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Mathematics  2007 

Origins and breadth of the theory of higher homotopies

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Higher homotopies are nowadays playing a prominent role in mathematics as well as in certain branches of theoretical physics. We recall some of the connections between the past and the present developments. Higher homotopies were isolated within algebraic topology at least as far back as the 1940's. Prompted by the failure of the Alexander-Whitney multiplication of cocycles to be commutative, Steenrod developed certain operations which measure this failure in a coherent manner. Dold and Lashof extended Milnor's classifying space construction to associative H-spaces, and a careful examination of this extension led Stasheff to the discovery of An-spaces and Ainfty-spaces as notions which control the failure of associativity in a coherent way so that the classifying space construction can still be pushed through. Algebraic versions of higher homotopies have, as we all know, led Kontsevich eventually to the proof of the formality conjecture. Homological perturbation theory (HPT), in a simple form first isolated by Eilenberg and Mac Lane in the early 1950's, has nowadays become a standard tool to handle algebraic incarnations of higher homotopies. A basic observation is that higher homotopy structures behave much better relative to homotopy than strict structures, and HPT enables one to exploit this observation in various concrete situations which, in particular, leads to the effective calculation of various invariants which are otherwise intractable. Higher homotopies abound but they are rarely recognized explicitly and their significance is hardly understood; at times, their appearance might at first glance even come as a surprise, for example in the Kodaira-Spencer approach to deformations of complex manifolds or in the theory of foliations.


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