Functions. They’re at the center of so much mathematics. They have three pieces: a domain, a range, and a rule. The one thing functions absolutely must do is match stuff in the domain to one and only one thing in the range. So this is where it gets tricky.
Thing with this one-and-only-one thing in the range is it’s not always practical. Sometimes it only makes sense to allow for something in the domain to match several things in the range. For example, suppose we have the domain of positive numbers. And we want a function that gives us the numbers which, squared, are whatever the original function was. For any positive real number there’s two numbers that do that. 4 should match to both +2 and -2.
You might ask why I want a function that tells me the numbers which, squared, equal something. I ask back, what business is that of yours? I want a function that does this and shouldn’t that be enough? We’re getting off to a bad start here. I’m sorry; I’ve been running ragged the last few days. I blame the flat tire on my car.
Anyway. I’d want something like that function because I’m looking for what state of things makes some other thing true. This turns up often in “inverse problems”, problems in which we know what some measurement is and want to know what caused the measurement. We do that sort of problem all the time.
We can handle these multi-valued functions. Of course we can. Mathematicians are as good at loopholes as anyone else is. Formally we declare that the range isn’t the real numbers but rather sets of real numbers. My what-number-squared function then matches ‘4’ in the domain to the set of numbers ‘+2 and -2’. The set has several things in it, but there’s just the one set. Clever, huh?
This sort of thing turns up a lot. There’s two numbers that, squared, give us any real number (except zero). There’s three numbers that, squared, give us any real number (again except zero). Polynomials might have a whole bunch of numbers that make some equation true. Trig functions are worse. The tangent of 45 degrees equals 1. So is the tangent of 225 degrees. Also 405 degrees. Also -45 degrees. Also -585 degrees. OK, a mathematician would use radians instead of degrees, but that just changes what the numbers are. Not that there’s infinitely many of them.
It’s nice to have options. We don’t always want options. Sometimes we just want one blasted simple answer to things. It’s coded into the language. We say “the square root of four”. We speak of “the arctangent of 1”, which is to say, “the angle with tangent of 1”. We only say “all square roots of four” if we’re making a point about overlooking options.
If we’ve got a set of things, then we can pick out one of them. This is obvious, which means it is so very hard to prove. We just have to assume we can. Go ahead; assume we can. Our pick of the one thing out of this set is the “principal”. It’s not any more inherently right than the other possibilities. It’s just the one we choose to grab first.
So. The principal square root of four is positive two. The principal arctangent of 1 is 45 degrees, or in the dialect of mathematicians π divided by four. We pick these values over other possibilities because they’re nice. What makes them nice? Well, they’re nice. Um. Most of their numbers aren’t that big. They use positive numbers if we have a choice in the matter. Deep down we still suspect negative numbers of being up to something.
If nobody says otherwise then the principal square root is the positive one, or the one with a positive number in front of the imaginary part. If nobody says otherwise the principal arcsine is between -90 and +90 degrees (-π/2 and π/2). The principal arccosine is between 0 and 180 degrees (0 and π), unless someone says otherwise. The principal arctangent is … between -90 and 90 degrees, unless it’s between 0 and 180 degrees. You can count on the 0 to 90 part. Use your best judgement and roll with whatever develops for the other half of the range there. There’s not one answer that’s right for every possible case. The point of a principal value is to pick out one answer that’s usually a good starting point.
When you stare at what it means to be a function you realize that there’s a difference between the original function and the one that returns the principal value. The original function has a range that’s “sets of values”. The principal-value version has a range that’s just one value. If you’re being kind to your audience you make some note of that. Usually we note this by capitalizing the start of the function: “arcsin z” gives way to “Arcsin z”. “Log z” would be the principal-value version of “log z”. When you start pondering logarithms for negative numbers or for complex-valued numbers you get multiple values. It’s the same way that the arcsine function does.
And it’s good to warn your audience which principal value you mean, especially for the arc-trigonometric-functions or logarithms. (I’ve never seen someone break the square root convention.) The principal value is about picking the most obvious and easy-to-work-with value out of a set of them. It’s just impossible to get everyone to agree on what the obvious is.