In the field of data structures (and maybe in graph theory), can we use the term topology to speak about the shape of a tree? For instance, consider the two following trees :

1) The first one: Node $a$ is parent of $b$ and $c$. Node $e$ is parent of $a$ and $d$

2) the second one: Node $a$ is parent of nodes $b$, $c$ and $d$.

Can we say that their topology are different, in the sense that the set of relations parents/children are different?

  • $\begingroup$ It's a use of a technical term in a less than formal way, but only a serious pedant would take you to task if you said that two graph-like structures had different topologies. I've seen the term frequently (and, IMO, acceptably) to describe network structures, for example. $\endgroup$ Jul 8, 2015 at 13:39
  • $\begingroup$ I believe that this is common usage. $\endgroup$ Jul 8, 2015 at 14:11
  • $\begingroup$ If you want, you can actually relate this informal usage to the mathematical notion of topology on finite sets, e.g. by considering the Alexandrov topology (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexandrov_topology) on your trees (for example, your second example would have open sets $\emptyset$ as well as all subsets containing $a$). $\endgroup$ Jul 8, 2015 at 17:13
  • $\begingroup$ I'd use "shape". $\endgroup$
    – Raphael
    Jul 9, 2015 at 8:43
  • $\begingroup$ Why do you insist on using "topology" there though? Couldn't you just say they are different trees? Or that they are (somehow) structurally different? $\endgroup$
    – Juho
    Jul 9, 2015 at 18:30

1 Answer 1


Yes, I suppose you could, though it might be viewed as a somewhat informal usage of the term "topology". "Shape" would probably be a better word, as @Raphael suggests.

A more precise way would be to say that these two trees are not isomorphic.

Background: Two graphs $G,G'$ are considered isomorphic if there exists a map $f:V \to V'$ that is a graph isomorphism. Since any tree can be viewed as a graph, you can consider two trees to be isomorphic if they are isomorphic as graphs. One can also define a natural notion of a tree isomorphism directly; this happens to be equivalent to the notion of a graph isomorphism for unrooted trees, but is slightly different (and more appropriate to use) for rooted trees. You can read more about isomorphisms in standard sources.

  • $\begingroup$ How can we be assured that two trees are not isomorphic ? Maybe the trees I have are isomorphic, while having a different shape ? $\endgroup$
    – user7060
    Jul 10, 2015 at 9:14
  • $\begingroup$ @user7060, well, you write a mathematical proof that they are not isomorphic. That proof refers back to the definition of isomorphism. The appropriate proof techniques will differ. Sometimes it's as simple as saying "G has a node of degree 7, G' doesn't", sometimes it can be much more complex to prove it -- but in any case, the way you can be assured is to prove the statement. $\endgroup$
    – D.W.
    Jul 10, 2015 at 16:50

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