Vignette 4
How Big is Infinity?

The symbol is usually used in mathematics as a part of other symbols, as an indication of something that may be arbitrarily large.  For example, the customary interval notation refers to the set of all real numbers greater than or equal to the number a.  That is, is the set of numbers starting at a, and moving arbitrarily far to the right.  Although we read the symbol "" by saying "infinity," we must be careful not to think of as a number.

Countably Infinite Sets

On the other hand, mathematicians frequently use the word "infinite" as an adjective, when describing the size, or "cardinality," of a set.  Two sets A and B are said to have the same cardinality if there is a one-to-one correspondence between them.  For example, the sets and have the same cardinality, since there is a very obvious one-to-one correspondence between them.  A set A is called countably infinite if it has the same cardinality as the set of positive integers, .  That is, a set is countably infinite if it is possible to devise a systematic way of pointing to each of its elements in turn, and counting them:  one, two, three, ... .

It is rather surprising that this can be done with the set of all rational numbers!  Even though it appears that there are many more rational numbers than positive integers, it is nonetheless possible to devise a one-to-one correspondence between them.  For simplicity, let's first consider the problem of devising a one-to-one correspondence between and , the set of positive rationals.  (After we have done this, see if you can use this to devise a one-to-one correspondence between and .)  Since our goal is effectively to count the positive rationals, let's make a systematic list of all them.  Recalling that a positive rational number can be expressed as a quotient of two positive integers, consider this listing:

Clearly every positive rational number would be somewhere in this list.  (Yes, some are listed many times, but that's OK.)  Our goal is simply to have a systematic way of pointing to each of these numbers in turn, and counting them.  While this may seem trivial at first, consider that fact that we could not count them by going across the first row.  If we did this, we would never get out of the first row, and many of the numbers in our list would never get counted!  Instead, consider the following diagonal pattern of counting:

Using this pattern, we count the positive rationals in the order that we come to them in moving along arrows such as those shown, starting in the upper left corner, and then moving along successively lower arrows..  That is, our one-to-one correspondence begins:

As we continue this correspondence, we will check each of the rational numbers to see if it has already been used; and if it has, we will simply skip over it.  Thus, the positive integer 5 will correspond to 1/3 rather than to 2/2, since 2/2 = 1/1 has already been used.  This process establishes a one-to-one correspondence between and .  With a little thought, you should be able to see how to get a one-to-one correspondence between and , thus showing that is countably infinite.  Note that it is not necessary to find a formula for the correspondence; all that is necessary is the certainty that such a correspondence exists.  There are many other instances in mathematics that are like this--where the point is to show that something has to happen or that something exists, rather than to actually exhibit a formula.

What's Larger than Countably Infinite?

We have just seen that both and are countably infinite.  Is it true that every infinite set is countably infinite?  That is, can every  infinite set be put into one-to-one correspondence with , or are some infinite sets "larger" than in some sense?  It turns out that there are indeed different "sizes" of infinite sets; not all infinite sets are of the same infinite "size"!  An infinite set which cannot be put into one-to-one correspondence with is, naturally enough, referred to as an uncountable set.  A simple example of an uncountable set is the set of real numbers between 0 and 1, the unit interval .  To see that is uncountable, we will use the technique of proof by contradiction, which was used in Vignette 2 to show the existence of infinitely many primes.

It is clear that is infinite, so let's suppose that were a countably infinite set.  (If we show that this leads to a contradiction, then we will have proven that is uncountable.)  Now the numbers in can all be expressed in decimal form, beginning with the whole number part 0. (Even the number 1 can be written this way, as .)  If the set of such numbers were countable, then we could list them in order of their correspondence with the positive integers:

And this would be a complete list of all the real numbers in . To obtain the needed contradiction, consider the new number , where we choose each digit bi to be any digit at least 2 off from aii .  This construction assures that n is different from each of n1, n2, n3 and so on.  This shows that we were really not able to make a countable list of all of the numbers in after all!  Our conclusion is that is an uncountable set, representing a new and larger kind of infinite size.

Is There More?

The branch of mathematics that deals with sets and their cardinality is known as set theory.  Although Georg Cantor's discovery of the differences among the cardinalities of various infinite sets came as quite a shock to the mathematical community in the 1870's, it is now well understood that there is a whole new type of arithmetic based on the transfinite numbers, the cardinalities of infinite sets.

Further Exploration

Copyright © 2000 by Carl R. Spitznagel