Category theorists welcome self-learners in a new outreach panel

category theory

David Spivak

Alexis Anaya




We are finding that self learning is becoming more and more popular when it comes to learning category theory. In a collaborative effort to assist people in this pursuit, Topos will host a category theory outreach panel moderated by Emily Riehl, and featuring Tai-Danae Bradley, Eugenia Cheng, Paul Dancstep, and Oliver Lugg.

TL;DR: There will be a Category Theory Outreach Panel March 16 at 17:00UTC, live on Zoom as a Topos Colloquium, and livestreamed on YouTube. Please join!

1 How does a self-learner approach category theory?

Where do you start learning category theory if you’re a nanny wanting to find a short-hand for the sorts of relationships you see all around you? What about a high school student thinking about the future of technology, or a retired person who came across the Category Theory Reddit group. We’ve met a software engineer who moonlights as a poet and is fascinated by the power of metaphor. We find self-learners everywhere. But everyone has different background stories and varying interests, and we each find certain concepts easy and others hard.

So to answer the incredibly difficult question above, we need to address the diversity of self-learners and how they relate to the world: their histories and who they are as people. It’s important to try to meet self-learners where they are and to listen to them when they have questions and suggestions regarding what they need in order to learn category theory.

2 Why this panel?

There are lots of category theory lovers who want to get the word out about this subject, and there are lots of self-learners who are eager to find resources they can relate to. The goal of this panel is to expand and improve the communication channel between these two groups by providing a space for both sides to inform each other.

There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution because each learner has a different background, a different learning style, different set of motivations, etc. One person might learn best by doing exercises in a textbook, whereas another learns best by watching short videos. One wants to get an in-depth look, whereas another wants a guided tour.

In our case, Alexis is a nanny who is interested in abstraction and new ways of thinking about relationships. Her difficulty in finding resources that she could have on-hand to help her learn category theory led us to a number of conversations on how to improve the situation and eventually to the idea for this panel.

3 Who’s on the panel?

The panel will be moderated by Emily Riehl, who has written a number of expository articles and books for mathematicians, including Category Theory in Context, which aims to highlight applications to other areas of mathematics.

Our four panelists are mathematicians and educators who are actively involved in producing category theory books and videos for a non-expert audience. They are Eugenia Cheng, Paul Dancstep, Oliver Lugg, and Tai-Danae Bradley.

  • Eugenia Cheng has been in the business of improving access to category theory for the last few decades. She was YouTube pioneer, producing the first Catsters videos with Simon Willerton in 2007. Among many other roles, she’s a public educator who “aims to rid the world of math(s) phobia” who has written a number of books for a lay audience, including How to Bake Pi, The Art of Logic, and The Joy of Abstraction — an exploration of math, category theory, and life, for which she is currently running a reading group.
  • Paul Dancstep is a professional educator, previously a senior exhibit developer at the world-famous San Francisco Exploratorium. He is the only member of our panel who is himself a self-learner of category theory. He produced a beautiful 10-minute video called What is Category Theory for Topos Institute last year.
  • Oliver Lugg runs a YouTube channel about mathematics and other subjects. His two videos on category theory, a funny one and a more serious one, together have almost 500,000 views as of this posting.
  • Tai-Danae Bradley was the host of the online PBS math series called Infinite Series. She also runs a popular math and category theory blog called Math3ma, coathored Topology: A Categorical Approach, and wrote a 50-page essay called What is Applied Category Theory.

If you’d like to ask questions of our panelists, please fill out this online form and come to the panel on March 16. Hope to see you there!