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Portal:Mathematics

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The Mathematics Portal


Mathematics is the study of numbers, quantity, space, pattern, structure, and change. Mathematics is used throughout the world as an essential tool in many fields, including natural science, engineering, medicine, and the social sciences. Applied mathematics, the branch of mathematics concerned with application of mathematical knowledge to other fields, inspires and makes use of new mathematical discoveries and sometimes leads to the development of entirely new mathematical disciplines, such as statistics and game theory. Mathematicians also engage in pure mathematics, or mathematics for its own sake, without having any application in mind. There is no clear line separating pure and applied mathematics, and practical applications for what began as pure mathematics are often discovered.

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A homotopy from a circle around a sphere down to a single point.
Image credit: Richard Morris

The homotopy groups of spheres describe the different ways spheres of various dimensions can be wrapped around each other. They are studied as part of algebraic topology. The topic can be hard to understand because the most interesting and surprising results involve spheres in higher dimensions. These are defined as follows: an n-dimensional sphere, n-sphere, consists of all the points in a space of n+1 dimensions that are a fixed distance from a center point. This definition is a generalization of the familiar circle (1-sphere) and sphere (2-sphere).

The goal of algebraic topology is to categorize or classify topological spaces. Homotopy groups were invented in the late 19th century as a tool for such classification, in effect using the set of mappings from a c-sphere into a space as a way to probe the structure of that space. An obvious question was how this new tool would work on n-spheres themselves. No general solution to this question has been found to date, but many homotopy groups of spheres have been computed and the results are surprisingly rich and complicated. The study of the homotopy groups of spheres has led to the development of many powerful tools used in algebraic topology.

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spiral figure representing both finite and transfinite ordinal numbers

This spiral diagram represents all ordinal numbers less than ωω. The first (outermost) turn of the spiral represents the finite ordinal numbers, which are the regular counting numbers starting with zero. As the spiral completes its first turn (at the top of the diagram), the ordinal numbers approach infinity, or more precisely ω, the first transfinite ordinal number (identified with the set of all counting numbers, a "countably infinite" set, the cardinality of which corresponds to the first transfinite cardinal number, called 0). The ordinal numbers continue from this point in the second turn of the spiral with ω + 1, ω + 2, and so forth. (A special ordinal arithmetic is defined to give meaning to these expressions, since the + symbol here does not represent the addition of two real numbers.) Halfway through the second turn of the spiral (at the bottom) the numbers approach ω + ω, or ω · 2. The ordinal numbers continue with ω · 2 + 1 through ω · 2 + ω = ω · 3 (three-quarters of the way through the second turn, or at the "9 o'clock" position), then through ω · 4, and so forth, up to ω · ω = ω2 at the top. (As with addition, the multiplication and exponentiation operations have definitions that work with transfinite numbers.) The ordinals continue in the third turn of the spiral with ω2 + 1 through ω2 + ω, then through ω2 + ω2 = ω2 · 2, up to ω2 · ω = ω3 at the top of the third turn. Continuing in this way, the ordinals increase by one power of ω for each turn of the spiral, approaching ωω in the middle of the diagram, as the spiral makes a countably infinite number of turns. This process can actually continue (not shown in this diagram) through and , and so on, approaching the first epsilon number, ε0. Each of these ordinals is still countable, and therefore equal in cardinality to ω. After uncountably many of these transfinite ordinals, the first uncountable ordinal is reached, corresponding to only the second infinite cardinal . The identification of this larger cardinality with the cardinality of the set of real numbers can neither be proved nor disproved within the standard version of axiomatic set theory called Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory, whether or not one also assumes the axiom of choice.

In the news

19 March 2019 –
The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters awards this year's Abel Prize to Karen Uhlenbeck for "her pioneering achievements in geometric partial differential equations, gauge theory and integrable systems." Uhlenbeck is the first woman to win this prize. (The New York Times via MSN.com)

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Index of mathematics articles

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