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This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics (Week 256)

  1. Aug 28, 2007 #1
    [SOLVED] This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics (Week 256)

    Also available as http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/week256.html

    August 27, 2007
    This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics (Week 256)
    John Baez

    My European wanderings continue. I'm in Greenwich again, just back
    from a mind-blowing conference in Vienna, part of a bigger program
    that's still going on:

    1) Poisson sigma models, Lie algebroids, deformations, and higher
    analogues, Erwin Schroedinger Institute, August - September 2007,
    organized by Thomas Strobl, Henrique Bursztyn, and Harald Grosse.
    Program at http://w3.impa.br/~henrique/esi.html

    I learned a huge amount, both from the talks and from conversations
    with Urs Schreiber and others. Mainly, I learned that I've really
    been falling behind the times when it comes to classical mechanics
    and quantization!

    I could easily spend several Weeks trying to assimilate the
    half-digested information I acquired and explain it all to you.
    But, I want to get back to the Tale of Groupoidification! So,
    I'll only say a little about this wonderful conference.

    You may know that in classical mechanics, the space of states of
    a physical system is called its "phase space". Often this is described
    by a "symplectic manifold" - a manifold equipped with a nondegenerate
    closed 2-form. Sometimes it's described by a "Poisson manifold" -
    a manifold equipped with a bracket operation on its smooth
    functions, making the smooth functions into a Lie algebra and
    also satisfying the product rule:

    {f,gh} = {f,g}h + g{f,h}

    Every symplectic manifold gives a Poisson manifold, but not vice
    versa. A good example of a Poisson manifold that's not symplectic
    is the phase space of a spinning point particle, which has angular
    momentum but no other properties.

    Every mathematical physicist should know some symplectic geometry
    and Poisson geometry! To get started on symplectic geometry, try
    these, in rough order of increasing difficulty:

    1) Vladimir I. Arnold, Mathematical Methods of Classical Mechanics,
    Springer, Berlin, 1997.

    2) Ralph Abraham and Jerrold E. Marsden, Foundations of Mechanics,
    Benjamin-Cummings, New York, 1978.

    3) Victor Guillemin and Shlomo Sternberg, Symplectic Techniques
    in Physics, Cambridge U. Press, Cambridge, 1990.

    4) Ana Cannas da Silva, Symplectic geometry, available as

    5) Sergei Tabachnikov, Introduction to symplectic topology,
    available at http://www.math.psu.edu/tabachni/courses/symplectic.pdf

    For Poisson geometry, try the above but also:

    6) Alan Weinstein, Poisson geometry, available at

    7) Darryl Holm, Applications of Poisson geometry to physical
    problems, available as arXiv:0708.1585.

    8) I. Vaisman, Lectures on the Geometry of Poisson Manifolds,
    Birkhaeuser, Boston, 1994.

    All this stuff is great. But lately, people have started thinking
    about generalizations of the idea of phase space that go far beyond
    Poisson manifolds! In fact there seems to be an infinite sequence,
    which begins like this:

    symplectic manifolds,
    Poisson manifolds,
    Courant algebroids,

    I'd heard of Courant algebroids before, but they always seemed
    like a scary and arbitrary concept - until I came across this
    paper in Vienna:

    9) Pavol Severa, Some title containing the words "homotopy"
    and "symplectic", e.g. this one, available as arXiv:math/0105080.

    The title is goofy, but the paper itself contains some truly
    visionary speculations. Among other things, it argues that the
    above sequence of concepts really goes like this:

    symplectic manifolds,
    symplectic Lie algebroids,
    symplectic Lie 2-algebroids,
    symplectic Lie 3-algebroids,...

    These, in turn, are infinitesimal versions of perhaps more fundamental

    symplectic manifolds,
    symplectic Lie groupoids,
    symplectic Lie 2-groupoids,
    symplectic Lie 3-groupoids,...

    These concepts take the basic concept of classical phase space and
    build in symmetries, symmetries between symmetries, and so on!

    So, we may be starting to see the "periodic table of n-categories"
    show up in classical mechanics. Back in "week49" I explained the
    most basic version of this table. Here's a tiny portion of it:

    k-tuply monoidal n-categories

    n = 0 n = 1 n = 2

    k = 0 sets categories 2-categories

    k = 1 monoids monoidal monoidal
    categories 2-categories

    k = 2 commutative braided braided
    monoids monoidal monoidal
    categories 2-categories

    k = 3 " " symmetric sylleptic
    monoidal monoidal
    categories 2-categories

    k = 4 " " " " symmetric

    k = 5 " " " " " "

    An n-category has objects, 1-morphisms betwen objects, 2-morphisms
    between 1-morphisms, and so on up to the nth level. A "k-tuply
    monoidal" n-category is an (n+k)-category that's trivial on the
    bottom k levels. It masquerades as an n-category with extra bells
    and whistles. As you can see, we get lots of fun structures this

    The concept of n-category is very general: it describes things,
    processes that go between things, metaprocesses that go between
    processes and so on. But, in classical mechanics we may want
    to demand that all these morphisms be invertible, and that all the
    ways of composing them be smooth functions. Then we should get some
    table like this:

    k-tuply groupal Lie n-groupoids

    n = 0 n = 1 n = 2

    k = 0 manifolds Lie groupoids Lie 2-groupoids

    k = 1 Lie groups Lie 2-groups Lie 3-groups

    k = 2 abelian braided braided
    Lie groups Lie 2-groups Lie 3-groups

    k = 3 " " symmetric sylleptic
    Lie 2-groups Lie 3-groups

    k = 4 " " " " symmetric
    Lie 3-groups

    k = 5 " " " " " "

    There are lots of technical issues to consider - for example, whether
    manifolds are a sufficiently general notion of "smooth space" to
    make this chart really work. But for now, the key thing is to
    understand what we're shooting for, so we can set up definitions that
    accomplish it.

    For example, it would be nice if we could "differentiate" any of the
    gadgets on the above table, just as we differentiate a Lie group
    and get a Lie algebra. This should give another table, like this:

    k-tuply groupal Lie n-groupoids

    n = 0 n = 1 n = 2

    k = 0 vector bundles? Lie algebroids Lie 2-algebroids

    k = 1 Lie algebras Lie 2-algebras Lie 3-algebras

    k = 2 abelian braided braided
    Lie algebras Lie 2-algebras Lie 3-algebras

    k = 3 " " symmetric sylleptic
    Lie 2-algebras Lie 3-algebras

    k = 4 " " " " symmetric
    Lie 3-algebras

    k = 5 " " " " " "

    The n = k = 0 corner is a bit puzzling - it's sort of degenerate.
    Everyone knows how to get Lie algebras from Lie groups. So, the
    real fun starts in getting Lie algebroids from Lie groupoids!
    If you want to see how it works, start here:

    10) Alan Weinstein, Groupoids: unifying internal and external
    symmetry, AMS Notices, 43 (1996), 744-752. Also available as

    For more details, try this:

    11) Kirill Mackenzie, General Theory of Lie Groupoids and Lie
    Algebroids, Cambridge U. Press, 2005.

    There's also the question of going back. We can integrate any
    finite-dimensional Lie algebra to get a simply-connected Lie group -
    that's called Lie's 3rd theorem. But getting from Lie algebroids
    to Lie groupoids is harder... in fact, according to the standard
    definitions, it's often impossible!

    That's bad enough, but the really weird part is this: you can
    get something like a Lie *2-groupoid* from a Lie algebroid!
    This throws a serious monkey wrench into the whole periodic

    Luckily, one of the people who really understands this stuff
    was at this conference in Vienna - Chenchang Zhu. And, she
    explained what's going on. So now I'm busily reading her papers:

    12) Hsian-Hua Tseng and Chenchang Zhu, Integrating Lie algebroids
    via stacks, available as arXiv:math/0405003.

    13) Chenchang Zhu, Lie n-groupoids and stacky Lie groupoids,
    available as arXiv:math/0609420.

    14) Chenchang Zhu, Lie II theorem for Lie algebroids via stacky
    Lie groupoids, available as arXiv:math/0701024.

    (Lie's 2nd theorem says that all Lie algebra homomorphisms
    integrate to give homomorphisms between the corresponding
    simply-connected Lie groups.)

    I'm optimistic that the patterns will be very beautiful when we
    fully understand them. In particular, problems also arise
    when trying to integrate Lie n-algebras to get Lie n-groups, but
    a lot of progress has been made on these problems:

    15) Ezra Getzler, Lie theory for nilpotent L-infinity algebras,
    available as arXiv:math/0404003.

    16) Andre Henriques, Integrating L-infinity algebras, available
    as arXiv:math/0603563.

    The really wonderful part is that there's already a functioning
    theory of Lie n-algebroids, carefully disguised under the name of
    "NQ-manifolds of degree n". For a great introduction to these,
    see section 2 of this paper:

    17) Dmitry Roytenberg, On the structure of graded symplectic
    supermanifolds and Courant algebroids, in Quantization, Poisson
    Brackets and Beyond, ed. Theodore Voronov, Contemp. Math. 315,
    AMS, Providence, Rhode Island, 2002. Also available as

    Using these, people are already busy extending the ideas of
    classical mechanics across the top row of the periodic table!

    The details are currently rather baroque. The best way to
    see the big picture, I think, is to simultaneously read the
    above papers by Pavol Severa and Dmitry Roytenberg. For example,
    Roytenberg's paper proves that:

    symplectic NQ-manifolds of degree 0 = symplectic manifolds

    symplectic NQ-manifolds of degree 1 = Poisson manifolds

    symplectic NQ-manifolds of degree 2 = Courant algebroids

    If we follow his advice and define Lie n-algebroids to be
    NQ-manifolds of degree n, we can express this by saying:

    symplectic Lie 0-algebroids = symplectic manifolds

    symplectic Lie 1-algebroids = Poisson manifolds

    symplectic Lie 2-algebroids = Courant algebroids

    And ultimately, Lie n-algebroids should be just a technical
    tool for studying Lie n-groupoids - modulo the tricky problems with
    the generalizations of Lie's 2nd theorem, mentioned above.

    Though I met both Roytenberg and Severa in Vienna, I was just
    beginning to grasp the basics of NQ-manifolds, Courant algebroids
    and the like, so I couldn't take full advantage of this opportunity.
    I will need to pester them some other time. In fact, I was stuggling
    to cope with the fact that everything I just mentioned is just part
    of an even bigger story...

    This bigger story involves Batalin-Vilkovisky quantization,
    Poisson sigma models, the proof by Kontsevich that every Poisson
    manifold admits a deformation quantization, its interpretation
    by Cattaneo and Felder in the language of 2d TQFTs, and its
    generalization by Hofman and Park to the quantization of Courant
    algebroids using 3d TQFTs... which should itself be the tip of a big
    iceberg. To quantize symplectic Lie n-algebroids, it seems we
    need to use (n+1)-dimensional TQFTs! There are some truly
    mind-boggling ideas afoot here, which will turn out to be quite
    simple when properly understood. For a taste of the underlying
    simplicity, try this:

    18) Urs Schreiber, That shift in dimension,

    But, I'd better learn more before trying to explain these things.

    Now, let me return to the Tale of Groupoidification! When I left
    off, I was about to discuss an example: Hecke operators in the
    special case of symmetric groups. But, one reader expressed
    unease with what I'd done so far, saying it was too informal and
    hand-wavy to understand.

    So, this Week I'll fill in some details about "degroupoidification" -
    the process that sends groupoids to vector spaces and spans of
    groupoids to linear operators.

    How does this work? For starters, each groupoid X gives a vector
    space [X] whose basis consists of isomorphism classes of objects
    of X.

    Given an object x in X, let's write its isomorphism class
    as [x]. So: x in X gives [x] in [X].

    Next, each span of groupoids

    / \
    / \
    / \
    v v
    X Y

    gives a linear operator

    : [X] -> [Y]

    Note: this operator depends on the whole span, not just the
    groupoid S sitting on top. So, I'm abusing notation here.

    More importantly: how do we get this operator ? The recipe is
    simple, but I think you'll profit much more by seeing where the
    recipe comes from.

    To figure out how it should work, we insist that degroupoidification
    be something like a functor. In other words, it should get along
    well with composition:

    [TS] = [T]

    and identities:

    [1_X] = 1_[X]

    (Warning: today, just to confuse you, I'll write composition in
    the old-fashioned backwards way, where doing S and then T is
    denoted TS.)

    How do we compose spans of groupoids? We do it using a "weak
    pullback". In other words, given a composable pair of spans:

    S T
    / \ / \
    f/ \g h/ \i
    / \ / \
    v v v v
    X Y Z

    we form the weak pullback in the middle, like this:

    / \
    j/ \k
    / \
    v v
    S T
    / \ / \
    f/ \g h/ \i
    / \ / \
    v v v v
    X Y Z

    Then, we compose the arrows along the sides to get a big span
    from X to Z:

    / \
    / \
    / \
    fj / \ ik
    / \
    / \
    / \
    / \
    v v
    X Z

    Never heard of "weak pullbacks"? Okay: I'll tell you what an
    object in the weak pullback TS is. It's an object t in T and an
    object s in S, together with an isomorphism between their images in Y.
    If we were doing the ordinary pullback, we'd demand that these
    images be *equal*. But that would be evil! Since t and s are living
    in groupoids, we should only demand that their images be *isomorphic*
    in a specified way.

    (Exercise: figure out the morphisms in the weak pullback. Figure
    out and prove the universal property of the weak pullback.)

    So, how should we take a span of groupoids

    / \
    / \
    / \
    v v
    X Y

    and turn it into a linear operator

    : [X] -> [Y] ?

    We just need to know what this operator does to a bunch of
    vectors in [X]. How do we describe vectors in [X]?

    I already said how to get a basis vector [x] in [X] from any object
    x in X. But, that's not enough for what we're doing now, since a
    linear operator doesn't usually send basis vectors to *basis*
    vectors. So, we need to generalize this idea.

    An object x in X is the same as a functor from 1 to X:


    where 1 is the groupoid with one object and one morphism. So,
    let's generalize this and figure out how *any* functor from *any*
    finite groupoid V to X:


    picks out a vector in [X]. Again, by abuse of notation we'll
    call this vector [V], even though it also depends on p.

    First suppose V is a finite set, thought of as a groupoid with
    only identity morphisms. Then to define [V], we just go through
    all the points of V, figure out what p maps them to - some bunch
    of objects x in X - and add up the corresponding basis vectors
    [x] in [X].

    I hope you see how pathetically simple this idea is! It's especially
    familiar when V and X are both sets. Here's what it looks like then:

    V | o |
    | o o |
    | | o o o o |
    |p | o o o o o |
    | ------------------
    X | o o o o o o |

    I've drawn the elements of V and X as little circles, and shown how
    each elements in X has a bunch of elements of V sitting over it. When
    degroupoidify this to get a vector in the vector space [X], we get:

    [V] = (1, 4, 3, 2, 0, 2)

    This vector is just a list of numbers saying how many points of V
    are sitting over each point of X!

    Now we just need to generalize a bit further, to cover the case
    where V is a groupoid:


    Sitting over each object x in X we have its "essential preimage",
    which is a groupoid. To get the vector [V], we add up basis
    vectors [x] in [X], one for each isomorphism class of objects
    in X, multiplied by the "cardinalities" of their essential preimages.

    Now you probably have two questions:

    A) Given a functor p: V -> X between groupoids and an object
    x in X, what's the "essential preimage" of x?


    B) what's the "cardinality" of a groupoid?

    Here are the answers:

    A) An object in the essential preimage of x is an object
    v in V equipped with an isomorphism from p(v) to x.

    (Exercise: define the morphisms in the essential preimage.
    Figure out and prove the universal property of the essential
    preimage. Hint: the essential preimage is a special case of a
    weak pullback!)

    B) To compute the cardinality of a groupoid, we pick one object
    from each isomorphism class, count its automorphisms, take the
    *reciprocal* of this number, and add these numbers up.

    (Exercise: check that the cardinality of the groupoid of finite
    sets is e = 2.718281828... If you get stuck, read "week147".)

    Also: define the morphisms in the essential preimage. Figure out
    and prove the universal property of the essential preimage. Hint:
    the essential preimage is a special case of a weak pullback!)

    Okay. Now in principle you know how any groupoid over X, say


    determines a vector [V] in [X]. You have to work some examples
    to get a feel for it, but I want to get to the punchline. We're
    unpeeling an onion here, and we're almost down to the core, where
    you see there's nothing inside and wonder why you were crying so much.

    So, let's finally figure out how a span of groupoids

    / \
    / \
    / \
    v v
    X Y

    gives a linear operator

    : [X] -> [Y]

    It's enough to know what this operator does to vectors
    coming from groupoids over X:


    And, the trick is to notice that such a diagram is the same as
    a silly span like this:

    / \
    / \
    / \
    v v
    1 X

    1 is the groupoid with one object and one morphism, so there's
    only one choice of the left leg here!

    So here's what we do. To apply the operator coming from
    the span

    / \
    / \
    / \
    v v
    X Y

    to the vector [V] corresponding to the silly span

    / \
    / \
    / \
    v v
    1 X

    we just compose these spans, and get a silly span

    / \
    / \
    / \
    v v
    1 Y

    which picks out a vector [SV] in [Y]. Then, we define

    [V] = [SV]

    Slick, eh? Of course you need to check that is well-defined.

    Given that, it's trivial to prove that [-] gets along with
    composition of spans:

    [TS] = [T]

    At least, it's trivial once you know that composition of spans is
    associative up to equivalence, and equivalent spans give the same
    operator! But your friendly neighborhood category theorist can check
    such facts in a jiffy, so let's just take them for granted. Then
    the proof goes like this. We have:

    [TS] [V] = [(TS)V] by definition
    = [T(SV)] by those facts I just mentioned
    = [T] [SV] by definition
    = [T] [V] by definition

    Since this is true for all [V], we conclude

    [TS] = [T]


    By the way, if "week47" doesn't satisfy your hunger for information on
    groupoid cardinality, try this:

    19) John Baez and James Dolan, From finite sets to Feynman diagrams, in
    Mathematics Unlimited - 2001 and Beyond, vol. 1, eds. Bjorn Engquist
    and Wilfried Schmid, Springer, Berlin, 2001, pp. 29-50. Also
    available as math.QA/0004133.

    For more on turning spans of groupoids into linear operators, and
    composing spans via weak pullback, try these:

    20) Jeffrey Morton, Categorified algebra and quantum mechanics,
    TAC 16 (2006), 785-854. Available at
    http://www.emis.de/journals/TAC/volumes/16/29/16-29abs.html; [Broken]
    also available as math.QA/0601458.

    21) Simon Byrne, On Groupoids and Stuff, honors thesis, Macquarie
    University, 2005, available at
    http://www.maths.mq.edu.au/~street/ByrneHons.pdf and

    For a more leisurely exposition, with a big emphasis on applications
    to combinatorics and the quantum mechanics of the harmonic oscillator,

    22) John Baez and Derek Wise, Quantization and Categorification,
    Quantum Gravity Seminar lecture notes, available at:

    Finally, a technical note. Why did I say the degroupoidification
    process was "something like" a functor? It's because spans of
    groupoids don't want to be a category!

    Already spans of sets don't naturally form a category. They form a
    weak 2-category! Since pullbacks are only defined up to canonical
    isomorphism, composition of spans of sets is only associative
    up to isomomorphism... but luckily, this "associator" isomorphism
    satisfies the "pentagon identity" and all that jazz, so we get a
    weak 2-category, or bicategory.

    Similarly, spans of groupoids form a weak 3-category. Weak pullbacks
    are only defined up to canonical equivalence, so composition of spans
    of groupoids are associative up to equivalence... but luckily this
    "associator" equivalence satisfies the pentagon identity up to an
    isomorphism, and this "pentagonator" isomomorphism satisfies a
    coherence law of its own, governed by the 3d Stasheff polytope.

    So, we're fairly high in the ladder of n-categories. But, if we
    want a mere category, we can take groupoids and *equivalence classes*
    of spans. Then, degroupoidification gives a functor

    [-]: [finite groupoids, spans] -> [vector spaces, linear maps]

    That's the fact whose proof I tried to sketch here.

    While I'm talking about annoying technicalities, note we need
    some sort of finiteness assumption on our spans of groupoids
    to be sure all the necessary sums converge. If we go all-out
    and restrict to spans where all groupoids involved are finite,
    we'll be very safe. The cardinality of a finite groupoid is a
    nonnegative rational number, so we can take our vector spaces to
    be defined over the rational numbers.

    But, it's also fun to consider "tame" groupoids, as defined that
    paper I wrote with Jim Dolan. These have cardinalities that can
    be irrational numbers, like e. So, in this case we should use
    vector spaces over the real numbers - or complex numbers, but that's

    Finding a class of groupoids or other entities whose cardinalities
    are complex would be very nice, to push the whole groupoidification
    program further into the complex world. In the above paper by
    Jeff Morton, he uses sets over U(1), but that's probably not the
    last word.


    Quote of the Week:

    Viewed superficially, mathematics is the result of centuries of effort
    by thousands of largely unconnected individuals scattered across
    continents, centuries and millennia. However the internal logic of
    its development much more closely resembles the work of a single
    intellect developing its thought in a continuous and systematic way -
    much as in an orchestra playing a symphony written by some composer
    the theme moves from one instrument to another, so that as soon as
    one performer is forced to cut short his part, it is taken up by
    another player, who continues with due attention to the score.

    - I. R. Shavarevich

    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 3, 2017
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