Winding number


In mathematics, the winding number or winding index of a closed curve in the plane around a given point is an integer representing the total number of times that the curve travels counterclockwise around the point, i.e., the curve's number of turns. For certain open plane curves, the number of turns may be a non-integer. The winding number depends on the orientation of the curve, and it is negative if the curve travels around the point clockwise.

This curve has winding number two around the point p.

Winding numbers are fundamental objects of study in algebraic topology, and they play an important role in vector calculus, complex analysis, geometric topology, differential geometry, and physics (such as in string theory).

Intuitive description

An object traveling along the red curve makes two counterclockwise turns around the person at the origin.

Suppose we are given a closed, oriented curve in the xy plane. We can imagine the curve as the path of motion of some object, with the orientation indicating the direction in which the object moves. Then the winding number of the curve is equal to the total number of counterclockwise turns that the object makes around the origin.

When counting the total number of turns, counterclockwise motion counts as positive, while clockwise motion counts as negative. For example, if the object first circles the origin four times counterclockwise, and then circles the origin once clockwise, then the total winding number of the curve is three.

Using this scheme, a curve that does not travel around the origin at all has winding number zero, while a curve that travels clockwise around the origin has negative winding number. Therefore, the winding number of a curve may be any integer. The following pictures show curves with winding numbers between −2 and 3:

−2 −1 0
1 2 3

Formal definition


Let   be a continuous closed path on the plane minus one point. The winding number of   around   is the integer


where   is the path written in polar coordinates, i.e. the lifted path through the covering map


The winding number is well defined because of the existence and uniqueness of the lifted path (given the starting point in the covering space) and because all the fibers of   are of the form   (so the above expression does not depend on the choice of the starting point). It is an integer because the path is closed.

Alternative definitions


Winding number is often defined in different ways in various parts of mathematics. All of the definitions below are equivalent to the one given above:

Alexander numbering


A simple combinatorial rule for defining the winding number was proposed by August Ferdinand Möbius in 1865[1] and again independently by James Waddell Alexander II in 1928.[2] Any curve partitions the plane into several connected regions, one of which is unbounded. The winding numbers of the curve around two points in the same region are equal. The winding number around (any point in) the unbounded region is zero. Finally, the winding numbers for any two adjacent regions differ by exactly 1; the region with the larger winding number appears on the left side of the curve (with respect to motion down the curve).

Differential geometry


In differential geometry, parametric equations are usually assumed to be differentiable (or at least piecewise differentiable). In this case, the polar coordinate θ is related to the rectangular coordinates x and y by the equation:


Which is found by differentiating the following definition for θ:


By the fundamental theorem of calculus, the total change in θ is equal to the integral of . We can therefore express the winding number of a differentiable curve as a line integral:


The one-form (defined on the complement of the origin) is closed but not exact, and it generates the first de Rham cohomology group of the punctured plane. In particular, if ω is any closed differentiable one-form defined on the complement of the origin, then the integral of ω along closed loops gives a multiple of the winding number.

Complex analysis


Winding numbers play a very important role throughout complex analysis (c.f. the statement of the residue theorem). In the context of complex analysis, the winding number of a closed curve   in the complex plane can be expressed in terms of the complex coordinate z = x + iy. Specifically, if we write z = re, then


and therefore


As   is a closed curve, the total change in   is zero, and thus the integral of   is equal to   multiplied by the total change in  . Therefore, the winding number of closed path   about the origin is given by the expression[3]


More generally, if   is a closed curve parameterized by  , the winding number of   about  , also known as the index of   with respect to  , is defined for complex   as[4]


This is a special case of the famous Cauchy integral formula.

Some of the basic properties of the winding number in the complex plane are given by the following theorem:[5]

Theorem. Let   be a closed path and let   be the set complement of the image of  , that is,  . Then the index of   with respect to  , is (i) integer-valued, i.e.,   for all  ; (ii) constant over each component (i.e., maximal connected subset) of  ; and (iii) zero if   is in the unbounded component of  .

As an immediate corollary, this theorem gives the winding number of a circular path   about a point  . As expected, the winding number counts the number of (counterclockwise) loops   makes around  :

Corollary. If   is the path defined by  , then  



In topology, the winding number is an alternate term for the degree of a continuous mapping. In physics, winding numbers are frequently called topological quantum numbers. In both cases, the same concept applies.

The above example of a curve winding around a point has a simple topological interpretation. The complement of a point in the plane is homotopy equivalent to the circle, such that maps from the circle to itself are really all that need to be considered. It can be shown that each such map can be continuously deformed to (is homotopic to) one of the standard maps  , where multiplication in the circle is defined by identifying it with the complex unit circle. The set of homotopy classes of maps from a circle to a topological space form a group, which is called the first homotopy group or fundamental group of that space. The fundamental group of the circle is the group of the integers, Z; and the winding number of a complex curve is just its homotopy class.

Maps from the 3-sphere to itself are also classified by an integer which is also called the winding number or sometimes Pontryagin index.

Turning number

This curve has total curvature 6π, turning number 3, though it only has winding number 2 about p.

One can also consider the winding number of the path with respect to the tangent of the path itself. As a path followed through time, this would be the winding number with respect to the origin of the velocity vector. In this case the example illustrated at the beginning of this article has a winding number of 3, because the small loop is counted.

This is only defined for immersed paths (i.e., for differentiable paths with nowhere vanishing derivatives), and is the degree of the tangential Gauss map.

This is called the turning number, rotation number,[6] rotation index[7] or index of the curve, and can be computed as the total curvature divided by 2π.



In polygons, the turning number is referred to as the polygon density. For convex polygons, and more generally simple polygons (not self-intersecting), the density is 1, by the Jordan curve theorem. By contrast, for a regular star polygon {p/q}, the density is q.

Space curves


Turning number cannot be defined for space curves as degree requires matching dimensions. However, for locally convex, closed space curves, one can define tangent turning sign as  , where   is the turning number of the stereographic projection of its tangent indicatrix. Its two values correspond to the two non-degenerate homotopy classes of locally convex curves.[8] [9]

Winding number and Heisenberg ferromagnet equations


The winding number is closely related with the (2 + 1)-dimensional continuous Heisenberg ferromagnet equations and its integrable extensions: the Ishimori equation etc. Solutions of the last equations are classified by the winding number or topological charge (topological invariant and/or topological quantum number).


Visualization of Dan Sunday's winding number algorithm. A winding number of 0 means the point is outside the polygon; other values indicate the point is inside the polygon

Point in polygon


A point's winding number with respect to a polygon can be used to solve the point in polygon (PIP) problem – that is, it can be used to determine if the point is inside the polygon or not.

Generally, the ray casting algorithm is a better alternative to the PIP problem as it does not require trigonometric functions, contrary to the winding number algorithm. Nevertheless, the winding number algorithm can be sped up so that it too, does not require calculations involving trigonometric functions.[10] The sped-up version of the algorithm, also known as Sunday's algorithm, is recommended in cases where non-simple polygons should also be accounted for.

See also



  1. ^ Möbius, August (1865). "Über die Bestimmung des Inhaltes eines Polyëders". Berichte über die Verhandlungen der Königlich Sächsischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, Mathematisch-Physische Klasse. 17: 31–68.
  2. ^ Alexander, J. W. (April 1928). "Topological Invariants of Knots and Links". Transactions of the American Mathematical Society. 30 (2): 275–306. doi:10.2307/1989123. JSTOR 1989123.
  3. ^ Weisstein, Eric W. "Contour Winding Number". MathWorld. Retrieved 7 July 2022.
  4. ^ Rudin, Walter (1976). Principles of Mathematical Analysis. McGraw-Hill. p. 201. ISBN 0-07-054235-X.
  5. ^ Rudin, Walter (1987). Real and Complex Analysis (3rd ed.). McGraw-Hill. p. 203. ISBN 0-07-054234-1.
  6. ^ Abelson, Harold (1981). Turtle Geometry: The Computer as a Medium for Exploring Mathematics. MIT Press. p. 24.
  7. ^ Do Carmo, Manfredo P. (1976). "5. Global Differential Geometry". Differential Geometry of Curves and Surfaces. Prentice-Hall. p. 393. ISBN 0-13-212589-7.
  8. ^ Feldman, E. A. (1968). "Deformations of closed space curves". Journal of Differential Geometry. 2 (1): 67–75. doi:10.4310/jdg/1214501138. S2CID 116999463.
  9. ^ Minarčík, Jiří; Beneš, Michal (2022). "Nondegenerate homotopy and geometric flows". Homology, Homotopy and Applications. 24 (2): 255–264. arXiv:1807.01540. doi:10.4310/HHA.2022.v24.n2.a12. S2CID 252274622.
  10. ^ Sunday, Dan (2001). "Inclusion of a Point in a Polygon". Archived from the original on 26 January 2013.