Mathematics is the study of numbers, quantity, space, pattern, structure, and change. Mathematics is used throughout the world as an essential tool in many fields, including natural science, engineering, medicine, and the social sciences. Applied mathematics, the branch of mathematics concerned with application of mathematical knowledge to other fields, inspires and makes use of new mathematical discoveries and sometimes leads to the development of entirely new mathematical disciplines, such as statistics and game theory. Mathematicians also engage in pure mathematics, or mathematics for its own sake, without having any application in mind. There is no clear line separating pure and applied mathematics, and practical applications for what began as pure mathematics are often discovered.
A homotopy from a circle around a sphere down to a single point. Image credit: Richard Morris
The homotopy groups of spheres describe the different ways spheres of various dimensions can be wrapped around each other. They are studied as part of algebraic topology. The topic can be hard to understand because the most interesting and surprising results involve spheres in higher dimensions. These are defined as follows: an n-dimensional sphere, n-sphere, consists of all the points in a space of n+1 dimensions that are a fixed distance from a center point. This definition is a generalization of the familiar circle (1-sphere) and sphere (2-sphere).
The goal of algebraic topology is to categorize or classify topological spaces. Homotopy groups were invented in the late 19th century as a tool for such classification, in effect using the set of mappings from a c-sphere into a space as a way to probe the structure of that space. An obvious question was how this new tool would work on n-spheres themselves. No general solution to this question has been found to date, but many homotopy groups of spheres have been computed and the results are surprisingly rich and complicated. The study of the homotopy groups of spheres has led to the development of many powerful tools used in algebraic topology.