New research explains how the shapes of neurons can be classified using mathematical methods from the field of algebraic topology. Neuroscientists can now start building a formal catalogue for all the types of cells in the brain. Onto this catalogue of cells, they can systematically map the function and role in disease of each type of neuron in the brain.
The Institute for Advanced Study is deeply saddened by the passing of Vladimir Voevodsky, Professor in the School of Mathematics. Voevodsky, a truly extraordinary and original mathematician, made many contributions to the field of mathematics, earning him numerous honors and awards, including the Fields Medal. Celebrated for tackling the most difficult problems in abstract algebraic geometry, Voevodsky focused on the homotopy theory of schemes, algebraic K-theory, and interrelations between algebraic geometry, and algebraic topology. He made one of the most outstanding advances in algebraic geometry in the past few decades by developing new cohomology theories for algebraic varieties. Among the consequences of his work are the solutions of the Milnor and Bloch-Kato Conjectures. More recently he became interested in type-theoretic formalizations of mathematics and automated proof verification. He was working on new foundations of mathematics based on homotopy-theoretic semantics of Martin-Löf type theories. His new "Univalence Axiom" has had a dramatic impact in both mathematics and computer science.
Sad to hear of Dr. Voevodsky’s passing just as I was starting into my studies of algebraic geometry…
This short introduction to category theory is for readers with relatively little mathematical background. At its heart is the concept of a universal property, important throughout mathematics. After a chapter introducing the basic definitions, separate chapters present three ways of expressing universal properties: via adjoint functors, representable functors, and limits. A final chapter ties the three together. For each new categorical concept, a generous supply of examples is provided, taken from different parts of mathematics. At points where the leap in abstraction is particularly great (such as the Yoneda lemma), the reader will find careful and extensive explanations.
My friend Tom Leinster has written a great introduction to that wonderful branch of math called category theory! It’s free:
It starts with the basics and it leads up to a trio of related concepts, which are all ways of talking about universal properties.
Huh? What’s a ‘universal property’?
In category theory, we try to describe things by saying what they do, not what they’re made of. The reason is that you can often make things out of different ingredients that still do the same thing! And then, even though they will not be strictly the same, they will be isomorphic: the same in what they do.
A universal property amounts to a precise description of what an object does.
Universal properties show up in three closely connected ways in category theory, and Tom’s book explains these in detail:
through representable functors (which are how you actually hand someone a universal property),
through limits (which are ways of building a new object out of a bunch of old ones),
through adjoint functors (which give ways to ‘freely’ build an object in one category starting from an object in another).
If you want to see this vague wordy mush here transformed into precise, crystalline beauty, read Tom’s book! It’s not easy to learn this stuff – but it’s good for your brain. It literally rewires your neurons.
Here’s what he wrote, over on the category theory mailing list:
My introductory textbook “Basic Category Theory” was published by Cambridge University Press in 2014. By arrangement with them, it’s now also free online:
It’s also freely editable, under a Creative Commons licence. For instance, if you want to teach a class from it but some of the examples aren’t suitable, you can delete them or add your own. Or if you don’t like the notation (and when have two category theorists ever agreed on that?), you can easily change the Latex macros. Just go the arXiv, download, and edit to your heart’s content.
There are lots of good introductions to category theory out there. The particular features of this one are:
• It’s short.
• It doesn’t assume much.
• It sticks to the basics.