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# 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

ℵ

0

|.

There is an inﬁnity of inﬁnities:

ℵ

0

< 2

ℵ

0

< 2

2

ℵ

0

< 2

2

2

ℵ

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

ℵ

0

is the ‘next’ one after ℵ

0

: Is

there a set A with ℵ

0

< |A| < 2

ℵ

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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