Categories, Birds, and Frogs

Freeman Dyson divided mathematicians into birds and frogs in his essay by that title.

Some mathematicians are birds, others are frogs. Birds fly high in the air and survey broad vistas of mathematics out to the far horizon. They delight in concepts that unify our thinking and bring together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape. Frogs live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby. They delight in the details of particular objects, and they solve problems one at a time.

It’s an interesting metaphor. Like all metaphors it has its limits and Dyson discusses that. Some people are somewhere between a bird and a frog, whatever kind of creature that would be, and some alternate between being birds and frogs.

The other day I thought about Dyson’s classification and wondered whether category theorists would be birds or frogs. At first category theory seems avian, looking for grand patterns across mathematics. But as you wander further in, it seems more batrachian, absorbed in drawing little boxes and arrows.

I find it interesting that category theory can profound or trivial, depending on your perspective.

The motivations and applications are profound. Category theory has been called “metamathematics” because it formalizes analogies between diverse areas of math. But basic category theory itself is very close to its axioms. The path from first principles to common definitions and theorems in category theory is much shorter than, say, the path from the definition of the real numbers to the fundamental theorem of calculus.

(This diagram quantifies the last claim to some extent: the graph of concept dependencies in category theory is more wide than deep, and not that deep. Unfortunately I don’t have a similar diagram for calculus.)

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2 thoughts on “Categories, Birds, and Frogs

  1. Hm, I seemed to remember this quote and probably from right here, at your blog. Aha! 🙂
    Yes, it is a nice metaphore, but – as you acknowledged in your earlier post – a person can switch between these perspectives from time to time. (Luckily!)
    So, category theorists are like frogs with wings? (Searching for images of “winged frog” yields some nice results!)

  2. The proximity of the trivial and the profound makes sense to me. I always like to remind myself that trivial is historically related to trivium, and thus etymologically associated with the notion of being foundational.

    Oh wait. I learned that from you 🙂

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