Infinity is Funny

You probably have some idea of what infinity means. Something that is infinite goes on forever. But it might surprise you to know that there are different kinds of infinity, and some are bigger than others!

As an example, a circle has an infinite number of points. (Yet the circumference of the circle has finite length.) Compare that to a straight line with infinite length. Both have infinitely many points but does the finite length circle have fewer? [The answer is no.]

To understand all this, we have to first talk a bit about numbers.

Try to stay awake while counting these!

We can start with the counting numbers. They have been with us the longest. From the beginning humans have found it useful to count things: sheep, coins, people; even ships and mountains.

Before numbers were really understood, humans used a one-to-one relationship between what they were counting and some way of representing the count. Hash marks in clay, pebbles in a bag, knots in a rope, these were all ways of representing how many of something else you had.

If you’ve ever counted using the “prisoner’s hash marks,” you’ve used this early counting method. Each mark stands for one of whatever you’re counting.

Technically, this is called base one notation. One mark (or knot or pebble) stands for one something. (And a rope with 30 knots is a lot easier to carry around than 30 sheep. Or 30 ships!)

Because the process of counting things is ancient, natural, organic, free-range, and sugar-free, the counting numbers are formally known as the natural numbers.

Mathematicians have a symbol that represents the set of all natural numbers: is N (or ℕ).

Many of the natural numbers have names: one, two, three,… fifteen, fifty, hundred, and so on. Others are named by tacking names together: fifty-seven, twelve-hundred-and-ninety-nine, and so on.

It might surprise you, but there is no agreement on whether zero is included in the natural numbers. Some include it; others don’t. It’s generally included in a formal definition of the natural numbers as the first (and only) number explicitly defined.

(Not including it is due to zero having come later in the mathematics of many cultures. For many, at first there was no symbol to stand for the unmarked clay, the unknotted rope, the empty pebble bag.)


The next step along the way was the need to sometimes represent a part of something.

If one day’s work was worth one loaf of bread; a half day’s work is worth a half loaf. How many loaves does a worker who worked 10 half days get?

Somehow you had to add up 10 half loaves.

Better than no loaf at all!

That example is simple enough, but it’s just the start.

Once you develop a way to handle fractions of things, it gets harder. In school, you’ve probably had to add 2/3 to 1/5, and that’s not as intuitive as adding ten halves!

Numbers which are fractions, that can be represented as a/b, are called rational numbers; their symbol is Q (or ℚ), for quotient.

All natural numbers are also rational numbers. For instance, five is 5/1.

Rational numbers have a decimal expansion form. For example, 1/2 is 0.5, 1/5 is 0.2 and 1/3 is 0.333…

That last one illustrates an important point: the decimal form of rational numbers extends forever. It always extends forever, even if it’s just zeros. Technically speaking, 1/2 is 0.500…, and 1/5 is 0.2000… In both cases, and in all like them, the zeros go on forever.

Another important case comes from 1/11, which is 0.090909…

The decimal expansion of rational numbers either repeats the same digit (including zero) or it repeats a pattern of digits. That pattern can be as short as two digits (as with 1/11), or it can be indeterminately long.

For example. the more complex pattern that comes from 2/7, which is 0.285714285714285714… Can you see where it repeats? (If not, here’s a hint: it appears three times.) Once a pattern begins to repeat, it repeats forever.


If there are rational numbers, you might think there could be irrational numbers.

You’d be right! All numbers with a decimal point are called real numbers; they have the symbol R (or ℝ). Real numbers with repeating sequences are rational; real numbers that never repeat are irrational.

Irrational numbers cannot be represented with fractions (because all fractions result in rational numbers).

And it turns out that nearly all real numbers are irrational numbers! The most famous of which is π (pi). The digits of pi go on forever and never repeat. There is no fraction that equals pi. In fact, pi is transcendental (a special kind of real number), so there is no formula for the exact value of pi.


Now we’re finally ready to get back to the idea of infinity.

You know the natural numbers are infinite.

We can start counting them and keep counting them forever. No matter how big a number we consider, we can always add a one to it to make a bigger number.

This fact is actually the theoretical basis of the natural numbers. The idea is to start by defining a starting number, usually zero but sometimes one, and then just adding one to it to make any other number we want. We use zero to define one, one to define two, two to define three, and so on.

The process of adding a one to a number to get the next number in line is called a successor function.

We can count — or enumerate — the natural numbers because they have a successor function (the successor function called “add one”).


If you thought counting sheep was hard, try counting grains of sand!

Which brings us to the first important concept of infinity: There is a type of infinity that can be counted.

The counting goes on forever, but we can always name the next number in line, no matter where we are in the count.

It turns out that even the rational numbers are countable.

We can design a successor function that enumerates the rational numbers, because rational numbers have the form a/b, and since ‘a‘ and ‘b‘ are natural numbers (which are countable), rational numbers are countable.


This brings us to the second important concept of infinity: All countable infinities are the same “size.”

Suppose we list the natural numbers: 1, 2, 3,…

And then we also list them by tens: 10, 20, 30,…

Even though the second list skips nine numbers for every number on the list, both lists are the same size. (The same logic applies if we take, for example, just the even numbers: 2, 4, 6…)

We prove this by showing that, for every number on the first list, there is a corresponding number on the second list (and vice-versa).

We call this mapping one set (list) onto another. If the map is one-to-one, then the size of the two sets is the same.

Count on the blue line.

Since we can enumerate them, the set of natural numbers and the set of rational numbers are the same size.

Of infinity.

You might think the set of fractions was bigger with an infinite number of fractions between each natural number, but the two sets can indeed be mapped onto each other, which means they must be the same size.

The same size of infinity. Countable infinity.


Transcendental, irrational pi!

But now consider the irrational numbers.

What is the first number after pi?

We know the digits of pi go on forever with no pattern. A successor function adds something to the current number to generate a new number. What can we add to pi to generate the next number? We need something along the lines of an infinity of zeros followed by a one.

But infinities go on forever, so the zeros never end, which means we never get to the one!

Which means we can never name the next number after pi. Or the one right below it.

In fact, for any given real number (even if it’s also natural or rational), we can never name the next real number.


Which brings us to the third important concept about infinity: The irrational numbers cannot be counted, because there is no successor function.

What this ends up meaning is that the set of all irrational numbers is a larger infinity than the set of natural (or rational) numbers. There is no map between the two sets.

Cantor’s Diagonal.

About 130 years ago, a mathematician by the name of Georg Cantor came up with an elegant proof demonstrating that the real numbers were uncountable.

His proof uses a trick, called the diagonal argument, that I’ll explain when we take this topic up again.

For now, remember these facts about infinity:

  1. The natural and rational numbers are infinite but countable.
  2. All countable infinities are the same size.
  3. The irrational numbers are infinite and uncountable.
  4. Uncountable infinities have a larger “size” than countable infinities.

Until next time, don’t count your chicken enchiladas until they’re served!

Update 11/10/2014: The diagonal argument is discussed in detail in the Sideband #54: Cantor’s Diagonal post.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

23 responses to “Infinity is Funny

  • The Green Study

    I had to read this about 3 times before firmly grasping the concepts. I imagine it would take an infinite amount of time for me to truly comprehend. I love math, but my brain has decided to chuck it in favor of knowing all the lyrics to top hits from the 80s. C’est la vie.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Awesome that you did read it three times to get the comprehension, though!!

      Thing about those 80s lyrics over math… you’d be the one winning the trivia contests. They don’t have many questions about the theory of integers. (Pity. Maybe I’d do well then. I really, really suck at trivia. I forget most books and movies not long after reading/seeing them… it does make it nice to repeat them, though.)

  • TellyGeek

    Wow. I loved the part about cheese enchiladas! YUM!

    Seriously I’m not completely daft. I watch a lot of TV and one thing I know about Infinity I learned from an astronaut and a very rich lady with a black belt and a plan for Revenge

    1) Infinity and Beyond!
    2) Infinity x infinity as a measure of love.

    Google it! *head nodding vigorously* See I am smart!! 🙂

  • arleneyolles

    Nice! In fact, I used to begin ALL my math classes (Pre-Algebra and beyond) with a lecture just like this! One question: I did not think that the rationals were countable (discrete), since there can always be another in between any two of them.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I know! Astonishing isn’t it! And yet they are. Both the numerator and the denominator are integers, so they have to be countable. The diagram with the caption, “Count on the blue line,” shows how it’s done. That back and forth pattern continues to infinity, but the path covers every possible rational.

      Here’s a problem you might like chewing on (or maybe it’ll be child’s play for you). Several times now, on theoretical math blogs, I’ve seen someone present a trick they claim enumerates the reals. Basically, it’s a tree; it can be binary or decimal or whatever. Let’s say it’s decimal. Top node represents the decimal point. The ten nodes beneath it represent the real numbers 0.0 – 0.9. Each node has ten nodes. Now the tree goes from 0.00 – 0.99. The tree extends downwards to infinity.

      Therefore, every possible real number is in the tree (that part is true). Therefore the tree can be enumerated, which means Cantor was wrong, right? (Wrong! But explaining why is trickier than it seems, which is why people think they’ve proved Cantor wrong. (At least it took some figuring for me; as I said, maybe it’s obvious to you.))

  • wakemenow

    Interesting stuff. Can’t claim much of it stuck, but infinity is awesome to ponder. 🙂

  • rung2diotimasladder

    So next time someone says “I’m infinity times infinity cooler than you.” I can reply, “Well I’m irrational infinity!”

    (Of course, that person could reply: “I’m irrational infinity times irrational infinity.”)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Ha! Yes, exactly! You can go full math geek on them and point out that “infinity times infinity” is still the same plain old infinity, and they haven’t actually increased anything. XD

      Now you’ll understand and appreciate the phrase, “Don’t worry if math makes no sense to you — most numbers are irrational!” (There’s a tee-shirt that reads: “Numbers may be real, but most are irrational.”)

      Funny thing… doing math with infinities is something mathematicians actually do. It’s called transfinite math. What little I know about it gives me the same sense of the willies that complex (imaginary) numbers do to you. That sense of, “No… you just made that shit up outta the whole cloth!” I wonder if there isn’t a point like that in mathematics for many — a point where it just gets too weird.

      As you know, there is a division among mathematicians between whether math is just a game of symbol manipulation (with no fundamental connection to reality) or whether it’s somehow a reflection of the real world. It’s kind of a modern math philosophy view of the Plato/Aristotle divide. (I’ve heard it said that most working mathematicians are secret Platonists because otherwise they’re devoting their lives to a made up game. These days, given the popularity of video games, perhaps that’s not as embarrassing seeming as it once might have been.)

      Anyway, there seems a point for many where the mind rebels and goes, “Oh, no! That is just a game with symbols!” For me it’s the idea of a “population” of infinities. I can see the countable and uncountable division. To me that mirrors the digital and analog division we see throughout reality. (If matter and energy are quantized (discrete) — which we know they are — but time and space are smooth (per Einstein, but we don’t know if it’s true), then the “bumpy” and “smooth” division exists in the very fabric of reality.)

      • rung2diotimasladder

        The real/game divide in math is interesting. I can see how the secret Platonists might just say, “Well THAT part’s a game, but the rest is real,” each drawing their lines according to what they think makes sense. I have no idea what happens with real closet Platonist mathematicians, but I’d be curious to know.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’m not quite sure what you’re asking in your question… Do you mean what they do in the privacy of their own closets? ❓

        There are a variety of points of view in mathematical philosophy. Formalism, Intuitionalism, Constructivism, and Fictionalism, are all different ways of looking at (and seriously questioning) math’s reality.

        As you probably know, I lean towards Realism, even a form of Platonism. I do think think that math is a priori. At the same time, while I’m not sure I’m entirely clear on Kant’s analytical-synthetic distinction, I agree with his view that math is a priori synthetic (insofar as I understand “synthetic”). I agree there is an element of human synthesis. We discover mathematical principles and objects, but we invent the language and meta-structure of mathematics based on those discoveries.

        A crude metaphor: dogs are real objects we discover, but every language has different words for them, and every society sees, places, and uses, them within that society differently.

      • rung2diotimasladder

        Well you know I’m not a math person. I’m not sure where I am on mathematical philosophy, but of course I’d like to be a Platonist. 🙂

        So what do “closet Platonist” mathematicians make of the really bizarre math like imaginary numbers? Are imaginary numbers in some sense “real” for them? My question was, do these mathematical Platonists have to disregard some useful math as “not real” or merely manipulation while holding that most of it is real?

        BTW, I found this article you might like. No need to read it if you don’t feel like it. I skimmed it and decided it was over my head, but it might not be over yours.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ha! I have some pages about Kant I printed off that site many years ago. I’ve been meaning to go back and see if the site was still around and do some more reading, so thanks for the link!

        I’m no expert, but I’d guess Platonists would accept the reality of the complex number plane as a real form. Did Plato require a form be expressible in concrete form in our world? Or can an inexpressible perfect form merely have application in our world?

        The Intuitionalists (and some others) would be the ones most likely to choke on complex numbers, I’d think.

      • rung2diotimasladder

        I feel like I should know the answers to those questions, but I don’t. The details about the forms are often obscure, and so is their relationship to the visible world. Scholars debate whether Plato really bought into his theory of forms since he actually criticized the theory himself.

        Glad you liked the link!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It was funny you gave me that link. I’m not kidding that I’ve been meaning to see if that site still exists for a long time. The stuff about Kant was really instructive. I re-read it occasionally over breakfast as I chew on trying to understand Kant. But it sometimes makes reference to parts I didn’t print, so — this is over breakfast mind you — I keep reminding myself to type in the link printed along the bottom of the page and see if the site is still around.

        But being me, when I’m actually at the computer, I never remember. Now I have an actual link I can ignore just like the one to the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that I liked so much I donated a bit of money and have always meant to spent a lot of time reading. For years. [sigh]

      • rung2diotimasladder

        Wow, that’s some pretty dense reading over breakfast!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’ve always liked reading while eating breakfast. It started with cereal boxes, of course, the breakfast-reading gateway. That lead to bringing my own reading material, but breakfast is short enough to make fiction kinda pointless, so it’s invariably something non-fiction.

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