Today’s glossary entry comes from Elke Stangl, author of the Elkemental Force blog. I’ll do my best, although it would have made my essay a bit easier if I’d had the chance to do another topic first. We’ll get there.

# Topology.

Start with a universe. Nice thing to have around. Call it ‘M’. I’ll get to why that name.

I’ve talked a fair bit about weird mathematical objects that need some bundle of traits to be interesting. So this will change the pace some. Here, I request only that the universe have a concept of “sets”. OK, that carries a little baggage along with it. We have to have intersections and unions. Those come about from having pairs of sets. The intersection of two sets is all the things that are in both sets simultaneously. The union of two sets is all the things that are in one set, or the other, or both simultaneously. But it’s hard to think of something that could have sets that couldn’t have intersections and unions.

So from your universe ‘M’ create a new collection of things. Call it ‘T’. I’ll get to why that name. But if you’ve formed a guess about why, then you know. So I suppose I don’t need to say why, now. ‘T’ is a collection of subsets of ‘M’. Now let’s suppose these four things are true.

First. ‘M’ is one of the sets in ‘T’.

Second. The empty set ∅ (which has nothing at all in it) is one of the sets in ‘T’.

Third. Whenever two sets are in ‘T’, their intersection is also in ‘T’.

Fourth. Whenever two (or more) sets are in ‘T’, their union is also in ‘T’.

Got all that? I imagine a lot of shrugging and head-nodding out there. So let’s take that. Your universe ‘M’ and your collection of sets ‘T’ are a topology. And that’s that.

Yeah, that’s never that. Let me put in some more text. Suppose we have a universe that consists of two symbols, say, ‘a’ and ‘b’. There’s four distinct topologies you can make of that. Take the universe plus the collection of sets {∅}, {a}, {b}, and {a, b}. That’s a topology. Try it out. That’s the first collection you would probably think of.

Here’s another collection. Take this two-thing universe and the collection of sets {∅}, {a}, and {a, b}. That’s another topology and you might want to double-check that. Or there’s this one: the universe and the collection of sets {∅}, {b}, and {a, b}. Last one: the universe and the collection of sets {∅} and {a, b} and nothing else. That one barely looks legitimate, but it is. *Not* a topology: the universe and the collection of sets {∅}, {a}, and {b}.

The number of toplogies grows surprisingly with the number of things in the universe. Like, if we had three symbols, ‘a’, ‘b’, and ‘c’, there would be 29 possible topologies. The universe of the three symbols and the collection of sets {∅}, {a}, {b, c}, and {a, b, c}, for example, would be a topology. But the universe and the collection of sets {∅}, {a}, {b}, {c}, and {a, b, c} would not. It’s a good thing to ponder if you need something to occupy your mind while awake in bed.

With four symbols, there’s 355 possibilities. Good luck working those all out before you fall asleep. Five symbols have 6,942 possibilities. You realize this doesn’t look like any expected sequence. After ‘4’ the count of topologies isn’t anything obvious like “two to the number of symbols” or “the number of symbols factorial” or something.

Are you getting ready to call me on being inconsistent? In the past I’ve talked about topology as studying what we can know about geometry without involving the idea of distance. How’s that got anything to do with this fiddling about with sets and intersections and stuff?

So now we come to that name ‘M’, and what it’s finally mnemonic for. I have to touch on something Elke Stangl hoped I’d write about, but a letter someone else bid on first. That would be a manifold. I come from an applied-mathematics background so I’m not sure I ever got a proper introduction to manifolds. They appeared one day in the background of some talk about physics problems. I think they were introduced as “it’s a space that works like normal space”, and that was it. We were supposed to pretend we had always known about them. (I’m translating. What we were actually told would be that it “works like **R**^{3}”. That’s how mathematicians say “like normal space”.) That was all we needed.

Properly, a manifold is … eh. It’s something that works kind of like normal space. That is, it’s a set, something that can be a universe. And it has to be something we can define “open sets” on. The open sets for the manifold follow the rules I gave for a topology above. You can make a collection of these open sets. And the empty set has to be in that collection. So does the whole universe. The intersection of two open sets in that collection is itself in that collection. The union of open sets in that collection is in that collection. If all that’s true, then we have a manifold.

And now the piece that makes every pop mathematics article about topology talk about doughnuts and coffee cups. It’s possible that two topologies might be homeomorphic to each other. “Homeomorphic” is a term of art. But you understand it if you remember that “morph” means shape, and suspect that “homeo” is probably close to “homogenous”. Two things being homeomorphic means you can match their parts up. In the matching there’s nothing left over in the first thing or the second. And the relations between the parts of the first thing are the same as the relations between the parts of the second thing.

So. Imagine the snippet of the number line for the numbers larger than -π and smaller than π. Think of all the open sets you can use to cover that. It will have a set like “the numbers bigger than 0 and less than 1”. A set like “the numbers bigger than -π and smaller than 2.1”. A set like “the numbers bigger than 0.01 and smaller than 0.011”. And so on.

Now imagine the points that exist on a circle, if you’ve omitted one point. Let’s say it’s the unit circle, centered on the origin, and that what we’re leaving out is the point that’s exactly to the left of the origin. The open sets for this are the arcs that cover some part of this punctured circle. There’s the arc that corresponds to the angles from 0 to 1 radian measure. There’s the arc that corresponds to the angles from -π to 2.1 radians. There’s the arc that corresponds to the angles from 0.01 to 0.011 radians. You see where this is going. You see why I say we can match those sets on the number line to the arcs of this punctured circle. There’s some details to fill in here. But you probably believe me this could be done if I had to.

There’s two (or three) great branches of topology. One is called “algebraic topology”. It’s the one that makes for fun pop mathematics articles about imaginary rubber sheets. It’s called “algebraic” because this field makes it natural to study the holes in a sheet. And those holes tend to form groups and rings, basic pieces of Not That Algebra. The field (I’m told) can be interpreted as looking at functors on groups and rings. This makes for some neat tying-together of subjects this A To Z round.

The other branch is called “differential topology”, which is a great field to study because it sounds like what Mister Spock is thinking about. It inspires awestruck looks where saying you study, like, Bayesian probability gets blank stares. Differential topology is about differentiable functions on manifolds. This gets deep into mathematical physics.

As you study mathematical physics, you stop worrying about ever solving specific physics problems. Specific problems are petty stuff. What you *like* is solving whole classes of problems. A steady trick for this is to try to find some properties that are true about the problem regardless of what exactly it’s doing at the time. This amounts to finding a manifold that relates to the problem. Consider a central-force problem, for example, with planets orbiting a sun. A planet can’t move just *anywhere*. It can only be in places and moving in directions that give the system the same total energy that it had to start. And the same linear momentum. And the same angular momentum. We can match these constraints to manifolds. Whatever the planet does, it does it without ever leaving these manifolds. To know the shapes of these manifolds — how they are connected — and what kinds of functions are defined on them tells us something of how the planets move.

The maybe-third branch is “low-dimensional topology”. This is what differential topology is for two- or three- or four-dimensional spaces. You know, shapes we can imagine with ease in the real world. Maybe imagine with some effort, for four dimensions. This kind of branches out of differential topology because having so few dimensions to work in makes a lot of problems harder. We need specialized theoretical tools that only work for these cases. Is that enough to count as a separate branch? It depends what topologists you want to pick a fight with. (I don’t want a fight with any of them. I’m over here in numerical mathematics when I’m not merely blogging. I’m happy to provide space for anyone wishing to defend her branch of topology.)

But each grows out of this quite general, quite abstract idea, also known as “point-set topology”, that’s all about sets and collections of sets. There is much that we can learn from thinking about how to collect the things that are possible.

I am really happy that you didn’t start with “Topology is also known as rubber sheet geometry”.

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Although I never know precisely what I’m going to write before I put in the first paragraph, I

didresolve that I was going to put off rubber sheets, as well as coffee cups, as long as I possibly could.LikeLiked by 1 person

Great post! I was interested in your take as there are different ways to introduce manifolds in theoretical physics – I worked through different General Relativity textbooks / courses in parallel: One lecturer insisted that you need to treat that stuff “with the rigor of a mathematician”, and he went to great lengths to point out why a manifold is different from “normal space”. Others use the typical physicist’s approach of avoiding all specialized terms like fiber bundles and pushbacks, calling everything a “vector field” and “space”, only alluding to comprehensible familiar structures that sort of work in the same way – and somehow still managed to get across the messages and theorems in the end. But the rigorous lecturer said that it was exactly confusing the actual space (or spacetime) and a manifold that had stalled and confused Einstein for many years – so I suppose one should really learn the mathematics thoroughly here …

On the other hand from what you say it seems to me that manifolds have sort of emerged as a tool in physics, and so Einstein had to create or inspire new mathematics as he went along … while today we can build on this and after we learned the rigorous stuff it is probably OK to fall back into the typical physicist’s mode. (Landau / Lifshitz are my favorite resource in the latter class – the treat GR very concisely in the volume on the Classical Theory of Fields, part of their 10-volume Course of Theoretical Physics – and they use hardly any specialized term related to topologies).

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Thank you so. Well, I’ve shared just how I got introduced to manifolds myself. I come from a more mathematical physics background and it’s a little surprising how often things would be introduced casually, trusting that the precise details would be filled in later. Sometimes they even were. I don’t think that’s idiosyncratic to my school, although it was a heavily applied-mathematics department. (The joke was that we had two tracks, Applied Mathematics and More Applied Mathematics.)

I’m not very well-studied in the history of modern physics, at least not in how the mathematical models develop. But I think that you have a good read on it, that we started to get manifolds because they solved some very specific niche problems well. And then treated rigorously they promised more, and then people started looking for problems they could solve. I think that’s probably more common a history for mathematical structures than people realize. But, as you point out, that doesn’t mean everyone’s going to see the tool as worth learning how to use.

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