Why I’ll Say 1/x Is A Continuous Function And Why I’ll Say It Isn’t


So let me finally follow up last month’s question. That was whether the function “\frac{1}{x} ” is continuous. My earlier post lays out what a mathematician means by a “continuous function”. The short version is, we have a good definition for a function being continuous at a point in the domain. If it’s continuous at every point in the domain, it’s a continuous function.

The definition of continuous-at-a-point has some technical stuff that I’m going to skip this essay. The important part is that the stuff ordinary people would call “continuous” mathematicians agree with. Like, if you draw a curve representing the function without having to lift your pen off the paper? That function’s continuous. At least the stretch you drew was.

So is the function “\frac{1}{x} ” continuous? What if I said absolutely it is, because ‘x’ is a number that happens to be … oh, let’s say it’s 3. And \frac{1}{3} is a constant function; of course that’s continuous. Your sensible response is to ask if I want a punch in the nose. No, I do not.

One of the great breakthroughs of algebra was that we could use letters to represent any number we want, whether or not we know what number it is. So why can’t I get away with this? And the answer is that we live in a society, please. There are rules. At least, there’s conventions. They’re good things. They save us time setting up problems. They help us see things the current problem has with other problems. They help us communicate to people who haven’t been with us through all our past work. As always, these rules are made for our convenience, and we can waive them for good reason. But then you have to say what those reasons are.

What someone expects, if you write ‘x’ without explanation it’s a variable and usually an independent one. Its value might be any of a set of things, and often, we don’t explicitly know what it is. Letters at the start of the alphabet usually stand for coefficients, some fixed number with a value we don’t want to bother specifying. In making this division — ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’ for coefficients, ‘x’, ‘y’, ‘z’ for variables — we are following Réné Descartes, who explained his choice of convention quite well. And there are other letters with connotations. We tend to use ‘t’ as a variable if it seems like we’re looking at something which depends on time. If something seems to depend on a radius, ‘r’ goes into service. We use letters like ‘f’ and ‘g’ and ‘h’ for functions. For indexes, ‘i’ and ‘j’ and ‘k’ get called up. For total counts of things, or for powers, ‘n’ and ‘m’, often capitalized, appear. The result is that any mathematician, looking at the expression

\sum_{j = i}^{n} a_i f(x_j)

would have a fair idea what kinds of things she was looking at.

So when someone writes “the function \frac{1}{x} ” they mean “the function which matches ‘x’, in the domain, with \frac{1}{x} , in the range”. We write this as “f(x) = \frac{1}{x} ”. Or, if we become mathematics majors, and we’re in the right courses, we write “f:x \rightarrow \frac{1}{x} ”. It’s a format that seems like it’s overcomplicating things. But it’s good at emphasizing the idea that a function can be a map, matching a set in the domain to a set in the range.

This is a tiny point. Why discuss it at any length?

It’s because the question “is \frac{1}{x} a continuous function” isn’t well-formed. There’s important parts not specified. We can make it well-formed by specifying these parts. This is adding assumptions about what we mean. What assumptions we make affect what the answer is.

A function needs three components. One component is a set that’s the domain. One component is a set that’s the range. And one component is a rule that pairs up things in the domain with things in the range. But there are some domains and some ranges that we use all the time. We use them so often we end up not mentioning them. We have a common shorthand for functions which is to just list the rule.

So what are the domain and range?

Barring special circumstances, we usually take the domain that offers the most charitable reading of the rule. What’s the biggest set on which the rule makes sense? The domain is that. The range we find once we have the domain and rule. It’s the set that the rule maps the domain onto.

So, for example, if we have the function “f(x) = x2”? That makes sense if ‘x’ is any real number. if there’s no reason to think otherwise, we suppose the domain is the set of all real numbers. We’d write that as the set R. Whatever ‘x’ is, though, ‘x2‘ is either zero or a positive number. So the range is the real numbers greater than or equal to zero. Or the nonnegative real numbers, if you prefer.

And even that reasonably clear guideline hides conventions. Like, who says this should be the real numbers? Can’t you take the square of a complex-valued number? And yes, you absolutely can. Some people even encourage it. So why not use the set C instead?

Convention, again. If we don’t expect to need complex-valued numbers, we don’t tend to use them. I suspect it’s a desire not to invite trouble. The use of ‘x’ as the independent variable is another bit of convention. An ‘x’ can be anything, yes. But if it’s a number, it’s more likely a real-valued number. Same with ‘y’. If we want a complex-valued independent variable we usually label that ‘z’. If we need a second, ‘w’ comes in. Writing “x2” alone suggests real-valued numbers.

And this might head off another question. How do we know that ‘x’ is the only variable? How do we know we don’t need an ordered pair, ‘(x, y)’? This would be from the set called R2, pairs of real-valued numbers. It uses only the first coordinate of the pair, but that’s allowed. How do we know that’s not going on? And we don’t know that from the “x2” part. The “f(x) = ” part gives us that hint. If we thought the problem needed two independent variables, it would usually list them somewhere. Writing “f(x, y) = x2” begs for the domain R2, even if we don’t know what good the ‘y’ does yet. In mapping notation, if we wrote “f:(x, y) \rightarrow x^2 ” we’d be calling for R2. If ‘x’ and ‘z’ both appear, that’s usually a hint that the problem needs coordinates ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’, so that we’d want R3 at least.

So that’s the maybe frustrating heuristic here. The inferred domain is the smallest biggest set that the rule makes sense on. The real numbers, but not ordered pairs of real numbers, and not complex-valued numbers. Something like that.

What does this mean for the function “f(x) = \frac{1}{x} ”? Well, the variable is ‘x’, so we should think real numbers rather than complex-valued ones. There no ‘y’ or ‘z’ or anything, so we don’t need ordered sets. The domain is something in the real numbers, then. And the formula “\frac{1}{x} ” means something for any real number ‘x’ … well, with the one exception. We try not to divide by zero. It raises questions we’d rather not have brought up.

So from this we infer a domain of “all the real numbers except 0”. And this in turn implies a range of “all the real numbers except 0”.

Is “f(x) = \frac{1}{x} ” continuous on every point in the domain? That is, whenever ‘x’ is any real number besides zero? And, well, it is. A proper proof would be even more heaps of paragraphs, so I’ll skip it. Informally, you know if you drew a curve representing this function there’s only one point where you would ever lift your pen. And that point is 0 … which is not in this domain. So the function is continuous at every point in the domain. So the function’s continuous. Done.

And, I admit, not quite comfortably done. I feel like there’s some slight-of-hand anyway. You draw “\frac{1}{x} ” and you absolutely do lift your pen, after all.

So, I fibbed a little above. When I said the range was “the set that the rule maps the domain onto”. I mean, that’s what it properly is. But finding that is often too much work. You have to find where the function would be its smallest, which is often hard, or at least tedious. You have to find where it’s largest, which is just as tedious. You have to find if there’s anything between the smallest and largest values that it skips. You have to find all these gaps. That’s boring. And what’s the harm done if we declare the range is bigger than that set? If, for example, we say the range of’ x2‘ is all the real numbers, even though we know it’s really only the non-negative numbers?

None at all. Not unless we’re taking an exam about finding the smallest range that lets a function make sense. So in practice we’ll throw in all the negative numbers into that range, even if nothing matches them. I admit this makes me feel wasteful, but that’s my weird issue. It’s not like we use the numbers up. We’ll just overshoot on the range and that’s fine.

You see the trap this has set up. If it doesn’t cost us anything to throw in unneeded stuff in the range, and it makes the problem easier to write about, can we do that with the domain?

Well. Uhm. No. Not if we’re doing this right. The range can have unneeded stuff in it. The domain can’t. It seems unfair, but if we don’t set hold to that rule, we make trouble for ourselves. By ourselves I mean mathematicians who study the theory of functions. That’s kind of like ourselves, right? So there’s no declaring that “\frac{1}{x} ” is a function on “all” the real numbers and trusting nobody to ask what happens when ‘x’ is zero.

But we don’t need for a function’s rule to a be a single thing. Or a simple thing. It can have different rules for different parts of the domain. It’s fine to declare, for example, that f(x) is equal to “\frac{1}{x} ” for every real number where that makes sense, and that it’s equal to 0 everywhere else. Or that it’s 1 everywhere else. That it’s negative a billion and a third everywhere else. Whatever number you like. As long as it’s something in the range.

So I’ll declare that my idea of this function is an ‘f(x)’ that’s equal to “\frac{1}{x} ” if ‘x’ is not zero, and that’s equal to 2 if ‘x’ is zero. I admit if I weren’t writing for an audience I’d make ‘f(x)’ equal to 0 there. That feels nicely symmetric. But everybody picks 0 when they’re filling in this function. I didn’t get where I am by making the same choices as everybody else, I tell myself, while being far less successful than everybody else.

And now my ‘f(x)’ is definitely not continuous. The domain’s all the real numbers, yes. But at the point where ‘x’ is 0? There’s no drawing that without raising your pen from the paper. I trust you’re convinced. Your analysis professor will claim she’s not convinced, if you write that on your exam. But if you and she were just talking about functions, she’d agree. Since there’s one point in the domain where the function’s not continuous, the function is not continuous.

So there we have it. “\frac{1}{x} ”, taken in one reasonable way, is a continuous function. “\frac{1}{x} ”, taken in another reasonable way, is not a continuous function. What you think reasonable is what sets your answer.

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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. He/him.

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