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The story of Georg Cantor

The story of Georg Cantor

The prefix "trans" means "beyond". So a transfinite number is one that's beyond the finite. There's only one and that's infinity, right? Wrong. It turns out there are many transfinite numbers. Infinity is just a general concept, and the real mathematics is the study of transfinite numbers.

This work is due to Georg Cantor, who showed that there are many transfinite numbers, and some are bigger than others! He even developed an arithmetic for working with transfinite numbers. He denoted them by the Hebrew letter "aleph".

His work stands as one of the most elegant pieces of mathematics ever.

So what did Cantor do?

He formalized counting. He started with the integers {1,2,3,...} and asked what other sets could be placed in 1-to-1 correspondence with the integers. Instead of just saying there are an infinite amount of integers he denoted the number of integers by aleph0 and developed an arithmetic that in many ways treated aleph0 as a regular number. But he went further..

He showed that the rational numbers (fractions) could also be placed in 1-to-1 correspondence with the integers. So counterintuitively, there are only as many rational numbers as there are integers. Not more!

But when it comes to irrational numbers, there are many more. He called this number aleph1 and he showed that it was different and bigger than aleph0. He proved that the number of subsets of the set of integers {1,2,3,...} is also aleph1 and he produced this amazing result..


He even asked if there was an aleph number between aleph0 and aleph1.

During his lifetime Cantor was ridiculed, not by the general public, but by many of his fellow mathematicians. Today his work is regarded as brilliant and is taught as part of the standard university mathematics curriculum.

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Content written and posted by Ken Abbott
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