A visceral feeling for epsilon zero
30 October 2010
In many posts to this forum, and most recently in a couple of posts about fractals — A Question for Philosophically Inclined Mathematicians and Fractals and the Banach-Tarski Paradox — I have discussed the cultivations of novel forms of intellectual intuition that allow us to transcend our native intuitions which make many demonstrable truths counter-intuitive. The cultivation of intuition is a long and arduous process; there is no royal road to it, just as Euclid once informed a king that there was no royal road to geometry.
The good news is that the more people work on difficult ideas, the easier they can make them for others. That is why it is often said that we see farther because we stand on the shoulders of giants. I have pointed out before that the idea of zero was once very advanced mathematics mastered by only a select few; now it is taught in elementary schools. People who are fascinated by ideas are always looking for new and better ways to explain them. This is a social and cultural process that makes difficult and abstract ideas widely accessible. Today, for example, with the emphasis on visual modes of communication, people spend a lot of time trying to come up with striking graphics and diagrams to illustrate an idea, knowing that if they can show what they are saying in an intuitively clear way, that they will make their point all the better.
What is required for this intuitivization of the counter-intuitive is a conceptual effort to see things in a new way, and moreover a new way that appeals to latent forms of intuition that can then be developed into robust forms of intuition. Every once in a while, someone hits upon a truly inspired intuitivization of that which was once counter-intuitive, and the whole of civilization is advanced by this individual effort of a single mind to understand better, more clearly, more transparently. By the painfully slow methods of autodidacticism I eventually came to an intuitive understanding of ε0, though I’m not sure that my particular way of coming to this understanding will be of any help to others, though it was a real revelation to me. Someplace, buried in my notebooks of a few years ago, I made a note on the day that I had my transfinite epiphany.
My recent discussion of the Banach-Tarski Paradox provides another way to think about ε0. I don’t know the details of the derivation, but if the geometrical case is anything like the arithmetical case, it would be just as easy to extract two spheres from a given sphere as to extract one. I’ve drawn an illustration of this as a branching iteration, where each sphere leads to two others (above but one). Iterated to infinity, we come to an infinite number of mathematical spheres, just as we would with the one-by-one iteration illustrated above. But, if for technical reasons, this doesn’t work, we can always derive one sphere from every previous sphere (I have also attempted to illustrate this (immediately above), which gives us a similar result as the branching iteration.
Notice that the Banach-Tarski Paradox is called a paradox and not a contradiction. It is strange, but it in no way contradicts itself; the paradox is paradoxical but logically unimpeachable. One of the things are drives home how paradoxical it is, is that a mathematical sphere (which must be infinitely divisible for the division to work) can be decomposed into a finite number of parts and finitely reassembled into two spheres. This makes the paradox feel tantalizingly close to something we might do without own hands, and not only in our minds. Notice also that fractals, while iterated to infinity, involve only a finite process at each step of iteration. That is to say, the creation of a fractal is an infinite iteration of finite operations. This makes it possible to at least begin the illustration of fractal, even if we can’t finish it. But we need not stop at this point, mathematically speaking. I have paradoxically attempted to illustrate the unillustratable (above) by showing an iteration of Banach-Tarski sphere extraction that involves extracting an infinite number of spheres at each step.
An illustration can suggest, but it cannot show, an infinite operation. Instead, we employ the ellipsis — “…” — to illustrate that which has been left out (which is the infinite part that can’t be illustrated). With transfinite arithmetic, it is just as each to extract an infinite number of arithmetical series from a given arithmetical series, as it is to extract one. If the same is true of Banach-Tarski sphere extraction (which I do not know to be the case), then, starting with a single sphere, at the first iteration we extract an infinite number of spheres from the first sphere. At the second iteration, we extract an infinite number of spheres from the previously extracted infinite number of spheres. We continue this process until we have an infinite iteration of infinite extractions. At that point, we will have ε0 spheres.
In my illustration I have adopted the convention of using “ITR” as an abbreviation of “iteration,” each level of iteration is indicated by a lower-case letter a, b, c, …, n, followed by a subscript to indicate the number of spheres extracted at this level of iteration, 1, 2, 3, …, n. Thus ITRanbn refers to the nth sphere from iteration b which in turn is derived from the nth sphere of iteration a. I think this schemata is sufficiently general and sufficiently obvious for infinite iteration, though it would lead to expressions of infinite length.
If you can not only get your mind accustomed to this, but if you can actually feel it in your bones, then you will have an intuitive grasp of ε0, a visceral feeling of epsilon zero. As I said above, it took me many years to achieve this. When I did finally “get it” I felt like Odin on the Day of the Discovery of the Runes, except that my mind hung suspended for more then nine days — more like nine years.
I will also note that, if you can see the big picture of this geometrical realization of epsilon zero, you will immediately notice that it possesses self-similarly, and therefore constitutes an infinite fractal. We could call it an infinite explosion pattern. All fractals are infinite in so far as they involve infinite iteration, but we can posit another class of fractals beyond that which involve the infinite iteration of infinite operations. We can only generate such fractals in our mind, because no computer could even illustrate the first step of an infinite fractal of this kind. This interesting idea also serves as a demonstration that fractals are not merely artifacts of computing machines, but are as platonically ideal as any mathematical object sanctioned by tradition.
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Fractals and Geometrical Intuition
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