# Alexander's trick

Alexander's trick, also known as the Alexander trick, is a basic result in geometric topology, named after J. W. Alexander.

## Statement

More generally, two homeomorphisms of Dn that are isotopic on the boundary are isotopic.

## Proof

Base case: every homeomorphism which fixes the boundary is isotopic to the identity relative to the boundary.

If ${\displaystyle f\colon D^{n}\to D^{n}}$ satisfies ${\displaystyle f(x)=x{\mbox{ for all }}x\in S^{n-1}}$, then an isotopy connecting f to the identity is given by

${\displaystyle J(x,t)={\begin{cases}tf(x/t),&{\mbox{if }}0\leq \|x\|

Visually, the homeomorphism is 'straightened out' from the boundary, 'squeezing' ${\displaystyle f}$ down to the origin. William Thurston calls this "combing all the tangles to one point".

The subtlety is that at ${\displaystyle t=0}$, ${\displaystyle f}$ "disappears": the germ at the origin "jumps" from an infinitely stretched version of ${\displaystyle f}$ to the identity. Each of the steps in the homotopy could be smoothed (smooth the transition), but the homotopy (the overall map) has a singularity at ${\displaystyle (x,t)=(0,0)}$. This underlines that the Alexander trick is a PL construction, but not smooth.

General case: isotopic on boundary implies isotopic

If ${\displaystyle f,g\colon D^{n}\to D^{n}}$ are two homeomorphisms that agree on ${\displaystyle S^{n-1}}$, then ${\displaystyle g^{-1}f}$ is the identity on ${\displaystyle S^{n-1}}$, so we have an isotopy ${\displaystyle J}$ from the identity to ${\displaystyle g^{-1}f}$. The map ${\displaystyle gJ}$ is then an isotopy from ${\displaystyle g}$ to ${\displaystyle f}$.

Some authors use the term Alexander trick for the statement that every homeomorphism of ${\displaystyle S^{n-1}}$ can be extended to a homeomorphism of the entire ball ${\displaystyle D^{n}}$.

However, this is much easier to prove than the result discussed above: it is called radial extension (or coning) and is also true piecewise-linearly, but not smoothly.

Concretely, let ${\displaystyle f\colon S^{n-1}\to S^{n-1}}$ be a homeomorphism, then

${\displaystyle F\colon D^{n}\to D^{n}{\mbox{ with }}F(rx)=rf(x){\mbox{ for all }}r\in [0,1]{\mbox{ and }}x\in S^{n-1}}$

defines a homeomorphism of the ball.

### Exotic spheres

The failure of smooth radial extension and the success of PL radial extension yield exotic spheres via twisted spheres.

## References

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