Almanac: The infinity symbol


Seventeenth-century mathematician John Wallis created a symbol to represent an unending concept.

CBS News

And now a page from our "Sunday Morning" Almanac: December 3, 1616, 401 years ago today -- a big day for mathematics ... a very, VERY big day.

For that day saw the birth in England of John Wallis, the mathematician credited with creating the symbol for infinity (∞).

Although Pythagoras and other ancient Greeks wrestled with infinity, it wasn't until the 1600s that Wallis and Sir Isaac Newton, among others, began systematically studying the concept.

Variously defined as "endless" or "unlimited," infinity creates paradoxes that can truly boggle the mind.

As the mathematician Dr. James Grimes explains, "there are different kinds of infinity. Some infinities are bigger than others."

In a video from on the Numberphile website, Dr. Grimes begins to write down all the positive numbers, and then starts a second row that includes the negative numbers: "In some sense it's twice as big, 'cause there seems to be twice as many numbers, but it is infinity as well."

Infinity is bigger than you think - Numberphile by Numberphile on YouTube

Just one example of how infinitely complex infinity can be.

Still, when it comes to the awesomeness of the concept, it's hard to improve on the slogan popularized by animated spaceman Buzz Lightyear in the movie "Toy Story": "To infinity, and beyond!"

We couldn't have said it better ourselves.

Buzz Lightyear and Woody in "Toy Story." Pixar