[Guest blogger Dr. Gene Chase]
You know about flat donuts if you played a computer game in which when you go off the screen at the left, you return coming in at the right, and similarly when you go off the screen at the top, you return coming in at the bottom.
Mathematicians call the rectangle of your computer screen a flat torus. The word “torus” reminds us that we are only thinking of the surface of the donut.
What does that computer screen have to do with a torus? Stretch the screen around a torus as this picture begins to show.
Since the left and right sides of the screen are “the same” and the top and bottom sides of the screen are “the same,” the screen seamlessly takes the shape of the donut. Mathematicians say that the flat donut and the donut have the same topology, because we bent one into the other without cutting or pasting. (I remind you that opposite edges of the flat donut were already pasted by regarding them as “the same” before we began to bend it.)
Although a flat torus and a torus have the same topology, they do not have the same geometry. Geometry is about measuring space. In particular, on a flat torus, the shortest distance between two points is always a straight line. But on a torus, the shortest distance between two points staying in the torus is never a straight line.
Is it possible to paste the opposite edges of the flat torus together in such a way that the resulting thing in 3D has the same geometry? That is, such that straight lines are still straight?
It is easy to take one step, to create a cylinder, by pasting together just one pair of opposite edges. Notice that no stretching is involved at all.
How about pasting both pairs of edges? My intuition says that such a thing is impossible.
My intuition is wrong. In 1954, John Nash — yes, that John Nash of A Beautiful Mind — proved that it is possible, but without saying how. (He gave a so-called “existence proof.”)
But only 11 months ago did we have a picture of what the resulting flat torus would look like. Here’s a news article with a computer-generated picture to illustrate it.