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In mathematics, a real closed field is a field F that has the same first-order properties as the field of real numbers. Some examples are the field of real numbers, the field of real algebraic numbers, and the field of hyperreal numbers.


A real closed field is a field F in which any of the following equivalent conditions are true:

  1. F is elementarily equivalent to the real numbers. In other words, it has the same first-order properties as the reals: any sentence in the first-order language of fields is true in F if and only if it is true in the reals.
  2. There is a total order on F making it an ordered field such that, in this ordering, every positive element of F has a square root in F and any polynomial of odd degree with coefficients in F has at least one root in F.
  3. F is a formally real field such that every polynomial of odd degree with coefficients in F has at least one root in F, and for every element a of F there is b in F such that a = b2 or a = −b2.
  4. F is not algebraically closed but its algebraic closure is a finite extension.
  5. F is not algebraically closed but the field extension   is algebraically closed.
  6. There is an ordering on F which does not extend to an ordering on any proper algebraic extension of F.
  7. F is a formally real field such that no proper algebraic extension of F is formally real. (In other words, the field is maximal in an algebraic closure with respect to the property of being formally real.)
  8. There is an ordering on F making it an ordered field such that, in this ordering, the intermediate value theorem holds for all polynomials over F with degree 0.
  9. F is a real closed ring.

If F is an ordered field, the Artin–Schreier theorem states that F has an algebraic extension, called the real closure K of F, such that K is a real closed field whose ordering is an extension of the given ordering on F, and is unique up to a unique isomorphism of fields identical on F[1] (note that every ring homomorphism between real closed fields automatically is order preserving, because x ≤ y if and only if ∃z y = x + z2). For example, the real closure of the ordered field of rational numbers is the field   of real algebraic numbers. The theorem is named for Emil Artin and Otto Schreier, who proved it in 1926.

If (F,P) is an ordered field, and E is a Galois extension of F, then by Zorn's Lemma there is a maximal ordered field extension (M,Q) with M a subfield of E containing F and the order on M extending P. M, together with its ordering Q, is called the relative real closure of (F,P) in E. We call (F,P) real closed relative to E if M is just F. When E is the algebraic closure of F the relative real closure of F in E is actually the real closure of F described earlier.[2]

If F is a field (no ordering compatible with the field operations is assumed, nor is assumed that F is orderable) then F still has a real closure, which may not be a field anymore, but just a real closed ring. For example, the real closure of the field   is the ring   (the two copies correspond to the two orderings of  ). On the other hand, if   is considered as an ordered subfield of  , its real closure is again the field  .

Model theory: decidability and quantifier eliminationEdit

Although the theory of real closed fields was firstly developed by algebraists, it has received considerable attention from model theory. By adding to the ordered field axioms

  • an axiom asserting that every positive number has a square root, and
  • an axiom scheme asserting that all polynomials of odd degree have at least one root

one obtains a first-order theory. Alfred Tarski (1951) proved that the theory of real closed fields in the first order language of partially ordered rings (consisting of the binary predicate symbols "=" and "≤", the operations of addition, subtraction and multiplication and the constant symbols 0,1) admits elimination of quantifiers. The most important model theoretic consequences hereof: The theory of real closed fields is complete, o-minimal and decidable.

Decidability means that there exists at least one decision procedure, i.e., a well-defined algorithm for determining whether a sentence in the first order language of real closed fields is true. Euclidean geometry (without the ability to measure angles) is also a model of the real field axioms, and thus is also decidable.

The decision procedures are not necessarily practical. The algorithmic complexities of all known decision procedures for real closed fields are very high, so that practical execution times can be prohibitively high except for very simple problems.

The algorithm Tarski proposed for quantifier elimination has NONELEMENTARY complexity, meaning that no tower   can bound the execution time of the algorithm if n is the size of the problem. Davenport and Heintz (1988) proved that quantifier elimination is in fact (at least) doubly exponential: there exists a family Φn of formulas with n quantifiers, of length O(n) and constant degree such that any quantifier-free formula equivalent to Φn must involve polynomials of degree   and length  , using the Ω asymptotic notation. Ben-Or, Kozen, and Reif (1986) proved that the theory of real closed fields is decidable in exponential space, and therefore in doubly exponential time.

Basu and Roy (1996) proved that there exists a well-behaved algorithm to decide the truth of a formula ∃x1, …, ∃xk P1(x1, …, xk) ⋈ 0 ∧ … ∧ Ps(x1,…,xk) ⋈ 0 where ⋈ is <, > or =, with complexity in arithmetic operations sk+1dO(k). In fact, the existential theory of the reals can be decided in PSPACE.

Adding additional functions symbols, for example, the sine or the exponential function, can change the decidability of the theory.

Yet another important model-theoretic property of real closed fields is that they are weakly o-minimal structures. Conversely, it is known that any weakly o-minimal ordered field must be real closed.[3]

Order propertiesEdit

A crucially important property of the real numbers is that it is an Archimedean field, meaning it has the Archimedean property that for any real number, there is an integer larger than it in absolute value. An equivalent statement is that for any real number, there are integers both larger and smaller. Such real closed fields that are not Archimedean, are non-Archimedean ordered fields. For example, any field of hyperreal numbers is real closed and non-Archimedean.

The Archimedean property is related to the concept of cofinality. A set X contained in an ordered set F is cofinal in F if for every y in F there is an x in X such that y < x. In other words, X is an unbounded sequence in F. The cofinality of F is the size of the smallest cofinal set, which is to say, the size of the smallest cardinality giving an unbounded sequence. For example, natural numbers are cofinal in the reals, and the cofinality of the reals is therefore  .

We have therefore the following invariants defining the nature of a real closed field F:

  • The cardinality of F.
  • The cofinality of F.

To this we may add

  • The weight of F, which is the minimum size of a dense subset of F.

These three cardinal numbers tell us much about the order properties of any real closed field, though it may be difficult to discover what they are, especially if we are not willing to invoke the generalized continuum hypothesis. There are also particular properties which may or may not hold:

  • A field F is complete if there is no ordered field K properly containing F such that F is dense in K. If the cofinality of F is κ, this is equivalent to saying Cauchy sequences indexed by κ are convergent in F.
  • An ordered field F has the eta set property ηα, for the ordinal number α, if for any two subsets L and U of F of cardinality less than   such that every element of L is less than every element of U, there is an element x in F with x larger than every element of L and smaller than every element of U. This is closely related to the model-theoretic property of being a saturated model; any two real closed fields are ηα if and only if they are  -saturated, and moreover two ηα real closed fields both of cardinality   are order isomorphic.

The generalized continuum hypothesisEdit

The characteristics of real closed fields become much simpler if we are willing to assume the generalized continuum hypothesis. If the continuum hypothesis holds, all real closed fields with cardinality the continuum and having the η1 property are order isomorphic. This unique field Ϝ can be defined by means of an ultrapower, as  , where M is a maximal ideal not leading to a field order-isomorphic to  . This is the most commonly used hyperreal number field in non-standard analysis, and its uniqueness is equivalent to the continuum hypothesis. (Even without the continuum hypothesis we have that if the cardinality of the continuum is   then we have a unique ηβ field of size ηβ.)

Moreover, we do not need ultrapowers to construct Ϝ, we can do so much more constructively as the subfield of series with a countable number of nonzero terms of the field   of formal power series on a totally ordered abelian divisible group G that is an η1 group of cardinality   (Alling 1962).

Ϝ however is not a complete field; if we take its completion, we end up with a field Κ of larger cardinality. Ϝ has the cardinality of the continuum which by hypothesis is  , Κ has cardinality  , and contains Ϝ as a dense subfield. It is not an ultrapower but it is a hyperreal field, and hence a suitable field for the usages of nonstandard analysis. It can be seen to be the higher-dimensional analogue of the real numbers; with cardinality   instead of  , cofinality   instead of  , and weight   instead of  , and with the η1 property in place of the η0 property (which merely means between any two real numbers we can find another).

Examples of real closed fieldsEdit


  1. ^ Rajwade (1993) pp. 222–223
  2. ^ Efrat (2006) p. 177
  3. ^ D. Macpherson et. al, (1998)


  • Alling, Norman L. (1962), "On the existence of real-closed fields that are ηα-sets of power ℵα.", Trans. Amer. Math. Soc., 103: 341–352, doi:10.1090/S0002-9947-1962-0146089-X, MR 0146089
  • Basu, Saugata, Richard Pollack, and Marie-Françoise Roy (2003) "Algorithms in real algebraic geometry" in Algorithms and computation in mathematics. Springer. ISBN 3-540-33098-4 (online version)
  • Michael Ben-Or, Dexter Kozen, and John Reif, The complexity of elementary algebra and geometry, Journal of Computer and Systems Sciences 32 (1986), no. 2, pp. 251–264.
  • Caviness, B F, and Jeremy R. Johnson, eds. (1998) Quantifier elimination and cylindrical algebraic decomposition. Springer. ISBN 3-211-82794-3
  • Chen Chung Chang and Howard Jerome Keisler (1989) Model Theory. North-Holland.
  • Dales, H. G., and W. Hugh Woodin (1996) Super-Real Fields. Oxford Univ. Press.
  • Davenport, James H.; Heintz, Joos (1988). "Real quantifier elimination is doubly exponential". J. Symb. Comput. 5 (1–2): 29–35. doi:10.1016/s0747-7171(88)80004-x. Zbl 0663.03015.
  • Efrat, Ido (2006). Valuations, orderings, and Milnor K-theory. Mathematical Surveys and Monographs. 124. Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society. ISBN 0-8218-4041-X. Zbl 1103.12002.
  • Macpherson, D., Marker, D. and Steinhorn, C., Weakly o-minimal structures and real closed fields, Trans. of the American Math. Soc., Vol. 352, No. 12, 1998.
  • Mishra, Bhubaneswar (1997) "Computational Real Algebraic Geometry," in Handbook of Discrete and Computational Geometry. CRC Press. 2004 edition, p. 743. ISBN 1-58488-301-4
  • Rajwade, A. R. (1993). Squares. London Mathematical Society Lecture Note Series. 171. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-42668-5. Zbl 0785.11022.
  • Passmore, Grant (2011). Combined Decision Procedures for Nonlinear Arithmetics, Real and Complex (PDF) (PhD). University of Edinburgh.
  • Alfred Tarski (1951) A Decision Method for Elementary Algebra and Geometry. Univ. of California Press.
  • Erdös, P.; Gillman, L.; Henriksen, M. (1955), "An isomorphism theorem for real-closed fields", Ann. of Math., 2, 61: 542–554, doi:10.2307/1969812, MR 0069161

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