The Universe of Discourse

Sat, 04 Jan 2014

Cauchy and the continuum

There is a famous mistake of Augustin-Louis Cauchy, in which he is supposed to have "proved" a theorem that is false. I have seen this cited many times, often in very serious scholarly literature, and as often as not Cauchy's purported error is completely misunderstood, and replaced with a different and completely dumbass mistake that nobody could have made.

The claim is often made that Cauchy's Course d'analyse of 1821 contains a "proof" of the following statement: a convergent sequence of continuous functions has a continuous limit. For example, the Wikipedia article on "uniform convergence" claims:

Some historians claim that Augustin Louis Cauchy in 1821 published a false statement, but with a purported proof, that the pointwise limit of a sequence of continuous functions is always continuous…

The nLab article on "Cauchy sum theorem" states:

Non-theorem (attributed to Cauchy, 1821). Let !!f=(f_1,f_2,\ldots)!! be an infinite sequence of continuous functions from the real line to itself. Suppose that, for every real number !!x!!, the sequence !!(f_1(x), f_2(x), \ldots)!! converges to some (necessarily unique) real number !!f_\infty(x)!!, defining a function !!f_\infty!!; in other words, the sequence !!f!! converges pointwise? to !!f_\infty!!. Then !!f_\infty!! is also continuous.

Cauchy never claimed to have proved any such thing, and it beggars belief that Cauchy could have made such a claim, because the counterexamples are so many and so easily located. For example, the sequence !! f_n(x) = x^n!! on the interval !![-1,1]!! is a sequence of continuous functions that converges everywhere on !![0,1]!! to a discontinuous limit. You would have to be a mathematical ignoramus to miss this, and Cauchy wasn't.

Another simple example, one that converges everywhere in !!\mathbb R!!, is any sequence of functions !!f_n!! that are everywhere zero, except that each has a (continuous) bump of height 1 between !!-\frac1n!! and !!\frac1n!!. As !!n\to\infty!!, the width of the bump narrows to zero, and the limit function !!f_\infty!! is everywhere zero except that !!f_\infty(0)=1!!. Anyone can think of this, and certainly Cauchy could have. A concrete example of this type is $$f_n(x) = e^{-x^{2}/n}$$ which converges to 0 everywhere except at !! x=0 !!, where it converges to 1.

Cauchy's controversial theorem is not what Wikipedia or nLab claim. It is that that the pointwise limit of a convergent series of continuous functions is always continuous. Cauchy is not claiming that $$f_\infty(x) = \lim_{i\to\infty} f_i(x)$$ must be continuous if the limit exists and the !!f_i!! are continuous. Rather, he claims that $$S(x) = \sum_{i=1}^\infty f_i(x)$$ must be continuous if the sum converges and the !!f_i!! are continuous. This is a completely different claim. It premise, that the sum converges, is much stronger, and so the claim itself is much weaker, and so much more plausible.

Here the counterexamples are not completely trivial. Probably the best-known counterexample is that a square wave (which has a jump discontinuity where the square part begins and ends) can be represented as a Fourier series.

(Cauchy was aware of this too, but it was new mathematics in 1821. Lakatos and others have argued that the theorem, understood in the way that continuity was understood in 1821, is not actually erroneous, but that the idea of continuity has changed since then. One piece of evidence strongly pointing to this conclusion is that nobody complained about Cauchy's controversial theorem until 1847. But had Cauchy somehow, against all probability, mistakenly claimed that a sequence of continuous functions converges to a continuous limit, you can be sure that it would not have taken the rest of the mathematical world 26 years to think of the counterexample of !!x^n!!.)

The confusion about Cauchy's controversial theorem arises from a perennially confusing piece of mathematical terminology: a convergent sequence is not at all the same as a convergent series. Cauchy claimed that a convergent series of continuous functions has a continuous limit. He did not ever claim that a convergent sequence of continuous functions had a continuous limit. But I have often encountered claims that he did that, even though such such claims are extremely implausible.

The claim that Cauchy thought a sequence of continuous functions converges to a continuous limit is not only false but is manifestly so. Anyone making it has at best made a silly and careless error, and perhaps doesn't really understand what they are talking about, or hasn't thought about it.

[ I had originally planned to write about this controversial theorem in my series of articles about major screwups in mathematics, but the longer and more closely I looked at it the less clear it was that Cauchy had actually made a mistake. ]

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