Friday, December 13, 2002

Experience Mathematics # 22: The mobius strip

Take a long, thin strip of paper, give it a half twist, and paste the two ends together. What you get is a mobius strip (see picture).

Compare the mobius strip with the cylinder, which you get if you don’t give a half twist. A mobius strip has only one surface. Can you see why? Draw a line along the edge and keep going on. Eventually, you will arrive at the starting point. A cylinder, on the other hand, has an inside and an outside surface. The artist Escher portrayed this idea in Mobius Strip II (woodcut, 1963) (see picture).

If you cut the paper cylinder in half, you will get two cylinders. However, if you cut the mobius strip, you will get something very similar to a mobius strip. How many half-twists does the cut mobius strip have?

The mobius strip is one of the many surfaces that appear in Topology, a branch of mathematics. Topologists have been described as the mathematicians who cannot tell the difference between a coffee mug and a doughnut. This is because a mug can be “continuously deformed” to become a doughnut. A doughnut (which is a tyre tube, topologically speaking) cannot be transformed into a sphere. So, according to topologists, the tyre tube is not the same as a sphere, but a coffee mug is homotopic to a doughnut.

Pic credits: Both were stolen off the web, I don't know from where. 

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