The Universe of Discourse

Mon, 27 Nov 2023

Uncountable sets for seven-year-olds

I was recently talking to a friend whose seven-year old had been reading about the Hilbert Hotel paradoxes. One example: The hotel is completely full when a bus arrives with 53 passengers seeking rooms. Fortunately the hotel has a countably infinite number of rooms, and can easily accomodate 53 more guests even when already full.

My friend mentioned that his kid had been unhappy with the associated discussion of uncountable sets, since the explanation he got involved something about people whose names are infinite strings, and it got confusing. I said yes, that is a bad way to construct the example, because names are not infinite strings, and even one infinite string is hard to get your head around. If you're going to get value out of the hotel metaphor, you waste an opportunity if you abandon it for some weird mathematical abstraction. (“Okay, Tyler, now let !!\mathscr B!! be a projection from a vector bundle onto a compact Hausdorff space…”)

My first attempt on the spur of the moment involved the guests belonging to clubs, which meet in an attached convention center with a countably infinite sequence of meeting rooms. The club idea is good but my original presentation was overcomplicated and after thinking about the issue a little more I sent this email with my ideas for how to explain it to a bright seven-year-old.

Here's how I think it should go. Instead of a separate hotel and convention center, let's just say that during the day the guests vacate their rooms so that clubs can meet in the same rooms. Each club is assigned one guest room that they can use for their meeting between the hours of 10 AM to 4 PM. The guest has to get out of the room while that is happening, unless they happen to be a member of the club that is meeting there, in which case they may stay.

If you're a guest in the hotel, you might be a member of the club that meets in your room, or you might not be a member of the club that meets in your room, in which case you have to leave and go to a meeting of one of your clubs in some other room.

We can paint the guest room doors blue and green: blue, if the guest there is a member of the club that meets in that room during the day, and green if they aren't. Every door is now painted blue or green, but not both.

Now I claim that when we were assigning clubs to rooms, there was a club we missed that has nowhere to meet. It's the Green Doors Club of all the guests who are staying in rooms with green doors.

If we did assign the Green Doors Club a guest room in which to meet, that door would be painted green or blue.

The Green Doors Club isn't meeting in a room with a blue door. The Green Doors Club only admits members who are staying in rooms with green doors. That guest belongs to the club that meets in their room, and it isn't the Green Doors Club because the guest's door is blue.

But the Green Doors Club isn't meeting in a room with a green door. We paint a door green when the guest is not a member of the club that meets in their room, and this guest is a member of the Green Doors Club.

So however we assigned the clubs to the rooms, we must have missed out on assigning a room to the Green Doors Club.

One nice thing about this is that it works for finite hotels too. Say you have a hotel with 4 guests and 4 rooms. Well, obviously you can't assign a room to each club because there are 16 possible clubs and only 4 rooms. But the blue-green argument still works: you can assign any four clubs you want to the four rooms, then paint the doors, then figure out who is in the Green Doors Club, and then observe that, in fact, the Green Doors Club is not one of the four clubs that got a room.

Then you can reassign the clubs to rooms, this time making sure that the Green Doors Club gets a room. But now you have to repaint the doors, and when you do you find out that membership in the Green Doors Club has changed: some new members were admitted, or some former members were expelled, so the club that meets there is no longer the Green Doors Club, it is some other club. (Or if the Green Doors Club is meeting somewhere, you will find that you have painted the doors wrong.)

I think this would probably work. The only thing that's weird about it is that some clubs have an infinite number of members so that it's hard to see how they could all squeeze into the same room. That's okay, not every member attends every meeting of every club they're in, that would be impossible anyway because everyone belongs to multiple clubs.

But one place you could go from there is: what if we only guarantee rooms to clubs with a finite number of members? There are only a countably infinite number of clubs then, so they do all fit into the hotel! Okay, Tyler, but what happens to the Green Door Club then? I said all the finite clubs got rooms, and we know the Green Door Club never gets a room, so what can we conclude?

It's tempting to try to slip in a reference to Groucho Marx, but I think it's unlikely that that will do anything but confuse matters.

[ Previously ]

[ Update: My friend said he tried it and it didn't go over as well as I thought it might. ]

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