The square root of negative one. Everybody knows it doesn’t exist; there’s no real number you can multiply by itself and get negative one out. But then sometime in algebra, deep in a section about polynomials, suddenly we come out and declare there is such a thing. It’s an “imaginary number” that we call “i”. It’s hard to blame students for feeling betrayed by this. To make it worse, we throw real and imaginary numbers together and call the result “complex numbers”. It’s as if we’re out to tease them for feeling confused.
It’s an important set of things, though. It turns up as the domain, or the range, of functions so often that one of the major fields of analysis is called, “Complex Analysis”. If the course listing allows for more words, it’s called “Analysis of Functions of a Complex Variable” or something like that. Despite the connotations of the word “complex”, though, the field is a delight. It’s considerably easier to understand than Real Analysis, the study of functions of mere real numbers. When there is a theorem that has a version in Real Analysis and a version in Complex Analysis, the Complex Analysis side is usually easier to prove and easier to understand. It’s uncanny.
The set of all complex numbers is denoted C, in parallel to the set of real numbers, R. To make it clear that we mean this set, and not some piddling little common set that might happen to share the name C, add a vertical stroke to the left of the letter. This is just as we add a vertical stroke to R to emphasize we mean the Real Numbers. We should approach the set with respect, removing our hats, thinking seriously about great things. It would look silly to add a second curve to C though, so we just add a straight vertical stroke on the left side of the letter C. This makes it look a bit like it’s an Old English typeface (the kind you call Gothic until you learn that means “sans serif”) pared down to its minimum.
Why do we teach people there’s no such thing as a square root of minus one, and then one day, teach them there is? Part of it is that whether there is a square root depends on your context. If you are interested only in the real numbers, there’s nothing that, squared, gives you minus one. This is exactly the way that it’s not possible to equally divide five objects between two people if you aren’t allowed to cut the objects in half. But if you are willing to allow half-objects to be things, then you can do what was previously forbidden. What you can do depends on what the rules you set out are.
And there’s surely some echo of the historical discovery of imaginary and complex numbers at work here. They were noticed when working out the roots of third- and fourth-degree polynomials. These can be done by way of formulas that nobody ever remembers because there are so many better things to remember. These formulas would sometimes require one to calculate a square root of a negative number, a thing that obviously didn’t exist. Except that if you pretended it did, you could get out correct answers, just as if these were ordinary numbers. You can see why this may be dubbed an “imaginary” number. The name hints at the suspicion with which it’s viewed. It’s much as “negative” numbers look like some trap to people who’re just getting comfortable with fractions.
It goes against the stereotype of mathematicians to suppose they’d accept working with something they don’t understand because the results are all right, afterwards. But, actually, mathematicians are willing to accept getting answers by any crazy method. If you have a plausible answer, you can test whether it’s right, and if all you really need this minute is the right answer, good.
But we do like having methods; they’re more useful than mere answers. And we can imagine this set called the complex numbers. They contain … well, all the possible roots, the solutions, of all polynomials. (The polynomials might have coefficients — the numbers in front of the variable — of integers, or rational numbers, or irrational numbers. If we already accept the idea of complex numbers, the coefficients can be complex numbers too.)
It’s exceedingly common to think of the complex numbers by starting off with a new number called “i”. This is a number about which we know nothing except that i times i equals minus one. Then we tend to think of complex numbers as “a real number plus i times another real number”. The first real number gets called “the real component”, and is usually denoted as either “a” or “x”. The second real number gets called “the imaginary component”, and is usually denoted as either “b” or “y”. Then the complex number is written “a + i*b” or “x + i*y”. Sometimes it’s written “a + b*i” or “x + y*i”; that’s a mere matter of house style. Don’t let it throw you.
Writing a complex number this way has advantages. Particularly, it makes it easy to see how one would add together (or subtract) complex numbers: “a + b*i + x + y*i” almost suggests that the sum should be “(a + x) + (b + y)*i”. What we know from ordinary arithmetic gives us guidance. And if we’re comfortable with binomials, then we know how to multiply complex numbers. Start with “(a + b*i) * (x + y*i)” and follow the distributive law. We get, first, “a*x + a*y*i + b*i*x + b*y*i*i”. But “i*i” equals minus one, so this is the same as “a*x + a*y*i + b*i*x – b*y”. Move the real components together, and move the imaginary components together, and we have “(a*x – b*y) + (a*y + b*x)*i”.
That’s the most common way of writing out complex numbers. It’s so common that Eric W Weisstein’s Mathworld encyclopedia even says that’s what complex numbers are. But it isn’t the only way to construct, or look at, complex numbers. A common alternate way to look at complex numbers is to match a complex number to a point on the plane, or if you prefer, a point in the set R2.
It’s surprisingly natural to think of the real component as how far to the right or left of an origin your complex number is, and to think of the imaginary component as how far above or below the origin it is. Much complex-number work makes sense if you think of complex numbers as points in space, or directions in space. The language of vectors trips us up only a little bit here. We speak of a complex number as corresponding to a point on the “complex plane”, just as we might speak of a real number as a point on the “(real) number line”.
But there are other descriptions yet. We can represent complex numbers as a pair of numbers with a scheme that looks like polar coordinates. Pick a point on the complex plane. We can say where that is by two points of information. The first is the amplitude, or magnitude: how far the point is from the origin. The second is the phase, or angle: draw the line segment connecting the origin and your point. What angle does that make with the positive horizontal axis?
This representation is called the “phasor” representation. It’s tolerably popular in physics and I hear tell of engineers liking it. We represent numbers then not as “x + i*y” but instead as “r * eiθ”, with r the magnitude and θ the angle. “e” is the base of the natural logarithm, which you get very comfortable with if you do much mathematics or physics. And “i” is just what we’ve been talking about here. This is a pretty natural way to write about complex numbers that represent stuff that oscillates, such as alternating current or the probability function in quantum mechanics. A lot of stuff oscillates, if you study it through the right lens. So numbers that look like this keep creeping in, and into unexpected places. It’s quite easy to multiply numbers in phasor form — just multiply the magnitude parts, and add the angle parts — although addition and subtraction become a pain.
Mathematicians generally use the letter “z” to represent a complex-valued number whose identity is not known. As best I can tell, this is because we do think so much of a complex number as the sum “x + y*i”. So if we used familiar old “x” for an unknown number, it would carry the connotations of “the real component of our complex-valued number” and mislead the unwary mathematician. The connection is so common that a mathematician might carelessly switch between “z” and the real and imaginary components “x” and “y” without specifying that “z” is another way of writing “x + y*i”. A good copy editor or an alert student should catch this.
Complex numbers work very much like real numbers do. They add and multiply in natural-looking ways, and you can do subtraction and division just as well. You can take exponentials, and can define all the common arithmetic functions — sines and cosines, square roots and logarithms, integrals and differentials — on them just as well as you can with real numbers. And you can embed the real numbers within the complex numbers: if you have a real number x, you can match that perfectly with the complex number “x + 0*i”.
But that doesn’t mean complex numbers are exactly like the real numbers. For example, it’s possible to order the real numbers. You can say that the number “a” is less than the number “b”, and have that mean something. That’s not possible to do with complex numbers. You can’t say that “a + b*i” is less than, or greater than, “x + y*i” in a logically consistent way. You can say the magnitude of one complex-valued number is greater than the magnitude of another. But the magnitudes are real numbers. For all that complex numbers give us there are things they’re not good for.