Mike Hopkins is giving the Milliman Lectures this week at the University of Washington and the first talk involved this idea that I’m extremely familiar with, but am also surprised at how unfamiliar most mathematicians are with it. I’ve made almost this exact post several other times, but it bears repeating. As I basked in the amazingness of this idea during the talk, I couldn’t help but notice how annoyed some people seemed to be at the level of abstractness and generality this notion forces on you.

Every branch of math has some crowning achievements and insights into how to actually think about something so that it works. The idea I’ll present in this post is a truly remarkable insight into geometry and topology. It is incredibly simple (despite the daunting language) which is what makes it so fascinating. Here is the idea. Suppose you care about some type of spaces (metric, topological, manifolds, varieties, …).

Let be one of your spaces. In order to figure out what is you could probe it by other spaces. What does this mean? It just means you look at maps . If is a topological space, then you can recover the points of by considering all the maps from a singleton (i.e. point) . If you want to understand more about the topology, then you probe by some other spaces. Simple.

Even analysts use this idea all the time. A distribution (on ) is not a well-defined function, so you can’t just tell whether or not two distributions are the same by looking at values. Instead you probe it by test functions . If these probes give you the same thing for all test functions, then the distributions are the same. This is all we are doing with our spaces above, and this is all the Yoneda lemma is saying. It says that if the maps (test functions) to and the maps to are the same, then and are the same.

We can fancy up the language now. Considering maps to is a functor . Such a functor is called a presheaf on the category of Spaces (recall, that for your particular situation this might be the category of smooth manifolds or metric spaces or algebraic varieties or …). Don’t be scared. This is literally the definition of presheaf, so if you were following to now, then introducing this term requires no new definitions.

The Yoneda lemma is saying something very simple in this fancy language. It says that there is a (fully faithful) embedding of Spaces into Pre(Spaces), the category of presheaves on Spaces. If we now work with this new category of functors, we just enlarge what we consider to be a space and this is of fundamental importance for many reasons. If is one of our old spaces, then we can just naturally identify it with the presheaf . The reason Mike Hopkins is giving for why this is important is very different from the one I’ll give which just goes to show how incredibly useful this idea is.

In every single branch of math people care about some sort of classification problem. Classify all elliptic curves. What are the vector bundles on my manifold? If I fix a vector bundle, what are the connections on my vector bundle? What are the Borel measures on my metric space? The list goes on forever.

In general, classification is a hugely impossible task to grapple with. We know a ton of stuff about smooth manifolds, but how can we leverage that to make the seemingly unrelated problem of classifying vector bundles more manageable? Here our insight comes to the rescue, because there is a way to write down a functor that outputs vector bundles. There is subtlety in writing it down properly (and we should now land in Grpds instead of Set so that we can identify isomorphic ones), but once we do this we get a presheaf. In other words, we make a (generalized) space whose points are the objects we are classifying.

In many situations you then go on to prove that this moduli space of vector bundles is actually one of the original types of spaces (or not too far from one) we know a lot about. Now our impossible task of understanding what the vector bundles on my manifold are is reduced to the already studied problem of understanding the geometry of a manifold itself!

Here is my challenge to any analyst who knows about measures. Warning, this could be totally ridiculous and nonsense because it is based on reading Wikipedia for 5 minutes. Construct a presheaf of real-valued Radon measures on . Analyze this “space”. If it was done right, you should somehow recover that the space is the dual space to the convex space, , of compactly supported real-valued functions on . Congratulations, you’ve just started a new branch of math in which you classify measures on a space by analyzing the topology/geometry of the associated presheaf.