Every ordinal has only finitely many order-types for its final segments

droste_effect_clock_by_kiluncle-d4ya2gnI was recently asked an interesting elementary question about the number of possible order types of the final segments of an ordinal, and in particular, whether there could be an ordinal realizing infinitely many different such order types as final segments.  Since I found it interesting, let me write here how I replied.

The person asking me had noted that every nonempty final segment of the first infinite ordinal $\omega$ is isomorphic to $\omega$ again, since if you start counting from $5$ or from a million, you have just as far to go in the natural numbers. Thus, if one includes the empty final segment, there are precisely two order-types that arise as final segments of $\omega$, namely, $0$ and $\omega$ itself. A finite ordinal $n$, in contrast, has precisely $n+1$ many final segments, corresponding to each of the possible cuts between any of the elements or before all of them or after all of them, and these final segments, considered as orders themselves, all have different sizes and hence are not isomorphic.

He wanted to know whether an ordinal could have infinitely many different order-types for its tails.

Question. Is there an ordinal having infinitely many different isomorphism types for its final segments?

The answer is no, and I’d like to explain why. I’ll discuss two different arguments, the first being an easy direct argument aimed only at this answer, and the second being a more careful analysis aimed at understanding exactly how many and which order-types arise as the order type of a final segment of an ordinal $\alpha$.

Theorem. Every ordinal has only finitely many order types of its final segments.

Proof: Suppose that $\alpha$ is an ordinal, and consider the order types of the final segments $[\eta,\alpha)$, for $\eta\leq\alpha$. Note that as $\eta$ increases, the final segment $[\eta,\alpha)$ becomes smaller as a suborder, and so it’s order type does not go up. And since these are well-orders, it can go down only finitely many times. So only finitely many order types arise, and the theorem is proved. QED

But let’s figure out exactly how many and which order types arise.

Theorem. The number of order types of final segments of an ordinal $\alpha$ is precisely $n+1$, where $n$ is the number of terms in the Cantor normal form of $\alpha$, and one can describe those order types in terms of the normal form of $\alpha$.

Cantor proved that every ordinal $\alpha$ can be uniquely expressed as a finite sum $$\alpha=\omega^{\beta_n}+\cdots+\omega^{\beta_0},$$ where $\beta_n\geq\cdots\geq\beta_0$, and this is called the Cantor normal form of the ordinal. There are alternative forms, where one allows terms like $\omega^\beta\cdot n$ for finite $n$, but in my favored formulation, one simply expands this into $n$ terms with $\omega^\beta+\cdots+\omega^\beta$. In particular, the ordinal $\omega=\omega^1$ has exactly one term in its Cantor normal form, and a finite number $n=\omega^0+\cdots+\omega^0$ has exactly $n$ terms in its Cantor normal form. So the statement of the theorem agrees with the calculations that we had made at the very beginning.

Proof: First, let’s observe that every nonempty final segment of an ordinal of the form $\omega^\beta$ is isomorphic to $\omega^\beta$ again. This amounts to the fact that ordinals of the form $\omega^\beta$ are additively indecomposable, or in other words, closed under ordinal addition, since the final segments of an ordinal $\alpha$ are precisely the ordinals $\zeta$ such that $\alpha=\xi+\zeta$ for some $\xi$. If $\alpha$ is additively indecomposable, then it cannot be that $\zeta<\alpha$, and so all final segments would be isomorphic to $\alpha$. So let’s prove that $\omega^\beta$ is additively indecomposable. This is clear if $\beta=0$, since the only ordinal less than $\omega^0=1$ is $0$ and $0+0<1$. If $\beta$ is a limit ordinal, then the ordinals $\omega^\eta$ for $\eta<\beta$ are unbounded in $\omega^\beta$, and adding them stays below because $\omega^\eta+\omega^\eta=\omega^\eta\cdot 2\leq\omega^\eta\cdot\omega=\omega^{\eta+1}<\omega^\beta$. If $\beta=\delta+1$ is a successor ordinal, then $\omega^\beta=\omega^{\delta+1}=\omega^\delta\cdot\omega=\sup_{n<\omega}\omega^\delta\cdot n$, but again adding them stays below because $\omega^\delta\cdot n+\omega^\delta\cdot m=\omega^\delta\cdot(n+m) < \omega^\delta\cdot\omega=\omega^\beta$.

To prove the theorem, consider any ordinal $\alpha$ with Cantor normal form $\alpha=\omega^{\beta_n}+\cdots+\omega^{\beta_0}$, where $\beta_n\geq\cdots\geq\beta_0$. So as an order type, $\alpha$ consists of finitely many pieces, the first of type $\omega^{\beta_n}$, the next of type $\omega^{\beta_{n-1}}$ and so on up to $\omega^{\beta_0}$. Any final segment of $\alpha$ therefore consists of a final segment of one of these segments, together with all the segments after that segment (and omitting any segments prior to it, if any). But since these segments all have the form $\omega^{\beta_i}$, they are additively indecomposable and therefore are isomorphic to all their nonempty final segments. So any final segment of $\alpha$ is order-isomorphic to an ordinal whose Cantor normal form simply omits some (or none) of the terms from the front of the Cantor normal form of $\alpha$. Since we may start with any of the $n$ terms (or none), this gives precisely $n+1$ many order types of the final segments of $\alpha$, as claimed.

The argument shows, furthermore, that the possible order types of the final segments of $\alpha$, where $\alpha=\omega^{\beta_n}+\cdots+\omega^{\beta_0}$, are precisely the ordinals of the form $\omega^{\beta_k}+\cdots+\omega^{\beta_0}$, omitting terms only from the front, where $k\leq n$. QED