Some Pysics Insights
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The Real Numbers

Informally, the "real numbers" are the rational numbers with all the holes plugged.

Before we proceed with any formalism, let's exhibit an example of a "hole" in the rational numbers. We will take, for our "hole", the square root of 2:
Lemma:  √2 is not a rational number.
Suppose x2 = 2. If x is a rational number then we can express it as a fraction, and what's more, we can express it as a reduced fraction. Let file:///media/disk/home/slawrence/website/physics_insights/physics/formulas/eqe_temp_image_3sKh6N.png represent the set of integers. Then:

(L.1)     file:///media/disk/home/slawrence/website/physics_insights/physics/formulas/eqe_temp_image_QaptNh.png


(L.2)     file:///media/disk/home/slawrence/website/physics_insights/physics/formulas/eqe_temp_image_Q5OfwQ.png

Then we must have

(L.3)     file:///media/disk/home/slawrence/website/physics_insights/physics/formulas/eqe_temp_image_rgcJhP.png

And so n2 must be even. But since √2 obviously isn't an integer, while n certainly is an integer, we see that n must also be even.

If n is even, then clearly n2 must be divisible by 4. In that case, n2/2 must also be even, and since we have

(L.4)    file:///media/disk/home/slawrence/website/physics_insights/physics/formulas/eqe_temp_image_nghqCO.png

we see that m2 is even also. By the same argument, therefore, m must be even. But if both n and m are even, we must be able to express n/m as

(L.5)   file:///media/disk/home/slawrence/website/physics_insights/physics/formulas/eqe_temp_image_8KW44h.png

But this contradicts (L.2), and we conclude that √2 must not be expressible as a rational number.

The real numbers satisfy the axioms of the rational numbers, with one important change.  We remove the "rationality axiom", and add the continuum axiom in its place:

(C.1) Any nonempty subset of the real numbers which is bounded above has a least upper bound.

There are actually several equivalent ways to state the continuum axiom. The statement I've just given, though perhaps not maximally intuitive, is convenient for use in the construction of the real numbers.

We've just shown, above, that the rational numbers do not satisfy the continuum axiom. For consider the set:

 (1)    file:///media/disk/home/slawrence/website/physics_insights/physics/formulas/eqe_temp_image_C4dyJA.png

This is certainly nonempty: 1 ε S. It's certainly bounded above: 3 is larger than any element of S. But the least upper bound of the set is √2, which is not a rational number.

Very well, so the rationals don't satisfy (A.1) -- but how do we know any set will satisfy it? How do we know the real numbers exist? We will construct them ... or, rather, we will sketch the construction of the reals; the details actually fill a slim book [Landau:1].

We will start with the rational numbers, which we call The image “file:///media/disk/home/slawrence/website/physics_insights/physics/formulas/eqe_temp_image_fJkEpr.png” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.. We first define a cut (also called a "Dedekind cut"). If a nonempty subset of the rationals, Γ, is a cut, then it divides ("cuts") the rational numbers in two, and has these properties:

(C.1)     file:///media/disk/home/slawrence/website/physics_insights/physics/formulas/eqe_temp_image_Q5AxZM.png

(C.2)    file:///media/disk/home/slawrence/website/physics_insights/physics/formulas/eqe_temp_image_NYTQ0T.png

(C.3)    file:///media/disk/home/slawrence/website/physics_insights/physics/formulas/eqe_temp_image_vabK6n.png

Property (C.1) says a cut contains a continuous block of numbers, extending to the "left". Property (C.2) says that the numbers that are not in the cut are also a continuous block, extending to the right.

Property (C.3) says that, if a cut has a rational least upper bound, then that bound is a member of the cut set.  However, that may not be obvious, so let's talk a little about it.

The term


says x is a lower bound on Γc, the complement of the cut.  So property (C.3) says that any lower bound of Γc must be contained in the cut set.  If x is the least upper bound on Γ, then x is also the greatest lower bound on Γc.  Since it's a lower bound for Γc, it must be a member of the cut set.

We observe immediately that each rational number, q, corresponds to a cut:

(2)    file:///media/disk/home/slawrence/website/physics_insights/physics/formulas/eqe_temp_image_KGJyZZ.png

From here on, we will use rational numbers interchangeably with the cuts corresponding to them. In particular, we'll use "0", "1", and "-1" to refer to Γ(0), Γ(1), and Γ(-1), as the need arises.

At this point, we observe that the set S, defined above in (1), is also a cut, and it corresponds to √2. If we view the rational numbers as being contained in the set of cuts, via the correspondence q ↔ Γ(q) as defined in (2), then the set of cuts must therefore be a proper superset of the rational numbers.

The set of all cuts will be our model of the real numbers. But we're not done yet: we still need to define comparisons, and we need to define multiplication and addition.

Comparisons are easy. It's simpler to define ≤ than <, so that's what we'll do. For two cuts, G and H,

(3)     file:///media/disk/home/slawrence/website/physics_insights/physics/formulas/eqe_temp_image_2y8scY.png

The "complementary" relations are then defined in the obvious way:


Addition is easy, too:

(4)     file:///media/disk/home/slawrence/website/physics_insights/physics/formulas/eqe_temp_image_Ko2iIw.png

Multiplication is a bit trickier. The problem is that all our cuts have "tails" extending arbitrarily far to the left, and if we just multiply all the members of two cuts we'll get something that has a tail extending arbitrarily far to the right. So we need to be cleverer than that.

We can define the product of two non-negative cuts:

(5)    file:///media/disk/home/slawrence/website/physics_insights/physics/formulas/eqe_temp_image_9ZNfXV.png

In other words, to find the product of two non-negative cuts, just ignore the negative "tail" of each cut (remove the tail).  Take the set containing the products of all the non-nonegative members of the cuts, and then just add all the negative numbers to the set (i.e., put the "tail" back on).

Now, before we define the product of two general cuts, we need a few "helper definitions". The first of these is negation:

(6)     file:///media/disk/home/slawrence/website/physics_insights/physics/formulas/eqe_temp_image_JnVuaa.png

We can define absolute value in terms of negation:

(7)    file:///media/disk/home/slawrence/website/physics_insights/physics/formulas/eqe_temp_image_A0bYX6.png

We need to know how to multiply by -1:

(8)     file:///media/disk/home/slawrence/website/physics_insights/physics/formulas/eqe_temp_image_1OIiYV.png

We'll define one "helper function":

(9a)     file:///media/disk/home/slawrence/website/physics_insights/physics/formulas/eqe_temp_image_yeJBlL.png

(9b)     file:///media/disk/home/slawrence/website/physics_insights/physics/formulas/eqe_temp_image_WxsMzb.png

And finally, we can define multiplication of two general cuts:

(10)     file:///media/disk/home/slawrence/website/physics_insights/physics/formulas/eqe_temp_image_bRQm43.png

This completes the creation of the model. We have defined comparisons, addition, and multiplication. The rationals are embedded in the new model, and the comparison operation is clearly an extension of the comparison operation for the rationals. The definitions for addition and multiplication are pretty clearly the appropriate extensions from the rationals but rigorous proofs of those claims, as well as the claim that the model satisfies the axioms of the reals, would take more work than what I have displayed here.

The continuum axiom, as I stated it here, just describes a cut of the rationals. In our model for the real numbers, the least upper bound of such a set is the cut itself. So the model does indeed satisfy the continuum axiom.

The Axiom of Choice

It's worth calling some attention to one of the steps I glossed over. I rather casually said we would form the set of all cuts of the rationals. That's actually an enormous set, and it's formed as a subset of an equally enormous set, which is the power set of the rational numbers. It actually requires an uncountably infinite number of operations to form the set of all cuts. The assertion that we can form that set depends on the axiom of choice. This leads to the real numbers having some rather peculiar properties, and not everyone feels it's entirely legitimate.

It is possible to develop a version of analysis that doesn't depend on the axiom of choice, based on what are called the "constructible reals".

Page not complete.  We would like to add the proof that the model satisfies the axioms, some comments on alternative statements of the continuum axiom, and a few additional small theorems and properties which can be derived easily from the axioms, which will show that we really have constructed the familiar real numbers here.  As of 11/2007, however, these are not done, even on paper, and I don't know when, if ever, they'll be added to this page.


See Edmund Landau, Foundations of Analysis, for a thorough exposition of the construction of the real numbers. I've glossed over a lot and left out a great deal on this page. Landau does it "right". If you can find it in the library, that's the way to go -- it's well worth reading once, but it's not a book you'll refer to a lot.

This material was originally posted on Anarchopedia, in somewhat different form, on 03:39, 19 Nov 2004 (UTC)

Page created on 11/18/2007