Week's Finds" and other expository articles on
    mathematics and physics, as well as some of my research papers, can be
    obtained at


    For a table of contents of all the issues of This Week's Finds, try


    A simple jumping-off point to the old issues is available at


    If you just want the latest issue, go to

    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
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