Banach–Tarski paradox

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The Banach–Tarski paradox is a theorem in set theoretic geometry which states that a solid ball in 3-dimensional space can be split into a finite number of non-overlapping pieces, which can then be put back together in a different way to yield two identical copies of the original ball. The reassembly process involves only moving the pieces around and rotating them, without changing their shape. However, the pieces themselves are complicated: they are not usual solids but infinite scatterings of points. A stronger form of the theorem implies that given any two "reasonable" objects (such as a small ball and a huge ball), either one can be reassembled into the other. This is often stated colloquially as "a pea can be chopped up and reassembled into the Sun".

The reason the Banach–Tarski theorem is called a paradox is because it contradicts basic geometric intuition. "Doubling the ball" by dividing it into parts and moving them around by rotations and translations, without any stretching, bending, or adding new points, seems to be impossible, since all these operations preserve the volume, but the volume is doubled in the end.

Unlike most theorems in geometry, this result depends in a critical way on the axiom of choice in set theory. This axiom allows for the construction of nonmeasurable sets, collections of points that do not have a volume in the ordinary sense and require an uncountably infinite number of arbitrary choices to specify. Robert Solovay showed that the axiom of choice, or a weaker variant of it, is necessary for the construction of nonmeasurable sets by constructing a model of ZF set theory (without choice) in which every geometric subset has a well-defined Lebesgue measure. On the other hand, Solovay's construction relies on the assumption that an inaccessible cardinal exists (which itself cannot be proven from ZF set theory); Saharon Shelah later showed that this assumption is necessary.

The existence of nonmeasurable sets, such as those in the Banach–Tarski paradox, has been used as an argument against the axiom of choice. Nevertheless, most mathematicians are willing to tolerate the existence of nonmeasurable sets, given that the axiom of choice has many other mathematically useful consequences.[1]

It was shown in 2005 that the pieces in the decomposition can be chosen in such a way that they can be moved continuously into place without running into one another.[2]


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