Aronson’s Sequence

In 1982, J.K. Aronson of Oxford, England, sent this mysterious fragment to Douglas Hofstadter:

‘T’ is the first, fourth, eleventh, sixteenth, twenty-fourth, twenty-ninth, thirty-third …

The context of their discussion was self-reference, so presumably the intended conclusion of Aronson’s sentence was … letter in this sentence. If one ignores spaces and punctuation, then T does indeed occupy those positions in Aronson’s fragment; the next few terms would be 35, 39, 45, 47, 51, 56, 58, 62, and 64. The Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences gives a picture:

1234567890 1234567890 1234567890 1234567890 1234567890
Tisthefirs tfourthele venthsixte enthtwenty fourthtwen
tyninththi rtythirdth irtyfiftht hirtyninth fortyfifth
fortyseven thfiftyfir stfiftysix thfiftyeig hthsixtyse
condsixtyf ourthsixty ninthseven tythirdsev entyeighth
eightiethe ightyfourt heightynin thninetyfo urthninety
ninthonehu ndredfourt honehundre deleventho nehundreds
ixteenthon ehundredtw entysecond onehundred twentysixt
honehundre dthirtyfir stonehundr edthirtysi xthonehund
redfortyse cond...

But there’s a catch: In English, most ordinal adjectives (FIRST, FOURTH, etc.) themselves contain at least one T, so the sentence continually creates more work for itself even as it lists the locations of its Ts. There are a few T-less ordinals (NINE BILLION ONE MILLION SECOND), but these don’t arrange themselves to mop up all the incoming Ts. This means that the sentence must be infinitely long.

And, strangely, that throws our initial presumption into confusion. We had supposed that the sentence would end with … letter in this sentence. But an infinite sentence has no end — so it’s not clear whether we ought to be counting Ts at all!