In set theory, an ordinal number, or ordinal, is one generalization of the concept of a natural number that is used to describe a way to arrange a collection of objects in order, one after another. Any finite collection of objects can be put in order just by the process of counting: labeling the objects with distinct whole numbers. Ordinal numbers are thus the "labels" needed to arrange collections of objects in order.
Two well ordered sets have the same order type if and only if there is a bijection from one set to the other that converts the relation in the first set to the relation in the second set.
Whereas ordinals are useful for ordering the objects in a collection, they are distinct from , which are useful for saying how many objects are in a collection. Although the distinction between ordinals and cardinals is not always apparent in finite sets (one can go from one to the other just by counting labels), different infinite ordinals can describe the same cardinal. Like other kinds of numbers, ordinals can be added, multiplied, and exponentiated, although the addition and multiplication are not commutative.
Ordinals were introduced by Georg Cantor in 1883Thorough introductions are given by and . to accommodate infinite set sequences and to classify derived sets, which he had previously introduced in 1872 while studying the uniqueness of trigonometric series.. See the footnote on p. 12.
Whereas the notion of cardinal number is associated with a set with no particular structure on it, the ordinals are intimately linked with the special kind of sets that are called (so intimately linked, in fact, that some mathematicians make no distinction between the two concepts). A well-ordered set is a totally ordered set (given any two elements one defines a smaller and a larger one in a coherent way) in which there is no infinite decreasing sequence (however, there may be infinite increasing sequences); equivalently, every non-empty subset of the set has a least element. Ordinals may be used to label the elements of any given well-ordered set (the smallest element being labelled 0, the one after that 1, the next one 2, "and so on") and to measure the "length" of the whole set by the least ordinal that is not a label for an element of the set. This "length" is called the order type of the set.
Any ordinal is defined by the set of ordinals that precede it: in fact, the most common definition of ordinals identifies each ordinal as the set of ordinals that precede it. For example, the ordinal 42 is the order type of the ordinals less than it, i.e., the ordinals from 0 (the smallest of all ordinals) to 41 (the immediate predecessor of 42), and it is generally identified as the set . Conversely, any set S of ordinals that is downward-closed — meaning that for any ordinal α in S and any ordinal β < α, β is also in S — is (or can be identified with) an ordinal.
There are infinite ordinals as well: the smallest infinite ordinal is ω, which is the order type of the natural numbers (finite ordinals) and that can even be identified with the set of natural numbers (indeed, the set of natural numbers is well-ordered—as is any set of ordinals—and since it is downward closed it can be identified with the ordinal associated with it, which is exactly how ω is defined).
Perhaps a clearer intuition of ordinals can be formed by examining a first few of them: as mentioned above, they start with the natural numbers, 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, … After all natural numbers comes the first infinite ordinal, ω, and after that come ω+1, ω+2, ω+3, and so on. (Exactly what addition means will be defined later on: just consider them as names.) After all of these come ω·2 (which is ω+ω), ω·2+1, ω·2+2, and so on, then ω·3, and then later on ω·4. Now the set of ordinals formed in this way (the ω· m+ n, where m and n are natural numbers) must itself have an ordinal associated with it: and that is ω2. Further on, there will be ω3, then ω4, and so on, and ωω, then ωωω, then later ωωωω, and even later ε0 (epsilon nought) (to give a few examples of relatively small—countable—ordinals). This can be continued indefinitely far ("indefinitely far" is exactly what ordinals are good at: basically every time one says "and so on" when enumerating ordinals, it defines a larger ordinal). The smallest uncountable set ordinal is the set of all countable ordinals, expressed as ω1.
It is inappropriate to distinguish between two well-ordered sets if they only differ in the "labeling of their elements", or more formally: if the elements of the first set can be paired off with the elements of the second set such that if one element is smaller than another in the first set, then the partner of the first element is smaller than the partner of the second element in the second set, and vice versa. Such a one-to-one correspondence is called an order isomorphism and the two well-ordered sets are said to be order-isomorphic, or similar (obviously this is an equivalence relation). Provided there exists an order isomorphism between two well-ordered sets, the order isomorphism is unique: this makes it quite justifiable to consider the two sets as essentially identical, and to seek a "canonical" representative of the isomorphism type (class). This is exactly what the ordinals provide, and it also provides a canonical labeling of the elements of any well-ordered set. Formally, if a partial order < is defined on the set S, and a partial order <' is defined on the set S' , then the posets ( S,<) and ( S' ,<') are order isomorphic if there is a bijection f that preserves the ordering. That is, f( a) <' f( b) if and only if a < b. Every well-ordered set ( S,<) is order isomorphic to the set of ordinals less than one specific ordinal number the under their natural ordering.
Essentially, an ordinal is intended to be defined as an isomorphism class of well-ordered sets: that is, as an equivalence class for the equivalence relation of "being order-isomorphic". There is a technical difficulty involved, however, in the fact that the equivalence class is too large to be a set in the usual Zermelo–Fraenkel (ZF) formalization of set theory. But this is not a serious difficulty. The ordinal can be said to be the order type of any set in the class.
Rather than defining an ordinal as an equivalence class of well-ordered sets, it will be defined as a particular well-ordered set that (canonically) represents the class. Thus, an ordinal number will be a well-ordered set; and every well-ordered set will be order-isomorphic to exactly one ordinal number.
The standard definition, suggested by John von Neumann and now called definition of von Neumann ordinals, is: each ordinal is the well-ordered set of all smaller ordinals. In symbols, λ = [0,λ). attributes the idea to unpublished work of Zermelo in 1916 and several papers by von Neumann the 1920s. Formally:
The natural numbers are thus ordinals by this definition. For instance, 2 is an element of 4 = , and 2 is equal to and so it is a subset of .
It can be shown by transfinite induction that every well-ordered set is order-isomorphic to exactly one of these ordinals, that is, there is an order preserving bijective function between them.
Furthermore, the elements of every ordinal are ordinals themselves. Given two ordinals S and T, S is an element of T if and only if S is a proper subset of T. Moreover, either S is an element of T, or T is an element of S, or they are equal. So every set of ordinals is total order. Further, every set of ordinals is well-ordered. This generalizes the fact that every set of natural numbers is well-ordered.
Consequently, every ordinal S is a set having as elements precisely the ordinals smaller than S. For example, every set of ordinals has a supremum, the ordinal obtained by taking the union of all the ordinals in the set. This union exists regardless of the set's size, by the axiom of union.
The class of all ordinals is not a set. If it were a set, one could show that it was an ordinal and thus a member of itself, which would contradict its strict ordering by membership. This is the Burali-Forti paradox. The class of all ordinals is variously called "Ord", "ON", or "∞".
That is, if P(α) is true whenever P(β) is true for all β<α, then P(α) is true for all α. Or, more practically: in order to prove a property P for all ordinals α, one can assume that it is already known for all smaller β<α.
Here is an example of definition by transfinite recursion on the ordinals (more will be given later): define function F by letting F(α) be the smallest ordinal not in the set , that is, the set consisting of all F(β) for . This definition assumes the F(β) known in the very process of defining F; this apparent vicious circle is exactly what definition by transfinite recursion permits. In fact, F(0) makes sense since there is no ordinal , and the set is empty. So F(0) is equal to 0 (the smallest ordinal of all). Now that F(0) is known, the definition applied to F(1) makes sense (it is the smallest ordinal not in the singleton set ), and so on (the and so on is exactly transfinite induction). It turns out that this example is not very exciting, since provably for all ordinals α, which can be shown, precisely, by transfinite induction.
A nonzero ordinal that is not a successor is called a limit ordinal. One justification for this term is that a limit ordinal is indeed the limit point in a topological sense of all smaller ordinals (under the order topology).
When is an ordinal-indexed sequence, indexed by a limit γ and the sequence is increasing, i.e. whenever its limit is defined the least upper bound of the set that is, the smallest ordinal (it always exists) greater than any term of the sequence. In this sense, a limit ordinal is the limit of all smaller ordinals (indexed by itself). Put more directly, it is the supremum of the set of smaller ordinals.
Another way of defining a limit ordinal is to say that α is a limit ordinal if and only if:
So in the following sequence:
ω is a limit ordinal because for any smaller ordinal (in this example, a natural number) there is another ordinal (natural number) larger than it, but still less than ω.
Thus, every ordinal is either zero, or a successor (of a well-defined predecessor), or a limit. This distinction is important, because many definitions by transfinite induction rely upon it. Very often, when defining a function F by transfinite induction on all ordinals, one defines F(0), and F(α+1) assuming F(α) is defined, and then, for limit ordinals δ one defines F(δ) as the limit of the F(β) for all β<δ (either in the sense of ordinal limits, as previously explained, or for some other notion of limit if F does not take ordinal values). Thus, the interesting step in the definition is the successor step, not the limit ordinals. Such functions (especially for F nondecreasing and taking ordinal values) are called continuous. Ordinal addition, multiplication and exponentiation are continuous as functions of their second argument.
This could be applied, for example, to the class of limit ordinals: the -th ordinal, which is either a limit or zero is (see ordinal arithmetic for the definition of multiplication of ordinals). Similarly, one can consider additively indecomposable ordinals (meaning a nonzero ordinal that is not the sum of two strictly smaller ordinals): the -th additively indecomposable ordinal is indexed as . The technique of indexing classes of ordinals is often useful in the context of fixed points: for example, the -th ordinal such that is written . These are called the "epsilon numbers".
Of particular importance are those classes of ordinals that are club set, sometimes called clubs. For example, the class of all limit ordinals is closed and unbounded: this translates the fact that there is always a limit ordinal greater than a given ordinal, and that a limit of limit ordinals is a limit ordinal (a fortunate fact if the terminology is to make any sense at all!). The class of additively indecomposable ordinals, or the class of ordinals, or the class of cardinals, are all closed unbounded; the set of regular cardinals, however, is unbounded but not closed, and any finite set of ordinals is closed but not unbounded.
A class is stationary if it has a nonempty intersection with every closed unbounded class. All superclasses of closed unbounded classes are stationary, and stationary classes are unbounded, but there are stationary classes that are not closed and stationary classes that have no closed unbounded subclass (such as the class of all limit ordinals with countable cofinality). Since the intersection of two closed unbounded classes is closed and unbounded, the intersection of a stationary class and a closed unbounded class is stationary. But the intersection of two stationary classes may be empty, e.g. the class of ordinals with cofinality ω with the class of ordinals with uncountable cofinality.
Rather than formulating these definitions for (proper) classes of ordinals, one can formulate them for sets of ordinals below a given ordinal : A subset of a limit ordinal is said to be unbounded (or cofinal) under provided any ordinal less than is less than some ordinal in the set. More generally, one can call a subset of any ordinal cofinal in provided every ordinal less than is less than or equal to some ordinal in the set. The subset is said to be closed under provided it is closed for the order topology in , i.e. a limit of ordinals in the set is either in the set or equal to itself.
The α-th infinite initial ordinal is written . Its cardinality is written . For example, the cardinality of ω0 = ω is , which is also the cardinality of ω2 or ε0 (all are countable ordinals). So ω can be identified with , except that the notation is used when writing cardinals, and ω when writing ordinals (this is important since, for example, = whereas ). Also, is the smallest uncountable ordinal (to see that it exists, consider the set of equivalence classes of well-orderings of the natural numbers: each such well-ordering defines a countable ordinal, and is the order type of that set), is the smallest ordinal whose cardinality is greater than , and so on, and is the limit of the for natural numbers n (any limit of cardinals is a cardinal, so this limit is indeed the first cardinal after all the ).
Thus for a limit ordinal, there exists a -indexed strictly increasing sequence with limit . For example, the cofinality of ω² is ω, because the sequence ω· m (where m ranges over the natural numbers) tends to ω²; but, more generally, any countable limit ordinal has cofinality ω. An uncountable limit ordinal may have either cofinality ω as does or an uncountable cofinality.
The cofinality of 0 is 0. And the cofinality of any successor ordinal is 1. The cofinality of any limit ordinal is at least .
An ordinal that is equal to its cofinality is called regular and it is always an initial ordinal. Any limit of regular ordinals is a limit of initial ordinals and thus is also initial even if it is not regular, which it usually is not. If the Axiom of Choice, then is regular for each α. In this case, the ordinals 0, 1, , , and are regular, whereas 2, 3, , and ωω·2 are initial ordinals that are not regular.
The cofinality of any ordinal α is a regular ordinal, i.e. the cofinality of the cofinality of α is the same as the cofinality of α. So the cofinality operation is idempotent.
See the Topology and ordinals section of the "Order topology" article.
Cantor used these sets in the theorems: (1) If P(α) = ∅ for some index α, then P' is countable; (2) Conversely, if P' is countable, then there is an index α such that P(α) = ∅. These theorems are proved by partitioning P' into pairwise disjoint sets: P' = ( P' ∖ P(2)) ∪ ( P(2) ∖ P(3)) ∪ ··· ∪ ( P(∞) ∖ P(∞ + 1)) ∪ ··· ∪ P(α). For β < α: since P(β + 1) contains the limit points of P(β), the sets P(β) ∖ P(β + 1) have no limit points. Hence, they are , so they are countable. Proof of first theorem: If P(α) = ∅ for some index α, then P' is the countable union of countable sets. Therefore, P' is countable.;
The second theorem requires proving the existence of an α such that P(α) = ∅. To prove this, Cantor considered the set of all α having countably many predecessors. To define this set, he defined the transfinite ordinal numbers and transformed the infinite indices into ordinals by replacing ∞ with ω, the first transfinite ordinal number. Cantor called the set of finite ordinals the first number class. The second number class is the set of ordinals whose predecessors form a countably infinite set. The set of all α having countably many predecessors—that is, the set of countable ordinals—is the union of these two number classes. Cantor proved that the cardinality of the second number class is the first uncountable cardinality.;
Cantor's second theorem becomes: If P' is countable, then there is a countable ordinal α such that P(α) = ∅. Its proof uses proof by contradiction. Let P' be countable, and assume there is no such α. This assumption produces two cases.
In both cases, P' is uncountable, which contradicts P' being countable. Therefore, there is a countable ordinal α such that P(α) = ∅. Cantor's work with derived sets and ordinal numbers led to the Cantor-Bendixson theorem.
Using successors, limits, and cardinality, Cantor generated an unbounded sequence of ordinal numbers and number classes. The (α + 1)-th number class is the set of ordinals whose predecessors form a set of the same cardinality as the α-th number class. The cardinality of the (α + 1)-th number class is the cardinality immediately following that of the α-th number class. For a limit ordinal α, the α-th number class is the union of the β-th number classes for β < α. Its cardinality is the limit of the cardinalities of these number classes.
If n is finite, the n-th number class has cardinality . If α ≥ ω, the α-th number class has cardinality .The first number class has cardinality . Mathematical induction proves that the n-th number class has cardinality . Since the ω-th number class is the union of the n-th number classes, its cardinality is , the limit of the . Transfinite induction proves that if α ≥ ω, the α-th number class has cardinality . Therefore, the cardinalities of the number classes correspond one-to-one with the . Also, the α-th number class consists of ordinals different from those in the preceding number classes if and only if α is a non-limit ordinal. Therefore, the non-limit number classes partition the ordinals into pairwise disjoint sets.