Equivalence Shakes Mathematics

Source: Quanta, Oct 2019

there is a growing community of mathematicians who regard the equal sign as math’s original error. They see it as a veneer that hides important complexities in the way quantities are related — complexities that could unlock solutions to an enormous number of problems. They want to reformulate mathematics in the looser language of equivalence.

“We came up with this notion of equality,” said Jonathan Campbell of Duke University. “It should have been equivalence all along.”

the growing pains that a venerable field like mathematics undergoes whenever it tries to absorb a big new idea, especially an idea that challenges the meaning of its most important concept. “There’s an appropriate level of conservativity in the mathematics community,” said Clark Barwick of the University of Edinburgh. “I just don’t think you can expect any population of mathematicians to accept any tool from anywhere very quickly without giving them convincing reasons to think about it.”

While equality is a strict relationship — either two things are equal or they’re not — equivalence comes in different forms.

When you can exactly match each element of one set with an element in the other, that’s a strong form of equivalence. But in an area of mathematics called homotopy theory, for example, two shapes (or geometric spaces) are equivalent if you can stretch or compress one into the other without cutting or tearing it.

From the perspective of homotopy theory, a flat disk and a single point in space are equivalent — you can compress the disk down to the point. Yet it’s impossible to pair points in the disk with points in the point. After all, there’s an infinite number of points in the disk, while the point is just one point.

A category is a set with extra metadata: a description of all the ways that two objects are related to one another, which includes a description of all the ways two objects are equivalent.

In the perspective of category theory, you forget about the explicit way in which any one object is described and focus instead on how an object is situated among all other objects of its type.

In these subtler notions of equivalence, the amount of information about how two objects are related increases dramatically.

Two triangles are homotopy equivalent if you can stretch or otherwise deform one into the other. Two points on the surface are homotopy equivalent if there’s a path linking one with the other. By studying homotopy paths between points on the surface, you’re really studying different ways in which the triangles represented by those points are related.

But it’s not enough to say that two points are linked by many equal paths. You need to think about equivalences between all those paths, too. So in addition to asking whether two points are equivalent, you’re now asking whether two paths that start and end at the same pair of points are equivalent — whether there’s a path between those paths. This path between paths takes the shape of a disk whose boundary is the two paths.

Lurie’s work represented a big challenge. At heart it was a provocation: Here is a better way to do math. The message was especially pointed for mathematicians who’d spent their careers developing methods that Lurie’s work transcended.

Lurie’s work was hard to swallow in other ways. The volume of material meant that mathematicians would need to invest years reading his books. That’s an almost impossible requirement for busy mathematicians in midcareer, and it’s a highly risky one for graduate students who have only a few years to produce results that will get them a job.

Lurie’s work was also highly abstract, even in comparison with the highly abstract nature of everything else in advanced mathematics. As a matter of taste, it just wasn’t for everyone. “Many people did view Lurie’s work as abstract nonsense, and many people absolutely loved it and took to it,” Campbell said. “Then there were responses in between, including just full-on not understanding it at all.”

The inaccessibility of Lurie’s books has led to an imprecision in some of the subsequent research based on them. Lurie’s books are hard to read, they’re hard to cite, and they’re hard to use to check other people’s work.

Riehl and Verity hope to move infinity category theory forward in another way as well. They’re specifying aspects of infinity category theory that work regardless of the model you’re in. This “model-independent” presentation has a plug-and-play quality that they hope will invite mathematicians into the field who might have been staying away while Higher Topos Theory was the only way in.

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