Topologies of the Imagination

by John Holbo on January 7, 2006

David Moles has found something funny – in an ‘if a lion could speak the language of topology, we would not able to catch him’ vein:

* We place a spherical cage in the desert and enter it. We then perform an inverse operation with respect to the cage. The lion is then inside the cage and we are outside.

* The set theoretic method: We observe that the desert is a separable space. It therefore contains an enumerable dense set of points from which can be extracted a sequence having the lion as the limit. We then approach the lion stealthily along this sequence bearing with us suitable equipment.

* In the usual way construct a curve containing every point in the desert. It has been proven that such a curve can be traversed in arbitrarily short time. Now we traverse the curve, carrying a spear, in a time less than what it takes the lion to move a distance equal to its own length.

* The lion has the homotopy type of a one-dimensional complex and hence he is a K(Pi, 1) space. If Pi is noncommutative then the lion is not a member of the international commutist conspiracy and hence he must be friendly. If Pi is commutative then the lion has the homotopy type of the space of loops on a K(Pi, 2) space. We hire a stunt pilot to loop the loops, thereby hopelessly entangling the lion and rendering him helpless.

Reminds me of an old Steve Martin piece which I find here:

Soup Folding.

First prepare the soup of your choice and pour it into a bowl. Then, take the bowl and quickly turn it upside down on a cookie tray. Lift the bowl ever so gently so that the soup retains the shape of the bowl. Gently is the key word here. Then, with a knife cut the soup down the middle into halves, then quarters, and gently reassemble the soup into a cube. Some of the soup will have run off onto the cookie tray. Lift this soup up by the corners and fold slowly into a cylindrical soup staff. Square off the cube by stuffing the cracks with this cylindrical soup staff. Place the little packet in your purse or inside coat pocket, and pack off to work. When that lunch bell chimes, impress your friends by forming the soup back into a bowl shape, and enjoy! Enjoy it until the day when the lunchpail comes back into vogue and we won’t need soup folding or cornstalks up the leg.



trotstky 01.07.06 at 5:03 am

Cornstalks up the leg … now that’s a real thing.


tew 01.07.06 at 1:14 pm

This reminds me of the stories collected in Fantasia Mathematica, a collection of nonsense/science-fiction short stories, many dealing with the (newish at the time) study of topology.

My father had a hard-bound copy, which I took to elementary school one day and lost, to my unending shame.


Mr. Bill 01.07.06 at 1:50 pm

I remember, but cannot find, a ‘Scientific American’ Mathematical Games column of a few years back featured a way to use topology to make gold…


abb1 01.07.06 at 1:53 pm

In Mindswap by Robert Sheckley you’ll find the Theory of Searches, in which no object can truly be lost. And quite a lot of other fascinating science.


Walt Pohl 01.07.06 at 8:03 pm

This may be the only joke in human history that involves Eilenberg-Maclane spaces (K(pi,n)).


John Quiggin 01.08.06 at 2:42 am

Isn’t this (like most things in math) due to Hardy, Littlewood or Hardy&Littlewood? In this case Littlewood’s Miscellany is my bet.


dp 01.08.06 at 4:14 pm

I guess that this means we can move freely about the universe without leaving home. Just do it by the numbers.

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