Imagining the plane

The other day at lunch, one of my colleagues — let’s call her “Wendy Hilton” to preserve her anonymity (OK, this is pretty bad, but perhaps not quite as bad as Clive James’s use of “Romaine Rand” as a pseudonym for “Germaine Greer” in Unreliable Memoirs . . .) — expressed some skepticism about a somewhat unusual assertion that I make at the start of my scl monograph. Since it is my monograph, I feel free to quote the offending paragraphs:

It is unfortunate in some ways that the standard way to refer to the plane emphasizes its product structure. This product structure is topologically unnatural, since it is defined in a way which breaks the natural topological symmetries of the object in question. This fact is thrown more sharply into focus when one discusses more rigid topologies.

At this point I give an example, namely that of the Zariski topology, pointing out that the product topology of two copies of the affine line with the Zariski topology is not the same as the Zariski topology on the affine plane. All well and good. I then go on to claim that part of the bias is biological in origin, citing the following example as evidence:

Example 1.2 (Primary visual cortex). The primary visual cortex of mammals (including humans), located at the posterior pole of the occipital cortex, contains neurons hardwired to fire when exposed to certain spatial and temporal patterns. Certain specific neurons are sensitive to stimulus along specific orientations, but in primates, more cortical machinery is devoted to representing vertical and horizontal than oblique orientations (see for example [58] for a discussion of this effect).

(Note: [58] is a reference to the paper “The distribution of oriented contours in the real world” by David Coppola, Harriett Purves, Allison McCoy, and Dale Purves, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 95 (1998), no. 7, 4002–4006)

I think Wendy took this to be some kind of poetic license or conceit, and perhaps even felt that it was a bit out of place in a serious research monograph. On balance, I think I agree that it comes across as somewhat jarring and unexpected to the reader, and the tone and focus is somewhat inconsistent with that of the rest of the book. But I also think that in certain subjects in mathematics — and I would put low-dimensional geometry/topology in this category — we are often not aware of the extent to which our patterns of reasoning and imagination are shaped, limited, or (mis)directed by our psychological — and especially psychophysical — natures.

The particular question of how the mind conceives of, imagines, or perceives any mathematical object is complicated and multidimensional, and colored by historical, social, and psychological (not to mention mathematical) forces. It is generally a vain endeavor to find precise physical correlates of complicated mental objects, but in the case of the plane (or at least one cognitive surrogate, the subjective visual field) there is a natural candidate for such a correlate. Cells on the rear of the occipital lobe are arranged in a “map” in the region of the occipital lobe known as the “primary visual cortex”, or V1. There is a precise geometric relationship between the location of neurons in V1 and the points in the subjective visual field they correspond to. Further visual processing is done by other areas V2, V3, V4, V5 of the visual cortex. Information is fed forward from Vi to Vj with j>i, but also backward from Vj to Vi regions, so that visual information is processed at several levels of abstraction simultaneously, and the results of this processing compared and refined in a complicated synthesis (this tends to make me think of the parallel terraced scan model of analogical reasoning put forward by Douglas Hofstadter and Melanie Mitchell; see Fluid concepts and creative analogies, Chapter 5).

The initial processing done by the V1 area is quite low-level; individual neurons are sensitive to certain kind of stimuli, e.g. color, spatial periodicity (on various scales),  motion, orientation, etc. As remarked earlier, more neurons are devoted to detecting horizontally or vertically aligned stimuli; in other words, our brains literally devote more hardware to perceiving or imagining vertical and horizontal lines than to lines with an oblique orientation. This is not to say that at some higher, more integrated level, our perception is not sensitive to other symmetries that our hardware does not respect, just as a random walk on a square lattice in the plane converges (after a parabolic rescaling) to Brownian motion (which is not just rotationally but conformally invariant). However the fact is that humans perform statistically better on cognitive tasks that involve the perception of figures that are aligned along the horizontal and vertical axes, than on similar tasks that differ only by a rotation of the figures.

It is perhaps interesting therefore that the earliest (?) mathematical conception of the plane, due to the Greeks, did not give a privileged place to the horizontal or vertical directions, but treats all orientations on an equal footing. In other words, in Greek (Euclidean) geometry, the definitions respect the underlying symmetries of the objects. Of course, from our modern perspective we would not say that the Greeks gave a definition of the plane at all, or at best, that the definition is woefully inadequate. According to one well-known translation, the plane is introduced as a special kind of surface as follows:

A surface is that which has length and breadth.

When a surface is such that the right line joining any two arbitrary points in it lies wholly in the surface, it is called a plane.

This definition of a surface looks as though it is introducing coordinates, but in fact one might just as well interpret it as defining a surface in terms of its dimension; having defined a surface (presumably thought of as being contained in some ambient undefined three-dimensional space) one defines a plane to be a certain kind of surface, namely one that is convex. Horizontal and vertical axes are never introduced. Perpendicularity is singled out as important, but the perpendicularity of two lines is a relative notion, whereas horizontality and verticality are absolute. In the end, Euclidean geometry is defined implicitly by its properties, most importantly isotropy (i.e. all right angles are equal to one another) and the parallel postulate, which singles it out from among several alternatives (elliptic geometry, hyperbolic geometry). In my opinion, Euclidean geometry is imprecise but natural (in the sense of category theory), because objects are defined in terms of the natural transformations they admit, and in a way that respects their underlying symmetries.

In the 15th century, the Italian artists of the Renaissance developed the precise geometric method of perspective painting (although the technique of representing more distant objects by smaller figures is extremely ancient). Its invention is typically credited to the architect and engineer Filippo Brunelleschi; one may speculate that the demands of architecture (i.e. the representation of precise 3 dimensional geometric objects in 2 dimensional diagrams) was one of the stimuli that led to this invention (perhaps this suggestion is anachronistic?). Mathematically, this gives rise to the geometry of the projective plane, i.e. the space of lines through the origin (the “eye” of the viewer of a scene). In principle, one could develop projective geometry without introducing “special” directions or families of lines. However, in one, two, or three point perspective, families of lines parallel to one or several “special” coordinate axes (along which significant objects in the painting are aligned) appear to converge to one of the vanishing points of the painting. In his treatise “De pictura” (on painting), Leon Battista Alberti (a friend of Brunelleschi) explicitly described the geometry of vision in terms of projections on to a (visual) plane. Amusingly (in the context of this blog post), he explicitly distinguishes between the mathematical and the visual plane:

In all this discussion, I beg you to consider me not as a mathematician but as a painter writing of these things.

Mathematicians measure with their minds alone the forms of things separated from all matter. Since we wish the object to be seen, we will use a more sensate wisdom.

I beg to differ: similar parts of the brain are used for imagining a triangle and for looking at a painting. Alberti’s claim sounds a bit too much like Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria”, and in a way it is disheartening that it was made at a place and point in history at which mathematics and the visual arts were perhaps at their closest.

In the 17th century René Descartes introduced his coordinate system and thereby invented “analytic geometry”. To us it might not seem like such a big leap to go from a checkerboard floor in a perspective painting (or a grid of squares to break up the visual field) to the introduction of numerical coordinates to specify a geometrical figure, but Descartes’s ideas for the first time allowed mathematicians to prove theorems in geometry by algebraic methods. Analytic geometry is contrasted with “synthetic geometry”, in which theorems are deduced logically from primitive axioms and rules of inference. In some abstract sense, this is not a clear distinction, since algebra and analysis also rests on primitive axioms, and rules of deduction. In my opinion, this terminology reflects a psychological distinction between “analytic methods” in which one computes blindly and then thinks about what the results of the calculation mean afterwards, and “synthetic methods” in which one has a mental model of the objects one is manipulating, and directly intuits the “meaning” of the operations one performs. Philosophically speaking, the first is formal, the second is platonic. Biologically speaking, the first does not make use of the primary visual cortex, the second does.

As significant as Descartes ideas were, mathematicians were slow to take real advantage of them. Complex numbers were invented by Cardano in the mid 16th century, but the idea of representing complex numbers geometrically, by taking the real and imaginary parts as Cartesian coordinates, had to wait until Argand in the early 19th.

Incidentally, I have heard it said that the Greeks did not introduce coordinates because they drew their figures on the ground and looked at them from all sides, whereas Descartes and his contemporaries drew figures in books. Whether this has any truth to it or not, I do sometimes find it useful to rotate a mathematical figure I am looking at, in order to stimulate my imagination.

After Poincaré’s invention of topology in the late 19th century, there was a new kind of model of the plane to be (re)imagined, namely the plane as a topological space. One of the most interesting characterizations was obtained by the brilliantly original and idiosyncratic R. L. Moore in his paper, “On the foundations of plane analysis situs”. Let me first remark that the line can be characterized topologically in terms of its natural order structure; one might argue that this characterization more properly determines the oriented line, and this is a fair comment, but at least the object has been determined up to a finite ambiguity. Let me second of all remark that the characterization of the line in terms of order structures is useful; a (countable) group G is abstractly isomorphic to a group of (orientation-preserving) homeomorphisms of the line if and only if G admits an (abstract) left-invariant order.

Given points and the line, Moore proceeds to list a collection of axioms which serve to characterize the plane amongst topological spaces. The axioms are expressed in terms of separation properties of primitive undefined terms called points and regions (which correspond more or less to ordinary points and open sets homeomorphic to the interiors of closed disks respectively) and non-primitive objects called “simple closed curves” which are (eventually) defined in terms of simpler objects. Moore’s axioms are “natural” in the sense that they do not introduce new, unnecessary, unnatural structure (such as coordinates, a metric, special families of “straight” lines, etc.). The basic principle on which Moore’s axioms rest is that of separation — which continua separate which points from which others? If there is a psychophysical correlate of this mathematical intuition, perhaps it might be the proliferation of certain neurons in the primary visual cortex which are edge detectors — they are sensitive, not to absolute intensity, but to a spatial discontinuity in the intensity (associated with the “edge” of an object). The visual world is full of objects, and our eyes evolved to detect them, and to distinguish them from their surroundings (to distinguish figure from ground as it were). If I have an objection to Cartesian coordinates on biological grounds (I don’t, but for the sake of argument let’s suppose I do) then perhaps Moore should also be disqualified for similar reasons. Or rather, perhaps it is worth being explicitly aware, when we make use of a particular mathematical model or intellectual apparatus, of which aspects of it are necessary or useful because of their (abstract) applications to mathematics, and which are necessary or useful because we are built in such a way as to need or to be able to use them.

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3 Responses to Imagining the plane

  1. Dipankar Ray says:

    I am so very happy that “Wendy” expressed such skepticism, as it caused you to write more about this topic than I’ve successfully wrung out of you over the last n years! Hooray! Fantastic post!

    • Wendy says:

      I second Dipankar’s comment. This was great! You provided a better expression of my scepticism than I was able to myself:-

      The particular question of how the mind conceives of, imagines, or perceives any mathematical object is complicated and multidimensional, and colored by historical, social, and psychological (not to mention mathematical) forces.

      This post addresses exactly the sort of issues I had in mind.

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