Today I would like to blog about a result of Atiyah from the 1950s, from his paper “Bott periodicity and the parallelizability of the spheres.” Namely:

Theorem 1 (Atiyah) On a nine-fold suspension {Y = \Sigma^9 X} of a finite complex, the Stiefel-Whitney classes of any real vector bundle vanish.

In particular, this means that any real vector bundle on a sphere S^n, n \geq 9 cannot be distinguished using Stiefel-Whitney classes from the trivial bundle. The argument relies on the Bott periodicity theorem and some calculations with Stiefel-Whitney classes. There is also an analog for the Chern classes of complex vector bundles on spheres; they don’t necessarily vanish but are highly divisible.

These sorts of integrality theorems often have surprising geometric consequences. In this post, I’ll discuss the classical problem of when spheres admit almost-complex structures, a problem one can solve using the second of the integrality theorems mentioned above. Atiyah was originally motivated by the question of parallelizability of the spheres. (more…)