Tag Archives: numberphile

Hyperreal and Surreal Numbers


These are the two lesser known number systems, with confusing names.

Hyperreal numbers originated from what we now call “non-standard analysis”. The system of hyperreal numbers is a way of treating infinite and infinitesimal quantities. The term “hyper-real” was introduced by Edwin Hewitt in 1948. In non-standard analysis the concept of continuity and differentiation is defined using infinitesimals, instead of the epsilon-delta methods. In 1960, Abraham Robinson showed that infinitesimals are precise, clear, and meaningful.

Following is a relevant Numberphile video:

Surreal numbers, on the other hand, is a fully developed number system which is more powerful than our real number system. They share many properties with the real numbers, including the usual arithmetic operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division); as such, they also form an ordered field. The modern definition and construction of surreal numbers was given by John Horton Conway in  1970. The inspiration for these numbers came from the combinatorial game theory. Conway’s construction was introduced in Donald Knuth‘s 1974 book Surreal Numbers: How Two Ex-Students Turned on to Pure Mathematics and Found Total Happiness.


In his book, which takes the form of a dialogue, Knuth coined the term surreal numbers for what Conway had called simply numbers. This is the best source to learn about their construction. But the construction, though logical, is non-trivial. Conway later adopted Knuth’s term, and used surreals for analyzing games in his 1976 book On Numbers and Games.

Following is a relevant Numberphile video:

Many nice videos on similar topics can be found on PBS Infinite Series YouTube channel.


Rooms and reflections


Consider the following entry from my notebook (16-Feb-2014):

The Art Gallery Problem: An art gallery has the shape of a simple n-gon. Find the minimum number of watchmen needed to survey the building, no matter how complicated its shape. [Source: problem 25, chapter 2, Problem Solving Strategies, Arthur Engel]

Hint: Use triangulation and colouring. Not an easy problem, and in fact there is a book dedicated to the theme of this problem: Art Gallery Theorems and Algorithms by Joseph O’Rourke (see chapter one for detailed solution). No reflection involved.

Then we have a bit harder problem when we allow reflection (28-Feb-2017, Numberphile – Prof. Howard Masur):

The Illumination Problem: Can any room (need not be a polygon) with mirrored walls be always illuminated by a single point light source, allowing for the repeated reflection of light off the mirrored walls?

The answer is NO. Next obvious question is “What kind of dark regions are possible?”. This question has been answered for rational polygons.

This reminds me of the much simpler theorem from my notebook (13-Jan-2014):

The Carpets Theorem: Suppose that the floor of a room is completely covered by a collection of non-overlapping carpets. If we move one of the carpets, then the overlapping area is equal to the uncovered area of the floor. [Source: §2.6, Mathematical Olympiad Treasures, Titu Andreescu & Bogdan Enescu]

Why I mentioned this theorem? The animation of Numberphile video reminded me of carpets covering the floor.

And following is the problem which motivated me write this blog post (17-May-2018, PBS Infinite Series – Tai-Danae):

Secure Polygon Problem: Consider a n-gon with mirrored walls, with two points: a source point S and a target point T. If it is possible to place a third point B in the polygon such that any ray from the source S passes through this point B before hitting the target T, then the polygon is said to be secure. Is square a secure polygon?

The answer is YES.  Moreover, the solution is amazing. Reminding me of the cross diagonal cover problem.