The beginning and end of imagination
When I was 5 years old, my teacher wrote a question on the blackboard during mathematics class and asked the class if anyone knew the answer. The question was quite simple.
“A train has ______ wheels.”
Since it was math class, everyone thought numbers. One smart kid said 100, another 200 and so on. Just then the Sherlock Holmes in me started to deduce, “The number of wheels in a train need not be a round number like 100 or 200, yet it would be so large that even an adult would find it difficult to count. How large? Definitely countable. But would the teacher really take the pain to go to the train station and count the wheels of a train to give us this question. I didn’t think so.”
As I kept thinking, I came to a very simple conclusion. When the voices around the class began to fade, and the teacher’s face slowly started to frown with disappointment, I slowly put up my hand. I again doubted my conclusion. Could it really be that simple? When the teacher saw me, she pointed to me and said, “Yes, do you know the answer?” The class fell silent as I usually didn’t speak much, and when I did, everyone listened. Halfheartedly but very clearly I gave out my answer, “MANY”. The teacher smiled and said, “Very Good!” That was my first understanding of infinity.
Others may have come across certain unanswered questions on infinity by themselves. The most popular ones being, “What is the largest number? Googol?”, “What lies beyond the skies, beyond the solar system, beyond the galaxy, and beyond the universe?” The answer is infinity. Something exists but we are uncertain about it. Hence we name it infinity. Infinity doesn’t always have to be big. Ever wondered what is the smallest particle of matter?Small may be atomic or nuclear levels, or even smaller subatomic particles or even smaller. There is no end.
Ironically, some of the earliest ideas of infinity were dealing with the smallest rather than the largest. In the 4th century BC, Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea gave the paradoxes of motion which included the Achilles and the tortoise paradox. In it, he considers a race in which Achilles, though faster than the tortoise, will not be able to overtake it.
“In a race, the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead.” -Aristotle
The word infinity comes from the Latin word infinitas meaning “unboundness”. It usually means a quantity without bound or end. Mathematically, infinity is considered to have a value, an imaginary value to use in calculations. The symbol ∞ for infinity was introduced by English mathematician John Wallis in 1655, taken possibly from CIC, the Etruscan numeral for 1000 or ω (omega), the last letter of the Greek alphabet.