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colored ball with "hair" (representing a vector field on a sphere)
Credit: The Evil Midnight Uploader what Uploads at Midnight

This image illustrates a failed attempt to comb the "hair" on a ball flat, leaving a tuft sticking out at each pole. The hairy ball theorem of algebraic topology states that whenever one attempts to comb a hairy ball, there will always be at least one point on the ball at which a tuft of hair sticks out. More precisely, it states that there is no nonvanishing continuous tangent-vector field on an even-dimensional n‑sphere (an ordinary sphere in three-dimensional space is known as a "2-sphere"). This is not true of certain other three-dimensional shapes, such as a torus (doughnut shape) which can be combed flat. The theorem was first stated by Henri Poincaré in the late 19th century and proved in 1912 by L. E. J. Brouwer. If one idealizes the wind in the Earth's atmosphere as a tangent-vector field, then the hairy ball theorem implies that given any wind at all on the surface of the Earth, there must at all times be a cyclone somewhere. Note, however, that wind can move vertically in the atmosphere, so the idealized case is not meteorologically sound. (What is true is that for every "shell" of atmosphere around the Earth, there must be a point on the shell where the wind is not moving horizontally.) The theorem also has implications in computer modeling (including video game design), in which a common problem is to compute a non-zero 3-D vector that is orthogonal (i.e., perpendicular) to a given one; the hairy ball theorem implies that there is no single continuous function that accomplishes this task.

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