June 6, 2020

Dr. Stout Ponders Infinity

Bryn Wicklas ‘21 - Staff Writer

Photo by Jeremy Thomas

On Wednesday, September 11th, Dr. Richard Stout was introduced to a gathering of faculty and students as a professor with a love for Gordon, college students, as well as mentoring and the beauty of mathematics. 

He opened his lecture with a direct connection between his faith and occupational field. “The greatness of God and His wonders are displayed all the time in mathematics,” says Dr. Stout. Math tends to be a subject that accumulates a diverse set of reactions. People either avoid it entirely or dive into the discipline to discover clarity amidst all the equations. 

  Dr. Stout started unpacking Georg Cantor’s theory with some preliminaries—focusing on sets and their subsets. After discussing various results associated with subsets, he introduced the concept of infinity through the analogy of a hotel. The Infinite Hotel is a hotel with an infinite number of rooms. There is a clerk on duty at the front desk and the hotel is completely full. A customer enters and asks for a room, to which the clerk responds, “Ah yes, I can give you a room. There’s always a room at The Infinite Hotel!” Dr. Stout turned his attention to the mildly amused occupants of his Barrington Center Cinema Lecture Hall audience and asked, “How did the clerk make room?” Faculty and students wracked their brains for a plausible answer until someone offered a suggestion: “You simply ask everyone in the hotel to move one room over because there’s always another room in The Infinite Hotel!”

  After Dr. Stout gave his audience an inkling of infinity, he further discussed mathematical ways to approach infinity, particularly as developed by the mathematician, Georg Cantor. Cantor asked questions like the following: is there such a thing as an infinite set? Do they all have the same size? Can you compare the size of infinite sets? 

He used the technique of forming a one-to-one correspondence to compare the size of sets, eventually discovering that the set of irrational numbers is larger than the set of rational numbers. Cantor searched earnestly for even larger sets, finally discovering that the collection of all subsets of a set is larger than the set itself. 

His mathematical expedition and eventual “aha” moment brought him to a theorem that had interesting implications, including the observation that there cannot be a larger set, not even the set of everything. Cantor’s findings are generally accepted in the mathematical world today, which is a reflection of how he persevered in the face of infinity. 

Dr. Stout spoke of infinity with a special kind of disposition, one that comes with a glimmer of wonder and awe in the face of God. He closed with an allusion to a previous conversation in which he  heard someone speculate as to how God and Jesus could possibly be embodied in the same being.

Dr. Stout’s response to these overheard questions was evident throughout his forum. According to Dr. Stout, “there is a sort of mystery about infinite sets as many ideas associated with infinity violate what we might expect to be true.”

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