A Leap Day 2016 Mathematics A To Z: Wlog


Wait for it.

Wlog.

I’d like to say a good word for boredom. It needs the good words. The emotional state has an appalling reputation. We think it’s the sad state someone’s in when they can’t find anything interesting. It’s not. It’s the state in which we are so desperate for engagement that anything is interesting enough.

And that isn’t a bad thing! Finding something interesting enough is a precursor to noticing something curious. And curiosity is a precursor to discovery. And discovery is a precursor to seeing a fuller richness of the world.

Think of being stuck in a waiting room, deprived of reading materials or a phone to play with or much of anything to do. But there is a clock. Your classic analog-face clock. Its long minute hand sweeps out the full 360 degrees of the circle once every hour, 24 times a day. Its short hour hand sweeps out that same arc every twelve hours, only twice a day. Why is the big unit of time marked with the short hand? Good question, I don’t know. Probably, ultimately, because it changes so much less than the minute hand that it doesn’t need the attention of length drawn to it.

But let our waiting mathematician get a little more bored, and think more about the clock. The hour and minute hand must sometimes point in the same direction. They do at 12:00 by the clock, for example. And they will at … a little bit past 1:00, and a little more past 2:00, and a good while after 9:00, and so on. How many times during the day will they point the same direction?

Well, one easy way to do this is to work out how long it takes the hands, once they’ve met, to meet up again. Presumably we don’t want to wait the whole hour-and-some-more-time for it. But how long is that? Well, we know the hands start out pointing the same direction at 12:00. The first time after that will be after 1:00. At exactly 1:00 the hour hand is 30 degrees clockwise of the minute hand. The minute hand will need five minutes to catch up to that. In those five minutes the hour hand will have moved another 2.5 degrees clockwise. The minute hand needs about four-tenths of a minute to catch up to that. In that time the hour hand moves — OK, we’re starting to see why Zeno was not an idiot. He never was.

But we have this roughly worked out. It’s about one hour, five and a half minutes between one time the hands meet and the next. In the course of twelve hours there’ll be time for them to meet up … oh, of course, eleven times. Over the course of the day they’ll meet up 22 times and we can get into a fight over whether midnight counts as part of today, tomorrow, or both days, or neither. (The answer: pretend the day starts at 12:01.)

Hold on, though. How do we know that the time between the hands meeting up at 12:00 and the one at about 1:05 is the same as the time between the hands meeting up near 1:05 and the next one, sometime a little after 2:10? Or between that one and the one at a little past 3:15? What grounds do we have for saying this one interval is a fair representation of them all?

We can argue that it should be fairly enough. Imagine that all the markings were washed off the clock. It’s just two hands sweeping around in circles, one relatively fast, one relatively slow, forever. Give the clockface a spin. When the hands come together again rotate the clock so those two hands are vertical, the “12:00” position. Is this actually 12:00? … Well, we’ve got a one-in-eleven chance it is. It might be a little past 1:05; it might be that time something past 6:30. The movement of the clock hands gives no hint what time it really is.

And that is why we’re justified taking this one interval as representative of them all. The rate at which the hands move, relative to each other, doesn’t depend on what the clock face behind it says. The rate is, if the clock isn’t broken, always the same. So we can use information about one special case that happens to be easy to work out to handle all the cases.

That’s the mathematics term for this essay. We can study the one specific case without loss of generality, or as it’s inevitably abbreviated, wlog. This is the trick of studying something possibly complicated, possibly abstract, by looking for a representative case. That representative case may tell us everything we need to know, at least about this particular problem. Generality means what you might figure from the ordinary English meaning of it: it means this answer holds in general, as opposed to in this specific instance.

Some thought has to go in to choosing the representative case. We have to pick something that doesn’t, somehow, miss out on a class of problems we would want to solve. We mustn’t lose the generality. And it’s an easy mistake to make, especially as a mathematics student first venturing into more abstract waters. I remember coming up against that often when trying to prove properties of infinitely long series. It’s so hard to reason something about a bunch of numbers whose identities I have no idea about; why can’t I just use the sequence, oh, 1/1, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, et cetera and let that be good enough? Maybe 1/1, 1/4, 1/9, 1/16, et cetera for a second test, just in case? It’s because it takes time to learn how to safely handle infinities.

It’s still worth doing. Few of us are good at manipulating things in the abstract. We have to spend more mental energy imagining the thing rather than asking the questions we want of it. Reducing that abstraction — even if it’s just a little bit, changing, say, from “an infinitely-differentiable function” to “a polynomial of high enough degree” — can rescue us. We can try out things we’re confident we understand, and derive from it things we don’t know.

I can’t say that a bored person observing a clock would deduce all this. Parts of it, certainly. Maybe all, if she thought long enough. I believe it’s worth noticing and thinking of these kinds of things. And it’s why I believe it’s fine to be bored sometimes.

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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.

3 thoughts on “A Leap Day 2016 Mathematics A To Z: Wlog”

    1. Well, thank you. While writing this I did get to thinking about how we find things that can be picked out without loss of generality, versus actually losing generality. And I didn’t think of a good example of losing generality, partly because I’m writing these much closer to deadline than I imagined and partly because I thought I was running long as it was.

      I might put a follow-up post on about how to pick examples, though.

      Liked by 2 people

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