When Maths Gets Weird – and Maybe Derailed

\sum_{i=1}^{\infty}i = 1+2+3+4... obviously doesn’t converge. Right? This sum doesn’t actually evaluate to a number, does it? Well I wouldn’t think so – no part of my intuition suggests this series is limited. So imagine how surprised I was (and perhaps you too) when I learned this Maths conundrum has been spreading around the internet early this year due to a few videos from the Numberphile guys. Their answer?

\sum\limits_{i=1}^{\infty}i = 1+2+3+4... = -\dfrac{1}{12}
What? Really? -\frac{1}{12}? There is something odd here, clearly. How can this be true? This is even beyond breaking intuition, this is just plain wrong. So why is this even taken seriously? The ‘proof’ comes from a field of Maths called Mathematical Analysis and infinite series. I wont go over the proof, there are examples here, here and here. However,  they all depend on the following equality:

1-1+1-1+1-1.... = \dfrac{1}{2}

This is true for a Cesàro summation. That is, its true because of a definition of how to sum a series that doesn’t actually converge to a value. This is fairly well accepted and I suppose if you define the process of Cesàro summation to be a method of summing non-converging sequences then that is just fine… by definition. For me, however, this doesn’t sit right. This is not a sum that comes from the axioms that lead to arithmetic, the so called Peano axioms (I don’t have problems with the Peano axioms – I doubt you do/would too). But I do have a problem with Cesàro summation as a definition. Since Cesàro summations have results like 1-1+1-1… = 0.5 that contradict other forms of the sum like…

(1-1) + (1-1) + (1-1)... = 0 + 0 + 0... = 0


1 - (1+1) - (1+1) - (1+ 1)... =1 - 0 - 0 - 0... = 1

the only way the sum could be evaluated to 0.5 is by a specific definition that excludes the above sums. But why should I select this definition? Do I accept it as an axiom? If I do, how do I account for the fact that this axiom has two other intuitive sums? Obviously it is a bad axiom and therefore a bad definition. I really don’t understand why anyone would accept the Cesàro summation as anything useful at all. It immediately leads to inconsistencies. Its useless.

More to come….

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