Grouping or classifying is a familiar technique in the natural sciences for dealing with the immense diversity of things in the real world. For instance, in biology, plants and animals are divided into various phyla, and then into classes, orders, families, genera, and species. In much the same way, real numbers can be grouped or classified by singling out important features possessed by some numbers but not by others. By using the idea of a set, classification of real numbers can be accomplished with clarity and precision.
A set may be thought of as a collection of objects. Most sets considered in this tutorial are sets of real numbers. Any one of the objects in a set is called an element, or member, of the set. Sets are denoted either by capital letters such as, and or by braces enclosing symbols for the elements in the set. Thus, if we write , we mean the set whose elements are the numbers and . Two sets are said to be equal if they contain precisely the same elements.
Sets of numbers and relations among such sets can often be visualized by the use of a number line or coordinate axis. A number line is constructed by fixing a point called the origin and another point called the unit point on a straight line . The distance between and is called the unit distance and may be inch, centimeter, or unit of whatever measure you choose. If the line is horizontal, it is customary to place to the right of .
Each point on the line is now assigned a “numerical address” or coordinate representing its signed distance from the origin, measured in terms of the given unit. Thus, , where is the distance between and ; the plus sign or minus sign is used to indicate whether is to be right or left of . Of course, the origin is assigned the coordinate (zero), and the unit point is assigned the coordinate . On the resulting number scale, each point has a corresponding numerical coordinate and each real number is the coordinate of a uniquely determined point . It is convenient to use an arrowhead on the number line to indicate the direction in which the numerical coordinates are increasing.
A set of numbers can be illustrated on a number line by shading or coloring the points whose coordinates are members of the sets.
Rational Numbers and Decimals: