Category Archives: Set Theory

Addition and the Ishango Bone

In today’s blog, we are going to start a steady and cumulative process of exploring the concepts and techniques of mathematics in an evolutionary way. You will soon realize that even the most basic concepts can be seen in different and interesting ways. As always, and whenever possible, I’ll point you to some interesting places, events and people in the history of mathematics.  Lets start with the concept of addition. Addition evolved out of a very fundamental desire to count and know the quantity of similar objects we have.

Suppose we begin with two sets of objects (1). Set A consists of six elements (blue discs) and Set B has three elements (green discs). These two sets have no elements in common. The intersection of sets A and B is the empty set. Thus, they are referred to as disjoint sets. The union of sets A and B consists of both the six blue discs and the three green discs. In the Hindu/Arabic number system, there are numbers that are used to represent the quantities of discs in each set (2). In this case, it is the numbers “6” and “3.” The union of two disjointed sets is a visual way of representing the sum of two numbers. The addition symbol (+) is used to represent the operation of addition in a mathematical expression or equation. The sum of these two numbers is equivalent to counting the number of blue and green discs in the union of two sets (3).  In this case, six plus three is equal to nine.  One should note that counting is nothing more than the repeated addition of 1 to generate a set of natural numbers.

In 1960, a Belgian geologist, Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt (1920-1998) was exploring an area of Africa near the headwaters of the Nile River at Lake Edwards, called Ishango. At the time, the area was part of the Belgian Congo. He discovered a large number of tools, artifacts, and human remains.  In the world of archeology, there have been numerous discoveries of prehistoric animal bones that have notches carved into them. These artifacts are generally known as tallies or tally sticks. Some of these notched bones have proven to be more interesting to the mathematical community than others. One of these interesting bones was discovered at Ishango by Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt . Today, this artifact is referred to as the Ishango bone.  It is considered the second oldest mathematical object. However, its exact purpose has yet to be determined.

The Ishango bone is currently on display at the Royal Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, Belgium.  There, you will find a Flash-based website on the Ishango archeological site, which will give you a detailed explanation of the bone’s markings and its possible uses. Explore this site and you will find out how far back the history of mathematics stretches.

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Real Numbers (R)

Venn Diagram - Real Numbers

Necessity is truly the mother of invention. Throughout the history of mathematics, different types of numbers were invented to deal with a variety of  situations. Lets start our exploration of mathematical numbers by first identifying the different types of numbers we use. I am expressing the five different types of numbers visually in this Venn Diagram.

The first numbers to be invented in many cultures were counting numbers. It evolved out of a universal need to document how many objects we have in a particular situation. The related concept of addition developed for similar reasons. In mathematics, we call these counting numbers the set of natural numbers. This set is usually represented as {N}. The elements of {N} are {1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,…}.

When we are counting, we are adding objects together to find its quantity. But what if we were to remove objects from a group? The need to express the removal of objects lead to the creation of negative forms of natural numbers. The related concept of subtraction developed for similar reasons. We call this set negative addends. There is no letter of the alphabet that is commonly used to represent this set. The elements of this set are {-1,-2,-3,-4,-5,-6,-7,-8,-9,-10,….}.

When I have four objects in my hand and one person takes two objects and a second person takes two objects, how do I mathematically express the fact that I no longer have any objects in my hand? A numerical symbol was needed to represent “nothing.” We use the symbol called zero. This is a set that has only one element,  the symbol we use to represent “nothing,” {0}.  It is also an important placeholder used in the decimal notation system as well as expressing any numbers greater than 9.

You may have heard the term whole numbers used in math classes.  This set is usually represented as {W}.   The set {W} is nothing more than the union of the set of natural numbers {N} and the set zero {0}. The set of natural numbers {N} is a subset of {W}.  The set zero {0} is also a subset of {W}.
The elements of {W} are {0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,…}.

Another term commonly used in math is integers. This set is usually represented as {Z}. The set {Z} is the union of three sets: the set of natural numbers {N}, zero {0}, and the set of negative addends. Therefore, the elements of {Z} are
{…,-8,-7,-6,-5,-4,-3,-2,-1,0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,…}.
For the longest time, mathematicians believed that all numbers could be expressed as a fractions: the ratio of two numbers, like ¾. They referred to these numbers as rational numbers. This set is usually represented as {Q}. We will explore the concept of fractions in future blogs.  Even integers can be expressed as fractions (for example, 3=3/1, -5=-5/1). Therefore the set of integers {Z} is a subset of the set {Q}. The elements of {Q} are all numbers that can be written in the form m/n, where n ≠ 0.

Unfortunately, it was discovered that not all quantities could be expressed as a fraction. Due to the puzzling nature of these seemingly quirky numbers, they collectively became known as irrational numbers. The set is usually represented as {I}. The elements of {I} are all numbers that cannot be represented as a fraction. The value of  Pi (π), the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, is one such irrational number.

So these are the sets and partitions that make up the set of real numbers.  This set is usually represented as {R}.  All the numbers you will come across will be elements of one or more of these sets.  And they are all real numbers… well, almost all.  There are numbers called complex numbers which pop up in certain situations, but we’ll leave that for another blog… maybe.

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Subsets (⊂) and Partitions

Lets look at two more fundamental relationships of sets that are closely related: subsets and partitions.

In the Venn Diagram on the left, I am visually representing three fundamental insights.  (1)  All the elements of set A are also elements of set C. (2) All the elements of set B are also elements of set C. (3)  There are elements in set C that are not elements of A or B.  Thus, set A and B are subsets of set C.  The symbol for subset is ⊂.

Now, in the Venn Diagram on the right, we have a slightly different relationship.  Statements (1) and (2) are still accurate.  However, there are no elements in set C that are not elements of A or B.  In other words, all elements of C are either elements of A or B (but not both of them).  In this case, sets A and B are partitions of set C.  They are unique forms of subsets.

You may not realize this, but the most common use of subsets and partitions can be found in the visual display of organizational charts.  Most of the time, such relationships are represented as flow charts.  Although they can tell you which individual (“element”) is part of which group (“set”), they tend to visually emphasize the hierarchy of authority to the audience.  I personally believe  organizational relationships can be best represented as subsets and partitions.

For example, If Manager John Doe manages office A and B, I can show Office A and B as the subset of Manager John Doe.  This relationship would show that both manager and the workers in Office A and B have certain responsibilities in common with each other.  It would also show that Manager John Doe is responsible for things that are outside the scope of the employees in Office A and B.  Now if Manager John Doe’s only responsibilities is to manage the work of Office A and B, then this relationship should be visually displayed as a partition.

The development of this and other concepts of set theory can be traced back to one man: Georg Cantor (1845-1918), a German mathematician.  Cantor published a six part treatise on set theory from the years 1879 to 1884.  These publications defined most of the concepts of set theory we teach in secondary school and college.  He accomplished much during his career, despite much opposition to his ideas from prominent colleagues.  Explore his interesting life.

In the entrance lounge of the institute for mathematics of the Martin-Luther University at Halle-Wittenberg in Germany. There, you will find a display of a bust representing Georg Cantor.  He was a professor of mathematics at this institution from 1879 to 1913. His work on set theory was among his many contributions to math he made during his time there.

Although Georg Cantor is considered a German mathematician, he was actually born in Russia.  A plaque also marks the place of his birth on Vasilievsky Island in Saint Petersburg. “In this building was born and lived from 1845 till 1854 the great mathematician and creator of set theory Georg Cantor.”

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Unions (∪) and Intersections (∩)

Lets start exploring the various relationships between sets. Lets look at the first two type: the union and intersection of two sets. The union of two sets A and B is the collection of elements which are in A or in B or in both A and B (1). The symbol ∪ (2) is used to represent this concept in mathematical statements.  Such a relationship can also be expressed using a Venn diagram (3).   The orange areas represent the union of both sets. Given two sets, there is sometimes the need to know what elements the sets have in common. The intersection of two sets A and B is s a math term used to describe the collection of elements which are in A and B (1).  In mathematical statements, the symbol ∩ (2) is used to represent this concept. This concept of intersection can also be expressed in a Venn Diagram (3).  The orange area represents the intersection of Set A and B.

Lets visually consider two random lines, A and B, that are not parallel to each other. Set A is the collection of all points that make up line A. Set B is the collection of all points that make up line B. In Euclidian geometry, two line that are not parallel will always intersect each other. In this case, the intersection of Sets A and B consists of one point and only one point. Such visual representation of intersections  are found on all street maps. If you are out and about, you will notice that the intersection of any two streets represents the section of road that both streets have in common.

Most of the basic symbols of logic and set theory in use today were introduced between 1880 and 1920. The symbols ∩ and ∪ were introduced by Giuseppe Peano (1858-1932), an Italian mathematician, for intersection and union in Calcolo geometrico (“Geometrical Calculus”) secondo l’Ausdehnungslehre di H. Grassmann (1888).

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Sets and Elements

Human beings love to categorize things. Just look at all the nouns we have to describe groups of things in many ways. Our ability to categorize objects evolves out of our mental ability to notice the differences and similarities between two objects. The somewhat unconscious application of this skill gives us a chance to mentally focus on and communicate about many things at once. There is a visually mathematical way of representing the concept. A “collection of well-defined and distinct objects” is referred to as a set (B,C). It’s like the collections of marbles within the white circle (A).  Each of the objects within a given set is  an element. We can express these collections as a rule which describes the attributes common to all elements of the set. Visually, we traditionally use circles or ellipses (I believe any closed shape can be used) to represent the relationships between multiple sets. The resulting diagram is commonly known as a Venn diagram (D). The rectangle enclosing the sets represents the universal set. We’ll explore the most common relationships between sets in a future blog….

Mathematics, like most subjects, is rich in terms and vocabulary. In many cases, there is some fascinating history behind the words we commonly use to express ourselves mathematically. For example, the Venn diagram is named after John Venn (1834-1923), a British logician and philosopher, and a fellow of the Royal Society. Among the many things he did during his life, he published three texts on the subject of logic and he introduced Venn diagrams in his second book Symbolic Logic (1881).

This work was uniquely commemorated in a stained glass window which is on display in the dining hall of his alma mater, Gonville and Caius College, a college in the University of Cambridge, England. Read about his life online and explore his accomplishments. You will find out that he, like most mathematicians, are interested in a variety of things.

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