Intrinsic characterizations of riemannian and sub-riemannian spaces (I)

In this post I explain what is the problem of intrinsic characterization of riemannian manifolds, in what sense has been solved in full generality by Nikolaev, then I shall comment on the proof of the Hilbert’s fifth problem by Tao.

In the next post there will be then some comments about Gromov’s problem of giving an intrinsic characterization of sub-riemannian manifolds, in what sense I solved this problem by adding a bit of algebra to it. Finally, I shall return to the characterization of riemannian manifolds, seen as particular sub-riemannian manifolds, and comment on the differences between this characterization and Nikolaev’ one.

1. History of the problem for riemannian manifolds. The problem of giving an intrinsic characterization of riemannian manifolds is a classic and fertile one.

Problem: give a metric description of a Riemannian manifold.

Background: A complete riemannian manifold is a length metric space (or geodesic, or intrinsic metric space) by Hopf-Rinow theorem. The problem asks for the recovery of the manifold structure from the distance function (associated to the length functional).

For 2-dim riemannian manifolds the problem has been solved by A. Wald [Begrundung einer koordinatenlosen Differentialgeometrie der Flachen, Erg. Math. Colloq. 7 (1936), 24-46] (“Begrundung” with umlaut u, “Flachen” with umlaut a, sorry for this).

In 1948 A.D. Alexandrov [Intrinsic geometry of convex surfaces, various editions] introduces its famous curvature (which uses comparison triangles)  and proves that, under mild smoothness conditions  on this curvature, one is capable to recover the differential structure and the metric of the 2-dim riemannian manifold. In 1982 Alexandrov proposes as a conjecture that a characterization of a riemannian manifold (of any dimension) is possible in terms of metric (sectional) curvatures (of the type introduced by Alexandrov) and weak smoothness assumptions formulated in metric way (as for example Holder smoothness). Many other results deserve to be mentioned (by Reshetnyak, for example).

2. Solution of the problem by Nikolaev. In 1998 I.G. Nikolaev [A metric characterization of riemannian spaces, Siberian Adv. Math. , 9 (1999), 1-58] solves the general problem of intrinsic characterization of C^{m,\alpha} riemannian spaces:

every locally compact length metric space M, not linear at one of its points,  with \alpha Holder continuous metric sectional curvature of the “generalized tangent bundle” T^{m}(M) (for some $m=1,2,…$, which admits local geodesic extendability, is isometric to a C^{m+2} smooth riemannian manifold..


  • he defines a generalized tangent bundle in metric sense
  • he defines a notion of sectional curvature
  • he asks some metric smoothness of this curvature

and he gets the result.

3. Gleason metrics and Hilbert’s fifth problem. Let us compare this with the formulation of the solution of the Hilbert’s fifth problem by Terence Tao. THe problem is somehow similar, namely recover the differential structure of a Lie group from its algebraic structure. This time the “intrinsic” object is the group operation, not the distance, as previously.

Tao shows that the proof of the solution may be formulated in metric terms. Namely, he introduces a Gleason metric (definition 4 in the linked post), which will turn to be a left invariant riemannian metric on the (topological) group. I shall not insist on this, instead read the post of Tao and also, for the riemannian metric description, read this previous post by me.


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