Mathematics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for people studying math at any level and professionals in related fields. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

If my number set construction memory doesn't fail me (I'll edit if errors are pointed out), we start out with Peano's axioms to get to $\mathbb{N}$, and in the need of an additive inverse for its elements, construct $\mathbb{Z}$. Then, in order to be able to invert nonzero integers with respect to multipilication, $\mathbb{Q}$ is created. For there to be inexact integer roots of rationals, the field $\mathbb{R}$ is constructed, and so that every real number has integers roots, $\mathbb{C}$ is devised. These questions arise:

  1. What kind of operation — and number — becomes possible by constructing quaternions and octonions?

  2. The hierarchy of the cardinalities of these sets is $\#\mathbb{N} = \#\mathbb{Z} = \#\mathbb{Q} < \#\mathbb{R} = \#\mathbb{C}$. How are $\#\mathbb{H}$ and $\#\mathbb{O}$ inserted in it?

  3. Can yet another number set be constructed from $\mathbb{O}$?

  4. Does the said hierarchy stop at some number set — that is, is there a largest number set?

share|cite|improve this question
That's impossible to answer unless you tell us your definition of "number". It has no universal mathematical definition. – Bill Dubuque May 12 '11 at 2:29
The construction can also be done by starting with the natural numbers, then nonnegative rationals (by closing under division), then the positive reals (by completion), and only then getting the negative real numbers. – Arturo Magidin May 12 '11 at 3:04
Extending the reals in a different way are the "surreal numbers", which is a very large number system if you think in terms of cardinality; in fact, it's a proper class (too large to be a set). – Hans Lundmark May 12 '11 at 5:24
The question, and the current answers (Vhalior and Zev's) really have nothing to do with either of the tags - [set-theory] and [cardinals]. I have added an answer relating it somewhat to the former tag. – Asaf Karagila May 12 '11 at 5:37
up vote 10 down vote accepted

I think I can answer questions 2, 3, and 4.

For 2, since $\mathbb{H}$ and $\mathbb{O}$ respectively have the same cardinalities as $\mathbb{R}^4$ and $\mathbb{R}^8$, they have the same cardinality as $\mathbb{R}$. (taking cross products of infinite sets with themselves doesn't change their cardinality).

For 3 and 4, Hurwitz's theorem tells us that the only normed division algebras over the reals, up to isomorphism, are the four ones that you mentionned.

Edit : Not as much an answer as the others, but for 1, I know that one of the motivations for quaternions is that, since complex numbers make studying rotations in the plane so easy, we want to construct an algebraic framework to study rotations in higher dimensions (3 and 4).

share|cite|improve this answer

I will give a point which was amiss in both the answers and somewhat connects this question to the set theoretic tags it has.

There can be a largest number system, in the sense of ordered fields (that is it embeds $\mathbb R$ but not $\mathbb C$) and that is The Surreal Numbers.

It is a class field, which means it is not a set and has no cardinality. As an order it embeds all the ordinals and every ordered field.

I would have to admit that I am far from having a real clue about this number system, so instead I will link to two MO questions that might be somewhat helpful:

share|cite|improve this answer

Vhailor's answer takes care of most of your questions. I'll try to help out with the rest.

I'm not sure what it means for a mathematical concept to have a purpose, but I would say the purpose of $\mathbb{H}$ and $\mathbb{O}$ is that, together with $\mathbb{C}$ and $\mathbb{R}$ itself, they are the only finite dimensional normed division algebras over $\mathbb{R}$. It's true, the quaternions have a fair number of applications to modeling rotation and whatnot, but (IMO) we are interested in normed division algebras over $\mathbb{R}$, the fact that we have this classification (Hurwitz's theorem) of the finite dimensional ones is sufficient reason to single them out and study them. Hamilton was trying to construct a 3-dimensional normed division algebra over $\mathbb{R}$, until he realized it couldn't be done and realized (on the now-famous bridge) that he had to move up to 4.

We have $\dim_\mathbb{R}(\mathbb{R})=1$, $\dim_\mathbb{R}(\mathbb{C})=2$, $\dim_\mathbb{R}(\mathbb{H})=4$, and $\dim_\mathbb{R}(\mathbb{O})=8$. Technically there are also the sedenions $\mathbb{S}$, which are 16-dimensional over $\mathbb{R}$. They do not form a finite-dimensional normed division algebra over $\mathbb{R}$, which is why they don't appear in the classification given by Hurwitz's theorem.

There is no "largest number set". Mainly because what it means for something to be "a number" is not a rigorous (or particularly useful) mathematical notion.

share|cite|improve this answer
Wow. I haven't heard of the sedenions until now, thanks! – J. M. May 12 '11 at 2:36
By purpose I mean basically making some necessary kind of number (whatever the hell that is) exist, similarly to what I narrate in the 1st paragraph. I'll edit the question to make it more precise. – Luke May 12 '11 at 19:23
@Luke (in response to new version of question 1): You still have not said what you mean by "number". As Bill Dubuque and I have said, this is not a mathematical concept. As I read it, the answer to your current question 1 is "the quaternions and octonions are the numbers that become possible by constructing quaternions and octonions". There is no right or wrong answer to the question of whether quaternions and octonions "are" numbers - you might want to give them that appellation, or you might not. It's a matter of preference, and not mathematical content. – Zev Chonoles May 13 '11 at 2:07
I've read Bill's comment, but I'm deliberately avoiding discussing the concept of number because, given the lack of a consensus, I might pointlessly deviate from the subject (just like I'm doing here, but I guess it's OK in a comment). The new 1st question is very connected to the introductory paragraph. It's about moving on with that little story, id est, it asks what kind of object (since number is such a troublesome word) didn't exist outside those sets and came to exist inside of them. – Luke May 13 '11 at 3:42
This answer does not make sense to me – wendy.krieger May 16 '13 at 22:14

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.