Non-standard analysis

Non-standard analysis
Abraham Robinson
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz argued that idealized numbers containing infinitesimals be introduced.

Non-standard analysis is a branch of mathematics that formulates analysis using a rigorous notion of an infinitesimal number.

Non-standard analysis was introduced in the early 1960s by the mathematician Abraham Robinson. He wrote:

[...] the idea of infinitely small or infinitesimal quantities seems to appeal naturally to our intuition. At any rate, the use of infinitesimals was widespread during the formative stages of the Differential and Integral Calculus. As for the objection [...] that the distance between two distinct real numbers cannot be infinitely small, G. W. Leibniz argued that the theory of infinitesimals implies the introduction of ideal numbers which might be infinitely small or infinitely large compared with the real numbers but which were to possess the same properties as the latter.

Robinson argued that this law of continuity of Leibniz's is a precursor of the transfer principle. Robinson continued:

However, neither he nor his disciples and successors were able to give a rational development leading up to a system of this sort. As a result, the theory of infinitesimals gradually fell into disrepute and was replaced eventually by the classical theory of limits.[1]

Robinson continues:

It is shown in this book that Leibniz's ideas can be fully vindicated and that they lead to a novel and fruitful approach to classical Analysis and to many other branches of mathematics. The key to our method is provided by the detailed analysis of the relation between mathematical languages and mathematical structures which lies at the bottom of contemporary model theory.

A non-zero element of an ordered field F is infinitesimal if and only if its absolute value is smaller than any element of F of the form 1/n, for n a standard natural number. Ordered fields that have infinitesimal elements are also called non-Archimedean. More generally, non-standard analysis is any form of mathematics that relies on non-standard models and the transfer principle. A field which satisfies the transfer principle for real numbers is a hyperreal field, and non-standard real analysis uses these fields as non-standard models of the real numbers.

Robinson's original approach was based on these non-standard models of the field of real numbers. His classic foundational book on the subject Non-standard Analysis was published in 1966 and is still in print.[2] On page 88, Robinson writes:

The existence of non-standard models of arithmetic was discovered by Thoralf Skolem (1934). Skolem's method foreshadows the ultrapower construction [...]

Several technical issues must be addressed to develop a calculus of infinitesimals. For example, it is not enough to construct an ordered field with infinitesimals. See the article on hyperreal numbers for a discussion of some of the relevant ideas.



There are at least three reasons to consider non-standard analysis: historical, pedogogical, and technical.


Much of the earliest development of the infinitesimal calculus by Newton and Leibniz was formulated using expressions such as infinitesimal number and vanishing quantity. As noted in the article on hyperreal numbers, these formulations were widely criticized by George Berkeley and others. It was a challenge to develop a consistent theory of analysis using infinitesimals and the first person to do this in a satisfactory way was Abraham Robinson.[1]

In 1958 Curt Schmieden and Detlef Laugwitz published an Article "Eine Erweiterung der Infinitesimalrechnung"[3] - "An Extension of Infinitesimal Calculus", which proposed a construction of a ring containing infinitesimals. The ring was constructed from sequences of real numbers. Two sequences were considered equivalent if they differed only in a finite number of elements. Arithmetic operations were defined elementwise. However, the ring constructed in this way contains zero divisors and thus cannot be a field.


Some educators maintain that the use of infinitesimals is more intuitive and more easily grasped by students than the so-called "epsilon-delta" approach to analytic concepts. See H. Jerome Keisler's book Elementary Calculus: An Infinitesimal Approach.[4] This approach can sometimes provide easier proofs of results than the corresponding epsilon-delta formulation of the proof. Much of the simplification comes from applying very easy rules of nonstandard arithmetic, viz:

infinitesimal × bounded = infinitesimal
infinitesimal + infinitesimal = infinitesimal

together with the transfer principle mentioned below.

Another pedagogical application of non-standard analysis is Edward Nelson's treatment of the theory of stochastic processes, presented in his monograph Radically Elementary Probability Theory.[5]


Some recent work has been done in analysis using concepts from non-standard analysis, particularly in investigating limiting processes of statistics and mathematical physics. Albeverio et al.[6] discuss some of these applications.

Approaches to non-standard analysis

There are two very different approaches to non-standard analysis: the semantic or model-theoretic approach and the syntactic approach. Both these approaches apply to other areas of mathematics beyond analysis, including number theory, algebra and topology.

Robinson's original formulation of non-standard analysis falls into the category of the semantic approach. As developed by him in his papers, it is based on studying models (in particular saturated models) of a theory. Since Robinson's work first appeared, a simpler semantic approach (due to Elias Zakon) has been developed using purely set-theoretic objects called superstructures. In this approach a model of a theory is replaced by an object called a superstructure V(S) over a set S. Starting from a superstructure V(S) one constructs another object *V(S) using the ultrapower construction together with a mapping V(S) → *V(S) which satisfies the transfer principle. The map * relates formal properties of V(S) and *V(S). Moreover it is possible to consider a simpler form of saturation called countable saturation. This simplified approach is also more suitable for use by mathematicians who are not specialists in model theory or logic.

The syntactic approach requires much less logic and model theory to understand and use. This approach was developed in the mid-1970s by the mathematician Edward Nelson. Nelson introduced an entirely axiomatic formulation of non-standard analysis that he called Internal Set Theory (IST).[7] IST is an extension of Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory (ZST) in that alongside the basic binary membership relation \isin, it introduces a new unary predicate standard which can be applied to elements of the mathematical universe together with some axioms for reasoning with this new predicate.

Syntactic non-standard analysis requires a great deal of care in applying the principle of set formation (formally known as the axiom of comprehension) which mathematicians usually take for granted. As Nelson points out, a common fallacy in reasoning in IST is that of illegal set formation. For instance, there is no set in IST whose elements are precisely the standard integers (here standard is understood in the sense of the new predicate). To avoid illegal set formation, one must only use predicates of ZFC to define subsets.[7]

Another example of the syntactic approach is the Alternative Set Theory[8] introduced by Vopěnka, trying to find set-theory axioms more compatible with the non-standard analysis than the axioms of the ZST.


There was some initial hope in the mathematical community that non-standard analysis would alter the way mathematicians thought about and reasoned with real numbers. This expectation materialized slowly due to the belief that non-standard analysis will prove something in the classical mathematics that cannot be demonstrated by the standard methods. But non-standard analysis uses a conservative extension of Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory, and so every theorem of ZFC that is proved by non-standard analysis can be demonstrated without using the new tools.
The first example, confirming the belief, was the theorem proven by Abraham Robinson and Allen Bernstein that every polynomially compact linear operator on a Hilbert space has an invariant subspace.[9] Upon reading a preprint of the Bernstein-Robinson paper, Paul Halmos reinterpreted their proof using standard techniques.[10] Both papers appeared back-to-back in the same issue of the Pacific Journal of Mathematics. Some of the ideas used in Halmos' proof reappeared many years later in Halmos' own work on quasi-triangular operators.

Other results were received along the line of reinterpreting or reproving previously known results. Of particular interest is Kamae's proof[11] of the individual ergodic theorem or van den Dries and Wilkie's treatment[12] of Gromov's theorem on groups of polynomial growth. NSA was used by Larry Manevitz and Shmuel Weinberger to prove a result in algebraic topology.[13]

The real contributions of non-standard analysis lie however in the concepts and theorems that utilizes the new extended language of non-standard set theory. Among the list of new applications in mathematics there are new approaches to probability [5] hydrodynamics,[14] measure theory,[15] nonsmooth and harmonic analysis,[16] etc.

There are also applications of non-standard analysis to the theory of stochastic processes, particularly constructions of Brownian motion as random walks. Albeverio et-al[6] have an excellent introduction to this area of research.

Applications to calculus

As an application to mathematical education, H. Jerome Keisler wrote Elementary Calculus: An Infinitesimal Approach[4]. Covering non-standard calculus, it develops differential and integral calculus using the hyperreal numbers, which include infinitesimal elements. These applications of non-standard analysis depend on the existence of the standard part of a finite hyperreal r. The standard part of r, denoted st(r), is a standard real number infinitely close to r. One of the visualization devices Keisler uses is that of an imaginary infinite-magnification microscope to distinguish points infinitely close together. Keisler's book is now out of print, but is freely available from his website; see references below.


Despite the elegance and appeal of some aspects of non-standard analysis, there has been skepticism in the mathematical community about whether the nonstandard machinery adds anything that cannot easily be achieved by standard methods. These criticisms notwithstanding, however, there is no controversy about the mathematical validity of the approach and the results of non-standard analysis. It is known that IST is a conservative extension of ZFC. This is shown in Edward Nelson's 1977 AMS Bulletin paper in an appendix written by William Powell. Bishop's critique of NSA and of Keisler's elementary calculus book based on Robinson's theory is documented at Criticism of non-standard analysis#Bishop's criticism.

Logical framework

Given any set S, the superstructure over a set S is the set V(S) defined by the conditions

V_0(\mathbf{S}) = \mathbf{S}
V_{n+1}(\mathbf{S}) =V_{n}(\mathbf{S}) \cup
V(\mathbf{S}) = \bigcup_{n \in \mathbb{N}} V_{n}(\mathbf{S}).

Thus the superstructure over S is obtained by starting from S and iterating the operation of adjoining the power set of S and taking the union of the resulting sequence. The superstructure over the real numbers includes a wealth of mathematical structures: For instance, it contains isomorphic copies of all separable metric spaces and metrizable topological vector spaces. Virtually all of mathematics that interests an analyst goes on within V(R).

The working view of nonstandard analysis is a set *R and a mapping

 *: V(\mathbb{R}) \rightarrow V(*\mathbb{R})

which satisfies some additional properties.

To formulate these principles we first state some definitions: A formula has bounded quantification if and only if the only quantifiers which occur in the formula have range restricted over sets, that is are all of the form:

 \forall x \in A, \Phi(x, \alpha_1, \ldots, \alpha_n)
 \exists x \in A, \Phi(x, \alpha_1, \ldots, \alpha_n)

For example, the formula

 \forall x \in A, \ \exists y \in 2^B, \ x \in y

has bounded quantification, the universally quantified variable x ranges over A, the existentially quantified variable y ranges over the powerset of B. On the other hand,

 \forall x \in A, \ \exists y, \ x \in y

does not have bounded quantification because the quantification of y is unrestricted.

Internal sets

A set x is internal if and only if x is an element of *A for some element A of V(R). *A itself is internal if A belongs to V(R).

We now formulate the basic logical framework of nonstandard analysis:

  • Extension principle: The mapping * is the identity on R.
  • Transfer principle: For any formula P(x1, ..., xn) with bounded quantification and with free variables x1, ..., xn, and for any elements A1, ..., An of V(R), the following equivalence holds:
P(A_1, \ldots, A_n) \iff P(*A_1, \ldots, *A_n)
  • Countable saturation: If {Ak}kN is a decreasing sequence of nonempty internal sets, with k ranging over the natural numbers, then
\bigcap_k A_k \neq \emptyset

One can show using ultraproducts that such a map * exists. Elements of V(R) are called standard. Elements of *R are called hyperreal numbers.

First consequences

The symbol *N denotes the nonstandard natural numbers. By the extension principle, this is a superset of N. The set *NN is nonempty. To see this, apply countable saturation to the sequence of internal sets

 A_n = \{k \in {^*\mathbb{N}}: k \geq n\}

The sequence {An}nN has a nonempty intersection, proving the result.

We begin with some definitions: Hyperreals r, s are infinitely close if and only if

 r \cong s \iff \forall \theta \in \mathbb{R}^+, \ |r - s| \leq \theta

A hyperreal r is infinitesimal if and only if it is infinitely close to 0. r is limited or bounded if and only if its absolute value is dominated by (less than) a standard integer. The bounded hyperreals form a subring of *R containing the reals. In this ring, the infinitesimal hyperreals are an ideal. For example, if n is a hyperinteger, i.e. an element of *NN, then 1/n is an infinitesimal.

The set of bounded hyperreals or the set of infinitesimal hyperreals are external subsets of V(*R); what this means in practice is that bounded quantification, where the bound is an internal set, never ranges over these sets.

Example: The plane (x,y) with x and y ranging over *R is internal, and is a model of plane Euclidean geometry. The plane with x and y restricted to bounded values (analogous to the Dehn plane) is external, and in this bounded plane the parallel postulate is violated. For example, any line passing through the point (0,1) on the y-axis and having infinitesimal slope is parallel to the x-axis.

Theorem. For any bounded hyperreal r there is a unique standard real denoted st(r) infinitely close to r. The mapping st is a ring homomorphism from the ring of bounded hyperreals to R.

The mapping st is also external.

One way of thinking of the standard part of a hyperreal, is in terms of Dedekind cuts; any bounded hyperreal s defines a cut by considering the pair of sets (L,U) where L is the set of standard rationals a less than s and U is the set of standard rationals b greater than s. The real number corresponding to (L,U) can be seen to satisfy the condition of being the standard part of s.

One intuitive characterization of continuity is as follows:

Theorem. A real-valued function f on the interval [a,b] is continuous if and only if for every hyperreal x in the interval *[a,b],

 {^*f}(x) \cong {^*f}(\operatorname{st}(x)).\,


Theorem. A real-valued function f is differentiable at the real value x if and only if for every infinitesimal hyperreal number h, the value

 f'(x)= \operatorname{st} \left(\frac{{^*f}(x+h) - {^*f}(x)}{h}\right)

exists and is independent of h. In this case f'(x) is a real number and is the derivative of f at x.


It is possible to "improve" the saturation by allowing collections of higher cardinality to be intersected. A model is κ-saturated if whenever \{A_i\}_{i \in I} is a collection of internal sets with the finite intersection property and |I|\leq\kappa,

\bigcap_{i \in I} A_i \neq \emptyset

This is useful, for instance, in a topological space X, where we may want \left|2^X\right|-saturation to ensure the intersection of a standard neighborhood base is nonempty.[17]

For any cardinal κ, a κ-saturated extension can be constructed.[18]

See also

The following topics are of central importance and are discussed in the articles below.

The following articles are related:


  1. ^ a b Robinson, Abraham (1966). Non-standard analysis.
  2. ^ Robinson, Abraham (1996). Non-standard analysis (Revised edition ed.). Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-04490-2. 
  3. ^ Curt Schmieden and Detlef Laugwitz: Eine Erweiterung der Infinitesimalrechnung, Mathematische Zeitschrift 69 (1958), 1-39
  4. ^ a b Howard Jerome Keisler: Elementary Calculus: An Infinitesimal Approach. First edition 1976; 2nd edition 1986. This book is now out of print. The publisher has reverted the copyright to the author, who has made available the 2nd edition in .pdf format available for downloading at
  5. ^ a b Edward Nelson: Radically Elementary Probability Theory, Princeton University Press, 1987, available as a pdf at
  6. ^ a b Sergio Albeverio, Jans Erik Fenstad, Raphael Høegh-Krohn, Tom Lindstrøm: Nonstandard Methods in Stochastic Analysis and Mathematical Physics, Academic Press 1986.
  7. ^ a b Edward Nelson: Internal Set Theory: A New Approach to Nonstandard Analysis, Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, Vol. 83, Number 6, November 1977. A chapter on Internal Set Theory is available at
  8. ^ Vopěnka, P. Mathematics in the Alternative Set Theory. Teubner, Leipzig, 1979.
  9. ^ Allen Bernstein and Abraham Robinson, Solution of an invariant subspace problem of K. T. Smith and P. R. Halmos, Pacific Journal of Mathematics 16:3 (1966) 421-431
  10. ^ P. Halmos, Invariant subspaces for Polynomially Compact Operators, Pacific Journal of Mathematics, 16:3 (1966) 433-437.
  11. ^ T. Kamae: A simple proof of the ergodic theorem using nonstandard analysis, Israel Journal of Mathematics vol. 42, Number 4, 1982.
  12. ^ L. van den Dries and A. J. Wilkie: Gromov's Theorem on Groups of Polynomial Growth and Elementary Logic, Journal of Algebra, Vol 89, 1984.
  13. ^ Manevitz, Larry M.; Weinberger, Shmuel: Discrete circle actions: a note using non-standard analysis. Israel J. Math. 94 (1996), 147--155.
  14. ^ Capinski M., Cutland N. J. Nonstandard Methods for Stochastic Fluid Mechanics. Singapore etc., World Scientific Publishers (1995)
  15. ^ Cutland N. Loeb Measures in Practice: Recent Advances. Berlin etc.: Springer (2001)
  16. ^ Gordon E.I., Kutateladze S.S., and Kusraev A.G. Infinitesimal Analysis Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic Publishers (2002)
  17. ^ Salbany, S.; Todorov, T. Nonstandard Analysis in Point-Set Topology. Erwing Schrodinger Institute for Mathematical Physics.
  18. ^ Chang, C. C.; Keisler, H. J. Model theory. Third edition. Studies in Logic and the Foundations of Mathematics, 73. North-Holland Publishing Co., Amsterdam, 1990. xvi+650 pp. ISBN 0-444-88054-2


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