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Name: Alex Nemser
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Hi! My name is Alex Nemser and I live in Cambridge, MA. My question is regarding non-Euclidean geometry. Here goes: If two people stand on two parallel lines opposite each other but facing the same direction and they start walking, will they ever meet? I was wondering because if they are facing north and travelling along latitude lines, they will meet at the pole but what if they are facing east or another direction or what if they're not on any line at all... Maybe you can help, thanks!

Yes, certainly they will meet. Your intuition about walking up lines of longitude (not latitude) is correct -- they will meet at the poles. In this case you are talking about a elliptical non-Euclidean geometry, that which describes plane figures on the surface of the Earth. In this geometry two straight lines (great circles) will intersect at exactly two locations, or poles, which are opposite one another on the globe.

``Lines'' of latitude are not straight lines in this geometry, however, but rather curved arcs. So you can make no conclusions about people walking along them. They are not straight because a straight line, or geodesic, is always defined as that path defining the shortest distance between two points. On the surface of a sphere that kind of line is always a great circle. To construct a great circle cut the sphere with a plane that passes through the two points in question and the center of the sphere. The great circle is the intersection of this plane and the surface of the sphere. You can see that all lines of longitude are great circles, but only the equator among ``lines'' of latitude is.

To see that a great circle is always the shortest distance, imagine rotating the globe such that the great circle route passes directly over the top of the globe (the ``North'' Pole) and your destination is exactly as far ``South'' of the ``North'' Pole as is your starting point. If you take any non-great-circle route to your destination, you must deviate east or west from the great circle, and then return. Clearly the extra distance you walk east and back west, or vice versa, makes the non-great-circle route longer.

If that doesn't convince you, get yourself an orange and mark two points on it with a pen. Take a string and stretch it tightly between the two points, and you will see that it always makes a great circle. That is, if you draw a marker along the string and then cut the orange with a knife along the marked line, your cut will go through the center of the orange.


Well, the whole difference between Euclidean and other geometries is their treatment of parallel lines. In Euclidean (plane) geometry, parallel lines never meet, and they are always separated by the same distance. In Riemannian (elliptical) geometry, there are no parallel lines, as any two straight lines will always meet somewhere. This is similar to what happens to longitude lines on the earth's surface. The longitude lines on the earth are not parallel; they are sections describing the intersection of the earth's surface with planes that all intersect at the earth's axis. In Lobachevskyan (hyperbolic) geometry, non-intersecting straight lines can exist, and they will not always be the same distance from each other. There will be some points that are closest to each other, and the lines will ever diverge away from those points.

I'm not sure this fully answers your question. If it doesn't, clarify and ask again.

Richard E. Barrans Jr.

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