Borromean rings are three simple closed curves in three-dimensional space that are topologically linked and cannot be separated from each other, but that break apart into two unknotted and unlinked loops when any one of the three is cut or removed.
Most commonly, these rings are drawn as three circles in the plane, in the pattern of a Venn diagram, alternatingly crossing over and under each other at the points where they cross. Other triples of curves are said to form the Borromean rings as long as they are topologically equivalent to the curves depicted.
The Borromean rings are typically drawn with their rings projecting to circles in the plane of the drawing, but three-dimensional circular Borromean rings are an impossible object: it is not possible to form the Borromean rings from circles in three-dimensional space.
More generally Michael H. Freedman and Richard Skora proved using four-dimensional hyperbolic geometry that no Brunnian link can be exactly circular.
For three rings in their conventional Borromean arrangement, this can be seen from considering the link diagram. If one assumes that two of the circles touch at their two crossing points, then they lie in either a plane or a sphere.
In either case, the third circle must pass through this plane or sphere four times, without lying in it, which is impossible. Another argument for the impossibility of circular realizations, by Helge Tverberg, uses inversive geometry to transform any three circles so that one of them becomes a line, making it easier to argue that the other two circles do not link with it to form the Borromean rings.
However, the Borromean rings can be realized using ellipses. These may be taken to be of arbitrarily small eccentricity: no matter how close to being circular their shape may be, as long as they are not perfectly circular, they can form Borromean links if suitably positioned.
The Borromean rings are named after the Italian House of Borromeo, who used the circular form of these rings as a coat of arms, but designs based on the Borromean rings have been used in many cultures, including by the Norsemen and in Japan.
Matthew Cook has conjectured that any three unknotted simple closed curves in space, not all circles, can be combined without scaling to form the Borromean rings.
Physical instances of the Borromean rings have been made from linked DNA or other molecules, and they have analogues in the Efimov state and Borromean nuclei, both of which have three components bound to each other although no two of them are bound.
Geometrically, the Borromean rings may be realized by linked ellipses, or (using the vertices of a regular icosahedron) by linked golden rectangles.
In knot theory, the Borromean rings can be proved to be linked by counting their Fox n-colorings. As links, they are Brunnian, alternating, algebraic, and hyperbolic. In arithmetic topology, certain triples of prime numbers have analogous linking properties to the Borromean rings.