Today I’m going to talk about Zorn’s lemma. No. I’m not going to prove that it is equivalent ot the Axiom of Choice. All I’m going to do is talk about what it really is. Hopefully, I shal be able to create a visually rich picture so that you may be able to understand it well.

First, the statement.

“Suppose a partially ordered set has the property that every chain (i.e. totally ordered subset) has an upper bound in . Then the set contains at least one maximal element.”

Imagine chains of elements. Like plants. These may be intersecting or not. Imagine a flat piece of land, and lots of plants growing out of it. These may grow straight, or may grow in a crooked fashion, intersecting. These plants are totally ordered chains of elements. Now as all such chains have a maximal elements, imagine being able to see the tops of each of these plants. Not three things: 1. Each tree may have multiple tops (or maximal elements). 2. There may be multiple points of intersection between any two trees. 3. Different plants may have the same maximal element.

Moreover, there may be small bits of such plants lying on the ground. These are elements that are not part of any chain. If any such bit exists on the ground, then we have a maximal element. Proof: If it could be compared to any other element, it would be on a chain. If it can’t be compared to any other element, it’s not smaller than any element.

Let us suppose no such bits of plants exist. Then a maximal element of any chain will be the maximal element of the whole set! Proof: It is not smaller than any element in its own chain. It can’t be compared with the chains which do not intersect with this chain. And as for chains that intersect with this chain, if the maximal element is the same, then we’re done. If the maximal elements are not the same, then too the two maximal elements can’t be compared. Hence, every distinct maximal element is a maximal element of the whole set.

Assuming that the set is non-empty, at least one plant bit or chain has to exist. Hence, every partially ordered set has at least one maximal element. The possible candidates are plant bits (elements not in any chain) and plant tops (maximal elements of chains).

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