Thoughts on Infinity (Part 2a)

Last summer, Math With Bad Drawings had a nice series on the notion of infinity that I recommend highly. This topic is a perennial struggle for math majors to grasp, and I like the approach that the author uses to sell this difficult notion.

Here’s Part 2 on the harmonic series, which is extremely well-written and which I recommend highly. Here’s a brief summary: the infinite harmonic series

\displaystyle \sum_{n=1}^\infty \frac{1}{n}

diverges. This is a perennial head-scratcher for students, as the terms become smaller and smaller yet the infinite series diverges.

To show this, notice that

\displaystyle \frac{1}{3} + \frac{1}{4} > \displaystyle \frac{1}{4} + \frac{1}{4} = \displaystyle \frac{1}{2},

\displaystyle \frac{1}{5} + \frac{1}{6} + \frac{1}{7} + \frac{1}{8} > \displaystyle \frac{1}{8} + \frac{1}{8} + \frac{1}{8} + \frac{1}{8} = \displaystyle \frac{1}{2},

and so on. Therefore,

\displaystyle 1 + \frac{1}{2} + \frac{1}{3} + \frac{1}{4} > \displaystyle 1 + \frac{1}{2} + \frac{1}{2} = 2,

\displaystyle 1 + \frac{1}{2} + \frac{1}{3} + \frac{1}{4} +\frac{1}{5} + \frac{1}{6} + \frac{1}{7} + \frac{1}{8} > \displaystyle 1 + \frac{1}{2} + \frac{1}{2} + \frac{1}{2} = \displaystyle \frac{5}{2},

and, in general,

\displaystyle 1 + \frac{1}{2} + \frac{1}{3} + \dots + \frac{1}{2^n} > \displaystyle 1+\frac{n}{2}.

Since \displaystyle \lim_{n \to \infty} \left(1 + \frac{n}{2} \right) = \infty, we can conclude that the harmonic series diverges.

However, here’s an amazing fact which I hadn’t known before the Math With Bad Drawings post: if you eliminate from the harmonic series all of the fractions whose denominator contains a 9, then the new series converges!

I’ll discuss the proof of this fact in tomorrow’s post. Until then, here’s a copy of the comic used in the Math With Bad Drawings post.


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