Let $(M,d)$ be a complete, separable, compact metric space. Assume $M$ is geodesic, that is for any $x,y \in M$ there exists a distance realizing geodesic between $x$ and $y$ (not necessarily unique). A set $U \subseteq M$ is convex if for any $x,y \in U$ there exists a geodesic between $x$ and $y$ that lies entirely in $U$. Question: Is it true that for any $x \in M$ there exists an $\varepsilon' >0$ such that all $\varepsilon$-balls around $x$ for $\varepsilon < \varepsilon'$ are convex?

Two examples to illustrate the question:

Let $M= \{(x_1,x_2) \in \mathbb{R}^2 | x_2 \ge 0, x_1^2+x_2^2 \le 1 \} / \sim$ where $\sim$ is the equivalence relation $(x,0) \sim (-x,0)$, that is $M$ is a flat cone with the standard metric induced from $\mathbb{R}^2$. Then for any $\varepsilon >0$, the $\varepsilon$-ball around the point $(0,\varepsilon/2)$ is not convex. In particular, arbitrarily small non-convex balls exists. However, for every point sufficiently small balls around it are convex.

Let $M= \{(x_1,x_2) \in \mathbb{R}^2 | x_1^2+x_2^2 \le 1 \}$ be the unit disk with the Manhattan metric $d((x_1,x_2),(y_1,y_2)):=|x_1-y_1|+|x_2-y_2|$. Then the $\varepsilon$-balls are diamond shaped and are convex. However, distance realizing geodesics are not unique, in general there exist uncountably many and not all of them lie inside the $\varepsilon$-balls. Consider the radius $1/2$ ball around $(0,0)$ and the points $(2/5,0)$ and $(0,2/5)$. Then the geodesic through the point $(0,0)$ lie inside the ball but the geodesic through $(2/5,2/5)$ does not. Hence the formulation 'there exists a geodesic inside the ball' is crucial, the same statement with 'all geodesics lie inside the ball' is false.

A theorem that shows this under some additional assumptions on the metric space would also be interesting.


3 Answers 3


Negative part

The answer is no without further assumptions, here is a counterexample (a bit nasty, it is not locally simply connected) :

  • In the plane consider first the two positive semi axis. ($\mathbb{R}_+\times\{0\}$ and $\{0\}\times\mathbb{R}_+$).
  • for each $n$ add the segment from $(0,2^{-n})$ to $(2^{-n},0)$.
  • put on it the length metric induced by the usual metric on $\mathbb{R}^2$.

Then every ball centered at the origin of radius $1.01\times 2^{-n}$ is not convex : the points $(0,2^{-n})$ to $(2^{-n},0)$ are inside while the geodesic between these points is the segment between theme, which leaves the ball. (The $1.01$ is there to handle closed and open balls at the same time.)

Positive part

As you are probably aware, the answer is yes on a smooth riemannian manifold. I suspect the same thing is true on a smooth Finsler manifold. A $CAT(k)$ metric space would have this property since the distance to a point is then convex (on balls of radius $\tfrac{\pi}{2\sqrt{k}}$ if $k>0$).

This leaves a lot of room for improvement, for instance :

  • Can we build simply connected examples ? (I would think yes)
  • Can we build example with curvature bounded from below in the sense of Alexandrov ? (I would say no but I'm not sure why)
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    $\begingroup$ Another example is given by a countable union of circles of decreasing radii which have exactly one point in common. This example is still not locally simply connected. $\endgroup$
    – user1688
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 10:10
  • $\begingroup$ I am a bit doubtful about the 3d heisenberg group being a smooth Finsler manifold. For starters, its Hausdorff dimension is 4. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ No, you're right, it isn't Finsler. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 21:46
  • $\begingroup$ It's right also for Finsler manifolds at least if they are $C^2$. However, I don't know whether a continuous Finsler manifold that is also a Busemann G-space is locally convex. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ @ThomasRichard I hope you may find my answer mathoverflow.net/a/322628/121665 interesting $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 8, 2019 at 1:42

The standard sub-Riemannian metric on the 3-dimensional real Heisenberg group $\mathbb{H}^3$ is a counterexample. Topologically, it is homemorphic to $\mathbb{R}^3$, so in particular it is locally contractible. It is geodesic, but no ball is convex.

Thanks to the homogeneity and dilation structure, it suffices to know that, say, the unit ball centered at the origin is non-convex. It looks sort of like an apple, as in this cutaway view:

ball of Heisenberg group

But every horizontal line through the $z$-axis is a geodesic.

(Oh, I guess you did ask for a compact example. So take a compact subset with nonempty interior: for any point in the interior, all sufficiently small balls are non-convex.)

To understand this in more detail, let's identify $\mathbb{H}^3$ with $\mathbb{R}^3$ with standard coordinates $(x,y,z)$. An admissible path (or horizontal path) in $\mathbb{H}^3$ is a path $\gamma = (x, y, z)$ which satisfies $$z(t) - z(0) = \frac{1}{2} \int_0^t (x(s) y'(s) - y(s) x'(s))\,ds.\tag{*}$$ The length of such a path is defined to be simply the Euclidean length of the 2-dimensional projected path $(x,y)$. The distance between two points is the length of the shortest admissible path (which can be shown to exist).

So any $C^1$ path $(x,y)$ in $\mathbb{R}^2$, with $z(0)$ specified, has a unique lift to an admissible path in $\mathbb{H}^3$, by defining $z(t)$ by (*), whose length is the same as that of $(x,y)$ itself. By Green's theorem, this is saying that $z(T) - z(0)$ measures the signed area enclosed by the curve $(x,y)$ on $[0,T]$, where if it does not form a closed curve, we can add straight line segments from the origin $(0,0)$ to the curve's endpoints. (A straight line through the origin contributes zero to the integral in (*).)

For an example, let's consider the closed ball $B$ centered at $(0,0,0)$ with radius $\pi/2$. A semicircle in the plane with endpoints $(0,0)$ and $(1,0)$ encloses area $\pi/8$ (after tacking on the line segment from $(1,0)$ back to $(0,0)$), so this lifts to an admissible path connecting $(0,0,0)$ to $(1,0,\pi/8)$. The length of this curve is just $\pi/2$, so the point $p_1 = (1,0,\pi/8)$ is in $B$. Likewise, so is $p_2 = (-1,0,\pi/8)$.

The straight line segment joining $(1,0)$ to $(-1,0)$ lifts to an admissible path connecting $p_1$ to $p_2$ (the integral in (*) vanishes, and zero area is enclosed), and being a line it is the shortest possible path. It passes through the point $q = (0,0,\pi/8)$.

Any admissible path connecting $(0,0,0)$ to $(0,0,\pi/8)$ must project to a closed curve starting and ending at the origin, and enclosing area $\pi/8$. By the isoperimetric inequality, the shortest such curve is a circle, of radius $r = \sqrt{1/8}$. The length of this curve is $2 \pi r = \pi/\sqrt{2} > \pi/2$. So $q$ is not in $B$.

Intuitively, you can enclose area more cheaply if you're willing to end at a different $x$ or $y$ coordinate from your starting point, since you get the straight line back home for free.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Very nice example ! $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 9:06
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    $\begingroup$ Hey, where did you get that beautiful picture from? Is it yours? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 14, 2017 at 17:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Behnam: Yes, I generated it with gnuplot. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 14, 2017 at 17:14
  • $\begingroup$ Also, do you happen to have images of this under left multiplication (by a fixed (Z,t))? That would be cool. I think the result will be that the "poles" will not be completely symmetric but rather one side will drop, the other will rise. Also the vertical t-axis is translated just like the Euclidean $R^3$. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 17, 2017 at 12:07
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    $\begingroup$ @NateEldredge You might want to have a look at my answer since it gives a much stronger non-convexity result than your answer. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 7, 2019 at 17:00

There is actually a much more striking result than non-convexity of balls in the Heisenberg group discussed in the answer of Nate Eldredge.

While the definition of the sub-Riemannian metric on $\mathbb{H}^3$ has been explained by Nate Eldredge, I will skip that part and just formulate the theorem.

Theorem. Let $A=\{(x,y,z_1),(x,y,z_2)\}\subset\mathbb{H}^3$, where $z_1\neq z_2$ be a set consisting of two points in the Heisenberg group. Then the smallest geodesically convex set containing $A$ is $\mathbb{H}^3$.

That means there are very few convex sets and in particular the smallest geodesically convex set containing a ball must be $\mathbb{H}^3$.

This is a remarakable result because, the Heisenberg group is one of the nicest non-Euclidean metric spaces that allows one to carry out most of the analysis in Euclidean spaces. It also serves as an ulitmate example for testing new conjectures in analysis on metric spaces.

The above result is Theorem 1.1 in:

Monti, R. Rickly, M.: Geodetically convex sets in the Heisenberg group. J. Convex Anal. 12 (2005), 187-196.

Remark: The space $\mathbb{H}^3$ considered above is often denoted by $\mathbb{H}^1$. Although, as a linear space it is $\mathbb{R}^3$, it is the first Heisenberg group. Moreover the sub-Riemannian metric discussed above is often called the Carnot-Caratheodory metric.


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