In mathematics, a plane is a flat, two-dimensional surface that extends infinitely far. A plane is the two-dimensional analogue of a point (zero dimensions), a line (one dimension) and three-dimensional space. Planes can arise as subspaces of some higher-dimensional space, as with one of a room's walls, infinitely extended, or they may enjoy an independent existence in their own right, as in the setting of Euclidean geometry.
When working exclusively in two-dimensional Euclidean space, the definite article is used, so the plane refers to the whole space. Many fundamental tasks in mathematics, geometry, trigonometry, graph theory, and graphing are performed in a two-dimensional space, or, in other words, in the plane.
Euclid set forth the first great landmark of mathematical thought, an axiomatic treatment of geometry. He selected a small core of undefined terms (called common notions) and postulates (or axioms) which he then used to prove various geometrical statements. Although the plane in its modern sense is not directly given a definition anywhere in the Elements, it may be thought of as part of the common notions. Euclid never used numbers to measure length, angle, or area. In this way the Euclidean plane is not quite the same as the Cartesian plane.
This section is solely concerned with planes embedded in three dimensions: specifically, in R3.
In a Euclidean space of any number of dimensions, a plane is uniquely determined by any of the following:
The following statements hold in three-dimensional Euclidean space but not in higher dimensions, though they have higher-dimensional analogues:
In a manner analogous to the way lines in a two-dimensional space are described using a point-slope form for their equations, planes in a three dimensional space have a natural description using a point in the plane and a vector orthogonal to it (the normal vector) to indicate its "inclination".
Specifically, let r0 be the position vector of some point P0 = (x0, y0, z0), and let n = (a, b, c) be a nonzero vector. The plane determined by the point P0 and the vector n consists of those points P, with position vector r, such that the vector drawn from P0 to P is perpendicular to n. Recalling that two vectors are perpendicular if and only if their dot product is zero, it follows that the desired plane can be described as the set of all points r such that
In mathematics it is a common convention to express the normal as a unit vector, but the above argument holds for a normal vector of any non-zero length.
Conversely, it is easily shown that if a, b, c and d are constants and a, b, and c are not all zero, then the graph of the equation
Thus for example a regression equation of the form y = d + ax + cz (with b = −1) establishes a best-fit plane in three-dimensional space when there are two explanatory variables.
Alternatively, a plane may be described parametrically as the set of all points of the form
where s and t range over all real numbers, v and w are given linearly independent vectors defining the plane, and r0 is the vector representing the position of an arbitrary (but fixed) point on the plane. The vectors v and w can be visualized as vectors starting at r0 and pointing in different directions along the plane. The vectors v and w can be perpendicular, but cannot be parallel.
Let p1=(x1, y1, z1), p2=(x2, y2, z2), and p3=(x3, y3, z3) be non-collinear points.
The plane passing through p1, p2, and p3 can be described as the set of all points (x,y,z) that satisfy the following determinant equations:
This system can be solved using Cramer's rule and basic matrix manipulations. Let
If D is non-zero (so for planes not through the origin) the values for a, b and c can be calculated as follows:
These equations are parametric in d. Setting d equal to any non-zero number and substituting it into these equations will yield one solution set.
and the point r0 can be taken to be any of the given points p1, p2 or p3 (or any other point in the plane).
In addition to its familiar geometric structure, with isomorphisms that are isometries with respect to the usual inner product, the plane may be viewed at various other levels of abstraction. Each level of abstraction corresponds to a specific category.
At one extreme, all geometrical and metric concepts may be dropped to leave the topological plane, which may be thought of as an idealized homotopically trivial infinite rubber sheet, which retains a notion of proximity, but has no distances. The topological plane has a concept of a linear path, but no concept of a straight line. The topological plane, or its equivalent the open disc, is the basic topological neighborhood used to construct surfaces (or 2-manifolds) classified in low-dimensional topology. Isomorphisms of the topological plane are all continuous bijections. The topological plane is the natural context for the branch of graph theory that deals with planar graphs, and results such as the four color theorem.
The plane may also be viewed as an affine space, whose isomorphisms are combinations of translations and non-singular linear maps. From this viewpoint there are no distances, but collinearity and ratios of distances on any line are preserved.
Differential geometry views a plane as a 2-dimensional real manifold, a topological plane which is provided with a differential structure. Again in this case, there is no notion of distance, but there is now a concept of smoothness of maps, for example a differentiable or smooth path (depending on the type of differential structure applied). The isomorphisms in this case are bijections with the chosen degree of differentiability.
In the opposite direction of abstraction, we may apply a compatible field structure to the geometric plane, giving rise to the complex plane and the major area of complex analysis. The complex field has only two isomorphisms that leave the real line fixed, the identity and conjugation.
In the same way as in the real case, the plane may also be viewed as the simplest, one-dimensional (over the complex numbers) complex manifold, sometimes called the complex line. However, this viewpoint contrasts sharply with the case of the plane as a 2-dimensional real manifold. The isomorphisms are all conformal bijections of the complex plane, but the only possibilities are maps that correspond to the composition of a multiplication by a complex number and a translation.
In addition, the Euclidean geometry (which has zero curvature everywhere) is not the only geometry that the plane may have. The plane may be given a spherical geometry by using the stereographic projection. This can be thought of as placing a sphere on the plane (just like a ball on the floor), removing the top point, and projecting the sphere onto the plane from this point). This is one of the projections that may be used in making a flat map of part of the Earth's surface. The resulting geometry has constant positive curvature.
Alternatively, the plane can also be given a metric which gives it constant negative curvature giving the hyperbolic plane. The latter possibility finds an application in the theory of special relativity in the simplified case where there are two spatial dimensions and one time dimension. (The hyperbolic plane is a timelike hypersurface in three-dimensional Minkowski space.)
The one-point compactification of the plane is homeomorphic to a sphere (see stereographic projection); the open disk is homeomorphic to a sphere with the "north pole" missing; adding that point completes the (compact) sphere. The result of this compactification is a manifold referred to as the Riemann sphere or the complex projective line. The projection from the Euclidean plane to a sphere without a point is a diffeomorphism and even a conformal map.