I want to know what lead to the notion of covering spaces, and the evolution of the concept. I understand that topology was not developed to solve problems, but to gain insight into the foundation of mathematics. So, what insight lead to the development of covering spaces?


1 Answer 1


You wrote "topology was not developed to [solve?] problems but to gain insight to foundations of mathematics". This is completely wrong, and the notion of covering is a good example.

Klein describes in his memoirs how he discovered what is now called the Uniformization theorem. (This is a very concrete statement from the theory of analytic functions). Then he wrote to Schwarz and Poincaré. Then Schwarz proposed the notion of covering, in particular the universal covering. So it was invented in the attempts to solve a concrete problem. The story is described in detail in this paper:

William Abikoff, The uniformization theorem. Amer. Math. Monthly 88 (1981), no. 8, 574–592.

Later, the research of the uniformization theory led to the rigorous dimension theory, one of the earliest deep results of topology (Brouwer).

Similarly, one of the first results of topology, classification of compact surfaces, comes from Riemann's theory of algebraic functions and Abelian integrals. (Riemann visited Italy where he met Betti, and made him interested in topology.)

Finally, the "founding father" of modern topology (Poincaré) was clearly stimulated by concrete problems of differential equations and by uniformization theory.

None of the founders of topology (Riemann, Betti, Möbius, Schwarz, Brouwer) was thinking of it as a "foundation of mathematics". All were solving concrete, specific problems of analysis.

  • $\begingroup$ Well, when I started learning topology, I was told that the purpose of the field was to put continuity on a solid footing. Can you recommend any books that shows the history of topology and the problems that spurred its development? I am mostly a problem solver myself, so seeing a field in terms of its problems make things much easier for me. $\endgroup$
    – Avatrin
    Nov 28, 2015 at 20:20
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    $\begingroup$ "To put continuity on the rigorous footing" is also a correct description, but this rigorous footing was needed so solve specific problems. For history of topology (and many other areas) I recomend Dieudonne, A history of algebraic and differential topology, and of the same author $\endgroup$ Nov 28, 2015 at 22:00
  • $\begingroup$ History of functional analysis. $\endgroup$ Nov 28, 2015 at 22:07
  • $\begingroup$ Would it be accurate, then, to say that this was the reason why mathematicians finally settled on Hausdorff's axioms to define a topology (and then later, slightly reformulated)? As I understand it, there were at the time many proposals for different formulations of a topology in the new language of formal set theory, and in the end, Hausdorff's proposal won out. Is it correct that his won out because it allowed a unified solution to the problems that you listed above? $\endgroup$
    – Addem
    Jan 1, 2022 at 2:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Addem: There were several sets of axioms but they are equivalent and lead to the same theory. So the choice is a question of convenience, and the standard choice was made under the influence of Bourbaki. $\endgroup$ Jan 1, 2022 at 15:21

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