Gaurish, of the For The Love Of Mathematics blog, takes me back into topology today. And it’s a challenging one, because what can I say about a shape this involved when I’m too lazy to draw pictures or include photographs most of the time?
In 1958 Clifton Fadiman, an open public intellectual and panelist on many fine old-time radio and early TV quiz shows, edited the book Fantasia Mathematica. It’s a pleasant read and you likely can find a copy in a library or university library nearby. It’s a collection of mathematically-themed stuff. Mostly short stories, a few poems, some essays, even that bit where Socrates works through a proof. And some of it is science fiction, this from an era when science fiction was really disreputable.
If there’s a theme to the science fiction stories included it is: Möbius Strips, huh? There are so many stories in the book that amount to, “what is this crazy bizarre freaky weird ribbon-like structure that only has the one side? Huh?” As I remember even one of the non-science-fiction stories is a Möbius Strip story.
I don’t want to sound hard on the writers, nor on Fadiman for collecting what he has. A story has to be about people doing something, even if it’s merely exploring some weird phenomenon. You can imagine people dealing with weird shapes. It’s hard to imagine what story you could tell about an odd perfect number. (Well, that isn’t “here’s how we discovered the odd perfect number”, which amounts to a lot of thinking and false starts. Or that doesn’t make the odd perfect number a MacGuffin, the role equally well served by letters of transit or a heap of gold or whatever.) Many of the stories that aren’t about the Möbius Strip are about four- and higher-dimensional shapes that people get caught in or pass through. One of the hyperdimensional stories, A J Deutsch’s “A Subway Named Möbius”, even pulls in the Möbius Strip. The name doesn’t fit, but it is catchy, and is one of the two best tall tales about the Boston subway system.
Besides, it’s easy to see why the Möbius Strip is interesting. It’s a ribbon where both sides are the same side. What’s not neat about that? It forces us to realize that while we know what “sides” are, there’s stuff about them that isn’t obvious. That defies intuition. It’s so easy to make that it holds another mystery. How is this not a figure known to the ancients and used as a symbol of paradox for millennia? I have no idea; it’s hard to guess why something was not noticed when it could easily have been It dates to 1858, when August Ferdinand Möbius and Johann Bendict Listing independently published on it.
The Klein Bottle is newer by a generation. Felix Klein, who used group theory to enlighten geometry and vice-versa, described the surface in 1882. It has much in common with the Möbius Strip. It’s a thing that looks like a solid. But it’s impossible to declare one side to be outside and the other in, at least not in any logically coherent way. Take one and dab a spot with a magic marker. You could trace, with the marker, a continuous curve that gets around to the same spot on the “other” “side” of the thing. You see why I have to put quotes around “other” and “side”. I believe you know what I mean when I say this. But taken literally, it’s nonsense.
The Klein Bottle’s a two-dimensional surface. By that I mean that could cover it with what look like lines of longitude and latitude. Those coordinates would tell you, without confusion, where a point on the surface is. But it’s embedded in a four-dimensional space. (Or a higher-dimensional space, but everything past the fourth dimension is extravagance.) We have never seen a Klein Bottle in its whole. I suppose there are skilled people who can imagine it faithfully, but how would anyone else ever know?
Big deal. We’ve never seen a tesseract either, but we know the shadow it casts in three-dimensional space. So it is with the Klein Bottle. Visit any university mathematics department. If they haven’t got a glass replica of one in the dusty cabinets welcoming guests to the department, never fear. At least one of the professors has one on an office shelf, probably beside some exams from eight years ago. They make nice-looking jars. Klein Bottles don’t have to. There are different shapes their projection into three dimensions can take. But the only really different one is this sort of figure-eight helical shape that looks like a roller coaster gone vicious. (There’s also a mirror image of this, the helix winding the opposite way.) These representations have the surface cross through itself. In four dimensions, it does no such thing, any more than the edges of a cube cross one another. It’s just the lines in a picture on a piece of paper that cross.
The Möbius Strip is good practice for learning about the Klein Bottle. We can imagine creating a Bottle by the correct stitching-together of two strips. Or, if you feel destructive, we can start with a Bottle and slice it, producing a pair of Möbius Strips. Both are non-orientable. We can’t make a division between one side and another that reflects any particular feature of the shape. One of the helix-like representations of the Klein Bottle also looks like a pool toy-ring version of the Möbius Strip.
And strange things happen on these surfaces. You might remember the four-color map theorem. Four colors are enough to color any two-dimensional map without adjacent territories having to share a color. (This isn’t actually so, as the territories have to be contiguous, with no enclaves of one territory inside another. Never mind.) This is so for territories on the sphere. It’s hard to prove (although the five-color theorem is easy.) Not so for the Möbius Strip: territories on it might need as many as six colors. And likewise for the Klein Bottle. That’s a particularly neat result, as the Heawood Conjecture tells us the Klein Bottle might need seven. The Heawood Conjecture is otherwise dead-on in telling us how many colors different kinds of surfaces need for their map-colorings. The Klein Bottle is a strange surface. And yes, it was easier to prove the six-color theorem on the Klein Bottle than it was to prove the four-color theorem on the plane or sphere.
(Though it’s got the tentative-sounding name of conjecture, the Heawood Conjecture is proven. Heawood put it out as a conjecture in 1890. It took to 1968 for the whole thing to be finally proved. I imagine all those decades of being thought but not proven true gave it a reputation. It’s not wrong for Klein Bottles. If six colors are enough for these maps, then so are seven colors. It’s just that Klein Bottles are the lone case where the bound is tighter than Heawood suggests.)
All that said, do we care? Do Klein Bottles represent something of particular mathematical interest? Or are they imagination-capturing things we don’t really use? I confess I’m not enough of a topologist to say how useful they are. They are easily-understood examples of algebraic or geometric constructs. These are things with names like “quotient spaces” and “deck transformations” and “fiber bundles”. The thought of the essay I would need to write to say what a fiber bundle is makes me appreciate having good examples of the thing around. So if nothing else they are educationally useful.
And perhaps they turn up more than I realize. The geometry of Möbius Strips turns up in many surprising places: music theory and organic chemistry, superconductivity and roller coasters. It would seem out of place if the kinds of connections which make a Klein Bottle don’t turn up in our twisty world.