Posts Tagged 'Set Theory'

Aleph, Beth, Continuum

Georg Cantor developed a remarkable theory of infinite sets. He was the first person to show that not all infinite sets are created equal. The number of elements in a set is indicated by its cardinality. Two sets with the same cardinal number are “the same size”. For two finite sets, if there is a one-to-one correspondence — or bijection — between them, they have the same number of elements. Cantor extended this equivalence to infinite sets.

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The Empty Set is Nothing to Worry About

Today’s article is about nothing: nothing at all, as encapsulated in the number zero and the empty set. It took humanity millennia to move beyond the counting numbers. Zero emerged in several civilizations, first as a place-holder to denote a space or gap between digits, and later as a true number, which could be manipulated like any other. [see TM143, or search for “thatsmaths” at].


A selection of images of zero (google images).

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Stan Ulam, a mathematician who figured how to initiate fusion

Stanislaw Ulam, born in Poland in 1909, was a key member of the remarkable Lvov School of Mathematics, which flourished in that city between the two world wars. Ulam studied mathematics at the Lvov Polytechnic Institute, getting his PhD in 1933. His original research was in abstract mathematics, but he later became interested in a wide range of applications. He once joked that he was “a pure mathematician who had sunk so low that his latest paper actually contained numbers with decimal points” [TM138 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


Operation Castle, Bikini Atoll, 1954

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The Birth of Functional Analysis

Stefan Banach (1892–1945) was amongst the most influential mathematicians of the twentieth century and the greatest that Poland has produced. Born in Krakow, he studied in Lvov, graduating in 1914 just before the outbreak of World War I. He returned to Krakow where, by chance, he met another mathematician, Hugo Steinhaus who was already well-known. Together they founded what would, in 1920, become the Polish Mathematical Society.

A coin and a postage stamp commemorating Stefan Banach.

A coin and a postage stamp commemorating Stefan Banach.

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Do you remember Venn?

Do you recall coming across those diagrams with overlapping circles that were popularised in the ‘sixties’, in conjunction with the “New Maths”. They were originally introduced around 1880 by John Venn, and now bear his name.

RIght: John Venn (1834–1923) with signature. Left: Stained glass window at Gonville & Caius College showing Venn diagram [images Wikimedia Commons].

Left: Stained glass window at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge showing a Venn diagram. Right: John Venn (1834-1923) with signature [images Wikimedia Commons].

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Degrees of Infinity

Many of us recall the sense of wonder we felt upon learning that there is no biggest number; for some of us, that wonder has never quite gone away. It is obvious that, given any counting number, one can be added to it to give a larger number. But the implication that there is no limit to this process is perplexing.

Georg Cantor (1845 – 1918) around 1870 (left) and in later life (right).

Georg Cantor (1845 – 1918) around 1870 (left) and in later life (right).

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