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I am a non-mathematician. I'm reading up on set theory. It's fascinating, but I wonder if its found any 'real-world' applications yet. For instance, in high school and we were learning the properties of i, a lot of the kids wondered what it was used for. The teacher responded that it was used to describe the properties of electricity in circuits. So is there a similar practical app of set theory? Something we wouldn't be able to do or build without set theory?

Edit: Actually, I'm asking about the practicality of the knowledge of the properties of infinite sets, and their cardinality. I'm reading Peter Suber's A Crash Course in the Mathematics Of Infinite Sets. The properties of infinite sets seem unintuitive, but of course, the proves show that they are true.

My guess is that whoever came up with the square root of -1 did so many years before it 'escaped' from mathematics and found a practical use. Before then perhaps people thought it was clever, but not necessarily useful or even 'true'. So then, if you need to understand electricity, and you can do it best by using i, then even someone who thinks it's silly to have a square root of negative -1 would have to grudgingly admit that there's some 'reality' to it, despite its unintuitiveness, because electricity behaves as if it 'exists'.

Seeing as how there was so much resistance to infinite sets at the beginning, even among mathematicians, I wonder has the math of infinite sets be 'proven worthwhile' by having a practical application outside of mathematics, so that no one can say it's just some imaginative games?

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Is this question outside the domain of inquiry for mathoverflow? – user2929 Jan 1 '10 at 0:42
I think it's fine; this is a perfectly reasonable question for an outsider to have and there are many set theorists around who can give you good answers. – Qiaochu Yuan Jan 1 '10 at 0:43
The square of -1 was introduced in order to find solutions to real polynomial equations -- not in the obvious sense: e.g., in order to solve, say, $x^2 +1 = 0$, but in order to find real solutions via general formulae for cubic and quartic equations. So whereas it is possible (though perhaps more cumbersome) to solve RLC circuit equations without using the imaginary unit, applying Tartaglia's formula for the solution of a cubic equation, you will have to deal with the square root of negative numbers as an intermediate part of the calculation. – José Figueroa-O'Farrill Jan 1 '10 at 16:49
@José: No, the use of complex numbers in connection with electricity is not for solving polynomial equations, but for modeling frequency using $e^{i a t}$. – Gerald Edgar May 5 '10 at 13:17
"Alien" mathematical constructions like the complex numbers are often very useful in understanding "down to earth" things like real polynomials. The fundamental theorem of algebra is more than enough payoff for introducing complex numbers, and in general looking at how a function acts on the complex plane can be the simplest way to understand what it does to the real line. Similarly, arguments about infinite sets are often easier than analogous finitary arguments and can provide at least intuition, if not a solution. – Sasho Nikolov Nov 30 '13 at 23:53

10 Answers 10

up vote 25 down vote accepted

The purpose of set theory is not practical application in the same way that, for example, Fourier analysis has practical applications. To most mathematicians (i.e. those who are not themselves set theorists), the value of set theory is not in any particular theorem but in the language it gives us. Nowadays even computer scientists describe their basic concept - Turing machines - in the language of set theory. This is useful because when you specify an object set-theoretically there is no question what you are talking about and you can unambiguously answer any questions you might have about it. Without precise definitions it is very difficult to do any serious mathematics.

I guess another important point here is that it is hard to appreciate the role of set theory in mathematics without knowing some of the history behind the crisis of foundations in mathematics, but I don't know any particularly good references.

Your second question is more specific, so I'll give a more specific answer: to thoroughly understand the mathematics behind, say, modern physics does in fact require (among many other things) that you understand the properties of infinite sets because topology has become an important part of this mathematics, and understanding general topology depends heavily on understanding properties of infinite sets. Whether this means that set theory has any bearing on "reality" depends on how much faith you have in topological spaces as a good model for the real world.

As a specific example, the mathematics behind general relativity is called differential geometry. I think it's fair to say the development of general relativity would have been impossible without the mathematical language to express it. Differential geometry takes place on special kinds of manifolds, which are special kinds of topological spaces. So to understand differential geometry you need to understand at least some topology. And I don't think I need to justify the usefulness of general relativity!

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Another example for your second point: Topology changes infinite sums from nonsense into legitimate mathematical objects because it allows us to talk about convergence. This is exceedingly clear when one studies things like the I-adic topology on a ring R or appropriate R-module. – Harry Gindi Jan 1 '10 at 1:40
@Harry Gindi - well, even more down to earth: without infinite sums it would not be possible to talk about fourier series, fourier transforms, hilbert spaces. not to mention quantum mechanics. – Delio Mugnolo Dec 1 '13 at 10:36
I have a problem with this answer. It assumes that we cannot understand things like infinite sums without set theory. Why is set theory superior to alternatives like type theory? To me it is like saying that without programming language we cannot have useful software, and therefore we should learn assembly language. – user21820 Jun 12 '15 at 4:18
@user21820: I assume nothing of the sort. I'm making a purely descriptive claim: the way people do in fact understand topology is via a set-theoretic description of topological spaces. There's a very interesting conversation to be had about alternative approaches, such as those involving type theory, but I'm not making any claims about those. – Qiaochu Yuan Jun 13 '15 at 4:28
@QiaochuYuan: Oh okay I had interpreted your answer differently. Thanks for clarifying! – user21820 Jun 13 '15 at 5:46

There are many uses of infinite sets and their properties. Let me just give you a specific one from computer science. One important taks in computer science is proving or verifying that programs do what they are supposed to do. When such programs involve loops and recursive calls (self-reference), we need methods for showing that the loops and recursive calls terminate, i.e., that the program won't run forever. The usual induction principle for natural numbers suffices for showing that a single loop terminates, but we need double induction for double loops, triple induction for triple loops, etc. The whole business can get very complicated when the program is more than just a simple combination of loops. Set theory helps sort it all out with the principle of transfinite induction and the calculus of (infinite) ordinal numbers. Transfinite induction covers all possible ways in which one could show that a program terminates, while the ordinal numbers are used to express how complex the proof of termination is (the bigger the number, the more complicated it is to see that the program will actually terminate).

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All possible ways? I thought one way of understanding the incompleteness theorem was that there are always induction principles missing from any consistent theory. This is how I understand large cardinal axioms, so if I'm wrong I'd love to know why. – Neel Krishnaswami Jan 2 '10 at 11:51
I was trying to be a bit informal in my answer, but yes, if we're precise then of course we hit the usual troubles with the Halting Problem. I just wanted to convey the fact that transfinite induction (up to $\epsilon_0$) suffices for all practical purposes. Nobody ever writes a program that tries to trick Peano arithmetic or ZFC or whatever formal system you like into not being able to decide termination. – Andrej Bauer Jan 2 '10 at 16:56
@AndrejBauer I feel it may be a good idea to hint in the answer that "all possible" in fact means "essentially all that appear in practice". Plus the indecidability of the halting problem is another nice application of set theoretic arguments. – Sasho Nikolov Nov 30 '13 at 23:21
Undecidability of halting problem has nothing to do with set theory, as it can be proved constructively in a weak system of arithmetic. – Andrej Bauer Dec 1 '13 at 1:14

You need set theory to have measure theory and you need measure theory to have the analysis required to support, for example, Fourier series. Really, most of what is going on in real analysis (and hence in calculus) depends on having a predictable understanding of how infinite sums, sequences, and sets behave.

So, elementary set theory and the ideas about infinite sets in particular are crucial for all kinds of "practical" math.

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And, coming back full circle, it was questions about domains of convergence of Fourier series that originally gave rise to the initial work on set theory by Cantor. – KConrad Mar 27 '15 at 14:07

One cute application of Cantor's results in set theory is the existence of transcendental numbers. Since the set of algebraic numbers is countable while the continuum is not there must exist uncountably many transcendentals, in particular there's at least one.

Although this wasn't the first proof of thus result it was a very early one and the easiest one.

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Yes, but in what sense can the existence of transcendental numbers be said to be "practical" knowledge? – Qiaochu Yuan Jan 1 '10 at 22:15
I believe it is only practical in a negative fashion; knowing that getting certain mechanical constructions exact is a wasted effort. – Jason Dyer Jan 2 '10 at 2:35
It is interesting to consider whether this argument is a pure existence proof or whether it provides a construction. Many believe the former, and I once even heard Saharon Shelah say this in a conference talk. But actually, the proof is completely constructive! Cantor provides an effective enumeration of the algebraic numbers and an effective means of producing a number not on that list. I once saw an MAA Monthly article detailing the output of a computer program that was written precisely to implement this strategy, and the title was something like, "The number 0.52672... is transcendental". – Joel David Hamkins Jan 2 '10 at 4:17
I think of this proof as "morally" a pure existence proof, but it happens that it can be made constructive. (I'd say the same about any proof that begins, "Let q_1,q_2,... be an enumeration of the rationals," when it doesn't matter in the slightest what the enumeration is.) I don't have a formalization of this view though. – gowers May 5 '10 at 20:33

The difference between countably and uncountably infinite sets has an important practical consequence. There are countably infinite finite sequences of strings that can be constructed from a finite set of symbols, and so there are countably infinite computer programs. But there are uncountably many functions from the integers to the integers. So there exist such functions which cannot be implemented by any computer program. Trace through the details of the standard proof of the existence of uncountable sets, as it applies in this case, and you define an uncomputable function, the so called "Halting Problem".

That seems pretty concrete to me. You could derive this result without talking about infinite sets, but using the language of set theory and countability abstracts out the core argument behind the halting problem so that it can be reused in other contexts.

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While I'm unsure any straight uses of set theory, fuzzy set theory gets used directly in quite a few areas (engineering, medicine, business, social sciences) where information is incomplete. See for example Fuzzy Set Theory: Applications in the Social Sciences or Applications of Fuzzy Logic in Bioinformatics.

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Without knowing set theory, speaking to a mathematician will be like speaking to a Frenchman. You don't speak French, and he refuses to speak English.

Nah, just joking; mathematicians are nice people. They will explain in English if you don't speak set theory.

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Surely, you know the funnier version of this line. “Mathematicians are like Frenchmen: whatever you say to them they translate into their own language and forthwith it is something entirely different” -- Goethe – David Speyer Apr 12 '10 at 14:45

In a certain sense, set theory is just a formalization of what is perhaps the most fundamental of all mathematical activities: identifying that several objects in the world share a property in common and thereby grouping them together.

For instance, it could be argued that one cannot count apples until one is able to recognize whether a given object is or is not an apple, and this is the same as identifying a property that characterizes apples and then finding a procedure to check whether an arbitrary object possesses this property.

Generalizing this a bit, one cannot count objects of a certain type without first grouping the objects that one desires to count together into what is intuitively just a "set."

In this way set theory is the foundational way of thinking that underlies the entire subject, and therefore a rigorous study of set theory allows one to more thoroughly understand essentially the entire subject of mathematics.

Besides any intrinsic interest that set theory may present to specialists (i.e., set theorists), this is its most prominent and important "application."

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OK, but say that this fundamental aspect of mathematics had never been discovered. I mean, we had been doing other kinds of math before we figured this out, right? So would we still be in the same place technologically if we had never figured out the basis of mathematical techniques that are already commonplace? – user2929 Jan 2 '10 at 3:20
If I understand right, you are asking if it is possible that we could have obtained enough of our current understanding in order to produce all current technology without formalizing set theory. In a certain sense I don't think it's relevant to the precise question that was asked here. Set theory is helpful in elucidating many modern mathematical theories even if these theories could conceivably be formalized and understood otherwise. Whether it's useful is different from whether it's strictly necessary, and I think your comment is addressing the latter whereas this thread addresses the first. – Zach Conn Jan 3 '10 at 2:21
As a direct answer to your question in the comment, however, I suspect that the most basic predispositions of human thought made the discovery and formalization of set theory and its role in supporting many mathematical theories somewhat inevitable. It's certainly an arguable point, but as I suggested in my answer I have often felt that the mental construct of grouping together similar objects is more basic even than counting, so it is not surprising to me that this pattern of thought should have come to underly nearly all of mathematics, even those areas wholly unconcerned with counting. – Zach Conn Jan 3 '10 at 2:24

As a working mathematician, not as a logician what I am not, set theory is the set (!) of rules in order to use the symbol $\in$, meaning "belongs to". That tells me when and how I can use it.

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To complement some of the previous answers, notably the one by Zach Cont.

For question 1, mostly for finite sets, but not only: At the most elementary level as at the most involved or most internal to mathematics, set theory, classical logic and combinatorics are deeply related. Most applications of any two of them could be seen actually as an application of the third.

Many use of diagrams outside mathematics use a combination of naive set theory and classical boolean logic. The technical language of many disciplines use the terms union, intersection, complement of sets, and use a correspondence between (logical) combination of conditions on elements and combination of subset creation and operations. This can be traced at least to Leibniz and probably to medieval times (scholastic tradition for instance). Traditional names in this area are mostly from the 19th such as De Morgan, Boole, Pierce, Grassmann, Venn, Cayley.

In this context, it makes sense to study more precise treatment of set theory so that it reinforces intuition of what is reasonable and expressible in this context. It gives clean conceptual tools and refined language to analyze problems and reports opinions and facts. Usually with high school students, the discussion of the classical paradoxes such as Russel and the axiom of foundation leads to better appreciation for the art of defining and for the way to use (even in non mathematical contexts) informal quantifiers and adverbs such as all, always, never, none, nobody, everywhere, everytime, at least, etc.

This might not look very spectacular, but when one considers the usual sloppiness (sometimes voluntary) in newspapers, books and general conversation, this strikes me as very practical for non-mathematicians.

Sound notions of set theory, and the ability to think in terms of cartesian products, relations as quotients, etc. are the basis of a good grasp of probability (see measure theory in other answers) and statistics (and basically experimental data measurement, quantum physics, actuarial techniques, and from the 1960s data mining, database query languages, ...). I certainly do not rule out that we could have developped similar science and technologies by other roads, but it would have given them a very different aspect and to learn all these subjects (instead of recreating them with other foundations) without knowing set theory is especially difficult and limiting for the learner.

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