Revolution (Constant Curvature I)

One of the standard elementary surfaces is the Pseudosphere, a surface of revolution of constant negative curvature.



It can be parametrized using elementary function, and the profile curve is the so-called tractrix. Another elementary surface of constant negative curvature is Dini’s surface, where the tractrix is used to produce a helicoidal surface.



From here on, things get tricky. Other such surfaces of revolution require elliptic integrals. Here is the entire zoo (more or less):


Common to all examples is that they necessarily produce singularities. More precisely, there is no complete surface of constant negative curvature in Euclidean space. This is a famous theorem of Hilbert. At the core of the proofs I know is the behavior of the asymptotic lines


Above is the pseudosphere with one family of these asymptotic lines, drawn as ribbons. At the equator, they become horizontal. As the second family is the mirror image of this family, at the equator their tangent vectors become linearly dependent. This shows that while the asymptotic curves exist in the northern and southern hemipseudospheres, the surface itself is singular at the equator, because, alas, on negatively curved surfaces the asymptotic directions are linearly dependent. For the general surfaces of revolution, the asymptotic lines touch both singular latitudes. The image above looks odd because our brain wants to believe that curves on a surface meet at right angles. They don’t.

Pseudoasl2One of the key features of the asymptotic lines is that they form a Chebyshev net: Opposite edges of the net quadrilaterals have the same length. Thus you can stretch a loosely knitted square mesh over this surface to keep it warm. The standard proof of Hilbert’s theorem continues to show that any net parallelogram has area bounded above by some constant. However, a simply connected complete surface of constant negative curvature has necessarily infinite area, which leads to a contradiction. This was one of the earliest global results in differential geometry.

The Projective Plane

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This image (a variation of which I used for many years as a desktop background) is a close-up of the large sculpture below that can be seen at the Mathematical Research Institute in Oberwolfach.

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It is a model of the projective plane, a construct that simultaneously extends the Euclidean plane and describes the set of lines through a fixed point in space.
The simplest way to make your own model is via the tetrahemihexahedron,


a polyhedron that seems to take every other triangle from the octahedron and twelve right isosceles triangles to close the gaps left by the removed four equilateral triangles. That, however, is not the only way to look at it. These right isosceles triangles fit together to form three squares that intersect at the center of the former octahedron, in what is called a triple point.

So we truly have a polyhedron with four equilateral triangles and three squares as faces which can be unfolded like so


where arrows and equal letters indicate to glue. From this flattened version we recognize a (topological disk) with opposite points identified, which is yet another abstract model of the projective plane. The tetrahemihexahedron suffers not only under the triple point at the center, but also under six pinch point singularities at the vertices. Maybe it was this model that made Hilbert think that an immersion of the projective plane into Euclidean space was impossible, and having his student Werner Boy work on a proof. Instead, Boy came up in 1901 with an ingenious construction of such an immersion, which has an elegant connection to minimal surfaces.


Robert Kusner constructed a minimal immersion of the thrice punctured projective plane into space, with three planar ends, that you can see above. Applying an inversion, as suggested by Robert Bryant, produces images that are very close to what Boy had in mind.

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This explicit parametrization served as the basis for the model in Oberwolfach.