Sunday, March 2, 2014

Hyperreal Numbers and Calculus without Limits

Once upon a time, I stumbled into a hyperreal number field on the internet when searching for something related to calculus. Maybe I was calculating the volume of a Steinmetz Solid? The so-called hyperreals can be used to develop the calculus without limits. The claim is made that, perhaps, the use of "infinitesimals" is less confusing than the concept of the limit for struggling calculus students. In fact, there is a calculus text using this approach that one can download for free from this page. The author, H. Jerome Keisler, is a professor emeritus of mathematics at UW-Madison.

What are the hyperreals? They are an extension R* of the field of real numbers, which is usually denoted by RR is a subset of R*. Without going in to too much detail, R* is obtained from R by adding in infinitesimals and infinitely large numbers. An infinitesimal number is infinitely small. What does this mean? For every real number a, a number ε > 0 is infinitesimal if -a < ε < a. That's it. In contrast, 1/ε is infinitely large (a "hyperinteger"). Conceptually, hyperreals are similar to complex numbers. However, unlike the complex numbers, they are depicted in one linear dimension, not a two-dimensional plane. The nitty gritty is all in Keisler's book. With the concept of the infinitesimal available, we can have the hyperreal quantity x + ε that is infinitely near x. This hyperreal x + ε can then be used to formulate the derivative, which won't be surprising to anyone who has studied calculus.

Here's figure 1.4.3 from Keisler's book. An "infinitesimal microscope" has been used to zoom in on the hyperreal number line:

The infinitesimal microscope is a captivating pedagogical concept. I claim that it's easier to grasp than the concept of a limit. Children learn about microscopes in grade school. Maybe they learn about it nowadays by zooming in on their iPads. In any case, R* is a useful mathematical concept that can be used to formulate the calculus without that ungainly Σ thing. All you need is a little ε guy. :-)  Keisler's book provides more than 800 pages of evidence.

The history of infinitesimals is interesting. The epilogue [pdf] to the aforementioned calculus text lays out the story. Archimedes anticipated both infinitesimals and the ε, δ approach of limits in some of his proofs. In the 17th century, the modern calculus was developed independently by Newton and Leibniz. In his reasoning, Newton used both infinitesimals and the concept of a limit as well as the so-called velocity method. Leibniz used infinitesimals. So there were three competing methods for doing calculus: infinitesimals, limits, and the velocity method. Jumping ahead (see Keisler's epilogue for whole story), the first truly rigorous treatment of calculus was formulated by Karl Weierstrass in the 1870's. I believe it was Weierstrass who introduced the  ε, δ notation that we still use today.

There can be little doubt that the limit approach is firmly entrenched in the current pedagogy. Other than Keisler's book, I am unaware of any other textbook that uses this approach. I never heard it in Altgeld Hall or Van Vleck. Mathematics teachers should be aware of this alternative approach and should consider using it to introduce students to derivatives and integrals.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting! I'd never heard of anything but the limit approach before. Yet I found your explanation of the infinitesimals very easy to grasp without even reviewing anything. I think that that would be a useful idea to "co-teach" with the limit approach. Perhaps even make reading texts that use both approaches part of a literacy activity in the calculus class, and see which one is understood better by the students? You could use an informal assessment of concept understanding after half the students had read the limit approach and half had read the infinitesimal approach to see which approach had led to the greatest level of understanding before moving on.