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Robert Bryant : Curves, Surfaces, and Webs: An Episode in 19th Century Geometry

An old question about surfaces in 3-space is: When can a surface be written as a sum of two curves? For example, the elliptic paraboloid z = x^2 + y^2 can be thought of as the sum of the two space curves (x,0,x^2) and (0,y,y^2). However, a little thought shows that most surfaces in space should not be expressible parametrically as X(s) + Y(t) where X and Y are space curves. Surfaces for which this can be done are called `surfaces of translation'. This raises the question of determining whether or not this is possible for a given surface and in how many ways. This simple question leads to some surprisingly deep mathematics, involving complex analysis and overdetermined systems of PDE, and to other questions that are still open today. I will explain some of these developments (and what they have to do with my own work). There will even be a few pictures.

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