The Set Tour, Part 8: Balls, Only Made Harder

I haven’t forgotten or given up on the Set Tour, don’t worry or celebrate. I just expected there to be more mathematically-themed comic strips the last couple days. Really, three days in a row without anything at ComicsKingdom or GoComics to talk about? That’s unsettling stuff. Ah well.


We are also starting to get into often-used domains that are a bit stranger. We are going to start seeing domains that strain the imagination more. But this isn’t strange quite yet. We’re looking at the surface of a sphere.

The surface of a sphere we call S2. The “S” suggests a sphere. The “2” means that we have a two-dimensional surface, which matches what we see with the surface of the Earth, or a beach ball, or a soap bubble. All these are sphere enough for our needs. If we want to say where we are on the surface of the Earth, it’s most convenient to do this with two numbers. These are a latitude and a longitude. The latitude is the angle made between the point we’re interested in and the equator. The longitude is the angle made between the point we’re interested in and a reference prime longitude.

There are some variations. We can replace the latitude, for example, with the colatitude. That’s the angle between our point and the north pole. Or we might replace the latitude with the cosine of the colatitude. That has some nice analytic properties that you have to be well into grad school to care about. It doesn’t matter. The details may vary but it’s all the same. We put in a number for the east-west distance and another for the north-south distance.

It may seem pompous to use the same system to say where a point is on the surface of a beach ball. But can you think of a better one? Pointing to the ball and saying “there”, I suppose. But that requires we go around with the beach ball pointing out spots. Giving two numbers saves us having to go around pointing.

(Some weenie may wish to point out that if we were clever we could describe a point exactly using only a single number. This is true. Nobody does that unless they’re weenies trying to make a point. This essay is long enough without describing what mathematicians really mean by “dimension”. “How many numbers normal people use to identify a point in it” is good enough.)

S2 is a common domain. If we talk about something that varies with your position on the surface of the earth, we’re probably using S2 as the domain. If we talk about the temperature as it varies with position, or the height above sea level, or the population density, we have functions with a domain of S2 and a range in R. If we talk about the wind speed and direction we have a function with domain of S2 and a range in R3, because the wind might be moving in any direction.

Of course, I wrote down Sn rather than just S2. As with Rn and with Rm x n, there is really a family of similar domains. They are common enough to share a basic symbol, and the superscript is enough to differentiate them.

What we mean by Sn is “the collection of points in Rn+1 that are all the same distance from the origin”. Let me unpack that a little. The “origin” is some point in space that we pick to measure stuff from. On the number line we just call that “zero”. On your normal two-dimensional plot that’s where the x- and y-axes intersect. On your normal three-dimensional plot that’s where the x- and y- and z-axes intersect.

And by “the same distance” we mean some set, fixed distance. Usually we call that the radius. If we don’t specify some distance then we mean “1”. In fact, this is so regularly the radius I’m not sure how we would specify a different one. Maybe we would write Snr for a radius of “r”. Anyway, Sn, the surface of the sphere with radius 1, is commonly called the “unit sphere”. “Unit” gets used a fair bit for shapes. You’ll see references to a “unit cube” or “unit disc” or so on. A unit cube has sides length 1. A unit disc has radius 1. If you see “unit” in a mathematical setting it usually means “this thing measures out at 1”. (The other thing it may mean is “a unit of measure, but we’re not saying which one”. For example, “a unit of distance” doesn’t commit us to saying whether the distance is one inch, one meter, one million light-years, or one angstrom. We use that when we don’t care how big the unit is, and only wonder how many of them we have.)

S1 is an exotic name for a familiar thing. It’s all the points in two-dimensional space that are a distance 1 from the origin. Real people call this a “circle”. So do mathematicians unless they’re comparing it to other spheres or hyperspheres.

This is a one-dimensional figure. We can identify a single point on it easily with just one number, the angle made with respect to some reference direction. The reference direction is almost always that of the positive x-axis. That’s the line that starts at the center of the circle and points off to the right.

S3 is the first hypersphere we encounter. It’s a surface that’s three-dimensional, and it takes a four-dimensional space to see it. You might be able to picture this in your head. When I try I imagine something that looks like the regular old surface of the sphere, only it has fancier shading and maybe some extra lines to suggest depth. That’s all right. We can describe the thing even if we can’t imagine it perfectly. S4, well, that’s something taking five dimensions of space to fit in. I don’t blame you if you don’t bother trying to imagine what that looks like exactly.

The need for S4 itself tends to be rare. If we want to prove something about a function on a hypersphere we usually make do with Sn. This doesn’t tell us how many dimensions we’re working with. But we can imagine that as a regular old sphere only with a most fancy job of drawing lines on it.

If we want to talk about Sn aloud, or if we just want some variation in our prose, we might call it an n-sphere instead. So the 2-sphere is the surface of the regular old sphere that’s good enough for everybody but mathematicians. The 1-sphere is the circle. The 3-sphere and so on are harder to imagine. Wikipedia asserts that 3-spheres and higher-dimension hyperspheres are sometimes called “glomes”. I have not heard this word before, and I would expect it to start a fight if I tried to play it in Scrabble. However, I do not do mathematics that often requires discussion of hyperspheres. I leave this space open to people who do and who can say whether “glome” is a thing.

Something that all these Sn sets have in common are that they are the surfaces of spheres. They are just the boundary, and omit the interior. If we want a function that’s defined on the interior of the Earth we need to find a different domain.