Monads in mathematics 1 : examples

25 February 2009 at 12:06 pm 1 comment

Category theory studies in an abstract way how structures and constructions of mathematics are related. A category is a collection of (mathematical) objects. Usually, interesting categories contain objects sharing the same properties (there is a category of sets, a category of groups, a category of rings, and so on). A category need also have a definition of arrows, which often correspond to the usual definition of functions, maps or morphisms. But it is possible to define categories having more complicated arrows. A (not so) stupid non-trivial category is the opposite category Cop of a given category C, which has arrows going the other way.

A monad M on a category C is a functor: it associates to any object X in C another object MX of C in a so-called functorial way, which means that any arrow X to Y should give rise to an arrow MX to MY. But in order to call M a monad, we require several other properties: there should be natural transformations X to MX (so that X to MX to MY and X to Y to MY are the same, which can be expressed by a commutative square), and MMX to MX such that MX to MMX to MX is the identity (notice that there are two ways to obtain an arrow MX to MMX). MacLane in Categories for the Working Mathematician gives a good account of the theory along with a bit of history and references.

Most examples of monads arising in mathematics are derived from two concepts: operads, which combine monads with much richer structure (but correspond to really tangible examples), and adjunctions (a framework in which monads can actually fit). I should write about these later, and concentrate on examples. Monads are also used in computer science, because they model a construction scheme which is widely spread. The programming language Haskell formulates many concepts in the language of monads. Marco Maggesi wrote a small introduction to monads (in Italian), which covers monads appearing in Haskell.

A basic undergraduate example is the monad of vector spaces. If k is a field, and X is a set, define V_k(X) to be the vector space with basis X: this is the set of abstract linear combinations of elements of X with coefficients in k. Then V_k is a monad is the category of sets: it maps each set to another set (which is in fact a vector space over k), in a functorial way (any function X to Y defines a map of vector spaces V_k(X) to V_k(Y)). We recognize the structure of a monad by considering the injection X to V_k(X) which maps an element of X to the corresponding basis vector. We also have a natural map V_k(V_k(X)) to V_k(X) which sends an abstract linear combination of elements of V_k(X) to their actual linear combination, which is a well-defined element of V_k(X). Checking the other properties of monads is a simple exercise.

In a similar way, it is possible to define a monad of associative monoids (which is also the List monad of Haskell), a monad of commutative monoids, a monad of rings, etc. These can all be expressed using the formalism of operads or of adjoint functors.

A more pictorial example of monad is the monad of trees, which is closely related to operads.

Labelled tree

Labelled tree


This monad associates to a set X the set TX of trees (to be defined) with a root (the bottom part of the tree in the picture) and leaves (the upper part) which are labelled by elements of the set (here a, b, c). The set X maps to TX: an element x is represented by the tree having no lines at all, just a point, labelled by x. The set TTX represents trees where leaves v carry a tree T(v): such a tree-labelled tree has a natural associated tree, constructed by drawing really T(v) at v, which makes a bigger tree (this operation is called grafting trees).

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Entry filed under: algebra, categories, english, monads in mathematics. Tags: , , , , , .

Rational approximations of √2 Monads in mathematics 2 : algebras over monads and operads

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