A Bicategory of Decorated Cospans

8 July, 2017

My students are trying to piece together general theory of networks, inspired by many examples. A good general theory should clarify and unify these examples. What some people call network theory, I’d just call ‘applied graph invariant theory’: they come up with a way to calculate numbers from graphs, they calculate these numbers for graphs that show up in nature, and then they try to draw conclusions about this. That’s fine as far as it goes, but there’s a lot more to network theory!

There are many kinds of networks. You can usually create big networks of a given kind by sticking together smaller networks of this kind. The networks usually do something, and the behavior of the whole is usually determined by the behavior of the parts and how the parts are stuck together.

So, we should think of networks of a given kind as morphisms in a category, or more generally elements of an algebra of some operad, and define a map sending each such network to its behavior. Then we can study this map mathematically!

All these insights (and many more) are made precise in Fong’s theory of ‘decorated cospans’:

• Brendan Fong, The Algebra of Open and Interconnected Systems, Ph.D. thesis, University of Oxford, 2016. (Blog article here.)

Kenny Courser is starting to look at the next thing: how one network can turn into another. For example, a network might change over time, or we might want to simplify a complicated network somehow. If a network is morphism, a process where one network turns into another could be a ‘2-morphism’: that is, a morphism between morphisms. Just as categories have objects and morphisms, bicategories have objects, morphisms and 2-morphisms.

So, Kenny is looking at bicategories. As a first step, Kenny took Brendan’s setup and souped it up to define ‘decorated cospan bicategories’:

• Kenny Courser, Decorated cospan bicategories, to appear in Theory and Applications of Categories.

In this paper, he showed that these bicategories are often ‘symmetric monoidal’. This means that you can not only stick networks together end to end, you can also set them side by side or cross one over the other—and similarly for processes that turn one network into another! A symmetric monoidal bicategory is a somewhat fearsome structure, so Kenny used some clever machinery developed by Mike Shulman to get the job done:

• Mike Shulman, Constructing symmetric monoidal bicategories.

I would love to talk about the details, but they’re a bit technical so I think I’d better talk about something more basic. Namely: what’s a decorated cospan category and what’s a decorated cospan bicategory?

First: what’s a decorated cospan? A cospan in some category C is a diagram like this:

where the objects and morphisms are all in C. For example, if C is the category of sets, we’ve got two sets X and Y mapped to a set \Gamma.

In a ‘decorated’ cospan, the object \Gamma is equipped or, as we like to say, ‘decorated’ with extra structure. For example:

Here the set \Gamma consists of 3 points—but it’s decorated with a graph whose edges are labelled by numbers! You could use this to describe an electrical circuit made of resistors. The set X would then be the set of ‘input terminals’, and Y the set of ‘output terminals’.

In this example, and indeed in many others, there’s no serious difference between inputs and outputs. We could reflect the picture, switching the roles of X and Y, and the inputs would become outputs and vice versa. One reason for distinguishing them is that we can then attach the outputs of one circuit to the inputs of another and build a larger circuit. If we think of our circuit as a morphism from the input set X to the output set Y, this process of attaching circuits to form larger ones can be seen as composing morphisms in a category.

In other words, if we get the math set up right, we can compose a decorated cospan from X to Y and a decorated cospan from Y to Z and get a decorated cospan from X to Z. So with luck, we get a category with objects of C as objects, and decorated cospans between these guys as morphisms!

For example, we can compose this:

and this:

to get this:

What did I mean by saying ‘with luck’? Well, there’s not really any luck involved, but we need some assumptions for all this to work. Before we even get to the decorations, we need to be able to compose cospans. We can do this whenever our cospans live in a category with pushouts. In category theory, a pushout is how we glue two things together.

So, suppose our category C has pushouts. IF we then have two cospans in C, one from X to Y and one from Y to Z:

we can take a pushout:

and get a cospan from X to Z:

All this is fine and dandy, but there’s a slight catch: the pushout is only defined up to isomorphism, so we can’t expect this process of composing cospans to be associative: it will only be associative up to isomorphism.

What does that mean? What’s an isomorphism of cospans?

I’m glad you asked. A map of cospans is a diagram like this:

where the two triangles commmute. You can see two cospans in this picture; the morphism f provides the map from one to the other. If f is an isomorphism, then this is an isomorphism of cospans.

To get around this problem, we can work with a category where the morphisms aren’t cospans, but isomorphism classes of cospans. That’s what Brendan did, and it’s fine for many purposes.

But back around 1972, when Bénabou was first inventing bicategories, he noticed that you could also create a bicategory with

• objects of C as objects,
• spans in C as morphisms, and
• maps of spans in C as 2-morphisms.

Bicategories are perfectly happy for composition of 1-morphisms to be associative only up to isomorphism, so this solves the problem in a somewhat nicer way. (Taking equivalence classes of things when you don’t absolutely need to is regarded with some disdain in category theory, because it often means you’re throwing out information—and when you throw out information, you often regret it later.)

So, if you’re interested in decorated cospan categories, and you’re willing to work with bicategories, you should consider thinking about decorated cospan bicategories. And now, thanks to Kenny Courser’s work, you can!

He showed how the decorations work in the bicategorical approach: for example, he proved that whenever C has finite colimits and

F : (C,+) \to (\mathrm{Set}, \times)

is a lax symmetric monoidal functor, you get a symmetric monoidal bicategory where a morphism is a cospan in C:

with the object \Gamma decorated by an element of F(\Gamma).

Proving this took some virtuosic work in category theory. The key turns out to be this glorious diagram:

For the explanation, check out Proposition 4.1 in his paper.

I’ll talk more about applications of cospan bicategories when I blog about some other papers Kenny Courser and Daniel Cicala are writing.

The Theory of Devices

20 June, 2017

I’m visiting the University of Genoa and talking to two category theorists: Marco Grandis and Giuseppe Rosolini. Grandis works on algebraic topology and higher categories, while Rosolini works on the categorical semantics of programming languages.

Yesterday, Marco Grandis showed me a fascinating paper by his thesis advisor:

• Gabriele Darbo, Aspetti algebrico-categoriali della teoria dei dispotivi, Symposia Mathematica IV (1970), Istituto Nazionale di Alta Matematica, 303–336.

It’s closely connected to Brendan Fong’s thesis, but also different—and, of course, much older. According to Grandis, Darbo was the first person to work on category theory in Italy. He’s better known for other things, like ‘Darbo’s fixed point theorem’, but this piece of work is elegant, and, it seems to me, strangely ahead of its time.

The paper’s title translates as ‘Algebraic-categorical aspects of the theory of devices’, and its main concept is that of a ‘universe of devices’: a collection of devices of some kind that can be hooked up using wires to form more devices of this kind. Nowadays we might study this concept using operads—but operads didn’t exist in 1970, and Darbo did quite fine without them.

The key is the category \mathrm{FinCorel}, which has finite sets as objects and ‘corelations’ as morphisms. I explained corelations here:

Corelations in network theory, 2 February 2016.

Briefly, a corelation from a finite set X to a finite set Y is a partition of the disjoint union of X and Y. We can get such a partition from a bunch of wires connecting points of X and Y. The idea is that two points lie in the same part of the partition iff they’re connected, directly or indirectly, by a path of wires. So, if we have some wires like this:

they determine a corelation like this:

There’s an obvious way to compose corelations, giving a category \mathrm{FinCorel}.

Gabriele Darbo doesn’t call them ‘corelations’: he calls them ‘trasduttori’. A literal translation might be ‘transducers’. But he’s definitely talking about corelations, and like Fong he thinks they are basic for studying ways to connect systems.

Darbo wants a ‘universe of devices’ to assign to each finite set X a set D(X) of devices having X as their set of ‘terminals’. Given a device in D(X) and a corelation f \colon X \to Y, thought of as a bunch of wires, he wants to be able to attach these wires to the terminals in X and get a new device with Y as its set of terminals. Thus he wants a map D(f): D(X) \to D(Y). If you draw some pictures, you’ll see this should give a functor

D : \mathrm{FinCorel} \to \mathrm{Set}

Moreover, if we have device with a set X of terminals and a device with a set Y of terminals, we should be able to set them side by side and get a device whose set of terminals form the set X + Y, meaning the disjoint union of X and Y. So, Darbo wants to have maps

\delta_{X,Y} : D(X) \times D(Y) \to D(X + Y)

If you draw some more pictures you can convince yourself that \delta should be a lax symmetric monoidal functor… if you’re one of the lucky few who knows what that means. If you’re not, you can look it up in many places, such as Section 1.2 here:

• Brendan Fong, The Algebra of Open and Interconnected Systems, Ph.D. thesis, University of Oxford, 2016. (Blog article here.)

Darbo does not mention lax symmetric monoidal functors, perhaps because such concepts were first introduced by Mac Lane only in 1968. But as far as I can tell, Darbo’s definition is almost equivalent to this:

Definition. A universe of devices is a lax symmetric monoidal functor D \colon \mathrm{FinCorel} \to \mathrm{Set}.

One difference is that Darbo wants there to be exactly one device with no terminals. Thus, he assumes D(\emptyset) is a one-element set, say 1, while the definition above would only demand the existence of a map \delta \colon 1 \to D(\emptyset) obeying a couple of axioms. That gives a particular ‘favorite’ device with no terminals. I believe we get Darbo’s definition from the above one if we further assume \delta is the identity map. This makes sense if we take the attitude that ‘a device is determined by its observable behavior’, but not otherwise. This attitude is called ‘black-boxing’.

Darbo does various things in his paper, but the most exciting to me is his example connected to linear electrical circuits. He defines, for any pair of objects V and I in an abelian category C, a particular universe of devices. He calls this the universe of linear devices having V as the object of potentials and I as the object of currents.

If you don’t like abelian categories, think of C as the category of finite-dimensional real vector spaces, and let V = I = \mathbb{R}. Electric potential and electric current are described by real numbers so this makes sense.

The basic idea will be familiar to Fong fans. In an electrical circuit made of purely conductive wires, when two wires merge into one we add the currents to get the current on the wire going out. When one wire splits into two we duplicate the potential to get the potentials on the wires going out. Working this out further, any corelation f : X \to Y between finite set determines two linear relations, one

f_* : I^X \rightharpoonup I^Y

relating the currents on the wires coming in to the currents on the wires going out, and one

f^* : V^Y \rightharpoonup V^X

relating the potentials on the wires going out to the potentials on the wires coming in. Here I^X is the direct sum of X copies of I, and so on; the funky arrow indicates that we have a linear relation rather than a linear map. Note that f_* goes forward while f^* goes backward; this is mainly just conventional, since you can turn linear relations around, but we’ll see it’s sort of nice.

If we let \mathrm{Rel}(A,B) be the set of linear relations between two objects A, B \in C, we can use the above technology to get a universe of devices where

D(X) = \mathrm{Rel}(V^X, I^X)

In other words, a device of this kind is simply a linear relation between the potentials and currents at its terminals!

How does D get to be a functor D : \mathrm{FinCorel} \to \mathrm{FinSet}? That’s pretty easy. We’ve defined it on objects (that is, finite sets) by the above formula. So, suppose we have a morphism (that is, a corelation) f \colon X \to Y. How do we define D(f) : D(X) \to D(Y)?

To answer this question, we need a function

D(f) : \mathrm{Rel}(V^X, I^X) \to \mathrm{Rel}(V^Y, I^Y)

Luckily, we’ve got linear relations

f_* : I^X \rightharpoonup I^Y


f^* : V^Y \rightharpoonup V^X

So, given any linear relation R \in \mathrm{Rel}(V^X, I^X), we just define

D(f)(R) = f_* \circ R \circ f^*


People who have read Fong’s thesis, or my paper with Blake Pollard on reaction networks:

• John Baez and Blake Pollard, A compositional framework for reaction networks.

will find many of Darbo’s ideas eerily similar. In particular, the formula

D(f)(R) = f_* \circ R \circ f^*

appears in Lemma 16 of my paper with Blake, where we are defining a category of open dynamical systems. We prove that D is a lax symmetric monoidal functor, which is just what Darbo proved—though in a different context, since our R is not linear like his, and for a different purpose, since he’s trying to show D is a ‘universe of devices’, while we’re trying to construct the category of open dynamical systems as a ‘decorated cospan category’.

In short: if this work of Darbo had become more widely known, the development of network theory could have been sped up by three decades! But there was less interest in a general theory of networks at the time, lax monoidal functors were brand new, operads unknown… and, sadly, few mathematicians read Italian.

Darbo has other papers, and so do his students. We should read them and learn from them! Here are a few open-access ones:

• Franco Parodi, Costruzione di un universo di dispositivi non lineari su una coppia di gruppi abeliani , Rendiconti del Seminario Matematico della Università di Padova 58 (1977), 45–54.

• Franco Parodi, Categoria degli universi di dispositivi e categoria delle T-algebre, Rendiconti del Seminario Matematico della Università di Padova 62 (1980), 1–15.

• Stefano Testa, Su un universo di dispositivi monotoni, Rendiconti del Seminario Matematico della Università di Padova 65 (1981), 53–57.

At some point I will scan in G. Darbo’s paper and make it available here.

Information Processing in Chemical Networks (Part 1)

4 January, 2017

There’s a workshop this summer:

Dynamics, Thermodynamics and Information Processing in Chemical Networks, 13-16 June 2017, Complex Systems and Statistical Mechanics Group, University of Luxembourg. Organized by Massimiliano Esposito and Matteo Polettini.

They write, “The idea of the workshop is to bring in contact a small number of high-profile research groups working at the frontier between physics and biochemistry, with particular emphasis on the role of Chemical Networks.”

The speakers may include John Baez, Sophie de Buyl, Massimiliano Esposito, Arren Bar-Even, Christoff Flamm, Ronan Fleming, Christian Gaspard, Daniel Merkle, Philippe Nge, Thomas Ouldridge, Luca Peliti, Matteo Polettini, Hong Qian, Stefan Schuster, Alexander Skupin, Pieter Rein ten Wolde. I believe attendance is by invitation only, so I’ll endeavor to make some of the ideas presented available here at this blog.

Some of the people involved

I’m looking forward to this, in part because there will be a mix of speakers I’ve met, speakers I know but haven’t met, and speakers I don’t know yet. I feel like reminiscing a bit, and I hope you’ll forgive me these reminiscences, since if you try the links you’ll get an introduction to the interface between computation and chemical reaction networks.

In part 25 of the network theory series here, I imagined an arbitrary chemical reaction network and said:

We could try to use these reactions to build a ‘chemical computer’. But how powerful can such a computer be? I don’t know the answer.

Luca Cardelli answered my question in part 26. This was just my first introduction to the wonderful world of chemical computing. Erik Winfree has a DNA and Natural Algorithms Group at Caltech, practically next door to Riverside, and the people there do a lot of great work on this subject. David Soloveichik, now at U. T. Austin, is an alumnus of this group.

In 2014 I met all three of these folks, and many other cool people working on these theme, at a workshop I tried to summarize here:

Programming with chemical reaction networks, Azimuth, 23 March 2014.

The computational power of chemical reaction networks, 10 June 2014.

Chemical reaction network talks, 26 June 2014.

I met Matteo Polettini about a year later, at a really big workshop on chemical reaction networks run by Elisenda Feliu and Carsten Wiuf:

Trends in reaction network theory (part 1), Azimuth, 27 January 2015.

Trends in reaction network theory (part 2), Azimuth, 1 July 2015.

Polettini has his own blog, very much worth visiting. For example, you can see his view of the same workshop here:

• Matteo Polettini, Mathematical trends in reaction network theory: part 1 and part 2, Out of Equilibrium, 1 July 2015.

Finally, I met Massimiliano Esposito and Christoph Flamm recently at the Santa Fe Institute, at a workshop summarized here:

Information processing and biology, Azimuth, 7 November 2016.

So, I’ve gradually become educated in this area, and I hope that by June I’ll be ready to say something interesting about the semantics of chemical reaction networks. Blake Pollard and I are writing a paper about this now.


14 December, 2016

One of my goals is to turn category theory, and even higher category theory, into a practical tool for science. For this we need good scientific ideas—but we also need good software.

My friend Jamie Vicary has been developing some of this software, together with Aleks Kissinger and Krzysztof Bar and others. Jamie demonstrated it at the Simons Institute workshop on compositionality. You can watch his demonstration here:

But since Globular runs on a web browser, you can also try it out yourself here:


You can see his talk slides:

• Jamie Vicary, Data structures for quasistrict higher categories. (Talk slides here.)

Abstract. Higher category theory is one of the most general approaches to compositionality, with broad and striking applications across computer science, mathematics and physics. We present a new, simple way to define higher categories, in which many important compositional properties emerge as theorems, rather than axioms. Our approach is amenable to computer implementation, and we present a new proof assistant we have developed, with a powerful graphical calculus. In particular, we will outline a substantial new proof we have developed in our setting.

And in December 2015, he wrote an article about this software on the n-Category Café. It’s been improved since then, but it can’t hurt to read what he wrote—so I append it here!

Globular: the basic idea

When you’re trying to prove something in a monoidal category, or a higher category, string diagrams are a really useful technique, especially when you’re trying to get an intuition for what you’re doing. But when it comes to writing up your results, the problems start to mount. For a complex proof, it’s hard to be sure your result is correct—a slip of the pen could lead to a false proof, and an error that’s hard to find. And writing up your results can be a huge time-sink, requiring weeks or months using a graphics package, all just for some nice pictures that tell you little about the correctness of the proof, and become useless if you decide to change your approach. Computers should be able help with all these things, in the way that proof assistants like Coq and Agda are allowing us to work with traditional syntactic proofs in a more sophisticated way.

The purpose of this post is to introduce Globular, a new proof assistant for working with higher-categorical proofs using string diagrams. It’s available at http://globular.science, with documentation on the nab. It’s web-based, so everything happens right in your browser: build formal proofs, visualize and step through them; keep your proofs private, share them with collaborators, or make them publicly available.

Before we get into the technical details, here’s a screenshot of Globular in action:

Screenshot of Globular

The main part of the screen shows a diagram, which in this case is 2-dimensional. It represents a composite 2-cell in a finitely-presented 2-category, with the blue and red regions representing objects, the lines representing 1-cells, and the vertices representing 2-cells. In fact, this 2d diagram is just an intermediate state of a 3d proof, through which we’re navigating with the ‘Slice’ controls in the top-right. The proof itself has been built up by composing the generators listed in the signature, down the left-hand side of the screen. (If you want to take a look at this proof yourself, you can go straight there; in the top-right, set ‘Project’ to 0, then increment the second ‘Slice’ counter to scroll through the proof.)

Globular has been developed so far in the Quantum Group in
the Oxford Computer Science department, by Krzysztof
, Katherine Casey, Aleks Kissinger, Jamie Vicary and Caspar Wylie. We haven’t quite got around to it yet, but Globular will be open-source, and we’re really keen for people to get involved and help build the software—there’s a huge amount to do! If you want to help out, get in touch.

Mathematical foundations

Globular is based on the theory of finitely-presented semistrict n-categories; at the moment, it works up to the level of 3-categories, with an extension to 4-categories actively in development. (You can build cells of any dimension, but from 4-cells and up, some structures are missing.)

Definitions of n-category vary in how strict they are; a definition is semistrict when it’s as strict as possible, while still having the property that every weak n-category satisfies it, up to equivalence. Definitions of semistrict n-category are not unique: in dimension 3, Gray categories put all the weak structure in the interchangers, while Simpson snucategories put it all in the unitors. Globular implements the axioms of a Gray category, because this is the most appropriate for the graphical calculus: the interchangers can be seen graphically, as changes in height of the components of the diagram. By the theory of k-tuply monoidal n-categories, this also lets you build proofs in a monoidal category, or a braided monoidal category, or a monoidal 2-category.

The only things that Globular understands are k-cells, for some value of k. So if you want to build an n-category where an equation f=g holds between n-cells, you have to do it by adding (n+1)-cells a:f \to g and b:g \to f. If you then build some composite C(f) involving f, you can apply the cell a to obtain C(g), and we interpret this as the equation C(f) = C(g). In a slogan, this is equality via rewriting. This is consistent with the basic premise of homotopy type theory: treat your proofs as first-order structures, which can in turn be reasoned about themselves.

Globular can also handle invertibility in a nice way. For a cell F:A \to B to be invertible, indicated by ticking a box in the signature, means that there also exists an invertible cell F^{-1}: B \to A, and invertible cells \text{id}_A \to F . F^{-1} and \text{id}_B \to F^{-1} . F. This is a coinductive definition (see Mike Shulman’s nice post on this topic), since we’re defining the notion of invertibility in terms of itself in a higher dimension. This sort of a definition is great for proof assistants to work with, as it allows a lot of structure to be generated from a single compact definition.

How it works

For a lot more details, take a look at the nLab page. Everything that happens in Globular involves in interaction between the signature on the left-hand side, and the diagram in the main part of the screen. The signature stores the ‘library’ of cells you have available, and the diagram is a particular composite of cells that you have constructed.

To construct a new diagram, clear whatever is currently displayed by clicking the ‘Clear’ button on the right, or pressing ‘c’. Then start by clicking the icon of a n-cell in your signature, which will make a diagram consisting just of that cell. Clicking on the icons of other k-generators for 0 < k \leq n will display a list of ways the cell can be attached, and when you choose one of these ways, the attachment will be performed, growing your n-diagram. (If you’re starting with a blank workspace you will only have a single 0-cell available, so you won’t be able to do this yet!) Clicking an (n+1)-cell G displays a list of ways that your n-diagram D can be rewritten, by identifying the source of G as a subdiagram of D. Selecting one of these ways will implement the rewrite, by ‘cutting out’ the chosen subdiagram of D, and replacing it with the target of G.

Another way to modify the diagram is to click directly on it. Clicking near the edge of the diagram performs an attachment, while clicking in the interior of the diagram performs a rewrite. If more than one attachment or rewrite is consistent with your click, a little menu will pop up for you to choose what you want to do. When you move your mouse pointer over the diagram, a little label pops up to show you what your cursor is hovering over, which is helpful when choosing where to click.

You can also click-and-drag on the diagram. This will attach or rewrite with an interchanger, or naturality for an interchanger, or invertibility for an interchanger, depending on where you have clicked and the direction of the drag. Clicking and dragging is designed to work as if you were really ‘touching’ the strings. So if you want to braid one strand over another, click the strand to ‘grab’ it, and ‘pull’ it to one side. If you want to pull a vertex through a braiding, click the vertex to ‘grab’ it, and ‘pull’ it up or down through its adjacent braiding. Of course, Globular will only carry out the command if the move you are attempting to make is actually valid in that location.

Example theorems

Here are four worked examples of nontrivial proofs in Globular:

Frobenius implies associative: http://globular.science/1512.004. In a monoidal category, if multiplication and comultiplication morphisms are unital, counital and Frobenius, then they are associative and coassociative.

Strengthening an equivalence: http://globular.science/1512.007. In a 2-category, an equivalence gives rise to an adjoint equivalence, satisfying the snake equations.

Swallowtail comes for free: http://globular.science/1512.006. In a monoidal 2-category, a weakly-dual pair of objects gives rise to a strongly-dual pair, satisfying the swallowtail equations.

Pentagon and triangle implies \lambda_I = \rho_I: http://globular.science/1512.002. In a monoidal 2-category, if a pseudomonoid object satisfies pentagon and triangle equations, then it satisfies \lambda_I = \rho_I.

We’ll focus on the second example project “Strengthening an equivalence” listed above, and see how it was constructed. This project investigates the factthat every equivalence in a 2-category gives rise to an adjoint equivalence. To start, we therefore need the basic data that exhibits an equivalence in a 2-category: two 0-cells A and B, and an invertible 1-cell F:A \to B, by the weak definition of ‘invertible’ discussed above. This gives us the following signature:

The 2-cells that witness invertibility of F look like cups and caps in the graphical calculus, but they won’t satisfy the snake equations that define an adjoint equivalence. The idea of this proof is to define a new cap, built out of the invertible structure of F, which does satisfy the snake equations with the existing cup.

By starting with a diagram consisting of F alone, pressing ‘i’ to take the identity diagram, and clicking-and-dragging, we build the following 2-diagram, out of the invertible structure associated to F:

This is our candidate for our redefined cup. Its source is the identity on A, and its target is F composed with F^{-1}. It looks a bit like the curved end of a hockey stick.

To store it for later use, we now click the ‘Theorem’ button. Writing D for the 2-diagram we have constructed, this does two things. First, it creates a 2-cell generator that we call “New Cup”, whose source is s(D), and whose target is t(D). This is the redefined cup that we can use in future expressions. Second, it creates an invertible 3-cell generator that we call “New Cup Definition”, with source given by “New Cup”, and with target given by our hockey-stick diagram D. This says what “New Cup” means in terms of our original structure. This adds the following cells to our signature:

Because “New Cup Definition” is a 3-cell, by default we see two little icons: one for its source, and one for its target. See how its source is a little picture of “New Cup”, and its target is a little picture of the hockey stick, just as we defined it.

We’re now ready to prove one of the snake equations. We start by building the snake composite, using “New Cup” for the cup, and the invertible structure of F for the cap:

Now have to prove that this equals the identity. Since equality is implemented by rewriting, we must construct a 3-diagram whose source is this snake composite, and whose target is the identity on F. To start, we click the ‘Identity’ button to convert our diagram into an identity 3-diagram. The only apparent effect this has is to add a number scroller to the ‘Slice’ area of the controls in the top-right. At the moment we can set this to ‘0’ and ‘1’, representing the source and target of our identity 3-diagram respectively. We set it to ‘1’, because we want to compose things to the target.

We now build up our proof. First, we click on the pink vertex that represents “New Cup”. This will attach our 3-cell “New Cup Definition”, replacing “New Cup” with our hockey-stick picture. By clicking-and-dragging on the diagram, we obtain the following sequence
of pictures:



Pictures 3 to 10 were created by attaching interchangers, and pictures 11 to 15 were created by attaching higher structure generated by the invertibility of F. In all cases, this structure was attached just by clicking-and-dragging on the appropriate vertices of the diagram. We’ve turned the snake into the identity, so we’ve finished our proof, which required 14 3-cells. By using the ‘Slice’ control in the top-right, we can navigate through the 15 slices that make up our proof, and review what we just did. Even better, turning the ‘Project’ control to the value ‘1’ tells Globular to project out the lowest dimension. This means that our entire 3-diagram proof can be viewed as a single 2-dimensional diagram, as follows:

This is just like the Morse singularity graphics used by topologists to study the structure of higher-dimensional manifolds. In this picture, the vertices are 3-cells, the lines are 2-cells, and the regions are 1-cells (in fact, every region is the 1-cell F.) By moving your mouse pointer over the different parts of the diagram, you can see what the different components are. Interchangers are represented in this projection by braidings.

Now we can do something cool: we can modify our proof, by clicking-and-dragging on the Morse projection. For example, just to the right of centre, there is a crossing, out of which emerge two long vertical lines that travel up a long way before annihilating with one another. Our proof would be much simpler if these two lines just annihilated with each other right after the interchanger. So, we click the vertex at the top of the lines, and drag it down repeatedly, until it gets to where we want it:

We’ve simplified our proof. By clicking-and-dragging some more, you can change the proof in lots of different ways, although you probably won’t get it much simpler than this. Putting the ‘Project’ control back to ‘0’, and navigating through the stages of the proof with the ‘Slice’ control as we were doing before, we can see that our proof has indeed been modified.

This project has been in development for about 18 months, so it feels great to finally launch. We hope the whole community will get clicking-and-dragging, and let us know how easy it is to use, and what other features would be useful. There are certain to still be bugs, so let us know about them too, and we’ll get right on them.

Modelling Interconnected Systems with Decorated Corelations

9 December, 2016

Here at the Simons Institute workshop on compositionality, my talk on network theory explained how to use ‘decorated cospans’ as a general model of open systems. These were invented by Brendan Fong, and are nicely explained in his thesis:

• Brendan Fong, The Algebra of Open and Interconnected Systems. (Blog article here.)

But he went further: to understand the externally observable behavior of an open system we often want to simplify a decorated cospan and get another sort of structure, which he calls a ‘decorated corelation’.

In this talk, Brendan explained decorated corelations and what they’re good for:

• Brendan Fong, Modelling interconnected systems with decorated corelations. (Talk slides here.)

Abstract. Hypergraph categories are monoidal categories in which every object is equipped with a special commutative Frobenius monoid. Morphisms in a hypergraph category can hence be represented by string diagrams in which strings can branch and split: diagrams that are reminiscent of electrical circuit diagrams. As such they provide a framework for formalising the syntax and semantics of circuit-type diagrammatic languages. In this talk I will introduce decorated corelations as a tool for building hypergraph categories and hypergraph functors, drawing examples from linear algebra and dynamical systems.

Compositionality in Network Theory

29 November, 2016

I gave a talk at the workshop on compositionality at the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing next week. I spoke about some new work with Blake Pollard. You can see the slides here:

• John Baez, Compositionality in network theory, 6 December 2016.

and a video here:

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. In principle all these different diagrams fit into a common framework: the mathematics of symmetric monoidal categories. This has been known for some time. However, the details are more challenging, and ultimately more rewarding, than this basic insight. Two complementary approaches are presentations of symmetric monoidal categories using generators and relations (which are more algebraic in flavor) and decorated cospan categories (which are more geometrical). In this talk we focus on the latter.

This talk assumes considerable familiarity with category theory. For a much gentler talk on the same theme, see:

Monoidal categories of networks.


Compositional Frameworks for Open Systems

27 November, 2016


Here are the slides of Blake Pollard’s talk at the Santa Fe Institute workshop on Statistical Physics, Information Processing and Biology:

• Blake Pollard, Compositional frameworks for open systems, 17 November 2016.

He gave a really nice introduction to how we can use categories to study open systems, with his main example being ‘open Markov processes’, where probability can flow in and out of the set of states. People liked it a lot!