# VI. Countable sets: My notes.

Reference:

1. Introduction to Topology and Modern Analysis by G. F. Simmons, Tata McGraw Hill Publications, India.
2. Introductory Real Analysis — Kolmogorov and Fomin, Dover Publications, N.Y.(to some extent, I have blogged this topic based on this text earlier. Still, it deserves a mention/revision again).
3. Topology : James Munkres.

The subject of this section and the next — infinite cardinal numbers — lies at the very foundation of modern mathematics. It is a vital instrument in the day to day work of many mathematicians, and we shall make extensive use of it ourselves (in our beginning studying of math ! :-)). This theory, which was created by the German mathematician Georg Cantor, also has great aethetic appeal, for it begins with ideas of extreme simplicity and develops through natural stages into an elaborate and beautiful structure of thought. In the course of our discussion, we shall answer questions which no one before Cantor’s time thought to ask, and we shall ask a question which no one can answer to this day…(perhaps !:-))

Without further ado, we can say that cardinal numbers are those used in counting, such as the positive integers (or natural numbers) 1, 2, 3, …familiar to us all. But, there is much more to the story than this.

The act of counting is undoubtedly one of the oldest of human activities. Men probably learned to count in a crude way at about the same time as they began to develop articulate speech. The earliest men who lived in communities and domesticated animals must have found it necessary to record the number of goats in the village herd by means of a pile of stones or some similar device. If the herd was counted in each night by removing one stone from the pile for each goat accounted for, then stones left over would have indicated strays, and herdsmen would have gone out to search for them. Names for numbers and symbols for them like our 1, 2, 3, …would have been superfluous. The simple yet profound idea of a one-to-one correspondence between the stones and the goats would have fully met the needs of the situation.

In a manner of speaking, we ourselves use the infinite set

$N = \{ 1, 2, 3, \ldots\}$

of all positive integers as “pile of stones.” We carry this set around with us as part of our intellectual equipment. Whenever we want to count a set, say, a stack of dollar bills, we start through the set N and tally off one bill against each positive integer as we come to it. The last number we reach, corresponding to the last bill, is what we call the number of bills in the stack. If this last number happens to be 10, then “10” is our symbol for the number of bills in the stack, as it also is for the number of our fingers, and for the number of our toes, and for the number of elements which can be put into one-to-one correspondence with the finite set $\{ 1,2,3, \ldots, 10\}$. Our procedure is slightly more sophisticated than that of the primitive savage man. We have the symbols 1, 2, 3, …for the numbers which arise in counting; we can record them for future use, and communicate them to other people, and manipulate them by the operations of arithmetic. But the underlying idea, that of the one-to-one correspondence, remains the same for us as it probably was for him.

The positive integers are adequate for our purpose of counting any non-empty finite set, and since outside of mathematics all sets appear to of this kind, they suffice for all non-mathematical counting. But in the world of mathematics, we are obliged to consider many infinite sets, such as the set of positive integers itself, the set of all integers, the set of all rational numbers, the set of all real numbers, the set of all points in a plane, and so on. It is often important to be able to count such sets, and it was Cantor’s idea to do this, and to develop a theory of infinite cardinal numbers, by means of one-to-one correspondence.

In comparing the sizes of two sets, the basic concept is that of numerical equivalence as defined in the previous section. We recall that two non-empty sets are numerically equivalent if there exists a one-to-one mapping of a set onto the other, or — and this amounts to the same thing — if there can be found a one-to-one correspondence between them. To say that two non-empty finite sets are numerically equivalent is of course to say that they have the same number of elements in the ordinary sense. If we count one of them, we simply establish a one-to-one correspondence between its elements and a set of positive integers of the form $\{1,2,3, \ldots, n \}$ and we then say that n is the number of elements possessed by both, or the cardinal number of both. The positive integers are the finite cardinal numbers. We encounter many surprises as we follow Cantor and consider numerical equivalences for infinite sets.

The set $N = \{ 1,2,3, \ldots\}$ of all positive integers is obviously “larger” than the set $\{ 2,4,6, \ldots\}$ of all even positive integers, for it contains this set as a proper subset. It appears on the surface that N has “more” elements. But it is very important to avoid jumping to conclusions when dealing with infinite sets, and we must remember that our criterion in these matters is whether there exists a one-to-one correspondence between the sets (not whether one set is a proper subset or not of the other) . As a matter of fact, consider the “pairing”

$1,2,3, \ldots, n, \ldots$

$2,4,6, \ldots, 2n, \ldots$

serves to establish a one-to-one correspondence between these sets, in which each positive integer in the upper row is matched with the even positive integer (its double) directly below it, and these two sets must therefore be regarded as having the same number of elements. This is a very remarkable circumstance, for it seems to contradict our intuition and yet is based only on solid common sense. We shall see below, in Problems 6 and 7-4, that every infinite set is numerically equivalent to a proper subset of itself. Since this property is clearly not possessed by any finite set, some writers even use it as the definition of an infinite set.

In much the same way as above, we can show that N is numerically equivalent to the set of all even integers:

$1, 2, 3,4, 5,6, 7, \ldots$

$0,2,-2,4,-4,4,6,-6, \ldots$

Here, our device is start with zero and follow each even positive integer as we come to it by its negative. Similarly, N is numerically equivalent to the set of all integers:

$1,2,3,4,5,6,7, \ldots$

$0,1,-1, 2, -2, 3, -3, \ldots$

It is of considerable interest historical interest to note that Galileo had observed in the early seventeenth century that there are precisely as many perfect squares (1,4,9,16,25, etc.) among the positive integers as there are positive integers altogether. This is clear from the “pairing”:

$1,2,3,4,5, \ldots$

$1^{2}, 2^{2}, 3^{2}, 4^{2}, 5^{2}, \ldots$

It struck him as very strange that this should be true, considering how sparsely strewn the squares are among all the positive integers. But, the time appears not to have been ripe for the exploration of this phenomenon, or perhaps he had other things on his mind; in any case, he did not follow up his idea.

These examples should make it clear that all that is really necessary in showing that an infinite set X is numerically equivalent to N is that we be able to list the elements of X, with a first, a second, a third, and so on, in such a way that it is completed exhausted by this counting off of its elements. It is for this reason that any infinite set which is numerically equivalent to N is said to be countably infinite. (Prof. Walter Rudin also, in his classic on mathematical analysis, considers a countable set to be either finite or countably infinite. ) We say that a set is countable it is non-empty and finite (in which case it can obviously be counted) or if it is countably infinite.

One of Cantor’s earliest discoveries in his study of infinite sets was that the set of all positive rational numbers (which is very large : it contains N and a great many other numbers besides) is actually countable. We cannot list the positive rational numbers in order of size, as we can the positive integers, beginning with the smallest, then the next smallest, and so on, for there is no smallest, and between any two there are infinitely many others. We must find some other way of counting them, and following Cantor, we arrange them not not in order of size, but according to the size of the sum of numerator and denominator. We begin with all positive rationals whose numerator and denominator sum add up to 2: there is only one $\frac{1}{1}=1$. Next, we list (with increasing numerators) all those for which this sum is 3: $\frac{1}{2}, \frac{2}{1}=2$. Next, all those for which the sum is 4: $\frac{1}{3}, \frac{2}{2}=1, \frac{3}{1}=3$. Next, all those for which this sum is 5: $\frac{1}{4}, \frac{2}{3}, \frac{3}{2}, \frac{4}{1}=4$. Next, all those for which this sum is 6: $\frac{1}{5}, \frac{2}{4}, \frac{3}{3}=1, \frac{4}{2}=2, \frac{5}{1}=5$. And, so on. If we now list all these together from the beginning, omitting those already listed when we come to them, we get a sequence like:

$1, 1/2, 2, 1/3, 1/4, 2/3, 3/2, 4, 1/5, 5, \ldots$

which contains each positive rational number once and only once. (There is a nice schematic representation of this : Cantor’s diagonalization process; please google it). In this figure, the first row contains all positive rationals with numerator 1, the second all with numerator 2, and so on. Our listing amounts to traversing this array of numbers in a zig-zag manner (again, please google), where of course, all those numbers already encountered are left out.

It is high time that we christened the infinite cardinal number we have been discussing, and for this purpose, we use the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, $\bf{aleph_{0}}$. We say that $\aleph_{0}$ is the number of elements in any countably infinite set. Our complete list of cardinal numbers so far is

$1, 2, 3, \ldots, \aleph_{0}$.

We expand this list in the next section.

Suppose now that m and n are two cardinal numbers (finite or infinite). The statement that m is less than n (written m < n) is defined to mean the following: if X and Y are sets with m and n elements, then (i) there exists a one-to-one mapping of X into Y, and (ii) there does not exist a mapping of X onto Y. Using this concept, it is easy to relate our cardinal numbers to one another by means of:

$1<2<3< \ldots < \aleph_{0}$.

With respect to the finite cardinal numbers, this ordering corresponds to their usual ordering as real numbers.

Regards,

Nalin Pithwa

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