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The Lemniscate, ∞, in several typefaces.

Infinity (symbolically represented by ) is a concept in mathematics and philosophy that refers to a quantity without bound or end. People have developed various ideas throughout history about the nature of infinity. In mathematics, infinity is defined in the context of set theory. The word comes from the Latin infinitas or "unboundedness."

In mathematics, "infinity" is often used in contexts where it is treated as if it were a number (i.e., it counts or measures things: "an infinite number of terms") but it is not the same sort of number as the real numbers. The German mathematician Georg Cantor formalized many ideas related to infinity and infinite sets during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He also discovered that there are different "kinds" or "measures" of infinity, a concept called cardinality. For example, the set of integers is countably infinite. However, the set of real numbers is uncountably infinite.

A set of elements can be defined as infinite if the set has a seemingly paradoxical quality: a subset of elements in an infinite set can be matched up, one-to-one, to all of the elements in a set.[1] The paradoxical nature of infinity is illustrated by the idea of a grand hotel, with infinitely many rooms—all of which are occupied by guests—but can nevertheless manage to accommodate a new guest by moving each existing guest over, one by one, to other rooms.



Ancient cultures had various ideas about the nature of infinity. The ancient Indians and Greeks, unable to codify infinity in terms of a formalized mathematical system approached infinity as a philosophical concept.


Early Indian

The Isha Upanishad of the Yajurveda (c. 4th to 3rd century BC) states that "if you remove a part from infinity or add a part to infinity, still what remains is infinity".

The Indian mathematical text Surya Prajnapti (c. 400 BC) classifies all numbers into three sets: enumerable, innumerable, and infinite. Each of these was further subdivided into three orders:

  • Enumerable: lowest, intermediate, and highest
  • Innumerable: nearly innumerable, truly innumerable, and innumerably innumerable
  • Infinite: nearly infinite, truly infinite, infinitely infinite

In the Indian work on the theory of sets, two basic types of infinite numbers are distinguished. On both physical and ontological grounds, a distinction was made between asaṃkhyāta ("countless, innumerable") and ananta ("endless, unlimited"), between rigidly bounded and loosely bounded infinities.


In some Buddhist imagery including Tibetan Buddhist thangka & vajrayana meditation deities such as Chenrezig the deity is often pictured holding a mala twisted in the middle to form a figure of 8. This represents the endless (infinite) cycle of existence, of birth, death & rebirth, i.e. the [infinity] of samsara.

Early Greek

In accordance with the traditional view of Aristotle, the Hellenistic Greeks generally preferred to distinguish the potential infinity from the actual infinite; for example, instead of saying that there are an infinity of primes, Euclid prefers instead to say that there are more prime numbers than contained in any given collection of prime numbers (Elements, Book IX, Proposition 20).

However, recent readings of the Archimedes Palimpsest have hinted that at least Archimedes had an intuition about actual infinite quantities.



Leibniz, one of the co-inventors of infinitesimal calculus, speculated widely about infinite numbers and their use in mathematics. To Leibniz, both infinitesimals and infinite quantities were ideal entities, not of the same nature as appreciable quantities, but enjoying the same properties.[2][3]

Real analysis

In real analysis, the symbol \infty, called "infinity", denotes an unbounded limit. x \rightarrow \infty means that x grows without bound, and x \to -\infty means the value of x is decreasing without bound. If f(t) ≥ 0 for every t, then

  • \int_{a}^{b} \, f(t)\ dt \ = \infty means that f(t) does not bound a finite area from a to b
  • \int_{-\infty}^{\infty} \, f(t)\ dt \ = \infty means that the area under f(t) is infinite.
  • \int_{-\infty}^{\infty} \, f(t)\ dt \ = n means that the total area under f(t) is finite, and equals n

Infinity is also used to describe infinite series:

  • \sum_{i=0}^{\infty} \, f(i) = a means that the sum of the infinite series converges to some real value a.
  • \sum_{i=0}^{\infty} \, f(i) = \infty means that the sum of the infinite series diverges in the specific sense that the partial sums grow without bound.

Infinity is often used not only to define a limit but as a value in the affinely extended real number system. Points labeled +\infty and -\infty can be added to the topological space of the real numbers, producing the two-point compactification of the real numbers. Adding algebraic properties to this gives us the extended real numbers. We can also treat \infty and -\infty as the same, leading to the one-point compactification of the real numbers, which is the real projective line. Projective geometry also introduces a line at infinity in plane geometry, and so forth for higher dimensions.

Complex analysis

As in real analysis, in complex analysis the symbol \infty, called "infinity", denotes an unsigned infinite limit. x \rightarrow \infty means that the magnitude | x | of x grows beyond any assigned value. A point labeled \infty can be added to the complex plane as a topological space giving the one-point compactification of the complex plane. When this is done, the resulting space is a one-dimensional complex manifold, or Riemann surface, called the extended complex plane or the Riemann sphere. Arithmetic operations similar to those given below for the extended real numbers can also be defined, though there is no distinction in the signs (therefore one exception is that infinity cannot be added to itself). On the other hand, this kind of infinity enables division by zero, namely z/0 = \infty for any complex number z except for zero. In this context it is often useful to consider meromorphic functions as maps into the Riemann sphere taking the value of \infty at the poles. The domain of a complex-valued function may be extended to include the point at infinity as well. One important example of such functions is the group of Möbius transformations.

Nonstandard analysis

The original formulation of infinitesimal calculus by Newton and Leibniz used infinitesimal quantities. In the twentieth century, it was shown that this treatment could be put on a rigorous footing through various logical systems, including smooth infinitesimal analysis and nonstandard analysis. In the latter, infinitesimals are invertible, and their inverses are infinite numbers. The infinities in this sense are part of a whole field; there is no equivalence between them as with the Cantorian transfinites. For example, if H is an infinite number, then H + H = 2H and H + 1 are distinct infinite numbers. This approach to non-standard calculus is fully developed in H. Jerome Keisler's book (see below).

Set theory

A different form of "infinity" are the ordinal and cardinal infinities of set theory. Georg Cantor developed a system of transfinite numbers, in which the first transfinite cardinal is aleph-null (\aleph_0), the cardinality of the set of natural numbers. This modern mathematical conception of the quantitative infinite developed in the late nineteenth century from work by Cantor, Gottlob Frege, Richard Dedekind and others, using the idea of collections, or sets.

Dedekind's approach was essentially to adopt the idea of one-to-one correspondence as a standard for comparing the size of sets, and to reject the view of Galileo (which derived from Euclid) that the whole cannot be the same size as the part. An infinite set can simply be defined as one having the same size as at least one of its proper parts; this notion of infinity is called Dedekind infinite.

Cantor defined two kinds of infinite numbers, ordinal numbers and cardinal numbers. Ordinal numbers may be identified with well-ordered sets, or counting carried on to any stopping point, including points after an infinite number have already been counted. Generalizing finite and the ordinary infinite sequences which are maps from the positive integers leads to mappings from ordinal numbers, and transfinite sequences. Cardinal numbers define the size of sets, meaning how many members they contain, and can be standardized by choosing the first ordinal number of a certain size to represent the cardinal number of that size. The smallest ordinal infinity is that of the positive integers, and any set which has the cardinality of the integers is countably infinite. If a set is too large to be put in one to one correspondence with the positive integers, it is called uncountable. Cantor's views prevailed and modern mathematics accepts actual infinity. Certain extended number systems, such as the hyperreal numbers, incorporate the ordinary (finite) numbers and infinite numbers of different sizes.

Cardinality of the continuum

One of Cantor's most important results was that the cardinality of the continuum \mathbf c is greater than that of the natural numbers {\aleph_0}; that is, there are more real numbers R than natural numbers N. Namely, Cantor showed that \mathbf{c} = 2^{\aleph_0} > {\aleph_0} (see Cantor's diagonal argument).

The continuum hypothesis states that there is no cardinal number between the cardinality of the reals and the cardinality of the natural numbers, that is, \mathbf{c} = \aleph_1 = \beth_1 (see Beth one). However, this hypothesis can neither be proved nor disproved within the widely accepted Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory, even assuming the Axiom of Choice.

Cardinal arithmetic can be used to show not only that the number of points in a real number line is equal to the number of points in any segment of that line, but that this is equal to the number of points on a plane and, indeed, in any finite-dimensional space.

The first three steps of a fractal construction whose limit is a space-filling curve, showing that there are as many points in a one-dimensional line segment as in a two-dimensional square.

The first of these results is apparent by considering, for instance, the tangent function, which provides a one-to-one correspondence between the interval (−π/2, π/2) and R (see also Hilbert's paradox of the Grand Hotel). The second result was proved by Cantor in 1878, but only became intuitively apparent in 1890, when Giuseppe Peano introduced the space-filling curves, curved lines that twist and turn enough to fill the whole of any square, or cube, or hypercube, or finite-dimensional space. These curves can be used to define a one-to-one correspondence between the points in the side of a square and those in the square.

Geometry and topology

Infinite-dimensional spaces are widely used in geometry and topology, particularly as classifying spaces, notably Eilenberg−MacLane spaces. Common examples are the infinite-dimensional complex projective space K(Z,2) and the infinite-dimensional real projective space K(Z/2Z,1).


The structure of a fractal object is reiterated in its magnifications. Fractals can be magnified indefinitely without losing their structure and becoming "smooth"; they have an infinite perimeter resp. an infinite surface area. An example for a fractal curve of infinite length is the Koch snowflake.

Mathematics without infinity

Leopold Kronecker was skeptical of the notion of infinity and how his fellow mathematicians were using it in 1870s and 1880s. This skepticism was developed in the philosophy of mathematics called finitism, an extreme form of the philosophical and mathematical schools of constructivism and Intuitionism.[4]


In physics, approximations of real numbers are used for continuous measurements and natural numbers are used for discrete measurements (i.e. counting). It is therefore assumed by physicists that no measurable quantity could have an infinite value[citation needed] , for instance by taking an infinite value in an extended real number system (see also: hyperreal number), or by requiring the counting of an infinite number of events. It is for example presumed impossible for any body to have infinite mass or infinite energy. Concepts of infinite things such as an infinite plane wave exist, but there are no experimental means to generate them.

Theoretical applications of physical infinity

It should be pointed out that this practice of refusing infinite values for measurable quantities does not come from a priori or ideological motivations, but rather from more methodological and pragmatic motivations[citation needed]. One of the needs of any physical and scientific theory is to give usable formulas that correspond to or at least approximate reality. As an example if any object of infinite gravitational mass were to exist, any usage of the formula to calculate the gravitational force would lead to an infinite result, which would be of no benefit since the result would be always the same regardless of the position and the mass of the other object. The formula would be useful neither to compute the force between two objects of finite mass nor to compute their motions. If an infinite mass object were to exist, any object of finite mass would be attracted with infinite force (and hence acceleration) by the infinite mass object, which is not what we can observe in reality. Sometimes infinite result of a physical quantity may mean that the theory being used to compute the result may be approaching the point where it fails. This may help to indicate the limitations of a theory.

This point of view does not mean that infinity cannot be used in physics. For convenience's sake, calculations, equations, theories and approximations often use infinite series, unbounded functions, etc., and may involve infinite quantities. Physicists however require that the end result be physically meaningful. In quantum field theory infinities arise which need to be interpreted in such a way as to lead to a physically meaningful result, a process called renormalization.

However, there are some theoretical circumstances where the end result is infinity. One example is the singularity in the description of black holes. Some solutions of the equations of the general theory of relativity allow for finite mass distributions of zero size, and thus infinite density. This is an example of what is called a mathematical singularity, or a point where a physical theory breaks down. This does not necessarily mean that physical infinities exist; it may mean simply that the theory is incapable of describing the situation properly. Two other examples occur in inverse-square force laws of the gravitational force equation of Newtonian gravity and Coulomb's Law of electrostatics. At r=0 these equations evaluate to infinities.


An intriguing question is whether infinity exists in our physical universe: Are there an infinite number of stars? Does the universe have infinite volume? Does space "go on forever"? This is an important open question of cosmology. Note that the question of being infinite is logically separate from the question of having boundaries. The two-dimensional surface of the Earth, for example, is finite, yet has no edge. By travelling in a straight line one will eventually return to the exact spot one started from. The universe, at least in principle, might have a similar topology; if one travelled in a straight line through the universe perhaps one would eventually revisit one's starting point.

If, on the other hand, the universe were not curved like a sphere but had a flat topology, it could be both unbounded and infinite. The curvature of the universe can be measured through multipole moments in the spectrum of the Cosmic Background Radiation. As to date, analysis of the radiation patterns recorded by the WMAP spacecraft hints that the universe has a flat topology. This would be consistent with an infinite physical universe. The Planck spacecraft launched in 2009 is expected to record the Cosmic Background Radiation with ten times higher precision, and will give more insight into the question whether the universe is infinite or not.


In logic an infinite regress argument is "a distinctively philosophical kind of argument purporting to show that a thesis is defective because it generates an infinite series when either (form A) no such series exists or (form B) were it to exist, the thesis would lack the role (e.g., of justification) that it is supposed to play."[5]


The IEEE floating-point standard specifies positive and negative infinity values; these can be the result of arithmetic overflow, division by zero, or other exceptional operations.

Some programming languages (for example, J and UNITY) specify greatest and least elements, i.e. values that compare (respectively) greater than or less than all other values. These may also be termed top and bottom, or plus infinity and minus infinity; they are useful as sentinel values in algorithms involving sorting, searching or windowing. In languages that do not have greatest and least elements, but do allow overloading of relational operators, it is possible to create greatest and least elements (with some overhead, and the risk of incompatibility between implementations).

The arts and cognitive sciences

Perspective artwork utilizes the concept of imaginary vanishing points, or points at infinity, located at an infinite distance from the observer. This allows artists to create paintings that 'realistically' depict distance and foreshortening of objects. Artist M. C. Escher is specifically known for employing the concept of infinity in his work in this and other ways.

From the perspective of cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Nunez, concepts of infinity in mathematics and the sciences are metaphors, based on what they term the Basic Metaphor of Infinity (BMI), namely the ever-increasing sequence <1,2,3,...>.

The infinity symbol

John Wallis introduced the infinity symbol to mathematical literature.

The precise origin of the infinity symbol, \infty, is unclear. One possibility is suggested by the name it is sometimes called—the lemniscate, from the Latin lemniscus, meaning "ribbon".

John Wallis is usually credited with introducing \infty as a symbol for infinity in 1655 in his De sectionibus conicis. One conjecture about why he chose this symbol is that he derived it from a Roman numeral for 1000 that was in turn derived from the Etruscan numeral for 1000, which looked somewhat like CIƆ and was sometimes used to mean "many." Another conjecture is that he derived it from the Greek letter ω (omega), the last letter in the Greek alphabet.[6] Also, before typesetting machines were invented, ∞ was easily made in printing by typesetting an 8 type on its side.

The infinity symbol is available in standard HTML as &infin; and in LaTeX as \infty. In Unicode, it is the character at code point U+221E (∞), or 8734 in decimal notation.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ "Continuity and Infinitesimals" article by John Lane Bell in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  3. ^ Jesseph, Douglas Michael (1998). "Leibniz on the Foundations of the Calculus: The Question of the Reality of Infinitesimal Magnitudes". Perspectives on Science 6 (1&2): 6-40. ISSN 1063-6145. OCLC 42413222. Archived from the original on 16 February 2010. Retrieved 16 February 2010. 
  4. ^ Kline, Morris (1972). Mathematical Thought from Ancient to Modern Times. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 1197-1198. ISBN 77-170263. 
  5. ^ Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Second Edition, p. 429
  6. ^ The History of Mathematical Symbols, By Douglas Weaver, Mathematics Coordinator, Taperoo High School with the assistance of Anthony D. Smith, Computing Studies teacher, Taperoo High School.

Other references

  • Amir D. Aczel (2001). The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity. New York: Pocket Books. ISBN 0-7434-2299-6. 
  • D. P. Agrawal (2000). Ancient Jaina Mathematics: an Introduction, Infinity Foundation.
  • Bell, J. L.: Continuity and infinitesimals. Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy. Revised 2009.
  • L. C. Jain (1982). Exact Sciences from Jaina Sources. 
  • L. C. Jain (1973). "Set theory in the Jaina school of mathematics", Indian Journal of History of Science.
  • George G. Joseph (2000). The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics (2nd edition ed.). Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-027778-1. 
  • H. Jerome Keisler: Elementary Calculus: An Approach Using Infinitesimals. First edition 1976; 2nd edition 1986. This book is now out of print. The publisher has reverted the copyright to the author, who has made available the 2nd edition in .pdf format available for downloading at
  • Eli Maor (1991). To Infinity and Beyond. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-02511-8. 
  • John J. O'Connor and Edmund F. Robertson (1998). 'Georg Ferdinand Ludwig Philipp Cantor', MacTutor History of Mathematics archive.
  • John J. O'Connor and Edmund F. Robertson (2000). 'Jaina mathematics', MacTutor History of Mathematics archive.
  • Ian Pearce (2002). 'Jainism', MacTutor History of Mathematics archive.
  • Rudy Rucker (1995). Infinity and the Mind: The Science and Philosophy of the Infinite. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-00172-3. 
  • N. Singh (1988). 'Jaina Theory of Actual Infinity and Transfinite Numbers', Journal of Asiatic Society, Vol. 30.
  • David Foster Wallace (2004). Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.. ISBN 0-393-32629-2. 

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

INFINITE (from Lat. in, not, finis, end or limit; cf. findere, to cleave), a term applied in common usage to anything of vast size. Strictly, however, the epithet implies the absence of all limitation. As such it is used specially in (1) theology and metaphysics, (2) mathematics.

1. Tracing the history of the world to the earliest date for which there is any kind of evidence, we are faced with the problem that for everything there is a prior something: the mind is unable to conceive an absolute beginning (" ex nihilo nihil "). Mundane distances become trivial when compared with the distance from the earth of the sun and still more of other heavenly bodies: hence we infer infinite space. Similarly by continual subdivision we reach the idea of the infinitely small. For these inferences there is indeed no actual physical evidence: infinity is a mental concept. As such the term has played an important part in the philosophical and theological speculation. In early Greek philosophy the attempt to arrive at a physical explanation of existence led the Ionian thinkers to postulate various primal elements (e.g. water, fire, air) or simply the infinite re) iiir€ pov (see Ionian ScHooL). Both Plato and Aristotle devoted much thought to the discussion as to which is most truly real, the finite objects of sense, or the universal idea of each thing laid up in the mind of God; what is the nature of that unity which lies behind the multiplicity and difference of perceived objects ? The same problem, variously expressed, has engaged the attention of philosophers throughout the ages_ In Christian theology God is conceived as infinite in power, knowledge and goodness, uncreated and immortal: in some Oriental systems the end of man is absorption into the infinite, his perfection the breaking down of his human limitations. The metaphysical and theological conception is open to the agnostic objection that the finite mind of man is by hypothesis unable to cognize or apprehend not only an infinite object, but even the very conception of infinity itself; from this standpoint the infinite is regarded as merely a postulate, as it were an unknown quantity (cf. J - 1 in mathematics). The same difficulty may be expressed in another way if we regard the infinite as unconditioned (cf. Sir William Hamilton's " philosophy of the unconditioned," and ,Herbert Spencer's doctrine of the infinite " unknowable "); if it is argued that knowledge of a thing arises only from the recognition of its differences from other things (i.e. from its limitations), it follows that knowledge of the infinite is impossible, for the infinite is by hypothesis unrelated.

With this conception of the infinite as absolutely unconditioned should be compared what may be described roughly as lesser infinities which can be philosophically conceived and mathematically demonstrated. Thus a point, which is by definition infinitely small, is as compared with a line a unit: the line is infinite, made up of an infinite number of points, any pair of which have an infinite number of points between them. The line itself, again, in relation to the plane is a unit, while the plane is infinite, i.e. made up of an infinite number of lines; hence the plane is described as doubly infinite in relation to the point, and a solid as trebly infinite. This is Spinoza's theory of the infinitely infinite," the limiting notion of infinity being of a numerical, quantitative series, each term of which is a qualitative determination itself quantitatively little, e.g. a line which is quantitatively unlimited (i.e. in length) is qualitatively limited when regarded as an infinitely small unit of a plane. A similar relation exists in thought between the various grades of species and genera; the highest genus is the " infinitely infinite," each subordinated genus being infinite in relation to the particulars which it denotes, and finite when regarded as a unit in a higher genus.

2. In mathematics, the term " infinite " denotes the result of increasing a variable without limit; similarly, the term " infinitesimal," meaning indefinitely small, denotes the result of diminishing the value of a variable without limit, with the reservation that it never becomes actually zero. The application of these conceptions distinguishes ancient from modern mathematics. Analytical investigations revealed the existence of series or sequences which had no limit to the number of terms, as for example the fraction 1/(1 - x) which on division gives the series. 14-x-1-x2+. .. .; the discussion of these so-called infinite sequences is given in the articles Series and Function. The doctrine of geometrical continuity and the application of algebra to geometry, developed in the 16th and 17th centuries mainly by Kepler and Descartes, led to the discovery of many properties which gave to the notion of infinity, as a localized space conception, a predominant importance. A line became continuous, returning into itself by way of infinity; two parallel lines intersect in a point at infinity; all circles pass through two fixed points at infinity (the circular points); two spheres intersect in a fixed circle at infinity; an asymptote became a tangent at infinity; the foci of a conic became the intersections of the tangents from the circular points at infinity; the centre of a conic the pole of the line at infinity, &c. In analytical geometry the line at infinity plays an important part in trilinear co-ordinates. These subjects are treated in Geometry. A notion related to that of infinitesimals is presented in the Greek " method of exhaustion "; the more perfect conception, however, only dates from the 17th century, when it led to the infinitesimal calculus. A curve came to be treated as a sequence of infinitesimal straight lines; a tangent as the extension of an infinitesimal chord; a surface or area as a sequence of infinitesimally narrow strips, and a solid as a collection of infinitesimally small cubes (See Infinitesimal Calculus).

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