Event № 655
Was sind und was sollen die Zahlen? (roughly: “What are numbers and what should they be?”) is the title of a booklet first published in 1888, where Richard Dedekind introduced his definition of the system of natural numbers. This definition was based on the concept of “chains” (Kette), and it appeared in roughly at the same time than that, better known one, of Peano. In another booklet published for the first time in 1872 and entitled Stetigkeit und irrationale Zahlen (“Continuity and Irrational Numbers”), Dedekind introduced his famous concept of “cuts” as the key to understanding the issue of continuity in the system of real numbers, and through it, the question of the foundations of analysis.At roughly the same time, Cantor published his own work dealing with the same question. In his work on domains of algebraic integers, published in various versions between 1872 and 1894, Dedekind crucially introduced the concept of “ideal”, on the basis of which he approached the issue of unique factorization. At that time, Kronecker published his own work dealing, from a rather different perspective, with exactly the same issue.
From a contemporary perspective, these three concepts of Dedekind (chains, cuts, ideals) seem to belong to different mathematical realms and to address different kinds of mathematical concerns. From Dedekind’s perspective, however, they arose from a single concern about the nature of the idea of number in general. In this talk I will explain the mathematical meaning of these concepts, the historical context where they arose, the deep underlying methodological unity that characterized Dedekind’s conceptual approach, and the significant impact they had on mathematics at large at the beginning of the twentieth century.