What is Topology?


A couple of years ago, I was introduced to topology via proof of Euler’s Polyhedron formula given in the book “What is Mathematics?” by Richard Courant and Herbert Robbins. Then I got attracted towards topology by reading the book “Euler’s gem – the polyhedron formula and the birth of topology” by David S. Richeson. But now after doing a semester course on “introduction to topology” I have realized that all this was a lie. These books were not presenting the real picture of subject, they were presenting just the motivational pictures. For example, this is my favourite video about introduction to topology by Tadashi Tokieda (though it doesn’t give the true picture):

Few months ago I read the book “The Poincaré Conjecture” by Donal O’Shea and it gave an honest picture of algebraic topology. But, then I realized that half of my textbook on topology is about point-set topology (while other half was about algebraic topology). This part of topology has no torus or Möbius strip (checkout this photo) but rather dry set theoretic arguments. So I decided to dig deeper into what really Topology is all about? Is is just a fancy graph theory (in 1736, both Topology and graph theory started from Euler’s Polyhedron formula) or it’s a new form of Geometry which we study using set theory, algebra and analysis.

The subject of topology itself consists of several different branches, such as:

  • Point-Set topology
  • Algebraic topology
  • Differential topology
  • Geometric topology

Point-set topology grew out of analysis, following Cauchy’s contribution to the foundations of analysis and in particular trigonometric representation of a function (Fourier series). In 1872, Georg Cantor desired a more solid foundation for standard operations (addition, etc.) performed on the real numbers. To this end, he defined a Cauchy sequence of rational numbers. He creates a bijection between the number line and the possible limits of sequence of rational numbers. He took the converse, that “the geometry of the straight line is complete,” as an axiom (note that thinking of points on the real line as limits of sequence of rational numbers is “for clarity” and not essential to what he is doing). Then Cantor proved following theorem:

If there is an equation of form \displaystyle{0=C_0+C_1+\ldots +C_n+\ldots} where C_0 = \frac{d_0}{2} and C_n = c_n\sin{(nx)} +d_n\cos{(nx)} for all values of x except those which correspond to points in the interval (0,2\pi) give a point set P of the \nuth kind, where \nu signifies any large number, then d_0=1, c_n=d_n=0

This theorem lead to definition of point set to be a finite or infinite set of points. This in turn lead to definition of cluster point, derived set, …. and whole of introductory course in topology. Modern mathematics tends to view the term “point-set” as synonymous with “open set.” Here I would like to quote James Munkres (from point-set topology part of my textbook):

A problem of fundamental importance in topology is to find conditions on a topological space that will guarantee that it is metrizable…. Although the metrization problem is an important problem in topology, the study of metric spaces as such does not properly belong to topology as much as it does to analysis.

Now, what is generally publicised to be “the topology” is actually the algebraic topology. This aspect of topology is indeed beautiful. It lead to concepts like fundamental groups which are inseparable from modern topology. In 1895, Henri Poincaré topologized Euler’s proof of Polyhedron formula leading to what we call today Euler’s Characteristic. This marked the beginning of what we today call algebraic topology.

For long time, differential geometry and algebraic topology remained the centre of attraction for geometers.But, in 1956, John Milnor discovered that there were distinct different differentiable structures (even I don’t know what it actually means!) on seven sphere. His arguments brought together topology and analysis in an unexpected way, and doing so initiated the field of differential topology.

Geometric topology has borrowed enormously from the rest of algebraic topology it has returned very scant interest on this “borrowed” capital. It is however full of problems with some of the simplest, in formulation, as yet unsolved. Knot Theory (or in general low-dimensional topology) is one of the most active area of research of this branch of topology. Here I would like to quote R.J. Daverman and R.B. Sher:

Geometric Topology focuses on matters arising in special spaces such as manifolds, simplicial complexes, and absolute neighbourhood retracts. Fundamental issues driving the subject involve the search for topological characterizations of the more important objects and for topological classification within key classes.
Some key contributions to this branch of topology came from Stephen Smale (1960s), William Thurston (1970s), Michael Freedman (1982), Simon Donaldson (1983), Lowell Edwin Jones (1993), F. Thomas Farrel (1993), … and the story continues.


[1] Nicholas Scoville (Ursinus College), “Georg Cantor at the Dawn of Point-Set Topology,” Convergence (May 2012), doi:10.4169/loci003861

[2] André Weil, “Riemann, Betti and the Birth of Topology.” Archive for History of Exact Sciences 20, no. 2 (1979): 91–96. doi:10.1007/bf00327626.

[3] Johnson, Dale M. “The Problem of the Invariance of Dimension in the Growth of Modern Topology, Part I.” Archive for History of Exact Sciences 20, no. 2 (1979): 97–188. doi:10.1007/bf00327627.

[4] Johnson, Dale M. “The Problem of the Invariance of Dimension in the Growth of Modern Topology, Part II.” Archive for History of Exact Sciences 25, no. 2–3 (December 1981): 85–266. doi:10.1007/bf02116242.

[5] Lefschetz, Solomon. “The Early Development of Algebraic Topology.” Boletim Da Sociedade Brasileira de Matemática 1, no. 1 (January 1970): 1–48. doi:10.1007/bf02628194.


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  1. Pingback: Intra-mathematical Dependencies | Gaurish4Math

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