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Discrete space

In topology and related fields of mathematics, a discrete space is a particularly simple example of a topological space or similar structure, one in which the points are "isolated" from each other in a certain sense.


Given a set X:

  • the discrete topology on X is defined by letting every subset of X be open, and X is a discrete topological space if it is equipped with its discrete topology;
  • the discrete uniformity on X is defined by letting every superset of the diagonal {(x,x) : x ∈ X} in X × X be an entourage, and X is a discrete uniform space if it is equipped with its discrete uniformity.
  • the discrete metric on X is defined by letting the distance between any distinct points x and y be 1, and X is a discrete metric space if it is equipped with its discrete metric.
There are many other types of discrete structures that can be placed on a set, but only these cases (to the knowledge of the authors so far of this article) are generally called "spaces".


The underlying uniformity on a discrete metric space is the discrete uniformity, and the underlying topology on a discrete uniform space is the discrete topology. Thus, the different notions of discrete space are compatible with one another. On the other hand, the underlying topology of a non-discrete uniform or metric space can be discrete; an example is the metric space X := {1/n : n = 1,2,3,...} (with metric inherited from the real line and given by d(x,y) = |x − y|). Obviously, this is not the discrete metric; also, this space is not complete and hence not discrete as a uniform space. Nevertheless, it is discrete as a topological space. We say that X is topologically discrete but not uniformly discrete or metrically discrete.


Any function from a discrete topological space to another topological space is continuous, and any function from a discrete uniform space to another uniform space is uniformly continuous. That is, the discrete space X is free[?] on the set X in the category of topological spaces and continuous maps or in the category of uniform spaces and uniformly continuous maps. These facts are examples of a much broader phenomenon, in which discrete structures are usually free on sets.

With metric spaces, things are more complicated, because there are several categories of metric spaces, depending on what is chosen for the morphisms. Certainly the discrete metric space is free when the morphisms are all uniformly continuous maps or all continuous maps, but this says nothing interesting about the metric structure, only the uniform or topological structure. Categories more relevant to the metric structure can be found by limiting the morphisms to Lipschitz continuous maps or to nonexpansive[?] maps; however, these categories don't have free objects (on more than one element). However, the discrete metric space is free in the category of bounded metric spaces and Lipschitz continuous maps, and it is free in the category of metric spaces bounded by one and nonexpansive maps. That is, any function from a discrete metric space to another bounded metric space is Lipschitz continuous, and any function from a discrete metric space to another metric space bounded by one is nonexpansive.

Going the other direction, a function f from a topological space Y to a discrete space X is continuous if and only it if is locally constant[?] in the sense that every point in Y has a neighborhood on which f is constant.


A discrete structure is often used as the "default structure" on a set that doesn't carry any other natural topology, uniformity, or metric. For example, any group can be considered as a topological group by giving it the discrete topology, implying that theorems about topological groups apply to all groups. Indeed, analysts that normally study topological groups might refer to the ordinary, nontopological groups studied by algebraists as "discrete groups" to emphasise that no other topological structure is assumed to exist.

While discrete spaces are not very exciting from a topological viewpoint, one can easily construct interesting spaces from them. For instance, a product of countably infinitely many copies of the discrete space of natural numbers is homeomorphic to the space of irrational numbers, with the homeomorphism given by the continued fraction expansion. A product of countably infinitely many copies of the discrete space {0,1} is homeomorphic to the Cantor set, and in fact uniformly homeomorphic[?] to the Cantor set if we use the product uniformity[?] on the product. This homeomorphism is given by ternary notation[?] of numbers.

In the foundations of mathematics, the study of compactness properties of products of {0,1} is central to the topological approach to the ultrafilter principle[?], a weak form of choice.

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