Tag Archives: Base space

Fiber bundles at last

As an  undergraduate, I loved looking at math books in the U-store.  They had a wall of them back then, now it’s mostly swag.  The title of one book by a local prof threw me — The Topology of Fiber Bundles.

Decades later I found that to understand serious physics you had to understand fiber bundles.

It was easy enough to memorize the definition, but I had no concept what they really were until I got to page 387 of Roger Penrose’s marvelous book “The Road to Reality”.  It’s certainly not a book to learn physics from for the first time.  But if you have some background (say just from reading physics popularizations), it will make things much clearer, and will (usually) give you a different an deeper perspective on it.

Consider a long picket fence.  Each fencepost is just like every other, but different, because each has its own place.  The pickets are the fibers and the line in the ground on which they sit is something called the base space.

What does that have to do with our 3 dimensional world and its time?


So you’re sitting at your computer looking at this post.  Nothing changes position as you do so.  The space between you and the screen  is the same.

But the 3 dimensional space you’re sitting in is different at every moment, just as the pickets are different at every position on the fence line.

Why?  Because you’re siting on earth.  The earth is rotating, the solar system is rotating about the galactic center, which is itself moving toward the center of the local galactic cluster.

Penrose shows that this is exactly the type of space implied by Galilean relativity. (Yes Galileo conceived of relativity long before Einstein).   Best to let him speak for himself.   It’s a long quote but worth reading.

“Shut yourself up with some friend in the main cabin below decks on some large ship, and have with you there some flies, butterflies, and other small flying animals. Have a large bowl of water with some fish in it; hang up a bottle that empties drop by drop into a wide vessel beneath it. With the ship standing still, observe carefully how the little animals fly with equal speed to all sides of the cabin. The fish swim indifferently in all directions; the drops fall into the vessel beneath; and, in throwing something to your friend, you need throw it no more strongly in one direction than another, the distances being equal; jumping with your feet together, you pass equal spaces in every direction. When you have observed all these things carefully (though doubtless when the ship is standing still everything must happen in this way), have the ship proceed with any speed you like, so long as the motion is uniform and not fluctuating this way and that. You will discover not the least change in all the effects named, nor could you tell from any of them whether the ship was moving or standing still. In jumping, you will pass on the floor the same spaces as before, nor will you make larger jumps toward the stern than toward the prow even though the ship is moving quite rapidly, despite the fact that during the time that you are in the air the floor under you will be going in a direction opposite to your jump. In throwing something to your companion, you will need no more force to get it to him whether he is in the direction of the bow or the stern, with yourself situated opposite. The droplets will fall as before into the vessel beneath without dropping toward the stern, although while the drops are in the air the ship runs many spans. The fish in their water will swim toward the front of their bowl with no more effort than toward the back, and will go with equal ease to bait placed anywhere around the edges of the bowl. Finally the butterflies and flies will continue their flights indifferently toward every side, nor will it ever happen that they are concentrated toward the stern, as if tired out from keeping up with the course of the ship, from which they will have been separated during long intervals by keeping themselves in the air. And if smoke is made by burning some incense, it will be seen going up in the form of a little cloud, remaining still and moving no more toward one side than the other. The cause of all these correspondences of effects is the fact that the ship’s motion is common to all the things contained in it, and to the air also. That is why I said you should be below decks; for if this took place above in the open air, which would not follow the course of the ship, more or less noticeable differences would be seen in some of the effects noted.”

I’d read this many times, but Penrose’s discussion draws out what Galileo is implying. “Clearly we should take Galileo seriously.  There is no meaning to be attached to notion that any particular point in space a minute from now is to be judged as the same point in space that I have chosen. In Galilean dynamics we do not have just one Euclidean 3-space as an arena for the actions of the physical world evolving with time, we have a different E^3 for each moment in time, with no natural identification between these various E^3 ‘s.”

Although it was obvious to us that the points of our space retain their identity from one moment to the next, they don’t.

Penrose’s book is full of wonderful stuff like this.  However, all is not perfect.  Physics Nobelist Frank Wilczek in his review of the book [ Science vol. 307 pp. 852 – 853 notes that “The worst parts of the book are the chapters on high energy physics and quantum field theory, which in spite of their brevity contain several serious blunders.”

However, all the math is fine, and Wilczek says “the discussions of the conformal geometry of special relativity and of spinors are real gems.”

Since he doesn’t even get to quantum mechanics until p. 493 (of 1049) there is a lot to chew on (without worrying about anything other than the capability of your intellect).