The Size of a Set – 2

Infinite Sets, Countability
Amber Habib
Department of Mathematics
Shiv Nadar University
Abstract
Notes for the Precalculus course taught to 1st year students of the B.S.
Mathematics program.
1 Infinite Sets
Definition 1.1 A set is infinite if it is not finite, i.e. if it has a proper subset
with the same cardinality.
Example 1.2 The set N is infinite since N \ {1} is a proper subset with the
same cardinality. 2
Exercise 1.3 If |A| ≤ |B| and A is infinite, then B is infinite.
The set of natural numbers is as small as an infinite set can be:
Theorem 1.4 A is infinite if and only if |N| ≤ |A|.
Proof: The ‘if’ part follows from the previous exercise. For the ‘only if’ part,
assume A is infinite. Then A has a proper subset B with a bijection g : A → B.
Let x ∈ A\ B. Now define a function f : N → A by
f(n) = g
n
(x) = (g ◦ · · · ◦ g
. ¸¸ .
n times
)(x)
It is easy to check that f is an injection and so |N| ≤ |A|. 2
Recall that S
n
= {1, . . . , n} if n ∈ N, and S
0
= ∅.
Theorem 1.5 A is infinite if and only if |S
n
| ≤ |A| for all n.
1
Proof: Suppose A is finite. Then |A| = |S
n
| for some n, and so |A| < |S
n+1
|.
This proves the “if” direction. On the other hand, if A is infinite, we have
|N| ≤ |A| and so |S
n
| ≤ |A| for all n. 2
Thus an infinite set is larger than any finite set.
Theorem 1.6 If A is an infinite set and B is a finite subset of A, then |A\B| =
|A|.
Proof: It is enough to prove the case when B is a singleton: B = {b}. Since A
is infinite, it has a subset N with the same cardinality as N and we can assume
N = {b
1
= b, b
2
, b
3
, . . . }. Now define a bijection g : A → A \ B by
g(a) =
_
b
n+1
a = b
n
a a ∈ B
2
2 Countable Sets
Definition 2.1 A set A is called countably infinite if |A| = |N|. We denote
its cardinality by ℵ
0
(pronounced ‘Aleph-Nought’).
We have seen that n < ℵ
0
for every n = 0, 1, 2, . . . and that ℵ
0
≤ |A| for
every infinite set A.
Definition 2.2 A set is called countable if it is either finite or countably infi-
nite.
Example 2.3 We have seen earlier that N\{1} and 2N have the same cardinality
as N – hence they are countably infinite. The set of integers Z is also countably
infinite: Consider g : N →Z defined by
g(n) =
_
¸
¸
_
¸
¸
_
n
2
n even

n −1
2
n odd
This is a bijection. 2
Exercise 2.4 If A and B are countable, so is A∪ B.
Exercise 2.5 If A
1
, . . . , A
n
are countable, so is ∪
n
i=1
A
i
.
Example 2.6 A rather startling example of a countably infinite set is N × N.
On the face of it, it looks much larger than N as it contains infinitely many copies
of N. Nevertheless, we have |N×N| = |N|. We first present the proof pictorially.
2
Arrange the elements of N×N in an infinite grid, and then ‘snake’ through them
as shown below:
(1, 1) (1, 2) (1, 3) (1, 4) · · ·
(2, 1) (2, 2) (2, 3) (2, 4) · · ·
(3, 1) (3, 2) (3, 3) (3, 4) · · ·
(4, 1) (4, 2) (4, 3) (4, 4) · · ·
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
The arrows lead to the following sequential arrangement of N ×N
(1, 1), (2, 1), (1, 2), (3, 1), (2, 2), (1, 3), (4, 1), (3, 2), (2, 3), (1, 4), . . .
and this establishes a bijection with N.
We can give an explicit formula for the bijection g : N ×N →N revealed by
this diagram:
g(m, n) =
1
2
(m + n −1)(m + n −2) + n
2
Exercise 2.7 If A is countably infinite, so is A×A.
Exercise 2.8 If A is countable, so is A×A.
Exercise 2.9 If A
1
, A
2
, . . . are countable, so is ∪

i=1
A
i
.
Theorem 2.10 The set Q of rational numbers is countably infinite.
Proof: Since N ⊆ Q, we see that ℵ
0
≤ |Q|. Next we give an injection g : Q →
Z × Z. Recall that a non-zero rational number can be written uniquely in the
form p/q where p ∈ Z, q ∈ N and p, q are coprime. Now define g by
g(r) =
_
¸
_
¸
_
0 , r = 0
(p, q) , r =
p
q
, p ∈ Z \ {0}, q ∈ N and p, q are coprime
Since g is an injection, we have |Q| ≤ |Z ×Z| = ℵ
0
. 2
3 Uncountable Sets
Definition 3.1 A set is called uncountable if it is not countable. If A is
uncountable we write ℵ
0
< |A|
3
An uncountable set must, of course, be infinite. However all the infinite sets
we have taken up so far (N, Z, Q,. . . ) have turned out to be countable.
Example 3.2 Consider the set of all functions on the natural numbers taking
values 0 or 1: F = {f : N → {0, 1}}. We will prove that F is uncountable by
showing that there is no surjection from N to F.
Let f : N → F. Let us use the notation f
n
= f(n). Let us further write
a
m,n
= f
m
(n). Now we define a member g of F as follows:
g(n) =
_
0 f
n
(n) = 1
1 f
n
(n) = 0
Since g(n) = f
n
(n), we have g = f
n
for all n. Therefore g ∈ f(N) and f is not
surjective. 2
This example shows that not only do we have a distinction between finite
and infinite, we have different magnitudes of infinity as well. At present we are
grouping everything larger than N under ‘uncountable’ but we will soon see that
these can be further broken up into a multitude of sizes.
The structure of the proof that F is uncountable has its own importance.
It is known as Cantor’s diagonal argument, as it is based on the following
diagram:
a
1,1
a
1,2
a
1,3
· · ·
a
2,1
a
2,2
a
2,3
· · ·
a
3,1
a
3,2
a
3,3
· · ·
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
Each row represents a member of f(N). The extra member g is created by
changing the diagonal entries and collecting the new values.
Exercise 3.3 If A is uncountable and B is a countable subset of A, then we
have |A\ B| = |A|.
Theorem 3.4 The interval [0, 1] of real numbers is uncountable.
Proof: Every real number a ∈ [0, 1] has a decimal expansion 0.a
1
a
2
· · · . The
expansion is not unique, for example we have
0.0999 · · · =
9
100
+
9
1000
+
9
10000
+· · · =
1
10
= 0.1000 · · ·
so that 1/10 has two expansions: 0.0999 · · · and 0.1000 · · · . What is the extent
of this non-uniqueness? Consider two decimal expansions:
a = 0.a
1
a
2
· · · b = 0.b
1
b
2
· · ·
4
Suppose the first k − 1 entries of the expansions are the same, so that the first
difference is in the k entry. This creates a gap between a and b. Can it be
compensated by the remaining entries?
Let us compare the smallest possible gap between the k-th entries with the
greatest possible compensation from the remaining ones. Thus, let a
k
= 1,
b
k
= 0, all the remaining terms in a be 0 and those of b be 9. In this case, we
have
b = 0.b
1
· · · b
k−1
0999 · · ·
= 0.b
1
· · · b
k−1
1000 · · ·
= 0.a
1
· · · a
k−1
1000 · · · = a
If any of the b
n
(n > k) are not 9, the second equality will be a strict
inequality, and b < a.
If any of the a
n
(n > k) are not 0, the third equality will be a strict inequality,
and b < a.
So the only numbers with non-unique decimal expansions are the ones with
an expansion which terminates, and even these have only two different expan-
sions. Let us agree that for any a ∈ [0, 1] we will write only its non-terminating
expansion.
Now suppose that [0, 1] is countable. Then
[0, 1] = {a
(1)
, a
(2)
, . . . }
Write the non-terminating decimal expansion of each element:
a
(i)
= 0.a
(i)
1
a
(i)
2
· · ·
Apply Cantor’s diagonal method. Define a number b = 0.b
1
b
2
· · · by
b
i
=
_
1 , a
(i)
i
= 5
5 , else
This is a non-terminating expansion which differs from a
(i)
in the i-th digit. So
b is not equal to any of the a
(i)
. 2
Exercise 3.5 Show that |[0, 1]| = |F|. (Hint: Apply the techniques of the above
proof to the binary expansions of the real numbers)
4 Higher Cardinals
There is a systematic way of creating larger and larger sets.
5
Definition 4.1 Let A be a set. The power set of A, denoted ℘(A), is the set
of all the subsets of A.
Note that ∅ will always be a member of ℘(A). Here is a list of some small sets,
their power sets, and their cardinalities:
A ℘(A) |A| ℘(A)
∅ {∅} 0 1
{1} {∅, {1}} 1 2
{1, 2} {∅, {1}, {2}, {1, 2}} 2 4
{1, 2, 3} {∅, {1}, {2}, {3}, {1, 2}, {1, 3}, {2, 3}, {1, 2, 3}} 3 8
Theorem 4.2 If A is finite and |A| = n then |℘(A)| = 2
n
.
Proof: (Proof 1) Let p(k) be the number of subsets of size k. Each subset
corresponds to a choice of k elements out of n, so p(k) =
_
n
k
_
. Hence
|℘(A)| =
n

k=0
p(k) =
n

k=0
_
n
k
_
1
k
1
n−k
= (1 + 1)
n
= 2
n
(Proof 2) A subset is formed by choosing, for each element of A, whether it
belongs to that subset or not. Since there are n elements and 2 choices per
element, the number of distinct choices is
2 ×· · · ×2
. ¸¸ .
n times
= 2
n
2
This leads to the following notation: |℘(A)| = 2
|A|
.
Theorem 4.3 For any set A, |A| < 2
|A|
.
Proof: We adapt Cantor’s diagonal argument. Let : A → ℘(A) be any function.
We will show it is not surjective.
Define G ⊂ A by G = {x ∈ A : x ∈ f(x)}. Since G is a subset of A
we have G ∈ ℘(A). Now suppose G = f(a) for some a ∈ A. Then we have
a ∈ G ⇐⇒ a ∈ f(a) ⇐⇒ a ∈ G! This contradiction shows G = f(a) and
hence f is not surjective. 2
Exercise 4.4 Show that |R| = |[0, 1]| = |F| = |2

0
|.
There is an infinity of infinities:

0
< 2

0
< 2
2

0
< 2
2
2

0
< · · ·
6
5 Trichotomy and Continuum Hypothesis
In this section we mention two important facts, but without proof.
One question we have not addressed is whether the cardinalities of two sets
can always be compared. This turns out to be a rather hard question to answer.
It was resolved by Friedrich Hartogs in 1915 as follows:
Theorem 5.1 (Trichotomy Theorem) The Axiom of Choice is equivalent to
the following statement: Given any two sets A and B, exactly one of the following
occurs:
1. |A| < |B|
2. |A| = |B|
3. |B| < |A|
Another question is whether the cardinality 2

0
is the ‘next’ one after ℵ
0
: Is
there a set A with ℵ
0
< |A| < 2

0
(Equivalently, |N| < |A| < |R|)? Cantor pro-
posed that there was no such A and this is called the Continuum Hypothesis.
Kurt G¨odel proved in 1938 that the Continuum Hypothesis is consistent with
the usual axioms of set theory – so adding it to those axioms does not lead to
a contradiction. This still left open the question of whether it is a theorem, a
necessary consequence of those axioms.
Paul Cohen then proved in 1963 that the negation of the Continuum Hy-
pothesis is also consistent with the axioms! This shows that the hypothesis is
not a necessary consequence of the earlier axioms. Thus it is left to us to decide
whether we include it in our theory as an independent axiom or not.
The following reference has nice descriptions and history: Two Classical
Surprises Concerning the Axiom of Choice and the Continuum Hypothesis by
Leonard Gillman, MAA Monthly, Vol 109, June–July 2002, pages 544–553.
1
1
Available online at www.maa.org/news/monthly544-553.pdf
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