Infinity (symbol: ∞) refers to something without any limit, and is a concept relevant in a number of fields, predominantly mathematics and physics. The English word infinity derives from Latin infinitas, which can be translated as "unboundedness", itself calqued from the Greek word apeiros, meaning "endless".[1]

Ancient cultures had various ideas about the nature of infinity. The ancient Indians and Greeks, unable to codify infinity in terms of a formalized mathematical system, approached infinity as a philosophical concept.

However, recent readings of the Archimedes Palimpsest have hinted that Archimedes at least had an intuition about actual infinite quantities.

The Indian mathematical text Surya Prajnapti (c. 3rd–4th century BCE) classifies all numbers into three sets: enumerable, innumerable, and infinite. Each of these was further subdivided into three orders:

It was introduced in 1655 by John Wallis,[4][5] and, since its introduction, has also been used outside mathematics in modern mysticism[6] and literary symbology.[7]

Leibniz, one of the co-inventors of infinitesimal calculus, speculated widely about infinite numbers and their use in mathematics. To Leibniz, both infinitesimals and infinite quantities were ideal entities, not of the same nature as appreciable quantities, but enjoying the same properties.[8][9]

Infinity is often used not only to define a limit but as a value in the affinely extended real number system. Points labeled and can be added to the topological space of the real numbers, producing the two-point compactification of the real numbers. Adding algebraic properties to this gives us the extended real numbers. We can also treat and as the same, leading to the one-point compactification of the real numbers, which is the real projective line. Projective geometry also introduces a line at infinity in plane geometry, and so forth for higher dimensions.

A different form of "infinity" are the ordinal and cardinal infinities of set theory. Georg Cantor developed a system of transfinite numbers, in which the first transfinite cardinal is aleph-null , the cardinality of the set of natural numbers. This modern mathematical conception of the quantitative infinite developed in the late nineteenth century from work by Cantor, Gottlob Frege, Richard Dedekind and others, using the idea of collections, or sets.

Cantor defined two kinds of infinite numbers: ordinal numbers and cardinal numbers. Ordinal numbers may be identified with well-ordered sets, or counting carried on to any stopping point, including points after an infinite number have already been counted. Generalizing finite and the ordinary infinite sequences which are maps from the positive integers leads to mappings from ordinal numbers, and transfinite sequences. Cardinal numbers define the size of sets, meaning how many members they contain, and can be standardized by choosing the first ordinal number of a certain size to represent the cardinal number of that size. The smallest ordinal infinity is that of the positive integers, and any set which has the cardinality of the integers is countably infinite. If a set is too large to be put in one to one correspondence with the positive integers, it is called uncountable. Cantors views prevailed and modern mathematics accepts actual infinity. Certain extended number systems, such as the hyperreal numbers, incorporate the ordinary (finite) numbers and infinite numbers of different sizes.

The continuum hypothesis states that there is no cardinal number between the cardinality of the reals and the cardinality of the natural numbers, that is, (see Beth one). However, this hypothesis can neither be proved nor disproved within the widely accepted Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory, even assuming the Axiom of Choice.

Cardinal arithmetic can be used to show not only that the number of points in a real number line is equal to the number of points in any segment of that line, but that this is equal to the number of points on a plane and, indeed, in any finite-dimensional space.

Infinite-dimensional spaces are widely used in geometry and topology, particularly as classifying spaces, notably Eilenberg−MacLane spaces. Common examples are the infinite-dimensional complex projective space K(Z,2) and the infinite-dimensional real projective space K(Z/2Z,1).

Leopold Kronecker was skeptical of the notion of infinity and how his fellow mathematicians were using it in 1870s and 1880s. This skepticism was developed in the philosophy of mathematics called finitism, an extreme form of the philosophical and mathematical schools of constructivism and intuitionism.[10]

This point of view does not mean that infinity cannot be used in physics. For conveniences sake, calculations, equations, theories and approximations often use infinite series, unbounded functions, etc., and may involve infinite quantities. Physicists however require that the end result be physically meaningful.