Peano curve

Peano curve

The Peano curve is the first known example of a space-filling curve. Discovered by Guiseppe Peano in 1890, its effect was like that of an earthquake on the traditional structure of mathematics. Commenting in 1965 on the impact of the curve in Peano's day, N. Ya Vilenkin said: "Everything has come unstrung! It's difficult to put into words the effect that Peano's result had on the mathematical world. It seemed that everything was in ruins, that all the basic mathematical concepts had lost their meaning."


Today, the Peano curve is recognized as just one of an infinite class of familiar objects known as fractals. But at the end of the nineteenthth century it was an extravagant, completely counterintuitive thing; indeed, it was something that had been believed impossible. Writing of Peano's result in Grundzüge der Mengenlehre in 1914, Felix Hausdorff said: "This is one of the most remarkable facts of set theory."


Originally, the Peano curve was derived purely analytically, without any kind of drawing or attempt at visualization. But the first few steps in drawing it, as shown in the diagrams, are easy enough, even though the finished product is unattainable in this way – and totally unimaginable. To fill the unit square, as the Peano curve does, without leaving any holes, the curve has to be both continuous and self-intersecting.