A Summer 2015 Mathematics A To Z: error


This is one of my A to Z words that everyone knows. An error is some mistake, evidence of our human failings, to be minimized at all costs. That’s … well, it’s an attitude that doesn’t let you use error as a tool.

An error is the difference between what we would like to know and what we do know. Usually, what we would like to know is something hard to work out. Sometimes it requires complicated work. Sometimes it requires an infinite amount of work to get exactly right. Who has the time for that?

This is how we use errors. We look for methods that approximate the thing we want, and that estimate how much of an error that method makes. Usually, the method involves doing some basic step some large number of times. And usually, if we did the step more times, the estimate of the error we make will be smaller. My essay “Calculating Pi Less Terribly” shows an example of this. If we add together more terms from that Leibniz formula we get a running total that’s closer to the actual value of π.

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What Numbers Equal Zero?

I want to give some examples of showing numbers are equal by showing the difference between them is ε. It’s a fairly abstruse idea but when it works amazing things become possible.

The easy example, although one that produces strong resistance, is showing that the number 1 is equal to the number 0.9999…. But here I have to say what I mean by that second number. It’s obvious to me that I mean a number formed by putting a decimal point up, and then filling in a ‘9’ to every digit past the decimal, repeating forever and ever without end. That’s a description so easy to grasp it looks obvious. I can give a more precise, less intuitively obvious, description, though, which makes it easier to prove what I’m going to be claiming.

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