My 2018 Mathematics A To Z: Limit

I got an irresistible topic for today’s essay. It’s courtesy Peter Mander, author of Carnot Cycle, “the classical blog about thermodynamics”. It’s bimonthly and it’s one worth waiting for. Some of the essays are historical; some are statistical-mechanics; many are mixtures of them. You could make a fair argument that thermodynamics is the most important field of physics. It’s certainly one that hasn’t gotten the popularization treatment it deserves, for its importance. Mander is doing something to correct that.

Cartoon of a thinking coati (it's a raccoon-like animal from Latin America); beside him are spelled out on Scrabble titles, 'MATHEMATICS A TO Z', on a starry background. Various arithmetic symbols are constellations in the background.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Newshounds, Something Happens, and Infinity Refugees. His current project is Projection Edge. And you can get Projection Edge six months ahead of public publication by subscribing to his Patreon. And he’s on Twitter as @Newshoundscomic.


It is hard to think of limits without thinking of motion. The language even professional mathematicians use suggests it. We speak of the limit of a function “as x goes to a”, or “as x goes to infinity”. Maybe “as x goes to zero”. But a function is a fixed thing, a relationship between stuff in a domain and stuff in a range. It can’t change any more than January, AD 1988 can change. And ‘x’ here is a dummy variable, part of the scaffolding to let us find what we want to know. I suppose ‘x’ can change, but if we ever see it, something’s gone very wrong. But we want to use it to learn something about a function for a point like ‘a’ or ‘infinity’ or ‘zero’.

The language of motion helps us learn, to a point. We can do little experiments: if f(x) = \frac{sin(x)}{x} , then, what should we expect it to be for x near zero? It’s irresistible to try out the calculator. Let x be 0.1. 0.01. 0.001. 0.0001. The numbers say this f(x) gets closer and closer to 1. That’s good, right? We know we can’t just put in an x of zero, because there’s some trouble that makes. But we can imagine creeping up on the zero we really wanted. We might spot some obvious prospects for mischief: what if x is negative? We should try -0.1, -0.01, -0.001 and so on. And maybe we won’t get exactly the right answer. But if all we care about is the first (say) three digits and we try out a bunch of x’s and the corresponding f(x)’s agree to those three digits, that’s good enough, right?

This is good for giving an idea of what to expect a limit to look like. It should be, well, what it really really really looks like a function should be. It takes some thinking to see where it might go wrong. It might go to different numbers based on which side you approach from. But that seems like something you can rationalize. Indeed, we do; we can speak of functions having different limits based on what direction you approach from. Sometimes that’s the best one can say about them.

But it can get worse. It’s possible to make functions that do crazy weird things. Some of these look like you’re just trying to be difficult. Like, set f(x) equal to 1 if x is rational and 0 if x is irrational. If you don’t expect that to be weird you’re not paying attention. Can’t blame someone for deciding that falls outside the realm of stuff you should be able to find limits for. And who would make, say, an f(x) that was 1 if x was 0.1 raised to some power, but 2 if x was 0.2 raised to some power, and 3 otherwise? Besides someone trying to prove a point?

Fine. But you can make a function that looks innocent and yet acts weird if the domain is two-dimensional. Or more. It makes sense to say that the functions I wrote in the above paragraph should be ruled out of consideration. But the limit of f(x, y) = \frac{x^3 y}{x^6 + y^2} at the origin? You get different results approaching in different directions. And the function doesn’t give obvious signs of imminent danger here.

We need a better idea. And we even have one. This took centuries of mathematical wrangling and arguments about what should and shouldn’t be allowed. This should inspire sympathy with Intro Calc students who don’t understand all this by the end of week three. But here’s what we have.

I need a supplementary idea first. That is the neighborhood. A point has a neighborhood if there’s some open set that contains it. We represent this by drawing a little blob around the point we care about. If we’re looking at the neighborhood of a real number, then this is a little interval, that’s all. When we actually get around to calculating, we make these neighborhoods little circles. Maybe balls. But when we’re doing proofs about how limits work, or how we use them to prove things, we make blobs. This “neighborhood” idea looks simple, but we need it, so here we go.

So start with a function, named ‘f’. It has a domain, which I’ll call ‘D’. And a range, which I want to call ‘R’, but I don’t think I need the shorthand. Now pick some point ‘a’. This is the point at which we want to evaluate the limit. This seems like it ought to be called the “limit point” and it’s not. I’m sorry. Mathematicians use “limit point” to talk about something else. And, unfortunately, it makes so much sense in that context that we aren’t going to change away from that.

‘a’ might be in the domain ‘D’. It might not. It might be on the border of ‘D’. All that’s important is that there be a neighborhood inside ‘D’ that contains ‘a’.

I don’t know what f(a) is. There might not even be an f(a), if a is on the boundary of the domain ‘D’. But I do know that everything inside the neighborhood of ‘a’, apart from ‘a’, is in the domain. So we can look at the values of f(x) for all the x’s in this neighborhood. This will create a set, in the range, that’s known as the image of the neighborhood. It might be a continuous chunk in the range. It might be a couple of chunks. It might be a single point. It might be some crazy-quilt set. Depends on ‘f’. And the neighborhood. No matter.

Now I need you to imagine the reverse. Pick a point in the range. And then draw a neighborhood around it. Then pick out what we call the pre-image of it. That’s all the points in the domain that get matched to values inside that neighborhood. Don’t worry about trying to do it; that’s for the homework practice. Would you agree with me that you can imagine it?

I hope so because I’m about to describe the part where Intro Calc students think hard about whether they need this class after all.

OK. Ready?

All right. Then I want something in the range. I’m going to call it ‘L’. And it’s special. It’s the limit of ‘f’ at ‘a’ if this following bit is true:

Think of every neighborhood you could pick of ‘L’. Can be big, can be small. Just has to be a neighborhood of ‘L’. Now think of the pre-image of that neighborhood. Is there always a neighborhood of ‘a’ inside that pre-image? It’s okay if it’s a tiny neighborhood. Just has to be an open neighborhood. It doesn’t have to contain ‘a’. You can allow a pinpoint hole there.

If you can always do this, however tiny the neighborhood of ‘L’ is, then the limit of ‘f’ at ‘a’ is ‘L’. If you can’t always do this — if there’s even a single exception — then there is no limit of ‘f’ at ‘a’.

I know. I felt like that the first couple times through the subject too. The definition feels backward. Worse, it feels like it begs the question. We suppose there’s an ‘L’ and then test these properties about it and then if it works we say we’re done? I know. It’s a pain when you start calculating this with specific formulas and all that, too. But supposing there is an answer and then learning properties about it, including whether it can exist? That’s a slick trick. We can use it.

Thing is, the pain is worth it. We can calculate with it and not have to out-think tricky functions. It works for domains with as many dimensions as you need. It works for limits that aren’t inside the domain. It works with domains and ranges that aren’t real numbers. It works for functions with weird and complicated domains. We can adapt it if we want to consider limits that are constrained in some way. It won’t be fooled by tricks like I put up above, the f(x) with different rules for the rational and irrational numbers.

So mathematicians shrug, and do enough problems that they get the hang of it, and use this definition. It’s worth it, once you get there.

This and other Fall 2018 Mathematics A-To-Z posts can be read at this link. And I’m still taking nominations for discussion topics, if you’d like to see mathematics terms explained. I know I would.


Author: Joseph Nebus

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

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