Manifolds and cobordisms

Quantum field theory



General idea

What is called a homotopy quantum field theory is a TQFT defined on cobordisms that are equipped with the extra structure of a continuous function into a fixed topological space BB.

Hence if Bord n(B)Bord_n(B) denotes a category of cobordisms suitably equipped with maps into BB, then an HQFT is a monoidal functor

Z:Bord n(B) Vect . Z \;\colon\; Bord_n(B)^{\coprod} \longrightarrow Vect^{\otimes} \,.


HQFTs were introduced in (Turaev 99) for 2-dimensional manifolds/cobordisms and extended them to 3-dimensional ones in (Turaev 00). At about the same time, (Brightwell-Turner 00) looked at what they called the homotopy surface category and its representations. There are two viewpoints which interact and complement each other. Turaev’s seems to be to see HQFTs as an extension of the tool kit for studying manifolds already given by TQFTs, whilst in Brightwell and Turner’s, it is the ‘background space’, which is probed by the surfaces in the sense of sigma-models.

In the proof of the cobordism hypothesis in (Lurie 09) the concept of HQFTs was refined to extended TQFT by considering an (∞,n)-category of cobordisms Bord n(X)Bord_n(X) with maps to a given homotopy type XX. For these the cobordism hypothesis essentially says (see at For framed cobordisms in a topological space) that Bord n(X) Bord_n(X)^\coprod is the free construction (∞,n)-category with duals on the fundamental ∞-groupoid Π(X)\Pi(X) of XX.


An HQFT is going to be defined as assigning data to BB-cobordisms. We first introduce these

and then define

themselves in terms of these.


Let BB be a pointed topological space.


A BB-manifold is a pair (X,g)(X, g), where XX is a closed oriented nn-manifold (with a choice of base point m im_i in each connected component X iX_i of XX), and gg is a continuous function g:XBg : X \to B, called the characteristic map, such that g(m i)=*g(m_i) = \ast for each base point m im_i.


A BB-isomorphism between BB-manifolds, ϕ:(X,g)(Y,h)\phi : ( X, g) \to ( Y, h) is an isomorphism ϕ:XY\phi : X \to Y of the manifolds, preserving the orientation, taking base points into base points and such that hϕ=gh\phi = g.


If as is often the case, the manifolds under consideration will be smooth manifolds and then ‘isomorphism’ is interpreted as ‘diffeomorphism’, but equally well we can position the theory in the category of PL-manifolds or triangulable topological manifolds with the obvious changes. In fact for some of the time it is convenient to develop constructions for simplicial complexes rather than manifolds, as it is triangulations that provide the basis for the combinatorial descriptions of the structures that we will be using.


Denote by Man(n,B)\mathbf{Man}(n,B) the category of nn-dimensional BB-manifolds and BB-isomorphisms. We define a ‘sum’ operation on this category using disjoint union. The disjoint union of BB-manifolds is defined by

(X,g)⨿(Y,h):=(X⨿Y,g⨿h),( X, g) \amalg ( Y, h) := ( X\amalg Y, g\amalg h),

with the obvious characteristic map, g⨿h:X⨿YBg\amalg h : X \amalg Y \to B. With this ‘sum’ operation, Man(n,B)\mathbf{Man}(n,B) becomes a symmetric monoidal category with the unit being given by the empty BB-manifold, \emptyset, with the empty characteristic map. Of course, this is an nn-manifold by default.

These BB-manifolds are the objects of interest, but they have to be related by the analogue of cobordisms for this setting.


A BB-cobordism, (W,F)(W,F), from (X 0,g)(X_0,g) to (X 1,h)(X_1,h) is a cobordism W:X 0X 1W : X_0 \to X_1 endowed with a homotopy class relative to the boundary of a continuous function F:WBF : W \to B such that

F| X 0=g,F| X 1=h F|_{X_0} = g \,, \;\;\;\; F|_{X_1} = h

Generally, unless necessary in this entry, we will not make a notational distinction between the homotopy class FF and any of its representatives.


A BB-isomorphism of BB-cobordisms, ψ:(W,F)(W ,F )\psi : (W,F) \to (W^\prime, F^\prime), is an isomorphism ψ:WW \psi : W \to W^\prime such that

ψ( +W)= +W ,ψ( W)= W ,\psi (\partial_+W) = \partial_+W^\prime, \quad \psi (\partial_-W) = \partial_-W^\prime,

and F ψ=FF^\prime \psi = F, in the obvious sense of homotopy classes relative to the boundary.

We can glue BB-cobordisms along their boundaries, or more generally, along a BB-isomorphism between their boundaries, in the usual way. This gives rise to a symmetric monoidal category HCobord(n,B)\mathbf{HCobord}(n,B) of BB-cobordisms

The detailed structure of BB-cobordisms and the resulting category HCobord(n,B)\mathbf{HCobord}(n,B) is given in (Rodrigues 03, appendix), at least in the important case of smooth BB-manifolds. This category is a monoidal category with strict dual objects.

Homotopy Quantum Field Theories

The general absract definition of an HQFT is now the following.

Fix an integer n0n \geq 0 and a field, KK. All vector spaces will be tacitly assumed to be finite dimensional. In general KK can be replaced by a commutative ring merely by replacing finite dimensional vector spaces by projective KK-modules of finite type, but we will not do this here.


A homotopy quantum field theory is a symmetric monoidal functor from HCobord(n,B)\mathbf{HCobord}(n,B) to the category, Vect, of finite dimensional vector spaces over the field KK.

This definiting unwinds to the following structure in components


A (n+1)(n + 1)-dimensional homotopy quantum field theory, τ\tau, with background BB assigns

  • to any nn-dimensional BB-manifold, (X,g)(X,g), a vector space, τ(X,g)\tau{(X,g)},

  • to any BB-isomorphism, ϕ:(X,g)(Y,h)\phi : (X, g) \to ( Y, h), of nn-dimensional BB-manifolds, a KK-linear isomorphism τ(ϕ):τ(X,g)τ(Y,h)\tau(\phi) : \tau{(X, g)} \to \tau{( Y, h)},


  • to any BB-cobordism, (W,F):(X 0,g 0)(X 1,g 1)(W,F) : (X_0,g_0) \to (X_1,g_1), a KK-linear transformation, τ(W):τ(X 0,g 0)τ(X 1,g 1)\tau(W) : \tau{(X_0,g_0)} \to \tau{(X_1,g_1)}.

These assignments are to satisfy the following axioms:

  1. τ\tau is functorial in Man(n,B)\mathbf{Man}(n,B), i.e., for two BB-isomorphisms, ψ:(X,g)(Y,h)\psi: (X, g) \to ( Y, h) and ϕ:(Y,h)(P,j)\phi : ( Y, h) \to (P,j), we have τ(ϕψ)=τ(ϕ)τ(ψ),\tau(\phi\psi) = \tau(\phi)\tau(\psi), and if 1 (X,g)1_{(X,g)} is the identity BB-isomorphism on (X,g)(X,g), then τ(1 (X,g))=1 τ(X,g)\tau(1_{(X,g)}) = 1_{\tau{(X,g)}}

  2. There are natural isomorphisms

    c (X,g),(Y,h):τ((X,g)⨿(Y,h))τ(X,g)τ(Y,h),c_{(X,g),(Y,h)} : \tau((X,g)\amalg (Y,h)) \cong \tau(X,g)\otimes \tau(Y,h),

    and an isomorphism, u:τ()Ku : \tau(\emptyset) \cong K, that satisfy the usual axioms for a symmetric monoidal functor.

  3. For BB-cobordisms, (W,F):(X,g)(Y,h)(W,F) : (X,g) \to (Y,h) and (V,G):(Y ,h )(P,j)(V,G): (Y^\prime, h^\prime) \to (P,j) glued along a BB-isomorphism ψ:(Y,h)(Y ,h )\psi :(Y,h) \to (Y^\prime,h^\prime), we have τ((W,F)⨿ ψ(V,G))=τ(V,G)τ(ψ)τ(W,F).\tau((W,F)\amalg_\psi (V,G))= \tau(V,G)\tau(\psi)\tau(W,F).

  4. For the identity BB-cobordism, 1 (X,g)=(I×X,1 g)1_{(X,g)} = (I\times X, 1_g), we have τ(1 (X,g))=1 τ(X,g).\tau( 1_{(X,g)}) = 1_{\tau(X,g)}.

  5. For BB-cobordisms (W,F):(X,g)(Y,h)(W,F) : (X,g) \to (Y,h) and (V,G):(X ,g )(Y ,h )(V,G) : (X^\prime,g^\prime) \to (Y^\prime,h^\prime) and (P,J):(P,J): \emptyset \to \emptyset, some fairly obvious diagrams are commutative.


These axioms are slightly different from those given in the original paper of Turaev in 1999. The really significant difference is in axiom 4, which is weaker than as originally formulated, where any BB-cobordism structure on I×XI \times X was considered as trivial. The effect of this change is important as it is now the case that the HQFT is determined by the (n+1)(n+1)-type of BB, cf. (Rodrigues 03).

With the revised version of the axioms, it becomes possible to attempt to classify HQFTs with a given nn and BB. Turaev did this in the original paper with n=2n = 2 and BB an Eilenberg-MacLane space, K(G,1)K(G,1). The results of Brightwell and Turner essentially gave the solution for BB a K(A,2)K(A,2).


1+1 dimensional HQFTs with background a K(G,1)K(G,1)

If we look at the case n=1n= 1 and with background an Eilenberg-Mac Lane space K(G,1)K(G,1) for a discrete group GG, then HQFTs correspond to crossed G-algebras, in much the same way that commutative Frobenius algebras correspond to 2d TQFTs. There the correspondence is given by a 2d TQFT, ZZ, corresponds to the Frobenius algebra, Z(S 1)Z(S^1). This is because the circle S 1S^1 is a Frobenius algebra, sometimes called a Frobenius object, in the category Bord 2Bord_2 of 2d-cobordisms between 1-manifolds.

In the case of HQFTs, the role of the circle is replaced by the family of circles with characteristic maps to BB. Each one gives, combinatorially, a circle together with a labelling of the boundary by an element of GG. (It does not seem to be known how to get a GG-graded version of an abstract Frobenius object that will correspond to this situation, although this is probably not too hard to do.)


In (Moore-Segal 06) are discussed GG-equivariant TFT?s and it is shown that they naturally correspond to a simple case of Turaev’s HQFTs. They relate (1+1) equivariant TFTs to Turaev’s crossed G-algebras (which they call Turaev algebras).


  • Vladimir Turaev, Homotopy field theory in dimension 2 and group-algebras (arXiv:math.QA/9910010)

  • Vladimir Turaev, Homotopy field theory in dimension 3 and crossed group-categories (arXiv:math.GT/0005291).

  • V. Turaev, Homotopy Quantum Field Theory, Tracts in Mathematics 10, (with Appendices by Michael Muger and Alexis Vurelizier), European Mathematical Society, June 2010.

  • M. Brightwell and P. Turner, Representations of the homotopy surface category of a simply connected space, J. Knot Theory and its Ramifications, 9 (2000), 855–864.

  • G. Rodrigues, Homotopy Quantum Field Theories and the Homotopy Cobordism Category in Dimension 1 + 1, J. Knot Theory and its Ramifications, 12 (2003) 287–317 (arXiv:math.QA/0105018).

  • T. Porter and V. Turaev, Formal Homotopy Quantum Field Theories, I: Formal Maps and Crossed CC-algebras, Journal of Homotopy and Related Structures 3(1), 2008, 113–159. (arXiv:math.QA/0512032).

  • T. Porter, Formal Homotopy Quantum Field Theories II: Simplicial Formal Maps, in Cont. Math. 431, p. 375 - 404 (Streetfest volume: Categories in Algebra, Geometry and Mathematical Physics - edited by A. Davydov, M. Batanin, and M. Johnson, S. Lack, and A. Neeman) (arXiv:math.QA/0512034)

A treatment of HQFTs that includes some details of the links with TQFTs is given in HQFTs meet the Menagerie, which is a set of notes prepared by Tim Porter for a school and workshop in Lisbon, Feb. 2011.

Related ideas are discussed in

Last revised on May 12, 2017 at 10:52:58. See the history of this page for a list of all contributions to it.