What’s the point of studying topological (as opposed to smooth, PL, or PDiff) manifolds?

Part of the reason I think algebraic topology has acquired something of a fearsome reputation is that the terrible properties of the topological category (e.g. the existence of space-filling curves) force us to work very hard to prove the main theorems setting up all of the big machinery to get the payoff we want (e.g. invariance of domain, fixed point theorems). But why should I care about these arbitrary and terrible spaces and functions in the first place when, as far as I can tell, any manifold which occurs in applications is at least piecewise-differentiable and any morphism which occurs in applications is at least homotopic to a piecewise-differentiable one?

In other words, do topological manifolds really naturally occur in the rest of mathematics (without some extra structure)?

Answer

As far as I know, historically smooth manifolds were the first manifolds studied by people like Poincare, Riemann, up to Whitney. There were a few major events that caused people to take things like topological and PL manifolds seriously, but originally people were not motivated to study these kinds of objects. Here are some of the big events/ideas that come to mind:

1) Poincare’s original proof of Poincare duality was a proof for triangulated manifolds. That smooth manifolds had triangulations (and whether or not they were essentially unique) was a problem that took some time to solve. So the study of triangulations and PL manifolds picked up.

2) Smale’s proof of the h-cobordism theorem, although written up for the smooth category when you look at it carefully there’s a lot of “smoothing the corners” going on. You can think carefully about it and determine all the smoothing of the corners does not kill the proof but I know many strong mathematicians that were hesitant to accept Smale’s proof, insisting that it was only a PL-category proof. FYI, the smoothing of the corners issue has been settled, there’s a very nice write-up in Kosinski’s manifolds text. But this was another issue that kept people thinking about the PL category.

3) If anything, topological manifolds play a role simply for comparison sake — after all the forgetful functor from the smooth to the topological category is an interesting functor. Perhaps for different people in different ways. I’ve yet to be interested by a topological manifold that admits no smooth structure but I do find multiple smooth structures on the same topological manifold interesting. Is this purely psychological?

4) Topological and PL-manifold theory is where some “nasty” constructions work, like the Alexander trick. There are different versions of it, one being that the restriction map $Aut(D^n) \to Aut(S^{n-1})$ admits a section in the topological or PL categories. It does not in the smooth category. If anything, I find these kinds of facts informative on the smooth category. The smooth category is interesting largely because of facts like these. There’s a similar Alexander trick for knots, for example, the space of topological or PL embeddings $\mathbb R^j \to \mathbb R^n$ which restrict to the standard inclusion $x \longmapsto (x,0)$ outside of the unit ball, this space is contractible, by “pulling the knot tight”. But in the smooth category, this space isn’t contractible.

I think one of the major events in the development of this subject is simply pragmatic. To get smooth manifold theory off the ground you need Sard’s theorem and transversality. This requires analysis to the level of measure theory, and a solid multi-variable calculus background, which in many undergraduate educations is skimped on (especially since it comes early, and many curriculums are too service-based to teach calculus “well”). PL manifolds are inherently more combinatorial and so the learning curve for people with weak analysis backgrounds is easier to deal with. I think also some people really appreciate the combinatorial nature of the subject.

Anyhow, those are some thoughts off the top of my head.

Getting to your conversation with Mariano:

PL manifold theory by-and-large isn’t terribly different from smooth manifold theory. So I think once you learn one, adapting to the other isn’t so hard. But topological manifolds are really quite different. This may be my ignorance speaking to some extent, but I’m still working my way through Kirby-Siebenmann. I’m told various people are working on re-writing the main theorems of that text, to make it easier reading for people that are not named Larry Siebenmann. But we’re probably still several years from that. I suspect in the next 10 years there should be several different accounts of most of that material. But I’m still some ways from understanding smoothing theory.

Manifolds when they come up “in nature” like in physics or engineering applications tend to always be smooth, and usually with plenty of extra structure. Sometimes the objects that come up aren’t manifolds, but algebraic varieties, or even more degenerate (but smooth) stratified spaces.

Attribution
Source : Link , Question Author : Qiaochu Yuan , Answer Author : Ryan Budney

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