(Link)**Author:** Guillaume Brunerie (Université Nice-Sophia-Antipolis)**Reference:** Brunerie, Guillame. “On the homotopy groups of spheres in homotopy type theory.” PhD Thesis, Université Nice-Sophia-Antipolis. 2016**Why this paper?** Cited by Formalizing π4(S3)≅ ℤ/2ℤ and Computing a Brunerie Number in Cubical Agda, Commuting Cohesions, and Encoding Dependently-Typed Constructions into Simple Type Theory

Many PhD dissertations are constructed by ‘stapling together’ a variety of different research papers generated during the years of study, with a varying level of effort put into writing connective tissue between them. This is very much not one of those dissertations. Instead, it is a book length development of a single mathematical fact, that π4(S3)≅ℤ/2ℤ. Of course, unpacking this line of mathematics would take time - ‘the fourth homotopy group of the 3-sphere is equivalent to a certain 2-element group’ is a first unpacking, but there is much jargon in there would itself require unpacking – but the focus on this one result is still notable.

I will of course not pretend to do full justice to the multiple years of effort that went into this thesis in the space of a short blog post, but instead try to give some high level feeling for what is going on here. At first glance it is perhaps a bit perplexing; the core result is a well known (although not easy) result in homotopy theory from the 1930s; why is a modern PhD thesis spending hundreds of pages to prove it? The answer is that this a landmark effort within homotopy type theory (HoTT); indeed, it is perhaps the most substantial development of a major result using HoTT. Translating this result into the foundations provided by HoTT turns out to be far from trivial. At one level working within this type theory is helpful, for example obviating the need to ever prove any functions are continuous (well-behaved), because they must be continuous by construction. For example the difficulty of one particularly gnarly part of the standard development, proving that the associativity of the smash product is suitably continuous, simply disappears. Furthermore because the work is ‘synthetic’, in the sense of not being tied to any particular presentation of topology, it is highly general and the core development is not obscured by the particular details of a concrete choice (e.g. working via point-set topology, or simplicial sets).

However, there is a catch: the standard development of results in homotopy theory often contain intermediate constructions that are not well behaved in the sense that HoTT enforces, even where the final product is well behaved. This means that the standard development, at least in this case, cannot be translated line by line into the new formalism as one might naively hope: Brunerie reflects in his superbly reflective concluding chapter that he “often had to find completely different definitions, proofs or statements that would work in homotopy type theory”. The point of all this effort is, of course, not merely to reprove old results, but to pave the way for new advances in homotopy theory (and other areas of mathematics) using HoTT as a tool that avoids certain errors by enforcing certain invariants, in a style amenable to mechanisation.

Having said that, one notable aspect of this development is that it is *not* mechanised (encoded into a computer), although mechanisation is certainly discussed. This perhaps flies in the face of some people’s intuitions that type theory, resembling as it does a programming language, is innately connected to computer mathematics. Instead this is a significant development of *pen and paper* type theory, in the 'informal' style recommended by the original HoTT book.

Another interesting aspect of this thesis is its constructivity, and what that means in practice. At the end of chapter 3 it is proved that π4(S3)≅ℤ/nℤ for some integer n. The nature of constructive mathematics is that an existential result of this sort is impossible to prove without generating its ‘witness’; in other words we should have access to the value of the number n (in this case, 2). More precisely, if a witness is not immediately clear from the proof as written, the proof should compute until it produces the witness. This does not happen in this thesis; instead three more chapters are needed to prove that n is in fact equal to 2. What went wrong? One might wonder if the problem is that the proof is pen and paper and hence cannot compute, but although this is part of the problem it is not dispositive: one could try to carry out the computations by hand. Unfortunately these calculations proved too difficult to carry out. An early attempt to develop the thesis within cubical type theory, which is a fully constructive presentation of HoTT which hence would compute, did not prove successful and led Brunerie to conclude “for informal synthetic homotopy theory as done in this thesis, cubical ideas aren’t especially helpful in general”.

There is an important addendum to this picture however: I was recommended this paper in part because of its citation in a just released preprint, in which the results of this thesis (in slightly modified form) were fully mechanised in Cubical Agda by Axel Ljungström and Anders Mörtberg, allowing the ‘Brunerie number’ (that is, 2) to finally be computed from the proof that π4(S3)≅ℤ/nℤ for some integer n.

## Monday 20 February 2023

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