Real Analysis/The real numbers

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Real Analysis
Axioms of The Real Numbers


Why we need the real numbersEdit

This is a good juncture to justify the subject of real analysis, which essentially reduces to justifying the necessity of studying  . So, what is missing? Why do we need anything beyond the rationals?

The first sign of trouble is square roots. Famously,   is not rational - in other words, there is no rational number which squares to   (see the exercises). This fact has a curious consequence - consider the following function:


Clearly this function has a dramatic jump in it around the rational  , where it suddenly changes from being equal to zero and starts being equal to one. However, it's difficult (or even impossible) to pin down exactly where this jump happens. Any specific rational number is safely on one side or the other, and, indeed, in the standard Topology on  , this function is continuous (don't worry if that makes no sense to you).

It is this flaw which the real numbers are designed to repair. We will define the real numbers   so that no matter how clever we try to be, if a function has a 'jump' in the way that   does, then we will always be able to find a specific number at which it jumps.

The following sections describe the properties of   which make this possible.

Different perspectivesEdit

In order to prove anything about the real numbers, we need to know what their properties are. There are two different approaches to describing these properties - axiomatic and constructive.

An axiomatic approachEdit

When we take an axiomatic approach, we simply make a series of assertions regarding  , and assume that they hold. The assertions that we make are called axioms - in a mathematical context this term means roughly 'basic assumption'. The advantage of this approach is that it is then clear exactly what has been assumed, before proceeding to deduce results which rely only on those assumptions. The disadvantage of this approach is that it might not be immediately clear that any object satisfying the properties we desire even exists!

A constructive approachEdit

With a constructive approach, we are not happy simply to assume exactly what we want, but rather we try to construct   from something simpler, and then prove that it has the properties we want. In this way, what could have been axioms become theorems. There are several different ways to do this, starting from   and using some method to 'fill up the gaps between the rationals'. All of these methods are fairly complex and will be put off until the next section.

The axiomsEdit

So, what are these axioms which we will need? The short version is to say that   is a complete ordered field. This is in fact saying a great many things:

  • That   is a totally ordered field.
  • That   is complete in this ordering (Note that the meaning of completeness here is not quite the same as the common meaning in the study of partially ordered sets).
  • That the algebraic operations (addition and multiplication) described by the field axioms interact with the ordering in the expected manner.

In more detail, we assert the following:

  1.   is a field. For this, we require binary operations addition (denoted  ) and multiplication (denoted  ) defined on  , and distinct elements   and   satisfying:
    1.   is a commutative group, meaning:
      1.   (associativity)
      2.   (commutativity)
      3.   (identity)
      4.   (inverse)
    2.   is a commutative group, meaning:
      1.   (associativity)
      2.   (commutativity)
      3.   (identity)
      4.   (inverse)
    3.   (distributivity)
  2.   is a totally ordered set. For this we require a relation (denoted by  ) satisfying:
    1.   (reflexivity)
    2.   (transitivity)
    3.   (anti-symmetry)
    4.   (totality)
  3.   is complete in this order (see below for details).
  4. The field operations and order interact in the expected manner, meaning:

This is a substantial list, and if you are not used to axiomatic mathematics (or even if you are!) it may seem somewhat daunting, especially since we have yet to give details of what completeness means. This is amongst the longest list of axioms in any region of mathematics, but if you examine each in turn, you will find that they all state things which you have probably taken for granted as 'the way numbers behave' without a second thought.

These axioms are so exacting that there is a sense in which they specify the real numbers precisely. In other words   is the only complete ordered field.

Further notationEdit

Having defined these operations and relations on  , we need to introduce more notation to aid in talking about them. Hopefully all these conventions should be familiar to you, but it is important to formally present them all to avoid confusion following from misunderstanding of notation:

  • Rather than writing   for multiplication, we may simply denote it by juxtaposition. In other words, we write   to denote  .
  • Since both multiplication and addition are associative, we omit unnecessary bracketing when several numbers are added or multiplied. In other words, rather than writing   or  , which are equal, we simply write   to denote their common value.
  • To further save writing of brackets, by convention, multiplication has a higher precedence than addition. So, for example, the expression   should be interpreted as  , not as  .
  • The number   is called the sum of   and  .
  • The number   is called the product of   and  .
  • The additive inverse of   is written  , and called the negative or negation of  . So,  .
  • The multiplicative inverse of   is written  , and called the reciprocal, or simply the inverse of  . So,  .
  • We define the binary operation of subtraction as follows: For  , we set  . The number   is called the difference of   and  .
  • Subtraction has the same precedence as addition (less than that of multiplication), and when the two operations are mixed without bracketing, left-associativity is implied. For example,   should be interpreted as  .
  • We define the binary operation of division as follows: For  , with  , we set  . The number   is called the quotient of   and  , and is also denoted  .
  • Division has a higher precedence than that of addition or subtraction, but there is no simple convention as to how to handle mixed multiplication and division. Using the   notation, rather than the   notation helps to avoid confusion.
  • We define the binary operation of exponentation as follows: For   and   we define   recursively by   and  . Then for  , with  , we define  .
  • Exponentation has a higher precedence than any of division, multiplication, addition and subtraction. For example,   should be interpreted as  .
  • We write   to mean  .
  • We write   to mean   and  .
  • We write   to mean  .
  • To abbreviate a collection of equalities or inequalities, they may be strung together. For example, the expression   should be interpreted as   and   and   and  .
  • To say   is positive means  .
  • To say   is negative means  .
  • To say   is non-positive means  .
  • To say   is non-negative means  .
  • We also introduce notation for several common varieties of subsets of  . All of these subsets are called intervals:
    •   (called the closed interval from   to  )
    •   (called the open interval from   to  )
    • In all these cases,   is called the lower limit of the interval, and   is called the upper limit.
    • An excluded lower limit (as in the second and fourth cases) may be replaced by   to indicate that there is no lower restriction. For example  .
    • Similarly, an excluded upper limit (as in the second and third cases) may be replaced by  . For example,  .
    • Some specific intervals which appear frequently are the closed unit interval, or just unit interval, which is  , and  , the positive real numbers.


The rational numbers   satisfy all of the axioms above which have been explained in detail, and so if we are to escape the problem which we described above then we clearly need something more. This 'something more' is completeness. There are several equivalent ways of describing completeness, but most of them require us to know about Sequences, which we do not introduce until the next chapter, so for the moment we can only give one definition.

Upper boundsEdit

Let  . We say   is an upper bound for   if


For example,   is an upper bound for  , as is  , but   is not, because   and  . A set with an upper bound   is said to be bounded above by  .

Least Upper BoundEdit

We say   is a least upper bound or supremum for   if   is an upper bound for  , and   is any upper bound for   then  . More formally:


Similarly, we say   is a lower bound for   if


and we say   is a greatest lower bound or infimum for   if:


The supremum and infimum of a set   are denoted   and   respectively.

The Least upper bound axiomEdit

Now we are finally ready to state the last axiom:

  • If   is non-empty and has an upper bound, then   has a least upper bound in  .

This is the axiom of the real numbers that finally satisfies what was lacking in the rationals: completeness. It is worth noting at this point, to avoid possible confusion, that in the study of general partially ordered sets, the definition of completeness is that every subset has a least upper bound, and there is no condition that they be non-empty or bounded above. Nevertheless, we really do wish to impose these two conditions in this case.

Other completeness axiomsEdit

There are other equivalent ways to state the completeness axiom, but they involve sequences, so we shall delay them until after the discussion of that topic. Because of the existence of these other forms, this axiom is sometimes called the least upper bound axiom.