The Summer 2017 Mathematics A To Z: Cohomology

Today’s A To Z topic is another request from Gaurish, of the For The Love Of Mathematics blog. Also part of what looks like a quest to make me become a topology blogger, at least for a little while. It’s going to be exciting and I hope not to faceplant as I try this.

Also, a note about Thomas K Dye, who’s drawn the banner art for this and for the Why Stuff Can Orbit series: the publisher for collections of his comic strip is having a sale this weekend.


The word looks intimidating, and faintly of technobabble. It’s less cryptic than it appears. We see parts of it in non-mathematical contexts. In biology class we would see “homology”, the sharing of structure in body parts that look superficially very different. We also see it in art class. The instructor points out that a dog’s leg looks like that because they stand on their toes. What looks like a backward-facing knee is just the ankle, and if we stand on our toes we see that in ourselves. We might see it in chemistry, as many interesting organic compounds differ only in how long or how numerous the boring parts are. The stuff that does work is the same, or close to the same. And this is a hint to what a mathematician means by cohomology. It’s something in shapes. It’s particularly something in how different things might have similar shapes. Yes, I am using a homology in language here.

I often talk casually about the “shape” of mathematical things. Or their “structures”. This sounds weird and abstract to start and never really gets better. We can get some footing if we think about drawing the thing we’re talking about. Could we represent the thing we’re working on as a figure? Often we can. Maybe we can draw a polygon, with the vertices of the shape matching the pieces of our mathematical thing. We get the structure of our thing from thinking about what we can do to that polygon without changing the way it looks. Or without changing the way we can do whatever our original mathematical thing does.

This leads us to homologies. We get them by looking for stuff that’s true even if we moosh up the original thing. The classic homology comes from polyhedrons, three-dimensional shapes. There’s a relationship between the number of vertices, the number of edges, and the number of faces of a polyhedron. It doesn’t change even if you stretch the shape out longer, or squish it down, for that matter slice off a corner. It only changes if you punch a new hole through the middle of it. Or if you plug one up. That would be unsporting. A homology describes something about the structure of a mathematical thing. It might even be literal. Topology, the study of what we know about shapes without bringing distance into it, has the number of holes that go through a thing as a homology. This gets feeling like a comfortable, familiar idea now.

But that isn’t a cohomology. That ‘co’ prefix looks dangerous. At least it looks significant. When the ‘co’ prefix has turned up before it’s meant something is shaped by how it refers to something else. Coordinates aren’t just number lines; they’re collections of number lines that we can use to say where things are. If ‘a’ is a factor of the number ‘x’, its cofactor is the number you multiply ‘a’ by in order to get ‘x’. (For real numbers that’s just x divided by a. For other stuff it might be weirder.) A codomain is a set that a function maps a domain into (and must contain the range, at least). Cosets aren’t just sets; they’re ways we can divide (for example) the counting numbers into odds and evens.

So what’s the ‘co’ part for a homology? I’m sad to say we start losing that comfortable feeling now. We have to look at something we’re used to thinking of as a process as though it were a thing. These things are morphisms: what are the ways we can match one mathematical structure to another? Sometimes the morphisms are easy. We can match the even numbers up with all the integers: match 0 with 0, match 2 with 1, match -6 with -3, and so on. Addition on the even numbers matches with addition on the integers: 4 plus 6 is 10; 2 plus 3 is 5. For that matter, we can match the integers with the multiples of three: match 1 with 3, match -1 with -3, match 5 with 15. 1 plus -2 is -1; 3 plus -6 is -9.

What happens if we look at the sets of matchings that we can do as if that were a set of things? That is, not some human concept like ‘2’ but rather ‘match a number with one-half its value’? And ‘match a number with three times its value’? These can be the population of a new set of things.

And these things can interact. Suppose we “match a number with one-half its value” and then immediately “match a number with three times its value”. Can we do that? … Sure, easily. 4 matches to 2 which goes on to 6. 8 matches to 4 which goes on to 12. Can we write that as a single matching? Again, sure. 4 matches to 6. 8 matches to 12. -2 matches to -3. We can write this as “match a number with three-halves its value”. We’ve taken “match a number with one-half its value” and combined it with “match a number with three times its value”. And it’s given us the new “match a number with three-halves its value”. These things we can do to the integers are themselves things that can interact.

This is a good moment to pause and let the dizziness pass.

It isn’t just you. There is something weird thinking of “doing stuff to a set” as a thing. And we have to get a touch more abstract than even this. We should be all right, but please do not try not to use this to defend your thesis in category theory. Just use it to not look forlorn when talking to your friend who’s defending her thesis in category theory.

Now, we can take this collection of all the ways we can relate one set of things to another. And we can combine this with an operation that works kind of like addition. Some way to “add” one way-to-match-things to another and get a way-to-match-things. There’s also something that works kind of like multiplication. It’s a different way to combine these ways-to-match-things. This forms a ring, which is a kind of structure that mathematicians learn about in Introduction to Not That Kind Of Algebra. There are many constructs that are rings. The integers, for example, are also a ring, with addition and multiplication the same old processes we’ve always used.

And just as we can sort the integers into odds and evens — or into other groupings, like “multiples of three” and “one plus a multiple of three” and “two plus a multiple of three” — so we can sort the ways-to-match-things into new collections. And this is our cohomology. It’s the ways we can sort and classify the different ways to manipulate whatever we started on.

I apologize that this sounds so abstract as to barely exist. I admit we’re far from a nice solid example such as “six”. But the abstractness is what gives cohomologies explanatory power. We depend very little on the specifics of what we might talk about. And therefore what we can prove is true for very many things. It takes a while to get there, is all.