In mathematics, differential topology is the field dealing with differentiable functions on differentiable manifolds. It is closely related to differential geometry and together they make up the geometric theory of differentiable manifolds.
Differential topology considers the properties and structures that require only a smooth structure on a manifold to be defined. Smooth manifolds are 'softer' than manifolds with extra geometric structures, which can act as obstructions to certain types of equivalences and deformations that exist in differential topology. For instance, volume and Riemannian curvature are invariants that can distinguish different geometric structures on the same smooth manifold—that is, one can smoothly "flatten out" certain manifolds, but it might require distorting the space and affecting the curvature or volume.
On the other hand, smooth manifolds are more rigid than the topological manifolds. John Milnor discovered that some spheres have more than one smooth structure -- see exotic sphere and Donaldson's theorem. Kervaire exhibited topological manifolds with no smooth structure at all. Some constructions of smooth manifold theory, such as the existence of tangent bundles, can be done in the topological setting with much more work, and others cannot.
One of the main topics in differential topology is the study of special kinds of smooth mappings between manifolds, namely immersions and submersions, and the intersections of submanifolds via transversality. More generally one is interested in properties and invariants of smooth manifolds which are carried over by diffeomorphisms, another special kind of smooth mapping. Morse theory is another branch of differential topology, in which topological information about a manifold is deduced from changes in the rank of the Jacobian of a function.
For a list of differential topology topics, see the following reference: List of differential geometry topics.
Differential topology versus differential geometry
Differential topology and differential geometry are first characterized by their similarity. They both study primarily the properties of differentiable manifolds, sometimes with a variety of structures imposed on them.
One major difference lies in the nature of the problems that each subject tries to address. In one view, differential topology distinguishes itself from differential geometry by studying primarily those problems which are inherently global. Consider the example of a coffee cup and a donut (see this example). From the point of view of differential topology, the donut and the coffee cup are the same (in a sense). A differential topologist imagines that the donut is made out of a rubber sheet, and that the rubber sheet can be smoothly reshaped from its original configuration as a donut into a new configuration in the shape of a coffee cup without tearing the sheet or gluing bits of it together. This is an inherently global view, though, because there is no way for the differential topologist to tell whether the two objects are the same (in this sense) by looking at just a tiny (local) piece of either of them. He must have access to each entire (global) object.
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