Winding number

Last updated
This curve has winding number two around the point p. Winding Number Around Point.svg
This curve has winding number two around the point p.

In mathematics, the winding number or winding index of a closed curve in the plane around a given point is an integer representing the total number of times that curve travels counterclockwise around the point. The winding number depends on the orientation of the curve, and is negative if the curve travels around the point clockwise.


Winding numbers are fundamental objects of study in algebraic topology, and they play an important role in vector calculus, complex analysis, geometric topology, differential geometry, and physics, including string theory.

Intuitive description

An object traveling along the red curve makes two counterclockwise turns around the person at the origin. Winding Number Animation Small.gif
An object traveling along the red curve makes two counterclockwise turns around the person at the origin.

Suppose we are given a closed, oriented curve in the xy plane. We can imagine the curve as the path of motion of some object, with the orientation indicating the direction in which the object moves. Then the winding number of the curve is equal to the total number of counterclockwise turns that the object makes around the origin.

When counting the total number of turns, counterclockwise motion counts as positive, while clockwise motion counts as negative. For example, if the object first circles the origin four times counterclockwise, and then circles the origin once clockwise, then the total winding number of the curve is three.

Using this scheme, a curve that does not travel around the origin at all has winding number zero, while a curve that travels clockwise around the origin has negative winding number. Therefore, the winding number of a curve may be any integer. The following pictures show curves with winding numbers between 2 and 3:

   Winding Number -2.svg      Winding Number -1.svg      Winding Number 0.svg   
   Winding Number 1.svg      Winding Number 2.svg      Winding Number 3.svg   

Formal definition

A curve in the xy plane can be defined by parametric equations:

If we think of the parameter t as time, then these equations specify the motion of an object in the plane between t = 0 and t = 1. The path of this motion is a curve as long as the functions x(t) and y(t) are continuous. This curve is closed as long as the position of the object is the same at t = 0 and t = 1.

We can define the winding number of such a curve using the polar coordinate system. Assuming the curve does not pass through the origin, we can rewrite[ citation needed ] the parametric equations in polar form:

The functions r(t) and θ(t) are required to be continuous, with r> 0. Because the initial and final positions are the same, θ(0) and θ(1) must differ by an integer multiple of 2π. This integer is the winding number:

This defines the winding number of a curve around the origin in the xy plane. By translating the coordinate system, we can extend this definition to include winding numbers around any point p.

Alternative definitions

Winding number is often defined in different ways in various parts of mathematics. All of the definitions below are equivalent to the one given above:

Alexander numbering

A simple combinatorial rule for defining the winding number was proposed by August Ferdinand Möbius in 1865 [1] and again independently by James Waddell Alexander II in 1928. [2] Any curve partitions the plane into several connected regions, one of which is unbounded. The winding numbers of the curve around two points in the same region are equal. The winding number around (any point in) the unbounded region is zero. Finally, the winding numbers for any two adjacent regions differ by exactly 1; the region with the larger winding number appears on the left side of the curve (with respect to motion down the curve).

Differential geometry

In differential geometry, parametric equations are usually assumed to be differentiable (or at least piecewise differentiable). In this case, the polar coordinate θ is related to the rectangular coordinates x and y by the equation:

Which is found by differentiating the following definition for θ:

By the fundamental theorem of calculus, the total change in θ is equal to the integral of dθ. We can therefore express the winding number of a differentiable curve as a line integral:

The one-form dθ (defined on the complement of the origin) is closed but not exact, and it generates the first de Rham cohomology group of the punctured plane. In particular, if ω is any closed differentiable one-form defined on the complement of the origin, then the integral of ω along closed loops gives a multiple of the winding number.

Complex analysis

Winding numbers play a very important role throughout complex analysis (c.f. the statement of the residue theorem). In the context of complex analysis, the winding number of a closed curve in the complex plane can be expressed in terms of the complex coordinate z = x + iy. Specifically, if we write z = reiθ, then

and therefore

As is a closed curve, the total change in is zero, and thus the integral of is equal to multiplied by the total change in . Therefore, the winding number of closed path about the origin is given by the expression [3]


More generally, if is a closed curve parameterized by , the winding number of about , also known as the index of with respect to , is defined for complex as [4]


This is a special case of the famous Cauchy integral formula.

Some of the basic properties of the winding number in the complex plane are given by the following theorem: [5]

Theorem.Let be a closed path and let be the set complement of the image of , that is, . Then the index of with respect to ,


is (i) integer-valued, i.e., for all ; (ii) constant over each component (i.e., maximal connected subset) of ; and (iii) zero if is in the unbounded component of .

As an immediate corollary, this theorem gives the winding number of a circular path about a point . As expected, the winding number counts the number of (counterclockwise) loops makes around :

Corollary.If is the path defined by , then


In topology, the winding number is an alternate term for the degree of a continuous mapping. In physics, winding numbers are frequently called topological quantum numbers. In both cases, the same concept applies.

The above example of a curve winding around a point has a simple topological interpretation. The complement of a point in the plane is homotopy equivalent to the circle, such that maps from the circle to itself are really all that need to be considered. It can be shown that each such map can be continuously deformed to (is homotopic to) one of the standard maps , where multiplication in the circle is defined by identifying it with the complex unit circle. The set of homotopy classes of maps from a circle to a topological space form a group, which is called the first homotopy group or fundamental group of that space. The fundamental group of the circle is the group of the integers, Z; and the winding number of a complex curve is just its homotopy class.

Maps from the 3-sphere to itself are also classified by an integer which is also called the winding number or sometimes Pontryagin index.

Turning number

This curve has total curvature 6p, turning number 3, though it only has winding number 2 about p. Winding Number Around Point.svg
This curve has total curvature 6π, turning number 3, though it only has winding number 2 about p.

One can also consider the winding number of the path with respect to the tangent of the path itself. As a path followed through time, this would be the winding number with respect to the origin of the velocity vector. In this case the example illustrated at the beginning of this article has a winding number of 3, because the small loop is counted.

This is only defined for immersed paths (i.e., for differentiable paths with nowhere vanishing derivatives), and is the degree of the tangential Gauss map.

This is called the turning number or index of the curve, and can be computed as the total curvature divided by 2π.


In polygons, the turning number is referred to as the polygon density. For convex polygons, and more generally simple polygons (not self-intersecting), the density is 1, by the Jordan curve theorem. By contrast, for a regular star polygon {p/q}, the density is q.

Winding number and Heisenberg ferromagnet equations

The winding number is closely related with the (2 + 1)-dimensional continuous Heisenberg ferromagnet equations and its integrable extensions: the Ishimori equation etc. Solutions of the last equations are classified by the winding number or topological charge (topological invariant and/or topological quantum number).

See also

Related Research Articles

Polar coordinate system Two-dimensional coordinate system where each point is determined by a distance from reference point and an angle from a reference direction

In mathematics, the polar coordinate system is a two-dimensional coordinate system in which each point on a plane is determined by a distance from a reference point and an angle from a reference direction. The reference point is called the pole, and the ray from the pole in the reference direction is the polar axis. The distance from the pole is called the radial coordinate, radial distance or simply radius, and the angle is called the angular coordinate, polar angle, or azimuth. The radial coordinate is often denoted by r or ρ, and the angular coordinate by φ, θ, or t. Angles in polar notation are generally expressed in either degrees or radians.

The propagation constant of a sinusoidal electromagnetic wave is a measure of the change undergone by the amplitude and phase of the wave as it propagates in a given direction. The quantity being measured can be the voltage, the current in a circuit, or a field vector such as electric field strength or flux density. The propagation constant itself measures the change per unit length, but it is otherwise dimensionless. In the context of two-port networks and their cascades, propagation constant measures the change undergone by the source quantity as it propagates from one port to the next.

Synchrotron radiation

Synchrotron radiation is the electromagnetic radiation emitted when charged particles are accelerated radially, e.g., when they are subject to an acceleration perpendicular to their velocity. It is produced, for example, in synchrotrons using bending magnets, undulators and/or wigglers. If the particle is non-relativistic, the emission is called cyclotron emission. If the particles are relativistic, sometimes referred to as ultrarelativistic, the emission is called synchrotron emission. Synchrotron radiation may be achieved artificially in synchrotrons or storage rings, or naturally by fast electrons moving through magnetic fields. The radiation produced in this way has a characteristic polarization and the frequencies generated can range over the entire electromagnetic spectrum, which is also called continuum radiation.

In mechanics and geometry, the 3D rotation group, often denoted SO(3), is the group of all rotations about the origin of three-dimensional Euclidean space under the operation of composition. By definition, a rotation about the origin is a transformation that preserves the origin, Euclidean distance, and orientation. Every non-trivial rotation is determined by its axis of rotation and its angle of rotation. Composing two rotations results in another rotation; every rotation has a unique inverse rotation; and the identity map satisfies the definition of a rotation. Owing to the above properties, the set of all rotations is a group under composition. Rotations are not commutative, making it a nonabelian group. Moreover, the rotation group has a natural structure as a manifold for which the group operations are smoothly differentiable; so it is in fact a Lie group. It is compact and has dimension 3.

Beta function

In mathematics, the beta function, also called the Euler integral of the first kind, is a special function that is closely related to the gamma function and to binomial coefficients. It is defined by the integral

Linking number

In mathematics, the linking number is a numerical invariant that describes the linking of two closed curves in three-dimensional space. Intuitively, the linking number represents the number of times that each curve winds around the other. The linking number is always an integer, but may be positive or negative depending on the orientation of the two curves.

In physics, circular motion is a movement of an object along the circumference of a circle or rotation along a circular path. It can be uniform, with constant angular rate of rotation and constant speed, or non-uniform with a changing rate of rotation. The rotation around a fixed axis of a three-dimensional body involves circular motion of its parts. The equations of motion describe the movement of the center of mass of a body.

In physics, a wave vector is a vector which helps describe a wave. Like any vector, it has a magnitude and direction, both of which are important. Its magnitude is either the wavenumber or angular wavenumber of the wave, and its direction is ordinarily the direction of wave propagation.

Envelope (mathematics) Family of curves in geometry

In geometry, an envelope of a planar family of curves is a curve that is tangent to each member of the family at some point, and these points of tangency together form the whole envelope. Classically, a point on the envelope can be thought of as the intersection of two "infinitesimally adjacent" curves, meaning the limit of intersections of nearby curves. This idea can be generalized to an envelope of surfaces in space, and so on to higher dimensions.

In physics, the Hamilton–Jacobi equation, named after William Rowan Hamilton and Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi, is an alternative formulation of classical mechanics, equivalent to other formulations such as Newton's laws of motion, Lagrangian mechanics and Hamiltonian mechanics. The Hamilton–Jacobi equation is particularly useful in identifying conserved quantities for mechanical systems, which may be possible even when the mechanical problem itself cannot be solved completely.

Torsion tensor

In differential geometry, the notion of torsion is a manner of characterizing a twist or screw of a moving frame around a curve. The torsion of a curve, as it appears in the Frenet–Serret formulas, for instance, quantifies the twist of a curve about its tangent vector as the curve evolves. In the geometry of surfaces, the geodesic torsion describes how a surface twists about a curve on the surface. The companion notion of curvature measures how moving frames "roll" along a curve "without twisting".

In the mathematical theory of conformal mappings, the area theorem gives an inequality satisfied by the power series coefficients of certain conformal mappings. The theorem is called by that name, not because of its implications, but rather because the proof uses the notion of area.

In the mathematical theory of conformal and quasiconformal mappings, the extremal length of a collection of curves is a measure of the size of that is invariant under conformal mappings. More specifically, suppose that is an open set in the complex plane and is a collection of paths in and is a conformal mapping. Then the extremal length of is equal to the extremal length of the image of under . One also works with the conformal modulus of , the reciprocal of the extremal length. The fact that extremal length and conformal modulus are conformal invariants of makes them useful tools in the study of conformal and quasi-conformal mappings. One also works with extremal length in dimensions greater than two and certain other metric spaces, but the following deals primarily with the two dimensional setting.

Gravitational lensing formalism

In general relativity, a point mass deflects a light ray with impact parameter by an angle approximately equal to

Linear flow on the torus

In mathematics, especially in the area of mathematical analysis known as dynamical systems theory, a linear flow on the torus is a flow on the n-dimensional torus


In mathematics, a superellipsoid or super-ellipsoid is a solid whose horizontal sections are superellipses with the same exponent r, and whose vertical sections through the center are superellipses with the same exponent t.

Wrapped Cauchy distribution

In probability theory and directional statistics, a wrapped Cauchy distribution is a wrapped probability distribution that results from the "wrapping" of the Cauchy distribution around the unit circle. The Cauchy distribution is sometimes known as a Lorentzian distribution, and the wrapped Cauchy distribution may sometimes be referred to as a wrapped Lorentzian distribution.

The narrow escape problem is a ubiquitous problem in biology, biophysics and cellular biology.

Fluid motion can be said to be a two-dimensional flow when the flow velocity at every point is parallel to a fixed plane. The velocity at any point on a given normal to that fixed plane should be constant.

In fluid dynamics, Hicks equation or sometimes also referred as Bragg–Hawthorne equation or Squire–Long equation is a partial differential equation that describes the distribution of stream function for axisymmetric inviscid fluid, named after William Mitchinson Hicks, who derived it first in 1898. The equation was also re-derived by Stephen Bragg and William Hawthorne in 1950 and by Robert R. Long in 1953 and by Herbert Squire in 1956. The Hicks equation without swirl was first introduced by George Gabriel Stokes in 1842. The Grad–Shafranov equation appearing in plasma physics also takes the same form as the Hicks equation.


  1. Möbius, August (1865). "Über die Bestimmung des Inhaltes eines Polyëders". Berichte über die Verhandlungen der Königlich Sächsischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, Mathematisch-Physische Klasse. 17: 31–68.
  2. Alexander, J. W. (April 1928). "Topological Invariants of Knots and Links". Transactions of the American Mathematical Society. 30 (2): 275–306. doi: 10.2307/1989123 .
  3. Weisstein, Eric W. "Contour Winding Number." From MathWorld--A Wolfram Web Resource.
  4. Rudin, Walter (1976). Principles of Mathematical Analysis. New York: McGraw-Hill. p. 201. ISBN   0-07-054235-X.
  5. Rudin, Walter (1987). Real and Complex Analysis (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. p. 203. ISBN   0-07-054234-1.