The Mathematics Portal


Mathematics is the study of numbers, quantity, space, pattern, structure, and change. Mathematics is used throughout the world as an essential tool in many fields, including natural science, engineering, medicine, and the social sciences. Applied mathematics, the branch of mathematics concerned with application of mathematical knowledge to other fields, inspires and makes use of new mathematical discoveries and sometimes leads to the development of entirely new mathematical disciplines, such as statistics and game theory. Mathematicians also engage in pure mathematics, or mathematics for its own sake, without having any application in mind. There is no clear line separating pure and applied mathematics, and practical applications for what began as pure mathematics are often discovered.


Stereographic projection in 3D.png
3D illustration of a stereographic projection from the north pole onto a plane below the sphere.
Image credit: Mark Howison

In geometry, the stereographic projection is a particular mapping (function) that projects a sphere onto a plane. The projection is defined on the entire sphere, except at one point: the projection point. Where it is defined, the mapping is smooth and bijective. It is conformal, meaning that it preserves angles. It is neither isometric nor area-preserving: that is, it preserves neither distances nor the areas of figures.

Intuitively, then, the stereographic projection is a way of picturing the sphere as the plane, with some inevitable compromises. Because the sphere and the plane appear in many areas of mathematics and its applications, so does the stereographic projection; it finds use in diverse fields including complex analysis, cartography, geology, and photography.

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colored ball with "hair" (representing a vector field on a sphere)

This image illustrates a failed attempt to comb the "hair" on a ball flat, leaving a tuft sticking out at each pole. The hairy ball theorem of algebraic topology states that whenever one attempts to comb a hairy ball, there will always be at least one point on the ball at which a tuft of hair sticks out. More precisely, it states that there is no nonvanishing continuous tangent-vector field on an even-dimensional n‑sphere (an ordinary sphere in three-dimensional space is known as a "2-sphere"). This is not true of certain other three-dimensional shapes, such as a torus (doughnut shape) which can be combed flat. The theorem was first stated by Henri Poincaré in the late 19th century and proved in 1912 by L. E. J. Brouwer. If one idealizes the wind in the Earth's atmosphere as a tangent-vector field, then the hairy ball theorem implies that given any wind at all on the surface of the Earth, there must at all times be a cyclone somewhere. Note, however, that wind can move vertically in the atmosphere, so the idealized case is not meteorologically sound. (What is true is that for every "shell" of atmosphere around the Earth, there must be a point on the shell where the wind is not moving horizontally.) The theorem also has implications in computer modeling (including video game design), in which a common problem is to compute a non-zero 3-D vector that is orthogonal (i.e., perpendicular) to a given one; the hairy ball theorem implies that there is no single continuous function that accomplishes this task.

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