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## The higher Van Kampen Theorems and computation of the unstable homotopy groups of spheres

Since Ronnie Brown and his collaborators have come up with a general proof of the higher Van Kampen theorems, what impediments are there to using these to compute the unstable homotopy groups of spheres?

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Which result of Brown are you referring to? The higher Van Kampen theorem is usually called "Stover's spectral sequence" no? I haven't seen a computation of anything using any of these techniques, but I'm not sure which result of Brown you're referring to. – Ryan Budney Sep 24 2010 at 4:14
The "Higher Homotopy van Kampen Theorem" described in his book Nonabelian Algebraic Topology. – Harry Gindi Sep 24 2010 at 4:23
@Ryan.Have a look at Ronnie Brown's web pages for a history of the van Kampen theorem in its higher dimensional forms and an extensive bibiography including calculations.Yes,there are spectral sequences that give some (sometimes poor) information in van Kampen type situations, for instance a paper in Topology by Artin and Mazur as well as the one that you mention, but the original vKT allows the complete calculation of a homotopy type of a union from the parts. The first Brown-Higgins generalisation allowed calculations that were difficult to do otherwise, but this is low dim. homotopy. – Tim Porter Sep 24 2010 at 6:56
I think that it's worth pointing out that algorithms existed long before Brown's work for computing homotopy groups of spheres. The problem is that those algorithms are too slow to be of much practical use. I expect that the same is true for any answer coming from some kind of "higher van Kampen" theorem. There are patterns in the homotopy groups of spheres (eg the chromatic picture of the stable stems), but they are too complicated to arise from any simple description. – Nikita Sep 24 2010 at 13:53
@Tim Porter, can you provide a direct link? There's a lot of information on Brown's webpage and I'm not seeing "a history of the van Kampen Theorem" anywhere. – Ryan Budney Sep 24 2010 at 17:55

Here are some answers on the HHSvKT - I have been persuaded by a referee that we ought also to honour Seifert.

These theorems are about homotopy invariants of structured spaces, more particularly filtered spaces or n-cubes of spaces. For example the first theorem of this type

Brown, R. and Higgins, P.~J. On the connection between the second relative homotopy groups of some related spaces. Proc. London Math. Soc. (3) \textbf{36}~(2) (1978) 193--212.

said that the fundamental crossed module functor from pairs of pointed spaces to crossed modules preserves certain colimits. This allows some calculations of homotopy 2-types and then you need further work to compute the 1st and 2nd homotopy group; of course these two homotopy groups are pale shadows of the 2-type. As example calculations I mention

R. Brown Coproducts of crossed $P$-modules: applications to second homotopy groups and to the homology of groups'', {\em Topology} 23 (1984) 337-345.

(with C.D.WENSLEY), Computation and homotopical applications of induced crossed modules', J. Symbolic Computation 35 (2003) 59-72.

In the second paper some computational group theory is used to compute the 2-type and so 2nd homotopy groups of some mapping cones of maps $Bf: BG \to BH$ where $f:G \to H$ is a morphism of groups.

For applications of the work with Loday I refer you for example to the bibliography on the nonabelian tensor product

www.bangor.ac.uk/r.brown/nonabtens.html

which has 100 items, and also

Ellis, G.~J. and Mikhailov, R. A colimit of classifying spaces. {Advances in Math.} (2010) arXiv: [math.GR] 0804.3581v1 1--16.

So in the tensor product work, we determine $\pi_3 S(K(G,1))$ as the kernel of a morphism $\kappa: G \otimes G \to G$ (the commutator morphism!).

These theorems have connectivity conditions which means they are restricted in their applications, and don not solve all problems! There is still some interest in computing homotopy types of some complexes which cannot otherwise be computed. It is also of interest that the calculations are generally nonabelian ones. So the aim is to make some aspects of higher homotopy theory more like the theory of the fundamental group(oid), which is why I coined the term higher dimensional group theory' as indicating new structures underlying homotopy theory.

Even the 2-dimensional theorem on crossed modules seems little known or referred to! The proof is not so hard, but requires the notion of the homotopy double groupoid of a pair of pointed spaces. See also some recent presentations available on my preprint page.

Further comment: 11:12 24 Sept.

The HHSvKT's have two roles. One is to allow some calculations and understanding not previously possible. People concentrate on the homotopy groups of spheres but what about the homotopy types of more general complexes? One aim is to give another weapon in the armoury of algebraic topology.

The crossed complex work applies nicely to filtered spaces. The new book (pdf downloadable) gives an account of algebraic topology on the border between homotopy and homology without using singular or simplicial homology, and allows for some calculations for example of homotopy classes of maps in the non simply connected case. It gets some homotopy groups as modules over the fundamental group.

I like the fact that the Relative Hurewicz Theorem is a consequence of a HHSvKT, and this suggested a triadic Hurewicz Theorem which is one consequence of the work with Loday. Another is determination of the critical group in the Barratt-Whitehead n-ad connectivity theorem - to get the result needs the apparatus of cat^n-groups and crossed n-cubes of groups (Ellis/Steiner).

The hope (expectation?) is also that these techniques will allow new developments in related fields - see for example work of Faria Martins and Picken in diff geom.

Developments in algebraic topology have had over the decades wide implications, eventually in algebraic number theory. People could start by trying to understand and apply the 2-dim HHSvKT!

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Can't get any more definitive than this! – Harry Gindi Sep 24 2010 at 16:36
@ Harry. I thought that the best answer to your question was two fold. Firstly to e-mail Ronnie as he knows the stuff inside out and has lots of links to his pages available, so I did that. (You see the result. (We're quick off the mark in North Wales, :-))) The second stage should be to up-date the n-Lab entry and bring in some of the other stuff that RB did, e.g. the material with Loday. That will take time and hopefully others will contribute to it as well. – Tim Porter Sep 24 2010 at 16:49
I figured you had a hand in this! =), indeed! – Harry Gindi Sep 24 2010 at 16:55

Ronnie and collaborators' HHvK theorems are essentially all for crossed complexes and similar. These are, as I'm sure you're aware, partially linearised homotopy types. In particular, for a simply connected space, they are just chain complexes. So for $S^k, k>1$ it's not more useful than the homology.

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@David You are forgetting the version that RB proved with Loday. The end result there is a cat^n group and hence a model of the n+1 type of the 'union'/colimit. This leads to the non-Abelian tensor product and that has been a great idea, but they do not relevant to the unstable homotopy groups of spheres at least as far as I know. – Tim Porter Sep 24 2010 at 6:43
Hmm, good question. The problem I think moves from calculating homotopy groups of spheres to calculating colimits of cat^n groups. I don't think there is a very big literature on cat^n groups (but I note there is a lot on the nonabelian tensor product - RB has collected them on his website) and tools to deal with them. – David Roberts Sep 24 2010 at 8:28
@ Harry I will do but it will be a bit later on as I have to think about how best to answer e.g. to look up one of RB and J-LLs examples! – Tim Porter Sep 24 2010 at 8:33
I suppose that the theorem in question turns the computation of, say, $\pi_{200}(S^2)$ into mere algebra: it tells you how to write down generators and relations for some complicated algebraic object called a cat_n group and then you just have to learn how to extract your answer from that. – Tom Goodwillie Sep 24 2010 at 13:41
@Tom My own take on it might be a bit different. There is a curiosity in knowing the homotopy groups of spheres, but that is partially a curiosity in studying the way in which the algebra reflects homotopy structure, so modelling the homotopy 200-type of $S^2$ is perhaps in the long run more central to the understanding of the total homotopy type of $S^2$, than 'merely' knowing the value of $\pi_{200}(S^2)$. The $cat^n$ group ($cat^{200}$-group of $S^2$ would contain an awesome amount of information on certain homotopy operations. I cannot start to think what they might be! – Tim Porter Sep 24 2010 at 18:02
Carl writes cat-n groups can only provide information on the n-type'. I wonder about the word only'! The HHSvKT computes (when it works) the n-type of a colimit from the n-types of the pieces and the gluing information. Sometimes (this has been done for cat$^2$-groups) this allows a lot of information on homotopy groups of the colimit, Whitehead products, composition operators, ... Is not that amazing? Also not many have worked on these gadgets. – Ronnie Brown Sep 27 2010 at 20:04