It has been in the news recently — or rather, the small corner of the news that is of particular interest to mathematicians — that Maryanthe Malliaris and Saharon Shelah recently had an unexpected breakthrough when they stumbled on a proof that two infinities were equal that had been conjectured, and widely believed, to be distinct. Or rather, since both were strictly between the cardinality of the natural numbers and the cardinality of the reals, they were widely believed to be distinct in some models of set theory where the continuum hypothesis fails.

A couple of days ago, John Baez was sufficiently irritated by a Quanta article on this development that he wrote a post on Google Plus in which he did a much better job of explaining what was going on. As a result of reading that, and following and participating in the ensuing discussion, I have got interested in the problem. In particular, as a complete non-expert, I am struck that a problem that looks purely combinatorial (though infinitary) should, according to Quanta, have a solution that involves highly non-trivial arguments in proof theory and model theory. It makes me wonder, again as a complete non-expert so probably very naively, whether there is a simpler purely combinatorial argument that the set theorists missed because they believed too strongly that the two infinities were different.

I certainly haven’t found such an argument, but I thought it might be worth at least setting out the problem, in case it appeals to anyone, and giving a few preliminary thoughts about it. I’m not expecting much from this, but if there’s a small chance that it leads to a fruitful mathematical discussion, then it’s worth doing. As I said above, I am indebted to John Baez and to several commenters on his post for being able to write much of what I write in this post, as can easily be checked if you read that discussion as well.

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