When the number of independent variables is two, a level set is called a level curve, also known as contour line or isoline; so a level curve is the set of all real-valued solutions of an equation in two variables x1 and x2. When n = 3, a level set is called a level surface (or isosurface); so a level surface is the set of all real-valued roots of an equation in three variables x1, x2 and x3. For higher values of n, the level set is a level hypersurface, the set of all real-valued roots of an equation in n > 3 variables.
Intersections of a co-ordinate function's level surfaces with a trefoil knot. Red curves are closest to the viewer, while yellow curves are farthest.
Level sets show up in many applications, often under different names. For example, an implicit curve is a level curve, which is considered independently of its neighbor curves, emphasizing that such a curve is defined by an implicit equation. Analogously, a level surface is sometimes called an implicit surface or an isosurface.
The name isocontour is also used, which means a contour of equal height. In various application areas, isocontours have received specific names, which indicate often the nature of the values of the considered function, such as isobar, isotherm, isogon, isochrone, isoquant and indifference curve.
Consider the 2-dimensional Euclidean distance:
A level set of this function consists of those points that lie at a distance of from the origin, that make a circle. For example, , because . Geometrically, this means that the point lies on the circle of radius 5 centered at the origin. More generally, a sphere in a metric space with radius centered at can be defined as the level set .
A second example is the plot of Himmelblau's function shown in the figure to the right. Each curve shown is a level curve of the function, and they are spaced logarithmically: if a curve represents , the curve directly "within" represents , and the curve directly "outside" represents .
Consider a function f whose graph looks like a hill. The blue curves are the level sets; the red curves follow the direction of the gradient. The cautious hiker follows the blue paths; the bold hiker follows the red paths. Note that blue and red paths always cross at right angles.
To understand what this means, imagine that two hikers are at the same location on a mountain. One of them is bold, and he decides to go in the direction where the slope is steepest. The other one is more cautious; he does not want to either climb or descend, choosing a path which will keep him at the same height. In our analogy, the above theorem says that the two hikers will depart in directions perpendicular to each other.
^Simionescu, P.A. (2011). "Some Advancements to Visualizing Constrained Functions and Inequalities of Two Variables". Journal of Computing and Information Science in Engineering. 11 (1). doi:10.1115/1.3570770.
^Kiwiel, Krzysztof C. (2001). "Convergence and efficiency of subgradient methods for quasiconvex minimization". Mathematical Programming, Series A. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer. 90 (1): 1–25. doi:10.1007/PL00011414. ISSN 0025-5610. MR 1819784. S2CID 10043417.