A Leap Day 2016 Mathematics A To Z: Riemann Sphere


To my surprise nobody requested any terms beginning with `R’ for this A To Z. So I take this free day to pick on a concept I’d imagine nobody saw coming.

Riemann Sphere.

We need to start with the complex plane. This is just, well, a plane. All the points on the plane correspond to a complex-valued number. That’s a real number plus a real number times i. And i is one of those numbers which, squared, equals -1. It’s like the real number line, only in two directions at once.

Take that plane. Now put a sphere on it. The sphere has radius one-half. And it sits on top of the plane. Its lowest point, the south pole, sits on the origin. That’s whatever point corresponds to the number 0 + 0i, or as humans know it, “zero”.

We’re going to do something amazing with this. We’re going to make a projection, something that maps every point on the sphere to every point on the plane, and vice-versa. In other words, we can match every complex-valued number to one point on the sphere. And every point on the sphere to one complex-valued number. Here’s how.

Imagine sitting at the north pole. And imagine that you can see through the sphere. Pick any point on the plane. Look directly at it. Shine a laser beam, if that helps you pick the point out. The laser beam is going to go into the sphere — you’re squatting down to better look through the sphere — and come out somewhere on the sphere, before going on to the point in the plane. The point where the laser beam emerges? That’s the mapping of the point on the plane to the sphere.

There’s one point with an obvious match. The south pole is going to match zero. They touch, after all. Other points … it’s less obvious. But some are easy enough to work out. The equator of the sphere, for instance, is going to match all the points a distance of 1 from the origin. So it’ll have the point matching the number 1 on it. It’ll also have the point matching the number -1, and the point matching i, and the point matching -i. And some other numbers.

All the numbers that are less than 1 from the origin, in fact, will have matches somewhere in the southern hemisphere. If you don’t see why that is, draw some sketches and think about it. You’ll convince yourself. If you write down what convinced you and sprinkle the word “continuity” in here and there, you’ll convince a mathematician. (WARNING! Don’t actually try getting through your Intro to Complex Analysis class doing this. But this is what you’ll be doing.)

What about the numbers more than 1 from the origin? … Well, they all match to points on the northern hemisphere. And tell me that doesn’t stagger you. It’s one thing to match the southern hemisphere to all the points in a circle of radius 1 away from the origin. But we can match everything outside that little circle to the northern hemisphere. And it all fits in!

Not amazed enough? How about this: draw a circle on the plane. Then look at the points on the Riemann sphere that match it. That set of points? It’s also a circle. A line on the plane? That’s also a line on the sphere. (Well, it’s a geodesic. It’s the thing that looks like a line, on spheres.)

How about this? Take a pair of intersecting lines or circles in the plane. Look at what they map to. That mapping, squashed as it might be to the northern hemisphere of the sphere? The projection of the lines or circles will intersect at the same angles as the original. As much as space gets stretched out (near the south pole) or squashed down (near the north pole), angles stay intact.

OK, but besides being stunning, what good is all this?

Well, one is that it’s a good thing to learn on. Geometry gets interested in things that look, at least in places, like planes, but aren’t necessarily. These spheres are, and the way a sphere matches a plane is obvious. We can learn the tools for geometry on the Möbius strip or the Klein bottle or other exotic creations by the tools we prove out on this.

And then physics comes in, being all weird. Much of quantum mechanics makes sense if you imagine it as things on the sphere. (I admit I don’t know exactly how. I went to grad school in mathematics, not in physics, and I didn’t get to the physics side of mathematics much at that time.) The strange ways distance can get mushed up or stretched out have echoes in relativity. They’ll continue having these echoes in other efforts to explain physics as geometry, the way that string theory will.

Also important is that the sphere has a top, the north pole. That point matches … well, what? It’s got to be something infinitely far away from the origin. And this make sense. We can use this projection to make a logically coherent, sensible description of things “approaching infinity”, the way we want to when we first learn about infinitely big things. Wrapping all the complex-valued numbers to this ball makes the vast manageable.

It’s also good numerical practice. Computer simulations have problems with infinitely large things, for the obvious reason. We have a couple of tools to handle this. One is to model a really big but not infinitely large space and hope we aren’t breaking anything. One is to create a “tiling”, making the space we are able to simulate repeat itself in a perfect grid forever and ever. But recasting the problem from the infinitely large plane onto the sphere can also work. This requires some ingenuity, to be sure we do the recasting correctly, but that’s all right. If we need to run a simulation over all of space, we can often get away with doing a simulation on a sphere. And isn’t that also grand?

The Riemann named here is Bernhard Riemann, yet another of those absurdly prolific 19th century mathematicians, especially considering how young he was when he died. His name is all over the fundamentals of analysis and geometry. When you take Introduction to Calculus you get introduced pretty quickly to the Riemann Sum, which is how we first learn how to calculate integrals. It’s that guy. General relativity, and much of modern physics, is based on advanced geometries that again fall back on principles Riemann noticed or set out or described so well that we still think of them as he discovered.

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