Friday, August 30, 2002

Experience Mathematics # 11 -- Counting

How can you tell if there are enough chairs in your classroom so that every student has a chair? One way is to count the chairs and the number of students in your class. A simpler way is to ask each student to sit down. If all the students are able to sit down, and no chair is left over, the number of students and chairs is equal.

This fundamental idea is at the heart of mathematics, because it deals with counting. Just like there is a weight that represents a kilogram, there is a unit in mathematics that represents a number $n$. Let $I(n)$ be the set containing the first $n$ natural numbers. The set $I(n)$ is the “unit” that represents the number $n$. For example, the set $A$ with elements $a, b, c, \dots, z$, has $26$ elements because this set can be put in one to one correspondence with $I(26)$. 

But what about infinite sets? The set $N$ of natural numbers is a unit for infinite sets. We say a set $S$ is countable if it can be put in one to one correspondence with $N$. It is remarkable that the following subsets of $N$ are countable. Can you find the one to one correspondence between $N$ and these sets?

1. The set of all even numbers.

2. The set with elements $1, 4, 7, 10, \dots$

3. The set of all rational numbers.

Can you show that the set of prime numbers is countable?

When it comes to infinite sets, a part can be equal to the whole.

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