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The Fundamental Group

Aaron Ackbarali
November 24, 2014
This paper serves as an expository piece on the fundamental group.
It assumes a basic background in the theory of groups. Some point set
topology may be clarifying for the advanced reader, but is not necessary.


Topology is the study of properties of spaces1 which remain unchanged when

the space is continuously deformed. The reader may be familiar with some of
these properties; connectedness, compactness, countability. For example, when
a space is bent or stretched the number of connected components does not
change. In topology, we are interested in distinguishing between spaces based
on such properties that are invariant. Spaces that are indistinguishable are
called homeomorphic. It is, in general, a very difficult and unsolved problem
to determine whether two spaces are homeomorphic or not. For example, even
a case as simple as the sphere, S 2 , and the torus, T 2 , cannot be resolved with
these basic properties. Both spaces are compact, connected, and even pathconnected2 . However, there is a seemingly obvious way to tell these spaces
apart, the number of holes.
The sphere has no holes whereas the torus clearly has one. Regardless of
how a space is bent or stretched, there is no way of adding this hole to the
sphere. The goal of the fundamental group is to formalize the notion of a space
having holes. By the end of this paper it will be shown that the sphere and
torus are indeed not homeomorphic.


Notice in Figure 1 how any circle drawn on the sphere can be easily moved over
the surface of the sphere to any other circle. However, on the torus, there is no
way3 to move a circle drawn around the latitude to a circle drawn through the
1 By a space we mean precisely a set and its subsets together with several properties that
constructs a topological structure.
2 A space is path connected if there exists a path of finite length between every set of points.
3 Specifically there is no continuous map, intuitively a deformation by bending or stretching.

Figure 1: The hole in the torus makes these spaces non-homeomorphic.

central hole. This is the essential observation to constructing the fundamental

group and the notion of homotopy is the way to formalize this.
Definition 1.1. Let f : X Y and f 0 : X Y be continuous maps. f is
homotopic to f 0 , f ' f 0 , if there is a continuous map F : X [0, 1] Y such
that F (x, 0) = f (x) and F (x, 1) = f 0 (x).
Intuitively, maps are homotopic to each other if there is some continuous
way to deform the image of one map into the image of the other. For example,
if we let f, f 0 : [0, 1] [0, 1] be the maps f : x 7 x and f 0 : x 7 x2 then
the map F : [0, 1] [0, 1] [0, 1] defined as F (x, t) = x( t + 1) is a homotopy.
This can be seen since F is clearly continuous and F (x, 0) = f (x) = x and
F (x, 1) = f 0 (x) = x2 .

Figure 2: A homotopy from f (x) = x to f (x) = x2 . with several of the in-between

maps depicted as dashed lines.

In order to work with loops in a space we need a specific type of homotopy

for maps that behave like loops.
Definition 1.2. For continuous maps f, f 0 : [0, 1] X are homotopic, f ' f 0 ,
and they have the same initial and final points,f (0) = f 0 (0), f (1) = f 0 (1) then
f and f 0 are path homotopic, f 'p f 0 .
If f (0) = f (1) then f is a loop in the space X. Two loops, f and f 0 are
homotopic if they are path homotopic.

Theorem 1.1. Path homotopy is an equivalence relation.

Proof. We will show 'p is reflexive, symmetric, and transitive.
1. Reflexive: F (x, t) = f (x) is the necessary homotopy such that f 'p f .
2. Symmetric: If f 'p f 0 then there exists a homotopy F from f to f 0 .
G(x, t) = F (x, 1 t) is a homotopy from f 0 to f .
3. Transitive: If f 'p f 0 and f 0 'p f 00 then there
 are homotopy maps F
F (x, 2t)
0 t 1/2
from f to f 0 and G from f 0 to f 00 . H(x, t) =
G(x, 2t 1) 1/2 t 1
is a homotopy from f to f 00 .

Since path homotopy is an equivalence relation, we can partition a space

into its path homotopic loops. This set of equivalence classes will be given a
group structure and will become the fundamental group.

Figure 3: The two path homotopy equivalence classes of loops on the torus.

The Fundamental Group

In order for the structure we put on the equivalence class to be well defined, we
only consider loops whose basepoints4 are in the same place. We call a space
with a particular point identified, a pointed space and denote it as X, x0 . The
set of all loops on a space is homotopic to the set of all loops on a pointed
space with the same basepoint since any loop can be continuously deformed
into another loop with a particular basepoint while still circling around the
same hole. Proving this requires the advanced mathematics of category theory
and functors, this machinery is above the level of this paper so it will be taken
as a given that treating a space as a pointed space is appropriate.
An important observation is that loops, as we defined, are not the actual
geometric objects in the space but rather they are the maps defining the objects.
4 By

basepoint we mean x0 = f (0).

To put a group structure on the set of path homotopy equivalence classes we

would like the operation in the group to be composition however this does
not preserve the geometry of the structure we are trying to achieve. Rather,
we would like some way of adding loops together such that the new loop is
equivalent to first tracing the image of the first loop then the second loop.
Definition 2.1. The product of two loops f and g is given by a third loop
h = f ? g where

f (2x)
0 x 1/2
h(x) =
g(2x 1) 1/2 x 1
In order to finish defining the fundamental group we need to establish an
identity and construct inverse elements for homotopy classes. The identity is
simply the equivalence class of the loop that doesnt move. If we had defined
the group operation as composition, the identity element would be the identity
map, but the identity map is not necessarily a loop in the space. For example,
in R the identity map takes the unit interval to itself which is most definitely
not a loop.
The inverse of a loop is geometrically the image of a loop traced in the opposite direction. The direction of a loop is given simply by the parametrization.
Reversing the parametrization would effectively trace the image of the loop
in reverse and thus when a loop and its inverse would be the map that went
nowhere, the identity.
Definition 2.2. Given a loop f (x), f 1 (x) = f (1 x).
We can now construct the fundamental group.5
Definition 2.3. The fundamental group of a topological space, 1 (X, x0 ), is
defined as the set of path homotopy equivalence classes of loops together with
the operation ?.

1 (S 2 , x0 ) and 1 (T, x0 )

The fundamental group of the sphere is rather easy to calculate. Any loop on
the sphere can be retracted to the basepoint. This is done by moving each
point of the image of the loop along the great circle formed by the point and
the basepoint of the space. Thus the only homotopy class is the trivial one
so 1 (S 2 , x0 ) = {e}. In fact, for any simply connected space the fundamental
group is trivial. The fundamental group of the torus is not difficult either once
we establish a useful theorem.
Theorem 3.1. For a topological space X = Y Z, 1 (X, x0 ) 1 (Y, x0 )
1 (Z, x0 ) if Y and Z are path connected (footnote 3).6
5 It is not necessary to prove this is a group since it was constructed via the constraints of
the definition of a group. However, it is a good exercise to the reader to prove this is a group
given only the definition and not the construction.
6 is used to denote group isomorphism.

Proof. Continuous maps in a product space are continuous iff they are entrywise continuous e.g. f : X Y Z is continuous iff g : X Y and h : X Z
are continuous where f = (g, h). Extending this to homotopy equivalence7 gives
a bijection on equivalence classes : [f ] 7 ([g], [h]). It is only left to show that
this map is a homomorphism. Given, [f ] and [f 0 ],
([f ] ? [f 0 ]) = ([f ]) ([f 0 ])


([g] ? [g 0 ], [h] ? [h0 ]) = ([g], [h]) ([g 0 ], [h0 ])


([g] ? [g 0 ], [h] ? [h0 ]) = ([g] ? [g 0 ], [h] ? [h0 ])


With this theorem we can easily calculate the fundamental group of the
1 (T, x0 ) = 1 (S 1 S 1 , x0 ) = 1 (S 1 , x0 ) 1 (S 1 , x0 )
The fundamental group of the circle is generated by the loop going around the
circle once. There are no other nontrivial loops on the circle. The abelian group
with one generator is Z thus,
1 (T, x0 ) = Z Z.


The fundamental group is only the beginning in the uses of group theory in
topology. Algebraic topology is an entire field dedicated to examining and understanding various algebraic constructs on spaces. This includes a generalization of the fundamental group, higher homotopy groups. The reader may have
noticed that loops are in fact maps from S 1 into a space. Higher homotopy
groups are the groups of homotopy equivalence classes of maps from S n into
a space. These groups are historically incredibly difficult to compute, thus another generalization was created, homology. Homology groups arise from asking
which of the loops are boundaries for loops of a higher dimension. While this
may sound more complex than homotopy, in practice it is actually easier to
compute due greatly to the tools of homological algebra. This can be extended
even further by considering functions on loops or loops in the dual space. This
formulation is known as cohomology and has been at the forefront of some of the
20th centurys greatest mathematical achievements including both the solution
of the Poincare conjecture and the Atiyah-Singer Index Theorem. All of this
vast and rich theory stems from the fundamental group.
7 Applying

the functor 0 .

[1] Hatcher A. Algebraic Topology. 2000.
http://www.math.cornell.edu/ hatcher/AT/AT.pdf
[2] Munkres J. Topology. Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 2000.
[3] Rowland T., Weisstein E. Fundamental Group.