Letters of Euler to a German Princess, Vol. II, Letter VIII

This is the second of eleven Letters of Euler I will rewrite and post on the subject of infinitesimals (the infinitely small), an idea that is fundamental to a good understanding of calculus. Click here to read the previous letter.

Letter VIII. Divisibility of Extension in Infinitum

The controversy between modern philosophies and geometricians to which I have alluded, turns on the divisibility of body. This property is undoubtedly founded on extension, and it is only in so far as bodies are extended that they are divisible, and capable of being reduced to parts.

You will recollect that in geometry it is always possible to divide a line, however small, into two equal parts. We are likewise, by that science, instructed in the method of dividing a small line, ai, into any number of equal parts at pleasure, and the construction of this division is there demonstrated beyond the possibility of doubting its accuracy.

You have only to draw a line AI (plate II. fig. 23) parallel to ai of any length, and at any distance you please, and to divide it into as many equal parts AB, BC, CD, DE, etc. as the small line given is to have divisions, say eight. Draw afterwards, through the extremities A, a, and I, i the straight lines AaO, IiO, till they meet in the point O: and from O draw toward the points of division B, C, D, E, etc. the straight lines OB, OC, OD, OE, etc., which shall likewise cut the small line ai into eight equal parts.

Plate II, Fig 23, line AI parallel to line ai, each divided into 8 equal segments.

This operation may be performed, however small the given line ai, and however great the number of parts into which you propose to divide it. True it is, that in execution we are not permitted to go too far; the lines which we draw always have some breadth, whereby they are at length confounded, as may be seen in the figure near point O; but the question is not what may be possible for us to execute, but what is possible in itself. Now in geometry lines have no breadth*, and consequently can never be confounded. hence it follows that such division is illimitable.

*In Shormann Math, a line is defined as a widthless length, which is the same thing Euler is describing. In fact, all normal geometry courses define a line this way. The idea is that we are not concerned with how thick, or wide the line is. When you draw a line though, it has to have some thickness to it in order to be able to see it.

If it is once admitted that a line may be divided into a thousand parts, by dividing each part into two it will be divisible into two thousand parts, and for the same reason into four thousand, and into eight thousand, without ever arriving at parts indivisible. However small a line may be supposed, it is still divisible into halves, and each half again into two, and each of these again in like manner, and so on to infinity.

What I have said of a line is easily applicable to a surface, and, with greater strength of reasoning, to a solid endowed with three dimensions, length, breadth, and thickness. Hence is is affirmed that all extension is divisible to infinity, and this property is denominated divisibility in infinitum.

Whoever is disposed to deny this property of extension, is under the necessity of maintaining, that it is possible to arrive at last at parts so minute as to be unsusceptible of any farther division, because they ceased to have any extension. Nevertheless all these particles taken together must reproduce the whole, by the division of which you acquired them; and as the quantity of each would be a nothing, or cypher (0), a combination of cyphers would produce quantity, which is manifestly absurd. For you know perfectly well, that in arithmetic, two or more cyphers joined never produce any thing.

This opinion that in division of extension, or of any quantity whatever, we may come at last to particles so minute as to be no longer divisible, because they are so small, or because quantity no longer exists, is, therefore, a position absolutely untenable.

In order to render the absurdity of it more sensible, let us suppose a line of an inch long, divided into a thousand parts, and that these parts are so small as to admit of no farther division; each part, then, would no longer have any length, for if it had any, it would be still divisible. Each particle, then, would of consequence be a nothing. But if these thousand particles together constituted the length of an inch, the thousandth part of an inch would, of consequence, be a nothing; which is equally absurd with maintaining, that the half of any quantity whatever is nothing. And if it be absurd to affirm, that the half of any quantity is nothing, it is equally so to affirm, that the half of a half, or that the fourth part of the same quantity, is nothing; and what must be granted as to the fourth, must likewise be granted with respect to the thousandth, and the millionth part. Finally, however far you may have already carried, in imagination, the division of an inch, it is always possible to carry it still farther; and never will you be able to carry on your subdivision so far, as that the last parts shall be absolutely indivisible. These parts will undoubtedly always become smaller, and their magnitude will approach nearer and nearer to 0, but can never reach it.

The geometrician, therefore, is warranted in affirming, that every magnitude is divisible to infinity; and that you cannot proceed so far in your division, as that all farther division shall be impossible. But it is always necessary to distinguish between what is possible in itself, and what we are in a condition to perform. Our execution is indeed extremely limited. After having, for example, divided an inch into a thousand parts, these parts are so small as to escape our senses, and a farther division would to us, no doubt, be impossible.

But you have only to look at this thousandth part of an inch through a good microscope, which magnifies, for example, a thousand times, and each particle will appear as large as an inch to the naked eye; and you will be convinced of the possibility of dividing each of these particles again into a thousand parts: the same reasoning may always be carried forward, without limit and without end.

It is therefore an indubitable truth, that all magnitude is divisible in infinitum, and that this takes place not only with respect to extension, which is the object of geometry, but likewise with respect to every other species of quantity, such as time and number.

28th April, 1761.

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