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Thursday, March 23, 2017

About Infinity...


I blurbed a little bit earlier about Eugenia Cheng’s new book “Beyond Infinity.” Very much enjoying it, now that I’m farther in (…but do realize it’s an entire book about infinity — so you need a significant interest in the topic to enjoy it; the typical popular math book might only have a chapter or two on infinity, touching a few highlights; this volume goes deeper).
For now just wanted to mention one small matter that came up:
Quite awhile back on Twitter I asked if there was any sort of “proof” that aleph-null must in fact be the ‘smallest’ infinity; i.e. infinity is full of so many counterintuitive outcomes, and the whole question of whether aleph1 really is the second infinity is so complicated, that I wondered how we could even be sure that the natural numbers, for example, represent the lowest degree of infinity.
The few replies I got implied that the minimalness of aleph-null was axiomatic or established by definition. BUT Dr. Cheng does offer a short form of something like a proof in her volume. Her basic argument is simply to indicate that there is no subset of the natural numbers that can be put into one-to-one correspondence with the natural numbers and have anything leftover (sort of a reversed diagonalization argument). Or as she concludes, “This means that every subset of natural numbers is either finite or has the same cardinality as the natural numbers. There is no infinity in between. So we have found the smallest possible infinity: it’s the size of the natural numbers.”
I don’t know if I’m quite fully convinced (that there is much more than tautology or definition at work here), but I was glad to at least see an argument put forth. Dr. Cheng herself admits “This is not quite a proof, but is the idea of a proof…” It’s at least better than saying that the natural numbers are the lowest infinity by edict ;)
A lot of the difficulty in wrapping one’s brain around infinity lies in our deep-seated entrenchment in one view of what “numbers” are. As Cheng writes at one point, “Infinity isn’t a natural number, an integer, a rational number, or a real number. Infinity is a cardinal number and an ordinal number. Cardinal and ordinal numbers do not have to obey all the rules that earlier types of number obey.” 
I still have several chapters to go, and they look like they will be quite good. As with her earlier work ("How To Bake Pi") Dr. Cheng writes in an off-hand, almost conversational style meant to draw readers in to sometimes difficult or abstract ideas. I don't think she is always successful, but admire her making the effort. And her own passion for her subject-matter is clear.

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