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Fri, 13 Apr 2018 As an undergraduate I wondered and wondered about how manifolds and things are classified in algebraic topology, but I couldn't find any way into the subject. All the presentations I found were too abstract and I never came out of it with any concrete idea of how you would actually calculate any specific fundamental groups. I knew that the fundamental group of the circle was !!\Bbb Z!! and the group of the torus was !!\Bbb Z^2!! and I understood basically why, but I didn't know how you would figure this out without geometric intuition. This was fixed for me in the very last undergrad math class I took, at Columbia University with Johan Tysk. That was the lowest point of my adult life, but the algebraic topology was the one bright spot in it. I don't know what might have happened to me if I hadn't had that class to sustain my spirit. And I learned how to calculate homotopy groups! (We used Professor Tysk's course notes, supplemented by William Massey's introduction to algebraic topology. I didn't buy a copy of Massey and I haven't read it all, but I think I can recommend it for this purpose. The parts I have read seemed clear and direct.) Anyway there things stood for a long time. Over the next few decades I made a couple of superficial attempts to find out about homology groups, but again the presentations were too abstract. I had been told that the homology approach was preferred to the homotopy approach because the groups were easier to actually calculate. But none of the sources I found seemed to tell me how to actually calculate anything concrete. Then a few days ago I was in the coffee shop working on a geometry problem involving an icosi-dodecahedron, and the woman next to me asked me what I was doing. Usually when someone asks me this in a coffee shop, they do not want to hear the answer, and I do not want to give it, because if I do their eyes will glaze over and then they will make some comment that I have heard before and do not want to hear again. But it transpired that this woman was a math postdoc at Penn, and an algebraic topologist, so I could launch into an explanation of what I was doing, comfortable in the knowledge that if I said something she didn't understand she would just stop me and ask a question. Yay, fun! Her research is in “persistent homology”, which I had never heard of. So I looked that up and didn't get very far, also because I still didn't know anything about homology. (Also, as she says, the Wikipedia article is kinda crappy.) But I ran into her again a couple of days later and she explained the persistent part, and I know enough about what homology is that the explanation made sense. Her research involves actually calculating actual homology groups of actual manifolds on an actual computer, so I was inspired to take another crack at understanding homology groups. I did a couple of web searches and when I searched for “betti number tutorial” I hit paydirt: these notes titled “persistent homology tutorial” by Xiaojin Zhu of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. They're only 37 slides long, and I could skip the first 15. Then slide 23 gives the magic key. Okay! I have not yet calculated any actual homology groups, so this post might be premature, but I expect I'll finish the slides in a couple of days and try my hand at the calculations and be more or less successful. And the instructions seem clear enough that I can imagine implementing a computer algorithm to calculate the homology groups for a big ugly complex, as this math postdoc does. I had heard before that the advantage of the homology approach over the homotopy approach is that the homologies are easier to actually calculate with, and now I see why. I could have programmed a computer to do homotopy group calculations, but the output would in general have been some quotient of a free group given by a group presentation, and this is basically useless as far as further computation goes. For example the question of whether two differently-presented groups are isomorphic is undecidable, and I think similar sorts of questions, such as whether the group is abelian, or whether it is infinite, are similarly undecidable. Sometimes you get a nice group, but usually you don't. For example the homotopy group of the Klein bottle is the quotient of the free group on two generators under the smallest equivalence relation in which !!aba = b!!; that is: $$\langle a, b\mid abab^{-1}\rangle$$ which is not anything I have seen in any other context. Even the question of whether two given group elements are equal is in general undecidable. So you get an answer, but then you can't actually do anything with it once you have it. (“You're in a balloon!”) The homology approach throws away a lot of information, enough to render the results comprehensible, but it also leaves enough to do something with. [Other articles in category /math] permanent link |