Infinity is a very strange concept. Like alien spores floating down from the sky, large infinities can come down and contaminate the study of questions about ordinary finite numbers! Here’s an example.

A **shelf** is a set with a binary operation that distributes over itself:

There are lots of examples, the simplest being any group, where we define

They have a nice connection to knot theory, which you can see here if you think hard:

My former student Alissa Crans, who invented the term ‘shelf’, has written a lot about them, starting here:

• Alissa Crans, *Lie 2-Algebras*, Chapter 3.1: Shelves, Racks, Spindles and Quandles, Ph.D. thesis, U.C. Riverside, 2004.

I could tell you a long and entertaining story about this, including the tale of how shelves got their name. But instead I want to talk about something far more peculiar, which I understand much less well. There’s a strange connection between shelves, extremely large infinities, and extremely large finite numbers! It was first noticed by a logician named Richard Laver in the late 1980s, and it’s been developed further by Randall Dougherty.

It goes like this. For each there’s a unique shelf structure on the numbers such that

So, the elements of our shelf are

and so on, until we get to

However, we can now calculate

and so on. You should try it yourself for a simple example! You’ll need to use the self-distributive law. It’s quite an experience.

You’ll get a list of numbers, but this list will not contain all the numbers Instead, it will repeat with some period

Here is where things get weird. The numbers form this sequence:

1, 1, 2, 4, 4, 8, 8, 8, 8, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, 16, …

It may not look like it, but the numbers in this sequence approach infinity!

… *if* we assume an extra axiom, which goes beyond the usual axioms of set theory, but so far seems consistent!

This axiom asserts the existence of an absurdly large cardinal, called an I3 rank-into-rank cardinal.

I’ll say more about this kind of cardinal later. But, this is not the only case where a ‘large cardinal axiom’ has consequences for down-to-earth math, like the behavior of some sequence that you can define using simple rules.

On the other hand, Randall Dougherty has proved a *lower bound* on how far you have to go out in this sequence to reach the number 32.

And, it’s an *incomprehensibly large number!*

The third Ackermann function is roughly 2 to the th power. The fourth Ackermann function is roughly 2 raised to itself times:

And so on: each Ackermann function is defined by iterating the previous one.

Dougherty showed that for the sequence to reach 32, you have to go at least

This is an *insanely* large number!

I should emphasize that if we use just the ordinary axioms of set theory, the ZFC axioms, nobody has proved that the sequence *ever* reaches 32. Neither is it known that this is unprovable if we only use ZFC.

So, what we’ve got here is a very slowly growing sequence… which is easy to define but grows so slowly that (so far) mathematicians need new axioms of set theory to prove it goes to infinity, or even reaches 32.

I should admit that my definition of the Ackermann function is rough. In reality it’s defined like this:

And if you work this out, you’ll find it’s a bit annoying. Somehow the number 3 sneaks in:

where means raised to itself times,

where means with the number repeated times, and so on.

However, these irritating 3’s scarcely matter, since Dougherty’s number is so large… and I believe he could have gotten an even larger upper bound if he wanted.

Perhaps I’ll wrap up by saying very roughly what an I3 rank-into-rank cardinal is.

In set theory the universe of all sets is built up in stages. These stages are called the von Neumann hierarchy. The lowest stage has nothing in it:

Each successive stage is defined like this:

where is the the power set of that is, the set of all subsets of For ‘limit ordinals’, that is, ordinals that aren’t of the form we define

An I3 rank-into-rank cardinal is an ordinal such that admits a nontrivial elementary embedding into itself.

Very roughly, this means the infinity is *so huge that the collection of sets that can be built by this stage can mapped into itself, in a one-to-one but not onto way, into a smaller collection that’s indistinguishable from the original one when it comes to the validity of anything you can say about sets!*

More precisely, a nontrivial elementary embedding of into itself is a one-to-one but not onto function

that preserves and reflects the validity of all statements in the language of set theory. That is: for any sentence in the language of set theory, this statement holds for sets if and only if holds.

I don’t know why, but an I3 rank-into-rank cardinal, if it’s even consistent to assume one exists, is known to be extraordinarily big. What I mean by this is that it automatically has a lot of other properties known to characterize large cardinals. It’s inaccessible (which is big) and ineffable (which is bigger), and measurable (which is bigger), and huge (which is even bigger), and so on.

How in the world is this related to shelves?

The point is that if

are elementary embeddings, we can apply to any set in But in set theory, functions are sets too: sets of ordered pairs So, is a set. It’s not an element of but all its subsets are, where So, we can define

Laver showed that this operation distributes over itself:

And, he showed that if we take one elementary embedding and let it generate a shelf by this this operation, we get *the free shelf on one generator!*

The shelf I started out describing, the numbers with

also has one generator namely the number 1. So, it’s a quotient of the free shelf on one generator by one relation, namely the above equation.

That’s about all I understand. I don’t understand how the existence of a nontrivial elementary embedding of into itself implies that the function goes to infinity, and I don’t understand Randall Dougherty’s lower bound on how far you need to go to reach For more, read these:

• Richard Laver, The left distributive law and the freeness of an algebra of elementary embeddings, *Adv. Math.* **91** (1992), 209–231.

• Richard Laver, On the algebra of elementary embeddings of a rank into itself, *Adv. Math.* **110** (1995), 334–346.

• Randall Dougherty and Thomas Jech, Finite left distributive algebras and embedding algebras, *Adv. Math.* **130** (1997), 201–241.

• Randall Dougherty, Critical points in an algebra of elementary embeddings, *Ann. Pure Appl. Logic* **65** (1993), 211–241.

• Randall Dougherty, Critical points in an algebra of elementary embeddings, II.