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Jordan curve theorem

Jordan curve theorem Illustration of the Jordan curve theorem. The Jordan curve (drawn in black) divides

Illustration of the Jordan curve theorem. The Jordan curve (drawn in black) divides the plane into an “inside” region (light blue) and an “outside” region (pink).

In topology, a Jordan curve is a non-self-intersecting continuous loop in the plane, and another name for a Jor- dan curve is a simple closed curve. The Jordan curve theorem asserts that every Jordan curve divides the plane into an “interior” region bounded by the curve and an “ex- terior” region containing all of the nearby and far away exterior points, so that any continuous path connecting a point of one region to a point of the other intersects with that loop somewhere. While the statement of this theorem seems to be intuitively obvious, it takes quite a bit of ingenuity to prove it by elementary means. More transparent proofs rely on the mathematical machinery of algebraic topology, and these lead to generalizations to higher-dimensional spaces.

The Jordan curve theorem is named after the mathematician Camille Jordan, who found its first proof. For decades, mathematicians generally thought that this proof was flawed and that the first rigorous proof was carried out by Oswald Veblen. However, this notion has been challenged by Thomas C. Hales and others.



Definitions and the statement of the Jordan theorem


Jordan curve or a simple closed curve in the plane R 2


into the plane, φ: S 1 R 2 . A Jordan arc in the plane

is the image of an injective continuous map of a closed

interval into the plane.

Alternatively, a Jordan curve is the image of a continu- ous map φ: [0,1] → R 2 such that φ(0) = φ(1) and the restriction of φ to [0,1) is injective. The first two con- ditions say that C is a continuous loop, whereas the last condition stipulates that C has no self-intersection points.

With these definitions, the Jordan curve theorem can be stated as follows:

Let C be a Jordan curve in the plane R 2 . Then its complement, R 2 \ C, consists of ex- actly two connected components. One of these components is bounded (the interior) and the other is unbounded (the exterior), and the curve C is the boundary of each component.

Furthermore, the complement of a Jordan arc in the plane

is connected.

2 Proof and generalizations

The Jordan curve theorem was independently generalized

to higher dimensions by H. Lebesgue and L.E.J. Brouwer

in 1911, resulting in the Jordan–Brouwer separation theorem.

Let X be a topological sphere in the (n+1)- dimensional Euclidean space R n+1 (n > 0), i.e. the image of an injective continuous mapping of the n-sphere S n into R n+1 . Then the com- plement Y of X in R n+1 consists of exactly two connected components. One of these compo- nents is bounded (the interior) and the other is unbounded (the exterior). The set X is their common boundary.

The proof uses homology theory. It is first established that, more generally, if X is homeomorphic to the k- sphere, then the reduced integral homology groups of Y =R n+1 \ X are as follows:



H q (Y ) = { Z,


q = n k

0, otherwise.

This is proved by induction in k using the Mayer–Vietoris sequence. When n = k, the zeroth reduced homology of Y has rank 1, which means that Y has 2 connected compo- nents (which are, moreover, path connected), and with a bit of extra work, one shows that their common boundary is X. A further generalization was found by J. W. Alexan- der, who established the Alexander duality between the reduced homology of a compact subset X of R n+1 and the reduced cohomology of its complement. If X is an n- dimensional compact connected submanifold of R n+1 (or S n+1 ) without boundary, its complement has 2 connected components.

There is a strengthening of the Jordan curve theorem, called the Jordan–Schönflies theorem, which states that the interior and the exterior planar regions determined by a Jordan curve in R 2 are homeomorphic to the interior and exterior of the unit disk. In particular, for any point P in the interior region and a point A on the Jordan curve, there exists a Jordan arc connecting P with A and, with the exception of the endpoint A, completely lying in the interior region. An alternative and equivalent formulation of the Jordan–Schönflies theorem asserts that any Jordan curve φ: S 1 R 2 , where S 1 is viewed as the unit circle in the plane, can be extended to a homeomorphism ψ: R 2 R 2 of the plane. Unlike Lebesgues’ and Brouwer’s gen- eralization of the Jordan curve theorem, this statement becomes false in higher dimensions: while the exterior of the unit ball in R 3 is simply connected, because it retracts onto the unit sphere, the Alexander horned sphere is a subset of R 3 homeomorphic to a sphere, but so twisted in space that the unbounded component of its complement in R 3 is not simply connected, and hence not homeomor- phic to the exterior of the unit ball.

3 History and further proofs

The statement of the Jordan curve theorem may seem ob- vious at first, but it is a rather difficult theorem to prove. Bernard Bolzano was the first to formulate a precise con- jecture, observing that it was not a self-evident statement, but that it required a proof. It is easy to establish this result for polygonal lines, but the problem came in gen- eralizing it to all kinds of badly behaved curves, which include nowhere differentiable curves, such as the Koch snowflake and other fractal curves, or even a Jordan curve of positive area constructed by Osgood (1903).

The first proof of this theorem was given by Camille Jor- dan in his lectures on real analysis, and was published in his book Cours d'analyse de l'École Polytechnique. [1] There is some controversy about whether Jordan’s proof was complete: the majority of commenters on it have

claimed that the first complete proof was given later by Oswald Veblen, who said the following about Jordan’s proof:

His proof, however, is unsatisfactory to many mathematicians. It assumes the theorem with- out proof in the important special case of a simple polygon, and of the argument from that point on, one must admit at least that all details are not given. [2]

However, Thomas C. Hales wrote:

Nearly every modern citation that I have found agrees that the first correct proof is due to Ve- blen In view of the heavy criticism of Jor- dan’s proof, I was surprised when I sat down to read his proof to find nothing objectionable about it. Since then, I have contacted a num- ber of the authors who have criticized Jordan, and each case the author has admitted to hav- ing no direct knowledge of an error in Jordan’s proof. [3]

Hales also pointed out that the special case of simple poly- gons is not only an easy exercise, but was not really used by Jordan anyway, and quoted Michael Reeken as saying:

Jordan’s proof is essentially correct Jordan’s proof does not present the details in a satisfac- tory way. But the idea is right, and with some polishing the proof would be impeccable. [4]

Jordan’s proof and another early proof by de la Vallée- Poussin were later critically analyzed and completed by Shoenflies (1924).

Due to the importance of the Jordan curve theorem in low-dimensional topology and complex analysis, it re- ceived much attention from prominent mathematicians of the first half of the 20th century. Various proofs of the theorem and its generalizations were constructed by J. W. Alexander, Louis Antoine, Bieberbach, Luitzen Brouwer, Denjoy, Hartogs, Béla Kerékjártó, Alfred Pringsheim, and Schoenflies.

Some new elementary proofs of the Jordan curve theo- rem, as well as simplifications of the earlier proofs, con- tinue to be carried out.

A short elementary proof of the Jordan curve theorem was presented by A. F. Filippov in 1950. [5]

A proof using the Brouwer fixed point theorem by Maehara (1984).

A proof using non-standard analysis by Narens



A proof using constructive mathematics by Gordon O. Berg, W. Julian, and R. Mines et al. (1975).

A proof using non-planarity of the complete bipar- tite graph K₃,₃ was given by Thomassen (1992).

A simplification of the proof by Helge Tverberg. [6]

The first formal proof of the Jordan curve theorem was created by Hales (2007a) in the HOL Light system, in January 2005, and contained about 60,000 lines. An- other rigorous 6,500-line formal proof was produced in 2005 by an international team of mathematicians using the Mizar system. Both the Mizar and the HOL Light proof rely on libraries of previously proved theorems, so these two sizes are not comparable. Nobuyuki Sakamoto and Keita Yokoyama (2007) showed that the Jordan curve theorem is equivalent in proof-theoretic strength to the weak König’s lemma.

4 See also

Quasi-Fuchsian group, a mathematical group that preserves a Jordan curve

5 Notes

[6] Czes Kosniowski, A First Course in Algebraic Topology

6 References

Berg, Gordon O.; Julian, W.; Mines, R.; Rich- man, Fred (1975), “The constructive Jordan curve theorem”, Rocky Mountain Journal of Mathematics 5 (2): 225–236, doi:10.1216/RMJ-1975-5-2-225, ISSN 0035-7596, MR 0410701

Hales, Thomas C. (2007a), “The Jordan curve theo- rem, formally and informally”, The American Math- ematical Monthly 114 (10): 882–894, ISSN 0002- 9890, MR 2363054

Hales, Thomas (2007b), “Jordan’s proof of the Jor- dan Curve theorem”, Studies in Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric 10 (23)

Jordan, Camille (1887), Cours d'analyse, pp. 587–


Maehara, Ryuji (1984), “The Jordan Curve The- orem Via the Brouwer Fixed Point Theorem”, The American Mathematical Monthly (Mathematical Association of America) 91 (10): 641–643, doi:10.2307/2323369, ISSN 0002-9890, JSTOR 2323369, MR 0769530

Osgood, William F. (1903), “A Jordan Curve of Positive Area”, Transactions of the American Math- ematical Society (Providence, R.I.: American Math- ematical Society) 4 (1): 107–112, ISSN 0002-9947, JFM 34.0533.02, JSTOR 1986455

Ross, Fiona; Ross, William T. (2011), “The Jordan curve theorem is non-trivial”, Journal of Mathemat- ics and the Arts (Taylor & Francis) 5 (4): 213–219, doi:10.1080/17513472.2011.634320. author’s site

Sakamoto, Nobuyuki; Yokoyama, Keita (2007), “The Jordan curve theorem and the Schön- flies theorem in weak second-order arithmetic”, Archive for Mathematical Logic 46 (5): 465– 480, doi:10.1007/s00153-007-0050-6, ISSN 0933-5846, MR 2321588

Thomassen, Carsten (1992), “The Jordan– Schönflies theorem and the classification of surfaces”, American Mathematical Monthly 99 (2):

Narens, Louis (1971),

Veblen, Oswald (1905), “Theory on Plane Curves in Non-Metrical Analysis Situs”, Transactions of the American Mathematical Society (Providence, R.I.:

7 External links

M.I. Voitsekhovskii (2001), “Jordan theorem”, in Hazewinkel, Michiel, Encyclopedia of Mathematics, Springer, ISBN 978-1-55608-010-4

Collection of proofs of the Jordan curve theorem at Andrew Ranicki’s homepage



A simple proof of Jordan curve theorem (PDF) by David B. Gauld


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