nLab cellular homology



Homological algebra

homological algebra

(also nonabelian homological algebra)



Basic definitions

Stable homotopy theory notions



diagram chasing

Schanuel's lemma

Homology theories




Cellular homology is a very efficient tool for computing the ordinary homology groups of topological spaces which are CW complexes, based on the relative singular homology of their cell complex-decomposition and using degree-computations.

Hence cellular homology uses the combinatorial structure of a CW-complex to define, first a chain complex of celluar chains and then the corresponding chain homology. The resulting cellular homology of a CW-complex is isomorphic to its singular homology, hence to its ordinary homology as a topological space, and hence provides an efficient method for computing the latter.



For definiteness and to fix notation which we need in the following, we recall the definition of CW-complex. The actual definition of cellular homology is below.

For nn \in \mathbb{N} write

  • S nS^n \in Top for the standard nn-sphere;

  • D nD^n \in Top for the standard nn-disk;

  • S nD n+1S^n \hookrightarrow D^{n+1} for the continuous function that includes the nn-sphere as the boundary of the (n+1)(n+1)-disk.

Write furthermore S 1S^{-1} \coloneqq \emptyset for the empty topological space and think of S 1D 0*S^{-1} \to D^0 \simeq * as the boundary inclusion of the (-1)-sphere into the 0-disk, which is the point.


A CW complex of dimension (1)(-1) is the empty topological space.

By induction, for nn \in \mathbb{N} a CW complex of dimension nn is a topological space X nX_{n} obtained from

  1. a CWCW-complex X n1X_{n-1} of dimension n1n-1;

  2. an index set Cell(X) nSetCell(X)_n \in Set;

  3. a set of continuous maps (the attaching maps) {f i:S n1X n1} iCell(X) n\{ f_i \colon S^{n-1} \to X_{n-1}\}_{i \in Cell(X)_n}

as the pushout X n jCell(X) nD n jCell(X) nS n1X nX_n \simeq \coprod_{j \in Cell(X)_n} D^n \coprod_{j \in Cell(X)_n S^{n-1}} X_n

jCell(X) nS n1 (f j) X n1 jCell(X) nD n X n. \array{ \coprod_{j \in Cell(X)_{n}} S^{n-1} &\stackrel{(f_j)}{\to}& X_{n-1} \\ \downarrow && \downarrow \\ \coprod_{j \in Cell(X)_{n}} D^{n} &\to& X_{n} } \,.

By this construction an nn-dimensional CW-complex is canonical a filtered topological space with filter inclusion maps

X 0X 1X n1X n \emptyset \hookrightarrow X_0 \hookrightarrow X_1 \hookrightarrow \cdots \hookrightarrow X_{n-1} \hookrightarrow X_n

the right vertical morphisms in these pushout diagrams.

A general CW complex XX is a topological space given as the sequential colimit over a tower diagram each of whose morphisms is such a filter inclusion

X 0X 1X. \emptyset \hookrightarrow X_0 \hookrightarrow X_1 \hookrightarrow \cdots \hookrightarrow X \,.

For the following a CW-complex is all this data: the chosen filtering with the chosen attaching maps.

Cellular homology

We define “ordinary” cellular homology with coefficients in the group \mathbb{Z} of integers. The analogous definition for other coefficients is immediate.


For XX a CW-complex, def. , its cellular chain complex H CW(X)Ch H_\bullet^{CW}(X) \in Ch_\bullet is the chain complex such that for nn \in \mathbb{N}

  • the abelian group of chains is the relative singular homology group of X nXX_n \hookrightarrow X relative to X n1XX_{n-1} \hookrightarrow X:

    H n CW(X)H n(X n,X n1), H_n^{CW}(X) \coloneqq H_n(X_n, X_{n-1}) \,,
  • the differential n+1 CW:H n+1 CW(X)H n CW(X)\partial^{CW}_{n+1} \colon H_{n+1}^{CW}(X) \to H_n^{CW}(X) is the composition

    n CW:H n+1(X n+1,X n) nH n(X n)i nH n(X n,X n1), \partial^{CW}_n \colon H_{n+1}(X_{n+1}, X_n) \stackrel{\partial_n}{\to} H_n(X_n) \stackrel{i_n}{\to} H_n(X_n, X_{n-1}) \,,

    where n\partial_n is the boundary map of the singular chain complex and where i ni_n is the morphism on relative homology induced from the canonical inclusion of pairs (X n,)(X n,X n1)(X_n, \emptyset) \to (X_n, X_{n-1}).


The composition n CW n+1 CW\partial^{CW}_{n} \circ \partial^{CW}_{n+1} of two differentials in def. is indeed zero, hence H CW(X)H^{CW}_\bullet(X) is indeed a chain complex.


On representative singular chains the morphism i ni_n acts as the identity and hence n CW n+1 CW\partial^{CW}_{n} \circ \partial^{CW}_{n+1} acts as the double singular boundary, n n+1=0\partial_{n} \circ \partial_{n+1} = 0.


By the discussion at Relative homology - Relation to reduced homology of quotient spaces the relative homology group H n(X n,X n1)H_n(X_n, X_{n-1}) is isomorphic to the the reduced homology H˜ n(X n/X n1)\tilde H_n(X_n/X_{n-1}) of X n/X n1X_n/X_{n-1}.

This implies in particular that

  • a cellular nn-chain is a singular nn-chain required to sit in filtering degree nn, hence in X nXX_n \hookrightarrow X;

  • a cellular nn-cycle is a singular nn-chain whose singular boundary is not necessarily 0, but is contained in filtering degree (n2)(n-2), hence in X n2XX_{n-2} \hookrightarrow X.


Cellular chains


For every nn \in \mathbb{N} we have an isomorphism

H n CW(X)H n(X n,X n1)(Cell(X) n) H^{CW}_n(X) \coloneqq H_n(X_n, X_{n-1}) \simeq \mathbb{Z}(Cell(X)_n)

that the group of cellular nn-chains with the free abelian group whose set of basis elements is the set of nn-disks attached to X n1X_{n-1} to yield X nX_n.

This is discussed at Relative homology - Homology of CW-complexes.


Thus, each cellular differential n CW\partial^{CW}_n can be described as a matrix MM with integer entries M ijM_{i j}. Here an index jj refers to the attaching map f j:S nX nf_j \colon S^n \to X_n for the j thj^{th} disk D n+1D^{n+1}. The integer entry M ijM_{i j} corresponds to a map

H n+1(D n+1,S n)H n(S n)H n(D n,S n1)H n(S n)\mathbb{Z} \cong H_{n+1}(D^{n+1}, S^n) \to H_n(S^n) \to H_n(D^n, S^{n-1}) \cong H_n(S^n) \cong \mathbb{Z}

and is computed as the degree of a continuous function

S nf jX nX n/(X nD n)D n/S n1S nS^n \stackrel{f_j}{\to} X_n \to X_n/(X_n - D^n) \cong D^n/S^{n-1} \cong S^n

where the inclusion X nD nX nX_n - D^n \hookrightarrow X_n corresponds to the attaching map for the i thi^{th} disk D nD^n.

Relation to singular homology


For XX a CW-complex, its cellular homology H CW(X)H^{CW}_\bullet(X) agrees with its singular homology H (X)H_\bullet(X):

H CW(X)H (X). H^{CW}_\bullet(X) \simeq H_\bullet(X) \,.

This appears for instance as (Hatcher, theorem 2.35). A proof is below as the proof of cor. .

Relation to the spectral sequence of the filtered singular complex

The structure of a CW-complex on a topological space XX, def. naturally induces on its singular simplicial complex C (X)C_\bullet(X) the structure of a filtered chain complex:


For X 0X 1XX_0 \hookrightarrow X_1 \hookrightarrow \cdots \hookrightarrow X a CW complex, and pp \in \mathbb{N}, write

F pC (X)C (X p) F_p C_\bullet(X) \coloneqq C_\bullet(X_p)

for the singular chain complex of X pXX_p \hookrightarrow X. The given topological subspace inclusions X pX p+1X_p \hookrightarrow X_{p+1} induce chain map inclusions F pC (X)F p+1C (X)F_p C_\bullet(X) \hookrightarrow F_{p+1} C_\bullet(X) and these equip the singular chain complex C (X)C_\bullet(X) of XX with the structure of a bounded filtered chain complex

0F 0C (X)F 1C (X)F 2C (X)F C (X)C (X). 0 \hookrightarrow F_0 C_\bullet(X) \hookrightarrow F_1 C_\bullet(X) \hookrightarrow F_2 C_\bullet(X) \hookrightarrow \cdots \hookrightarrow F_\infty C_\bullet(X) \coloneqq C_\bullet(X) \,.

(If XX is of finite dimension dimXdim X then this is a bounded filtration.)

Write {E p,q r(X)}\{E^r_{p,q}(X)\} for the spectral sequence of a filtered complex corresponding to this filtering.

We identify various of the pages of this spectral sequences with structures in singular homology theory.

  • r=0r = 0E p,q 0(X)C p+q(X p)/C p+q(X p1)E^0_{p,q}(X) \simeq C_{p+q}(X_p)/C_{p+q}(X_{p-1}) is the group of X p1X_{p-1}-relative (p+q)-chains in X pX_p;

  • r=1r = 1E p,q 1(X)H p+q(X p,X p1)E^1_{p,q}(X) \simeq H_{p+q}(X_p, X_{p-1}) is the X p1X_{p-1}-relative singular homology of X pX_p;

  • r=2r = 2E p,q 2(X){H p CW(X) forq=0 0 otherwiseE^2_{p,q}(X) \simeq \left\{ \array{ H_p^{CW}(X) & for\; q = 0 \\ 0 & otherwise } \right.

  • r=r = \inftyE p,q (X)F pH p+q(X)/F p1H p+q(X)E^\infty_{p,q}(X) \simeq F_p H_{p+q}(X) / F_{p-1} H_{p+q}(X) .



This now directly implies the isomorphism between the cellular homology and the singular homology of a CW-complex XX:

H CW(X)H (X) H^{CW}_\bullet(X) \simeq H_\bullet(X)

By the third item of prop. the (r=2)(r = 2)-page of the spectral sequence {E p,q r(X)}\{E^r_{p,q}(X)\} is concentrated in the (q=0)(q = 0)-row. This implies that all differentials for r>2r \gt 2 vanish, since their domain and codomain groups necessarily have different values of qq. Accordingly we have

E p,q (X)E p,q 2(X) E^\infty_{p,q}(X) \simeq E^2_{p,q}(X)

for all p,qp,q. By the third and fourth item of prop. this is equivalently

G pH p(X)H p CW(X). G_p H_{p}(X) \simeq H^{CW}_p(X) \,.

Finally observe that G pH p(X)H p(X)G_p H_p(X) \simeq H_p(X) by the definition of the filtering on the homology as F pH p(X)∶−image(H p(X p)H p(X))F_p H_p(X) \coloneq image(H_p(X_p) \to H_p(X)) and by standard properties of singular homology of CW complexes discusses at CW complex – singular homology.


There are convenient software implementations for large-scale computations of cellular homology: one may use LinBox, CHomP or Perseus.


Early references on (co)homology

The original references on chain homology/cochain cohomology and ordinary cohomology in the form of cellular cohomology:

  • Andrei Kolmogoroff, Über die Dualität im Aufbau der kombinatorischen Topologie, Recueil Mathématique 1(43) (1936), 97–102. (mathnet)

A footnote on the first page reads as follows, giving attribution to Alexander 35a, 35b:

Die Resultate dieser Arbeit wurden für den Fall gewöhnlicher Komplexe vom Verfasser im Frühling und im Sommer 1934 erhalten und teilweise an der Internationalen Konferenz für Tensoranalysis (Moskau) im Mai 1934 vorgetragen. Die hier dargestellte allgemeinere Theorie bildete den Gegenstand eines Vortrages, den der Verfasser an der Internationalen Topologischen Konferenz (Moskau, September 1935) hielt; bei letzterer Gelegenheit erfuhr er, dass ein grosser Teil dieser Resultate im Falle von Komplexen indessen von Herrn Alexander erhalten worden ist. Vgl. die inzwischen erschienenen Noten von Herrn Alexander in den «Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U.S.A.», 21, (1935), 509—512. Herr Alexander trug über seine Resultate ebenfalls an der Moskauer Topologischen Konferenz vor. Verallgemeinerungen für abgeschlossene Mengen und die Konstruktion eines Homologieringes für Komplexe und abgeschlossene Mengen, über welche der Verfasser ebenso an der Tensorkonferenz 1934 vorgetragen hat, werden in einer weiteren Publikation dargestellt. Diese weitere Begriffsbildungen sind übrigens ebenfalls von Herrn Alexander gefunden und teilweise in den erwähnten Noten publiziert.

The term “cohomology” was introduced by Hassler Whitney in

See also

The notion of singular cohomology is due to

The notion of monadic cohomology via canonical resolutions:

The general abstract perspective on cohomology (subsuming sheaf cohomology, hypercohomology, non-abelian cohomology and indications of Whitehead-generalized cohomology) was essentially established in:


A standard textbook account is from p. 139 on in

Lecture notes include

  • Lisa Jeffrey, Homology of CW-complexes and Cellular homology (pdf)

Formulation in homotopy type theory:

Last revised on January 24, 2023 at 22:24:50. See the history of this page for a list of all contributions to it.