Category Theory

I’ve been interested in Category Theory for a substantial number of years, but have never dedicated the time necessary to learn it properly. But it seems to me that these are great days (salad days?) for learning at least the rudiments of the subject. There are now wealths of copious materials available on-line for free for one’s self-study and enrichment, as well as new and classic treatises on Categories and their theory.

Category Theory has been called “abstract nonsense”, but while it is very abstract, it is hardly nonsense. Like set theory, it can be used to study the foundations of mathematics. Like algebra, it can be used to study generalized structure and relationships in math. Like the assortment of tools that is computer science, it can be used to study the essence of logic and computation. And like calculus, it can be used for all sorts of applied and scientific purposes.

Like all good math, Category Theory (CT) generalizes concepts that lie at the heart of many branches of mathematics. These concepts allow the mathematician to see similarities between these different branches, and carry them over into others as well. You might think “maths” is all one thing, and it is, roughly, but like science, it has evolved into a myriad of subjects and specialities. Ontologically (or perhaps even categorically), CT is listed as a topic under algebra, and it in turn has its own distinct branches.

And like all good math, CT benefits from a judicious choice of definitions and properties, that balance generality with precision to great expressive advantage. This balance between abstraction and concreteness gives it the power and utility that it has enjoyed for the better part of seventy-five years. This makes CT rather a new-comer to mathematics, but please don’t mistake youth for lack of expertise.

If I wanted to represent CT emblematically, I might suggest the diagram above. At root, a category merely consists of a collection of objects and the pairwise morphisms (or arrows) between them. But additionally, the arrows must also obey a small set of conditions, so the objects usually have a similar nature. This nature can be quite abstract though, and one of the most familiar “concrete” categories is that of sets and the functions between them.

If arrows are the mappings between objects, then “functors” are mappings between categories, that once again have to obey some rules to maintain structure. So you can think analogically that arrows are to objects as functors are to categories and you wouldn’t be too wrong. Next, you can imagine generalizing to a higher level that there are mappings between functors, and “natural transformations” are indeed defined to be so.

There are many types of entities and characters that inhabit the theory that serve to propel the plot threads along. Some turn out more important than others, but most are essential to the overarching tale. Mathematics as storytelling? What an interesting and novel concept!

Further Reading:

Why Category Theory Matters

Rina Zazkis, Peter Liljedahl / Teaching Mathematics as Storytelling

[*6.180, *11.104]



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