The Summer 2017 Mathematics A To Z: Topology

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.

Summer 2017 Mathematics A to Z, featuring a coati (it's kind of the Latin American raccoon) looking over alphabet blocks, with a lot of equations in the background.
Art courtesy of Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comic Newshounds. He has a Patreon for those able to support his work. He’s also open for commissions, starting from US$10.


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 R3”. 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.


The Summer 2017 Mathematics A To Z: Ricci Tensor

Today’s is technically a request from Elke Stangl, author of the Elkemental Force blog. I think it’s also me setting out my own petard for self-hoisting, as my recollection is that I tossed off a mention of “defining the Ricci Tensor” as the sort of thing that’s got a deep beauty that’s hard to share with people. And that set off the search for where I had written about the Ricci Tensor. I hadn’t, and now look what trouble I’m in. Well, here goes.

Summer 2017 Mathematics A to Z, featuring a coati (it's kind of the Latin American raccoon) looking over alphabet blocks, with a lot of equations in the background.
Art courtesy of Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comic Newshounds. He has a Patreon for those able to support his work. He’s also open for commissions, starting from US$10.

Ricci Tensor.

Imagine if nothing existed.

You’re not doing that right, by the way. I expect what you’re thinking of is a universe that’s a big block of space that doesn’t happen to have any things clogging it up. Maybe you have a natural sense of volume in it, so that you know something is there. Maybe you even imagine something with grid lines or reticules or some reference points. What I imagine after a command like that is a sort of great rectangular expanse, dark and faintly purple-tinged, with small dots to mark its expanse. That’s fine. This is what I really want. But it’s not really imagining nothing existing. There’s space. There’s some sense of where things would be, if they happened to be in there. We’d have to get rid of the space to have “nothing” exist. And even then we have logical problems that sound like word games. (How can nothing have a property like “existing”? Or a property like “not existing”?) This is dangerous territory. Let’s not step there.

So take the empty space that’s what mathematics and physics people mean by “nothing”. What do we know about it? Unless we’re being difficult, it’s got some extent. There are points in it. There’s some idea of distance between these points. There’s probably more than one dimension of space. There’s probably some sense of time, too. At least we’re used to the expectation that things would change if we watched. It’s a tricky sense to have, though. It’s hard to say exactly what time is. We usually fall back on the idea that we know time has passed if we see something change. But if there isn’t anything to see change? How do we know there’s still time passing?

You maybe already answered. We know time is passing because we can see space changing. One of the legs of Modern Physics is geometry, how space is shaped and how its shape changes. This tells us how gravity works, and how electricity and magnetism propagate. If there were no matter, no energy, no things in the universe there would still be some kind of physics. And interesting physics, since the mathematics describing this stuff is even subtler and more challenging to the intuition than even normal Euclidean space. If you’re going to read a pop mathematics blog like this, you’re very used to this idea.

Probably haven’t looked very hard at the idea, though. How do you tell whether space is changing if there’s nothing in it? It’s all right to imagine a coordinate system put on empty space. Coordinates are our concept. They don’t affect the space any more than the names we give the squirrels in the yard affect their behavior. But how to make the coordinates move with the space? It seems question-begging at least.

We have a mathematical gimmick to resolve this. Of course we do. We call it a name like a “test mass” or a “test charge” or maybe just “test particle”. Imagine that we drop into space a thing. But it’s only barely a thing. It’s tiny in extent. It’s tiny in mass. It’s tiny in charge. It’s tiny in energy. It’s so slight in every possible trait that it can’t sully our nothingness. All it does is let us detect it. It’s a good question how. We have good eyes. But now, we could see the particle moving as the space it’s in moves.

But again we can ask how. Just one point doesn’t seem to tell us much. We need a bunch of test particles, a whole cloud of them. They don’t interact. They don’t carry energy or mass or anything. They just carry the sense of place. This is how we would perceive space changing in time. We can ask questions meaningfully.

Here’s an obvious question: how much volume does our cloud take up? If we’re going to be difficult about this, none at all, since it’s a finite number of particles that all have no extent. But you know what we mean. Draw a ball, or at least an ellipsoid, around the test particles. How big is that? Wait a while. Draw another ball around the now-moved test particles. How big is that now?

Here’s another question: has the cloud rotated any? The test particles, by definition, don’t have mass or anything. So they don’t have angular momentum. They aren’t pulling one another to the side any. If they rotate it’s because space has rotated, and that’s interesting to consider. And another question: might they swap positions? Could a pair of particles that go left-to-right swap so they go right-to-left? That I ask admits that I want to allow the possibility.

These are questions about coordinates. They’re about how one direction shifts to other directions. How it stretches or shrinks. That is to say, these are questions of tensors. Tensors are tools for many things, most of them about how things transmit through different directions. In this context, time is another direction.

All our questions about how space moves we can describe as curvature. How do directions fall away from being perpendicular to one another? From being parallel to themselves? How do their directions change in time? If we have three dimensions in space and one in time — a four-dimensional “manifold” — then there’s 20 different “directions” each with maybe their own curvature to consider. This may seem a lot. Every point on this manifold has this set of twenty numbers describing the curvature of space around it. There’s not much to do but accept that, though. If we could do with fewer numbers we would, but trying cheats us out of physics.

Ten of the numbers in that set are themselves a tensor. It’s known as the Weyl Tensor. It describes gravity’s equivalent to light waves. It’s about how the shape of our cloud will change as it moves. The other ten numbers form another tensor. That is, a thousand words into the essay, the Ricci Tensor. The Ricci Tensor describes how the volume of our cloud will change as the test particles move along. It may seem odd to need ten numbers for this, but that’s what we need. For three-dimensional space and one-dimensional time, anyway. We need fewer for two-dimensional space; more, for more dimensions of space.

The Ricci Tensor is a geometric construct. Most of us come to it, if we do, by way of physics. It’s a useful piece of general relativity. It has uses outside this, though. It appears in the study of Ricci Flows. Here space moves in ways akin to how heat flows. And the Ricci Tensor appears in projective geometry, in the study of what properties of shapes don’t depend on how we present them.

It’s still tricky stuff to get a feeling for. I’m not sure I have a good feel for it myself. There’s a long trail of mathematical symbols leading up to these tensors. The geometry of them becomes more compelling in four or more dimensions, which taxes the imagination. Yann Ollivier here has a paper that attempts to provide visual explanations for many of the curvatures and tensors that are part of the field. It might help.