Tag Archives: Visual Differential Geometry and Forms

What is dx really?

“Differential geometry is the study of properties that are invariant under change of notion”  — Preface p. vii of “Introduction to Smooth Manifolds” J. M. Lee second edition.  Lee says this is “funny primarily because it is so close to the truth”.

Having ascended to a substantial base camp for the assault on the Einstein Field equations (e.g. understanding the Riemann curvature tensor), I thought I’d take a break and follow Needham’s advice about another math book “Elementary Differential Geometry” 2nd edition (revised 2006) by Barrett O’Neill.  “First published in 1966, this trail-blazing text pioneered the use of Forms at the undergraduate level.  Today, more than a half-century later, O’Neill’s work remains, in my view, the single most clear-eyed, elegant and (ironically) modern treatment of the subject available — present company excepted! — at the undergraduate level.”

Anyone taking calculus has seen plenty of dx’s — in derivatives, in integrals etc. etc..  They’re rarely explained.  O’Neill will get you there in just the first 24 pages.  One more page and you’ll understand

df =  (partial f/partial x) * dx + (partial f/partial y) * dy + (partial f/partial z) * dz

which you’ve doubtless seen before primarily as (heiroglyphics) before you moved on.

Is it easy?  No, not unless you read definitions and internalize them immediately.  The definitions are very clearly explained.

His definition of vector is a bit different — two points in Euclidean 3-space (written R^3 which is the only space he talks about in the first 25 pages).  His 3-space is actually a vector space in which point can be added and scalar multiplied.

You’ll need to bone up on the chain rule from calculus 101.

A few more definitions — natural coordinate functions, tangent space to R^3 at p, vector field on R^3, pointwise principle, natural frame field, Euclidean coordinate function (written x_i, where i is in { 1, 2, 3 } ), derivative of a function in direction of vector v (e.g. directional derivative), operation of a vector on a function, tangent vector, 1-form, dual space. I had to write them down to keep them straight as they’re mixed in paragraphs containing explanatory text.


at long last,

differential of x_i (written dx_i)

All is not perfect.  On p. 28 you are introduced to the alternation rule

dx_i ^ dx_j = – dx_j ^ dx_i with no justification whatsoever

On p. 30 you are given the formula for the exterior derivative of a one form again with no justification.  So its back to mumbling incantations and plug and chug

Understanding the Riemann curvature tensor is like doing a spinal tap

Back in the day when I was doing spinal taps, I spent far more time setting them up (positioning the patient so that the long axis of the spinal column was parallel to the floor and the vertical axis of the recumbent patient was perpendicular to the floor) than actually doing the tap.  Why? because then, all I had to do was have the needle parallel to the floor, with no guessing about how to angle it when the patient had rolled (usually forward into the less than firm mattress of the hospital bed).

So it is with finally seeing what the Riemann curvature tensor actually is, why it is the way it is, and why the notation describing it is such a mess.  Finally on p. 290 of Needham’s marvelous book “Visual Differential Geometry and Forms” the Riemann curvature tensor is revealed in all its glory.  Understanding it takes far less time than understanding the mathematical (and geometric) scaffolding required to describe it, a la spinal taps.

Over the years while studying relativity, I’ve seen it in one form or other (always algebraic) without understanding what the algebra was really describing.

Needham will get you there, but you have to understand a lot of other things first. Fortunately almost all of them are described visually, so you see what the algebra is trying to describe.  Along the way you will see what the Lie bracket of two vector fields is all about along with holonomy.  And you will really understand what curvature is.  And Needham will give you 3 ways to understand parallel transport (which underlies everything — thanks Ashutosh)

Needham starts off with Gauss’s definition of curvature of a surface — the angular excess of a triangle, divided by its area.

Here is why this definition is enough to show you why the surface of a sphere is curved.   Go to the equator.  Mark point one, then point two 1/4 of the way around the sphere.  Form longitudes (perpendiculars) there and extend them as great circles toward the North pole. You now have a triangle containing 3 right angles, (clearly an angular excess from Euclid who states that the sum the angles of a triangle is two right angles).  The reason, of course, is because the sphere is curved.

Ever since I met a classmate 12 years ago at a college reunion who was a relativist working with Hawking, I decided to try to learn relativity so I’d have something intelligent to say to him if we ever met again (COVID19 stopped all that although we’re still both alive).

Now that I understand what the math of relativity is trying to describe, I may be able to understand general relativity.

Be prepared for a lot of work, but do start with Needham’s book.  Here are some links to other things I’ve written about it.  It will take some getting used to as it is very different from any math book you’ve ever read (except Needham’s other book).

12 July 21 — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2021/07/12/a-premature-book-review-and-a-60-year-history-with-complex-variables-in-4-acts/

4 Dec 21 — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2021/12/04/a-book-worth-buying-for-the-preface-alone-or-how-to-review-a-book-you-havent-read/

7 Mar 22 — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2022/03/07/visual-differential-geometry-and-forms-q-take-3/

27 June 22 — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2022/06/27/the-chinese-room-argument-understanding-math-and-the-imposter-syndrome/

17 July 22 — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2022/07/17/a-visual-proof-of-the-the-theorem-egregium-of-gauss/

Apologies for another posting delay

Hopefully the post on the paper I’m so impressed with will be out in the next few days.  I’ve been clearing away the underbrush in Needham’s Visual Differential Geometry and Forms before the final push on the Einstein field equation and Riemannian geometry.

Apologies for the delay

Here’s a clue for you all to think about — what effects does proline have on (1) the alpha helix (2) the beta pleated sheet?

A visual proof of the the theorem egregium of Gauss

Nothing better illustrates the difference between the intuitive understanding that something is true and being convinced by logic that something is true  than the visual proof of the theorem egregium of Gauss found in “Visual Differential Geometry and Forms” by Tristan Needham and  the 9 step algebraic proof in  “The Geometry of Spacetime” by Jim Callahan.

Mathematicians attempt to tie down the Gulliver of our powerful appreciation of space with Lilliputian strands of logic.

First: some background on the neurology of vision and our perception of space and why it is so compelling to us.

In the old days, we neurologists figured out what the brain was doing by studying what was lost when parts of the brain were destroyed (usually by strokes, but sometimes by tumors or trauma).  This wasn’t terribly logical, as pulling the plug on a lamp plunges you in darkness, but the plug has nothing to do with how the lightbulb or LED produces light.  Even so,  it was clear that the occipital lobe was important — destroy it on both sides and you are blind — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occipital_lobe but the occipital lobe accounts for only 10% of the gray matter of the cerebral cortex.

The information flowing into your brain from your eyes is enormous.  The optic nerve connecting the eyeball to the brain has a million fibers, and they can fire ‘up to 500 times a second.  If each firing (nerve impulse) is a bit, then that’s an information flow into your brain of a gigaBit/second.   This information is highly processed by the neurons and receptors in the 10 layers of the retina. Over 30 retinal cell types in our retinas are known, each responding to a different aspect of the visual stimulus.  For instance, there are cells responding to color, to movement in one direction, to a light stimulus turning on, to a light stimulus turning off, etc. etc.

So how does the relatively small occipital lobe deal with this? It doesn’t.  At least half of your the brain responds to visual stimuli.  How do we know?   It’s complicated, but something called functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) is able to show us increased neuronal activity primarily by the increase in blood flow it causes.

Given that half of your brain is processing what you see, it makes sense to use it to ‘see’ what’s going on in Mathematics involving space.  This is where Tristan Needham’s books come in.

I’ve written several posts about them.

and Here — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2022/03/07/visual-differential-geometry-and-forms-q-take-3/



OK, so what is the theorem egregium?  Look at any object (say a banana). You can see how curved it is by just looking at its surface (e.g. how it looks in the 3 dimensional space of our existence).  Gauss showed that you don’t
have to even look at an object in 3 space,  just perform local measurements (using the distance between surface points, e.g. the metric e.g.  the metric tensor) .  Curvature is intrinsic to the surface itself, and you don’t have to get outside of the surface (as we are) to find it.



The idea (and mathematical machinery) has been extended to the 3 dimensional space we live in (something we can’t get outside of).  Is our  universe curved or not? To study the question is to determine its intrinsic curvature by extrapolating the tools Gauss gave us to higher dimensions and comparing the mathematical results with experimental observation. The elephant in the room is general relativity which would be impossible without this (which is why I’m studying the theorem egregium in the first place).


So how does Callahan phrase and prove the theorem egregium? He defines curvature as the ratio of the area on a (small) patch on the surface to the area of another patch on the unit sphere. If you took some vector calculus, you’ll know that the area spanned by two nonCollinear vectors is the numeric value of their cross product.



The vectors Callahan needs for the cross product are the normal vectors to the surface.  Herein beginneth the algebra. Callahan parameterizes the surface in 3 space from a region in the plane, uses the metric of the surface to determine a formula for the normal vector to the surface  at a point (which has 3 components  x , y and z,  each of which is the sum of 4 elements, each of which is the product of a second order derivative with a first order derivative of the metric). Forming the cross product of the normal vectors and writing it out is an algebraic nightmare.  At this point you know you are describing something called curvature, but you have no clear conception of what curvature is.  But you have a clear definition in terms of the ratio of areas, which soon disappears in a massive (but necessary) algebraic fandango.



On pages 258 – 262 Callahan breaks down the proof into 9 steps involving various mathematical functions of the metric and its derivatives such as  Christoffel symbols,  the Riemann curvature tensors etc. etc.  It is logically complete, logically convincing, and shows that all this mathematical machinery arises from the metric (intrinsic to the surface) and its derivatives (some as high as third order).



For this we all owe Callahan a great debt.  But unfortunately, although I believe it,  I don’t see it.  This certainly isn’t to denigrate Callahan, who has helped me through his book, and a guy who I consider a friend as I’ve drunk beer with him and his wife while  listening to Irish music in a dive bar north of Amherst.



Callahan’s proof is the way Gauss himself did it and Callahan told me that Gauss didn’t have the notational tools we have today making the theorem even more outstanding (egregious).


Well now,  onto Needham’s geometrical proof.  Disabuse yourself of the notion that it won’t involve much intellectual work on your part even though it uses the geometric intuition you were born with (the green glasses of Immanuel Kant — http://onemillionpoints.blogspot.com/2009/07/kant-for-dummies-green-sunglasses.html)


Needham’s definition of curvature uses angular excess of a triangle.  Angles are measured in radians, which is the ratio of the arc subtended by the angle to the radius of the circle (not the circumference as I thought I remembered).  Since the circumference of a circle is 2*pi*radius, radian measure varies from 0 to 2*pi.   So a right angle is pi/2 radians.


Here is a triangle with angular excess.  Start with a sphere of radius R.  Go to the north pol and drop a longitude down to the equator.  It meets the equator at a right angle (pi/2).  Go back to the north pole, form an angle of pi/2 with the first longitude, and drop another longitude at that angle which meets the equator at an angle of pi/2.   The two points on the equator and the north pole form a triangle, with total internal angles of 3*(pi/2).  In plane geometry we know that the total angles of a triangle is 2 (pi/2).  (Interestingly this depends on the parallel postulate. See if you can figure out why).  So the angular excess of our triangle is pi/2.  Nothing complicated to understand (or visualize) here.


Needham defines the curvature of the triangle (and any closed area) as the ratio between the angular excess of the triangle to its area



What is the area of the triangle?  Well, the volume of a sphere is (4/3) pi * r^3, and its area is the integral (4 pi * r^2).  The area of the north hemisphere, is 2 pi *r^2, and the area of the triangle just made is 1/2 * Pi * r^2.



So the curvature of the triangle is (pi/2) / (1/2 * pi * r^2) = 1 / r^2.   More to the point, this is the curvature of a sphere of radius r.



At this point you should have a geometric intuition of just what curvature is, and how to find it.  So when you are embroiled in the algebra in higher dimensions trying to describe curvature there, you will have a mental image of what the algebra is attempting to describe, rather than just the symbols and machinations of the algebra itself (the Lilliputian strands of logic tying down the Gulliver of curvature).


The road from here to the Einstein gravitational field equations (p. 326 of Needham) and one I haven’t so far traversed,  presently is about 50 pages.Just to get to this point however,  you have been exposed to comprehensible geometrical expositions, of geodesics, holonomy,  parallel transport and vector fields, and you should have mental images of them all.Interested?  Be prepared to work, and to reorient how you think about these things if you’ve met them before.  The 3 links mentioned about will give you a glimpse of Needham’s style.  You probably should read them next.

The Chinese Room Argument, Understanding Math and the imposter syndrome

The Chinese Room Argument

 was first published in a 1980 article by American philosopher John Searle. He imagines himself alone in a room following a computer program for responding to Chinese characters slipped under the door. Searle understands nothing of Chinese, and yet, by following the program for manipulating symbols and numerals just as a computer does, he sends appropriate strings of Chinese characters back out under the door, and this leads those outside to mistakenly suppose there is a Chinese speaker in the room.


So it was with me and math as an undergraduate due to a history dating back to age 10.  I hit college being very good at manipulating symbols whose meaning I was never given to understand.  I grew up 45 miles from the nearest synagogue.  My fanatically religious grandfather thought it was better not to attend services at all than to drive up there on the Sabbath.  My father was a young lawyer building a practice, and couldn’t close his office on Friday.   So my he taught me how to read Hebrew letters and reproduce how they sound, so I could read from the Torah at my Bar Mitzvah (which I did comprehending nothing).  Since I’m musical, learning the cantillations under the letters wasn’t a problem.


I’ve always loved math and solving problems of the plug and chug variety was no problem.  I’d become adept years earlier at this type of thing thanks to my religiously rigid grandfather.   It was the imposter syndrome writ large.  I’ve never felt like this about organic chemistry and it made a good deal of intuitive sense the first time I ran into it.  For why have a look at — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2012/09/11/why-math-is-hard-for-me-and-organic-chemistry-is-easy/


If there is anything in math full of arcane symbols calling for lots of mechanical manipulation, it is the differential geometry and tensors needed to understand General relativity.   So I’ve plowed through a lot of it, but still don’t see what’s really going on.


Enter Tristan Needham’s book “Visual Differential Geometry and Forms”.  I’ve written about it several times
and Here — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2022/03/07/visual-differential-geometry-and-forms-q-take-3/


If you’ve studied any math, his approach will take getting used to as it’s purely visual and very UNalgebraic.  But what is curvature but a geometric concept.


So at present I’m about 80 pages away from completing Needham’s discussion of general relativity.  I now have an intuitive understanding of curvature, torsion, holonomy, geodesics and the Gauss map that I never had before.   It is very slow going, but very clear.  Hopefully I’ll make it to p. 333.  Wish me luck.

A book worth buying for the preface alone (or how to review a book you haven’t read)’

Everyone in grade school writes a book report on something they haven’t completely read (or read at all). Well, I’m long past, but here’s a book worth buying for the preface alone — Visual Differential Geometry and Forms by Tristan Needham.

His earlier book Visual Complex Analysis (another book I haven’t read completely) is a masterpiece (those parts I’ve managed to read) with all sorts of complex formulas and algebraicism explained visually.  It’s best to be patient, as Needham doesn’t even get to complex differentiation until Chapter 4 (p. 188) The Amplitwist concept.

On page xviii of the preface, Needham describes the third type of calculus Newton invented, and the one he used in the great Principia Mathematica of 1687.

The first one of 1665 was basically the manipulation of power series (which I’ve never heard of.  Have you?)

The second was one we all study in school, dx dy and all that.

Newton called the third method of calculus “the synthetic method of fluxions.”

Bishop Berkeley had a field day with them.  “And what are these fluxions? The velocities of evanescent increments? And what are these same evanescent increments? They are neither finite quantities, nor quantities infinitely small, nor yet nothing. May we not call them ghosts of departed quantities?”

Laugh not at the good Bishop;   Berkeley California is named for him (as long as the woke don’t find out).

Needham gives a completely nontrivial example of the method.  He shows geometrically how the derivative of tan(theta) is 1 + [ tan(theta)]^2,.

The diagram will not be reproduced here but suffice it to say you’ll have to remember a lot of your geometry, e.g. two lines separated by a very small angle are essentially parallel, the radius of a circle is perpendicular to the tangent, what a similar triangle is.

The best thing about it is you can actually visualize the limit process taking place as a triangle shrinks and shrinks and eventually becomes ‘almost’ similar to another.  No deltas and epsilons for Newton (or Needham).  There is some algebra involving the ratios of the sides of similar triangles, but it’s trivial.

Buy the book and enjoy.   You’ll never think of differentiation the same way.  Your life will be better, and you might even meet a better class of people.

A premature book review and a 60 year history with complex variables in 4 acts

“Visual Differential Geometry and Forms” (VDGF) by Tristan Needham is an incredible book.  Here is a premature review having only been through the first 82 pages of 464 pages of text.

Here’s why.

While mathematicians may try to tie down the visual Gulliver with Lilliputian strands of logic, there is always far more information in visual stimuli than logic can appreciate.  There is no such a thing as a pure visual percept (a la Bertrand Russell), as visual processing begins within the 10 layers of the retina and continues on from there.  Remember: half your brain is involved in processing visual information.  Which is a long winded way of saying that Needham’s visual approach to curvature and other visual constructs is an excellent idea.
Needham loves complex variables and geometry and his book is full of pictures (probably on 50% of the pages).

My history with complex variables goes back over 60 years and occurs in 4 acts.


Act I:  Complex variable course as an undergraduate. Time late 50s.  Instructor Raymond Smullyan a man who, while in this world, was definitely not of it.  He really wasn’t a bad instructor but he appeared to be thinking about something else most of the time.


Act II: Complex variable course at Rocky Mountain College, Billings Montana.  Time early 80s.  The instructor and MIT PhD was excellent.  Unfortunately I can’t remember his name.  I took complex variables again, because I’d been knocked out for probably 30 minutes the previous year and wanted to see if I could still think about the hard stuff.


Act III: 1999 The publication of Needham’s first book — Visual Complex Analysis.  Absolutely unique at the time, full of pictures with a glowing recommendation from Roger Penrose, Needham’s PhD advisor.  I read parts of it, but really didn’t appreciate it.


Act IV 2021 the publication of Needham’s second book, and the subject of this partial review.  Just what I wanted after studying differential geometry with a view to really understanding general relativity, so I could read a classmate’s book on the subject.  Just like VCA, and I got through 82 pages or so, before I realized I should go back and go through the relevant parts (several hundred pages) of VCA again, which is where I am now.  Euclid is all you need for the geometry of VCA, but any extra math you know won’t hurt.


I can’t recommend both strongly enough, particularly if you’ve been studying differential geometry and physics.  There really is a reason for saying “I see it” when you understand something.


Both books are engagingly and informally written, and I can’t recommend them enough (well at least the first 82 pages of VDGF).