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Let be a topological space and let be the category of covering spaces of : The category whose objects are coverings and whose morphisms are maps between such coverings that commute with the covering projections -- a morphism between and is a map so that the diagram

Every topologists' highest hope is to find that her/his favourite category of topological objects is equivalent to some category of easily understood algebraic objects. The following theorem realizes this dream in full in the case of the category of covering spaces of any reasonable base space :

- If is connected and locally connected with base point and
fundamental group
, then the map which assigns to every
covering its fiber over the basepoint
induces a functor
from the category
of coverings of
to the category
of -sets -- sets with a right
-action and set maps that respect the action.
- If in addition is semi-locally simply connected then the functor
is an equivalence of categories. (In fact, this is iff).

If indeed the categories and are equivalent, one should be able to extract everything topological about a covering from its associated -set . The following theorem shows this to be right in at least two ways:

- The set of connected components of is in a bijective
correspondence with the set of orbits of in
.
- Let
be a basepoint for that covers
the basepoint of . Then the fundamental group
is
isomorphic via the projection into
to the
stabilizer group
of in
.

(Both assertions of this theorem can be sharpened to deal with morphisms as well, but we will not bother to do so).

Ok. Every math technician can spend some time and effort and understand the statements and (only then) the proofs of these two theorems. Your true challenge is to digest the following statement:

In particular, the following facts are all simple algebraic corollaries of these theorems:

**Steps in the proofs of Theorem 1 and 2. **

- Use path liftings to construct a right action of on .
- Show that this is indeed a group action and that morphisms of
coverings induce morphisms of right -sets.
A map of Colossal Cave, New Mexico, from http://www.colossalcave.com/cavetour.html.

- Start the construction of an ``inverse'' functor
of
:
Use spelunking (cave exploration) to construct a universal covering
of , if is semi-locally simply connected.
- Show that
.
- Use the construction of or the general lifting property for
covering spaces to show that there is a left action of on .
- For a general right -set set
and show that
is a covering of
and
.
- Show that
is compatible with maps between right -sets.
- Understand the relationship between connected components and orbits.
- Prove Theorem 2.
- Use the existence and uniqueness of lifts to show that
is equivalent to the identity functor (working connected
component by connected component).

**A Deep Thought Question. ** We'll get there when it's
time, but meanwhile, think on your own: What does it at all mean
``
is equivalent to the identity functor'' (and first,
why can't it simply **be** the identity functor)? And even harder,
what does it at all mean for two categories to be ``equivalent''? If you
answer this question correctly, you'll probably re-invent the notions of
``natural transformation between two functors'' and ``natural
equivalence'', that gave the historical impetus for the development of
category theory.

**Category
theory**

From Wikipedia, the
free encyclopedia.

**Background**

A category attempts to capture the essence of a class of related mathematical objects, for instance the class of groups. Instead of focusing on the individual objects (groups) as has been done traditionally, the morphisms -- i.e. the structure-preserving maps between these objects -- are emphasized. In the example of groups, these are the group homomorphisms. Then it becomes possible to relate different categories by functors, generalizations of functions which associate to every object of one category an object of another category and to every morphism in the first category a morphism in the second. Very commonly, certain ``natural constructions'', such as the fundamental group of a topological space, can be expressed as functors. Furthermore, different such constructions are often ``naturally related'' which leads to the concept of natural transformation, a way to ``map'' one functor to another. Throughout mathematics, one encounters ``natural isomorphisms'', things that are (essentially) the same in a ``canonical way''. This is made precise by special natural transformations, the natural isomorphisms.

**Historical notes**

Categories, functors and natural transformations were introduced by Samuel Eilenberg and Saunders Mac Lane in 1945. Initially, the notions were applied in topology, especially algebraic topology, as an important part of the transition from homology (an intuitive and geometric concept) to homology theory, an axiomatic approach. It has been claimed, for example by or on behalf of Ulam, that comparable ideas were current in the later 1930s in the Polish school.

Eilenberg/Mac Lane have said that their goal was to understand natural transformations; in order to do that, functors had to be defined; and to define functors one needed categories.

The subsequent development of the theory was powered first by the computational needs of homological algebra; and then by the axiomatic needs of algebraic geometry, the field most resistant to the Russell-Whitehead view of united foundations. General category theory -- an updated universal algebra with many new features allowing for semantic flexibility and higher-order logic -- came later; it is now applied throughout mathematics.

Special categories called topoi can even serve as an alternative to axiomatic set theory as the foundation of mathematics. These broadly-based foundational applications of category theory are contentious; but they have been worked out in quite some detail, as a commentary on or basis for constructive mathematics. One can say, in particular, that axiomatic set theory still hasn't been replaced by the category-theoretic commentary on it, in the everyday usage of mathematicians. The idea of bringing category theory into earlier, undergraduate teaching (signified by the difference between the Birkhoff-Mac Lane and later Mac Lane-Birkhoff abstract algebra texts) has hit noticeable opposition.

Categorical logic is now a well-defined field based on type theory for intuitionistic logics, with application to the theory of functional programming and domain theory, all in a setting of a cartesian closed category as non-syntactic description of a lambda calculus. At the very least, the use of category theory language allows one to clarify what exactly these related areas have in common (in an abstract sense).

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Dror Bar-Natan 2005-03-08