Mobius and his band

There are some pieces of mathematical folklore that you really should be reminded about, even though they are “well-known” — just in case. An excellent example is the Mobius band.

Augustus Mobius was a German mathematician, born 1790, died 1868. He worked in several areas of mathematics, including geometry, complex analysis and number theory. He is famous for his curious surface, the Mobius band. You can make a Mobius band by taking a strip of paper, say 2 cm wide and 20 cm long, bending it around until the ends meet, then twisting one end through 180 degrees, and finally, gluing the ends together. For comparison, make a cylinder in the same way, omitting the twist.

The Mobius band is famous for one surprising feature: it has only one side. If an ant crawls around a cylindrical band, it can cover only half the surface — one side of the band. But, if an ant crawls around on the Mobius band, it can cover the entire surface. The Mobius band has only one side.

You can check these statements by painting  the band. You can paint the cylinder so that one side is red and the other is blue, and the two sides are completely distinct, even though they are separated by only the thickness of the paper. But,, if you start to paint the Mobius band red, and keep going until you run out of band to paint, the whole thing ends up red.

In retrospect, this is not such a surprise, because the 180  degrees twist connects each side of the original paper strip to the other. If you  don’t twist before gluing, the two sides stay separate. But, until Mobius (and a few others) thought this one up, mathematicians didn’t appreciate that there are two distinct kinds of surface: those with two sides and those with one side only. This turned out to be important in topology. And, it showed how careful you have to be about making “obvious” assumptions.

There are lots of Mobius band recreations. Below are three of them:

  • If you cut the cylindrical band along the middle with two scissors, it falls apart into two cylindrical bands. What happens if you try this with a Mobius band?
  • Repeat, but this time, make the cut about one-thirds of the way across the width of the band. Now, what happens to the cylinder and to the band?
  • Make a band like a Mobius band but with a 360 degrees twist. How many sides does it have? What happens if you cut it along the middle?

The Mobius band is also known as a Mobius strip, but this can lead to misunderstandings, as in aLimerick written by a science fiction author Cyril Kornbluth:

A burleycue dancer, a pip

Named Virginia, could peel in a zip,

But she read science fiction

and died of constriction

Attempting a Mobius strip.

A more politically correct Mobius limerick, which gives away one of the answers, is:

A mathematician confided,

That a Mobius strip  is one-sided,

You’ll get quite a laugh

if you cut it to half,

For it stays in one piece when divided.

Ref: Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities.

Note: There are lots of interesting properties of Mobius strip, which you can explore. There is a lot of recreational and pure mathematics literature on it. Kindly Google it. Perhaps, if explore well, you might discover your hidden talents for one of the richest areas of mathematics — topology. Topology is a foundation for Differential Geometry, which was used by Albert Einstein for his general theory of  relativity. Of course, there are other applications too…:-)

— Nalin Pithwa.








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