Ordinal number

In set theory, an ordinal number, or ordinal, is a generalization of ordinal numerals (first, second, nth, etc.) aimed to extend enumeration to infinite sets.[1]

Representation of the ordinal numbers up to ωω. Each turn of the spiral represents one power of ω.

A finite set can be enumerated by successively labeling each element with the least natural number that has not been previously used. To extend this process to various infinite sets, ordinal numbers are defined more generally as linearly ordered labels that include the natural numbers and have the property that every set of ordinals has a least element (this is needed for giving a meaning to "the least unused element").[2] This more general definition allows us to define an ordinal number that is greater than every natural number, along with ordinal numbers , , etc., which are even greater than .

A linear order such that every subset has a least element is called a well-order. The axiom of choice implies that every set can be well-ordered, and given two well-ordered sets, one is isomorphic to an initial segment of the other. So, ordinal numbers exist, and are essentially unique.

Ordinal numbers are distinct from cardinal numbers, which measure the size of sets. Although the distinction between ordinals and cardinals is not always apparent on finite sets (one can go from one to the other just by counting labels), they are very different in the infinite case, where different infinite ordinals can correspond to sets having the same cardinal. Like other kinds of numbers, ordinals can be added, multiplied, and exponentiated, although none of these operations are commutative.

Ordinals were introduced by Georg Cantor in 1883[3] in order to accommodate infinite sequences and classify derived sets, which he had previously introduced in 1872—while studying the uniqueness of trigonometric series.[4]


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