A square and a circle, as I imagine you probably know, look completely different – and you would certainly be right to say that they are different. Mathematically, however, a circle and a square share many structural properties and it may come as a surprise to some that in some cases mathematicians may go so far as to not even bother to distinguish between the two – in other words, the circle and the square can be considered one and the same thing. This is where topology comes in…

Topology is a very abstract area of geometry that simplifies many problems that would be very difficult if not impossible to solve. A formal introduction to topology requires knowledge of some basic set-theory and a knowledge of some analysis and metric spaces is usually helpful. I want to give a simple and informal introduction to this fascinating area of mathematics.

Given a set, $X$, a topological space is a couple formed from the set $X$ and a collection $\tau$ of subsets (called a topology) of $X$ that satisfy

  • $\emptyset \in \tau$ and $X \in \tau$
  • $\tau$ is closed under finite intersections
  • $\tau$ is closed under arbitrary unions

Anything (yes anything) that satisfies the above definition is a topological space. The set $X$ may be a region of the $x$-$y$ plane, a $3$-dimensional region of space, or even an abstract collection of objects – the level of abstractness of topological spaces can be demonstrated in the following example of a topological space

Let $X=\{Amy, Boris, Charlie\}$.

One possible topology, $\tau$, for $X$ could be $\{\emptyset, \{Amy\}, \{Amy, Boris\}, X\}$.

What has all this got to do with the square and the circle? Well two topological spaces can be considered the same (topologically indistinguishable) if a homeomorphism exists between the two. Homeomorphism is mathematical jargon but in simple terms it is a way of “moulding one space into the shape of another space.” Homeomorphisms can be informally visualised by imagining a circular piece of plasticine. It wouldn’t be too difficult to re-shape the plasticine into the shape of a square and vice-versa – this way of deforming the plasticine obeys the rules of a homeomorphism and therefore the circle and the square are topologically equivalent.

A circle and a square

A graph of a circle and a square showing topological equivalence

One possible function that takes the square onto the circle is $f(x,y)=\dfrac{(x,y)}{\sqrt{x^{2}+y^{2}}}$

The word topology doesn’t usually manage to make its way out of university maths departments, yet topology does have practical uses. If you have seen a London underground map before then you have seen a practical application of topology – if you have not seen an underground map before then you can see one here. In reality the tube tracks do not run in perfect straight lines but by representing the tube tracks as straight lines the whole thing is much easier to understand – the map of the London underground is topologically identical to the real thing. In other words, even though they are two different things, they have identical structures.

There are many other examples of topologically equivalent pairs of objects such as

  • the interval $(0,1)$ and the real-line $\mathbb{R}$
  • a sphere and a cube
  • $\mathbb{R}^{2}$ and the punctured sphere ($S^{2}$ with a point removed)

There are also many examples of pairs of objects that have significant structural differences and are not topologically equivalent such as

  • A sphere and a torus – these are not homeomorphic because the torus has a hole but the sphere does not; both are shown below for comparison.
  • $\mathbb{R}^{2}$ and $S^{2}$ are not homeomorphic
  • the letter $A$ is not homeomorphic to the letter $T$

A sphere


A Torus