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November 8, 2005

Strings on Stacks I

Posted by urs

Eric Sharpe is currently visiting our group. Tomorrow he’ll give a talk on

Deformation theory, mirror symmetry, gauging noneffective group actions, and stacks

based on hep-th/0502044 and hep-th/0502053.

(If anyone is close to Hamburg and would like to attend (Robert? :-): it’s 11:30 in room 127 of the ‘Geomatikum’ building.)

Here are some notes on some of the basic ideas concerning strings on stacks.

Update June 6, 2006.

Today a new preprint has appeared with more details on this topic:

S. Hellerman, A. Henriques, T. Pantev, E. Sharpe, M. Ando
Cluster decomposition, T-duality, and gerby CFT’s
hep-th/0606034 .

Let me start by saying some general things about stacks.

One curious thing about stacks is that they are motivated by and appear in two apparently rather unrelated contexts.

When you come from one point of view, a stack is a generalization of a sheaf. Since sheaves are a way of talking about gauge theory, this way of looking at stacks yields a generalization of gauge theory – namely ‘higher gauge theory’. Special sorts of stacks, called gerbes, are the right thing to describe the coupling of a string to a ‘2-form field’.

From another point of view, however, a stack is a generalization of the concept of a space, say of a topological space, or of a manifold. The approach here is similar in spirit to that in noncommutative geometry: 1) Pick some way to talk about spaces. 2) Realize that ordinary spaces are just a special case of this way of thinking. 3) Address the most general object obtainable by that sort of thinking as a ‘generalized space’.

In the case of stacks, step 1) is realized by the fact that every space (as in fact essentially every mathematical object) is completely characterized by the set of maps into the space. The precise statement of this fact is called the Yoneda Lemma.

Consider a topological space M. Given any other topological space X, we have the set Map(X,M) of all continuous maps from X to M.

But there is more. Consider yet another topological space Y, together with a map YfX from Y to X. There is the set of maps Map(Y,M) as before. But in addition there is now a gadget that sends every element XhMMap(X,M) to an element YhMMap(X,M), simply by composing h with f:


This mapping from maps from X to maps from Y is called Map(f,Id M). Hence we actually have a contravariant functor

(2)X Map(X,M) f Map(,M) Map(f,Id M) Y Map(Y,M)

which eats maps between topological spaces and spits out maps between the sets of maps between these spaces and the fixed space M.

Of course this is just what is called the Hom-functor in general and all I have done is to spell out an elementary fact in category theory.

Anyway, the point is that knowing that gadget Map(,M) is equivalent to knowing M itself. This gives rise to step 2): Map(,M) can also be thought of as a gadget that associates to every space X the category whose objects are elements in Map(X,M) and which has a morphism between XfM and YgM precisely if there is a map XhX such that


Usually one wants to allow only maps h here which are invertible. In that case, every morphism in that category of maps from X to M is invertible. Hence Map(,M) really associates a groupoid to every X.

This means that we have reformulated the information contained in the space M itself in terms of a rule that to any other space X associates the groupoid of maps from X to M.

This is a step of the kind number 2) in the above, because it immediately generalizes: There are certainly other rules which associate groupoids to spaces. Rules that do not arise in the above fashion. Let’s think of all these rules as generalized spaces!

In fact, not quite all of them. The rule Map(,M) has some nice properties, called gluing properties, that we want to retain. These are very similar to the gluing properties of a sheaf, just weakened a little.

But apart from that, we are now willing to address any rule which associates groupoids to spaces such that these gluing properties hold as a generalized space. And we call such a rule a stack.

(‘Why do we call it a ‘stack’?? I guess at one point mathematicians will run out of terms suggestive of ‘collections of stuff’. We have ‘sheaves’ and ‘bundles’, both of which probably originate in a time when mathematicians found themselves living in a more agricaltural environment. Similarly ‘gerbe’, which is french for ‘bouquet’ (and curiously similar to the german Garbe, which, however, means ‘sheaf’!). (But see David Robert’s comment on that point.) Then ‘stack’, which is always a nice way to waste some time in a talk which at the same time mentions ‘stacks of D-branes’. ‘Heap’ is also already a mathematical term, inherited from computer science (which has its own notion of stack). I wonder when somebody defines a mathematical concept called a ‘bunch’ and proves that every stack can be bunched. ;-)

Anyway, a stack, as I said, is a rule that associates categories (and groupoids in particular, if you use the more restrictive definition) to spaces such that some useful structure is preserved. One issue with stacks is that you can set them up on general sites. The category of open sets of some manifold constitutes a site, and that’s the context in which stacks are described for instance in Moerdijk’s text math.AT/0212266. Alternatively one can use the site of topological spaces or that of manifolds, which is the one used by Heinloth in his notes.

(Update: Thanks to David Roberts for making me correct the originally wrong statement in the above paragraph.)

If you feel like a physicist, and especially if you feel like a string theorist, E. Sharpe, in the introduction to his paper, proposes for you a way to get a better intuitive grasp of what the definition of a stack (when regarded as a way to talk about generalized spaces) really means.

In string theory one is familiar with the idea that target space is something secondary, while the worldsheet CFT is the primary entity. Concentrating on geometrical CFTs for a moment, namely on sigma-models, this means that one thinks of target space in terms of maps from the worldsheet into it. But that’s precisely the stack attitude. Think of a space in terms of maps into it.

This has some curious ramifications. Turns out that mathematicians have come up with the notion of a quotient stack. It’s definition at first sight tends to leave the standard physicist puzzled. But actually the standard physicist knows precisely this definition in different guise already under the name of a ‘twisted sector worldsheet map’.

Here is the abstract definition (Heinloth, example 1.5): Let G be a Lie group acting on some space M. It doesn’t have to act nicely on it, neither freely nor transitively. This means that in general the na´ve quotient M/G won’t be a space of the type we started with. (Not a manifold, if M is a manifold.) Instead it will be a (general) orbifold. This is something slightly more general than an ordinary space, and it is captured by the concept of stacks.

Namely one can define a stack capturing the generalized space “M/G” as follows. Let [M/G] be the stack which is given by the rule that to each space X associates a groupoid whose objects are G-bundles P over X

(4)P f G M X

equipped with G-equivariant maps f G from the total space of P to M (meaning that f(gp)=gf(p) for pP). The morphisms between these objects in the groupoid are defined to be bundle isomorphisms between these bundles.

First of all one sees that in the case that G=I is the trivial group, this rule is indeed the one of the space M itself, regarded as a stack, which I talked about above.

In the case of nontrivial G this rule simply reformulates the prescription for computing string partition functions for orbifold backgrounds. Lift the worldsheet (X) to the covering space by picking a G bundle over it, identify it with a local section in that G-bundle and then map this into the target space in a way that respects the group action on everything. Summing over all possibilities of doing this is known as summing over all ‘twisted sectors’ of the string.

Hence, Eric Sharpe says, one can think of the sum over twisted sectors of a string X as a sum over (isomorphism classes of) objects in the groupoid [M/G](X) given by applying the stack [M/G] to X.

Fine, but so far this is just a play with words. Is there any new insight available? Yes, plenty. In closing this part, I’ll just mention one of the main issues:

Given that we are prepared to allow stacks as string backgrounds, the question arises in how far stack technology and string technology mutually reproduce each other.

Given that we are prepared to allow stacks as string backgrounds, the question arises in how far stack technology and string technology mutually reproduce each other. In particular, it is well known that several different combinations of M and G yield stacks [M/G] which are equivalent as stacks. But for some of them G may be finite, while for others G may be continuous. A sigma-model of [M/G] for G finite is just an ordinary free CFT on an orbifold. A sigma model on [M/G] for non-finite G however is some much more involved interacting gauged linear sigma model. Both sigma models don’t seem to be equivalent at all. But math tells us that the backgrounds they come from are equivalent in some sense. So what’s going on?

This issue has not been completely resolved, but Eric Sharpe says he has plenty of evidence for the conjecture that the sigma model on [M/G] for G-non finite will flow by means of renormalization group flow to the RG fixed point given by the CFT on [M/G] for G finite.

In this respect the relation between equivalent but non-identical stacks would be somehow reminiscent of the relation betweenn isomorphic but non-identitcal objects in derived categories of coherent sheaves. The equivalence is realized physicall only after the ‘instable’ configuration has decayed to the stable physical background.

More later, if time permits.

Posted at November 8, 2005 3:43 PM UTC

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4 Comments & 5 Trackbacks

Re: Strings on Stacks I

I won’t be able to make it as I myself have a visitor to cater for: Dominik Schwarz is going to give a colloquium on the axis of evil.

Posted by: Robert on November 8, 2005 11:05 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Strings on Stacks I

Actually gerbe in french is “something that resembles a sheaf” - e.g. a fountain, fireworks, spray of flowers - sometimes just a plain old sheaf. Enough of that.

Secretly all quotients are stacks, which is why we get things like moduli stacks (just a moduli space thought of in a better way) and more powerful ways of thinking of gauge theory stuff.

I think where Heinloth differs is that he seems to be defining a stack on a site (I suppose underlineMan is a site, with the etale ‘topology’ - be warned I’m not an expert) - which is entirely possible, and in general stacks are defined on topoi - for the case of a stack on a space X (manifold, topological space, scheme etc) we look at the topos which ‘comes from’ the lattice (completely unrelated notion to physics concept) of open sets of X (Am I right, Kea?) - again warning - this is a fuzzy appreciation.

I don’t agree with the statement that there is disagreement on the definition of stack - it’s just a functor

FunderlineHom(S,underlineGpd op)

with some (2-)co-equaliser properties (essentially the gluing properties) (Here S is the site we are defining the stack on, and underlineGpd op the category opposite to the category of groupoids). Since stacks have been around since before Giraud’s book Cohomologie Nonabelienne (1970 or so - the original gerbe reference) there is little left to disagree on.

This is all very interesting. Keep us posted. All the best.


Posted by: David Roberts on November 9, 2005 2:15 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Strings on Stacks I

I don’t agree with the statement that there is disagreement

I agree with your diagreement on that disagreement. Thanks for correcting me.

Sorry for the blunder, I believe I had known this before but must have forgotten. I have now corrected the respective paragraph. (Or I hope I have corrected it, maybe you should cross-check the update in the above entry (see the boldface).

Actually gerbe in french is ‘something that resembles a sheaf’

Ok. It seems to go all back to the same word. When I look up the translation of the french gerbe to German I get what in English would be called a bouquet of flowers as one option, and Garbe as another option, which again translates to ‘sheaf’.

Posted by: Urs on November 9, 2005 5:13 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Strings on Stacks I

Actually I think they might be equaliser properties - check a reliable reference. ;)


Posted by: David Roberts on November 11, 2005 4:02 AM | Permalink | Reply to this
Read the post Strings on Stacks II
Weblog: The String Coffee Table
Excerpt: More on Eric Sharpe and Tony Pantev on strings on stacks.
Tracked: November 9, 2005 6:40 PM
Read the post Moerdijk on Orbifolds, I
Weblog: The String Coffee Table
Excerpt: I. Moerdijk lectures on the theory of orbifolds.
Tracked: January 31, 2006 4:57 PM
Read the post Bunke on H
Weblog: The String Coffee Table
Excerpt: U. Bunke et. al propose a (more) natural home for the twisted deRham cohomology appearing in Kalb-Ramond flux backgrounds.
Tracked: May 23, 2006 2:24 PM
Read the post Sharpe on Derived Categories and Strings on Stacks
Weblog: The String Coffee Table
Excerpt: Slides of Eric Sharpe's ESI talk on derived categories, strings on stacks and renormalization group flow.
Tracked: June 21, 2006 1:40 PM
Read the post Seminar on 2-Vector Bundles and Elliptic Cohomology, V
Weblog: The String Coffee Table
Excerpt: Part V of a seminar on elliptic cohomology and 2-vector bundles. Review of relations between elliptic cohomology and strings.
Tracked: May 9, 2007 10:24 PM

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