The Mobius Strip

A reader asked me, in response to yesterday’s post, why I failed to make any mention of the Mobius Strip. Addressing that topic seemed like a good way to close the week’s blogging.

Imagine that you take a long thin strip of newspaper. Hold it at the top with your thumb and index finger, and let the bottom dangle loosely. Now grab the bottom and give it a half-twist. Take the narrow side at the bottom, and bring it up so the short edge meets up with the corresponding short edge where you are holding the newspaper. Tape these ends together. The result is a Mobius Strip. Click here for pictures and more information.

The long, thin rectangle of newspaper has the property that if you pick a point at random somewhere between the two long edges, the region near that point looks like a flat surface. That property is maintained after we make the twist and loop the paper back on itself. You might think, therefore, that the Mobious Strip is a two-dimensional manifold just as surely as the spheres, tori and Klein bottles from yesterday’s post.

The trouble is that the Mobius strip has an additional property lacking in the surfaces we considered yesterday. You see, if you choose a point residing on one of the two long edges of the paper, then the local terrain no longer looks like an ordinary, flat surface. Say you are a small bug crawling on the left edge of the paper, starting from the dangling end and moving up toward the end being held. If you look to your right you see an ordinary, flat, two-dimensional surface. But if you look to the left you see only open space. There is no more surface in that direction, and if you move to your left you will fall off the surface altogether.

You might even say this long edge forms a boundary between the surface itself on the one hand and the space in which the surface resides on the other. For this reason, we refer to the Mobious Strip as a two-dimensional manifold with boundary. By contrast, the surfaces considered by the Poincare conjecture are assumed not to have a boundary.

But perhaps we shouldn’t give up. The Mobius Strip has a boundary, and therefore is not a full fledged manifold. But if we could somehow get rid of that boundary edge, perhaps we would be able to produce a new two-dimensional mainfold.

So let us take two Mobius Strips and stitch them together along their boundary edges. The result would be a bona fide two-dimensional manifold, without boundary. If what I said yesterday is correct, then this surface must be equivalent either to a sphere, a torus with some number of holes, or some collection of Klein bottles stitched together.

Our two Mobius strips have a big hole in the middle, so they are not equivlaent to the sphere.

It is less obvious that the two strips are not equivalent to a torus, but indeed they are not. The twist in the Mobius strip gives it a property called “nonorientability.” Without giving a precise definition of what that means, suffice it to say that the torus is “orientable.”

It turns out that two Mobius Strips stitched together along their boundary edge are equivalent to a Klein bottle. Indeed, Felix Klein first defined his bottle in precisely this way. Just as the Mobius strip is said to be a surface with only one side, the stitched together Mobius Strips form a single-sided bottle. Its inside is simultaneously its outside.

Weird, man.

Of course, the Mobius Strip possess a seemiingly endless supply of amusing topological properties, but I think that’s enough for now. Time to start the weekend!


  1. #1 Tom
    August 19, 2006

    “Its inside is simultaneously its outside.” This is “weird” only if you consider the Klein bottle as residing in three space, which of course it can’t. As you noted earlier, to get it into three space it must somehow pass through itself. In four-space however, it is not particularly weird that the inside is also the outside. This is also true of S^2 , the two-sphere, when it resides in four-space. Just as it is true that the inside of S^1, the circle, is simultaneously the outside when you think of the circle as residing in three-space.

    In the lowest dimensional Euclidean space in which they all reside, S^2,the Torus, and the Klein Bottle all have a connected complement (“its inside is simultaneously its outside.”) As you noted, the nonorientabilty is a distinguishing (weird?) characteristic of the Klein Bottle.

    The inside-outside weirdness manifests itself in “projections” of the Klein Bottle into three-space, and it is fun to look at the physical realizations of these projections.


  2. #2 Scott Simmons
    August 19, 2006

    You realize, of course, that there are readers out there *right now* who are busily making a pair of Mobius strips, so they can attach them to each other by the edges and make a Klein bottle.



  3. #3 Strabo
    August 19, 2006

    “You realize, of course, that there are readers out there *right now* who are busily making a pair of Mobius strips, so they can attach them to each other by the edges and make a Klein bottle.



    Yes. Yes, I am.

    Is this actually possible? I’ve tried doing it with 2 strips of paper, I make the fist Mobius strip, then get a second strip and try to lie it against the first, I can do this, but it takes a strip twice as long (The second strip has to go around the first one _twice_ (As it goes around the first time, it’s on the other side of the first strip to it’s other end, so it can’t be joined up.)) Which means the second strip isn’t a actualy mobius strip.

    This isn’t something that you need 4 dimensions to do, is it?

  4. #4 David D.G.
    August 20, 2006

    “Weird, man.”

    That sums up my analysis of the matter perfectly. The only “higher math” I ever accomplished was working on arithmetic problems at the top of the blackboard.

    ~David D.G.

  5. #5 andy.s
    August 20, 2006

    Is orientability a local or global property?

    It would seem that you can’t tell if a surface is orientable by looking a neighborhood of any particular point.

  6. #6 Dom
    August 22, 2006

    The Mobius Strip is used in many conveyor belts, although workers don’t notice it since they see only a small area. The fact that it is one-sided means it has a longer life. In the older days, when the conveyor was not given a half-twist, workers used only one of the two surfaces. I don’t know if anyone ever thought of just “flipping it” inside out.

  7. #7 Scott Simmons
    August 22, 2006


    You don’t need a Mobius strip twice as long. Once you have one edge of the first strip attached to one edge of the second … er, actually, half of the edge of one attached to half the edge of the other, since Mobius strips have only one edge … then you stretch the other ‘sides’ of those edges to meet. Through the fourth dimension, if you can find it. If you do manage this, then you’ll have a Klein bottle. Ta-da!

    Don’t stay up too late trying.


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