Cardinal Number - Motivation


In informal use, a cardinal number is what is normally referred to as a counting number, provided that 0 is included: 0, 1, 2, .... They may be identified with the natural numbers beginning with 0. The counting numbers are exactly what can be defined formally as the finite cardinal numbers. Infinite cardinals only occur in higher-level mathematics and logic.

More formally, a non-zero number can be used for two purposes: to describe the size of a set, or to describe the position of an element in a sequence. For finite sets and sequences it is easy to see that these two notions coincide, since for every number describing a position in a sequence we can construct a set which has exactly the right size, e.g. 3 describes the position of 'c' in the sequence <'a','b','c','d',...>, and we can construct the set {a,b,c} which has 3 elements. However when dealing with infinite sets it is essential to distinguish between the two — the two notions are in fact different for infinite sets. Considering the position aspect leads to ordinal numbers, while the size aspect is generalized by the cardinal numbers described here.

The intuition behind the formal definition of cardinal is the construction of a notion of the relative size or "bigness" of a set without reference to the kind of members which it has. For finite sets this is easy; one simply counts the number of elements a set has. In order to compare the sizes of larger sets, it is necessary to appeal to more subtle notions.

A set Y is at least as big as, or greater than or equal to a set X if there is an injective (one-to-one) mapping from the elements of X to the elements of Y. A one-to-one mapping identifies each element of the set X with a unique element of the set Y. This is most easily understood by an example; suppose we have the sets X = {1,2,3} and Y = {a,b,c,d}, then using this notion of size we would observe that there is a mapping:

1 → a
2 → b
3 → c

which is one-to-one, and hence conclude that Y has cardinality greater than or equal to X. Note the element d has no element mapping to it, but this is permitted as we only require a one-to-one mapping, and not necessarily a one-to-one and onto mapping. The advantage of this notion is that it can be extended to infinite sets.

We can then extend this to an equality-style relation. Two sets X and Y are said to have the same cardinality if there exists a bijection between X and Y. By the Schroeder-Bernstein theorem, this is equivalent to there being both a one-to-one mapping from X to Y and a one-to-one mapping from Y to X. We then write |X| = |Y|. The cardinal number of X itself is often defined as the least ordinal a with |a| = |X|. This is called the von Neumann cardinal assignment; for this definition to make sense, it must be proved that every set has the same cardinality as some ordinal; this statement is the well-ordering principle. It is however possible to discuss the relative cardinality of sets without explicitly assigning names to objects.

The classic example used is that of the infinite hotel paradox, also called Hilbert's paradox of the Grand Hotel. Suppose you are an innkeeper at a hotel with an infinite number of rooms. The hotel is full, and then a new guest arrives. It's possible to fit the extra guest in by asking the guest who was in room 1 to move to room 2, the guest in room 2 to move to room 3, and so on, leaving room 1 vacant. We can explicitly write a segment of this mapping:

1 ↔ 2
2 ↔ 3
3 ↔ 4
nn + 1

In this way we can see that the set {1,2,3,...} has the same cardinality as the set {2,3,4,...} since a bijection between the first and the second has been shown. This motivates the definition of an infinite set being any set which has a proper subset of the same cardinality; in this case {2,3,4,...} is a proper subset of {1,2,3,...}.

When considering these large objects, we might also want to see if the notion of counting order coincides with that of cardinal defined above for these infinite sets. It happens that it doesn't; by considering the above example we can see that if some object "one greater than infinity" exists, then it must have the same cardinality as the infinite set we started out with. It is possible to use a different formal notion for number, called ordinals, based on the ideas of counting and considering each number in turn, and we discover that the notions of cardinality and ordinality are divergent once we move out of the finite numbers.

It can be proved that the cardinality of the real numbers is greater than that of the natural numbers just described. This can be visualized using Cantor's diagonal argument; classic questions of cardinality (for instance the continuum hypothesis) are concerned with discovering whether there is some cardinal between some pair of other infinite cardinals. In more recent times mathematicians have been describing the properties of larger and larger cardinals.

Since cardinality is such a common concept in mathematics, a variety of names are in use. Sameness of cardinality is sometimes referred to as equipotence, equipollence, or equinumerosity. It is thus said that two sets with the same cardinality are, respectively, equipotent, equipollent, or equinumerous.

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