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In his wonderful article “On proof and progress in mathematics“, Bill Thurston describes (among many other topics) how one’s understanding of given concept in mathematics (such as that of the derivative) can be vastly enriched by viewing it simultaneously from many subtly different perspectives; in the case of the derivative, he gives seven standard such perspectives (infinitesimal, symbolic, logical, geometric, rate, approximation, microscopic) and then mentions a much later perspective in the sequence (as describing a flat connection for a graph).

One can of course do something similar for many other fundamental notions in mathematics. For instance, the notion of a group {G} can be thought of in a number of (closely related) ways, such as the following:

  • (0) Motivating examples: A group is an abstraction of the operations of addition/subtraction or multiplication/division in arithmetic or linear algebra, or of composition/inversion of transformations.
  • (1) Universal algebraic: A group is a set {G} with an identity element {e}, a unary inverse operation {\cdot^{-1}: G \rightarrow G}, and a binary multiplication operation {\cdot: G \times G \rightarrow G} obeying the relations (or axioms) {e \cdot x = x \cdot e = x}, {x \cdot x^{-1} = x^{-1} \cdot x = e}, {(x \cdot y) \cdot z = x \cdot (y \cdot z)} for all {x,y,z \in G}.
  • (2) Symmetric: A group is all the ways in which one can transform a space {V} to itself while preserving some object or structure {O} on this space.
  • (3) Representation theoretic: A group is identifiable with a collection of transformations on a space {V} which is closed under composition and inverse, and contains the identity transformation.
  • (4) Presentation theoretic: A group can be generated by a collection of generators subject to some number of relations.
  • (5) Topological: A group is the fundamental group {\pi_1(X)} of a connected topological space {X}.
  • (6) Dynamic: A group represents the passage of time (or of some other variable(s) of motion or action) on a (reversible) dynamical system.
  • (7) Category theoretic: A group is a category with one object, in which all morphisms have inverses.
  • (8) Quantum: A group is the classical limit {q \rightarrow 0} of a quantum group.
  • etc.

One can view a large part of group theory (and related subjects, such as representation theory) as exploring the interconnections between various of these perspectives. As one’s understanding of the subject matures, many of these formerly distinct perspectives slowly merge into a single unified perspective.

From a recent talk by Ezra Getzler, I learned a more sophisticated perspective on a group, somewhat analogous to Thurston’s example of a sophisticated perspective on a derivative (and coincidentally, flat connections play a central role in both):

  • (37) Sheaf theoretic: A group is identifiable with a (set-valued) sheaf on the category of simplicial complexes such that the morphisms associated to collapses of {d}-simplices are bijective for {d > 1} (and merely surjective for {d \leq 1}).

This interpretation of the group concept is apparently due to Grothendieck, though it is motivated also by homotopy theory. One of the key advantages of this interpretation is that it generalises easily to the notion of an {n}-group (simply by replacing {1} with {n} in (37)), whereas the other interpretations listed earlier require a certain amount of subtlety in order to generalise correctly (in particular, they usually themselves require higher-order notions, such as {n}-categories).

The connection of (37) with any of the other perspectives of a group is elementary, but not immediately obvious; I enjoyed working out exactly what the connection was, and thought it might be of interest to some readers here, so I reproduce it below the fold.

[Note: my reconstruction of Grothendieck’s perspective, and of the appropriate terminology, is likely to be somewhat inaccurate in places: corrections are of course very welcome.]

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