The Universe of Discourse

Wed, 13 Feb 2008

The least interesting number
Berry's paradox goes like this: Some natural numbers, like 2, are interesting. Some natural numbers, like 255610679 (I think), are not interesting. Consider the set of uninteresting natural numbers. If this set were nonempty, it would contain a smallest element s. But then s, would have the interesting property of being the smallest uninteresting number. This is a contradiction. So the set of uninteresting natural numbers must be empty.

This reads like a joke, and it is tempting to dismiss it as a trite bit of foolishness. But it has rather interesting and deep connections to other related matters, such as the Grelling-Nelson paradox and Gödel's incompleteness theorem. I plan to write about that someday.

But today my purpose is only to argue that there are demonstrably uninteresting real numbers. I even have an example. Liouville's number L is uninteresting. It is defined as:

$$\sum_{i=1}^\infty {10}^{-i!} = 0.1100010000000000000001000\ldots$$

Why is this number of any concern? In 1844 Joseph Liouville showed that there was an upper bound on how closely an irrational algebraic number could be approximated by rationals. L can be approximated much more closely than that, and so must therefore be transcendental. This was the proof of the existence of transcendental numbers.

The only noteworthy mathematical property possessed by L is its transcendentality. But this is certainly not enough to qualify it as interesting, since nearly all real numbers are transcendental.

Liouville's theorem shows how to construct many transcendental numbers, but the construction generates many similar numbers. For example, you can replace the 10 with a 2, or the n! with floor(en) or any other fast-growing function. It appears that any potentially interesting property possessed by Liouville's number is also possessed by uncountably many other numbers. Its uninterestingness is identical to that of other transcendental numbers constructed by Liouville's method. L was neither the first nor the simplest number so constructed, so Liouville's number is not even of historical interest.

The argument in Berry's paradox fails for the real numbers: since the real numbers are not well-ordered, the set of uninteresting real numbers need have no smallest element, and in fact (by Berry's argument) does not. Liouville's number is not the smallest number of its type, nor the largest, nor anything else of interest.

If someone were to come along and prove that Liouville's number was the most uninteresting real number, that would be rather interesting, but it has not happened, nor is it likely.