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Cardinality of the continuum

In set theory, the cardinality of the continuum is the

cardinality or size of the set of real numbers R , sometimes called the continuum. It is an innite cardinal num- 0 < c.
ber and is denoted by |R| or c (a lowercase fraktur script
In other words, there are strictly more real numbers than
there are integers. Cantor proved this statement in several
The real numbers R are more numerous than the natural dierent ways. See Cantors rst uncountability proof and
numbers N . Moreover, R has the same number of ele- Cantors diagonal argument.
ments as the power set of N . Symbolically, if the cardinality of N is denoted as 0 , the cardinality of the continuum is
1.2 Cardinal equalities
A variation on Cantors diagonal argument can be used to
prove Cantors theorem which states that the cardinality
c = 2 > 0 .
of any set is strictly less than that of its power set, i.e. |A| <
This was proven by Georg Cantor in his 1874 uncount- 2 , and so the power set P(N) of the natural numbers N is
ability proof, part of his groundbreaking study of dier- uncountable. In fact, it can be shown that the cardinality
ent innities, and later more simply in his diagonal ar- of P(N) is equal to c :
gument. Cantor dened cardinality in terms of bijective
1. Dene a map f : R P(Q) from the reals to the
functions: two sets have the same cardinality if and only
power set of the rationals by sending each real numif there exists a bijective function between them.
ber x to the set {q Q | q x} of all rationals less
Between any two real numbers a < b, no matter how close
than or equal to x (with the reals viewed as Dedekind
they are to each other, there are always innitely many
cuts, this is nothing other than the inclusion map in
other real numbers, and Cantor showed that they are as
the set of sets of rationals). This map is injective
many as those contained in the whole set of real numbers.
since the rationals are dense in R. Since the ratioIn other words, the open interval (a,b) is equinumerous
nals are countable we have that c 20 .
with R. This is also true for several other innite sets,
such as any n-dimensional Euclidean space Rn (see space
2. Let {0,2}N be the set of innite sequences with vallling curve). That is,
ues in set {0,2}. This set clearly has cardinality 20
(the natural bijection between the set of binary sequences and P(N) is given by the indicator function).
Now associate to each such sequence (ai) the unique
|(a, b)| = |R| = |Rn |.
real number in the interval [0,1] with the ternaryexpansion given by the digits (ai), i.e. the i-th digit
The smallest innite cardinal number is 0 (alephafter
the decimal point is ai. The image of this map
naught). The second smallest is 1 (aleph-one). The
the Cantor set. It is not hard to see that this
continuum hypothesis, which asserts that there are no sets
for by avoiding points with the digit
whose cardinality is strictly between 0 and c , implies
expansion we avoid conicts crethat c = 1 .
ated by the fact that the ternary-expansion of a real
number is not unique. We then have that 20 c .



By the CantorBernsteinSchroeder theorem we conclude that

c = |P (N)| = 20 .

Georg Cantor introduced the concept of cardinality to

compare the sizes of innite sets. He famously showed
that the set of real numbers is uncountably innite; i.e. c
is strictly greater than the cardinality of the natural numbers, 0 :

(A dierent proof of c = 20 is given in Cantors diagonal

argument. This proof constructs a bijection from {0,1}N
to R.)


The cardinal equality c2 = c can be demonstrated using

cardinal arithmetic:

2 Beth numbers
Main article: Beth number

c2 = (20 )2 = 220 = 20 = c.

The sequence of beth numbers is dened by setting 0 =

By using the rules of cardinal arithmetic one can also 0 and k+1 = 2k . So c is the second beth number,
show that
c0 = 0 0 = n0 = cn = 0 c = nc = c,

where n is any nite cardinal 2, and

c = 1 .
The third beth number, beth-two, is the cardinality of the
power set of R (i.e. the set of all subsets of the real line):

cc = (20 )c = 2c0 = 2c ,
where 2c is the cardinality of the power set of R, and 2c = .
2c > c .


Alternative explanation for c = 20

3 The continuum hypothesis

Every real number has at least one innite decimal ex- Main article: Continuum hypothesis
pansion. For example,
1/2 = 0.50000...
1/3 = 0.33333...
= 3.14159....
(This is true even when the expansion repeats as in the
rst two examples.) In any given case, the number of
digits is countable since they can be put into a one-to-one
correspondence with the set of natural numbers N . This
fact makes it sensible to talk about (for example) the rst,
the one-hundredth, or the millionth digit of . Since the
natural numbers have cardinality 0 , each real number
has 0 digits in its expansion.

The famous continuum hypothesis asserts that c is also the

second aleph number 1 . In other words, the continuum
hypothesis states that there is no set A whose cardinality
lies strictly between 0 and c

0 < |A| < c.

This statement is now known to be independent of the axioms of ZermeloFraenkel set theory with the axiom of
choice (ZFC). That is, both the hypothesis and its negation are consistent with these axioms. In fact, for every
nonzero natural number n, the equality c = n is indepenSince each real number can be broken into an integer part dent of ZFC (the case n = 1 is the continuum hypothesis). The same is true for most other alephs, although in
and a decimal fraction, we get
some cases equality can be ruled out by Knigs theorem
on the grounds of conality, e.g., c = . In particular, c
4 0
0 +40
be either 1 or 1 , where 1 is the rst uncountc 0 10 2 (2 ) = 2
able ordinal, so it could be either a successor cardinal or
a limit cardinal, and either a regular cardinal or a singular
0 + 4 0 = 0 .

On the other hand, if we map 2 = {0, 1} to {3, 7} and

consider that decimal fractions containing only 3 or 7 are
only a part of the real numbers, then we get


4 Sets with cardinality of the continuum

A great many sets studied in mathematics have cardinality
equal to c . Some common examples are the following:

and thus

the real numbers R

c = 20 .

any (nondegenerate) closed or open interval in R

(such as the unit interval [0, 1] )

For instance, for all a, b R such that a < b
we can dene the bijection

the Euclidean topology on Rn (i.e. the set of all open

sets in Rn )

f : R (a, b)
arctan x + 2
(b a) + a
x 7

Now we show the cardinality of an innite interval. For all a R we can dene the bijection
f : R (a, )
arctan x + 2 + a if x < 0
x 7
if x 0
x + 2 + a

the Borel -algebra on R (i.e. the set of all Borel

sets in R ).

and similarly for all b R

f : R (, b)
x 2 + b
x 7
arctan x

if x < 0
+ b if x 0

the irrational numbers

the transcendental numbers
We note that the set of real algebraic numbers
is countably innite (assign to each formula its
Gdel number.) So the cardinality of the real
algebraic numbers is 0 . Furthermore, the
real algebraic numbers and the real transcendental numbers are disjoint sets whose union
is R . Thus, since the cardinality of R is c ,
the cardinality of the real transcendental numbers is c 0 = c . A similar result follows
for complex transcendental numbers, once we
have proved that |C| = c .
the Cantor set
Euclidean space Rn [1]
the complex numbers C
We note that, per Cantors proof
of the cardinality of Euclidean space,[1] R2 = c . By definition, any c C can be uniquely expressed
as a + bi for some a, b R . We therefore
dene the bijection
f : R2 C
(a, b) 7 a + bi
the power set of the natural numbers P(N) (the set
of all subsets of the natural numbers)
the set of sequences of integers (i.e. all functions
N Z , often denoted ZN )
the set of sequences of real numbers, RN
the set of all continuous functions from R to R

5 Sets with greater cardinality

Sets with cardinality greater than c include:
the set of all subsets of R (i.e., power set P(R) )
the set 2R of indicator functions dened on subsets
of the reals (the set 2R is isomorphic to P(R) the
indicator function chooses elements of each subset
to include)
the set RR of all functions from R to R
the Lebesgue -algebra of R , i.e., the set of all
Lebesgue measurable sets in R .
the Stoneech compactications of N , Q and R
the set of all automorphisms of the eld of complex
These all have cardinality 2c = 2 (beth two).

6 References
[1] Was Cantor Surprised?, Fernando Q. Gouva

Paul Halmos, Naive set theory. Princeton, NJ:

D. Van Nostrand Company, 1960. Reprinted by
Springer-Verlag, New York, 1974. ISBN 0-38790092-6 (Springer-Verlag edition).
Jech, Thomas, 2003. Set Theory: The Third Millennium Edition, Revised and Expanded. Springer.
ISBN 3-540-44085-2.
Kunen, Kenneth, 1980. Set Theory: An Introduction to Independence Proofs. Elsevier. ISBN 0-44486839-9.
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