Mathematics is the study of numbers, quantity, space, pattern, structure, and change. Mathematics is used throughout the world as an essential tool in many fields, including natural science, engineering, medicine, and the social sciences. Applied mathematics, the branch of mathematics concerned with application of mathematical knowledge to other fields, inspires and makes use of new mathematical discoveries and sometimes leads to the development of entirely new mathematical disciplines, such as statistics and game theory. Mathematicians also engage in pure mathematics, or mathematics for its own sake, without having any application in mind. There is no clear line separating pure and applied mathematics, and practical applications for what began as pure mathematics are often discovered.
A homotopy from a circle around a sphere down to a single point. Image credit: Richard Morris
The homotopy groups of spheres describe the different ways spheres of various dimensions can be wrapped around each other. They are studied as part of algebraic topology. The topic can be hard to understand because the most interesting and surprising results involve spheres in higher dimensions. These are defined as follows: an n-dimensional sphere, n-sphere, consists of all the points in a space of n+1 dimensions that are a fixed distance from a center point. This definition is a generalization of the familiar circle (1-sphere) and sphere (2-sphere).
The goal of algebraic topology is to categorize or classify topological spaces. Homotopy groups were invented in the late 19th century as a tool for such classification, in effect using the set of mappings from a c-sphere into a space as a way to probe the structure of that space. An obvious question was how this new tool would work on n-spheres themselves. No general solution to this question has been found to date, but many homotopy groups of spheres have been computed and the results are surprisingly rich and complicated. The study of the homotopy groups of spheres has led to the development of many powerful tools used in algebraic topology.
This is a modern reproduction of the first published image of the Mandelbrot set, which appeared in 1978 in a technical paper on Kleinian groups by Robert W. Brooks and Peter Matelski. The Mandelbrot set consists of the points c in the complex plane that generate a bounded sequence of values when the recursive relation zn+1 = zn2 + c is repeatedly applied starting with z0 = 0. The boundary of the set is a highly complicated fractal, revealing ever finer detail at increasing magnifications. The boundary also incorporates smaller near-copies of the overall shape, a phenomenon known as quasi-self-similarity. The ASCII-art depiction seen in this image only hints at the complexity of the boundary of the set. Advances in computing power and computer graphics in the 1980s resulted in the publication of high-resolution color images of the set (in which the colors of points outside the set reflect how quickly the corresponding sequences of complex numbers diverge), and made the Mandelbrot set widely known by the general public. Named by mathematicians Adrien Douady and John H. Hubbard in honor of Benoit Mandelbrot, one of the first mathematicians to study the set in detail, the Mandelbrot set is closely related to the Julia set, which was studied by Gaston Julia beginning in the 1910s.