Thu, 02 Aug 2018
A professor of mine once said to me that all teaching was a process of lying, and then of replacing the lies with successively better approximations of the truth. “I say it's like this,” he said, “and then later I say, well, it's not actually like that, it's more like this, because the real story is too complicated to explain all at once.” I wouldn't have phrased it like this, but I agree with him in principle. One of the most important issues in pedagogical practice is deciding what to leave out, and for how long.
Kids inevitably want to ask about numerical infinity, and many adults will fumble the question, mumbling out some vague or mystical blather. Mathematics is prepared to offer a coherent and carefully-considered answer. Unfortunately, many mathematically-trained people also fumble the question, because mathematics is prepared to offer too many answers. So the mathematical adult will often say something like “well, it's a lot of things…” which for this purpose is exactly not what is wanted. When explaining the concept for the very first time, it is better to give a clear and accurate partial explanation than a vague and imprecise overview. This article suggests an answer that is short, to the point, and also technically correct.
In mathematics “infinity” names a whole collection of not always closely related concepts from analysis, geometry, and set theory. Some of the concepts that come under this heading are:
I made a decision ahead of time that when my kids first asked what infinity was, I would at first adopt the stance that “infinity” referred specifically to the set-theoretic ordinal !!\omega!!, and that the two terms were interchangeable. I could provide more details later on. But my first answer to “what is infinity” was:
As an explanation of !!\omega!! for kids, I think this is flawless. It's brief and it's understandable. It phrases the idea in familiar terms: counting. And it is technically unimpeachable. !!\omega!! is, in fact, precisely the unique smallest number you can't count to.
How can there be a number that you can't count to? Kids who ask about infinity are already quite familiar with the idea that the sequence of natural numbers is unending, and that they can count on and on without bound. “Imagine taking all the numbers that you could reach by counting,” I said. “Then add one more, after all of them. That is infinity.” This is a bit mind-boggling, but again it is technically unimpeachable, and the mind-bogglyness of it is nothing more than the intrinsic mind-bogglyness of the concept of infinity itself. None has been added by vagueness or imprecise metaphor. When you grapple with this notion, you are grappling with the essence of the problem of the completed infinity.
In my experience all kids make the same move at this point, which is to ask “what comes after infinity?” By taking “infinity” to mean !!\omega!!, we set ourselves up for an answer that is much better than the perplexing usual one “nothing comes after infinity”, which, if infinity is to be considered a number, is simply false. Instead we can decisively say that there is another number after infinity, which is called “infinity plus one”. This suggests further questions. “What comes after infinity plus one?” is obvious, but a bright kid will infer the existence of !!\omega\cdot 2!!. A different bright kid might ask about !!\omega-1!!, which opens a different but fruitful line of discussion: !!\omega!! is not a successor ordinal, it is a limit ordinal.
Or the kid might ask if infinity plus one isn't equal to infinity, in which case you can discuss the non-commutativity of ordinal addition: if you add the “plus one” at the beginning, it is the same (except for !!\omega!! itself, the picture has just been shifted over on the page):
But if you add the new item at the other end, it is a different picture:
Before there was only one extra item on the right, and now there are two. The first picture exemplifies the Dedekind property, which is an essential feature of infinity. But the existence of an injection from !!\omega+1!! to !!\omega!! does not mean that every such map is injective.
Just use !!\omega!!. Later on the kid may ask questions that will need to be answered with “Earlier, I did not tell you the whole story.” That is all right. At that point you can reveal the next thing.
[ Addendum 20220226: Joel D. Hamkins wrote a Math Stack Exchange post in which he made the same suggestion: “In my experience with children, one of the easiest-to-grasp concepts of infinity is provided by the transfinite ordinals…”. ]