My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Infimum


Today’s A To Z term is a free pick. I didn’t notice any suggestions for a mathematics term starting with this letter. I apologize if you did submit one and I missed it. I don’t mean any insult.

What I’ve picked is a concept from analysis. I’ve described this casually as the study of why calculus works. That’s a good part of what it is. Analysis is also about why real numbers work. Later on you also get to why complex numbers and why functions work. But it’s in the courses about Real Analysis where a mathematics major can expect to find the infimum, and it’ll stick around on the analysis courses after that.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Infimum.

The infimum is the thing you mean when you say “lower bound”. It applies to a set of things that you can put in order. The order has to work the way less-than-or-equal-to works with whole numbers. You don’t have to have numbers to put a number-like order on things. Otherwise whoever made up the Alphabet Song was fibbing to us all. But starting out with numbers can let you get confident with the idea, and we’ll trust you can go from numbers to other stuff, in case you ever need to.

A lower bound would start out meaning what you’d imagine if you spoke English. Let me call it L. It’ll make my sentences so much easier to write. Suppose that L is less than or equal to all the elements in your set. Then, great! L is a lower bound of your set.

You see the loophole here. It’s in the article “a”. If L is a lower bound, then what about L – 1? L – 10? L – 1,000,000,000½? Yeah, they’re all lower bounds, too. There’s no end of lower bounds. And that is not what you mean be a lower bound, in everyday language. You mean “the smallest thing you have to deal with”.

But you can’t just say “well, the lower bound of a set is the smallest thing in the set”. There’s sets that don’t have a smallest thing. The iconic example is positive numbers. No positive number can be a lower bound of this. All the negative numbers are lowest bounds of this. Zero can be a lower bound of this.

For the postive numbers, it’s obvious: zero is the lower bound we want. It’s smaller than all of the positive numbers. And there’s no greater number that’s also smaller than all the positive numbers. So this is the infimum of the positive numbers. It’s the greatest lower bound of the set.

The infimum of a set may or may not be part of the original set. But. Between the infimum of a set and the infimum plus any positive number, however tiny that is? There’s always at least one thing in the set.

And there isn’t always an infimum. This is obvious if your set is, like, the set of all the integers. If there’s no lower bound at all, there can’t be a greatest lower bound. So that’s obvious enough.

Infimums turn up in a good number of proofs. There are a couple reasons they do. One is that we want to prove a boundary between two kinds of things exist. It’s lurking in the proof, for example, of the intermediate value theorem. This is the proposition that if you have a continuous function on the domain [a, b], and range of real numbers, and pick some number g that’s between f(a) and f(b)? There’ll be at least one point c, between a and b, where f(c) equals g. You can structure this: look at the set of numbers x in the domain [a, b] whose f(x) is larger than g. So what’s the infimum of this set? What does f have to be for that infimum?

It also turns up a lot in proofs about calculus. Proofs about functions, particularly, especially integrating functions. A proof like this will, generically, not deal with the original function, which might have all kinds of unpleasant aspects. Instead it’ll look at a sequence of approximations of the original function. Each approximation is chosen so it has no unpleasant aspect. And then prove that we could make arbitrarily tiny the difference between the result for the function we want and the result for the sequence of functions we make. Infimums turn up in this, since we’ll want a minimum function without being sure that the minimum is in the sequence we work with.

This is the terminology of stuff to work as lower bounds. There’s a similar terminology to work with upper bounds. The upper-bound equivalent of the infimum is the supremum. They’re abbreviated as inf and sup. The supremum turns up most every time an infimum does, and for the reasons you’d expect.

If an infimum does exist, it’s unique; there can’t be two different ones. Same with the supremum.

And things can get weird. It’s possible to have lower bounds but no infimum. This seems bizarre. This is because we’ve been relying on the real numbers to guide our intuition. And the real numbers have a useful property called being “complete”. So let me break the real numbers. Imagine the real numbers except for zero. Call that the set R’. Now look at the set of positive numbers inside R’. What’s the infimum of the positive numbers, within R’? All we can do is shrug and say there is none, even though there are plenty of lower bounds. The infimum of a set depends on the set. It also depends on what bigger set that the set is within. That something depends both on a set and what the bigger set of things is, is another thing that turns up all the time in analysis. It’s worth becoming familiar with.


Thanks for reading this. All of Fall 2019 A To Z posts should be at this link. Later this week I should have my ‘J’ post. All of my past A To Z essays should be available at this link and when I get a free afternoon I’ll make that “should be” into “are”. For tomorrow I hope to finish off last week’s comic strips. See you then.

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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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