Dedekind cut

In mathematics, a Dedekind cut, named after Richard Dedekind, in a totally ordered set S is a partition of it into two non-empty parts, (A, B), such that A is closed downwards (meaning that for all a in A, xa implies that x is in A as well) and B is closed upwards, and A contains no greatest element. The cut itself is, conceptually, the "gap" defined between A and B. See also completeness (order theory).

The Dedekind cut resolves the contradiction between the continuous nature of the number line continuum and the discrete nature of the numbers themselves. Wherever a cut occurs and it is not on a real rational number, an irrational number (which is also a real number) is created by the mathematician. Through the use of this device, there is considered to be a real number, either rational or irrational, at every point on the number line continuum, with no discontinuity.

Dedekind used the ambiguous word cut (Schnitt) in the geometric sense. That is, it is an intersection of a line with another line that crosses it. It is not a gap. When one line crosses another in geometry, it is said to cut that line. In this case, one of the lines is the number line. Both lines have one point in common. At that one point on the number line, if there is no rational number, the mathematician posits or arbitrarily places an irrational number. This results in the positioning of a real number at every point on the continuum.

Handling Dedekind cuts

It is more symmetrical to use the (A,B) notation for Dedekind cuts, but each of A and B does determine the other. It can be a simplification, in terms of notation if nothing more, to concentrate on one 'half' — say, the lower one — and call any downward closed set A without greatest element a "Dedekind cut".

If the ordered set S is complete, then every set B in a Dedekind cut (A, B) must have a minimal element b, hence we must have that A is the interval (−∞, b), and B the interval [b, +∞). In this case, we say that b is represented by the cut (A,B).

Ordering Dedekind cuts

Regard one Dedekind cut { A, B } as less than another Dedekind cut { C, D } if A is a proper subset of C, or, equivalently D is a proper subset of B. In this way, the set of all Dedekind cuts is itself a linearly ordered set, and, moreover, it has the least-upper-bound property, i.e., every nonempty subset of it that has an upper bound has a least upper bound. Embedding S within a larger linearly ordered set that does have the least-upper-bound property is the purpose.

The cut construction of the real numbers

A typical Dedekind cut of the rational numbers is given by

A = { ainmathbb{Q} : a^2 < 2 lor ale 0 },
B = { binmathbb{Q} : b^2 ge 2 land b > 0 }.

This cut represents the irrational number sqrt{2} in Dedekind's construction. Note that the equality b^2 = 2 cannot hold since that would imply thatsqrt{2} is rational.

Additional structure on the cuts

See: Construction of the real numbers

Generalization: Dedekind completions in posets

More generally, if S is a partially ordered set, a completion of S means a complete lattice L with an order-embedding of S into L. The notion of complete lattice generalizes the least-upper-bound property of the reals.

One completion of S is the set of its downwardly closed subsets (also called order ideals), ordered by inclusion. S is embedded in this lattice by sending each element x to the ideal it generates.

Dedekind-MacNeille completion

A related completion that preserves all existing sups and infs of S is obtained by the following construction: For each subset A of S, let Au denote the set of upper bounds of A, and let Al denote the set of lower bounds of A. (These operators form a Galois connection.) Then the Dedekind-MacNeille completion of S consists of all subsets A for which

(Au)l = A;

it is ordered by inclusion. The Dedekind-MacNeille completion is generally a smaller lattice than the lattice of order ideals; S is embedded in it in the same way. It is the smallest lattice with S embedded in it.

The Dedekind-MacNeille completion of a Boolean algebra is a complete Boolean algebra.

Another generalization: surreal numbers

A construction similar to Dedekind cuts is used for the construction of surreal numbers.


In his chapter on Henri Bergson, the author C.E.M. Joad employed imagery that was similar to Dedekind's concept of the cut. Joad was trying to explain how Bergson saw the mind as an instrument that projected permanent objects onto the experience of constant change. "The intellect, then, is a purely practical faculty, which has evolved for the purposes of action. What it does is to take the ceaseless, living flow of which the universe is composed and to make cuts across it, inserting artificial stops or gaps in what is really a continuous and indivisible process. The effect of these stops or gaps is to produce the impression of a world of apparently solid objects. These have no existence as separate objects in reality; they are, as it were, the design or pattern which our intellects have impressed on reality to serve our purposes." This is reminiscent of Dedekind's creation of a new irrational number at every gap in the continuous number line at which there is no existing real number.

See also


  • Dedekind, Richard, Essays on the Theory of Numbers, "Continuity and Irrational Numbers," Dover: New York, ISBN 0-486-21010-3. Also available at Project Gutenberg.


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