Real number

In mathematics, a real number is a value of a continuous quantity that can represent a distance along a line (or alternatively, a quantity that can be represented as an infinite decimal expansion). The adjective real in this context was introduced in the 17th century by René Descartes, who distinguished between real and imaginary roots of polynomials. The real numbers include all the rational numbers, such as the integer −5 and the fraction 4/3, and all the irrational numbers, such as (1.41421356..., the square root of 2, an irrational algebraic number). Included within the irrationals are the real transcendental numbers, such as π (3.14159265...).[1] In addition to measuring distance, real numbers can be used to measure quantities such as time, mass, energy, velocity, and many more. The set of real numbers is denoted using the symbol R or [2] and is sometimes called "the reals".[3]

A symbol for the set of real numbers

Real numbers can be thought of as points on an infinitely long line called the number line or real line, where the points corresponding to integers are equally spaced. Any real number can be determined by a possibly infinite decimal representation, such as that of 8.632, where each consecutive digit is measured in units one-tenth the size of the previous one. The real line can be thought of as a part of the complex plane, and the real numbers can be thought of as a part of the complex numbers.

Real numbers can be thought of as points on an infinitely long number line

These descriptions of the real numbers are not sufficiently rigorous by the modern standards of pure mathematics. The discovery of a suitably rigorous definition of the real numbers—indeed, the realization that a better definition was needed—was one of the most important developments of 19th-century mathematics. The current standard axiomatic definition is that real numbers form the unique Dedekind-complete ordered field ( ; + ; · ; <), up to an isomorphism,[lower-alpha 1] whereas popular constructive definitions of real numbers include declaring them as equivalence classes of Cauchy sequences (of rational numbers), Dedekind cuts, or infinite decimal representations, together with precise interpretations for the arithmetic operations and the order relation. All these definitions satisfy the axiomatic definition and are thus equivalent.

The set of all real numbers is uncountable, in the sense that while both the set of all natural numbers and the set of all real numbers are infinite sets, there can be no one-to-one function from the real numbers to the natural numbers. In fact, the cardinality of the set of all real numbers, denoted by and called the cardinality of the continuum, is strictly greater than the cardinality of the set of all natural numbers (denoted , 'aleph-naught').

The statement that there is no subset of the reals with cardinality strictly greater than and strictly smaller than is known as the continuum hypothesis (CH). It is neither provable nor refutable using the axioms of Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory including the axiom of choice (ZFC)—the standard foundation of modern mathematics. In fact, some models of ZFC satisfy CH, while others violate it.


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