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It can happen to anybody. There you are, minding your own business, when the though hits you: Does every continuous function have a derivative somewhere? You try to prove that it must. It sure seems like it must. How could it not? Hours slip by, and you've made no progress. What do you do? You pick up Gelbaum and Olmsted's classic "Counterexamples in Analysis". There on page 38 is an example of a continuous function that has no derivative; none; anywhere. No wonder you couldn't prove it. It turns out that questions of the form "Does A always imply B?" entail proofs with two very different flavors, depending on whether the answer is affirmative or negative. The affirmative variety can be very difficult, as it usually deals with an infinity of things. But a negative answer requires only one solitary example of an A that is not a B; this is affectionately known as a "counter-example". These are the slickest little proofs around--often a one liner--and they can provide a lot of insight. Here's a trickier one: Are all linear functions continuous? Surprisingly, the answer is "no", which means there is a counter-example. Gelbaum and Olmsted show how to construct a discontinuous linear function. Case closed. They also provide examples of A perfect nowhere dense set A linear function space that is a lattice but not an algebra A connected compact set that is not an arc A divergent series whose general term approaches zero A nonuniform limit of bounded functions that is not bounded I won't give away any more (although there are hundreds).Read more ›
In my teaching of the basic tools of mathematical analysis; and even going back to my student days, I noticed the hurdle that separates the beautiful definitions from the `messy' examples. Often students tell me that the theory looks so easy, `but how do we construct an example to illustrate the limits of the theory?' -----A counter example?
Part of the difficulty is that the definitions involve quantifiers; and how do you check the quantifier `for all' ? And on top of that, there are the axioms of set theory: the axiom of choice, or one of its equivalent variants.
The lovely little book by Gelbaum-Olmsted was a savior to many of us when we started out in math, and it appeared first in 1961. But I had almost forgotten about it until by accident (while browsing in the bookstore) I stumbled over a new edition of it about a year ago, a lovely Dover reprinted edition. And so affordable !
In all the other books you learn about the wonderful things that are true about convergence, sets on the line or in the plane, modern variants of the so called Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, and in Gelbaum-Olmstead you learn the things that aren't true. And then there are all the lovely Cantor constructions, The Devil's Staircase, space filling curves, and much more; beautiful, but little known constructions going back to Lebesgue, and some to Riemann.
But more importantly the book gives students an edge when they have to do the assigned exercises in your analysis course. Many told me that the book is a 'secret weapon'.
Palle Jorgensen, October 2004.
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For 200 years after it was invented by Isaac Newton, calculus lacked a rigorous foundation. In the 1800's the missing rigor was finally provided by the ingenious theory of limits, developed by Bolzano, Cauchy, Weierstrass, and others. This development, in turn, revealed the need to formulate and understand the structure of the real numbers, which was achieved by Cantor, Dedekind, and Peano, who showed how the real numbers can be constructed from rational numbers, which are in turn constructed from integers, which are defined in terms of set theory.
But it was a Faustian bargain, because immediately a host of bizarre and counterintuitive examples were discovered - continuous functions that were nowhere differentiable, nonmeasurable sets, one-to-one pairing of points between the line and the plane. These peculiar entities were deeply disturbing to many.
Poincare said "Logic sometimes makes monsters. For half a century we have seen a mass of bizarre functions which appear to be forced to resemble as little as possible honest functions which serve some purpose... In former times when one invented a new function it was for a practical purpose; today one invents them purposely to show up defects in the reasoning of our fathers and one will deduce from them only that."
These counterexamples displayed features that were nowhere to be found in the physical universe. When Richard Feynman was a physics graduate student at Princeton, he enjoyed teasing his mathematician friends that mathematics was so easy that he could instantly decide the truth or falsehood of any mathematical statement they could give him.Read more ›