2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Mathematics

Table of Geometry, from the 1728 Cyclopaedia.
Table of Geometry, from the 1728 Cyclopaedia.

Geometry ( Greek γεωμετρία; geo = earth, metria = measure) arose as the field of knowledge dealing with spatial relationships. Geometry was one of the two fields of pre-modern mathematics, the other being the study of numbers.

In modern times, geometric concepts have been extended. They sometimes show a high level of abstraction and complexity. Geometry now uses methods of calculus and abstract algebra, so that many modern branches of the field are not easily recognizable as the descendants of early geometry. (See areas of mathematics.)

History of geometry

Woman teaching geometry. Illustration at the beginning of a medieval translation of Euclid's Elements, (c.1310)
Woman teaching geometry. Illustration at the beginning of a medieval translation of Euclid's Elements, (c. 1310)

Euclid's The Elements of Geometry (c. 300 BCE), was one of the most important early texts on geometry, in which he presented geometry in an ideal axiomatic form, which came to be known as Euclidean geometry. The treatise is not a compendium of all that the Hellenistic mathematicians knew at the time about geometry; Euclid himself wrote eight more advanced books on geometry. We know from other references that Euclid’s was not the first elementary geometry textbook, but the others fell into disuse and were lost.

In the early 17th century, there were two important developments in geometry. The first and most important was the creation of analytic geometry, or geometry with coordinates and equations, by Rene Descartes (1596–1650) and Pierre de Fermat (1601–1665). This was a necessary precursor to the development of calculus and a precise quantitative science of physics. The second geometric development of this period was the systematic study of projective geometry by Girard Desargues (1591–1661). Projective geometry is the study of geometry without measurement, just the study of how points align with each other.

Geometry is still feeling the effects of two developments from the nineteenth century. These were the discovery of non-Euclidean geometry, and the formulation of symmetry as the central consideration in the Erlangen Programme of Felix Klein. Two of the master geometers of the time were Bernhard Riemann, working primarily with tools from mathematical analysis, and introducing the Riemann surface, and Henri Poincaré, the founder of algebraic topology and the geometric theory of dynamical systems.

As a consequence of these major changes in the conception of geometry, the concept of 'space' became something rich and varied, and the natural background for theories as different as complex analysis and classical mechanics. The traditional type of geometry was recognised as that of homogeneous spaces, those spaces which have a sufficient supply of symmetry, so that from point to point they look just the same.

Contemporary geometers

Some of the representative leading figures in modern geometry are Michael Atiyah, Mikhail Gromov, and William Thurston. The common feature in their work is the use of smooth manifolds as the basic idea of space; they otherwise have rather different directions and interests. Geometry now is, in large part, the study of structures on manifolds, that have a geometric meaning in the sense of the principle of covariance that lies at the root of general relativity theory, in theoretical physics. (See Category:Structures on manifolds for a survey.)

Much of this theory relates to the theory of continuous symmetry, or in other words Lie groups. From the foundational point of view, on manifolds and their geometrical structures, important is the concept of pseudogroup, defined formally by Shiing-shen Chern in pursuing ideas introduced by Élie Cartan. A pseudogroup can play the role of a Lie group of infinite dimension.


Where the traditional geometry allowed dimensions 1 (a line), 2 (a plane) and 3 (our ambient world conceived of as three-dimensional space), mathematicians have used higher dimensions for nearly two centuries. Dimension has gone through stages of being any natural number n, possibly infinite with the introduction of Hilbert space, and any positive real number in fractal geometry. Dimension theory is a technical area, initially within general topology, that discusses definitions; in common with most mathematical ideas, dimension is now defined rather than an intuition. Connected topological manifolds have a well-defined dimension; this is a theorem ( invariance of domain) rather than anything a priori.

The issue of dimension still matters to geometry, in the absence of complete answers to classic questions. Dimensions 3 of space and 4 of space-time are special cases in geometric topology. Dimension 10 or 11 is a key number in string theory. Exactly why is something to which research may bring a satisfactory geometric answer.

Contemporary Euclidean geometry

The study of traditional Euclidean geometry is by no means dead. It is now typically presented as the geometry of Euclidean spaces of any dimension, and of the Euclidean group of rigid motions. The fundamental formulae of geometry, such as the Pythagorean theorem, can be presented in this way for a general inner product space.

Euclidean geometry has become closely connected with computational geometry, computer graphics, discrete geometry, and some areas of combinatorics. Momentum was given to further work on Euclidean geometry and the Euclidean groups by crystallography and the work of H. S. M. Coxeter, and can be seen in theories of Coxeter groups and polytopes. Geometric group theory is an expanding area of the theory of more general discrete groups, drawing on geometric models and algebraic techniques.

Algebraic geometry

The field of algebraic geometry is the modern incarnation of the Cartesian geometry of co-ordinates. After a turbulent period of axiomatization, its foundations are in the twenty-first century on a stable basis. Either one studies the 'classical' case where the spaces are complex manifolds that can be described by algebraic equations; or the scheme theory provides a technically sophisticated theory based on general commutative rings.

The geometric style which was traditionally called the Italian school is now known as birational geometry. It has made progress in the fields of threefolds, singularity theory and moduli spaces, as well as recovering and correcting the bulk of the older results. Objects from algebraic geometry are now commonly applied in string theory, as well as diophantine geometry.

Methods of algebraic geometry rely heavily on sheaf theory and other parts of homological algebra. The Hodge conjecture is an open problem that has gradually taken its place as one of the major questions for mathematicians. For practical applications, Gröbner basis theory and real algebraic geometry are major subfields.

Differential geometry

Differential geometry, which in simple terms is the geometry of curvature, has been of increasing importance to mathematical physics since the suggestion that space is not flat space. Contemporary differential geometry is intrinsic, meaning that space is a manifold and structure is given by a Riemannian metric, or analogue, locally determining a geometry that is variable from point to point.

This approach contrasts with the extrinsic point of view, where curvature means the way a space bends within a larger space. The idea of 'larger' spaces is discarded, and instead manifolds carry vector bundles. Fundamental to this approach is the connection between curvature and characteristic classes, as exemplified by the generalized Gauss-Bonnet theorem.

Topology and geometry

The field of topology, which saw massive development in the twentieth century, is in a technical sense a type of transformation geometry, in which transformations are homeomorphisms. This has often been expressed in the form of the dictum 'topology is rubber-sheet geometry'. Contemporary geometric topology and differential topology, and particular subfields such as Morse theory, would be counted by most mathematicians as part of geometry. Algebraic topology and general topology have gone their own ways.

Axiomatic and open development

The model of Euclid's Elements, a connected development of geometry as an axiomatic system, is in a tension with René Descartes's reduction of geometry to algebra by means of a coordinate system. There were many champions of synthetic geometry, Euclid-style development of projective geometry, in the nineteenth century, Jakob Steiner being a particularly brilliant figure. In contrast to such approaches to geometry as a closed system, culminating in Hilbert's axioms and regarded as of important pedagogic value, most contemporary geometry is a matter of style. Computational synthetic geometry is now a branch of computer algebra.

The Cartesian approach currently predominates, with geometric questions being tackled by tools from other parts of mathematics, and geometric theories being quite open and integrated. This is to be seen in the context of the axiomatization of the whole of pure mathematics, which went on in the period c.1900–c.1950: in principle all methods are on a common axiomatic footing. This reductive approach has had several effects. There is a taxonomic trend, which following Klein and his Erlangen program (a taxonomy based on the subgroup concept) arranges theories according to generalization and specialization. For example affine geometry is more general than Euclidean geometry, and more special than projective geometry. The whole theory of classical groups thereby becomes an aspect of geometry. Their invariant theory, at one point in the nineteenth century taken to be the prospective master geometric theory, is just one aspect of the general representation theory of Lie groups. Using finite fields, the classical groups give rise to finite groups, intensively studied in relation to the finite simple groups; and associated finite geometry, which has both combinatorial (synthetic) and algebro-geometric (Cartesian) sides.

An example from recent decades is the twistor theory of Roger Penrose, initially an intuitive and synthetic theory, then subsequently shown to be an aspect of sheaf theory on complex manifold. In contrast, the non-commutative geometry of Alain Connes is a conscious use of geometric language to express phenomena of the theory of von Neumann algebras, and to extend geometry into the domain of ring theory where the commutative law of multiplication is not assumed.

Another consequence of the contemporary approach, attributable in large measure to the Procrustean bed represented by Bourbakiste axiomatization trying to complete the work of David Hilbert, is to create winners and losers. The Ausdehnungslehre (calculus of extension) of Hermann Grassmann was for many years a mathematical backwater, competing in three dimensions against other popular theories in the area of mathematical physics such as those derived from quaternions. In the shape of general exterior algebra, it became a beneficiary of the Bourbaki presentation of multilinear algebra, and from 1950 onwards has been ubiquitous. In much the same way, Clifford algebra became popular, helped by a 1957 book Geometric Algebra by Emil Artin. The history of 'lost' geometric methods, for example infinitely near points, which were dropped since they did not well fit into the pure mathematical world post- Principia Mathematica, is yet unwritten. The situation is analogous to the expulsion of infinitesimals from differential calculus. As in that case, the concepts may be recovered by fresh approaches and definitions. Those may not be unique: synthetic differential geometry is an approach to infinitesimals from the side of categorical logic, as non-standard analysis is by means of model theory.

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