Large set (combinatorics)

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For other uses of the term, see Small set (disambiguation).

In combinatorial mathematics, a large set of positive integers

S = \{s_0,s_1,s_2,s_3,\dots\}

is one such that the infinite sum


diverges. A small set is any subset of the positive integers that is not large; that is, one whose sum of reciprocals converges.

Large sets appear in the Müntz–Szász theorem and in the Erdős conjecture on arithmetic progressions.


  • Every finite subset of the positive integers is small.
  • The set \{1,2,3,4,5,\dots\} of all positive integers is known to be a large set; this statement is equivalent to the divergence of the harmonic series. More generally, any arithmetic progression (i.e., a set of all integers of the form an + b with a ≥ 1, b ≥ 1 and n = 0, 1, 2, 3, ...) is a large set.
  • The set {1, 2, 4, 8, ...} of powers of 2 is known to be a small set, and so is any geometric progression (i.e., a set of numbers of the form of the form abn with a ≥ 1, b ≥ 2 and n = 0, 1, 2, 3, ...).
  • The set of prime powers which are not prime (i.e., all numbers of the form pn with n ≥ 2 and p prime) is a small set although the primes are a large set. This property is frequently used in analytic number theory. More generally, the set of perfect powers is small.
  • The set of numbers whose expansions in a given base exclude a given digit is small. For example, the set
\{1, \dots, 6, 8, \dots, 16, 18, \dots, 66, 68, 69, 80, \dots \}
of integers whose decimal expansion does not include the digit 7 is small. Such series are called Kempner series.


  • Every subset of a small set is small.
  • The union of finitely many small sets is small, because the sum of two convergent series is a convergent series. (In set theoretic terminology, the small sets form an ideal.)
  • The complement of every small set is large.
  • The Müntz–Szász theorem states that a set S=\{s_1,s_2,s_3,\dots\} is large if and only if the set of polynomials spanned by
\{1,x^{s_1},x^{s_2},x^{s_3},\dots\} \,
is dense in the uniform norm topology of continuous functions on a closed interval. This is a generalization of the Stone–Weierstrass theorem.

Open problems involving large sets[edit]

Paul Erdős famously asked the question of whether any set that does not contain arbitrarily long arithmetic progressions must necessarily be small. He offered a prize of $3000 for the solution to this problem, more than for any of his other conjectures, and joked that this prize offer violated the minimum wage law.[1] This question is still open.

It is not known how to identify whether a given set is large or small in general. As a result, there are many sets which are not known to be either large or small.


  1. ^ Carl Pomerance, Paul Erdős, Number Theorist Extraordinaire. (Part of the article The Mathematics of Paul Erdős), in Notices of the AMS, January, 1998.


  • A. D. Wadhwa (1975). An interesting subseries of the harmonic series. American Mathematical Monthly 82 (9) 931–933. JSTOR 2318503