Manifold are the Manifolds

In the stuff I’ve been writing about topology so far, I’ve been talking about topologies mostly algebraically. I’m not sure why, but for me, algebraic topology is both the most interesting and easy to understand bit of topology. Most people seem to think I’m crazy; in general, people seem to think that algebraic topology is hard. It must say something about me that I find other things much harder, but I’ll leave it to someone else to figure out what.

Despite the fact that I love the algebraic side, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in topology that you need to talk about, which isn’t purely algebraic. Today I’m going to talk about one of the most important ones: manifolds.

The definition we use for topological spaces is really abstract. A topological space is a set of points with a structural relation. You can define that relation either in terms of neighborhoods, or in terms of open sets – the two end up being equivalent. (You can define the open sets in terms of neighborhoods, or the neighborhoods in terms of open sets; they define the same structure and imply each other.)

That abstract definition is wonderful. It lets you talk about lots of different structures using the language and mechanics of topology. But it is very abstract. When we think about a topological space, we’re usually thinking of something much more specific than what’s implied by that definition. The word space has an intuitive meaning for us. We hear it, and we think of shapes and surfaces. Those are properties of many, but not all topological spaces. For example, there are topological spaces where you can have multiple distinct points with identical neighborhoods. That’s definitely not part of what we expect!

The things that we think of as a spaces are really are really a special class of topological spaces, called manifolds.

Informally, a manifold is a topological space where its neighborhoods for a surface that appears to be euclidean if you look at small sections. All euclidean surfaces are manifolds – a two dimensional plane, defined as a topological space, is a manifold. But there are also manifolds that aren’t really euclidean, like a torus, or the surface of a sphere – and they’re the things that make manifolds interesting.

The formal definition is very much like the informal, with a few additions. But before we get there, we need to brush up on some definitions.

  • A set {\mathbf S} is countable if and only if there is a total, onto, one-to-one function from {\mathbf S} to the natural numbers.
  • Given a topological space (T, \tau), a basis \beta for \tau is a collection of open sets from which any open set in \tau can be generated by a finite sequence of unions and intersections of sets in \beta. What this really means is that the structure of the space is regular – it’s got nothing strange like an infinitary-union in its open-sets.
  • A topological space (T, \tau) is called a Hausdorff space if and only if for any two distinct points p, q \in T, there are at least one open set o_p where p \in o_p \land q \not\in o_p, and at least one open set o_q where q \in o_q \land p \not\in o_q. (That is, there is at least one open set that includes p but not q, and one that includes q but not p.) A Hausdorff space just defines another kind of regularity: disjoint points have disjoint neighborhoods.

A topological space (T, \tau) is an n-manifold if/f:

  • \tau has a countable basis.
  • (T, \tau) is a Hausdorff space.
  • Every point in T has a neighborhood homeomorphic to an open euclidean n-ball.

Basically, what this really means is pretty much what I said in the informal definition. In a euclidean n-space, every point has a neighborhood which is shaped like an n-ball, and can be separated from any other point using an n-ball shaped neighborhood of the appropriate size. In a manifold, the neighborhoods around a point look like the euclidean neighborhoods.

If you think of a large enough torus, you can easily imagine that the smaller open 2-balls (disks) around a particular point will look very much like flat disks. In fact, as the torus gets larger, they’ll become virtually indistinguishable from flat euclidean disks. But as you move away from the individual point, and look at the properties of the entire surface, you see that the euclidean properties fail.

Another interesting way of thinking about manifolds is in terms of a construction called charts, and charts will end up being important later.

A chart for an manifold is an invertable map from some euclidean manifold to part of the manifold which preserves the topological structure. If a manifold isn’t euclidean, then there isn’t a single chart for the entire manifold. But we can find a set of overlapping charts so that every point in the manifold is part of at least one chart, and the edges of all of the charts overlap. A set of overlapping charts like that is called an atlas for the manifold, and we will sometimes say that the atlas defines the manifold. For any given manifold, there are many different atlases that can define it. The union of all possible atlases for a manifold, which is the set of all charts that can be mapped onto parts of the manifold is called the maximal atlas for the manifold. The maximal atlas for a manifold is, obviously, unique.

For some manifolds, we can define an atlas consisting of charts with coordinate systems. If we can do that, then we have something wonderful: a topology on which we can do angles, distances, and most importantly, calculus.

Topologists draw a lot of distinctions between different kinds of manifolds; a few interesting examples are:

  • A Reimann manifold is a manifold on which you can meaningfully define angles and distance. (The mechanics of that are complicated and interesting, and I’ll talk about them in a future post.)
  • A differentiable manifold is one on which you can do calculus. (It’s basically a manifold where the atlas has measures, and the measures are compatible in the overlaps.) I probably won’t say much more about them, because the interesting thing about them is analysis, and I stink at analysis.
  • A Lie group is a differentiable manifold with a valid closed product operator between points in the manifold, which is compatible with the smooth structure of the manifold. It’s basically what happens when a differentiable manifold and a group fall in love and have a baby.

We’ll see more about manifolds in future posts!

10 thoughts on “Manifold are the Manifolds

  1. John Armstrong

    Makes sense you’d find it easier; AT generally restricts itself to manifolds (as you’ve noted), which are some of the nicest possible spaces ever. I think people forget just how extremely perverse non-manifolds can be.

  2. Bard Bloom

    “Hausdorff space just defines another kind of regularity: disjoint points have disjoint neighborhoods.”


    “regular” is a word used to describe topologies: it means that points can be separated from closed sets. (Depending on the source, sometimes one tosses in Hausdorff with that, and sometimes not. Sometimes the other property, or the same property, is called T3)

    Anyways, “Hausdorff” and “regular” mean similar but NOT THE SAME things.

    1. Antiochus McNitpick

      I think the word “regularity” was used here with its informal meaning of “some sort of structure” rather than the specific topological one.

  3. Zaq

    I think you have the wrong definition of Hausdorff. What you’ve given is the T1 condition, which is weaker. In Hausdorff spaces for every pair of points p and q there must exist a pair neighborhoods o_p and o_q which are disjoint.

    Consider the line with two origins . This is the regular real line but with two origins, 0_a and 0_b, that are distinct but still “next to” the same points, ie any open set in R is open here with 0 replaced either with one of 0_a or 0_b. 0_a is not contained in any small neighborhood of 0_b (and vice versa), but any neighborhood of 0_a intersects any neighborhood of 0_b. This space is T1 but not Hausdorff.

  4. Bard Bloom

    Actually you got the definition of Hausdorff wrong altogether. What you have there is the weaker property often called T1. In a Hausdorff space, two distinct points have two disjoint open sets containing them (one each), aka, distinct points can be separated by open sets.

  5. Avi Steiner

    Your definition of a basis for a topology is not at all standard. Usually, one defines a basis B to be a family of open sets such that every open set (not just those in B) is a union of possibly infinitely many elements of B.

    For instance, consider the Euclidean plane. The open balls form a basis (in the usual sense), yet the interior of a square is not made up of a union and intersection of a finite number of open sets.

  6. Sean Holman

    Some of the most interesting recent developments in topology have happened through differentiable manifolds (i.e. proof of Poincare conjecture using Ricci flow), and so you should talk about them!

    Also, I’m not sure that what defines a differentiable manifold is the ability to define a measure (measures can be defined on objects which are not differentiable manifolds). At an intuitive level the differentiable in differentiable manifold means that the manifold has no kinks or sharp points.

    Another interesting new field in topology, which naturally combines with another subject you’ve discussed, is random topology.

  7. Barbara

    First of all, thanks for the post! Manifolds are a fundamental scientific concept which hasn’t found its way to general education (like too many others in the mathematics of the last two centuries). I can still remember when, years ago, a TV series mentioned diffeomorphism.
    You may want to fix Riemann and invertible.
    Finally, for the analytically challenged, the algebraic version of manifolds are called varieties; they require only polynomials and fractions in the definition and, besides being intrinsically awesome, have applications in computer science, the proof of Fermat’s last theorem, and string theory. Just ask your friendly neighborhood algebraic geometer.

    1. markcc Post author

      I will correct it when I can; unfortunately, I’m dealing with some personal stuff that’s eating up all of my time.

  8. Nomad

    Do you have a link to the definition of “neighbourhood” you are using? When I learned topology we only defined neighbour hood in terms of open sets


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