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This post is in some ways an antithesis of my previous postings on hard and soft analysis. In those posts, the emphasis was on taking a result in soft analysis and converting it into a hard analysis statement (making it more “quantitative” or “effective”); here we shall be focusing on the reverse procedure, in which one harnesses the power of infinitary mathematics – in particular, ultrafilters and nonstandard analysis – to facilitate the proof of finitary statements.
Arguments in hard analysis are notorious for their profusion of “epsilons and deltas”. In the more sophisticated arguments of this type, one can end up having an entire army of epsilons that one needs to manage, in particular choosing each epsilon carefully to be sufficiently small compared to other parameters (including other epsilons), while of course avoiding an impossibly circular situation in which a parameter is ultimately required to be small with respect to itself, which is absurd. This art of epsilon management, once mastered, is not terribly difficult – it basically requires one to mentally keep track of which quantities are “small”, “very small”, “very very small”, and so forth – but when these arguments get particularly lengthy, then epsilon management can get rather tedious, and also has the effect of making these arguments unpleasant to read. In particular, any given assertion in hard analysis usually comes with a number of unsightly quantifiers (For every there exists an N…) which can require some thought for a reader to parse. This is in contrast with soft analysis, in which most of the quantifiers (and the epsilons) can be cleanly concealed via the deployment of some very useful terminology; consider for instance how many quantifiers and epsilons are hidden within, say, the Heine-Borel theorem: “a subset of a Euclidean space is compact if and only if it is closed and bounded”.
For those who practice hard analysis for a living (such as myself), it is natural to wonder if one can somehow “clean up” or “automate” all the epsilon management which one is required to do, and attain levels of elegance and conceptual clarity comparable to those in soft analysis, hopefully without sacrificing too much of the “elementary” or “finitary” nature of hard analysis in the process.