Understanding Branch Cuts in the Complex Plane

In my work, I've recently come across an interesting topic, complex analysis, which studies functions defined by complex numbers in the complex plane.

In particular, I've recently come across an interesting phenomenon, called branch cuts. The goal of this notebook is to understand branch cuts in the context of the complex square root, which is an extension of the familiar square root function.

This notebook is mainly inspired by two documents: this math discussion on stackexchange about branch cuts and the introduction of the PhD Thesis of Benjamin Goursaud.

What's a branch cut?

To quote Mathworld:

A branch cut is a curve (with ends possibly open, closed, or half-open) in the complex plane across which an analytic multivalued function is discontinuous

A term that is perplexing at first is the one of a multivalued function. We'll see what this means in a moment when we talk about the square root.

What's the square root of a complex number?

Everyone knows the square function:

$$ f(z) = z^2 $$

This function maps any complex number to another complex number.

What about its inverse function? Given a complex number $z$, can I find another complex number ("$\sqrt{z}$") that when squared, returns $z$?

It turns out that this is possible. For instance, writing $z$ as $r \exp(i \, \varphi)$, one can use the following formula for its square root:

$$ \sqrt{z} = \sqrt{r} \exp{i \, \varphi \over 2} $$

However, it turns out that the big question in this definition is about how I define $\varphi$. I can add or substrat $2 \pi$ to the argument and still map to the same complex number. This is where the notion of principal value comes in. The principal value is the one we choose as a default when several values are possible.

So in the case of the argument of a complex number, we choose it in the interval $[-\pi, \pi]$ which introduces a discontinuity along the negative real line. This discontinuity in the choice of the argument carries over to the square root definition.

In the next section, we will visualize this discontinuity.

Visualization time!

Now that we have explained the problem, let's use a graphical approach to understand it more intuitively.

In [33]:
# usual imports
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
import numpy as np
%matplotlib notebook

We'll start by defining the normal square root: the one made available in the numpy package.

In [19]:
def numpy_sqrt(z):
    "Complex square root function."
    return np.sqrt(z)

To better look at this function behaviour, we will define two plotting functions: one that allows use to do 3d plots and one that is a colored 2d plot using domain coloring.

First, the 3d plot:

In [20]:
from mpl_toolkits.mplot3d import Axes3D

def argand_plot(func):
    "Plots a function in the Argand (complex) plane."
    X, Y = np.meshgrid(np.linspace(-2, 2),
                      np.linspace(-2, 2))
    Z = X + 1j * Y
    ax1 = plt.gcf().add_subplot(211, projection='3d')
    ax2 = plt.gcf().add_subplot(212, projection='3d')
    ax1.plot_surface(X, Y, np.real(func(Z)), rstride=1, cstride=1, cmap='viridis')
    ax1.set_xlabel('real axis')
    ax1.set_ylabel('imaginary axis')
    ax1.set_title('real part')
    ax2.plot_surface(X, Y, np.imag(func(Z)), rstride=1, cstride=1, cmap='magma')
    ax2.set_xlabel('real axis')
    ax2.set_ylabel('imaginary axis')
    ax2.set_title('imaginary part')

And the 2d plot:

In [21]:
import domain_coloring as dc

def domain_coloring_plot(func):
    "Domain coloring of function func."
    dc.plot_domain(dc.classical_domaincol, func, re=[-2, 2], im=[-2, 2], daxis=True)

Let's now visualize the square root in the complex plane:

In [35]:
plt.rcParams['figure.figsize'] = (6, 7)
In [36]:
In [37]:

What we see in the above plot is that our square root has a discontinuitiy along the real negative line. This is due to the choice of the argument as explained in the previous section and is what is properly called the branch cut of this function.

However, now that we know where this comes from, we can choose to introduce this discontinuity at other locations.

Looking into the discontinuity

As seen above, the standard square root function has a branch cut along the negative reals. Sometimes, this can be problematic. In particular, if you were to follow the unit circle in a given direction, you would encounter a discontinuity. Let's illustrate that problem by a plot:

In [74]:
theta = np.linspace(0, 2 * np.pi, num=26, endpoint=False)
unit_circle = [np.exp(1j * _) for _ in theta]
In [81]:
def plot_along_curve(func=numpy_sqrt, param=theta, curve=unit_circle):
    "Plots curve and real/imag values of function func along given curve."
    plt.plot(np.real(curve), np.imag(curve), 'o')
    x = np.real(curve)
    y = np.imag(curve)
    plt.quiver(x[:-1], y[:-1], x[1:]-x[:-1], y[1:]-y[:-1], scale_units='xy', angles='xy', scale=1)
    plt.xlim(-1.25, 1.25)
    plt.ylim(-1.25, 1.25)
    plt.plot(param, np.imag(func(curve)), label='imaginary part')
    plt.plot(param, np.real(func(curve)), label='real part')
    plt.legend(loc='lower left')
    plt.xlabel('angle $\\theta$ along the circle (rad)')
In [82]:
plt.figure(figsize=(10, 5))

As can be seen in the plot (kudos to StackOverflow for the arrows), the problem is the discontinuity occuring at angle $\pi$. It is seen in the imaginary part, while the real part is continuous. If we need to cross this location, for instance while performing an integral, we will often need to do this continuously. One solution to this need can be to pick a different definition of the square root, as we will explain in the next section.

Defining many square root function

We can use a bit of mathematics to define a different square root function, in terms of the branch cut. It all starts with the angle of a complex number, which we need to recast in another interval using a plus minus operation as well as a remainder operation.

Our generalized square root will be:

$$ \sqrt[\uproot{2}\theta]{z} = \sqrt{|z|} \exp{i \, \arg_\theta z \over 2} $$

Here the particularly interesting part is the $\arg_\theta z$ function which returns the argument of the complex number $z$ in the following range:

$$ \theta - 2 \pi < \arg_\theta z < \theta $$
In [90]:
def square_root(z, theta):
    "Square root with different branch cut defined by alpha parameter."
    argument = np.angle(z) # between -pi and +pi
    modulus = np.abs(z)
    argument = np.mod(argument + theta, 2 * np.pi) - theta
    return np.sqrt(modulus) * np.exp(1j * argument / 2)

Using $\pi$ as the value for $\theta$ should allow us to define a function that gives identical values than the square root function we used above:

In [93]:
normal_sqrt = lambda z: square_root(z, np.pi)

Let's check that it gives the correct values on the unit circle:

In [98]:

Let's now plot it, to be sure:

In [99]:
In [88]:

Putting the branch cut on the real line

However, our branched square root function is much more powerful. It can allow us to shift the discontinuity along any line starting at 0. For instance to the real positive line:

In [100]:
real_pos_sqrt = lambda z: square_root(z, 2 *np.pi)
In [101]:
In [102]: