The Set Tour, Part 13: Continuity


I hope we’re all comfortable with the idea of looking at sets of functions. If not we can maybe get comfortable soon. What’s important about functions is that we can add them together, and we can multiply them by real numbers. They work in important ways like regular old numbers would. They also work the way vectors do. So all we have to do is be comfortable with vectors. Then we have the background to talk about functions this way. And so, my first example of an oft-used set of functions:

C[a, b]

People like continuity. It’s comfortable. It’s reassuring, even. Most situations, most days, most things are pretty much like they were before, and that’s how we want it. Oh, we cast some hosannas towards the people who disrupt the steady progression of stuff. But we’re lying. Think of the worst days of your life. They were the ones that were very much not like the day before. If the day is discontinuous enough, then afterwards, people ask one another what they were doing when the discontinuous thing happened.

(OK, there are some good days which are very much not like the day before. But imagine someone who seems informed assures you that tomorrow will completely change your world. Do you feel anticipation or dread?)

Mathematical continuity isn’t so fraught with social implications. What we mean by a continuous function is — well, skip the precise definition. Calculus I students see it, stare at it, and run away. It comes back to the mathematics majors in Intro to Real Analysis. Then it comes back again in Real Analysis. Mathematics majors get to accepting it sometime around Real Analysis II, because the alternative is Functional Analysis. The definition’s in truth not so bad. But it’s fussy and if you get any parts wrong silly consequences follow.

If you’re not a mathematics major, or if you’re a mathematics major not taking a test in Real Analysis, you can get away with this. We’re talking here, and we’re going to keep talking, about functions with real numbers as the domain and real numbers as the range. Later, we can go to complex-valued numbers, or even vectors of numbers. The arguments get a bit longer but don’t change much, so if you learn this you’ve got most of the way to learning everything.

A continuous function is one whose graph you can draw without having to lift your pen. We like continuous functions, mathematically, because they are so much easier to work with. Why are they easy? Well, because if you know the value of your function at one point, you know approximately what it is at nearby points. There’s predictability to the function’s values. You can see why this would make it easier to do calculations. But it makes analysis easy too. We want to do a lot of proofs which involve arithmetic with the values functions have. It gets so much easier that we can say the function’s actual value is something like the value it has at some point we happen to know.

So if we want to work with functions, we usually want to work with continuous functions. They behave more predictably, and more like we hope they will.

The set C[a, b] is the set of all continuous real-valued whose domain is the set of real numbers from a to b. For example, pick a function that’s in C[-1, 1]. Let me call it f. Then f is a real-valued function. And its domain is the real numbers from -1 to 1. In the absence of other information about what its range is, we assume it to be the real numbers R. We can have any real numbers as the boundaries; C[-1000, π] is legitimate if eccentric.

There are some ranges that are particularly popular. All the real numbers is one. That might get written C(R) for shorthand. C[0, 1], the range from 0 to 1, is popular and easy to work with. C[-1, 1] is almost as good and has the advantage of giving us negative numbers. C[-π, π] is also liked because it meshes well with the trigonometric functions. You remember those: sines and cosines and tangent functions, plus some unpopular ones we try to not talk about. We don’t often talk about other ranges. We can change, say, C[0, 1] into C[0, 10] exactly the way you’d imagine. Re-scaling numbers, and even shifting them up or down some, requires so little work we don’t bother doing it.

C[-1, 1] is a different set of functions from, say, C[0, 1]. There are many functions in one set that have the same rule as a function in another set. But the functions in C[-1, 1] have a different domain from the functions in C[0, 1]. So they can’t be the same functions. The rule might be meaningful outside the domain. If the rule is “f:x -> 3*x”, well, that makes sense whatever x should be. But a function is the rule, the domain, and the range together. If any of the parts changes, we have a different function.

The way I’ve written the symbols, with straight brackets [a, b], means that both the numbers a and b are in the domain of these functions. If I want to omit the boundaries — have every number greater than a but not a itself, and have every number less than b but not b itself — then we change to parentheses. That would be C(-1, 1). If I want to include one boundary but not the other, use a straight bracket for the boundary to include, and a parenthesis for the boundary to omit. C[-1, 1) says functions in that set have a domain that includes -1 but does not include -1. It also drives my text editor crazy having unmatched parentheses and brackets like that. We must suffer for our mathematical arts.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

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