Ordered field

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In mathematics, an ordered field is a field together with a total ordering of its elements that is compatible with the field operations. The basic example of an ordered field is the field of real numbers, and every Dedekind-complete ordered field is isomorphic to the reals.

Every subfield of an ordered field is also an ordered field in the inherited order. Every ordered field contains an ordered subfield that is isomorphic to the rational numbers. Squares are necessarily non-negative in an ordered field. This implies that the complex numbers cannot be ordered since the square of the imaginary unit i is −1 (which is negative in any ordered field). Finite fields cannot be ordered.

Historically, the axiomatization of an ordered field was abstracted gradually from the real numbers, by mathematicians including David Hilbert, Otto Hölder and Hans Hahn. This grew eventually into the Artin–Schreier theory of ordered fields and formally real fields.


There are two equivalent common definitions of an ordered field. The definition of total order appeared first historically and is a first-order axiomatization of the ordering as a binary predicate. Artin and Schreier gave the definition in terms of positive cone in 1926, which axiomatizes the subcollection of nonnegative elements. Although the latter is higher-order, viewing positive cones as maximal prepositive cones provides a larger context in which field orderings are extremal partial orderings.

Total order[edit]

A field together with a (strict) total order on is an ordered field if the order satisfies the following properties for all

  • if then and
  • if and then

Positive cone[edit]

A prepositive cone or preordering of a field is a subset that has the following properties:[1]

  • For and in both and are in
  • If then In particular,
  • The element is not in

A preordered field is a field equipped with a preordering Its non-zero elements form a subgroup of the multiplicative group of

If in addition, the set is the union of and we call a positive cone of The non-zero elements of are called the positive elements of

An ordered field is a field together with a positive cone

The preorderings on are precisely the intersections of families of positive cones on The positive cones are the maximal preorderings.[1]

Equivalence of the two definitions[edit]

Let be a field. There is a bijection between the field orderings of and the positive cones of

Given a field ordering ≤ as in the first definition, the set of elements such that forms a positive cone of Conversely, given a positive cone of as in the second definition, one can associate a total ordering on by setting to mean This total ordering satisfies the properties of the first definition.

Examples of ordered fields[edit]

Examples of ordered fields are:

  • the rational numbers
  • the real numbers
  • any subfield of an ordered field, such as the real algebraic numbers or computable numbers
  • the field of rational functions , where and are polynomials with rational coefficients, , can be made into an ordered field by fixing a real transcendental number and defining if and only if . This is equivalent to embedding into and restricting the ordering of to an ordering of the image of .
  • the field of rational functions , where and are polynomials with real coefficients, , can be made into an ordered field where the polynomial is greater than any constant polynomial, by defining to mean that , where and are the leading coefficients of and , respectively. This ordered field is not Archimedean.
  • The field of formal Laurent series with real coefficients, where x is taken to be infinitesimal and positive
  • the transseries
  • real closed fields
  • the superreal numbers
  • the hyperreal numbers

The surreal numbers form a proper class rather than a set, but otherwise obey the axioms of an ordered field. Every ordered field can be embedded into the surreal numbers.

Properties of ordered fields[edit]

The property
The property

For every a, b, c, d in F:

  • Either −a ≤ 0 ≤ a or a ≤ 0 ≤ −a.
  • One can "add inequalities": if ab and cd, then a + cb + d.
  • One can "multiply inequalities with positive elements": if ab and 0 ≤ c, then acbc.
  • Transitivity of inequality: if a < b and b < c, then a < c.
  • If a < b and a, b > 0, then 1/b < 1/a.
  • Squares are non-negative: 0 ≤ a2 for all a in F. In particular, since , it follows that . Since , we conclude .
  • An ordered field has characteristic 0. (Since 1 > 0, then 1 + 1 > 0, and 1 + 1 + 1 > 0, etc. If the field had characteristic p > 0, then −1 would be the sum of p − 1 ones, but −1 is not positive.) In particular, finite fields cannot be ordered.
  • Every non-trivial sum of squares is nonzero. Equivalently: [2][3]

Every subfield of an ordered field is also an ordered field (inheriting the induced ordering). The smallest subfield is isomorphic to the rationals (as for any other field of characteristic 0), and the order on this rational subfield is the same as the order of the rationals themselves. If every element of an ordered field lies between two elements of its rational subfield, then the field is said to be Archimedean. Otherwise, such field is a non-Archimedean ordered field and contains infinitesimals. For example, the real numbers form an Archimedean field, but hyperreal numbers form a non-Archimedean field, because it extends real numbers with elements greater than any standard natural number.[4]

An ordered field F is isomorphic to the real number field R if every non-empty subset of F with an upper bound in F has a least upper bound in F. This property implies that the field is Archimedean.

Vector spaces over an ordered field[edit]

Vector spaces (particularly, n-spaces) over an ordered field exhibit some special properties and have some specific structures, namely: orientation, convexity, and positively-definite inner product. See Real coordinate space#Geometric properties and uses for discussion of those properties of Rn, which can be generalized to vector spaces over other ordered fields.

Orderability of fields[edit]

Every ordered field is a formally real field, i.e., 0 cannot be written as a sum of nonzero squares.[2][3]

Conversely, every formally real field can be equipped with a compatible total order, that will turn it into an ordered field. (This order need not be uniquely determined.) The proof uses Zorn's lemma.[5]

Finite fields and more generally fields of positive characteristic cannot be turned into ordered fields, because in characteristic p, the element −1 can be written as a sum of (p − 1) squares 12. The complex numbers also cannot be turned into an ordered field, as −1 is a square of the imaginary unit i. Also, the p-adic numbers cannot be ordered, since according to Hensel's lemma Q2 contains a square root of −7, thus 12 + 12 + 12 + 22 + −7)2 = 0, and Qp (p > 2) contains a square root of 1 − p, thus (p − 1)⋅12 + (1 − p)2 = 0.[6]

Topology induced by the order[edit]

If F is equipped with the order topology arising from the total order ≤, then the axioms guarantee that the operations + and × are continuous, so that F is a topological field.

Harrison topology[edit]

The Harrison topology is a topology on the set of orderings XF of a formally real field F. Each order can be regarded as a multiplicative group homomorphism from F onto ±1. Giving ±1 the discrete topology and ±1F the product topology induces the subspace topology on XF. The Harrison sets form a subbasis for the Harrison topology. The product is a Boolean space (compact, Hausdorff and totally disconnected), and XF is a closed subset, hence again Boolean.[7][8]

Fans and superordered fields[edit]

A fan on F is a preordering T with the property that if S is a subgroup of index 2 in F containing T − {0} and not containing −1 then S is an ordering (that is, S is closed under addition).[9] A superordered field is a totally real field in which the set of sums of squares forms a fan.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Lam (2005) p. 289
  2. ^ a b Lam (2005) p. 41
  3. ^ a b Lam (2005) p. 232
  4. ^ Bair, Jaques; Henry, Valérie. "Implicit differentiation with microscopes" (PDF). University of Liège. Retrieved 2013-05-04.
  5. ^ Lam (2005) p. 236
  6. ^ The squares of the square roots −7 and 1 − p are in Q, but are < 0, so that these roots cannot be in Q which means that their p-adic expansions are not periodic.
  7. ^ Lam (2005) p. 271
  8. ^ Lam (1983) pp. 1–2
  9. ^ Lam (1983) p. 39
  10. ^ Lam (1983) p. 45