My 2018 Mathematics A To Z: Manifold


Two commenters suggested the topic for today’s A to Z post. I suspect I’d have been interested in it if only one had. (Although Dina Yagoditch’s suggestion of the Menger Sponge is hard to resist.) But a double domination? The topic got suggested by Mr Wu, author of MathTuition88, and by John Golden, author of Math Hombre. My thanks to all for interesting things to think about.

Cartoon of a thinking coati (it's a raccoon-like animal from Latin America); beside him are spelled out on Scrabble titles, 'MATHEMATICS A TO Z', on a starry background. Various arithmetic symbols are constellations in the background.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Newshounds, Something Happens, and Infinity Refugees. His current project is Projection Edge. And you can get Projection Edge six months ahead of public publication by subscribing to his Patreon. And he’s on Twitter as @Newshoundscomic.

Manifold.

So you know how in the first car you ever owned the alternator was always going bad? If you’re lucky, you reach a point where you start owning cars good enough that the alternator is not the thing always going bad. Once you’re there, congratulations. Now the thing that’s always going bad in your car will be the manifold. That one’s for my dad.

Manifolds are a way to do normal geometry on weird shapes. What’s normal geometry? It’s … you know, the way shapes work on your table, or in a room. The Euclidean geometry that we’re so used to that it’s hard to imagine it not working. Why worry about weird shapes? They’re interesting, for one. And they don’t have to be that weird to count as weird. A sphere, like the surface of the Earth, can be weird. And these weird shapes can be useful. Mathematical physics, for example, can represent the evolution of some complicated thing as a path drawn on a weird shape. Bringing what we know about geometry from years of study, and moving around rooms, to a problem that abstract makes our lives easier.

We use language that sounds like that of map-makers when discussing manifolds. We have maps. We gather together charts. The collection of charts describing a surface can be an atlas. All these words have common meanings. Mercifully, these common meanings don’t lead us too far from the mathematical meanings. We can even use the problem of mapping the surface of the Earth to understand manifolds.

If you love maps, the geography kind, you learn quickly that there’s no making a perfect two-dimensional map of the Earth’s surface. Some of these imperfections are obvious. You can distort shapes trying to make a flat map of the globe. You can distort sizes. But you can’t represent every point on the globe with a point on the paper. Not without doing something that really breaks continuity. Like, say, turning the North Pole into the whole line at the top of the map. Like in the Equirectangular projection. Or skipping some of the points, like in the Mercator projection. Or adding some cuts into a surface that doesn’t have them, like in the Goode homolosine projection. You may recognize this as the one used in classrooms back when the world had first begun.

But what if we don’t need the whole globedone in a single map? Turns out we can do that easy. We can make charts that cover a part of the surface. No one chart has to cover the whole of the Earth’s surface. It only has to cover some part of it. It covers the globe with a piece that looks like a common ordinary Euclidean space, where ordinary geometry holds. It’s the collection of charts that covers the whole surface. This collection of charts is an atlas. You have a manifold if it’s possible to make a coherent atlas. For this every point on the manifold has to be on at least one chart. It’s okay if a point is on several charts. It’s okay if some point is on all the charts. Like, suppose your original surface is a circle. You can represent this with an atlas of two charts. Each chart maps the circle, except for one point, onto a line segment. The two charts don’t both skip the same point. All but two points on this circle are on all the maps of this chart. That’s cool. What’s not okay is if some point can’t be coherently put onto some chart.

This sad fate can happen. Suppose instead of a circle you want to chart a figure-eight loop. That won’t work. The point where the figure crosses itself doesn’t look, locally, like a Euclidean space. It looks like an ‘x’. There’s no getting around that. There’s no atlas that can cover the whole of that surface. So that surface isn’t a manifold.

But many things are manifolds nevertheless. Toruses, the doughnut shapes, are. Möbius strips and Klein bottles are. Ellipsoids and hyperbolic surfaces are, or at least can be. Mathematical physics finds surfaces that describe all the ways the planets could move and still conserve the energy and momentum and angular momentum of the solar system. That cheesecloth surface stretched through 54 dimensions, is a manifold. There are many possible atlases, with many more charts. But each of those means we can, at least locally, for particular problems, understand them the same way we understand cutouts of triangles and pentagons and circles on construction paper.

So to get back to cars: no one has ever said “my car runs okay, but I regret how I replaced the brake covers the moment I suspected they were wearing out”. Every car problem is easier when it’s done as soon as your budget and schedule allow.


This and other Fall 2018 Mathematics A-To-Z posts can be read at this link. What will I choose for ‘N’, later this week? I really should have decided that by now.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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