The Monoidal Grothendieck Construction

21 May, 2019

My grad student Joe Moeller is talking at the 4th Symposium on Compositional Structures this Thursday! He’ll talk about his work with Christina Vasilakopolou, a postdoc here at U.C. Riverside. Together they created a monoidal version of a fundamental construction in category theory: the Grothendieck construction! Here is their paper:

• Joe Moeller and Christina Vasilakopoulou, Monoidal Grothendieck construction.

The monoidal Grothendieck construction plays an important role in our team’s work on network theory, in at least two ways. First, we use it to get a symmetric monoidal category, and then an operad, from any network model. Second, we use it to turn any decorated cospan category into a ‘structured cospan category’. I haven’t said anything about structured cospans yet, but they are an alternative approach to open systems, developed by my grad student Kenny Courser, that I’m very excited about. Stay tuned!

The Grothendieck construction turns a functor

F \colon \mathsf{X}^{\mathrm{op}} \to \mathsf{Cat}

into a category \int F equipped with a functor

p \colon \int F \to \mathsf{X}

The construction is quite simple but there’s a lot of ideas and terminology connected to it: for example a functor F \colon \mathsf{X}^{\mathrm{op}} \to \mathsf{Cat} is called an indexed category since it assigns a category to each object of \mathsf{X}, while the functor p \colon \int F \to \mathsf{X} is of a special sort called a fibration.

I think the easiest way to learn more about the Grothendieck construction and this new monoidal version may be Joe’s talk:

• Joe Moeller, Monoidal Grothendieck construction, SYCO4, Chapman University, 22 May 2019.

Abstract. We lift the standard equivalence between fibrations and indexed categories to an equivalence between monoidal fibrations and monoidal indexed categories, namely weak monoidal pseudofunctors to the 2-category of categories. In doing so, we investigate the relation between this global monoidal structure where the total category is monoidal and the fibration strictly preserves the structure, and a fibrewise one where the fibres are monoidal and the reindexing functors strongly preserve the structure, first hinted by Shulman. In particular, when the domain is cocartesian monoidal, lax monoidal structures on a functor to Cat bijectively correspond to lifts of the functor to MonCat. Finally, we give some indicative examples where this correspondence appears, spanning from the fundamental and family fibrations to network models and systems.

To dig deeper, try this talk Christina gave at the big annual category theory conference last year:

• Christina Vasilakopoulou, Monoidal Grothendieck construction, CT2018, University of Azores, 10 July 2018.

Then read Joe and Christina’s paper!

Here is the Grothendieck construction in a nutshell:

Enriched Lawvere Theories

16 May, 2019

My grad student Christian Williams and I finished this paper just in time for him to talk about it at SYCO:

• John Baez and Christian Williams, Enriched Lawvere theories for operational semantics.

Abstract. Enriched Lawvere theories are a generalization of Lawvere theories that allow us to describe the operational semantics of formal systems. For example, a graph-enriched Lawvere theory describes structures that have a graph of operations of each arity, where the vertices are operations and the edges are rewrites between operations. Enriched theories can be used to equip systems with operational semantics, and maps between enriching categories can serve to translate between different forms of operational and denotational semantics. The Grothendieck construction lets us study all models of all enriched theories in all contexts in a single category. We illustrate these ideas with the SKI-combinator calculus, a variable-free version of the lambda calculus, and with Milner’s calculus of communicating processes.

When Mike Stay came to U.C. Riverside to work with me about ten years ago, he knew about computation and I knew about category theory, and we started trying to talk to each other. I’d heard that categories and computer science were deeply connected: for example, people like to say that the lambda-calculus is all about cartesian closed categories. But we soon realized something funny was going on here.

Computer science is deeply concerned with processes of computation, and category theory uses morphisms to describe processes… but when cartesian closed categories are applied to the lambda calculus, their morphisms do not describe processes of computation. In fact, the process of computation is effectively ignored!

We decided that to fix this we could use 2-categories where

• objects are types. For example, there could be a type of integers, INT. There could be a type of pairs of integers, INT × INT. There could also be a boring type 1, which represents something there’s just one of.

• morphisms are terms. For example, a morphism f: 1 → INT picks out a specific natural number, like 2 or 3. There could also be a morphism +: INT × INT → INT, called ‘addition’. Combining these, we can get expressions like 2+3.

• 2-morphism are rewrites. For example, there could be a rewrite going from 2+3 to 5.

Later Mike realized that instead of 2-categories, it can be good to use graph-enriched categories: that is, things like categories where instead of a set of morphisms from one object to another, we have a graph.

In other words: instead of hom-sets, a graph-enriched category has ‘hom-graphs’. The objects of a graph-enriched category can represent types, the vertices of the hom-graphs can represent terms, and the edges of the hom-graphs can represent rewrites.

Mike teamed up with Greg Meredith to write a paper on this:

• Mike Stay and Greg Meredith, Representing operational semantics
with enriched Lawvere theories

Christian decided to write a paper building on this, and I’ve been helping him out because it’s satisfying to see an old dream finally realized—in a much more detailed, beautiful way than I ever imagined!

The key was to sharpen the issue by considering enriched Lawvere theories. Lawvere theories are an excellent formalism for describing algebraic structures obeying equational laws, but they do not specify how to compute in such a structure, for example taking a complex expression and simplifying it using rewrite rules. Enriched Lawvere theories let us study the process of rewriting.

Maybe I should back up a bit. A Lawvere theory is a category with finite products T generated by a single object t, for ‘type’. Morphisms t^n \to t represent n-ary operations, and commutative diagrams specify equations these operations obey. There is a theory for groups, a theory for rings, and so on. We can specify algebraic structures of a given kind in some ‘context’—that is, in some category C with finite products—by a product-preserving functor \mu: T \to C. For example, if T is the theory of groups and C is the category of sets then such a functor describes a group, but if C is the category of topological space then such a functor describes a topological group.

All this is a simple and elegant form of what computer scientists call denotational semantics: roughly, the study of types and terms, and what they signify. However, Lawvere theories know nothing of operational semantics: that is, how we actually compute. The objects of our Lawvere are types and the morphisms are terms. But there are no rewrites going between terms, only equations!

This is where enriched Lawvere theories come in. Suppose we fix a cartesian closed category V, such as the category of sets, or the category of graphs, or the category of posets, or even the category of categories. Then V-enriched category is a thing like a category, but instead of having a set of morphisms from any object to any other object, it has an object of V. That is, instead of hom-sets it can have hom-graphs, or hom-posets, or hom-categories. If it has hom-categories, then it’s a 2-category—so this setup includes my original dream, but much more!

Our paper explains how to generalize Lawvere theories to this enriched setting, and how to use these enriched Lawvere theories in operational semantics. We rely heavily on previous work, especially by Rory Lucyshyn-Wright, who in turn built on work by John Power and others. But we’re hoping that our paper, which is a bit less high-powered, will be easier for people who are familiar with category theory but not yet enriched categories. The novelty lies less in the math than its applications. Give it a try!

Here is a small piece of a hom-graph in the graph-enriched theory of the SKI combinator calculus, a variable-free version of the lambda calculus invented by Moses Schönfinkel and Haskell Curry back in the 1920s:


Props in Network Theory (Part 2)

14 May, 2019

Here’s my talk for SYCO4 next week:

Props in network theory.

Abstract. To describe systems composed of interacting parts, scientists and engineers draw diagrams of networks: flow charts, Petri nets, electrical circuit diagrams, signal-flow graphs, chemical reaction networks, Feynman diagrams and the like. All these different diagrams fit into a common framework: the mathematics of symmetric monoidal categories. Two complementary approaches are presentations of props using generators and relations (which are more algebraic in flavor) and structured cospan categories (which are more geometrical). In this talk we focus on the former. A “prop” is a strict symmetric monoidal category whose objects are tensor powers of a single generating object. We will see that props are a flexible tool for describing many kinds of networks.

You can read a lot more here:

• John Baez, Props in network theory (part 1), Azimuth, April 27, 2018.

Symposium on Compositional Structures 4: Program

11 May, 2019

Here’s the program for this conference:

Symposium on Compositional Structures 4, 22–23 May, 2019, Chapman University, California. Organized by Alexander Kurz.

A lot of my students and collaborators are speaking here! The meeting will take place in Beckman Hall 101.

Wednesday May 22, 2019

• 10:30–11:30 — Registration.

• 11:30–12:30 — John Baez, “Props in Network Theory“.

• 12:30–1:00 — Jade Master, “Generalized Petri Nets”.

• 1:00–2:00 — Lunch.

• 2:00–2:30 — Christian Williams, “Enriched Lawvere Theories for Operational Semantics”.

• 2:30–3:00 — Kenny Courser, “Structured Cospans”.

• 3:00–3:30 — Daniel Cicala, “Rewriting Structured Cospans”.

• 3:30–4:00 — Break.

• 4:00–4:30 — Samuel Balco and Alexander Kurz, “Nominal String Diagrams”.

• 4:30–5:00 — Jeffrey Morton, “2-Group Actions and Double Categories”.

• 5:00–5:30 — Michael Shulman, “All (∞,1)-Toposes Have Strict Univalent Universes”.

• 5:30–6:30 — Reception.

Thursday May 23, 2019

• 9:30–10:30 — Nina Otter, “A Unified Framework for Equivalences in Social Networks”.

• 10:30–11:00 — Kohei Kishida, Soroush Rafiee Rad, Joshua Sack and Shengyang Zhong, “Categorical Equivalence between Orthocomplemented Quantales and Complete Orthomodular Lattices”.

• 11:00–11:30 — Break.

• 11:30–12:00 — Cole Comfort, “Circuit Relations for Real Stabilizers: Towards TOF+H”.

• 12:00–12:30 — Owen Biesel, “Duality for Algebras of the Connected Planar Wiring Diagrams Operad”.

• 12:30–1:00 — Joe Moeller and Christina Vasilakopoulou, “Monoidal Grothendieck Construction”.

• 1:00–2:00 — Lunch.

• 2:00–3:00 — Tobias Fritz, “Categorical Probability: Results and Challenges”.

• 3:00–3:30 — Harsh Beohar and Sebastian Küpper, “Bisimulation Maps in Presheaf Categories”.

• 3:30–4:00 — Break.

• 4:00–4:30 — Benjamin MacAdam, Jonathan Gallagher and Rory Lucyshyn-Wright, “Scalars in Tangent Categories”.

• 4:30–5:00 — Jonathan Gallagher, Benjamin MacAdam and Geoff Cruttwell, “Towards Formalizing and Extending Differential Programming via Tangent Categories”.

• 5:00–5:30 — David Sprunger and Shin-Ya Katsumata, “Differential Categories, Recurrent Neural Networks, and Machine Learning”.

Symposium on Compositional Structures 4

8 April, 2019

There’s yet another conference in this fast-paced series, and this time it’s in Southern California!

Symposium on Compositional Structures 4, 22–23 May, 2019, Chapman University, California. Organized by Alexander Kurz.

The Symposium on Compositional Structures (SYCO) is an interdisciplinary series of meetings aiming to support the growing community of researchers interested in the phenomenon of compositionality, from both applied and abstract perspectives, and in particular where category theory serves as a unifying common language.
The first SYCO was in September 2018, at the University of Birmingham. The second SYCO was in December 2018, at the University of Strathclyde. The third SYCO was in March 2019, at the University of Oxford. Each meeting attracted about 70 participants.

We welcome submissions from researchers across computer science, mathematics, physics, philosophy, and beyond, with the aim of fostering friendly discussion, disseminating new ideas, and spreading knowledge between fields. Submission is encouraged for both mature research and work in progress, and by both established academics and junior researchers, including students.

Submission is easy, with no format requirements or page restrictions. The meeting does not have proceedings, so work can be submitted even if it has been submitted or published elsewhere. Think creatively—you could submit a recent paper, or notes on work in progress, or even a recent Masters or PhD thesis.

While no list of topics could be exhaustive, SYCO welcomes submissions
with a compositional focus related to any of the following areas, in
particular from the perspective of category theory:

• logical methods in computer science, including classical and quantum programming, type theory, concurrency, natural language processing and machine learning;

• graphical calculi, including string diagrams, Petri nets and reaction networks;

• languages and frameworks, including process algebras, proof nets, type theory and game semantics;

• abstract algebra and pure category theory, including monoidal category theory, higher category theory, operads, polygraphs, and relationships to homotopy theory;

• quantum algebra, including quantum computation and representation theory;

• tools and techniques, including rewriting, formal proofs and proof assistants, and game theory;

• industrial applications, including case studies and real-world problem descriptions.

This new series aims to bring together the communities behind many previous successful events which have taken place over the last decade, including “Categories, Logic and Physics”, “Categories, Logic and Physics (Scotland)”, “Higher-Dimensional Rewriting and Applications”, “String Diagrams in Computation, Logic and Physics”, “Applied Category Theory”, “Simons Workshop on Compositionality”, and the “Peripatetic Seminar in Sheaves and Logic”.

SYCO will be a regular fixture in the academic calendar, running regularly throughout the year, and becoming over time a recognized venue for presentation and discussion of results in an informal and friendly atmosphere. To help create this community, and to avoid the need to make difficult choices between strong submissions, in the event that more good-quality submissions are received than can be accommodated in the timetable, the programme committee may choose to
defer some submissions to a future meeting, rather than reject them. This would be done based largely on submission order, giving an incentive for early submission, but would also take into account other requirements, such as ensuring a broad scientific programme. Deferred submissions can be re-submitted to any future SYCO meeting, where they would not need peer review, and where they would be prioritised for inclusion in the programme. This will allow us to ensure that speakers have enough time to present their ideas, without creating an unnecessarily competitive reviewing process. Meetings will be held sufficiently frequently to avoid a backlog of deferred papers.

Invited speakers

John Baez, University of California, Riverside: Props in network theory.

Tobias Fritz, Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics: Categorical probability: results and challenges.

Nina Otter, University of California, Los Angeles: A unified framework for equivalences in social networks.

Important dates

All times are anywhere-on-earth.

• Submission deadline: Wednesday 24 April 2019
• Author notification: Wednesday 1 May 2019
• Registration deadline: TBA
• Symposium dates: Wednesday 22 and Thursday 23 May 2019


Submission is by EasyChair, via the following link:

Submissions should present research results in sufficient detail to allow them to be properly considered by members of the programme committee, who will assess papers with regards to significance, clarity, correctness, and scope. We encourage the submission of work in progress, as well as mature results. There are no proceedings, so work can be submitted even if it has been previously published, or has been submitted for consideration elsewhere. There is no specific formatting requirement, and no page limit, although for long submissions authors should understand that reviewers may not be able to read the entire document in detail.

Programme Committee

• Miriam Backens, University of Oxford
• Ross Duncan, University of Strathclyde and Cambridge Quantum Computing
• Brendan Fong, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
• Stefano Gogioso, University of Oxford
• Amar Hadzihasanovic, Kyoto University
• Chris Heunen, University of Edinburgh
• Dominic Horsman, University of Grenoble
• Martti Karvonen, University of Edinburgh
• Kohei Kishida, Dalhousie University (chair)
• Andre Kornell, University of California, Davis
• Martha Lewis, University of Amsterdam
• Samuel Mimram, École Polytechnique
• Benjamin Musto, University of Oxford
• Nina Otter, University of California, Los Angeles
• Simona Paoli, University of Leicester
• Dorette Pronk, Dalhousie University
• Mehrnoosh Sadrzadeh, Queen Mary
• Pawel Sobocinski, University of Southampton
• Joshua Tan, University of Oxford
• Sean Tull, University of Oxford
• Dominic Verdon, University of Bristol
• Jamie Vicary, University of Birmingham and University of Oxford
• Maaike Zwart, University of Oxford

Hidden Symmetries of the Hydrogen Atom

4 April, 2019

Here’s the math colloquium talk I gave at Georgia Tech this week:

Hidden symmetries of the hydrogen atom.

Abstract. A classical particle moving in an inverse square central force, like a planet in the gravitational field of the Sun, moves in orbits that do not precess. This lack of precession, special to the inverse square force, indicates the presence of extra conserved quantities beyond the obvious ones. Thanks to Noether’s theorem, these indicate the presence of extra symmetries. It turns out that not only rotations in 3 dimensions, but also in 4 dimensions, act as symmetries of this system. These extra symmetries are also present in the quantum version of the problem, where they explain some surprising features of the hydrogen atom. The quest to fully understand these symmetries leads to some fascinating mathematical adventures.

I left out a lot of calculations, but someday I want to write a paper where I put them all in. This material is all known, but I feel like explaining it my own way.

In the process of creating the slides and giving the talk, though, I realized there’s a lot I don’t understand yet. Some of it is embarrassingly basic! For example, I give Greg Egan’s nice intuitive argument for how you can get some ‘Runge–Lenz symmetries’ in the 2d Kepler problem. I might as well just quote his article:

• Greg Egan, The ellipse and the atom.

He says:

Now, one way to find orbits with the same energy is by applying a rotation that leaves the sun fixed but repositions the planet. Any ordinary three-dimensional rotation can be used in this way, yielding another orbit with exactly the same shape, but oriented differently.

But there is another transformation we can use to give us a new orbit without changing the total energy. If we grab hold of the planet at either of the points where it’s travelling parallel to the axis of the ellipse, and then swing it along a circular arc centred on the sun, we can reposition it without altering its distance from the sun. But rather than rotating its velocity in the same fashion (as we would do if we wanted to rotate the orbit as a whole) we leave its velocity vector unchanged: its direction, as well as its length, stays the same.

Since we haven’t changed the planet’s distance from the sun, its potential energy is unaltered, and since we haven’t changed its velocity, its kinetic energy is the same. What’s more, since the speed of a planet of a given mass when it’s moving parallel to the axis of its orbit depends only on its total energy, the planet will still be in that state with respect to its new orbit, and so the new orbit’s axis must be parallel to the axis of the original orbit.

Rotations together with these ‘Runge–Lenz transformations’ generate an SO(3) action on the space of elliptical orbits of any given energy. But what’s the most geometrically vivid description of this SO(3) action?

Someone at my talk noted that you could grab the planet at any point of its path, and move to anywhere the same distance from the Sun, while keeping its speed the same, and get a new orbit with the same energy. Are all the SO(3) transformations of this form?

I have a bunch more questions, but this one is the simplest!

The Pi Calculus: Towards Global Computing

4 April, 2019


Check out the video of Christian Williams’’s talk in the Applied Category Theory Seminar here at U. C. Riverside. It was nicely edited by Paola Fernandez and uploaded by Joe Moeller.

Abstract. Historically, code represents a sequence of instructions for a single machine. Each computer is its own world, and only interacts with others by sending and receiving data through external ports. As society becomes more interconnected, this paradigm becomes more inadequate – these virtually isolated nodes tend to form networks of great bottleneck and opacity. Communication is a fundamental and integral part of computing, and needs to be incorporated in the theory of computation.

To describe systems of interacting agents with dynamic interconnection, in 1980 Robin Milner invented the pi calculus: a formal language in which a term represents an open, evolving system of processes (or agents) which communicate over names (or channels). Because a computer is itself such a system, the pi calculus can be seen as a generalization of traditional computing languages; there is an embedding of lambda into pi – but there is an important change in focus: programming is less like controlling a machine and more like designing an ecosystem of autonomous organisms.

We review the basics of the pi calculus, and explore a variety of examples which demonstrate this new approach to programming. We will discuss some of the history of these ideas, called “process algebra”, and see exciting modern applications in blockchain and biology.

“… as we seriously address the problem of modelling mobile communicating systems we get a sense of completing a model which was previously incomplete; for we can now begin to describe what goes on outside a computer in the same terms as what goes on inside – i.e. in terms of interaction. Turning this observation inside-out, we may say that we inhabit a global computer, an informatic world which demands to be understood just as fundamentally as physicists understand the material world.” — Robin Milner

The talks slides are here.

Reading material:

• Robin Milner, The polyadic pi calculus: a tutorial.

• Robin Milner, Communicating and Mobile Systems.

• Joachim Parrow, An introduction to the pi calculus.