Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


In topology, two continuous functions from one topological space to another are called homotopic if one can be "continuously deformed" into the other, such a deformation being called a homotopy between the two functions.

Table of contents
1 Formal definitions
2 Homotopy equivalence of spaces
3 Homotopy-invariant properties
4 Homotopy category and homotopy invariants
5 Relative homotopy
6 Homotopy groups
7 Long exact sequence

Formal definitions

Formally, a homotopy between two continuous functions f and g from a topological space X to a topological space Y is defined to be a continuous function H : X × [0,1] → Y from the product of the space X with the unit interval [0,1] to Y such that, for all points x in X, H(x,0)=f(x) and H(x,1)=g(x).

Being homotopic is an equivalence relation on the set of all continuous functions from X to Y. This homotopy relation is compatible with function composition in the following sense: if f1, g1 : XY are homotopic, and f2, g2 : YZ are homotopic, then their compositions f2 o f1 and g2 o g1 : XZ are homotopic as well.

Homotopy equivalence of spaces

Given two spaces X and Y, we say they are homotopy equivalent if there exist continuous maps f : XY and g : YX such that g o f is homotopic to the identity map idX and f o g is homotopic to idY.

The maps f and g are called homotopy equivalences in this case.

Intuitively, two spaces X and Y are homotopy equivalent if they can be transformed into one another by bending, shrinking and expanding operations. For example, a solid disk or solid ball is homotopy equivalent to a point, and R2 - {(0,0)} is homotopy equivalent to the unit circle S1. Those spaces that are homotopy equivalent to a point are called contractible.

Homotopy-invariant properties

Homotopy equivalence is important because in algebraic topology most concepts cannot distinguish homotopy equivalent spaces: if X and Y are homotopy equivalent, then

Homotopy category and homotopy invariants

More abstractly, one can appeal to category theory concepts. One can define the homotopy category, whose objects are topological spaces, and whose morphisms are homotopy classes of continuous maps. Two topological spaces X and Y are isomorphic in this category if and only if they are homotopy-equivalent.

A homotopy invariant is any function on spaces, (or on mappings), that respects the relation of homotopy equivalence (resp. homotopy); such invariants are constitutive of homotopy theory. Of course one could have foundational objection to a function whose domain is the collection of all topological spaces.

In practice homotopy theory is carried out by working with CW complexes, for technical convenience; or in some other reasonable category.

Relative homotopy

Especially in order to define the fundamental group, one needs the notion of homotopy relative to a subspace. These are homotopies which keep the elements of the subspace fixed. Formally: if f and g are continuous maps from X to Y and K is a subset of X, then we say that f and g are homotopic relative K if there exists a homotopy H : X × [0,1] → Y between f and g such that H(k,t) = f(k) for all kK and t∈[0,1].


In case the two given continuous functions f and g from the topological space X to the topological space Y are homeomorphisms, one can ask whether they can be connected 'through homeomorphisms'. This gives rise to the concept of isotopy, which is a homotopy H in the notation used before, such that for each fixed t, H(x,t) gives a homeomorphism.

In geometric topology - for example in knot theory - the idea of isotopy is used to construct equivalence relations. For example, when should two knots be considered the same? We take two knots K1 and K2 in three-dimensional space. The intuitive idea of deforming one to the other should correspond to a path of homeomorphisms: an isotopy starting with the identity homeomorphism of three-dimensional space, and ending at a homeomorphism h such that h moves K1 to K2.

Homotopy groups

For , the homotopy classes actually form a homotopy group. If , then this group is Abelian. (For a proof of this, note that in two dimensions or greater, two homotopies can be "rotated" around each other.)

Long exact sequence

The long exact sequence of a fibration

fibration for a definition of a fibration.


The long exact sequence of relative homotopy classes