My All 2020 Mathematics A to Z: Möbius Strip


Jacob Siehler suggested this topic. I had to check several times that I hadn’t written an essay about the Möbius strip already. While I have talked about it some, mostly in comic strip essays, this is a chance to specialize on the shape in a way I haven’t before.

Color cartoon illustration of a coati in a beret and neckerchief, holding up a director's megaphone and looking over the Hollywood hills. The megaphone has the symbols + x (division obelus) and = on it. The Hollywood sign is, instead, the letters MATHEMATICS. In the background are spotlights, with several of them crossing so as to make the letters A and Z; one leg of the spotlights has 'TO' in it, so the art reads out, subtly, 'Mathematics A to Z'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Möbius Strip.

I have ridden at least 252 different roller coasters. These represent nearly every type of roller coaster made today, and most of the types that were ever made. One type, common in the 1920s and again since the 70s, is the racing coaster. This is two roller coasters, dispatched at the same time, following tracks that are as symmetric as the terrain allows. Want to win the race? Be in the train with the heavier passenger load. The difference in the time each train takes amounts to losses from friction, and the lighter train will lose a bit more of its speed.

There are three special wooden racing coasters. These are Racer at Kennywood Amusement Park (Pittsburgh), Grand National at Blackpool Pleasure Beach (Blackpool, England), and Montaña Rusa at La Feria Chapultepec Magico (Mexico City). I’ve been able to ride them all. When you get into the train going up, say, the left lift hill, you return to the station in the train that will go up the right lift hill. These racing roller coasters have only one track. The track twists around itself and becomes a Möbius strip.

Picture of some of the Grand National track, at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, showing off particularly a sign with an illustration of the launch station and 'What The Papers Say', showing the British national papers' 'reviews' of the roller coaster.
I’m not surprised I don’t have good pictures of Grand National. I’ve only been able to visit Blackpool Pleasure Beach the one time. And a few days before my camera had just been thoroughly soaked in heavy rain. I could only take a picture by turning it on; the camera would power up, take a picture as soon as it was ready, and power down again. It’s the other parks I’m surprised I lack better pictures for.

This is a fun use of the Möbius strip. The shape is one of the few bits of advanced mathematics to escape into pop culture. Maybe dominates it, in a way nothing but the blackboard full of calculus equations does. In 1958 the public intellectual and game show host Clifton Fadiman published the anthology Fantasia Mathematica. It’s all essays and stories and poems with some mathematical element. I no longer remember how many of the pieces were about the Möbius strip one way or another. The collection does include A J Deutschs’s classic A Subway Named Möbius. In this story the Boston subway system achieves hyperdimensional complexity. It does not become a Möbius strip, though, in that story. It might be one in reality anyway.

The Möbius strip we name for August Ferdinand Möbius, who in 1858 was the second person known to have noticed the shape’s curious properties. The first — to notice, in 1858, and to publish, in 1862 — was Johann Benedict Listing. Listing seems to have coined the term “topology” for the field that the Möbius strip would be emblem for. He wrote one of the first texts on the field. He also seems to have coined terms like “entrophic phenomena” and “nodal points” and “geoid” and “micron”, for a millionth of a meter. It’s hard to say why we don’t talk about Listing strips instead. Mathematical fame is a strange, unpredictable creature. There is a topological invariant, the Listing Number, named for him. And he’s known to ophthalmologists for Listing’s Law, which describes how human eyes orient themselves.

The Möbius strip is an easy thing to construct. Loop a ribbon back to itself, with an odd number of half-twist before you fasten the ends together. Anyone could do it. So it seems curious that for all recorded history nobody thought to try. Not until 1858 when Lister and then Möbius hit on the same idea.

Kennywood Racer blue roller coaster train, leaving the station on the (camera) left track.
It’s Kennywood’s Racer I’m surprised I don’t have a picture that shows what I really want. We get to Kennywood basically every year, 2020 excepted for obvious reasons. But there also really aren’t good observation tower-type attractions that let you get a photograph of Racer as a whole, I’ll tell myself is the problem.

An irresistible thing, while riding these roller coasters, is to try to find the spot where you “switch”, where you go from being on the left track to the right. You can’t. The track is — well, the track is a series of metal straps bolted to a base of wood. (The base the straps are bolted to is what makes it a wooden roller coaster. The great lattice holding the tracks above ground have nothing to do with it.) But the path of the tracks is a continuous whole. To split it requires the same arbitrariness with which mapmakers pick a prime meridian. It’s obvious that the “longitude” of a cylinder or a rubber ball is arbitrary. It’s not obvious that roller coaster tracks should have the same property. Until you draw the shape in that ∞-loop figure we always see. Then you can get lost imagining a walk along the surface.

And it’s not true that nobody thought to try this shape before 1858. Julyan H E Cartwright and Diego L González wrote a paper searching for pre-Möbius strips. They find some examples. To my eye not enough examples to support their abstract’s claim of “lots of them”, but I trust they did not list every example. One example is a Roman mosaic showing Aion, the God of Time, Eternity, and the Zodiac. He holds a zodiac ring that is either a Möbius strip or cylinder with artistic errors. Cartwright and González are convinced. I’m reminded of a Looks Good On Paper comic strip that forgot to include the needed half-twist.

Mobius Trip. A car, loaded for vacation, with someone in it asking 'Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?' The road is along a Mobius strip, with roadside bits like deer or road signs or opossums crossing the road on the margins.
Dan Collins’s Looks Good on Paper for the 10th of September, 2018. It originally ran the 10th of September, 2016. It falls a half-twist short of being the Möbius strip it intends to be. Essays in which I discuss Looks Good On Paper are at this link.

Islamic science gives us a more compelling example. We have a book by Ismail al-Jazari dated 1206, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. Some manuscripts of it illustrate a chain pump, with the chain arranged as a Möbius strip. Cartwright and González also note discussions in Scientific American, and other engineering publications in the United States, about drive and conveyor belts with the Möbius strip topology. None of those predate Lister or Möbius, or apparently credit either. And they do come quite soon after. It’s surprising something might leap from abstract mathematics to Yankee ingenuity that fast.

If it did. It’s not hard to explain why mechanical belts didn’t consider Möbius strip shapes before the late 19th century. Their advantage is that the wear of the belt distributes over twice the surface area, the “inside” and “outside”. A leather belt has a smooth and a rough side. Many other things you might make a belt from have a similar asymmetry. By the late 19th century you could make a belt of rubber. Its grip and flexibility and smoothness is uniform on all sides. “Balancing” the use suddenly could have a point.

I still find it curious almost no one drew or speculated about or played with these shapes until, practically, yesterday. The shape doesn’t seem far away from a trefoil knot. The recycling symbol, three folded-over arrows, suggests a Möbius strip. The strip evokes the ∞ symbol, although that symbol was not attached to the concept of “infinity” until John Wallis put it forth in 1655.

Kennywood Racer blue roller coaster train arriving at the station on the (camera) right track; the red train is approaching the (camera) left track.
Also Racer is usually quite packed, and we’d rather put time into Jackrabbit (100 years old this year) and Thunderbolt (originally built in 1924 as Pippin and extensively rebuilt in 1967). Still, people attending as part of special events can get more revealing photographs.

Even with the shape now familiar, and loved, there are curious gaps. Consider game design. If you play on a board that represents space you need to do something with the boundaries. The easiest is to make the boundaries the edges of playable space. The game designer has choices, though. If a piece moves off the board to the right, why not have it reappear on the left? (And, going off to the left, reappear on the right.) This is fine. It gives the game board, a finite rectangle, the topology of a cylinder. If this isn’t enough? Have pieces that go off the top edge reappear at the bottom, and vice-versa. Doing this, along with matching the left to the right boundaries, makes the game board a torus, a doughnut shape.

A Möbius strip is easy enough to code. Make the top and bottom impenetrable borders. And match the left to the right edges this way: a piece going off the board at the upper half of the right edge reappears at the lower half of the left edge. Going off the lower half of the right edge brings the piece to the upper half of the left edge. And so on. It isn’t hard, but I’m not aware of any game — board or computer — that uses this space. Maybe there’s a backgammon variant which does.

Still, the strip defies our intuition. It has one face and one edge. To reflect a shape across the width of the strip is the same as sliding a shape along its length. Cutting the strip down the center unfurls it into a cylinder. Cutting the strip down, one-third of the way from the edge, divides it into two pieces, a skinnier Möbius strip plus a cylinder. If we could extract the edge we could tug and stretch it until it was a circle.

And it primes our intuition. Once we understand there can be shapes lacking sides we can look for more. Anyone likely to read a pop mathematics blog about the Möbius strip has heard of the Klein bottle. This is a three-dimensional surface that folds back on itself in the fourth dimension of space. The shape is a jug with no inside, or with nothing but inside. Three-dimensional renditions of this get suggested as gifts to mathematicians. This for your mathematician friend who’s already got a Möbius scarf.

Log flume car splashing down at the bottom of its hill. In the background is the rust-red track and structure of the Racer roller coaster.
Anyway the roller coaster in background is Racer. This is a view from the Log Jammer, a log flume ride that Kennywood removed in 2018.

Though a Möbius strip looks — at any one spot — like a plane, the four-color map theorem doesn’t hold for it. Even the five-color theorem won’t do. You need six colors to cover maps on such a strip. A checkerboard drawn on a Möbius strip can be completely covered by T-shape pentominoes or Tetris pieces. You can’t do this for a checkerboard on the plane. In the mathematics of music theory the organization of dyads — two-tone “chords” — has the structure of a Möbius strip. I do not know music theory or the history of music theory. I’m curious whether Möbius strips might have been recognized by musicians before the mathematicians caught on.

And they inspire some practical inventions. Mechanical belts are obvious, although I don’t know how often they’re used. More clever are designs for resistors that have no self-inductance. They can resist electric flow without causing magnetic interference. I can look up the patents; I can’t swear to how often these are actually used. There exist — there are made — Möbius aromatic compounds. These are organic compounds with rings of carbon and hydrogen. I do not know a use for these. That they’ve only been synthesized this century, rather than found in nature, suggests they are more neat than practical.

Perhaps this shape is most useful as a path into a particular type of topology, and for its considerable artistry. And, with its “late” discovery, a reminder that we do not yet know all that is obvious. That is enough for anything.

Photograph of a model of the Montana Rusa roller coaster, under glass, and watched over by a Alebrije-styled dragon-ish figure. It sits on the platform for a roller coaster.
Montaña Rusa, sad to say, when we visited La Feria Chapultepec Magico in 2018 was running only one train at a time. It did have this gorgeous model of the roller coaster, although under plexiglass and roped off so that it was difficult to photograph.

There are three steel roller coasters with a Möbius strip track. That is, the metal rail on which the coaster runs is itself braced directly by metal. One of these is in France, one in Italy, and one in Iran. One in Liaoning, China has been under construction for five years. I can’t say when it might open. I have yet to ride any of them.


This and all the other 2020 A-to-Z essays should be at this link. Both the 2020 and all past A-to-Z essays should be at this link. I am hosting the Playful Math Education Blog Carnival at the end of September, so appreciate any educational or recreational or simply fun mathematics material you know about. And, goodness, I’m actually overdue to ask for topics for the latters P through R; I’ll have a post for that tomorrow, I hope. Thank you for your reading and your help.

The Summer 2017 Mathematics A To Z: Klein Bottle


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?

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.

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.

In Which I Offer Excuses Instead Of Mathematics


I’d been hoping to get back into longer-form essays. And then the calculations I meant to do on one problem turned out more complicated than I’d wanted. And they’re hard to square with the approach I used in some earlier work. Not that the results I was looking at were wrong, mind, just that an approach I’d used as “convenient for this sort of problem” turned inconvenient here.

So while I have the whole piece back in the shop for re-thinking, which is harder than even thinking, let me give you some other stuff to read. Or look at. One is from regular Singaporean correspondent MathTuition88. If you know anything about topology it’s because you’ve heard about Möbius strips. Surfaces with a single side are neat, and form the base of 95 percent of all science fiction stories in which the mathematics is the fantastic element. Klein bottles are often mentioned as a four-dimensional analogue to the Möbius strip, a solid object with no distinguishable interior or exterior. And a Klein bottle can be divided into two Möbius strips. MathTuition88 showcases a picture about how to turn two strips into a bottle. Or at least the best approximation of a bottle we can do; the actual Klein bottle is a four-dimensional structure and we can just make a three-dimensional imitation of the thing.

For something a bit more vector-analytic Joe Heafner’s Tensor Time has an essay about vectors. It’s about Heafner’s dislike for the way some vector problems are presented. Some common and easy ways to solve vector equations lead to spurious solutions that have to be weeded out by ad hoc reasoning; can’t we do better? Heafner argues that we can and should. The suggested alternative looks a little stuffy, but as often happens, spending more time on the setup means one spends less time confused later on. Worth pondering.

And this is a late addition, but I couldn’t resist.

Now I have a new favorite first chapter for a calculus text.