The infinity symbol, also known as the lemniscate, is a mathematical concept that has captured the imagination of people for centuries. It is a symbol that represents an endless, boundless quantity or entity. In this article, we'll take a closer look at the origins of the infinity symbol and its impact on mathematics.
A Timeless Symbol with Deep Roots
The infinity symbol (∞) is instantly recognizable, even to those with only a passing familiarity with mathematics. This enigmatic emblem, which has signified the concept of infinity since the 17th century, has a rich and complex history. In this article, we delve into the fascinating origins of the mathematical symbol for infinity and explore its meaning and significance in various fields, including mathematics, astronomy, spirituality, and philosophy.
The Concept of Infinity: Limitless and Immeasurable
In mathematics, the term ‘infinity’ refers to something that has no end or limit. For instance, numbers are deemed infinite because their sequence is limitless. Represented by the symbol ‘∞,’ infinity is immeasurable and not a real number. Although primarily an abstract, never-ending idea, it can occasionally be employed as a number in mathematical operations, such as ∞ + 1 = ∞.
The Origin of the Infinity Symbol
The infinity symbol, also known as the lemniscate (from Latin “lēmniscātus” and Greek “λημνίσκος”), has connections to mathematics as well as other domains like astronomy, spirituality, and philosophy. Its first appearance in history and subsequent adoption in mathematics are shrouded in mystery, with roots likely in religion and alchemy.
The Divine Connection and John Wallis’s Mathematical Innovation
Many believe the infinity symbol is derived from the lemniscate curve, a closed loop symbolizing a connection between the divine and human realms. English philologist and mathematician John Wallis introduced the infinity symbol into mathematics in 1655 through his work, De Sectionibus Conicus. Wallis employed the symbol to represent a quantity that is “infinitely large” or without bounds or limits. The symbol itself was inspired by the Latin word “infinitas,” which means “limitless” or “unlimited.”
Theories Behind the Symbol’s Selection
Although Wallis never explained why he chose the infinity symbol, several conjectures attempt to shed light on his decision. Two of the most widely accepted hypotheses are:
Roman Numerals and the Number Thousand
One theory posits that Wallis’s choice of the infinity symbol was influenced by the Roman numeral for one thousand, “CIƆ,” since it represented a large number.
The Ouroboros Snake: A Greek and Egyptian Influence
The Ouroboros Snake, originating from Greek and Egyptian cultures, depicts a snake biting its own tail and forming a never-ending circle similar to the symbol.
The Symbol’s Evolution and Its Relationship with Bernoulli’s Lemniscate
Although Bernoulli’s Lemniscate, a type of curve that generates a figure similar to the infinity symbol, is often associated with the symbol, its true origin in mathematics can be traced back to John Wallis.
A Symbol Encompassing the Infinite
The infinity symbol (∞), with its longstanding associations with alchemy and religion, was not applied to mathematics until the 17th century when John Wallis introduced it to define the concept of infinity. Despite the absence of a documented explanation for his choice of symbol, conjectures abound regarding the reasoning behind this iconic image. Over time, the infinity symbol has become an essential notation in mathematics, signifying a quantity that extends indefinitely without end.