In mathematics, the natural numbers are those used for counting and ordering. In common mathematical terminology, words colloquially used for counting are "cardinal numbers" and words connected to ordering represent "ordinal numbers". The natural numbers can, at times, appear as a convenient set of codes ; that is, as what linguists call nominal numbers, forgoing many or all of the properties of being a number in a mathematical sense.
Some definitions, including the standard ISO 80000-2, begin the natural numbers with, corresponding to the non-negative integers, whereas others start with 1, corresponding to the positive integers, while others acknowledge both definitions. Texts that exclude zero from the natural numbers sometimes refer to the natural numbers together with zero as the whole numbers, but in other writings, that term is used instead for the integers.
The natural numbers are a basis from which many other number sets may be built by extension: the integers, by including the neutral element 0 and an additive inverse for each nonzero natural number n; the rational numbers, by including a multiplicative inverse for each nonzero integer n ; the real numbers by including with the rationals the limits of Cauchy sequences of rationals; the complex numbers, by including with the real numbers the unresolved square root of minus one ; and so on. These chains of extensions make the natural numbers canonically embedded in the other number systems.
Properties of the natural numbers, such as divisibility and the distribution of prime numbers, are studied in number theory. Problems concerning counting and ordering, such as partitioning and enumerations, are studied in combinatorics.
In common language, for example in primary school, natural numbers may be called counting numbers both to intuitively exclude the negative integers and zero, and also to contrast the discreteness of counting to the continuity of measurement, established by the real numbers.
Ancient rootsThe most primitive method of representing a natural number is to put down a mark for each object. Later, a set of objects could be tested for equality, excess or shortage, by striking out a mark and removing an object from the set.
The first major advance in abstraction was the use of numerals to represent numbers. This allowed systems to be developed for recording large numbers. The ancient Egyptians developed a powerful system of numerals with distinct hieroglyphs for 1, 10, and all the powers of 10 up to over 1 million. A stone carving from Karnak, dating from around 1500 BC and now at the Louvre in Paris, depicts 276 as 2 hundreds, 7 tens, and 6 ones; and similarly for the number 4,622. The Babylonians had a place-value system based essentially on the numerals for 1 and 10, using base sixty, so that the symbol for sixty was the same as the symbol for one, its value being determined from context.
A much later advance was the development of the idea that can be considered as a number, with its own numeral. The use of a 0 digit in place-value notation dates back as early as 700 BC by the Babylonians, but they omitted such a digit when it would have been the last symbol in the number. The Olmec and Maya civilizations used 0 as a separate number as early as the, but this usage did not spread beyond Mesoamerica. The use of a numeral 0 in modern times originated with the Indian mathematician Brahmagupta in 628. However, 0 had been used as a number in the medieval computus, beginning with Dionysius Exiguus in 525, without being denoted by a numeral ; instead nulla from nullus, the Latin word for "none", was employed to denote a 0 value.
The first systematic study of numbers as abstractions is usually credited to the Greek philosophers Pythagoras and Archimedes. Some Greek mathematicians treated the number 1 differently than larger numbers, sometimes even not as a number at all. Euclid defined a unit first and then a number as a multitude of units, thus by definition a unit is not a number and there are no unique numbers, for example, any two units from indefinitely many units is a 2.
Independent studies also occurred at around the same time in India, China, and Mesoamerica.
Modern definitionsIn 19th century Europe, there was mathematical and philosophical discussion about the exact nature of the natural numbers. A school of Naturalism stated that the natural numbers were a direct consequence of the human psyche. Henri Poincaré was one of its advocates, as was Leopold Kronecker who summarized "God made the integers, all else is the work of man".
In opposition to the Naturalists, the constructivists saw a need to improve the logical rigor in the foundations of mathematics. In the 1860s, Hermann Grassmann suggested a recursive definition for natural numbers thus stating they were not really natural but a consequence of definitions. Later, two classes of such formal definitions were constructed; later still, they were shown to be equivalent in most practical applications.
Set-theoretical definitions of natural numbers were initiated by Frege. He initially defined a natural number as the class of all sets that are in one-to-one correspondence with a particular set. However, this definition turned out to lead to paradoxes, including Russell's paradox. To avoid such paradoxes, the formalism was modified so that a natural number is defined as a particular set, and any set that can be put into one-to-one correspondence with that set is said to have that number of elements.
The second class of definitions was introduced by Charles Sanders Peirce, refined by Richard Dedekind, and further explored by Giuseppe Peano; this approach is now called Peano arithmetic. It is based on an axiomatization of the properties of ordinal numbers: each natural number has a successor and every non-zero natural number has a unique predecessor. Peano arithmetic is equiconsistent with several weak systems of set theory. One such system is ZFC with the axiom of infinity replaced by its negation. Theorems that can be proved in ZFC but cannot be proved using the Peano Axioms include Goodstein's theorem.
With all these definitions it is convenient to include 0 as a natural number. Including 0 is now the common convention among set theorists and logicians. Other mathematicians also include 0, for example, computer languages often start from zero when enumerating items like loop counters and string- or array-elements. Many mathematicians have kept the older tradition and take 1 to be the first natural number.
Since different properties are customarily associated to the tokens and, for example, neutral elements for addition and multiplications, respectively, it is important to know which version of natural numbers, generically denoted by is employed in the case under consideration. This can be done by explanation in prose, by explicitly writing down the set, or by qualifying the generic identifier with a super- or subscript, for example, like this:
- Naturals with zero:
- Naturals without zero:
To be unambiguous about whether 0 is included or not, sometimes a subscript "0" is added in the former case, and a superscript "" or subscript "" is added in the latter case:
Alternatively, since natural numbers naturally embed in the integers, they may be referred to as the positive, or the non-negative integers, respectively.
InfinityThe set of natural numbers is an infinite set. This kind of infinity is, by definition, called countable infinity. All sets that can be put into a bijective relation to the natural numbers are said to have this kind of infinity. This is also expressed by saying that the cardinal number of the set is aleph-naught.
AdditionOne can recursively define an addition operator on the natural numbers by setting and for all,. Here should be read as "successor". This turns the natural numbers into a commutative monoid with identity element 0, the so-called free object with one generator. This monoid satisfies the cancellation property and can be embedded in a group. The smallest group containing the natural numbers is the integers.
If 1 is defined as, then. That is, is simply the successor of.
MultiplicationAnalogously, given that addition has been defined, a multiplication operator × can be defined via and. This turns into a free commutative monoid with identity element 1; a generator set for this monoid is the set of prime numbers.
Relationship between addition and multiplicationAddition and multiplication are compatible, which is expressed in the distribution law:. These properties of addition and multiplication make the natural numbers an instance of a commutative semiring. Semirings are an algebraic generalization of the natural numbers where multiplication is not necessarily commutative. The lack of additive inverses, which is equivalent to the fact that is not closed under subtraction, means that is not a ring; instead it is a semiring.
If the natural numbers are taken as "excluding 0", and "starting at 1", the definitions of + and × are as above, except that they begin with and.
OrderIn this section, juxtaposed variables such as indicate the product, and the standard order of operations is assumed.
A total order on the natural numbers is defined by letting if and only if there exists another natural number where. This order is compatible with the arithmetical operations in the following sense: if, and are natural numbers and, then and.
An important property of the natural numbers is that they are well-ordered: every non-empty set of natural numbers has a least element. The rank among well-ordered sets is expressed by an ordinal number; for the natural numbers, this is denoted as omega |.
DivisionIn this section, juxtaposed variables such as indicate the product, and the standard order of operations is assumed.
While it is in general not possible to divide one natural number by another and get a natural number as result, the procedure of division with remainder is available as a substitute: for any two natural numbers and with there are natural numbers and such that
The number is called the quotient and is called the remainder of the division of by . The numbers and are uniquely determined by and . This Euclidean division is key to several other properties, algorithms, and ideas in number theory.
Algebraic properties satisfied by the natural numbersThe addition and multiplication operations on natural numbers as defined above have several algebraic properties:
- Closure under addition and multiplication: for all natural numbers and, both and are natural numbers.
- Associativity: for all natural numbers,, and, and.
- Commutativity: for all natural numbers and, and.
- Existence of identity elements: for every natural number a, and.
- Distributivity of multiplication over addition for all natural numbers,, and,.
- No nonzero zero divisors: if and are natural numbers such that, then or .
- A natural number can be used to express the size of a finite set; more precisely, a cardinal number is a measure for the size of a set, which is even suitable for infinite sets. This concept of "size" relies on maps between sets, such that two sets have the same size, exactly if there exists a bijection between them. The set of natural numbers itself, and any bijective image of it, is said to be countably infinite and to have cardinality aleph-null.
- Natural numbers are also used as linguistic ordinal numbers: "first", "second", "third", and so forth. This way they can be assigned to the elements of a totally ordered finite set, and also to the elements of any well-ordered countably infinite set. This assignment can be generalized to general well-orderings with a cardinality beyond countability, to yield the ordinal numbers. An ordinal number may also be used to describe the notion of "size" for a well-ordered set, in a sense different from cardinality: if there is an order isomorphism between two well-ordered sets, they have the same ordinal number. The first ordinal number that is not a natural number is expressed as ; this is also the ordinal number of the set of natural numbers itself.
For finite well-ordered sets, there is a one-to-one correspondence between ordinal and cardinal numbers; therefore they can both be expressed by the same natural number, the number of elements of the set. This number can also be used to describe the position of an element in a larger finite, or an infinite, sequence.
A countable non-standard model of arithmetic satisfying the Peano Arithmetic was developed by Skolem in 1933. The hypernatural numbers are an uncountable model that can be constructed from the ordinary natural numbers via the ultrapower construction.
Georges Reeb used to claim provocatively that The naïve integers don't fill up. Other generalizations are discussed in the article on numbers.
- 0 is a natural number.
- Every natural number has a successor which is also a natural number.
- 0 is not the successor of any natural number.
- If the successor of equals the successor of, then equals.
- The axiom of induction: If a statement is true of 0, and if the truth of that statement for a number implies its truth for the successor of that number, then the statement is true for every natural number.
Constructions based on set theory
Von Neumann ordinalsIn the area of mathematics called set theory, a specific construction due to John von Neumann defines the natural numbers as follows:
- Set, the empty set,
- Define for every set. is the successor of, and is called the successor function.
- By the axiom of infinity, there exists a set which contains 0 and is closed under the successor function. Such sets are said to be inductive. The intersection of all such inductive sets is defined to be the set of natural numbers. It can be checked that the set of natural numbers satisfies the Peano axioms.
- It follows that each natural number is equal to the set of all natural numbers less than it:
Also, with this definition, different possible interpretations of notations like coincide.
Even if one does not accept the axiom of infinity and therefore cannot accept that the set of all natural numbers exists, it is still possible to define any one of these sets.
Zermelo ordinalsAlthough the standard construction is useful, it is not the only possible construction. Ernst Zermelo's construction goes as follows:
- It then follows that