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I have the category-theoretic background of the occasional stroll through Mac Lane's text, so excuse my ignorance in this regard. I was trying to learn all that I could on the subject of tensor algebras, and higher exterior forms, and I ran into the notion of cohomological determinants. Along this line of inquiry, I ran into the generous use of the notion of a Picard category, and kept running into frustration in trying to find some sort of exposition of what these structures are. So where can I find out more about these structures, and about (cohomological) determinants in K-theory, which seem to be a hot topic among AG, AT, and RT researchers alike at the moment. Thanks!

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John Baez discusses Picard categories briefly in Week 284 of This Week's Finds –  David Corfield May 17 '10 at 12:56

2 Answers 2

I ran across Picard categories in a totally different area of mathematics, but maybe it helps.

In short, a Picard category is a group object in the category of groupoids.

Picard categories come up when you study Picard stacks. Roughly, a Picard stack is a sheaf of Picard categories. The classical example is taking a two-term (perfect??) complex of sheaves, and asssociating to such a complex the Groupoid quotient of the one term by the other. This is important when you want to produce a geomteric object from such a complex. This is an important tool in defining virtual fundamental classes as in

Before I tell you to many things that are not true, here are the references I know of:

Lecture notes of Martin Olsson at, Lecture 5. You can even watch that on video:

The definitive reference is Expos´e XVIII of SGA 4. You used to be able to get that at the Grothendieck circle. Now its still availabe on all the usual Russian sites.

And finally there are very friendly and down to earth lectures of Barbara Fantechi at . I think lecture 3 or lecture 4 is about Picard categories.

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Determinants are discussed (in a language relevant to this current question) in this MO question.

One place Picard categories naturally appear is as fundamental (aka Poincare) groupoids -- specifically those of infinite loop spaces (which are a refined homotopical version of abelian group objects in spaces, so form a natural source of abelian groups in categories. In fact Picard categories are equivalent to spectra which have only two consecutive homotopy groups, which up to shift we may as well take to be $\pi_0$ and $\pi_1$ -- one direction is given by the fundamental groupoid.

The important example of the Picard category of graded lines over a field arises this way from the algebraic K-theory spectrum of the field, via the determinant line construction (see eg Beilinson's paper referred to in the answers to the above MO link).

Another example important in rep theory is the Picard category of sheaves of twisted differential operators. This is discussed in detail in the famous "Proof of Jantzen Conjectures" paper of Beilinson-Bernstein.

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