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Functorial quantum field theory


Functorial quantum field theory, one of the two approaches of axiomatizing quantum field theory. The other is AQFT. FQFT formalizes the Schrödinger picture of quantum mechanics, while AQFT formalizes the Heisenberg picture.



Much work in quantum field theory is based on arguments using the path integral. While in the physics literature this is usually not a well defined object, it is generally assumed to satisfy a handful of properties, notably the sewing laws. These say, roughly, that the path integral over a domain Σ\Sigma which decomposes into subdomains Σ 1\Sigma_1 and Σ 2\Sigma_2 is the same as the path integral over Σ 1\Sigma_1 composed with that over Σ 2\Sigma_2.

Accordingly it is the S-matrix that is manifestly incarnated in the Atiyah-Segal picture of functorial QFT:

Here a quantum field theory is given by a functor

Z:Bord d SVect Z \colon Bord_d^S \longrightarrow Vect

from a suitable category of cobordisms to a suitable category of vector spaces.

  • To a codimension-1 slice M d1M_{d-1} of space this assigns a vector space Z(M d1)Z(M_{d-1}) – the (Hilbert) space of quantum states over M d1M_{d-1};

  • to a spacetime/worldvolume manifold MM with boundaries M\partial M one assigns the quantum propagator which is the linear map Z(M):Z( inM)Z( outM)Z(M) : Z(\partial_{in} M) \to Z(\partial_{out} M) that takes incoming states to outgoing states via propagation along the spacetime/worldvolume MM. This Z(M)Z(M) is alternatively known as the the scattering amplitude or S-matrix for propagation from inM\partial_{in}M to outM\partial_{out}M along a process of shape MM.

Now for genuine topological field theories all spaces of quantum states are finite dimensional and hence we can equivalently consider the dual vector space (using that finite dimensional vector spaces form a compact closed category). Doing so the propagator map

Z(M):Z( inM)Z( outM) Z(M) : Z(\partial_{in}M) \to Z(\partial_{out}M)

equivalently becomes a linear map of the form

Z( outM)Z( inM) *=Z(M). \mathbb{C} \to Z(\partial_{out}M) \otimes Z(\partial_{in}M)^\ast = Z(\partial M) \,.

Notice that such a linear map from the canonical 1-dimensional complex vector space \mathbb{C} to some other vector space is equivalently just a choice of element in that vector space. It is in this sense that Z(M)Z(M) is equivalently a vector in Z( outM)Z( inM) *=Z(M)Z(\partial_{out}M) \otimes Z(\partial_{in}M)^\ast = Z(\partial M).

In this form in physics the propagator is usually called the correlator or n-point function .

Segal’s axioms for FQFT (CFT in his case) were originally explicitly about the propagators/S-matrices, while Atiyah formulated it in terms of the correlators this way. Both perspectives go over into each other under duality as above.

Notice that this kind of discussion is not restricted to topological field theory. For instance already plain quantum mechanics is usefully formulated this way, that’s the point of finite quantum mechanics in terms of dagger-compact categories.

Formalization of sewing and locality in terms of functoriality

It was in

  • Michael Atiyah, Topological quantum field theory, Publications Mathématiques de l’IHÉS, 68 (1988), p. 175-186

that it was realized that

  • this means that this property can be taken as the defining property of the path integral, thereby circumventing the problem of constructing it as an actual integral;

  • this property can be conveniently axiomatized by saying that the path integral is a functor from a suitable category whose morphisms are cobordisms to a category of vector spaces.

(Strictly speaking, Atiyah’s original article mentions this functor slightly indirectly only.)

All this was originally formalized in the context of topological quantum field theory only. This is the easiest case that already exhibits all the functoriality that is implied by “FQFT” but by far not the only case (see below).

A pedagogical exposition of how the physicist’s way of thinking about the path integral leads to its definition as a functor is given in

  • Kevin Walker, TQFTs (pdf)

A pedagogical exposition of the notion of quantum field theory as a functor on cobordisms is in

  • John Baez, Quantum quandaries: a Category-Theoretic perspective (arXiv)

and a review of much of the existing material in the literature is in

  • Bruce H. Bartlett, Categorical Aspects of Topological Quantum Field Theories (arXiv).

The influential work by Moore and Segal on open-closed 2d TFTs is available as

The same topic is studied by Lazariou:

  • C. I. Lazariou?, On the structure of open-closed topological field theory in two dimensions

Non-topological FQFTs (especially conformal)

This mostly concentrates on topological quantum field theories, those where the path integral depends only on the diffeomorphism class of the domain it is evaluated on. This is the simplest and by far best understood case. But the idea of functorial FQFT is not restricted to this case.

This was realized in

  • Graeme Segal, The definition of conformal field theory, in: Topology, Geometry and quantum field theory, London. Math. Soc. LNS 308, edited by U. Tillmann, Cambridge Univ. Press 2004, 247-343

There the notion of 2-dimensional conformal field theory is axiomatized as a functor on a category of 2-dimensional cobordisms with conformal structure.

(Apparently a similar definition has been given by Kontsevich, but never published.) The details of the category of conformal cobordisms can get a bit technical and slight variations of Segal’s original definition may be necessary. The work by Huang and Kong can be regarded as a further refinement and maybe completion of Segal’s program

  • Yi-Zhi Huang, Geometric interpretation of vertex operator algebras, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, Vol 88. (1991) pp. 9964-9968

  • Liang Kong, Open-closed field algebras Commun. Math. Physics. 280, 207-261 (2008) (arXiv).

A very concrete construction of functorial CFTs (for the special case of rational CFTs) is provided by the FFRS-formalism.

Extended (multi-tiered) FQFT

But one notices that the formalization of quantum field theory as a functor on cobordisms encodes only a small aspect of the full sewing law imagined to be satisfied by the path integral: In a 1-category of nn-dimensional cobordisms these are glued along (n1)(n-1)-dimensional boundaries. One could imagine more generally a formalization where a given cobordism is allowed to be chopped into arbitrary parts of arbitrary co-dimension such that the path integral can still consistently be evaluated on each of these parts.

This leads to the notion of extended quantum field theory, which is taken to be an \infty-functor on an infinity category of extended cobordisms. Early ideas about a formalization of this approach were given in

  • John Baez and Jim Dolan, Higher-dimensional algebra and Topological Quantum Field Theory (arXiv) .

Making this precise involves giving a precise definition of an \infty-category of cobordisms. Several approaches exist, such as

  • Eugenia Cheng and Nick Gurski, Towards an nn-category of cobordisms, Theory and Applications of Categories, Vol. 18, 2007, No. 10, pp 274-302. (tac)


  • Marco Grandis, Collared cospans, cohomotopy and TQFT (Cospans in Algebraic Topology, II), Dip. Mat. Univ. Genova, Preprint 555 (2007). (pdf)

There is a long-term project by Stephan Stolz and Peter Teichner which originally tried to refine Segal’s 1-functorial formulation of conformal field theory to a 2-functorial extended FQFT, as indicated in

  • Stephan Stolz and Peter Teichner, What is an elliptic object? (pdf).

More recently, Mike Hopkins and Jacob Lurie claimed (Hopkins-Lurie on Baez-Dolan) to have found a complete coherent formalization of topological extended FQFT in the context of (infinity,n)-categories using an (infinity,n)-category of cobordisms. This is described in

An explicit account of this for the 2-dimensional case is presented in

  • Chris Schommer-Pries, The Classification of Two-Dimensional Extended Topological Field Theories, PhD thesis, Berkeley, 2009 (pdf)

see also

(extended) FQFT from background fields: σ\sigma-models

In this context Dan Freed is picking up again his old work on higher algebraic structures in quantum field theory, as described in

where he argued that and how the path integral should assign nn-categorical objects to domains of codimension nn, and is re-expressing this in the \infty-functorial context. (Freed speaks of multi-tiered QFT instead of extended QFT.)

Freed’s ideas on how an extended or multi-tiered QFT arises from a path integral coming from a given background field were further formalized in the context of “finite” QFTs in

  • Simon Willerton, The twisted Drinfeld double of a finite group via gerbes and finite groupoids (arXiv)

  • Bruce Bartlett, On unitary 2-representations of finite groups and topological quantum field theory, PhD thesis, Sheffield (2008) (arXiv)

There are indications that a complete picture of this involves groupoidification

  • Jeffrey Morton, Extended TQFTs and Quantum Gravity (arXiv)

and, more generally geometric function theory:

a big advancement in the understanding of extended σ\sigma-model QFTs is the discussion in

  • David Ben-Zvi, John Francis, David Nadler, Integral Transforms and Drinfeld Centers in Derived Geometry (arXiv)

which realizes σ\sigma-models by homming cobordism cospans into the total spaces (realized as infinity-stack) of background fields and regarding the resulting spans as pull-push operators on suitable geometric functions.

A similar approach to bring the old work by Dan Freed mentioned above in contact with the picture of extended functorial QFT and the Baez-Dolan-Lurie structure theorem is

Super QFT


homological FQFT (and TCFT)

As usual, the problem of constructing FQFT becomes much more tractable when linear approximations are applied. In homological FQFT and in TCFT the Hom-spaces of the cobordism category (the moduli spaces of cobordisms with given punctures/boundaries) are approximated by complexes of chains on them. This leads to formalization of \infty-functorial QFT in the context of dg-algebra.

duality between algebra and geometry in physics:

Poisson algebraPoisson manifold
deformation quantizationgeometric quantization
algebra of observablesspace of states
Heisenberg pictureSchrödinger picture
higher algebrahigher geometry
Poisson n-algebran-plectic manifold
En-algebrashigher symplectic geometry
BD-BV quantizationhigher geometric quantization
factorization algebra of observablesextended quantum field theory
factorization homologycobordism representation

Revised on January 11, 2014 14:25:32 by Urs Schreiber (