- f : I → X.
The initial point of the path is f(0) and the terminal point is f(1). One often speaks of a "path from x to y" where x and y are the initial and terminal points of the path. Note that a path is not just a subset of X which "looks like" a curve, it also includes a parameterization. For example, the maps f(x) = x and g(x) = x2 represent two different paths from 0 to 1 on the real line.
- f : S1 → X.
A topological space for which there exists a path connecting any two points is said to be path-connected. Any space may be broken up into a set of path-connected components. The set of path-connected components of a space X is often denoted π0(X);.
One can also define paths and loops in pointed spaces, which are important in homotopy theory. If X is a topological space with basepoint x0, then a path in X is one whose initial point is x0. Likewise, a loop in X is one that is based at x0.
Homotopy of paths
Paths and loops are central subjects of study in the branch of algebraic topology called homotopy theory. A homotopy of paths makes precise the notion of continuously deforming a path while keeping its endpoints fixed.
Specifically, a homotopy of paths, or path-homotopy, in X is a family of paths ft : I → X indexed by I such that
- ft(0) = x0 and ft(1) = x1 are fixed.
- the map F : I × I → X given by F(s, t) = ft(s) is continuous.
The paths f0 and f1 connected by a homotopy are said to be homotopic (or more precisely path-homotopic, to distinguish between the relation defined on all continuous functions between fixed spaces). One can likewise define a homotopy of loops keeping the base point fixed.
One can compose paths in a topological space in an obvious manner. Suppose f is a path from x to y and g is a path from y to z. The path fg is defined as the path obtained by first traversing f and then traversing g:
Clearly path composition is only defined when the terminal point of f coincides with the initial point of g. If one considers all loops based at a point x0, then path composition is a binary operation.
Path composition, whenever defined, is not associative due to the difference in parametrization. However it is associative up to path-homotopy. That is, [(fg)h] = [f(gh)]. Path composition defines a group structure on the set of homotopy classes of loops based at a point x0 in X. The resultant group is called the fundamental group of X based at x0, usually denoted π1(X,x0).
In situations calling for associativity of path composition "on the nose," a path in X may instead be defined as a continuous map from an interval [0,a] to X for any real a ≥ 0. A path f of this kind has a length |f| defined as a. Path composition is then defined as before with the following modification:
Whereas with the previous definition, f, g, and fg all have length 1 (the length of the domain of the map), this definition makes |fg| = |f| + |g|. What made associativity fail for the previous definition is that although (fg)h and f(gh) have the same length, namely 1, the midpoint of (fg)h occurred between g and h, whereas the midpoint of f(gh) occurred between f and g. With this modified definition (fg)h and f(gh) have the same length, namely |f|+|g|+|h|, and the same midpoint, found at (|f|+|g|+|h|)/2 in both (fg)h and f(gh); more generally they have the same parametrization throughout.
There is a categorical picture of paths which is sometimes useful. Any topological space X gives rise to a category where the objects are the points of X and the morphisms are the homotopy classes of paths. Since any morphism in this category is an isomorphism this category is a groupoid, called the fundamental groupoid of X. Loops in this category are the endomorphisms (all of which are actually automorphisms). The automorphism group of a point x0 in X is just the fundamental group based at x0. More generally, one can define the fundamental groupoid on any subset A of X, using homotopy classes of paths joining points of A. This is convenient for the Van Kampen's Theorem.