The Set Tour, Part 12: What Can You Do With Functions?


I want to resume my tour of sets that turn up a lot as domains and ranges. But I need to spend some time explaining stuff before the next bunch. I want to talk about things that aren’t so familiar as “numbers” or “shapes”. We get into more abstract things.

We have to start out with functions. Functions are built of three points, a set that’s the domain, a set that’s the range, and a rule that matches things in the domain to things in the range. But what’s a set? Sets are bunches of things. (If we want to avoid logical chaos we have to be more exact. But we’re not going near the zones of logical chaos. So we’re all right going with “sets are bunches of things”. WARNING: do not try to pass this off at your thesis defense.)

So if a function is a thing, can’t we have a set that’s made up of functions? Sure, why not? We can get a set by describing the collection of things we want in it. At least if we aren’t doing anything weird. (See above warning.)

Let’s pick out a set of functions. Put together a group of functions that all have the same set as their domain, and that have compatible sets as their range. The real numbers are a good pick for a domain. They’re also good for a range.

Is this an interesting set? Generally, a set is boring unless we can do something with the stuff in it. That something is, almost always, taking a pair of the things in the set and relating it to something new. Whole numbers, for example, would be trivia if we weren’t able to add them together. Real numbers would be a complicated pile of digits if we couldn’t multiply them together. Having things is nice. Doing stuff with things is all that’s meaningful.

So what can we do with a couple of functions, if they have the same domains and ranges? Let’s pick one out. Give it the name ‘f’. That’s a common name for functions. It was given to us by Leonhard Euler, who was brilliant in every field of mathematics, including in creating notation. Now let’s pick out a function again. Give this new one the name ‘g’. That’s a common name for functions, given to us by every mathematician who needed something besides ‘f’. (There are alternatives. One is to start using subscripts, like f1 and f2. That’s too hard for me to type. Another is to use different typefaces. Again, too hard for me. Another is to use lower- and upper-case letters, ‘f’ and ‘F’. Using alternate-case forms usually connotes that these two functions are related in some way. I don’t want to suggest that they are related here. So, ‘g’ it is.)

We can do some obvious things. We can add them together. We can create a new function, imaginatively named `f + g’. It’ll have the same domain and the same range as f and g did. What rule defines how it matches things in the domain to things in the range?

Mathematicians throw the term “obvious” around a lot. Also “intuitive”. What they mean is “what makes sense to me but I don’t want to write it down”. Saying that is fine if your mathematician friend knows roughly what you’d think makes sense. It can be catastrophic if she’s much smarter than you, or thinks in weird ways, and is always surprised other people don’t think like her. It’s hard to better describe it than “obvious”, though. Well, here goes.

Let me pick something that’s in the domain of both f and g. I’m going to call that x, which mathematicians have been doing ever since René Descartes gave us the idea. So “f(x)” is something in the range of f, and “g(x) is something in the range of g. I said, way up earlier, that both of these ranges are the same set and suggested the real numbers there. That is, f(x) is some real number and I don’t care which just now. g(x) is also some real number and again I don’t care right now just which.

The function we call “f + g” matches the thing x, in the domain, to something in the range. What thing? The number f(x) + g(x). I told you, I can’t see any fair way to describe that besides being “obvious” and “intuitive”.

Another thing we’ll want to do is multiply a function by a real number. Suppose we have a function f, just like above. Give me a real number. We’ll call that real number ‘a’ because I don’t remember if you can do the alpha symbol easily on web pages. Anyway, we can define a function, `af’, the multiplication of the real number a by the function f. It has the same domain as f, and the same range as f. What’s its rule?

Let me say x is something in the domain of f. So f(x) is some real number. Then the new function `af’ matches the x in the domain with a real number. That number is what you get by multiplying `a’ by whatever `f(x)’ is. So there are major parts of your mathematician friend from college’s classes that you could have followed without trouble.

(Her class would have covered many more things, mind you, and covered these more cryptically.)

There’s more stuff we would like to do with functions. But for now, this is enough. This lets us turn a set of functions into a “vector space”. Vector spaces are kinds of things that work, at least a bit, like arithmetic. And mathematicians have studied these kinds of things. We have a lot of potent tools that work on vector spaces. So mathematicians develop a habit of finding vector spaces in what they study.

And I’m subject to that too. This is why I’ve spent such time talking about what we can do with functions rather than naming particular sets. I’ll pick up from that.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

5 thoughts on “The Set Tour, Part 12: What Can You Do With Functions?”

      1. Years ago I wrote a simple program which let the user choose how much of each of a set of sine functions to use in order to get a graphical match to a square wave, a triangular wave or a zig-zag wave. It still works, but needs rebuilding in javascript. Could be useful.

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        1. That would be great. I don’t think I really understood Fourier series until I did a lot of drawing by hand what the sums of different partial series did. (I’m not sure I understood them until a fair bit after that, either, but it helped.) And programs make it so easy to experiment a lot.

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