My Little 2021 Mathematics A-to-Z: Inverse


I owe Iva Sallay thanks for the suggestion of today’s topic. Sallay is a longtime friend of my blog here. And runs the Find the Factors recreational mathematics puzzle site. If you haven’t been following, or haven’t visited before, this is a fun week to step in again. The puzzles this week include (American) Thanksgiving-themed pictures.

Inverse.

When we visit the museum made of a visual artist’s studio we often admire the tools. The surviving pencils and crayons, pens, brushes and such. We don’t often notice the eraser, the correction tape, the unused white-out, or the pages cut into scraps to cover up errors. To do something is to want to undo it. This is as true for the mathematics of a circle as it is for the drawing of one.

If not to undo something, we do often want to know where something comes from. A classic paper asks can one hear the shape of a drum? You hear a sound. Can you say what made that sound? Fine, dismiss the drum shape as idle curiosity. The same question applies to any sensory data. If our hand feels cooler here, where is the insulation of the building damaged? If we have this electrocardiogram reading, what can we say about the action of the heart producing that? If we see the banks of a river, what can we know about how the river floods?

And this is the point, and purpose, of inverses. We can understand them as finding the causes of what we observe.

The first inverse we meet is usually the inverse function. It’s introduced as a way to undo what a function does. That’s an odd introduction, if you’re comfortable with what a function is. A function is a mathematical construct. It’s two sets — a domain and a range — and a rule that links elements in the domain to the range. To “undo” a function is like “undoing” a rectangle. But a function has a compelling “physical” interpretation. It’s routine to introduce functions as machines that take some numbers in and give numbers out. We think of them as ways to transform the domain into the range. In functional analysis get to thinking of domains as the most perfect putty. We expect functions to stretch and rotate and compress and slide along as though they were drawing a Betty Boop cartoon.

So we’re trained to speak of a function as a verb, acting on pieces of the domain. An element or point, or a region, or the whole domain. We think the function “maps”, or “takes”, or “transforms” this into its image in the range. And if we can turn one thing into another, surely we can turn it back.

Some things it’s obvious we can turn back. Suppose our function adds 2 to whatever we give it. We can get the original back by subtracting 2. If the function subtracts 32 and divides by 1.8, we can reverse it by multiplying by 1.8 and adding 32. If the function takes the reciprocal, we can take the reciprocal again. We have a bit of a problem if we started out taking the reciprocal of 0, but who would want to do such a thing anyway? If the function squares a number, we can undo that by taking the square root. Unless we started from a negative number. Then we have trouble.

The trouble is not every function has an inverse. Which we could have realized by thinking how to undo “multiply by zero”. To be a well-defined function, the rule part has to match elements in the domain to exactly one element in the range. This makes the function, in the impenetrable jargon of the mathematician, a “one-to-one function”. Or you can describe it with the more intuitive label of “bijective”.

But there’s no reason more than one thing in the domain can’t match to the same thing in the range. If I know the cosine of my angle is \frac{1}{2}, my angle might be 30 degrees. Or -30 degrees. Or 390 degrees. Or 330 degrees. You may protest there’s no difference between a 30 degree and a 390 degree angle. I agree those angles point in the same direction. But a gear rotated 390 degrees has done something that a gear rotated 30 degrees hasn’t. If all I know is where the dot I’ve put on the gear is, how can I know how much it’s rotated?

So what we do is shift from the actual cosine into one branch of the cosine. By restricting the domain we can create a function that has the same rule as the one we want, but that’s also one-to-one and so has an inverse. What restriction to use? That depends on what you want. But mathematicians have some that come up so often they might as well be defaults. So the square root is the inverse of the square of nonnegative numbers. The inverse Cosine is the inverse of the cosine of angles from 0 to 180 degrees. The inverse Sine is the inverse of the sine of angles from -90 to 90 degrees. The capital letters are convention to say we’re doing this. If we want a different range, we write out that we’re looking for an inverse cosine from -180 to 0 degrees or whatever. (Yes, the mathematician will default to using radians, rather than degrees, for angles. That’s a different essay.) It’s an imperfect solution, but it often works well enough.

The trouble we had with cosines, and functions, continues through all inverses. There are almost always alternate causes. Many shapes of drums sound alike. Take two metal bars. Heat both with a blowtorch, one on the end and one in the center. Not to the point of melting, only to the point of being too hot to touch. Let them cool in insulated boxes for a couple weeks. There’ll be no measurement you can do on the remaining heat that tells you which one was heated on the end and which the center. That’s not because your thermometers are no good or the flow of heat is not deterministic or anything. It’s that both starting cases settle to the same end. So here there is no usable inverse.

This is not to call inverses futile. We can look for what we expect to find useful. We are inclined to find inverses of the cosine between 0 and 180 degrees, even though 4140 through 4320 degrees is as legitimate. We may not know what is wrong with a heart, but have some idea what a heart could do and still beat. And there’s a famous example in 19th-century astronomy. After the discovery of Uranus came the discovery it did not move right. For a while it moved across the sky too fast for its distance from the sun. Then it started moving too slow. The obvious supposition was that there was another, not-yet-seen, planet, affecting its orbit.

The trouble is finding it. Calculating the orbit from what data they had required solving equations with 13 unknown quantities. John Couch Adams and Urbain Le Verrier attempted this anyway, making suppositions about what they could not measure. They made great suppositions. Le Verrier made the better calculations, and persuaded an astronomer (Johann Gottfried Galle, assisted by Heinrich Louis d’Arrest) to go look. Took about an hour of looking. They also made lucky suppositions. Both, for example, supposed the trans-Uranian planet would obey “Bode’s Law”, a seeming pattern in the size of planetary radiuses. The actual Neptune does not. It was near enough in the sky to where the calculated planet would be, though. The world is vaster than our imaginations.

That there are many ways to draw Betty Boop does not mean there’s nothing to learn about how this drawing was done. And so we keep having inverses as a vibrant field of mathematics.


Next week I hope to cover the letter ‘C’ and don’t think I’m not worried about what that ‘C’ will be. This week’s essay, and all the essays for the Little Mathematics A-to-Z, should be at this link. And all of this year’s essays, and all the A-to-Z essays from past years, should be at this link. Thank you for reading.

Author: Joseph Nebus

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

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