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Good Math, Bad Math: Finding the Fun in Good Math

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Quite a rabbit hole:

The argument that the cranks hate is called Cantor’s diagonalization. Cantor’s diagonalization as argument that according to the axioms of set theory, the cardinality (size) of the set of real numbers is strictly larger than the cardinality of the set of natural numbers.

The argument is based on the set theoretic definition of cardinality. In set theory, two sets are the same size if and only if there exists a one-to-one mapping between the two sets. If you try to create a mapping between set A and set B, and in every possible mapping, every A is mapped onto a unique B, but there are leftover Bs that no element of A maps to, then the cardinality of B is larger than the cardinality of A. 

When you’re talking about finite sets, this is really easy to follow. If I is the set {1, 2, 3}, and B is the set {4, 5, 6, 7}, then it’s pretty obvious that there’s no one to one mapping from A to B: there are more elements in B than there are in A. You can easily show this by enumerating every possible mapping of elements of A onto elements of B, and then showing that in every one, there’s an element of B that isn’t mapped to by an element of A.

With infinite sets, it gets complicated. Intuitively, you’d think that the set of even natural numbers is smaller than the set of all natural numbers: after all, the set of evens is a strict subset of the naturals. But your intuition is wrong: there’s a very easy one to one mapping from the naturals to the evens: {n → 2n }. So the set of even natural numbers is the same size as the set of all natural numbers.

To show that one infinite set has a larger cardinality than another infinite set, you need to do something slightly tricky. You need to show that no matter what mapping you choose between the two sets, some elements of the larger one will be left out. 

In the classic Cantor argument, what he does is show you how, given any purported mapping between the natural numbers and the real numbers, to find a real number which is not included in the mapping. So no matter what mapping you choose, Cantor will show you how to find real numbers that aren’t in the mapping. That means that every possible mapping between the naturals and the reals will omit members of the reals – which means that the set of real numbers has a larger cardinality than the set of naturals.

Cantor’s argument has stood since it was first presented in 1891, despite the best efforts of people to refute it. It is an uncomfortable argument. It violates our intuitions in a deep way. Infinity is infinity. There’s nothing bigger than infinity. What does it even mean to be bigger than infinity? That’s a non-sequiter, isn’t it?

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