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10.1098/rsta.2001.0846

Topological methods in astrophysics
By M i t c h e ll A. B e r g e r
Department of Mathematics, University College London,
Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK

Most objects in astrophysics are ­ lled with highly conducting plasma and hence
easily carry magnetic ­ elds. The topological properties of these ­ elds have impor-
tant physical consequences. The atmospheres of the Sun, many types of stars, and
accretion disks have magnetic ­ elds rooted at the surface. The topological structure
of the magnetic lines of force determines the possible equilibrium con­ gurations of
the ­ eld. Solar and stellar atmospheres are much hotter than expected given the
surface temperature. A proposed model of heating involves tangled magnetic ­ eld
lines, which release their energy in small ®ares. The degree of topological complexity
of a magnetic ­ eld helps to determine how much energy it stores. Flares simplify the
topology of the ­ eld and thereby release the stored energy. Topology is also important
in understanding large-scale properties of the solar dynamo that generates the solar
magnetic ­ eld. The magnetic helicity integral, which measures linking properties of
the ­ eld, can be decomposed into contributions from di¬erent regions of the Sun and
space. Transport of helicity from one region to another underlies many important
processes in solar activity.
Keywords: helicity; astrophy sics; solar physics; plasm a physics; top ology

1. Topological structure
Magnetic ­ elds are pervasive in the universe. Most astrophysical objects consist of
highly ionized, and hence highly conducting, plasma. Magnetic ­ elds form in these
plasmas due to the dynamo e¬ects of di¬erential rotation and non-re®ectionally
symmetric turbulence. The structure of these magnetic ­ elds has profound e¬ects
on the plasma. Here we will concentrate on three aspects of magnetic topology:
structure, complexity and chirality. The principal example discussed will be the solar
magnetic ­ eld, because we have far more observational data on the Sun than on any
other star (or other objects such as accretion disks).
The magnetic ­ eld in the solar atmosphere (corona) is anchored in the dense
plasma at the surface (photosphere) (see ­ gure 1). In the corona the density, pres-
sure and weight of the plasma are generally low, so the magnetic forces dominate
over pressure and gravitational forces. As coronal structures can often be seen per-
sisting for days or even months, the magnetic ­ eld must organize itself into some sort
of equilibrium state. The topological structure of the ­ eld determines which equi-
librium states are possible, and whether they contain magnetic discontinuities that
manifest themselves as sheets of electric current. These current sheets can eventually
undermine the ­ eld structure by going unstable in ®are events.
The solar coronal magnetic ­ eld can be divided into the open ­ eld, where ­ eld
lines extend into interplanetary (and perhaps interstellar) space, and the closed ­ eld,

Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. A (2001) 359, 1439{1448 ® c 2001 The Royal Society
1439

Demoulin et al . The closed ­ eld topology can be described by specifying the surface ®ux function Br (R­ . Zweibel & Li 1986) and wrapping. The separatrix description of the ­ eld provides a coarser description of the ­ eld topology.org/ on September 18. ³ . ¿ ) with photosphere at r = R­ ). as a result of reconnection with open lines. where ­ eld lines loop or arch back into the surface. R. because the current sheet must eventually dissipate. Parker (1972) has proposed that most magnetic topologies are incapable of set- tling into an equilibrium state without acquiring current sheets. which in turn may intersect at a null point (Lau & Finn 1990. Without null points. (Escape can indeed occur. Lond. If the ­ eld contains null points (where all three components of B van- ish). Ng & Bhattacharjee 1998). either slowly or violently. A (2001) . 1996. Trans. generated by following ­ eld lines from a positive endpoint (where Br > 0) to a neg- ative endpoint (Br < 0). as well as the ­ eld line connectivity (Aly 1984. A. In this case. the surface ­ eld line mapping within the region may be continuous. it may wrap or braid about other lines. Berger 1989. but nevertheless display strong gradients at some places (van Ballegooijen 1985. Then each continuous region of the surface determines a volume (as traced out by the ­ eld lines from the region). Berger open field lines r e X-ray loop t o s p h e core o corona h p convection zone Figure 1. then non-equilibrium can be proven rigorously for some topologies (Low 1990). Downloaded from http://rsta. By connectivity. the mathematics becomes more di¯ cult. or in huge explosions called coronal mass ejections). as magnetic structure cannot easily escape into space. Suppose the surface ­ eld line mapping is only piecewise continuous rather than everywhere continuous. Often a region of the solar corona will appear to have a complex topology even without having any true separatrix surfaces inside. 2016 1440 M. As a ­ eld line travels from positive to negative endpoints. He terms this non- equilibrium. ³ . ¿ ) (in spherical coordinates (r. Priest & Forbes 1999).royalsocietypublishing. Soc. the pattern of this braiding must also be speci­ ed. Phil. Intersections of separatrices are called separator lines. Two such regions meet at a separatrix surface. van Ballegooijen 1985. The closed ­ eld has the most activ- ity. we mean the mapping of the surface to itself. Schematic view of the Sun. but non-equilibrium still seems valid (Bhattacharjee & Wang 1991.

if we weight each crossing by magnetic ®ux. if we divide up the ­ eld into N tubes of ®ux ¯ © . (1995) have. This number gives the minimum number of crossings of a knot as seen in any two-dimensional projection. minimum crossing number is often used as a measure of topological complexity (Soteros et al . These places can be called quasi-separatrix layers. Trans. R. However. The closed corona consists of loops of plasma entrained along the ­ eld (see ­ gure 2).royalsocietypublishing. 1999). First. Demoulin et al. we must integrate over the ­ eld. Berger 1993. The complexity of the coronal ­ eld increases and the ­ eld becomes more energetic. The magnetic energy in turn must be replenished. The feet of these loops are not merely anchored in the dense photosphere. coronal bright points) occur predominately at quasi-separatrix layers. But also the ­ eld becomes more unstable to ®aring. Secondly. We can do the same for a magnetic ­ eld (Freedman & He 1991.g. Courtesy of TRACE mission (Berger et al . 1992). the time-scale for loss of heat due to radiation is about one (Earth) day. they move with the convective patterns in the photosphere. in fact. (For example. shown that some forms of solar activity (e. presumably with magnetic energy. we average over all possible projections. Downloaded from http://rsta. This motion can twist the ­ eld lines within individual loops and braid multiple loops about each other. 2016 Topological methods in astrophysics 1441 Figure 2. A (2001) . as they approximate true separatrices. However. Strong gradients in the ­ eld line mapping might lead to enhanced ­ eld line reconnection and energy release. then we get a well-de­ ned ­ nite number.org/ on September 18. Lond. Priest & Forbes 1999). If we then divide each tube into two sub-pieces of ®ux Phil. Topological complexity The coronal plasma has a temperature of some 1{2 million degrees. A ­ eld has an in­ nite number of lines (integral curves). Gambaudo & Lagrange 2000). then we multiply the crossing number by ¯ © 2 . so at ­ rst sight the number of crossings between all pairs of lines would also be in­ nite. compared to only 5500 ¯ at the surface. 2. Closed coronal loops seen at a temperature near 106 K. so the heat must be constantly replenished. Soc. In knot theory.

Chui & Mo¬att 1995). A. the stored energy in the transverse ­ eld is bounded from below by an energy proportional to the crossing number squared (Berger 1993). tangle or braid. the curves become elastic strings. However. A coronal loop may be approximated as a braided magnetic ­ eld within a cylinder (the curvature of the loop is lost in this approximation). The energy-crossing number relations help us to relate solar activity to the topo- logical complexity of the ­ eld. it must have some minimum value Cm in for any set of topologically equivalent magnetic ­ elds. Given an arbitrary knot. link. the minimum in the equivalence class. which constantly moves because of turbulent convection. Under these conditions. it is more di¯ cult to ­ nd Cm in . A second approach uses physical relaxation techniques. One might expect that as crossing number C increases. ¡ 1=3 2 Em in (µ) = m(µ. h)V © : (2. the root-mean-square twist could be substantial. A numerical code then evolves the strings in time. Subsequent calculations using typi- cal values for the vorticity give a small heating rate (Berger 1991). Freedman & He (1991) show that 1=3 16 Em in (µ) > Cm in (µ) : (2. A (2001) . so it should approach some minimum state (possibly only a local minimum). on dimensional grounds (Mo¬att 1990. h) is a dimensionless number that depends on the knot type µ and the twist h. Consider a knotted magnetic ®ux tube with ®ux © and volume V . with an elastic tension force acting along each string. This motion will always decrease the total energy. vorticity should be enhanced at the edges of convective cells (just where most magnetic ®ux resides). Soc. the axial ­ eld in equilibrium will be almost uniform (van Ballegooijen 1985). A linear algorithm exits for N = 3 strings (Berger 1994a). ­ nding a con­ guration with minimal crossings corresponds to the minimum word problem in the braid group.org/ on September 18. 1993). Then.) Let us call this weighted crossing number C. As the endpoints move. An early theory (Sturrock & Uchida 1981) suggested that random vorticity at the photosphere could randomly twist coronal ®ux tubes. Let µ denote the knot type. because the axial ­ eld is much stronger than the transverse ­ eld. R. Let h parametrize the internal twist inside the tube. Some progress has been made for braids. However. In this approach. Berger 1 2 ¯© . then the energy formula must be modi­ ed. One approach involves group theory. so the heating from this e¬ect may indeed be signi­ cant (Karpen et al . 2016 1442 M.royalsocietypublishing. but the weighted number will stay the same. letting them move in the direction of the forces. We can in fact ­ nd lower bounds for Em in given Cm in . the ­ eld lines above twist or braid about each other. the function m(µ. Phil. The strings must also repel each other (or have a hard radius) to prevent them collapsing into each other. the crossing number C can be readily calculated. Recall that the coronal ­ eld lines are anchored in the photospheric ®uid. Lond. As C is a positive number. Trans. Downloaded from http://rsta. However. the number of crossings will increase by a factor of four. Even if the mean twist is zero. but the problem for N strings seems to be non-polynomial in complexity. so does energy E. Also.1) º V If the ­ eld lines inside the knot twist about the axis. we must ­ rst examine how complexity is generated in the coronal ­ eld.2) Here.

1 and 2 with coordinates x(¼ ) and y(½ ). Topological chirality In the past decade.e. Berger 1993). The linking of two curves. Kumar & Rust 1996). clockwise rotations of the feet do not always cancel previous anti-clockwise rotations.e. Seehafer 1996). like linking number. The corresponding magnetic helicity integral is (Mo¬att 1969. we can write the double integral as a double sum. As a consequence.1) 4º 1 2 d¼ r3 d½ where r = x¡ y.n Phil. Arnold & Khesin 1998) 1 r HV = ¡ b(x) £ b(y) d3 y d3 x: (3. Downloaded from http://rsta. S-shaped `sigmoid’ brightenings (a backwards S in the north) (Rust & Kumar 1996). Helicity integrals generalize the Gauss linking integral to vector ­ elds. Helicity. astronomers have discovered several aspects of solar activity that display chirality (handedness) (Brown et al. Observations include the structure of prominences and overlying ­ elds (Martin et al . (3. We will ­ rst consider a vector ­ eld B inside a volume V bounded by a magnetic surface S (no ­ eld lines pierce a magnetic surface. i. they instead add to the complexity of the internal ­ eld. The magnetic ®ux at one foot then wanders over the surface. 1992.5) i= 1. and helical structures in erupting prominences and in the solar wind (Bieber et al . the magnetic helicity.org/ on September 18.3) 4º r3 HV = A B d3 x: (3.2) 4º V V r3 This integral is an ideal magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) invariant.n j= 1.4) V This expression for the helicity is in fact invariant to gauge transformations of the form A ! A + r¿ . : : : n. and positive in the south. 1999). where ­ eld lines are frozen into the ®uid. A (2001) . This destroys the coherence of the loops.royalsocietypublishing. is predominately nega- tive in the northern hemisphere of the Sun. HV = Hij : (3. 1987. soon to merge with more stray ®ux to form a new foot. 3. we must replace the picture of a simple twisted loop with the picture of multiple sub-loops winding about each other in some complex manner. is represented by a double integral. as long as B nj ^ S = 0. i = 1. 1995. Bieber & Rust 1995. it stays con- stant in the limit of in­ nite conductivity. is given by 1 dx r dy L12 = ¡ £ d½ d¼ . One of the inte- grals can be recognized as the Biot{Savart integral. 2016 Topological methods in astrophysics 1443 The braiding of several loops can also lead to strong heating rates (Parker 1983. R. Given a set of n closed tubes containing magnetic ®ux © i . Trans. Soc. Lond. i. All these observations suggest that a topological measure of chirality. the alignment or anti-alignment of electric current and magnetic ­ elds (Pevtsov et al. giving a Coulomb gauge vector potential 1 r A(x) = ¡ £ B(y) d3 y. B nj^ S = 0). A hybrid twist plus braiding model (Berger 1994b) notes that the feet of the loops can be shredded by the strong convective forces. (3. Rust & Kumar 1994).

leaving a collection of unlinked unknots. Knot theory does not stop with closed curves. HV = (A + AP ) (B ¡ BP ) d3 x: (3. Fast reconnection events can. First we choose the unique gauge for AP inside V . in highly conducting plasmas. Hij is integrated over the regions of tubes i and j. a magnetic ®ux tube knotted with N crossings. the linking of tubes i and j. the dissipation is negligible (Berger 1984). the internal twist of ®ux tubes and di¬erences in the orientations of open tubes. i. Soc. We can also examine the topology of tangles. Barnes 1988).e. A (2001) . The helicity transfer across S can be described in a similar way to Poynting’s equation for energy transfer (Berger & Field 1984. as well as internal dissipation. The vacuum ­ eld can be shown to be the minimum energy state consistent with the boundary data. remove the crossings. where curves may have endpoints on surfaces. Hii represents the self helicity of tube i. If we set the helicity of the vacuum ­ eld to be zero by de­ nition. R. Similarly. (3. Berger Here. Downloaded from http://rsta. the second represents bulk transport of helical structure through S. as well as the writhe (helical shape) of the axis of the tube (Berger & Field 1984. A. Meanwhile. we can measure topological quantities for ­ elds not bounded by a magnetic surface. and measures features such as the interlinking of closed ®ux tubes with open tubes. the net ®ux through any non-contractible closed curve on S should also be speci­ ed. then the helicity of any other ­ eld can be measured relative to it in a well-de­ ned way (Berger & Field 1984. Hij = Lij © i © j .12) dt S S The ­ rst term represents twisting of ­ eld lines within V by ®ows parallel to the boundary.6) r £ BP = 0: (3. Finn & Antonsen 1985). hiding inside the unknots as internal twist. strict inequalities limit the helicity dissipation. The boundary data on a surface S for a ­ eld consist of the distribution of ®ux passing through S given by the function B n ^ jS . for events such as solar ®ares. The general form of magnetic helicity is constructed by recognizing the special role of the vacuum (or potential) magnetic ­ eld BP . Consider a plasma with ®ow velocity V . The time derivative of HV measures ®ow of helical structure through S. For a simply connected volume V . (3. in principle. these data completely determine BP through the equations BP nj ^ S. But the helicity will still be there. Mo¬att & Ricca 1992). where r £ AP = P . corresponding to twist of ­ eld lines within the tube. Lond.org/ on September 18.royalsocietypublishing.8) V This integral is gauge invariant. ^ S = B nj (3. for example.7) If V is multiply connected. However.11) Then dHV =2 (AP V )Bn d2 x ¡ 2 (AP B)Vn d2 x: (3. Consider.9) r AP = 0. 2016 1444 M. Trans.10) AP n^ = 0: (3. Phil. The terms for i 6= j represent mutual helicity. It can be shown that magnetic helicity is the only knot-like invari- ant for which dissipation can be bounded (Freedman & Berger 1993).

Helioseismology measurements (Charbonneau et al . Release Phil. 1999) tell us that the equatorial plane rotates almost uniformly. Let V be the entire solar interior and S be the photosphere (solar surface). A (2001) . i.e. thus the observations give about one net (positive) twist per year to the solar magnetic ­ eld over the last cycle. However. The injection is strongest at solar minimum when most ®ux is concentrated at the poles. To explain the solar chirality problem. or of an entire hemisphere. and partly the equatorial plane. 1999).royalsocietypublishing. 4. the north:negative and south:positive helicity.org/ on September 18.1500 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000 year Figure 3. we need to examine each hemisphere separately. so there has been a consequent asymmetry in the helicity injection. Heyvaerts & Priest 1984). If the solar magnetic ­ eld were completely symmetric between north and south. in the last cycle. Firstly. where the discrepancy with equatorial rotation is strongest. The helicity injected during solar minimum may be stored at the base of the convection zone for several years. the typical net magnetic ®ux through a hemisphere is ca. © = 2 £ 1022 maxwells. A constant rotation rate does not contribute to dHV =dt. the southern magnetic ­ eld has been at somewhat more polar latitudes than the northern ­ eld. Thus let V N be the northern half of the Sun. How- ever. Secondly. The results clearly show the correct sign of helicity injection into each hemisphere. Downloaded from http://rsta. the net twist is H=© 2 . Trans. for a ®ux tube with net ®ux © . R.500 . Lond. The dominant velocity ­ eld at the photosphere is simply rotation. sliced at the equator. Soc.1000 . and the observed rota- tion velocity (Charbonneau et al . the net helicity injection rate was dHV =dt = 1:5 £ 1042 maxwells squared per day (Berger & Ruz- maikin 2000). SN will then be partly the northern half of the photosphere. Helicity transfer dH S =dt into the southern interior of the Sun (predominantly positive curve) and dH N =dt into the northern interior (predominantly negative curve). We can again measure dHN =dt and dHS =dt (see ­ gure 3). we can go to larger scales and consider the helicity of the entire Sun. In comparison. to be released later in the solar cycle. the net twisting of closed coronal structures in active regions by turbulent convection can be measured and applied to the coronal heating problem (Berger & Field 1984. Application to the solar ¯eld We can now apply the helicity transfer equation to solar ­ elds. Over the last 22 year cycle. We can calculate the helicity transfer rate using magnetogram observations of Bn as a function of position and time (Zhao & Hoeksema 1993). the solar rotation varies with latitude (one rotation being some 25 Earth days at the equator and 30 days in polar regions). there should be zero net helicity injection. 2016 Topological methods in astrophysics 1445 2000 1500 1 1000 1040 maxwell2 day- 500 0 . Now.

estimates of the strength of this e¬ect (Brandenburg et al. As the ®uid ®ow distorts the magnetic ­ eld. Berger Figure 4. SOHO is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA. and of a magnitude comparable to generation by di¬erential rotation (Berger & Ruzmaikin 2000). be dissipated by resistivity. balanced by equal and opposite helicity in small-scale magnetic ®uc- tuations.royalsocietypublishing. The solar ­ eld is continually regenerated by the solar dynamo.org/ on September 18. Fluid turbulence may also generate magnetic helicity. Trans. Ji 1999). Rust 1994). this ®uid helicity tends to generate magnetic helicity of one sign in the large-scale magnetic ­ eld. of helicity through the corona can be spectacular. and part of the NASA Small Explorer program. There are other mechanisms that may a¬ect the helicity balance of the Sun. 2016 1446 M. Downloaded from http://rsta. A. Soc. R. The vorticity of the ®ow ! = r £ V has a helicity measured by V !. The small-scale helicity may. The Transition Region and Coronal Explorer (TRACE) is a mission of the Stanford{Lockheed Institute for Space Research (a joint program of the Lockheed{Martin Advanced Technology Center’ s Solar and Astrophysics Labora- tory and Stanford’ s Solar Observatories Group). A coronal mass ejection. For a dynamo concentrated at the base of the convection zone. Phil. which involves both di¬er- ential rotation and turbulence (Mo¬att 1978. perhaps. I gratefully acknowledge PPARC grant GR/L63143. Lond. Image Courtesy of SOHO/LASCO Consortium. Figure 4 shows a coronal mass ejection blowing plasma and ­ eld into interplanetary space. Some theories suggest that these events are triggered when the magnetic helicity stored in a large region of the corona becomes too large and the closed ­ elds can no longer be con­ ned to the corona (Low 1994. Field & Blackman 1999. 1990) give a helicity generation rate of the right sign in each hemisphere. A (2001) .

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