Geometric topology

The distinction is because surgery theory works in dimension 5 and above (in fact, it works topologically in dimension 4, though this is very involved to prove), and thus the behavior of manifolds in dimension 5 and above is controlled algebraically by surgery theory. In dimension 4 and below (topologically, in dimension 3 and below), surgery theory does not work, and other phenomena occur. Indeed, one approach to discussing low-dimensional manifolds is to ask "what would surgery theory predict to be true, were it to work?" – and then understand low-dimensional phenomena as deviations from this.

A modification of the Whitney trick can work in 4 dimensions, and is called Casson handles – because there are not enough dimensions, a Whitney disk introduces new kinks, which can be resolved by another Whitney disk, leading to a sequence ("tower") of disks. The limit of this tower yields a topological but not differentiable map, hence surgery works topologically but not differentiably in dimension 4.

2-dimensional topology can be studied as complex geometry in one variable (Riemann surfaces are complex curves) – by the uniformization theorem every conformal class of metrics is equivalent to a unique complex one, and 4-dimensional topology can be studied from the point of view of complex geometry in two variables (complex surfaces), though not every 4-manifold admits a complex structure.