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A key theme in real analysis is that of studying general functions or by first approximating them by “simpler” or “nicer” functions. But the precise class of “simple” or “nice” functions may vary from context to context. In measure theory, for instance, it is common to approximate measurable functions by indicator functions or simple functions. But in other parts of analysis, it is often more convenient to approximate rough functions by continuous or smooth functions (perhaps with compact support, or some other decay condition), or by functions in some algebraic class, such as the class of polynomials or trigonometric polynomials.
In order to approximate rough functions by more continuous ones, one of course needs tools that can generate continuous functions with some specified behaviour. The two basic tools for this are Urysohn’s lemma, which approximates indicator functions by continuous functions, and the Tietze extension theorem, which extends continuous functions on a subdomain to continuous functions on a larger domain. An important consequence of these theorems is the Riesz representation theorem for linear functionals on the space of compactly supported continuous functions, which describes such functionals in terms of Radon measures.
Sometimes, approximation by continuous functions is not enough; one must approximate continuous functions in turn by an even smoother class of functions. A useful tool in this regard is the Stone-Weierstrass theorem, that generalises the classical Weierstrass approximation theorem to more general algebras of functions.
As an application of this theory (and of many of the results accumulated in previous lecture notes), we will present (in an optional section) the commutative Gelfand-Neimark theorem classifying all commutative unital -algebras.