On this page, we'll show that the rational numbers
are countable, then show that the set of all numbers that can ever be
named is countable; we'll then go on to show that the real numbers
are uncountable. We'll also show that the set of all numbers
which can ever be named has measure zero, and from that conclude that,
if you threw a dart at the number line, the probability that you'd hit
a number which could be named would be zero
A set is called countable
if it can be placed in 1:1 correspondence with the nonnegative integers
In other words, if we can assign a different integer to every
member of the set, and not have any members left over, then the
set is countable.
Another way to say the same thing is a countable set can be sorted
into a sequence which can be indexed by the (nonnegative) integers.
To start with we'll count the rational numbers between 0 and 1, which will show what we mean by this.
Countability of the Rational Numbers between 0 and 1
Write each rational number as a reduced fraction. That is, express it as a ratio of integers, "a/b", where a
have no factors besides 1 in common. Then sort the set, using the comparison:
If we then write down the list of all rationals between 0 and 1 in the order given by
we can see that each of them must (eventually) appear on the list.
Furthermore, if we number the items on the list using the
integers, then for any particular rational, we can easily find an upper
bound on the integer it will be assigned. Call its index on the
. Then it's clear that:
shows that the set of rational values between 0 and 1 is countable.
(Actually determining the precise value assigned to each rational
is feasible but tricky, and not necessary for our purposes; all we care
about is showing that each rational gets assigned some
could take this particular case farther, showing that the set of all
rational numbers is countable, and then showing that all Cartesian
products of the rationals are countable. We could then go on and
extend this to other sets besides the rational numbers. However,
we're going to take a different approach.
We're going to show that everything we can ever talk about, even in principle, forms a countable set.
The Set of All Symbols
The Unicode character encoding scheme assigns a number to all symbols commonly in use. But we can go farther than that.
Consider the set of all
symbols ever written down by anyone anywhere on Earth since time began.
That set is clearly finite; in fact it probably has no more than
a few million members.
Let's merge all those symbols into a
single giant alphabet, which we'll call Ecode (for Extended Unicode).
Using Ecode, we can assign to each symbol ever used anywhere on
Earth its own unique integer.
To avoid problems later, we will reserve the value 0
and assign it to no symbol. (The ASCII null
symbol will be given some other code point.)
The Set of All Finite Strings
the addition of a few special characters to indicate what direction the
text is running in, we are in a position to write any statement -- any
string, any document ever written, in fact any document which ever could
be written -- in Ecode.
Suppose there are N
characters in Ecode, where N
is some number on the order of a billion or less. Then any Ecode character string may be treated as a string of "base N
" digits, and may be interpreted as a number written in base N
. (Note that we did not assign the digit value 0
to any symbol, so we don't have problems with ambiguity due to extra leading zeros.)
Conversely, given any integer, if we convert it to base N
, we can read off its digits as an Ecode string.
we have established a 1:1 mapping between a subset of the integers and
all possible strings in Ecode. In particular, we have shown that
the set of all possible character strings of finite length is countable.
Consequently, we realize that the set of all things which can be
described by use of character strings is also countable. That
includes all possible images (since they can be expressed as Ecode
strings -- to see this, consider that they may be character-encoded and
attached to email messages), all possible books (a book is just a long
character string), and all possible descriptions of anything (a
description is, after all, of finite length, and consists of statements
and images, all of which can be encoded as finite Ecode strings).
We can summarize this as follows:
An object which can be described by a statement of finite length
The set of all nameable objects is countable.
Numbers with (Finite) Names
any number which we might care to discuss. To do anything with
the number we must be able to specify its value. That
specification is its name
, and any number which has such a specification is nameable
course all the integers and all the rationals have names.
Furthermore, all the real numbers we can think of -- in fact, all
the real numbers we can ever specify -- must also have names. As
examples, consider three irrational numbers: π, e
, and √2. Each of these has a name
-- that is, it has a finite specification of its value; in fact each of
them has many names. Here are examples which may make it clearer
what we mean by names
Each of these names
consists of a finite number of symbols, and can certainly be expressed
as an Ecode string as we've described them. Consequently, each of
these names corresponds to a unique integer in the mapping we gave.
In a similar way, any other number of which we can speak must
have (at least one) name
And so we see that the set of all numbers which can be named
Countability of the Real Numbers
the set of all real numbers which we could ever name is countable.
But does that set include all real numbers? No; it's easy
to show the set of all real numbers is uncountable.
The usual approach is a diagonalization
proof. I'll give an overview, then a more detailed proof.
we have a "counting" of the real numbers -- a list of all of them,
indexed by the integers. Write out each one as a series of terms,
written horizontally, with the list running vertically. Now run
down the list, taking the first term from the first number, the second
term from the second number, and so on, sliding out along the diagonal
as we go down the list. For each term, substitute a different value
. Put all the new terms together in a string, and the result must be a number which was not on the list.
Now, for the detailed proof, let's consider all the real numbers between 0 and 1. Express each one as a decimal expansion
, which is a decimal point followed by a string of decimal digits:
The whole list would look like this:
Now construct a new number, by adding 5
to each digit on the diagonal, and fudging to avoid accidentally
producing an infinite string of 9's (which would be an alias for a
single 1). We'll map the digits as follows:
We now apply this mapping to the digits d0,0
and so forth, and obtain a new value,
By construction, r∞
differs from rk
at the kth
decimal place, and so is not equal to any
of the values on our list. From this we conclude that any
list of real numbers which is indexed by the integers must be incomplete.
Since the set of nameable numbers is countable, there must, therefore, be real numbers which cannot be named
-- they cannot be represented by any
finite string of characters.
Measure of the Nameable Numbers
We have shown that there is at least one
real number which cannot be named. But is there more than one?
Obviously; otherwise we could add the unnamed one to our list and
we'd be done. So just how many
unnameable reals are there?
A moment's reflection should be enough to realize that there are an uncountable
number of unnameable real numbers. For, if the set of nameless
numbers were countable, we could just index it with the integers.
By indexing it with the even integers, and indexing the nameable
numbers by the odd integers, we would obtain a counting for the whole
This has strange consequences. Consider the measure
of the interval (0,1). It's 1
-- the total length of the interval is 1. (Well, obviously, eh?) But what is the measure of the nameable
find it, let's start with a counting of the nameable numbers -- a list
of all of them, indexed by the integers. Let's center an interval
of length a
on the first entry in the list, then center an interval of length a/2
on the second entry on the list, a/4
on the third entry, and so forth, dividing the length of the new
interval by 2 at each step. The union of all of those intervals
certainly contains all the nameable numbers. So, the total length
-- or the "measure" -- of the nameable numbers must be no larger than
the sum of the lengths of those intervals.
We can compute the sum of the lengths of the intervals. If the total measure of the nameable numbers is L
then we must have:
-- this is true for any
positive value of a
. That can only be true if
So the nameable numbers have total measure zero
. But the length of the interval (0,1) is 1
-- what's taking up all the space?
The space is taken up by the unnameable
numbers. Almost every point on the number line is unnameable.
A Dart and the Number Line
Suppose we had a dart with an infinitely sharp point, and we threw it at the number line. It would strike one single value
on the line. Let's pull out the dart and look at the number it
hit. What's the probability that the number is one we can name?
probability that it's nameable is equal to the ratio of the measure of
the nameable numbers to the total measure of the number line.
The probability of hitting a number with a name is nonexistent.
The set of numbers that can be named is utterly insignificant in comparison to the set of numbers which cannot be named.
Many people have found this result disturbing.
An Intuitive Contradiction
The rationals are dense. That means that, in any finite interval, there is at least one rational number.
In particular, between any two different real numbers, there is a rational number.
Suppose we have two unnameable
numbers. Then sandwiched between them there is a rational number.
This is easy to see: Take the decimal expansions of the two
unnameable numbers. Find the first digit at which they differ.
Copy all the identical digits, copy the larger value for the two
"differing" digits, and stop right there. The new string
represents a rational number which lies between the two expansions.
Intuitively, this would seem
to indicate that there are exactly as many rational numbers as there
are unnameable numbers! But intuition fails terribly when dealing
with uncountable sets. In this case, intuition has nothing to say
about how many unnameable numbers might lie between our "middle-value"
rational number and either of the two original unnameable numbers --
and intuition is also mute in the face of this: You can't select two unnameable numbers to start with!
We can never find any
unnameable number, because they are, simply, unnameable. But our
argument assumed from the start that we could somehow select two of
these values; from there on it's all down hill.
can obtain a slightly better idea of how large the set of unnameable
numbers is by taking the decimal expansions of the values between 0 and
1 and "turning them around", or "reversing" them. Use the same
digits, but put them to the left
of the decimal point. To
make this work out nicely we need an extra convention -- we need to add
one more digit value for use as a "flag value", so we can write exact
values for repeating decimals using a finite number of digits. With
that small (and obviously practical) change, we can map every rational
fraction to a finite
integer by reversing its digits and putting the decimal point at the right hand end.
what of the unnameable values? When these are reversed, they
extend off to the left, without ever terminating; they represent
infinitely large values. The rationals are represented as finite
integers, and the difference between any two "reversed" rationals is finite.
However, the difference between any two unnameable numbers is infinite
One can count from any reversed rational to any other reversed
rational in a finite number of steps, but to count from any unnameable
number to any other requires an infinite
number of steps.
Intuitively, this suggests that the the ratio of the number of
unnameables to rationals must be infinite -- and indeed it is.
I should hasten to say that you shouldn't try to take this
visualization too literally. It doesn't address the difference
between nameable and unnameable irrational numbers, and it makes very
sloppy use of the concept of "infinitely large" integers.
created on 11/23/2007