My 2018 Mathematics A To Z: Hyperbolic Half-Plane


Today’s term was one of several nominations I got for ‘H’. This one comes from John Golden, @mathhobre on Twitter and author of the Math Hombre blog on Blogspot. He brings in a lot of thought about mathematics education and teaching tools that you might find interesting or useful or, better, both.

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.

Hyperbolic Half-Plane.

The half-plane part is easy to explain. By the “plane” mathematicians mean, well, the plane. What you’d get if a sheet of paper extended forever. Also if it had zero width. To cut it in half … well, first we have to think hard what we mean by cutting an infinitely large thing in half. Then we realize we’re overthinking this. Cut it by picking a line on the plane, and then throwing away everything on one side or the other of that line. Maybe throw away everything on the line too. It’s logically as good to pick any line. But there are a couple lines mathematicians use all the time. This is because they’re easy to describe, or easy to work with. At least once you fix an origin and, with it, x- and y-axes. The “right half-plane”, for example, is everything in the positive-x-axis direction. Every point with coordinates you’d describe with positive x-coordinate values. Maybe the non-negative ones, if you want the edge included. The “upper half plane” is everything in the positive-y-axis direction. All the points whose coordinates have a positive y-coordinate value. Non-negative, if you want the edge included. You can make guesses about what the “left half-plane” or the “lower half-plane” are. You are correct.

The “hyperbolic” part takes some thought. What is there to even exaggerate? Wrong sense of the word “hyperbolic”. The word here is the same one used in “hyperbolic geometry”. That takes explanation.

The Western mathematics tradition, as we trace it back to Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt and Ancient Babylon and all, gave us “Euclidean” geometry. It’s a pretty good geometry. It describes how stuff on flat surfaces works. In the Euclidean formation we set out a couple of axioms that aren’t too controversial. Like, lines can be extended indefinitely and that all right angles are congruent. And one axiom that is controversial. But which turns out to be equivalent to the idea that there’s only one line that goes through a point and is parallel to some other line.

And it turns out that you don’t have to assume that. You can make a coherent “spherical” geometry, one that describes shapes on the surface of a … you know. You have to change your idea of what a line is; it becomes a “geodesic” or, on the globe, a “great circle”. And it turns out that there’s no lines geodesics that go through a point and that are parallel to some other line geodesic. (I know you want to think about globes. I do too. You maybe want to say the lines of latitude are parallel one another. They’re even called parallels, sometimes. So they are. But they’re not geodesics. They’re “little circles”. I am not throwing in ad hoc reasons I’m right and you’re not.)

There is another, though. This is “hyperbolic” geometry. This is the way shapes work on surfaces that mathematicians call saddle-shaped. I don’t know what the horse enthusiasts out there call these shapes. My guess is they chuckle and point out how that would be the most painful saddle ever. Doesn’t matter. We have surfaces. They act weird. You can draw, through a point, infinitely many lines parallel to a given other line.

That’s some neat stuff. That’s weird and interesting. They’re even called “hyperparallel lines” if that didn’t sound great enough. You can see why some people would find this worth studying. The catch is that it’s hard to order a pad of saddle-shaped paper to try stuff out on. It’s even harder to get a hyperbolic blackboard. So what we’d like is some way to represent these strange geometries using something easier to work with.

The hyperbolic half-plane is one of those approaches. This uses the upper half-plane. It works by a move as brilliant and as preposterous as that time Q told Data and LaForge how to stop that falling moon. “Simple. Change the gravitational constant of the universe.”

What we change here is the “metric”. The metric is a function. It tells us something about how points in a space relate to each other. It gives us distance. In Euclidean geometry, plane geometry, we use the Euclidean metric. You can find the distance between point A and point B by looking at their coordinates, (x_A, y_A) and (x_B, y_B) . This distance is \sqrt{\left(x_B - x_A\right)^2 + \left(y_B - y_A\right)^2} . Don’t worry about the formulas. The lines on a sheet of graph paper are a reflection of this metric. Each line is (normally) a fixed distance from its parallel neighbors. (Yes, there are polar-coordinate graph papers. And there are graph papers with logarithmic or semilogarithmic spacing. I mean graph paper like you can find at the office supply store without asking for help.)

But the metric is something we choose. There are some rules it has to follow to be logically coherent, yes. But those rules give us plenty of room to play. By picking the correct metric, we can make this flat plane obey the same geometric rules as the hyperbolic surface. This metric looks more complicated than the Euclidean metric does, but only because it has more terms and takes longer to write out. What’s important about it is that the distance your thumb put on top of the paper covers up is bigger if your thumb is near the bottom of the upper-half plane than if your thumb is near the top of the paper.

So. There are now two things that are “lines” in this. One of them is vertical lines. The graph paper we would make for this has a nice file of parallel lines like ordinary paper does. The other thing, though … well, that’s half-circles. They’re half-circles with a center on the edge of the half-plane. So our graph paper would also have a bunch of circles, of different sizes, coming from regularly-spaced sources on the bottom of the paper. A line segment is a piece of either these vertical lines or these half-circles. You can make any polygon you like with these, if you pick out enough line segments. They’re there.

There are many ways to represent hyperbolic surfaces. This is one of them. It’s got some nice properties. One of them is that it’s “conformal”. Angles that you draw using this metric are the same size as those on the corresponding hyperbolic surface. You don’t appreciate how sweet that is until you’re working in non-Euclidean geometries. Circles that are entirely within the hyperbolic half-plane match to circles on a hyperbolic surface. Once you’ve got your intuition for this hyperbolic half-plane, you can step into hyperbolic half-volumes. And that lets you talk about the geometry of hyperbolic spaces that reach into four or more dimensions of human-imaginable spaces. Isometries — picking up a shape and moving it in ways that don’t change distance — match up with the Möbius Transformations. These are a well-understood set of altering planes that comes from a different corner of geometry. Also from that fellow with the strip, August Ferdinand Möbius. It’s always exciting to find relationships like that in mathematical structures.

Pictures often help. I don’t know why I don’t include them. But here is a web site with pages, and pictures, that describe much of the hyperbolic half-plane. It includes code to use with the Geometer Sketchpad software, which I have never used and know nothing about. That’s all right. There’s at least one page there showing a wondrous picture. I hope you enjoy.


This and other essays in the Fall 2018 A-To-Z should be at this link. And I’ll start paneling for more letters soon.

The End 2016 Mathematics A To Z: General Covariance


Today’s term is another request, and another of those that tests my ability to make something understandable. I’ll try anyway. The request comes from Elke Stangl, whose “Research Notes on Energy, Software, Life, the Universe, and Everything” blog I first ran across years ago, when she was explaining some dynamical systems work.

General Covariance

So, tensors. They’re the things mathematicians get into when they figure vectors just aren’t hard enough. Physics majors learn about them too. Electrical engineers really get into them. Some material science types too.

You maybe notice something about those last three groups. They’re interested in subjects that are about space. Like, just, regions of the universe. Material scientists wonder how pressure exerted on something will get transmitted. The structure of what’s in the space matters here. Electrical engineers wonder how electric and magnetic fields send energy in different directions. And physicists — well, everybody who’s ever read a pop science treatment of general relativity knows. There’s something about the shape of space something something gravity something equivalent acceleration.

So this gets us to tensors. Tensors are this mathematical structure. They’re about how stuff that starts in one direction gets transmitted into other directions. You can see how that’s got to have something to do with transmitting pressure through objects. It’s probably not too much work to figure how that’s relevant to energy moving through space. That it has something to do with space as just volume is harder to imagine. But physics types have talked about it quite casually for over a century now. Science fiction writers have been enthusiastic about it almost that long. So it’s kind of like the Roman Empire. It’s an idea we hear about early and often enough we’re never really introduced to it. It’s never a big new idea we’re presented, the way, like, you get specifically told there was (say) a War of 1812. We just soak up a couple bits we overhear about the idea and carry on as best our lives allow.

But to think of space. Start from somewhere. Imagine moving a little bit in one direction. How far have you moved? If you started out in this one direction, did you somehow end up in a different one? Now imagine moving in a different direction. Now how far are you from where you started? How far is your direction from where you might have imagined you’d be? Our intuition is built around a Euclidean space, or one close enough to Euclidean. These directions and distances and combined movements work as they would on a sheet of paper, or in our living room. But there is a difference. Walk a kilometer due east and then one due north and you will not be in exactly the same spot as if you had walked a kilometer due north and then one due east. Tensors are efficient ways to describe those little differences. And they tell us something of the shape of the Earth from knowing these differences. And they do it using much of the form that matrices and vectors do, so they’re not so hard to learn as they might be.

That’s all prelude. Here’s the next piece. We go looking at transformations. We take a perfectly good coordinate system and a point in it. Now let the light of the full Moon shine upon it, so that it shifts to being a coordinate werewolf. Look around you. There’s a tensor that describes how your coordinates look here. What is it?

You might wonder why we care about transformations. What was wrong with the coordinates we started with? But that’s because mathematicians have lumped a lot of stuff into the same name of “transformation”. A transformation might be something as dull as “sliding things over a little bit”. Or “turning things a bit”. It might be “letting a second of time pass”. Or “following the flow of whatever’s moving”. Stuff we’d like to know for physics work.

“General covariance” is a term that comes up when thinking about transformations. Suppose we have a description of some physics problem. By this mostly we mean “something moving in space” or “a bit of light moving in space”. That’s because they’re good building blocks. A lot of what we might want to know can be understood as some mix of those two problems.

Put your description through the same transformation your coordinate system had. This will (most of the time) change the details of how your problem’s represented. But does it change the overall description? Is our old description no longer even meaningful?

I trust at this point you’ve nodded and thought something like “well, that makes sense”. Give it another thought. How could we not have a “generally covariant” description of something? Coordinate systems are our impositions on a problem. We create them to make our lives easier. They’re real things in exactly the same way that lines of longitude and latitude are real. If we increased the number describing the longitude of every point in the world by 14, we wouldn’t change anything real about where stuff was or how to navigate to it. We couldn’t.

Here I admit I’m stumped. I can’t think of a good example of a system that would look good but not be generally covariant. I’m forced to resort to metaphors and analogies that make this essay particularly unsuitable to use for your thesis defense.

So here’s the thing. Longitude is a completely arbitrary thing. Measuring where you are east or west of some prime meridian might be universal, or easy for anyone to tumble onto. But the prime meridian is a cultural choice. It’s changed before. It may change again. Indeed, Geographic Information Services people still work with many different prime meridians. Most of them are for specialized purposes. Stuff like mapping New Jersey in feet north and east of some reference, for which Greenwich would make the numbers too ugly. But if our planet is mapped in an alien’s records, that map has at its center some line almost surely not Greenwich.

But latitude? Latitude is, at least, less arbitrary. That we measure it from zero to ninety degrees, north or south, is a cultural choice. (Or from -90 to 90 degrees. Same thing.) But that there’s a north pole and a south pole? That’s true as long as the planet is rotating. And that’s forced on us. If we tried to describe the Earth as rotating on an axis between Paris and Mexico City, we would … be fighting an uphill struggle, at least. It’s hard to see any problem that might make easier, apart from getting between Paris and Mexico City.

In models of the laws of physics we don’t really care about the north or south pole. A planet might have them or might not. But it has got some privileged stuff that just has to be so. We can’t have stuff that makes the speed of light in a vacuum change. And we have to make sense of a block of space that hasn’t got anything in it, no matter, no light, no energy, no gravity. I think those are the important pieces actually. But I’ll defer, growling angrily, to an expert in general relativity or non-Euclidean coordinates if I’ve misunderstood.

It’s often put that “general covariance” is one of the requirements for a scheme to describe General Relativity. I shall risk sounding like I’m making a joke and say that depends on your perspective. One can use different philosophical bases for describing General Relativity. In some of them you can see general covariance as a result rather than use it as a basic assumption. Here’s a 1993 paper by Dr John D Norton that describes some of the different ways to understand the point of general covariance.

By the way the term “general covariance” comes from two pieces. The “covariance” is because it describes how changes in one coordinate system are reflected in another. It’s “general” because we talk about coordinate transformations without knowing much about them. That is, we’re talking about transformations in general, instead of some specific case that’s easy to work with. This is why the mathematics of this can be frightfully tricky; we don’t know much about the transformations we’re working with. For a parallel, it’s easy to tell someone how to divide 14 into 112. It’s harder to tell them how to divide absolutely any number into absolutely any other number.

Quite a bit of mathematical physics plays into geometry. Gravity physicists mostly see as a problem of geometry. People who like reading up on science take that as given too. But many problems can be understood as a point or a blob of points in some kind of space, and how that point moves or that blob evolves in time. We don’t see “general covariance” in these other fields exactly. But we do see things that resemble it. It’s an idea with considerable reach.


I’m not sure how I feel about this. For most of my essays I’ve kept away from equations, even for the Why Stuff Can Orbit sequence. But this is one of those subjects it’s hard to be exact about without equations. I might revisit this in a special all-symbols, calculus-included, edition. Depends what my schedule looks like.

Reading the Comics, October 29, 2016: Rerun Comics Edition


There were a couple of rerun comics in this week’s roundup, so I’ll go with that theme. And I’ll put in one more appeal for subjects for my End of 2016 Mathematics A To Z. Have a mathematics term you’d like to see me go on about? Just ask! Much of the alphabet is still available.

John Kovaleski’s Bo Nanas rerun the 24th is about probability. There’s something wondrous and strange that happens when we talk about the probability of things like birth days. They are, if they’re in the past, determined and fixed things. The current day is also a known, determined, fixed thing. But we do mean something when we say there’s a 1-in-365 (or 366, or 365.25 if you like) chance of today being your birthday. It seems to me this is probability based on ignorance. If you don’t know when my birthday is then your best guess is to suppose there’s a one-in-365 (or so) chance that it’s today. But I know when my birthday is; to me, with this information, the chance today is my birthday is either 0 or 1. But what are the chances that today is a day when the chance it’s my birthday is 1? At this point I realize I need much more training in the philosophy of mathematics, and the philosophy of probability. If someone is aware of a good introductory book about it, or a web site or blog that goes into these problems in a way a lay reader will understand, I’d love to hear of it.

I’ve featured this installment of Poor Richard’s Almanac before. I’ll surely feature it again. I like Richard Thompson’s sense of humor. The first panel mentions non-Euclidean geometry, using the connotation that it does have. Non-Euclidean geometries are treated as these magic things — more, these sinister magic things — that defy all reason. They can’t defy reason, of course. And at least some of them are even sensible if we imagine we’re drawing things on the surface of the Earth, or at least the surface of a balloon. (There are non-Euclidean geometries that don’t look like surfaces of spheres.) They don’t work exactly like the geometry of stuff we draw on paper, or the way we fit things in rooms. But they’re not magic, not most of them.

Stephen Bentley’s Herb and Jamaal for the 25th I believe is a rerun. I admit I’m not certain, but it feels like one. (Bentley runs a lot of unannounced reruns.) Anyway I’m refreshed to see a teacher giving a student permission to count on fingers if that’s what she needs to work out the problem. Sometimes we have to fall back on the non-elegant ways to get comfortable with a method.

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check for the 25th name-drops Einstein and one of the three equations that has any pop-culture currency.

Guy Gilchrist’s Today’s Dogg for the 27th is your basic mathematical-symbols joke. We need a certain number of these.

Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County for the 28th is another rerun, from 1981. And it’s been featured here before too. As mentioned then, Milo is using calculus and logarithms correctly in his rather needless insult of Freida. 10,000 is a constant number, and as mentioned a few weeks back its derivative must be zero. Ten to the power of zero is 1. The log of 10, if we’re using logarithms base ten, is also 1. There are many kinds of logarithms but back in 1981, the default if someone said “log” would be the logarithm base ten. Today the default is more muddled; a normal person would mean the base-ten logarithm by “log”. A mathematician might mean the natural logarithm, base ‘e’, by “log”. But why would a normal person mention logarithms at all anymore?

Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 28th is mostly a bit of wordplay on evens and odds. It’s marginal, but I do want to point out some comics that aren’t reruns in this batch.

Reading the Comics, December 17, 2015: Caught Up Edition


And now, after a little effort, I’m caught up to the current day’s comic strips. Unless someone did something mathematical in Saturday’s strips. I suppose I’ll find out soon enough.

Johnny Hart’s Back to B.C. for the 14th of December reprints the strip for the 26th of May, 1958. It’s about parallel lines and how they might meet. It does bring up something that bothered me as a kid: how do you know parallel lines never do meet? You might know by definition. If parallel lines are “lines that never meet”, then they can’t meet, any more than a square can have eight sides. But that doesn’t seem like a “proof” exactly.

When we look at non-Euclidean geometries — the way shapes look on the surface of a sphere, or other non-flat shapes — we do start seeing things that look like they should be parallel lines that do come together anyway. Look at lines of longitude on the globe, all of which come together at the north and south pole. I think most folks try to resist calling them parallel, though, because we don’t want to muddy the word. There are some problems — the ones I know come from calculus — where it’s convenient to declare that two parallel lines really intersect somewhere infinitely far off. That’s patching the logic behind a tool so we can apply it somewhere novel.

John Atkinson’s Wrong Hands for the 14th of December I could swear had been here before. But I don’t seem to find it in past Reading the Comics posts. Maybe I’ve seen the pun being passed around on Twitter or WordPress. The Wrong Hands for the 16th of December is certainly one that hasn’t featured here before. It does suggest the question of why right angles are called “right”. According to a Math Forum post from 2002, the “right” comes from the Indo-European root reg-, meaning “to move in a straight line”. And it’s supposed to reflect the way a weight on a string making a right angle with the ground or horizon lines. (The post, by Doctor Sarah, quotes Steven Schwartzman’s The Words Of Mathematics: An Etymological Dictionary of Mathematical Terms Used in English. It’s a book I didn’t specifically know existed or I’d have put it on my wish lists.)

Richard Thompson’s Poor Richard’s Almanac for the 15th of December (a rerun, and I’m not sure from when) is a guide to Christmas trees. One is “so asymmetrical it not longer inhabits Euclidean space”. Properly speaking neither do we. But the difference between the geometry of our living room and a true Euclidean space is too tiny to notice. And just being Euclidean is no guarantee against weird stuff happening. A four-dimensional (or more-dimensional) object in a three-dimensional space can produce wild effects, as a good Flatlander would point out. But “non-Euclidean” is still, and probably will stay, a good term to describe bizarre shapes. We need something to say about, like, an object that you can rotate 360 degrees and have it not quite back to the way you started.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 15th of December is a calculus pun. It’s playing on the term u-substitution. The u-substitution is a calculus trick that makes a lot of integrals possible to do. The trick is one of replacing parts of an integral we can’t do with a new variable. The rules of how we can change variables within an integral mean we can remake the integral into something simpler. Well, we (typically) wouldn’t be doing the substitution if we weren’t making something simpler. Typically the integral starts out with x or z or maybe y as the original variable. So we use ‘u’ as the new, substituted-in, variable name. The use of ‘u’ isn’t important. It can be any letter not already doing some work. The technique’s also called “integration by substitution”. But that doesn’t lend itself to puns so easily.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons stops in on the 17th of December for its visit and for this essay’s students-resisting-blackboard-work joke. Anyway, data mining is the matter of looking for patterns in the data. here, for example, I’d wonder: are students more likely to get right problems where two even numbers are added together? Two odd numbers? An even and an odd? How does having to carry numbers affect how well students do? Are sevens and eights just trouble all around? Are students better on the first problems in a set, or the last?

There may be no way to tell. Suppose we only had these eight problems and these three students to draw from. It would be impossible to say whether the students are better at some of these problems or if they just got lucky. But there might be some useful information that might help us understand students, and what students don’t understand, in there. Still, it’s not something the kids need to worry about right now.