Category Archives: Category Theory

Category Theory Summer Study Group 2015

[Editor’s note: This post was originally published by Chris Aldrich at]


Initial details for putting  the group together can be found at

Below is a handful of suggestions and thoughts relating to the study group in terms of platforms to assist us in communicating as well as a general outline for the summer.  I’m only “leading” this in the sense that I put my foot forward first, but I expect and sincerely hope that others will be active leaders and participants as well, so please take the following only as a suggestion, and feel free to add additional thoughts and commentary you feel might help the group.

Primary resources:

General Communication

Since many within the group are already members of the Google Group “Advanced Physics & Math – Los Angeles.” I suggest we use the email list here as a base of communication. I believe the group is still “private” but am happy to invite the handful of participants who aren’t already members. Those actively participating are encouraged to change their settings so that they receive emails from the group either as they’re posted, or in batches once a day.  Those subscribed only once a week or less frequently are likely to miss out on questions, comments, and other matters.

Alternately we might also use the discussion group within the “Mathematics Students” group. I believe only about three of us so far may already be goodreads members, so this may require more effort for others to join.

If anyone has an alternate platform suggestion for communicating and maintaining resources, I’m happy to entertain it.

I wouldn’t be opposed to setting up a multi-user WordPress site that we could all access and post/cross-post to. Doing this could also allow for use of \LaTeX as well, which may be useful down the line. This would also have the benefit of being open to the public and potentially assisting future students. It also has built-in functionality of notifying everyone of individual posts and updates as they’re entered.


I’ll propose a general weekly meeting online via Google Hangouts on a day and time to be determined.  It looks like the majority of respondents are in the Pacific timezone, so perhaps we could shoot for something around 7pm for an hour or so if we do something during weekdays so that East coasters can join without us running too late. If we decide to do something during the weekend, we obviously have a good bit more flexibility.

If we could have everyone start by indicating which days/times absolutely won’t work for them and follow up with their three to four preferred days/times, then we might be able to build a consensus for getting together.

Alternate videoconference options could include Skype, ooVoo, or others, in some part because I know that most participants are already part of the Google ecosystem and know that one or more potential participants is using Google Chromebooks and thus may not be able to use other platforms.  Is anyone not able to use Google Hangouts? If we opt for something else, we want something that is ubiquitous for platform, allows screen sharing, and preferably the ability to record the sessions for those who aren’t present.

Ideally the videoconference meetings will be geared toward an inverted classroom style of work in which it would be supposed that everyone has read the week’s material and made an attempt at a number of problems. We can then bring forward any general or specific conceptual problems people may be having and then work as a group toward solving any problems that anyone in the group may be having difficulty with.

I’ll also suggest that even if we can’t all make a specific date and time, that we might get together in smaller groups to help each other out.  Perhaps everyone could post one or two regular hours during the week as open “office hours” so that smaller groups can discuss problems and help each other out so that we can continue to all make progress as a group.

Primary Textbook

Spivak, David I. Category Theory for the Sciences. (The MIT Press, 2014)

Given the diversity of people in the group and their backgrounds, I’ll suggest Spivak’s text which has a gentle beginning and is geared more toward scientists and non-professional mathematicians, though it seems to come up to speed fairly quickly without requiring a large number of prerequisites.  It also has the benefit of being free as noted below.

The textbook can be purchased directly through most book retailers.  Those looking for cheaper alternatives might find these two versions useful. The HTML version should be exactly in line with the printed one, while the “old version” may not be exactly the same.

Following this, I might suggest we use something like Awody’s text or Leinster’s which are slightly more technical, but still fairly introductory. Those who’d like a more advanced text can certainly supplement by reading portions of those texts as we work our way through the material in Spivak. If all of the group wants a more advanced text, we can certainly do it, but I’d prefer not to scare away any who don’t have a more sophisticated background.

Additional References

Proposed Schedule

The following schedule takes us from now through the end of the summer and covers the entirety of the book.  Hopefully everyone will be able to participate through the end, though some may have additional pressures as the beginning of the Fall  sees the start of other courses. Without much prior experience in the field myself, I’ve generally broken things up to cover about 35 pages a week, though some have slightly more or less.  Many, like me, may feel like the text really doesn’t begin until week three or four as the early chapters provide an introduction and cover basic concepts like sets and functions which I have a feeling most have at least some experience with.  I’ve read through chapter two fairly quickly already myself.  This first easy two week stretch will also give everyone the ability to settle in as well as allow others to continue to join the group before we make significant headway.

If anyone has more experience in the subject and wishes to comment on which sections we may all have more conceptual issues with, please let us know so we can adjust the schedule as necessary.  I suppose we may modify the schedule as needed going forward, though like many of you, I’d like to try to cover as much as we can before the end of the summer.

Week One: May 24 (24 pages)

Administrative tasks

  • Purchase Textbook
  • Decide on best day/time for meeting
  • Decide on platform for meetings: Google Hangouts /Skype /ooVoo /Other
  • 1 A brief history of category theory
  • 1.2 Intention of this book
  • 1.3 What is requested from the student
  • 1.4 Category theory references
  • 2 The Category of Sets 9
  • 2.1 Sets and functions
  • 2.2 Commutative diagrams

Week Two: May 31  (50 pages)

  • 2.3 Ologs
  • 3 Fundamental Considerations in Set 41
  • 3.1 Products and coproducts
  • 3.2 Finite limits in Set

Week Three: June 7 (40 pages)

  • 3.3 Finite colimits in Set
  • 3.4 Other notions in Set

Week Four: June 14 (31 pages)

  • 4 Categories and Functors, Without Admitting It 115
  • 4.1 Monoids
  • 4.2 Groups

Week Five: June 21 (38 pages)

  • 4.3 Graphs
  • 4.4 Orders

Week Six: June 28 (19 pages)

  • 4.5 Databases: schemas and instances

Week Seven: July 5 (36 pages)

  • 5 Basic Category Theory 203
  • 5.1 Categories and functors

Week Eight: July 12 (28 pages)

  • 5.2 Common categories and functors from pure math

Week Nine: July 19 (48 pages)

  • 5.3 Natural transformations
  • 5.4 Categories and schemas are equivalent, Cat » Sch

Week Ten: July 26 (45 pages)

  • 6 Fundamental Considerations of Categories
  • 6.1 Limits and colimits

Week Eleven: August 2 (15 pages)

  • 6.2 Other notions in Cat

Week Twelve: August 9 (26 pages)

  • 7 Categories at Work 375
  • 7.1 Adjoint functors

Week Thirteen: August 16 (32 pages)

  • 7.2 Categories of functors

Week Fourteen: August 23 (19 pages)

  • 7.3 Monads

Week Fifteen: August 30 (23 pages)

  • 7.4 Operads

Additional resources

Requested/Required Responses from participants:

Preferred platform(s) for communications:

Email and/or online discussions

Platform Can use Can’t use Prefer Not to Use
Google Group
WordPress Site
GoodReads Group


Platform Can use Can’t use Prefer Not to Use
Google Hangouts

Dates and times you absolutely CAN’T make for meetings (please include your local time zone):




Dates and times you prefer (please include your local time zone):




One or two time periods during the week you could generally/reliably be available for “office hours”:


Any other thoughts on the material above:

  • Textbooks
  • Schedule
  • Additional resources for the group
  • Other

If you’d like to join us, please fill out the contact information and details below based on the material above:

Category Theory Anyone?

[Editor’s note: This post was originally published by Chris Aldrich at]

I’m putting together a study group for an introduction to category theory. Who wants to join me?

Usually in the Fall and Winter, I’m concentrating on studying some semblance of abstract mathematics with a group of 20-30 kamikaze amateurs under the apt tutelage of Dr. Michael Miller through UCLA Extension. Since he doesn’t offer any classes in the Spring or Summer and we haven’t managed to talk Terence Tao into offering something interesting à la Leonard Susskind, we’re all at a loss for what to do with some of our time.

A small cohort of regulars from Miller’s class has recently taken up plowing through Howard Georgi’s Lie Algebras and Particle Physics. Though this seems very diverting to me given our work on Lie groups and algebras in the Fall and Winter, I don’t see any direct or exciting applications to anything more immediate.

Why Not Try Category Theory?

Since the death of Grothendieck I have seen a growing number of references to the area of category theory from a variety of different fronts.

Most notably, for the past year I’ve been more closely following John Baez’s Azimuth Blog which has frequent posts relating to category theory with applications I can directly use in various areas. Unfortunately I couldn’t attend his recent workshop at NIMBioS on Information and Entropy in Biological Systems, which apparently means I missed meeting Tom Leinster who recently released the textbook Basic Category Theory (Cambridge University Press, 2014). [I was already never going to forgive myself after I missed the workshop, but this fact now seems to be additional salt in the wound.]

The straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back was my serendipitously stumbling across Ilyas Khan‘s excellent post “Category Theory – the bedrock of mathematics?” while doing a Google image search for something entirely unrelated to anything remotely similar to mathematics. His discussion and the breadth of links to interesting and intriguing papers and articles within it and several colleagues thanking me for posting about it have finally forced my hand. (I also find myself wishing that he would write on a more formal basis more frequently.)

So over the past week or so, I’ve done some basic subject area searching, and I’ve picked up David I. Spivak’s book Category Theory for the Sciences (The MIT Press, 2014) to begin plowing through it.

Anyone Care to Join Me?

If you’re going to get lost and confused in the high weeds, you may as well have company, right?

-Chris Aldrich


Category Theory, Anyone?
Category Theory, Anyone?

Since doing abstract math is always more fun with companions, and I know there are several out there who might be interested in some of the areas which category theory touches on, why don’t you join in?  Over the coming months of Summer, let’s plot a course through the subject.  I’ll suggest Spivak’s book first as it seems to be one of the most basic as well as the broadest out there in terms of applications. (There are also free copies of versions available through arXiv and MIT.) It doesn’t have a huge list of prerequisites either, so a broader category of people might be able to join in as well.

We can have occasional weekly or bi-weekly “meetings” via internet using something like Google Hangouts, Skype, or ooVoo to discuss problems and help each other out as necessary.  Ideally those who join will spend at least 3 hours a week, if not more reading the text and working through problems. Following Spivak, we might try dipping into Leinster, Awody, or Mac Lane.

From the author of Category Theory for the Sciences:

This book is designed to be read by scientists and other people. It has very few mathematical prerequisites; for example, it doesn’t require calculus, linear algebra, or statistics. It starts by reintroducing the basics: What is a set? What is a function between sets?

That said, having a teacher or resident expert will be very helpful. Category theory is a “paradigm shift”—it’s a new way of looking at things. If you progress past the first few chapters, you’ll see that it’s a language for having very big thoughts and making unusually deep analogies.

To make real progress in this book (unless you’re used to reading university-level math books on your own) it will be useful to periodically check your understanding with someone who has some training in the subject. Seek out a math grad student or even a Haskell expert to help you. A growing number of people are learning basic category theory.

In order to really learn this material, a formal teacher or a professor would be best. Encourage your local university math department to offer a course in Category Theory for the Sciences. I can recommend this in good faith, because I went to special efforts to make this book available for free online. An old version of the book exists on the math arXiv, and a new MIT Press-edited version exists in HTML form on their website (see URLs below). That said, the print version, available here on Amazon and elsewhere, is much easier to read, if you want to get serious and you can afford it.

This book contains about 300 exercises and solutions. For those who wish to teach a course in the subject, there are 193 additional exercises and solutions behind a professors-only wall on the MIT Press website (see URL below). You simply have to request access.

To everyone: I hope you enjoy the book, and get a lot out of it!

Old version:
HTML version:

David Spivak, mathematician
in Description of Category Theory for the Sciences on



Awody, Steve. Category Theory (Oxford Logic Guides, #52). (Oxford University Press, 2nd Edition, 2010)

Lawvere, F. William & Schanuel, Stephen H. Conceptual Mathematics: A First Introduction to Categories. (Cambridge University Press, 2nd Edition, 2009)

Leinster, Tom. Basic Category Theory (Cambridge Studies in Advanced Mathematics, #143). (Cambridge University Press, 2014)

Mac Lane, Saunders. Categories for the Working Mathematician (Graduate Texts in Mathematics, #5). (Springer, 2nd Edition, 1998)

Spivak, David I. Category Theory for the Sciences. (The MIT Press, 2014)

Why write a new textbook on Category Theory, when we already have Mac Lane’s ‘Categories for the Working Mathematician’? Simply put, because Mac Lane’s book is for the working (and aspiring) mathematician. What is needed now, after 30 years of spreading into various other disciplines and places in the curriculum, is a book for everyone else.

-Steve Awody, mathematician
on page iv of Category Theory (Oxford Logic Guides, #52). (Oxford University Press, 2nd Edition, 2010)

If you’d like to join us, please leave a comment below and be sure to include your email address in the comment form so we can touch base regarding details.