Geodesics: Connecting the Dots in Mathematics and Beyond


Geodesics, derived from the Greek words “geo” meaning earth and “daiskō” meaning to divide or distribute, are the shortest paths between points on a curved surface. In mathematics, geodesics play a fundamental role in various fields, such as geometry, physics, and computer science. Beyond mathematics, geodesics find applications in diverse areas, including architecture, navigation, and even the study of black holes. This article explores the concept of geodesics, their mathematical representation, applications, and their significance in different disciplines.

What are Geodesics?

In simple terms, geodesics are the paths that define the shortest distance between two points on a curved surface. These surfaces can be anything from a sphere to a curved space-time in general relativity. Geodesics can be thought of as the analog of straight lines on a flat plane.

In mathematical terms, geodesics can be defined as curves that locally minimize length. They can be understood as paths that follow the natural curvature of the surface while minimizing the total distance traveled. Geodesics can be classified into three types: minimal geodesics, maximal geodesics, and critical geodesics.

Minimal Geodesics

Minimal geodesics are the curves that have the shortest length between two points. They are often referred to as the “straightest” paths on a curved surface. For example, the great circles on a sphere are minimal geodesics, as they represent the shortest distance between any two points on the sphere’s surface.

Maximal Geodesics

Maximal geodesics, on the other hand, are the curves that have the longest length between two points. These curves explore the maximum distance possible on a given surface. In contrast to minimal geodesics, maximal geodesics are less commonly studied in mathematics.

Critical Geodesics

Critical geodesics are the curves that have a unique property—they are stationary with respect to the length. This means that small perturbations to the curve will not change its length, making it critical in terms of optimization. Critical geodesics are prevalent in calculus of variations and are useful in finding the shortest distance between two points.

Mathematical Representation of Geodesics

Geodesics can be represented mathematically using different techniques depending on the context and the type of surface under consideration. In Euclidean space, which is a flat surface, geodesics are simply straight lines. However, on curved surfaces, such as spheres or hyperbolic spaces, the mathematical representation becomes more complex.

In differential geometry, the study of curved spaces, geodesics are often represented as solutions to a system of differential equations known as the geodesic equations. These equations describe how a curve should evolve to follow the curvature of the surface while minimizing length. Solving these equations allows mathematicians to determine the exact mathematical representation of geodesics on a given surface.

Applications of Geodesics

Geodesics have numerous practical applications across various disciplines:


In architecture, geodesics find extensive use in designing structures with optimal strength and stability. The geodesic dome, popularized by Buckminster Fuller, is a prime example. Its interconnected triangular elements distribute stress and strain evenly, making it a robust and efficient structure.


Geodesics are crucial in navigation systems, especially when calculating the shortest distance between two points on the Earth’s surface. The study of geodesy focuses on accurately measuring and representing Earth’s shape, allowing for precise navigation and mapping applications.

General Relativity

In Albert Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, geodesics play a fundamental role. In this theory, gravity is understood as the curvature of spacetime. Objects in free-fall, such as planets orbiting the Sun or satellites orbiting the Earth, follow geodesics in their paths. Understanding geodesics is essential for comprehending the behavior of objects under the influence of gravity.

Computer Graphics

In computer graphics and animation, geodesics are used to create realistic and efficient algorithms for rendering three-dimensional objects. Geodesic algorithms enable the creation of smooth surfaces, shortest path calculations, and surface parameterizations.

FAQs about Geodesics

Q: Are geodesics always the shortest path between two points on a curved surface?

A: Yes, geodesics represent the shortest distance between two points on a curved surface, assuming that the surface obeys certain mathematical properties.

Q: Can geodesics exist on a flat surface?

A: Yes, on a flat surface, geodesics are simply straight lines. They represent the shortest distance between two points, as there is no curvature to consider.

Q: Are geodesics unique for a given surface?

A: Yes, geodesics are unique for a given surface. The mathematical representation of geodesics is specific to the curvature and properties of the surface under consideration.

Q: Are geodesics limited to two dimensions?

A: No, geodesics can exist in higher-dimensional spaces. While it is challenging to visualize geodesics in higher dimensions, their mathematical representation remains valid.

Q: Can geodesics be used to determine the shortest route between two cities on Earth?

A: No, geodesics, which represent the shortest distance between two points on a curved surface, cannot be used to determine the shortest route between two cities on Earth due to the presence of obstacles like mountains, oceans, and restricted airspaces. Practical navigation systems use algorithms that consider these obstacles.


Geodesics, as the shortest paths between points on a curved surface, have significant implications in mathematics and various other fields. From their representation in differential equations to their applications in architecture, navigation, and physics, geodesics help us understand and navigate the complexity of curved spaces. By connecting the dots between mathematical concepts and practical applications, geodesics continue to play a vital role in our understanding of the world around us.