Category Theory: Moving Up, Out

I remember my very first encounter with Category Theory.

I was in my fourth semester (a spring semester) as a master’s student: I had passed my two mandatory abstract algebra classes my first two semesters there and had passed my comprehensive exams during the Fall (my third semester). As was custom, then, I spent my third and fourth semesters taking random “advanced topics” courses aimed at potential doctoral students, and one of the sequences I took was the algebra sequence.

My first semester doctoral-level (or 7000-level as was colloquial there) algebra class was over the classification of finite simple groups and was by far the most difficult class I’d ever taken at the time. Apparently, being a student who doesn’t remotely have the sufficient background and being in a class run by a professor who has unimaginably-greater background – who teaches as if the audience consists of peers – makes for a difficult time. I squeaked out an A.

In the second semester of 7000-algebra, however, things were far less directed. Long story short, it was a potpurri of material, some from algebraic topology, some from homological algebra, and some – about 1/3 of the course, I’d say – from category theory. That was my very first exposure to an area I didn’t otherwise know existed and I remember thinking, This is the most abstract thing that’s ever been devised, and also, There’s no way this will ever be far-reaching outside the realm of mathematics.

I’ve since realized that the first assertion isn’t really true – unsurprisingly since my exposure to other areas has increased drastically since leaving there – but apparently, the second one isn’t either. To be more precise, I stumbled upon this article online which describes a number of non-math areas that have been benefiting – and will continue to benefit – from the use of category theoretic ideas.

It’s really quite amazing to see, but in and of itself is unsurprising given the fact that category theory itself was devised to provide unity among the wide variety of subdisciplines of mathematics. As a pure mathematician, I always tried to find a balance between being interested in too broad a range of topics and being too narrow with my scope; the spread of category theory invites us all to analyze that aspect of ourselves. To borrow a quote from David Spivak’s exposition (available on the arXiv),:

It is often useful to focus ones study by viewing an individual thing, or a group of things, as though it exists in isolation. However, the ability to rigorously change our point of view, seeing our object of study in a different context, often yields unexpected insights. Moreover this ability to change perspective is indispensable for effectively communicating with and learning from others. It is the relationships between things, rather than the things in and by themselves, that are responsible for generating the rich variety of phenomena we observe in the physical, informational, and mathematical worlds.

Here’s to you, category theory!

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