Friday, October 25, 2002

Experience Mathematics #18 - All about itself

Russel’s Paradox shows that considering sets that contain themselves (or even asking whether they contain themselves or not) can lead to contradictory situations. But Real Life has many such self-referential situations. In this column, we will collect together many amusing (and not!) statements, such as this one.

“All Cretans are Liars”, said the Cretan Epimenides. Did Epimenides tell the truth? How can he, since he is a Cretan, and hence a liar? But if he lied, maybe he is telling the truth!

What about: This sentence is false. Is it true or false? Go through each sentence in this column and evaluate whether it is true or false.

This sentence has four words. This one, however, has six words. This one has one too too many words.

This sentence has no comma. This sentence does not describe itself.

This article is written by the author of this article. In other words, the author of Experience Mathematics writes Experience Mathematics. It is self-referential, since it refers to itself. In fact, the article refers to itself several times—but only once does the article refer to itself twice in one sentence. The author of this article is careful not to write self-referential statements.

Is this a question or not. How about this statement?

The above two statements beg the question. But what is the question? Was that the question? Does this answer the question?

The sentence below is false. The above sentence is true.

Lets not say any more, and end.

Friday, October 11, 2002

Experience Mathematics # 17 -- If it is, then it is not

A set can be thought of as a collection of objects. But what is it, really? The above sentence does not say: A set is a collection of objects. So is a set a collection of objects, or can it only be thought of as a collection of objects?

Sets can be of two types: those that contain themselves, and those that do not. For example, consider the set $F$ of fruits in your home. This set is not a fruit, so cannot contain itself. Now consider the set $A$. The set $A$ contains all sets that can be described in less than sixteen words. The above sentence has only $15$ words and describes $A$, so $A$ must be a member of itself.

Now consider the set $R$ of all sets that do not contain themselves as a member. In particular, $F$ is a member of $R$. The question is: Is $R$ a member of itself?

Well, if it is, then by definition $R$ consists of sets that do not contain themselves as a member. So $R$ is not a member of $R$. In short, if it is, then it is not.

Conversely, suppose $R$ is not a member of itself. Then since $R$ contains all sets that are not members of themselves, $R$ must be an element of $R$. Thus, if it is not, it is!

This paradox—pointed out the famous philosopher, Bertrand Russell—led to the formalization of set theory. Formally speaking, a ‘set’ and the relation ‘is an element of’ are undefined notions that satisfy certain axioms. However, we can continue to think of a set as a collection of objects. Just make sure that we consider only well defined sets—where we can decide whether any given object is an element of the set or not. That saves us from all Russellian disasters.

Thursday, October 03, 2002

Experience Mathematics #16 -- An apple a day

If you study mathematics, then you will have to deal with many statements that contain expressions of the form: If $A$ then $B$  (or, $A$ implies $B$).

Suppose it is true that if you have an Apple a day, then you keep the doctor away. Is it true that if you did not visit the doctor, then you must have had an Apple everyday? Not necessarily. In other words: “if $A$ then $B$” is a true statement, then “if $B$, then $A$” may be false. The statement “if $B$, then $A$” is the converse of “if $A$ then $B$”.

The converse is not to be confused with the contrapositive of the statement. The contrapositive of “if $A$ then $B$” is: “if not $B$ then not $A$”. Unlike the converse, if a statement is true, its contrapositive is true too. Indeed, either they are both true, or they are both false. For example, suppose that it is true that an Apple a day keeps the doctor away. Now if the doctor comes to visit you, you must not have had an Apple some day. Mathematics contains axioms (that may be regarded as “truths”) together with chains of implications—statements of the form “$A$ implies $B$”, where $A$ and $B$ are mathematical expressions. Suppose your axioms say:

1. An Orange contains the daily requirement of Vitamin C.

2. Having your daily requirement of Vitamin C will keep you healthy.

3. If you are healthy, the doctor will stay away

Then, logic dictates that an Orange a day will keep the doctor away. Unfortunately, an Apple does not contain a lot of Vitamin C.