Goodstein Theorem

On reading a magazine on Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems, I came across a family of sequences of non-negative integers called Goodstein sequences and the Goodstein Theorem involving these sequences.

Goodstein’s thoerem is a statement about the natural numbers, proved by Reuben Goodstein in 1944, which states that every Goodstein sequence converges to 0.

What is a Goodstein Sequence?

To understand what a Goodstein sequence, first we must understand what hereditary base-n notation is. Whilst this notation is very similar to the usual base-n notation, base-n notation is not sufficient for Goodstein’s theorem.

To convert a base-n representation to a hereditary base-n notation, first rewrite all of the exponents in base-n notation. Then rewrite any exponents inside the exponents, and continue this way until every number in the expression has been converted to base-n notation.

For example, 35 = 25 + 2 + 1 in ordinary base-2 notation but Screen Shot 2017-07-11 at 5.37.45 PM.png in hereditary base-2 notation.

Now we can define the Goodstein sequence G(m) of a natural number m. In general the (n+1)-st term G(m)(n+1) of the Goodstein sequence of m is given as follows (taken from Wikipedia):

  • Take the hereditary base-n + 1 representation of G(m)(n).
  • Replace each occurrence of the base-n + 1 with n + 2.
  • Subtract one. (Note that the next term depends both on the previous term and on the index n.)
  • Continue until the result is zero, at which point the sequence terminates.

In spite of the rapid growth of the terms in the sequence, Goodstein’s theorem states that every Goodstein sequence eventually terminates at 0, no matter what the starting value is.

Mathematicians Laurie Kirby and Jeff Paris proved in 1982 that Goodstein’s theorem is not provable in ordinary Peano arithmetic. In other words, this is the type of theorem described in 1931 by Gödel’s incompleteness theorem.

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