Surreal Numbers

Surreal numbers were first invented by John Horton Conway in 1969, but was introduced to the public in 1974 by Donald Knuth through his book ‘Surreal Numners: How Two Ex-Students Turned on to Pure Mathematics and Found Total Happiness‘.

What are Surreal Numbers?

Surreal numbers are the ‘most natural’ collection of numbers that include both real numbers and the infinite ordinal numbers of Georg Cantor. The surreals have many of the same properties as the reals, including the usual arithmetic operations. Hence, they form an ordered field.

For a surreal number x we write x = {XL|XR} and call XL and XR the left and right set of x,respectively. These will be explained below.

Conway Construction

“Surreal numbers are constructed inductively as equivalence classes of pairs of sets of surreal numbers, restricted by the condition that each element of the first set is smaller than each element of the second set.”

– Wikipedia

Using the Conway construction, we construct the surreal numbers in stages along with an ordering ≤ such that for any two surreal numbers a and b either a ≤ b or b ≤ a.

Every number corresponds to two sets of previously created numbers, such that no member of the left set is greater than or equal to any member of the right set. Therefore, if x = {XL|XR} then for each xL ∈ XL and xR ∈ XR, xL is not greater than xR.

In the first stage of construction, there are no previously existing numbers so the only representation must use the empty set: { | } = 0.

Subsequent stages yield the following:

  • {0|} = 1, {1|} = 2, {2|} = 3, etc;
  • {|0} = -1, {|1} = -2, {|2} = -3, etc.

For more, click here.

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MATHS BITE: The Kolakoski Sequence

The Kolakoski sequence is an infinite sequence of symbols {1,2} that is its own “run-length encoding“. It is named after mathematician Willian Kolakoski who described it in 1965, but further research shows that it was first discussed by Rufus Oldenburger in 1939.

This self-describing sequence consists of blocks of single and double 1s and 2s. Each block contains digits that are different from the digit in the preceding block.

To construct the sequence, start with 1. This means that the next block is of length 1. So we require that the next block is 2, giving the sequence 1, 2. Continuing this infinitely gives us the Kolakoski sequence: 1, 2, 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 2, 1, 2, 2, 1, 1, 2, etc.

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Kakeya Needle Problem

The Kakeya needle problem asks whether there is a minimum area of a region in the plane in which a line segment of width 1 can be freely rotated through 360°, where translation of the segment is allowed.

This question was first posed for convex regions in 1917 by mathematician Sōichi Kakeya. It was shown by Gyula Pál that the minimum area for convex regions is achieved by an equilateral triangle of height 1 and area 1/√3.

Kakeya suggested that the minimum area, without the convexity restriction, would be a three-pointed deltoid shape. However, this is false.

Needle rotating inside a deltoid | Source: Wikipedia

Besicovitch Sets

Besicovitch was able to show that there is no lower bound >0 for the area of a region in which a needle of unit length can be turned around. The proof of this relies on the construction of what is now known as a Besicovitch set, which is a set of measure zero in the plane which contains a unit line segment in every direction.

One can construct a set in which a unit line segment can be rotated continuously through 180 degrees from a Besicovitch set consisting of Perron trees.

Kakeya Needle Set constructed from Perron trees | Source: Wikipedia

However, although there are Kakeya needle sets of arbitrarily small positive measure and Besicovich sets of measure 0, there are no Kakeya needle sets of measure 0.

Video: Numberphile

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