Mathematics: Mapping a fixed point

November 23, 2011, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne

© Alain Herzog
( -- For fifty years, mathematicians have grappled with a so-called “fixed point” theorem. An EPFL-based team has now found an elegant, one-page solution that opens up new perspectives in physics and economics.

Take a map of the world. Now put it down on the ground in Central Park, against a rock on Mount Everest, or on your kitchen table; there will always be a point on the map that sits exactly on the actual physical place it represents. Obvious? Not for mathematicians. A more complex theorem, called a “fixed point theorem,” has eluded them since 1963. “Some ideas seem evident to the human mind, but in reality involve complicated concepts that are difficult to demonstrate mathematically,” says Nicolas Monod, head of EPFL’s Chair of Ergodic and Geometric Group Theory. It turns out that the answer was there all along, simple and elegant. To reach it, the team of mathematicians had take a different approach to the problem. Their discovery will impress their fellow mathematicians, of course; but on the longer term, it also will be of interest to physicists and economists.

Surprisingly, this theorem works for all kinds of maps, from a diagram of a metro route to a map of spaces used in quantum physics. But to prove it, a fixed point must be found for every possible case. Since the number of possible maps is infinite, the mathematicians were looking for a universal, purely mathematical method -- one that would work in any situation.

The challenge for the mathematicians was to find that fixed point. It was a bit like designing a method that could pinpoint the center of gravity of any object, real or purely mathematical. It seemed like an impossible task for the specialists. “That’s why this approach hadn’t been more fully explored,” Monod explains. “It was in thinking about another space and exchanging our ideas that we realized that we actually could find that center of gravity.” It was possible to determine it in a parallel space. The center of gravity was definitely there ... but outside the space you started from. It was a counterintuitive result, but one that allowed them to prove the theorem.

In 2008, a thirty-page article, full of technical jargon, almost arrived at a proof. Even Barry Edward Johnson, who formulated the theorem and worked hard to find a proof all the way up to his death in 2002, was ultimately unsuccessful. Today, the proof is only a few pages long. In addition to the indisputable intellectual satisfaction this elegant result represents, it also opens up long-term perspectives in other disciplines; theories in physics and economics, for example, both make use of the idea of fixed points.

Explore further: Flowing along in four dimensions

More information: A fixed point theorem for L1 spaces, U. Bader, T. Gelander, N. Monod, Inventiones Mathematicae, 28 October 2011.

Related Stories

Flowing along in four dimensions

November 15, 2011

In 1988, John Cardy asked if there was a c-theorem in four dimensions. At the time, he reasonably expected his work on theories of quantum particles and fields to be professionally put to the test… But it never happened. ...

Mathematic innovator Raoul Bott dies

January 9, 2006

Raoul Bott, a mathematician who made innovative contributions to differential geometry and topology, has died at the age of 82.

Google pays tribute to 'Fermat's Last Theorem'

August 17, 2011

Google paid tribute on Wednesday to 17th century French mathematician Pierre de Fermat, transforming its celebrated homepage logo into a blackboard featuring "Fermat's Last Theorem."

Using math to speed up school buses

June 8, 2011

( -- Optimizing school bus routes is a lot more complicated than one might think. The International School of Geneva handed their problem over to a group of EPFL mathematicians.

Recommended for you

Researchers discover new material to help power electronics

March 18, 2019

Electronics rule our world, but electrons rule our electronics. A research team at The Ohio State University has discovered a way to simplify how electronic devices use those electrons—using a material that can serve dual ...

Semimetals are high conductors

March 18, 2019

Researchers in China and at UC Davis have measured high conductivity in very thin layers of niobium arsenide, a type of material called a Weyl semimetal. The material has about three times the conductivity of copper at room ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) Nov 23, 2011
So would this fix the problem of singularities?
1 / 5 (1) Nov 23, 2011
Could someone precis the paper? I tried to work through it but had to give up almost immediately. Something about using a dual mapping (like a Voronoi map is to a Delaunay connection graph?) - and then using the 'outside' vertex as the fixed point. But the paper is so chock full of technical terms I'm not at all sure I got even that right.
3.7 / 5 (3) Nov 23, 2011
In fact, our theorem immediately implies that any continuous derivation from any normed algebra A to a predual M of a von Neumann algebra is inner as soon as A is spanned by the elements represented as invertible isometries of M
Boy do I feel dumb.

My youth was misspent thinking that the fundamental obstruction in L1 where any infinite group G admits a fixed-point-free isometric action on a bounded convex subset of L1 would totally block any attempt at a proof.

I totally plagiarized that middle part.
1 / 5 (1) Nov 23, 2011
So, if I have a map of Australia and I sit in Central Park, I can travel through space and time? Mathematically, of course...
1 / 5 (1) Nov 24, 2011
What happened in 1963 that allowed this proof to escape?
5 / 5 (1) Nov 30, 2011
If only fixed points helped bring war criminals to justice

What the hell does your comment have to do with anything?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.