Jacob Siehler suggested the term for today’s A to Z essay. The letter V turned up a great crop of subjects: velocity, suggested by Dina Yagodich, and variable, from goldenoj, were also great suggestions. But Siehler offered something almost designed to appeal to me: an obscure function that shone in the days before electronic computers could do work for us. There was no chance of my resisting.
A story about the comeuppance of a know-it-all who was not me. It was in mathematics class in high school. The teacher was explaining logic, and showing off diagrams. These would compute propositions very interesting to logic-diagram-class connecting symbols. These symbols meant logical AND and OR and NOT and so on. One of the students pointed out, you know, the only symbol you actually need is NAND. The teacher nodded; this was so. By the clever arrangement of enough NAND operations you could get the result of all the standard logic operations. He said he’d wait while the know-it-all tried it for any realistic problem. If we are able to do NAND we can construct an XOR. But we will understand what we are trying to do more clearly if we have an XOR in the kit.
So the versine. It’s a (spherical) trigonometric function. The versine of an angle is the same value as 1 minus the cosine of the angle. This seems like a confused name; shouldn’t something called “versine” have, you know, a sine in its rule? Sure, and if you don’t like that 1 minus the cosine thing, you can instead use this. The versine of an angle is two times the square of the sine of half the angle. There is a vercosine, so you don’t need to worry about that. The vercosine is two times the square of the cosine of half the angle. That’s also equal to 1 plus the cosine of the angle.
This is all fine, but what’s the point? We can see why it might be easier to say “versine of θ” than to say “2 sin(1/2 θ)”. But how is “versine of θ” easier than “one minus cosine of θ”?
The strongest answer, at the risk of sounding old, is to ask back, you know we haven’t always done things the way we do them now, right?
We have, these days, settled on an idea of what the important trigonometric functions are. Start with Cartesian coordinates on some flat space. Draw a circle of radius 1 and with center at the origin. Draw a horizontal line starting at the origin and going off in the positive-x-direction. Draw another line from the center and making an angle with respect to the horizontal line. That line intersects the circle somewhere. The x-coordinate of that point is the cosine of the angle. The y-coordinate of that point is the sine of the angle. What could be more sensible?
That depends what you think sensible. We’re so used to drawing circles and making lines inside that we forget we can do other things. Here’s one.
Start with a circle. Again with radius 1. Now chop an arc out of it. Pick up that arc and drop it down on the ground. How far does this arc reach, left to right? How high does it reach, top to bottom?
Well, the arc you chopped out has some length. Let me call that length 2θ. That two makes it easier to put this in terms of familiar trig functions. How much space does this chopped and dropped arc cover, horizontally? That’s twice the sine of θ. How tall is this chopped and dropped arc? That’s the versine of θ.
We are accustomed to thinking of the relationships between pieces of a circle like this in terms of angles inside the circle. Or of the relationships of the legs of triangles. It seems obviously useful. We even know many formulas relating sines and cosines and other major functions to each other. But it’s no less valid to look at arcs plucked out of a circle and the length of that arc and its width and its height. This might be more convenient, especially if we are often thinking about the outsides of circular things. Indeed, the oldest tables we in the Western tradition have of trigonometric functions list sines and versines. Cosines would come later.
This partly answers why there should have ever been a versine. But we’ve had the cosine since Arabian mathematicians started thinking seriously about triangles. Why had we needed versine the last 1200 years? And why don’t we need it anymore?
One answer here is that mention about the oldest tables of trigonometric functions. Or of less-old tables. Until recently, as things go, anyone who wanted to do much computing needed tables of common functions at many different values. These tables might not have the since we really need of, say, 1.17 degrees. But if the table had 1.1 and 1.2 we could get pretty close.
So a table of versines could make computation easier. You can, for example, use it to find square roots of numbers. (This essay actually, implicitly, uses vercosines. But it’ll give you the hint how to find them using versines.) Which is great if we have a table of versines but not, somehow, exponentials and logarithms. Well, if we could only take one chart in and we know trigonometry is needed, we might focus on that.
But trigonometry will be needed. One of the great fields of practical mathematics has long been navigation. We locate points on the globe using latitude and longitude. To find the distance between points is a messy calculation. The calculation becomes less longwinded, and more clear, written using versines. (Properly, it uses the haversine, which is one-half times the versine. It will not surprise you that a 19th-century English mathematician coined that name.)
Having a neat formula is pleasant, but, you know. It’s navigators and surveyors using these formulas. They can deal with a lengthy formula. The typesetters publishing their books are already getting hazard pay. Why change a bunch of references to instead?
We get a difference when it comes time to calculate. Like, pencil on paper. The cosine (sine, versine, haversine, whatever) of 1.17 degrees is a transcendental number. We do not have the paper to write that number out. We’ll write down instead enough digits until we get tired. 0.99979, say. Maybe 0.9998. To take 1 minus that number? That’s 0.00021. Maybe 0.0002. What’s the difference?
It’s in the precision. 1.17 degrees is a measure that has three significant digits. 0.00021? That’s only two digits. 0.0002? That’s got only one digit. We’ve lost precision, and without even noticing it. Whatever calculations we’re making on this have grown error margins. Maybe we’re doing calculations for which this won’t matter. Do we know that, though?
This reflects what we call numerical instability. You may have made only a slight error. But your calculation might magnify that error until it overwhelms your calculation. There isn’t any one fix for numerical instability. But there are some good general practices. Like, don’t divide a large number by a small one. Don’t add a tiny number to a large one. And don’t subtract two very-nearly-equal numbers. Calculating 1 minus the cosines of a small angle is subtracting a number that’s quite close to 1 from a number that is 1. You’re not guaranteed danger, but you are at greater risk.
A table of versines, rather than one of cosines, can compensate for this. If you’re making a table of versines it’s because you know people need the versine of 1.17 degrees with some precision. You can list it as 2.08488 times 10-4, and trust them to use as much precision as they need. For the cosine table, 0.999792 will give cosine-users the same number of significant digits. But it shortchanges versine-users.
And here we see a reason for the versine to go from minor but useful function to obscure function. Any modern computer calculates with floating point numbers. You can get fifteen or thirty or, if you really need, sixty digits of precision for the cosine of 1.17 degrees. So you can get twelve or twenty-seven or fifty-seven digits for the versine of 1.17 degrees. We don’t need to look this up in a table constructed by someone working out formulas carefully.
This, I have to warn, doesn’t always work. Versine formulas for things like distance work pretty well with small angles. There are other angles for which they work badly. You have to calculate in different orders and maybe use other functions in that case. Part of numerical computing is selecting the way to compute the thing you want to do. Versines are for some kinds of problems a good way.
There are other advantages versines offered back when computing was difficult. In spherical trigonometry calculations they can let one skip steps demanding squares and square roots. If you do need to take a square root, you have the assurance that the versine will be non-negative. You don’t have to check that you aren’t slipping complex-valued numbers into your computation. If you need to take a logarithm, similarly, you know you don’t have to deal with the log of a negative number. (You still have to do something to avoid taking the logarithm of zero, but we can’t have everything.)
So this is what the versine offered. You could get precision that just using a cosine table wouldn’t necessarily offer. You could dodge numerical instabilities. You could save steps, in calculations and in thinking what to calculate. These are all good things. We can respect that. We enjoy now a computational abundance, which makes the things versine gave us seem like absurd penny-pinching. If computing were hard again, we might see the versine recovered from obscurity to, at least, having more special interest.
Wikipedia tells me that there are still specialized uses for the versine, or for the haversine. Recent decades, apparently, have found useful tools for calculating lunar distances, and sight reductions. The lunar distance is the angular separation between the Moon and some other body in the sky. Sight reduction is calculating positions from the apparent positions of reference objects. These are not problems that I work on often. But I would appreciate that we are still finding ways to do them well.
I mentioned that besides the versine there was a coversine and a haversine. There’s also a havercosine, and then some even more obscure functions with no less wonderful names like the exsecant. I cannot imagine needing a hacovercosine, except maybe to someday meet an obscure poetic meter, but I am happy to know such a thing is out there in case. A person on Wikipedia’s Talk page about the versine wished to know if we could define a vertangent and some other terms. We can, of course, but apparently no one has found a need for such a thing. If we find a problem that we would like to solve that they do well, this may change.
Thank you for reading. This and the other essays for the Fall 2019 A to Z should appear at this link. We are coming up to the final four essays and I’m certainly excited by that. All the past A to Z essays ought to be at this link, and when I have a free afternoon to fix somethings, they will be.