in Journal of Mathematical Physics, 54, American Institute of Physics, January 2013.
To each three-component link in the 3-sphere we associate a generalized Gauss map from the 3-torus to the 2-sphere, and show that the pairwise linking numbers and Milnor triple linking number that classify the link up to link homotopy correspond to the Pontryagin invariants that classify its generalized Gauss map up to homotopy. We view this as a natural extension of the familiar situation for two-component links in 3-space, where the linking number is the degree of the classical Gauss map from the 2-torus to the 2-sphere. The generalized Gauss map, like its prototype, is geometrically natural in the sense that it is equivariant with respect to orientation preserving isometries of the ambient space, thus positioning it for application to physical situations. When the pairwise linking numbers of a three-component link are all zero, we give an integral formula for the triple linking number analogous to the Gauss integral for the pairwise linking numbers. This new integral is also geometrically natural, like its prototype, in the sense that the integrand is invariant under orientation-preserving isometries of the ambient space. Versions of this integral have been applied by Komendarczyk in special cases to problems of higher order helicity and derivation of lower bounds for the energy of magnetic fields. We have set this entire paper in the 3-sphere because our generalized Gauss map is easiest to present here, but in a subsequent paper we will give the corresponding maps and integral formulas in Euclidean 3-space. (joint work with DeTurck, Gluck, Komendarczyk, Shonkwiler and Vela-Vick)