Real Mathematics – Strange Worlds #17

Topology On Your Head

Often you see me writing about changing our perspective. For example, when you encounter a baby first thing you do is to make baby sounds and try to make the baby laugh. Whereas if you’d looked carefully at baby’s hair, you could have seen a very valuable mathematical knowledge hidden on the baby’s head:

As shown above, there is a point on each baby’s head. You can see that the hair besides that point is growing in different directions. Can you tell me which direction the hair grows at that exact point?

Hairy ball theorem can give us the answer.

Hairy Ball Theorem

Hairy ball theorem asks you to comb a hairy ball towards a specific direction. The theorem states that there is always at least one point (or one hair) that doesn’t move into that direction.

You can try yourself and see it: Each time at least one hair stands high. This hair (or point) is a sort of singularity. That hair is too stubborn to bend.

Baby’s hair is some kind of a hairy ball example. (I use the expression “some kind of”because the hairy ball has hair all over its surface. Though the baby’s head is not covered with hair completely.) This is why the point on the baby’s head is a singularity. It is the hair that gives a cowlick no matter how hard you comb the baby’s hair.

Torus

Hairy ball theorem doesn’t work on a torus that is covered with hair. In other words, it is possible to comb the hair on a torus towards a single direction.

No Wind

Hairy ball theorem can be used in meteorology. The theorem states that there is a point on earth where there is no wind whatsoever.

To prove that, you can use a hairy ball. Let’s assume that there is wind all over the earth from east to west. If you comb the ball like that, you will realize that north and south poles will have no wind at all.

On Maps

The hairy ball theorem is a kind of a fixed point theorem. Actually, it is also proven by L. E. J. Brouwer in 1912.

One of the real-life examples of the fixed point theorem uses maps. For example, print the map of the country you live in, and place it on the ground:

You could use a smaller map though.

There is a point on the printed map that is exactly the same as the map’s geographical location.

“You are here” maps in malls or bus stops can be seen as an example of this fact.

One wonders…

Assume that all the objects below are covered with hair. Which one(s) can be combed towards the same direction at all its points? Why is that?

M. Serkan Kalaycıoğlu

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