Life on the Poincaré Disk

Just at this time I left Caen, where I was then living, to go on a geological excursion under the auspices of the school of mines. The changes of travel made me forget my mathematical work. Having reached Coutances, we entered an omnibus to go some place or other. At the moment when I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of  non-Euclidean geometry. I did not verify the idea; I should not have had time, as, upon taking my seat in the omnibus, I went on with a conversation already commenced, but I felt a perfect certainty. On my return to Caen, for conscience’ sake I verified the result at my leisure.

-Henri Poincaré, Science and Method

You’re out for a walk one day, contemplating the world, and you suddenly have an out-of-body experience, your perspective floating high above your corporeal self. As you rise, everything seems perfectly normal at first, but, when you reach a sufficient altitude, you notice something strange: your body appears to be at the center of a perfect circle, beyond which there is simply…nothing!

You watch yourself walk towards the edge of the circle. It initially looks like you will reach the edge in a surprisingly short amount of time, but, as you continue watching, you notice yourself getting smaller and slowing down. By the time you are halfway to the edge, you are moving at only 3/4 of your original speed. When you are 3/4 of the way to the edge, you are moving at only 7/16 of your original speed. Maybe you will never reach the edge after all? What is happening?

At some point, you see your physical self notice some friends, standing some distance away in the circle. You wave to one another, and your friends beckon you over. You start walking toward them, but, strangely, you walk in what looks not to be a straight line but rather an arc, curving in towards the center of the circle before curving outward again to meet your friends. And, equally curiously, your friends don’t appear to be surprised or annoyed by your seemingly inefficient route. You puzzle things over for a few seconds before having a moment of insight. ‘Oh!’ you think. ‘My physical body is living on a Poincaré disk model for hyperbolic geometry, which my mind has somehow transcended during this out-of-body experience. Of course!”

The Poincaré disk model, which was actually put forth by Eugenio Beltrami, is one of the first and, to my mind, most elegant models of non-Euclidean geometry. Recall from our previous post that a Euclidean geometry is a geometry satisfying Euclid’s five postulates. The first four of these postulates are simple and self-evident. The fifth, known as the Parallel Postulate (recall also that two lines are parallel if they do not intersect), is unsatisfyingly complex and non-immediate. To refresh our memories, here is an equivalent form of the Parallel Postulate, known as Playfair’s Axiom:

Given any line \ell and any point P not on \ell, there is exactly one line through P that is parallel to \ell.

A non-Euclidean geometry is a geometry that satisfies the first four postulates of Euclid but fails to satisfy the Parallel Postulate. Non-Euclidean geometries began to be seriously investigated in the 19th century; Beltrami, working in the context of Euclidean geometry, was the first to actually produce models of non-Euclidean geometry, thus proving that, supposing Euclidean geometry is consistent, then so is non-Euclidean geometry.

The Poincaré disk model, one of Beltrami’s models, is a model for hyperbolic geometry, in which the Parallel Postulate is replaced by the following statement:

Given any line \ell and any point P not on \ell, there are at least two distinct lines through P that are parallel to \ell.

Points and lines are the basic objects of geometry, so, to describe the Poincaré disk model, we must first describe the set of points and lines of the model. The set of points of the model is the set of points strictly inside a given circle. For concreteness, let us suppose we are working on the Cartesian plane, and let us take the unit circle, i.e., the circle of radius one, centered at the origin, as our given circle. The points in the Poincaré disk model are then the points in the plane whose distances from the origin are strictly less than one.

Lines in the Poincaré disk model (which we will sometimes call hyperbolic lines) are arcs formed by taking one of the following type of objects and intersecting it with the unit disk:

  1. Straight lines (in the Euclidean sense) through the center of the circle.
  2. Circles (in the Euclidean sense) that are perpendicular to the unit circle.

(These can, of course, be seen as two instances of the same thing, if one takes the viewpoint that, in Euclidean space, straight lines are just circles of infinite radius.)

D, D1, and D2 are all lines in the Poincaré disk model. By Jean-Christophe BENOIST, Own work – CC BY 3.0

It’s already pretty easy to see that this geometry satisfies our hyperbolic replacement of the Parallel Postulate. In fact, given a line \ell and a point P not on \ell, there are infinitely many lines through P parallel to \ell. Here’s an illustration of a typical case, with three parallel lines drawn:

Three lines passing through a given point, parallel to a given line. Source: William Barker

We’re not quite able right now to prove that the disk model satisfies the first four of Euclid’s postulates, in part because we haven’t yet specified what it means for two line segments in the model to be be congruent (we don’t, for example, have a notion of distance in our model yet). We’ll get to this in just a minute, but let us first show that our model satisfies the first postulate: Given any two distinct points, there is a line containing both of them.

To this end, let A and B be two points in the disk. If the (Euclidean) line that contains A and B passes through the center of the disk, then this is also a line in the disk model, and we are done. Otherwise, the (Euclidean) line that contains A and B does not pass through the center of the disk. In this case, we use the magic of circle inversion, which we saw in a previous post. Let A' by the result of inverting A across the unit circle. Now A, A', and B are distinct points in the Cartesian plane, so there is a unique circle (call it \gamma) containing all three. Since A and A' are both on the circle, it is perpendicular to the unit circle. Therefore, its intersection with the unit disk is a line in the disk model containing both A and B. Here’s a picture:

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Hyperbolic line containing A and B. Source: Euclid and Beyond by Robin Hartshorne

We turn now to distance in the Poincaré disk model. And here, for the sake of brevity, I’m not even going to try to explain why things are they way they are but will just give you a formula. Given two points A and B in the disk, consider the hyperbolic line containing them, and let P and Q be the points where this line meets the boundary circle (with P closer to A and Q closer to B). Then the hyperbolic distance between A and B is given by:

d(A,B) = \mathrm{ln}(\frac{|PB|\cdot|AQ|}{|PA|\cdot|BQ|}).

This is likely inscrutable right now. That’s fine. Let’s think about what it means for this to be the correct notion of distance, though. For one thing, it means that, given two points in the disk model, the shortest path between them is not, in general, the straight Euclidean line that connects them, but rather the hyperbolic line that connects them. This explains your body’s behavior in the story at the start of this post. When you were walking over to your friends, what appeared to your mind (which was outside the disk, in the Euclidean realm) as a curved arc, and therefore an inefficient path, was in fact a hyperbolic line and, because your body was inside the hyperbolic disk, the shortest path between you and your friends.

This notion of distance also means that distances inside the disk which appear equal to an external Euclidean observer in fact get longer and longer the closer they are to the edge of the disk. This is also consistent with the observations at the beginning of the post: as your body got further toward the edge of the disk, it appeared from an external viewpoint to be moving more and more slowly. From a viewpoint inside the disk, though, it was moving at constant speed and would never reach the edge of the disk, which is infinitely far away. The disk appears bounded from the external Euclidean view, but from within it is entirely unbounded and limitless.

Let’s close by looking at two familiar shapes, interpreted in the hyperbolic disk. First, circles. Recall that a circle is simply the set of points that are some fixed distance away from a given center. Now, what happens when we interpret this definition inside the hyperbolic disk? Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, we get Euclidean circles! (Sort of.) To be more precise, hyperbolic circles in the Poincaré disk model are precisely the Euclidean circles that lie entirely within the disk. (I’m not going to go through the tedious calculations to prove this; I’ll leave that up to you…) Beware, though! The hyperbolic center of the circle is generally different from the Euclidean center. (This should make sense if you think about our distance definition. The hyperbolic center will be further toward the edge of the disk than the Euclidean center, coinciding only if the Euclidean center of the circle is in fact the center of the hyperbolic disk.)

Next, triangles. A triangle is, of course, a polygon with three sides. This definition works perfectly fine in hyperbolic geometry; we simply require that our sides are hyperbolic line segments rather than Euclidean line segments. If we assume the first four of Euclid’s postulates, then the Parallel Postulate is actually equivalent to the statement that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle is 180 degrees. In the Poincaré disk model (and, in fact, in any model of hyperbolic geometry) all triangles have angles that sum to less than 180 degrees. This should be evident if we look at a typical triangle:

A typical triangle in the Poincaré disk model.

Things become interesting when you start to ask how much less than 180 degrees a hyperbolic triangle has. The remarkable fact is that the number of degrees in a hyperbolic triangle is dependent entirely on its (hyperbolic) area! The smaller a triangle is, the larger the sum of its interior angles: as triangles get smaller and smaller, approaching a single point, the sum of their angles approaches 180 degrees from below. Correspondingly, as triangles get larger, the sum of their angles approaches 0 degrees. In fact if we consider an “ideal triangle”, in which the three vertices are in fact points on the bounding circle (and thus not real points in the disk model), then the sum of the angles of this “triangle” is actually 0 degrees!

“Ideal” triangle with interior angles adding to zero.

A consequence of this is the fact that, in the Poincaré disk model, if two triangles are similar, then they are in fact congruent!

This leads us to our final topic: one of the perks of living in a Poincaré disk model. Perhaps the most frequent complaint I hear from people living on a Euclidean plane is that there aren’t enough ways to tile the plane with triangles. Countless people come up to me and say, “Chris, I want to tile the plane with triangles, and I want this tiling to have the following two pleasing properties:

  1. All of the triangles are congruent, they don’t overlap, and they fill the entire plane.
  2. At every vertex of the tiling, all angles meeting that vertex are the same.

But there are only four essentially different ways of doing this, and I’m tired of all of them! What should I do?”

(Exercise for the reader: Find all four such tilings!)

It just so happens that I have a simple answer for these people: “Move to a Poincaré disk model, where there are infinitely many tilings with these properties!” Here are just a few (all by Tamfang and in the public domain):

Right triangles. The smallest, in fact, that can tile the Poincaré disk model.
Larger right triangles.
The largest right “triangles”, each with two “ideal” vertices on the edge of the disk.
The dual to a tiling hidden in Escher’s Circle Limit III, the cover image to this post.
Equilateral triangles.
The largest “triangles”, each with three ideal vertices.

I’ll leave you with that! Hyperbolic geometry is fascinating, and I encourage you to investigate further on your own. The previous mentioned Euclid and Beyond, by Hartshorne, is a nice place to start.

This also wraps up (for now, at least) a couple of multi-part investigations here at Point at Infinity: a look at the interesting geometry of circles, which started in our post on circle inversion, and a look at various notions of independence in mathematics, the other posts being here and here. Join us next time for something new!

Cover Image: M. C. Escher, Circle Limit III


Circle Inversion and the Pappus Chain

There is a pledge of the big and of the small in the infinite.

-Dejan Stojanović

In the next two posts, we are going to look at two interesting geometric ideas of the 19th century involving circles. Next time, we will consider Poincaré’s disk model for hyperbolic geometry. Today, though, we immerse ourselves in the universe of inversive geometry.

Consider a circle in the infinite 2-dimensional plane:


This circle divides the plane into two regions: the bounded region inside the circle and the unbounded region outside the circle (let’s say that the points on the circle belong to both regions). A natural thing to want to do, now, especially in the context of this blog, would be to try to exchange these two regions, to map the infinite space outside the circle into the bounded space of the circle, and vice versa, in a “natural” way.

I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space.

-William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Upon first reflection, one might be tempted to say that we want to “reflect” points across the circle. And this is sort of right, but reflection already carries a meaning in geometry. Truly reflecting points across the circle would preserve their distance from the circle, so the inside of the circle could only be mapped onto a finite ring whose outer radius is twice that of the circle two. Moreover, it would not be clear how to reflect points from outside this ring into the circle.

Instead, we want to consider a process known as “inversion.” Briefly speaking, we want to arrange so that points arbitrarily close to the center of the circle get sent to points arbitrarily far away from the center of the circle, and vice versa. For simplicity, let us suppose that the circle is centered at the origin of the plane and has a radius of 1. The most natural way to achieve our aim is to send a point P to a point P' that lies in the same direction from the origin as P and whose distance from the origin is the reciprocal of the distance from P to the origin. Here’s an example:

P and P’ get swapped by inversion.

One can check that, algebraically, this inversion sends a point P with coordinates (x,y) to a point P' with coordinates (\frac{x}{x^2+y^2}, \frac{y}{x^2+y^2}). Points inside the circle are sent to points outside the circle, points outside the circle are sent to points inside the circle, and points on the circle are sent to themselves. Moreover, as one might expect from the name, the inversion map is its own inverse: applying it twice, we end up where we started. Perfect!

Wait a second, though. We’re being a little too hasty. What about the origin? Where is it sent? Our procedure doesn’t seem to tell us, and if we try to use our algebraic expression, we end up dividing by zero. Since the origin is inside the circle, it should certainly be sent to a point outside the circle, but all of those points are already taken. Also, since points arbitrarily close to the origin get mapped to points arbitrarily far from the origin, we want to send the origin to a point as far away from itself as possible. At first glance, we might seem to be in a quandary here, but longtime readers of this blog will see an obvious solution: the origin gets mapped to a point at infinity! (And the point at infinity, in turn, gets mapped to the origin.)

(Technical note: Since we’ve added a point at infinity, the inversion map should be seen not as a map on the plane \mathbb{R}^2, but on its one-point compactification (or Alexandroff compactification), \hat{\mathbb{R}}^2. In fact, the inversion map is a topological homeomorphism of \hat{\mathbb{R}}^2 with itself.)

Let’s examine what the inversion map does to simple geometric objects. We have already seen what happens to points. It should also be obvious that straight lines through the origin get mapped to themselves. For example, in the image above, the line connecting P and P' gets mapped to itself. (Here we are specifying, of course, that every line contains the point at infinity.)

A bit of thought and calculation will convince you that lines not passing through the origin get sent to circles that do pass through the origin.

The red line, when inverted across the black circle, gets sent to the red circle.

Since the inversion map is its own inverse, circles passing through the origin get mapped to lines that don’t pass through the origin. Circles that don’t pass through the origin, on the other hand, get mapped to other circles that don’t pass through the origin.

The red circle on the left is sent to the red circle on the right through inversion.

There’s an important special case of this phenomenon: a circle that is met perpendicularly by the circle through which we are inverting gets mapped to itself.

The red circle is perpendicular to the circle of inversion and is thus sent to itself.

We thus have a sort of duality between lines and circles that has been revealed through the process of circle inversion. Lines, when seen in the right light, are simply circles with an infinite radius. We’re going to move on to some applications of circle inversion in just a sec, but, first, a pretty picture of an inverted checkerboard.

Left: A checkerboard. Right: A checkerboard inverted across a circle centered at the middle of the board with radius equal to the side length of one checkerboard square. (from Mathographics by R. Dixon)

The introduction of the method of circle inversion is widely attributed to the Swiss mathematician Jakob Steiner, who wrote a treatise on the matter in 1824. When combined with the more familiar rigid transformations of rotation, translation, and reflection, the decidedly non-rigid transformation of inversion gives rise to inversive geometry, which became a major topic of study in nineteenth geometry. It was perhaps most notably applied by William Thomson (later to become 1st Baron Kelvin, immortalized in the name of a certain temperature scale), at the age of 21, to solve problems in electrostatics. Circle inversion also allows for extremely elegant proofs of classical geometric facts. We end today’s post with an example.

Consider three half-circles, all tangent to one another and centered on the same horizontal line, with two placed inside the third, as follows:

An arbelos. (Original by Julio Reis, new version by Rubber Duck, CC BY-SA 3.0)

This figure (or, more precisely, the grey region enclosed by the semicircles) is known as an arbelos, and its first known appearance dates back to The Book of Lemmas by Archimedes. A remarkable fact about the arbelos is that, starting with the smallest of the semicircles in the figure, one can nestle into it an infinite sequence of increasingly small circles, each tangent to the two larger semicircles and the circle appearing before it, thus creating the striking Pappus chain, named for Pappus of Alexandria, who investigated the figure in the 3rd century AD:

A Pappus chain. (By Pbroks13, CC BY 3.0)

Let us label the circles in the Pappus chain (starting with the smallest semicircle in the arbelos) \mathcal{C}_0, \mathcal{C}_1, \mathcal{C}_2, etc. (So, in the picture above, P_1 is the center of \mathcal{C}_1, P_2 is the center of \mathcal{C}_2, and so on.) Clearly, the size of \mathcal{C}_n decreases as n increases, but it is natural to ask how quickly it decreases. It is also natural to ask how the position of the point P_n changes as n increases. In particular, what is the height of P_n above the base of the figure? It turns out that the answers to these two questions are closely related, a fact discovered by Pappus through a long and elaborate derivation in Euclidean geometry, and which we will derive quickly and elegantly through circle inversion.

Let d_n denote the diameter of the circle \mathcal{C}_n, and let h_n denote the height of the point P_n above the base of the Pappus chain (i.e., the line segment AB). We will prove the remarkable formula:

For all n \in \mathbb{N}h_n = n \cdot d_n.

For concreteness, let us demonstrate the formula for \mathcal{C}_3. The same argument will work for each of the circles in the Pappus chain. As promised, we are going to use circle inversion. Our first task is to find a suitable circle across which to invert our figure. And that circle, it turns out, will be the circle centered at A and perpendicular to \mathcal{C}_3:

We will invert our figure across the red circle.

Now, what happens when we invert our figure? First, consider the two larger semicircles in the arbelos, with diameters AC and AB. The circles of which these form the upper half pass through the center of our circle of inversion and thus, as discussed above, are mapped to straight lines by our inversion. Moreover, since the centers of these circles lie directly to the right of A, a moment’s thought should convince you that they are mapped to vertical lines.

Now, what happens to the circles in the Pappus chain? Well, none of them pass through A, so they will all get mapped to circles. \mathcal{C}_3 is perpendicular to the circle of inversion, so it gets mapped to itself. But, in the original diagram, \mathcal{C}_3 is tangent to the larger semicircles in the arbelos. Since circle inversion preserves tangency, in the inverted diagram, \mathcal{C}_3 is tangent to the two vertical lines that these semicircles are mapped to. And, of course, the same is true of all of the other circles in the Pappus chain. Finally, note that, since the center of \mathcal{C}_0 lies on the base of the figure, which passes through the center of our inversion circle, it also gets mapped to a point on the base of the figure. Putting this all together, we end up with the following striking figure:

Pappus chain inversion: before and after. (from “Reflections on the Arbelos” by Harold P. Boas)

The circle with diameter AB gets mapped to the vertical line through B', and the circle with diameter AC gets mapped to the vertical line through C'. Our Pappus chain, meanwhile, is transformed by inversion into an infinite tower of circles, all of the same size, bounded by these vertical lines. Moreover, the circle \mathcal{C}_3 and the point P_3 are left in place by the inversion. It is now straightforward to use this tower to calculate the height h_3 of P_3 in terms of the diameter d_3 of \mathcal{C}_3. To get from P_3 down to the base, we must first pass through half of \mathcal{C}_3, which has a height of \frac{d_3}{2}. We then must pass through the image of \mathcal{C}_2 under the inversion, which has a height of d_3. Then the image of \mathcal{C}_1, which also has a height of d_3. And, finally, the image of the smallest semicircle of the arbelos, which has a height of \frac{d_3}{2}. All together, we get:

h_3 = \frac{d_3}{2} + d_3 + d_3 + \frac{d_3}{2} = 3d_3.

Pretty nice!

For further reading on circle inversion, see Harold P. Boas’ excellent article, “Reflections on the Arbelos.”

Cover image: René Magritte, The false mirror