What I Learned Doing My Fall 2019 Mathematics A To Z


Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

The most important thing I learned this time around was that I should have started a week or two earlier. Not that this should have been a Summer A to Z. It would be true for any season. It’s more that I started soliciting subjects for the first letters of the alphabet about two weeks ahead of publication. I didn’t miss a deadline this time around, and I didn’t hit the dread of starting an essay the day of publication. But the great thing about an A to Z sequence like this is being able to write well ahead of publication and I never got near that.

The Reading the Comics posts are already, necessarily, done close to publication. The only way to alter that is to make the Reading the Comics posts go even more than a week past the comics’ publication. Or lean on syndicated cartoonists to send me heads-ups. Anyway, if neither Reading the Comics nor A to Zs can give me breathing room, then what’s going wrong? So probably having topics picked as much as a month ahead of publication is the way I should go.

Picking topics is always the hardest part of writing things here. The A to Z gimmick makes it easy to get topics, though. The premise is both open and structured. I’m not sure I’d have as fruitful a response if I tossed out “explainer Fridays” or something and hoped people had ideas. A structured choice tends to be easier to make.

The biggest structural experiment this time around is that I put in two “recap” posts each week. These were little one- and two-paragraph things pointing to past A to Z essays. I’ve occasionally reblogged a piece, or done a post that points to old posts. Never systematically, though. Two recap posts a week seemed to work well enough. Some old stuff got new readers and nobody seemed upset. I even got those, at least, done comfortably ahead of deadline. When I finished a Thursday post I could feel like I was luxuriating in a long weekend, until I remembered the comics needed to be read.

Also, this now completes the sixth of my A to Z sequences. I’ve got enough that if I really wanted, I could drop to one new post a week, and do nothing but recaps the rest of the time. It would give me six months posting something every day. I have got nearly nine years’ worth of material here. Much of it is Reading the Comics posts, which date instantly. But the rest of the stuff in principle hasn’t aged, except in how my prose style has changed.

Another thing learned, and a bit of a surprise, was that I found a lot of fundamentals this time around. Things like “differential equations” or “Fourier series” or “Taylor series”. These are things that any mathematics major would know. These are even things that anyone a bit curious about mathematics might know. There is a place for very specific, technical terms. But some big-picture essays turn out to be comfortable too.

One of the things I wanted to write about and couldn’t was the Yang-Mills Equation. It would have taken too many words for me to write. If I’d used earlier essays as lemmas, to set up parts of this, I might have made it. In past A to Z sequences some essays built on one another. But by the time I was considering Y, the prerequisite letters had already been filled. This is an argument for soliciting for the whole alphabet from the start, rather than breaking it up into several requests for topics. But even then I’d have had to be planning Y, at a time when I know I’d be trying to think about D’s and E’s. I’m not sure that’s plausible. It does imply, as I started out thinking, that I need to work farther ahead of deadline anyway.

The versine is a fun little thing.

What I Wrote About In My 2019 Mathematics A To Z


And I have made it to the end! As is traditional, I mean to write a few words about what I learned in doing all of this. Also as is traditional, I need to collapse after the work of thirteen weeks of two essays per week describing a small glossary of terms mostly suggested by kind readers. So while I wait to do that, let me gather in one bundle a list of all the essays from this project. If this seems to you like a lazy use of old content to fill a publication hole let me assure you: this will make my life so much easier next time I do an A-to-Z. I’ve learned that, at least, over the years.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Zeno’s Paradoxes


Today’s A To Z term was nominated by Dina Yagodich, who runs a YouTube channel with a host of mathematics topics. Zeno’s Paradoxes exist in the intersection of mathematics and philosophy. Mathematics majors like to declare that they’re all easy. The Ancient Greeks didn’t understand infinite series or infinitesimals like we do. Now they’re no challenge at all. This reflects a belief that philosophers must be silly people who haven’t noticed that one can, say, exit a room.

This is your classic STEM-attitude of missing the point. We may suppose that Zeno of Elea occasionally exited rooms himself. That is a supposition, though. Zeno, like most philosophers who lived before Socrates, we know from other philosophers making fun of him a century after he died. Or at least trying to explain what they thought he was on about. Modern philosophers are expected to present others’ arguments as well and as strongly as possible. This even — especially — when describing an argument they want to say is the stupidest thing they ever heard. Or, to use the lingo, when they wish to refute it. Ancient philosophers had no such compulsion. They did not mind presenting someone else’s argument sketchily, if they supposed everyone already knew it. Or even badly, if they wanted to make the other philosopher sound ridiculous. Between that and the sparse nature of the record, we have to guess a bit about what Zeno precisely said and what he meant. This is all right. We have some idea of things that might reasonably have bothered Zeno.

And they have bothered philosophers for thousands of years. They are about change. The ones I mean to discuss here are particularly about motion. And there are things we do not understand about change. This essay will not answer what we don’t understand. But it will, I hope, show something about why that’s still an interesting thing to ponder.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Zeno’s Paradoxes.

When we capture a moment by photographing it we add lies to what we see. We impose a frame on its contents, discarding what is off-frame. We rip an instant out of its context. And that before considering how we stage photographs, making people smile and stop tilting their heads. We forgive many of these lies. The things excluded from or the moments around the one photographed might not alter what the photograph represents. Making everyone smile can convey the emotional average of the event in a way that no individual moment represents. Arranging people to stand in frame can convey the participation in the way a candid photograph would not.

But there remains the lie that a photograph is “a moment”. It is no such thing. We notice this when the photograph is blurred. It records all the light passing through the lens while the shutter is open. A photograph records an eighth of a second. A thirtieth of a second. A thousandth of a second. But still, some time. There is always the ghost of motion in a picture. If we do not see it, it is because our photograph’s resolution is too coarse. If we could photograph something with infinite fidelity we would see, even in still life, the wobbling of the molecules that make up a thing.

A photograph of a blurry roller coaster passing through a vertical loop.
One of the many loops of Vortex, a roller coaster at Kings Island amusement park from 1987 to 2019. Taken by me the last day of the ride’s operation; this was one of the roller coaster’s runs after 7 pm, the close of the park the last day of the season.

Which implies something fascinating to me. Think of a reel of film. Here I mean old-school pre-digital film, the thing that’s a great strip of pictures, a new one shown 24 times per second. Each frame of film is a photograph, recording some split-second of time. How much time is actually in a film, then? How long, cumulatively, was a camera shutter open during a two-hour film? I use pre-digital, strip-of-film movies for convenience. Digital films offer the same questions, but with different technical points. And I do not want the writing burden of describing both analog and digital film technologies. So I will stick to the long sequence of analog photographs model.

Let me imagine a movie. One of an ordinary everyday event; an actuality, to use the terminology of 1898. A person overtaking a walking tortoise. Look at the strip of film. There are many frames which show the person behind the tortoise. There are many frames showing the person ahead of the tortoise. When are the person and the tortoise at the same spot?

We have to put in some definitions. Fine; do that. Say we mean when the leading edge of the person’s nose overtakes the leading edge of the tortoise’s, as viewed from our camera. Or, since there must be blur, when the center of the blur of the person’s nose overtakes the center of the blur of the tortoise’s nose.

Do we have the frame when that moment happened? I’m sure we have frames from the moments before, and frames from the moments after. But the exact moment? Are you positive? If we zoomed in, would it actually show the person is a millimeter behind the tortoise? That the person is a hundredth of a millimeter ahead? A thousandth of a hair’s width behind? Suppose that our camera is very good. It can take frames representing as small a time as we need. Does it ever capture that precise moment? To the point that we know, no, it’s not the case that the tortoise is one-trillionth the width of a hydrogen atom ahead of the person?

If we can’t show the frame where this overtaking happened, then how do we know it happened? To put it in terms a STEM major will respect, how can we credit a thing we have not observed with happening? … Yes, we can suppose it happened if we suppose continuity in space and time. Then it follows from the intermediate value theorem. But then we are begging the question. We impose the assumption that there is a moment of overtaking. This does not prove that the moment exists.

Fine, then. What if time is not continuous? If there is a smallest moment of time? … If there is, then, we can imagine a frame of film that photographs only that one moment. So let’s look at its footage.

One thing stands out. There’s finally no blur in the picture. There can’t be; there’s no time during which to move. We might not catch the moment that the person overtakes the tortoise. It could “happen” in-between moments. But at least we have a moment to observe at leisure.

So … what is the difference between a picture of the person overtaking the tortoise, and a picture of the person and the tortoise standing still? A movie of the two walking should be different from a movie of the two pretending to be department store mannequins. What, in this frame, is the difference? If there is no observable difference, how does the universe tell whether, next instant, these two should have moved or not?

A mathematical physicist may toss in an answer. Our photograph is only of positions. We should also track momentum. Momentum carries within it the information of how position changes over time. We can’t photograph momentum, not without getting blurs. But analytically? If we interpret a photograph as “really” tracking the positions of a bunch of particles? To the mathematical physicist, momentum is as good a variable as position, and it’s as measurable. We can imagine a hyperspace photograph that gives us an image of positions and momentums. So, STEM types show up the philosophers finally, right?

Hold on. Let’s allow that somehow we get changes in position from the momentum of something. Hold off worrying about how momentum gets into position. Where does a change in momentum come from? In the mathematical physics problems we can do, the change in momentum has a value that depends on position. In the mathematical physics problems we have to deal with, the change in momentum has a value that depends on position and momentum. But that value? Put it in words. That value is the change in momentum. It has the same relationship to acceleration that momentum has to velocity. For want of a real term, I’ll call it acceleration. We need more variables. An even more hyperspatial film camera.

… And does acceleration change? Where does that change come from? That is going to demand another variable, the change-in-acceleration. (The “jerk”, according to people who want to tell you that “jerk” is a commonly used term for the change-in-acceleration, and no one else.) And the change-in-change-in-acceleration. Change-in-change-in-change-in-acceleration. We have to invoke an infinite regression of new variables. We got here because we wanted to suppose it wasn’t possible to divide a span of time infinitely many times. This seems like a lot to build into the universe to distinguish a person walking past a tortoise from a person standing near a tortoise. And then we still must admit not knowing how one variable propagates into another. That a person is wide is not usually enough explanation of how they are growing taller.

Numerical integration can model this kind of system with time divided into discrete chunks. It teaches us some ways that this can make logical sense. It also shows us that our projections will (generally) be wrong. At least unless we do things like have an infinite number of steps of time factor into each projection of the next timestep. Or use the forecast of future timesteps to correct the current one. Maybe use both. These are … not impossible. But being “ … not impossible” is not to say satisfying. (We allow numerical integration to be wrong by quantifying just how wrong it is. We call this an “error”, and have techniques that we can use to keep the error within some tolerated margin.)

So where has the movement happened? The original scene had movement to it. The movie seems to represent that movement. But that movement doesn’t seem to be in any frame of the movie. Where did it come from?

We can have properties that appear in a mass which don’t appear in any component piece. No molecule of a substance has a color, but a big enough mass does. No atom of iron is ferromagnetic, but a chunk might be. No grain of sand is a heap, but enough of them are. The Ancient Greeks knew this; we call it the Sorites paradox, after Eubulides of Miletus. (“Sorites” means “heap”, as in heap of sand. But if you had to bluff through a conversation about ancient Greek philosophers you could probably get away with making up a quote you credit to Sorites.) Could movement be, in the term mathematical physicists use, an intensive property? But intensive properties are obvious to the outside observer of a thing. We are not outside observers to the universe. It’s not clear what it would mean for there to be an outside observer to the universe. Even if there were, what space and time are they observing in? And aren’t their space and their time and their observations vulnerable to the same questions? We’re in danger of insisting on an infinite regression of “universes” just so a person can walk past a tortoise in ours.

We can say where movement comes from when we watch a movie. It is a trick of perception. Our eyes take some time to understand a new image. Our brains insist on forming a continuous whole story even out of disjoint ideas. Our memory fools us into remembering a continuous line of action. That a movie moves is entirely an illusion.

You see the implication here. Surely Zeno was not trying to lead us to understand all motion, in the real world, as an illusion? … Zeno seems to have been trying to support the work of Parmenides of Elea. Parmenides is another pre-Socratic philosopher. So we have about four words that we’re fairly sure he authored, and we’re not positive what order to put them in. Parmenides was arguing about the nature of reality, and what it means for a thing to come into or pass out of existence. He seems to have been arguing something like that there was a true reality that’s necessary and timeless and changeless. And there’s an apparent reality, the thing our senses observe. And in our sensing, we add lies which make things like change seem to happen. (Do not use this to get through your PhD defense in philosophy. I’m not sure I’d use it to get through your Intro to Ancient Greek Philosophy quiz.) That what we perceive as movement is not what is “really” going on is, at least, imaginable. So it is worth asking questions about what we mean for something to move. What difference there is between our intuitive understanding of movement and what logic says should happen.

(I know someone wishes to throw down the word Quantum. Quantum mechanics is a powerful tool for describing how many things behave. It implies limits on what we can simultaneously know about the position and the time of a thing. But there is a difference between “what time is” and “what we can know about a thing’s coordinates in time”. Quantum mechanics speaks more to the latter. There are also people who would like to say Relativity. Relativity, special and general, implies we should look at space and time as a unified set. But this does not change our questions about continuity of time or space, or where to find movement in both.)

And this is why we are likely never to finish pondering Zeno’s Paradoxes. In this essay I’ve only discussed two of them: Achilles and the Tortoise, and The Arrow. There are two other particularly famous ones: the Dichotomy, and the Stadium. The Dichotomy is the one about how to get somewhere, you have to get halfway there. But to get halfway there, you have to get a quarter of the way there. And an eighth of the way there, and so on. The Stadium is the hardest of the four great paradoxes to explain. This is in part because the earliest writings we have about it don’t make clear what Zeno was trying to get at. I can think of something which seems consistent with what’s described, and contrary-to-intuition enough to be interesting. I’m satisfied to ponder that one. But other people may have different ideas of what the paradox should be.

There are a handful of other paradoxes which don’t get so much love, although one of them is another version of the Sorites Paradox. Some of them the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy dubs “paradoxes of plurality”. These ask how many things there could be. It’s hard to judge just what he was getting at with this. We know that one argument had three parts, and only two of them survive. Trying to fill in that gap is a challenge. We want to fill in the argument we would make, projecting from our modern idea of this plurality. It’s not Zeno’s idea, though, and we can’t know how close our projection is.

I don’t have the space to make a thematically coherent essay describing these all, though. The set of paradoxes have demanded thought, even just to come up with a reason to think they don’t demand thought, for thousands of years. We will, perhaps, have to keep trying again to fully understand what it is we don’t understand.


And with that — I find it hard to believe — I am done with the alphabet! All of the Fall 2019 A-to-Z essays should appear at this link. Additionally, the A-to-Z sequences of this and past years should be at this link. Tomorrow and Saturday I hope to bring up some mentions of specific past A-to-Z essays. Next week I hope to share my typical thoughts about what this experience has taught me, and some other writing about this writing.

Thank you, all who’ve been reading, and who’ve offered topics, comments on the material, or questions about things I was hoping readers wouldn’t notice I was shorting. I’ll probably do this again next year, after I’ve had some chance to rest.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: The Game of ‘Y’


Today’s A To Z term is … well, my second choice. Goldenoj suggested Yang-Mills and I was so interested. Yang-Mills describes a class of mathematical structures. They particularly offer insight into how to do quantum mechanics. Especially particle physics. It’s of great importance. But, on thinking out what I would have to explain I realized I couldn’t write a coherent essay about it. Getting to what the theory is made of would take explaining a bunch of complicated mathematical structures. If I’d scheduled the A-to-Z differently, setting up matters like Lie algebras, maybe I could do it, but this time around? No such help. And I don’t feel comfortable enough in my knowledge of Yang-Mills to describe it without describing its technical points.

That said I hope that Jacob Siehler, who suggested the Game of ‘Y’, does not feel slighted. I hadn’t known anything of the game going in to the essay-writing. When I started research I was delighted. I have yet to actually play a for-real game of this. But I like what I see, and what I can think I can write about it.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Game of ‘Y’.

This is, as the name implies, a game. It has two players. They have the same objective: to create a ‘y’. Here, they do it by laying down tokens representing their side. They take turns, each laying down one token in a turn. They do this on a shape with three edges. The ‘y’ is created when there’s a continuous path of their tokens that reaches all three edges. Yes, it counts to have just a single line running along one edge of the board. This makes a pretty sorry ‘y’ but it suggests your opponent isn’t trying.

There are details of implementation. The board is a mesh of, mostly, hexagons. I take this to be for the same reason that so many conquest-type strategy games use hexagons. They tile space well, they give every space a good number of neighbors, and the distance from the centers of one neighbor to another is constant. In a square grid, the centers of diagonal neighbors are farther than the centers of left-right or up-down neighbors. Hexagons do well for this kind of game, where the goal is to fill space, or at least fill paths in space. There’s even a game named Hex, slightly older than Y, with similar rules. In that the goal is to draw a continuous path from one end of the rectangular grid to another. The grid of commercial boards, that I see, are around nine hexagons on a side. This probably reflects a desire to have a big enough board that games go on a while, but not so big that they go on forever

Mathematicians have things to say about this game. It fits nicely in game theory. It’s well-designed to show some things about game theory. It’s the kind of game which has perfect information game, for example. Each player knows, at all times, the moves all the players have made. Just look at the board and see where they’ve placed their tokens. A player might have forgotten the order the tokens were placed in, but that’s the player’s problem, not the game’s. Anyway in Y, the order of token-placing doesn’t much matter.

It’s also a game of complete information. Every player knows, at every step, what the other player could do. And what objective they’re working towards. One party, thinking enough, could forecast the other’s entire game. This comes close to the joke about the prisoners telling each other jokes by shouting numbers out to one another.

It is also a game in which a draw is impossible. Play long enough and someone must win. This even if both parties are for some reason trying to lose. There are ingenious proofs of this, but we can show it by considering a really simple game. Imagine playing Y on a tiny board, one that’s just one hex on each side. Definitely want to be the first player there.

So now imagine playing a slightly bigger board. Augment this one-by-one-by-one board by one row. That is, here, add two hexes along one of the sides of the original board. So there’s two pieces here; one is the original territory, and one is this one-row augmented territory. Look first at the original territory. Suppose that one of the players has gotten a ‘Y’ for the original territory. Will that player win the full-size board? … Well, sure. The other player can put a token down on either hex in the augmented territory. But there’s two hexes, either of which would make a path that connects the three edges of the board. The first player can put a token down on the other hex in the augmented territory, and now connects all three of the new sides again. First player wins.

All right, but how about a slightly bigger board? So take that two-by-two-by-two board and augment it, adding three hexes along one of the sides. Imagine a player’s won the original territory board. Do they have to win the full-size board? … Sure. The second player can put something in the augmented territory. But there’s again two hexes that would make the path connecting all three sides of the full board. The second player can put a token in one of those hexes. But the first player can put a token in the other of those. First player wins again.

How about a slightly bigger board yet? … Same logic holds. Really the only reason that the first player doesn’t always win is that, at some point, the first player screws up. And this is an existence proof, showing that the first player can always win. It doesn’t give any guidance into how to play, though. If the first player plays perfectly, she’s compelled to win. This is something which happens in many two-player, symmetric games. A symmetric game is one where either player has the same set of available moves, and can make the same moves with the same results. This proof needs to be tightened up to really hold. But it should convince you, at least, that the first player has an advantage.

So given that, the question becomes why play this game after you’ve decided who’ll go first? The reason you might if you were playing a game is, what, you have something else to do? And maybe you think you’ll make fewer mistakes than your opponent. One approach often used in symmetric games like this is the “pie rule”. The name comes from the story about how to slice a pie so you and your sibling don’t fight over the results. One cuts the pie, the other gets first pick of the slice, and then you fight anyway. In this game, though, one player makes a tentative first move. The other decides whether they will be Player One with that first move made or whether they’ll be Player Two, responding.

There are some neat quirks in the commercial Y games. One is that they don’t actually show hexes, and you don’t put tokens in the middle of hexes. Instead you put tokens on the spots that would be the center of the hex. On the board are lines pointing to the neighbors. This makes the board actually a string of triangles. This is the dual to the hex grid. It shows a set of vertices, and their connections, instead of hexes and their neighbors. Whether you think the hex grid or this dual makes it easier to tell when you’ve connected all three edges is a matter of taste. It does make the edges less jagged all around.

Another is that there will be three vertices that don’t connect to six others. They connect to five others, instead. Their spaces would be pentagons. As I understand the literature on this, this is a concession to game balance. It makes it easier for one side to fend off a path coming from the center.

It has geometric significance, though. A pure hexagonal grid is a structure that tiles the plane. A mostly hexagonal grid, with a couple of pentagons, though? That can tile the sphere. To cover the whole sphere you need something like at least twelve irregular spots. But this? With the three pentagons? That gives you a space that’s topographically equivalent to a hemisphere, or at least a slice of the sphere. If we do imagine the board to be a hemisphere covered, then the result of the handful of pentagon spaces is to make the “pole” closer to the equator.

So as I say the game seems fun enough to play. And it shows off some of the ways that game theorists classify games. And the questions they ask about games. Is the game always won by someone? Does one party have an advantage? Can one party always force a win? It also shows the kinds of approach game theorists can use to answer these questions. This before they consider whether they’d enjoy playing it.


I am excited to say that there’s just the one more time this year that I will realize: it’s Wednesday evening and I’m 1200 words short. Please stop in Thursday when I hope to have the letter Z represented. That, and all of this year’s A-to-Z essays, should appear at this link. And if that isn’t enough, I’ll feature some past essays on Friday and Saturday, and have most of my past A-to-Z essays at this link. Thank you.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Chi-squared test


Today’s A To Z term is another from Mr Wu, of mathtuition88.com. The term does not, technically, start with X. But the Greek letter χ certainly looks like an X. And the modern English letter X traces back to that χ. So that’s near enough for my needs.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

χ2 Test.

The χ2 test is a creature of statistics. Creatures, really. But if one just says “the χ2 test” without qualification they mean Pearson’s χ2 test. Pearson here is a familiar name to anyone reading the biographical sidebar in their statistics book. He was Karl Pearson, who in the late 19th and early 20th century developed pretty much every tool of inferential statistics.

Pearson was, besides a ferocious mathematical talent, a white supremacist and eugenicist. This is something to say about many pioneers of statistics. Many of the important basics of statistics were created to prove that some groups of humans were inferior to the kinds of people who get offered an OBE. They were created at a time that white society was very afraid that it might be out-bred by Italians or something even worse. This is not to say the tools of statistics are wrong, or bad. It is to say that anyone telling you mathematics is a socially independent, politically neutral thing is a fool or a liar.

Inferential statistics is the branch of statistics used to test hypotheses. The hypothesis, generally, is about whether one sample of things is really distinguishable from a population of things. It is different from descriptive statistics, which is that thing I do each month when I say how many pages got a view and from how many countries. Descriptive statistics give us a handful of numbers with which to approximate a complicated things. Both do valuable work, although I agree it seems like descriptive statistics are the boring part. Without them, though, inferential statistics has nothing to study.

The χ2 test works like many hypothesis-testing tools do. It takes two parts. One of this is observations. We start with something that comes in two or more categories. Categories come in many kinds: the postal code where a person comes from. The color of a car. The number of years of schooling someone has had. The species of flower. What is important is that the categories be mutually exclusive. One has either been a smoker for more than one year or else one has not.

Count the number of observations of … whatever is interesting … for each category. There is some fraction of observations that belong to the first category, some fraction that belong to the second, some to the third, and so on. Find those fractions. This is all easy enough stuff, really. Counting and dividing by the total number of observations. Which is a hallmark of many inferential statistics tools. They are often tedious, involving a lot of calculation. But they rarely involve difficult calculations. Square roots are often where they top out.

That covers observations. What we also need are expectations. This is our hypothesis for what fraction “ought” to be in each category. How do you know what there “ought” to be? … This is the hard part of inferential statistics. Often we are interested in showing that some class is more likely than another to have whatever we’ve observed happen. So we can use as a hypothesis that the thing is observed just as much in one case as another. If we want to test whether one sample is indistinguishable from another, we use the proportions from the other sample. If we want to test whether one sample matches a theoretical ideal, we use that theoretical ideal. People writing probability and statistics problems love throwing dice. Let me make that my example. We hypothesize that on throwing a six-sided die a thousand times, each number comes up exactly one-sixth of the time.

It’s impossible that each number will come up exactly one-sixth of the time, in a thousand throws. We could only hope to achieve this if we tossed some ridiculous number like a thousand and two times. But even if we went to that much extra work, it’s impossible that each number would come up exactly the 167 times. Here I mean it’s “impossible” in the same way it’s impossible I could drop eight coins from my pocket and have them all come up tails. Undoubtedly, some number will be unlucky and just not turn up the full 167 times. Some other number will come up a bit too much. But it’s not required; it’s just like that. Some coin lands heads.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the die is biased. The question is whether the observations are too far off from the prediction. How far is that? For each category, take the difference between the observed frequency and the expected frequency. Square that. Divide it by the expected frequency. Once you’ve done that for every category, add up all these numbers. This is χ2. Do all this and you’ll get some nice nonnegative number like, oh, 5.094 or 11.216 or, heck, 20.482.

The χ2 test works like many inferential-statistics tests do. It tells us how likely it is that, if the hypothetical expected values were right, that random chance would give us the observed data. The farther χ2 is from zero, the less likely it is this was pure chance. Which, all right. But how big does it have to be?

It depends on two important things. First is the number of categories that you have. Or, to use the lingo, the degrees of freedom in your problem. This is one minus the total number of categories. The greater the number of degrees of freedom, the bigger χ2 can be without it saying this difference can’t just be chance.

The second important thing is called the alpha level. This is a judgement call. This is how unlikely you want a result to be before you’ll declare that it couldn’t be chance. We have an instinctive idea of this. If you toss a coin twenty times and it comes up tails every time, you’ll declare that was impossible and the coin must be rigged. But it isn’t impossible. Start a run of twenty coin flips right now. You have a 0.000 095 37% chance of it being all tails. But I would be comfortable, on the 20th tail, to say something is up. I accept that I am ascribing to malice what is in fact just one of those things.

So the choice of alpha level is a measure of how willing we are to make a mistake in our conclusions. In a simple science like particle physics we can set very stringent standards. There are many particles around and we can smash them as long as the budget holds out. In more difficult sciences, such as epidemiology, we must let alpha be larger. We often accept an alpha of five-percent or one-percent.

What we must do, then, is find for an alpha level and a number of degrees of freedom, what the threshold χ2 is. If the sample’s χ2 is below that threshold, OK. The observations are consistent with the hypothesis. If the sample’s χ2 is larger than that threshold, OK. It’s less-than-the-alpha-level percent likely that the observations are consistent with the hypothesis. This is what most statistical inference tests are like. You calculate a number and check whether it is above or below a threshold. If it’s below the threshold, the observation is consistent with the hypothesis. If it’s above the threshold, there’s less than the alpha-level chance that the observation is consistent with the hypothesis.

How do we find these threshold values? … Well, under no circumstances do we try to calculate those. They’re based on a thing called the χ2 distributions, the name you’d expect. They’re hard to calculate. There is no earthly reason for you to calculate them. You can find them in the back of your statistics textbook. Or do a web search for χ2 test tables. I’m sure Matlab has a function to give you this. If it doesn’t, there’s a function you can download from somebody to work it out. There’s no need to calculate that yourself. Which is again common to inferential statistics tests. You find the thresholds by just looking them up.

χ2 tests are just one of the hypothesis-testing tools of inferential statistics. They are a good example of such. They’re designed for observations that can be fit into several categories, and comparing those to an expected forecast. But the calculations one does, and the way one interprets them, are typical for these tests. Even the way they are more tedious than hard is typical. It’s a good example of the family of tools.


I have two letters, and one more week, to go in this series. I hope to have the letter Y published on Tuesday. All the other A-to-Z essays for this year are also at that link. Past A-to-Z essays are at this link, and for the end of this week I’ll feature two past essays at this link. Thank you for reading all this.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Wallis Products


Today’s A To Z term was suggested by Dina Yagodich, whose YouTube channel features many topics, including calculus and differential equations, statistics, discrete math, and Matlab. Matlab is especially valuable to know as a good quick calculation can answer many questions.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Wallis Products.

The Wallis named here is John Wallis, an English clergyman and mathematician and cryptographer. His most tweetable work is how we follow his lead in using the symbol ∞ to represent infinity. But he did much in calculus. And it’s a piece of that which brings us to today. He particularly noticed this:

\frac{1}{2}\pi = \frac{2}{1}\cdot \frac{2}{3}\cdot \frac{4}{3}\cdot \frac{4}{5}\cdot \frac{6}{5}\cdot \frac{6}{7}\cdot \frac{8}{7}\cdot \frac{8}{9}\cdot \frac{10}{9}\cdot \frac{10}{11}\cdots

This is an infinite product. It’s multiplication’s answer to the infinite series. It always amazes me when an infinite product works. There are dangers when you do anything with an infinite number of terms. Even the basics of arithmetic, like that you can change the order in which you calculate but still get the same result, break down. Series, in which you add together infinitely many things, are risky, but I’m comfortable with the rules to know when the sum can be trusted. Infinite products seem more mysterious. Then you learn an infinite product converges if and only if the series made from the logarithms of the terms in it also converges. Then infinite products seem less exciting.

There are many infinite products that give us π. Some work quite efficiently, giving us lots of digits for a few terms’ work. Wallis’s formula does not. We need about a thousand terms for it to get us a π of about 3.141. This is a bit much to calculate even today. In 1656, when he published it in Arithmetica Infinitorum, a book I have never read? Wallis was able to do mental arithmetic well. His biography at St Andrews says once when having trouble sleeping he calculated the square root of a 53-digit number in his head, and in the morning, remembered it, and was right. Still, this would be a lot of work. How could Wallis possibly do it? And what work could possibly convince anyone else that he was right?

As it common to striking discoveries it was a mixture of insight and luck and persistence and pattern recognition. He seems to have started with pondering the value of

\int_0^1 \left(1 - x^2\right)^{\frac{1}{2}} dx

Happily, he knew exactly what this was: \frac{1}{4}\pi . He knew this because of a bit of insight. We can interpret the integral here as asking for the area that’s enclosed, on a Cartesian coordinate system, by the positive x-axis, the positive y-axis, and the set of points which makes true the equation y = \left(1 - x^2\right)^\frac{1}{2} . This curve is the upper half of a circle with radius 1 and centered on the origin. The area enclosed by all this is one-fourth the area of a circle of radius 1. So that’s how he could know the value of the integral, without doing any symbol manipulation.

The question, in modern notation, would be whether he could do that integral. And, for this? He couldn’t. But, unable to do the problem he wanted, he tried doing the most similar problem he could and see what that proved. \left(1 - x^2\right)^{\frac{1}{2}} was beyond his power to integrate; but what if he swapped those exponents? Worked on \left(1 - x^{\frac{1}{2}}\right)^2 instead? This would not — could not — give him what he was interested in. But it would give him something he could calculate. So can we:

\int_0^1 \left(1 - x^{\frac{1}{2}}\right)^2 dx = \int_0^1 1 - 2x^{\frac{1}{2}} + x dx = 1 - 2\cdot\frac{2}{3} + \frac{1}{2} = \frac{1}{6}

And now here comes persistence. What if it’s not x^{\frac{1}{2}} inside the parentheses there? If it’s x raised to some other unit fraction instead? What if the parentheses aren’t raised to the second power, but to some other whole number? Might that reveal something useful? Each of these integrals is calculable, and he calculated them. He worked out a table for many values of

\int_0^1 \left(1 - x^{\frac{1}{p}}\right)^q dx

for different sets of whole numbers p and q. He trusted that if he kept this up, he’d find some interesting pattern. And he does. The integral, for example, always turns out to be a unit fraction. And there’s a deeper pattern. Let me share results for different values of p and q; the integral is the reciprocal of the number inside the table. The topmost row is values of q; the leftmost column is values of p.

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
0 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
1 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 7
2 1 3 6 10 15 21 28 36
3 1 4 10 20 35 56 84 120
4 1 5 15 35 70 126 210 330
5 1 6 21 56 126 252 462 792
6 1 7 28 84 210 462 924 1716
7 1 8 36 120 330 792 1716 3432

There is a deep pattern here, although I’m not sure Wallis noticed that one. Look along the diagonals, running from lower-left to upper-right. These are the coefficients of the binomial expansion. Yang Hui’s triangle, if you prefer. Pascal’s triangle, if you prefer that. Let me call the term in row p, column q of this table a_{p, q} . Then

a_{p, q} = \frac{(p + 1)!}{p! q!}

Great material, anyway. The trouble is that it doesn’t help Wallis with the original problem, which — in this notation — would have p = \frac12 and q = \frac12 . What he really wanted was the Binomial Theorem, but western mathematicians didn’t know it yet. Here a bit of luck comes in. He had noticed there’s a relationship between terms in one column and terms in another, particularly, that

a_{p, q} = \frac{p + q}{q} a_{p, q - 1}

So why shouldn’t that hold if p and q aren’t whole numbers? … We would today say why should they hold? But Wallis was working with a different idea of mathematical rigor. He made assumptions that it turned out in this case were correct. Of course, had he been wrong, we wouldn’t have heard of any of this and I would have an essay on some other topic.

With luck in Wallis’s favor we can go back to making a table. What would the row for p = \frac12 look like? We’ll need both whole and half-integers. p = \frac12, q = 1 is easy; its reciprocal is 1. p = \frac12, q = \frac12 is also easy; that’s the insight Wallis had to start with. Its reciprocal is \frac{4}{\pi} . What about the rest? Use the equation just up above, relating a_{p, q} to a_{p, q - 1} ; then we can start to fill in:

0 1/2 1 3/2 2 5/2 3 7/2
1/2 1 \frac{4}{\pi} \frac{3}{2} \frac{4}{3}\frac{4}{\pi} \frac{3\cdot 5}{2\cdot 4} \frac{2\cdot 4}{5}\frac{4}{\pi} \frac{3\cdot 5\cdot 7}{2\cdot 4\cdot 6} \frac{2\cdot 2\cdot 4\cdot 4}{5\cdot 7}\frac{4}{\pi}

Anything we can learn from this? … Well, sure. For one, as we go left to right, all these entries are increasing. So, like, the second column is less than the third which is less than the fourth. Here’s a triple inequality for you:

\frac{4}{\pi} < \frac{3}{2} < \frac{4}{3}\frac{4}{\pi}

Multiply all that through by, on, \frac{2}{\pi} . And then divide it all through by \frac{3}{2} . What have we got?

\frac{2\cdot 2}{3} < \frac{\pi}{2} < \frac{2\cdot 2}{3}\cdot \frac{2\cdot 2}{3}

I did some rearranging of terms, but, that’s the pattern. One-half π has to be between \frac{2\cdot 2}{3} and four-thirds that.

Move over a little. Start from the row where q = \frac32 . This starts us out with

\frac{4}{3}\frac{4}{\pi} < \frac{3}{2} < \frac{2\cdot 4}{5}\frac{4}{\pi}

Multiply everything by \frac{\pi}{4} , and divide everything by \frac{3}{2} and follow with some symbol manipulation. And here’s a tip which would have saved me some frustration working out my notes: \frac{\pi}{4} = \frac{\pi}{2}\cdot\frac{3}{6} . Also, 6 equals 2 times 3. Later on, you may want to remember that 8 equals 2 times 4. All this gets us eventually to

\frac{2\cdot 2\cdot 4\cdot 4}{3\cdot 3\cdot 5} < \frac{\pi}{2} < \frac{2\cdot 2\cdot 4\cdot 4}{3\cdot 3\cdot 5}\cdot \frac{6}{5}

Move over to the next terms, starting from q = \frac52 . This will get us eventually to

\frac{2\cdot 2\cdot 4\cdot 4 \cdot 6 \cdot 6}{3\cdot 3\cdot 5\cdot 5\cdot 7} < \frac{\pi}{2} < \frac{2\cdot 2\cdot 4\cdot 4 \cdot 6 \cdot 6}{3\cdot 3\cdot 5\cdot 5\cdot 7}\cdot \frac{8}{7}

You see the pattern here. Whatever the value of \frac{\pi}{2} , it’s squeezed between some number, on the left side of this triple inequality, and that same number times … uh … something like \frac{10}{9} or \frac{12}{11} or \frac{14}{13} or \frac{1,000,000,000,002}{1,000,000,000,001} . That last one is a number very close to 1. So the conclusion is that \frac{\pi}{2} has to equal whatever that pattern is making for the number on the left there.

We can make this more rigorous. Like, we don’t have to just talk about squeezing the number we want between two nearly-equal values. We can rely on the use of the … Squeeze Theorem … to prove this is okay. And there’s much we have to straighten out. Particularly, we really don’t want to write out expressions like

\frac{2\cdot 2 \cdot 4\cdot 4\cdot 6\cdot 6\cdot 8\cdot 8 \cdot 10\cdot 10 \cdots}{3\cdot 3\cdot 5\cdot 5 \cdot 7\cdot 7 \cdot 9\cdot 9 \cdot 11\cdot 11 \cdots}

Put that way, it looks like, well, we can divide each 3 in the denominator into a 6 in the numerator to get a 2, each 5 in the denominator to a 10 in the numerator to get a 2, and so on. We get a product that’s infinitely large, instead of anything to do with π. This is that problem where arithmetic on infinitely long strings of things becomes dangerous. To be rigorous, we need to write this product as the limit of a sequence, with finite numerator and denominator, and be careful about how to compose the numerators and denominators.

But this is all right. Wallis found a lovely result and in a way that’s common to much work in mathematics. It used a combination of insight and persistence, with pattern recognition and luck making a great difference. Often when we first find something the proof of it is rough, and we need considerable work to make it rigorous. The path that got Wallis to these products is one we still walk.


There’s just three more essays to go this year! I hope to have the letter X published here, Thursday. All the other A-to-Z essays for this year are also at that link. And past A-to-Z essays are at this link. Thanks for reading.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Versine


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.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Versine.

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 \left(1 - \cos \left(\theta\right)\right) references to hav \left(\theta\right) 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.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Unitizing


Goldenoj suggested my topic for today’s essay. It delighted me because I had no idea what it was. It wasn’t even listed on Mathworld, where I start all my research for these essays. It turned out to be something that I use all the time, but that I learned so long ago that it’s faded to invisibility. I didn’t even know that the concept had a name. So that makes it a great topic for an essay like this. I hope.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Unitizing.

I once interviewed for a job I didn’t expect to get (or take). I would have taught for a university that provided courses for United States armed forces dependents. One bit of small talk that I thought went well had my potential department head mention a weird little quirk. United States-raised children were unusually good in multiplying stuff by 25. I had a ready hypothesis: the United States (and Canada) have a quarter-dollar coin. Many other countries just don’t, making do with 20-cent and 50-cent pieces instead. The potential department head said that was a good observation. United States-raised kids got practice turning four 25’s into a block of 100.

And this is the thing labelled as unitizing. A unit is, in this context, the thing we think of as “one thing”. This can be dollars, or feet of distance, or loaves of bread, or weeks of paid vacation. Whatever we need to measure. A unit often is made up of tinier pieces, cents or inches or slices or days. It can often be bundled up into bigger ones. Unitizing is about finding the bundle of things that makes the work one wants to do easy to understand.

This is a difficult topic for me to write about. I find it hard to notice myself doing it. But, for example, consider counting. Most people have a fair time counting up to five or six things at a glance. Eighteen things? There’s no telling that at a glance. What you can do, though, is notice that they group together, a block of six things here, another six here, another six there. Then the mass of things has turned into a manageable several collections of manageable counts of things. And, if we need to reverse the process, we can do that. Recognize that the 36 little triangular-wedge game tokens can be given out nine each to the four players. They can in turn arrange six of the tokens into an attractive complete wheel, and make do with the three remainder.

Slices of things turn up a good bit in thought about unitizing. One of particular delight that I found is this paper, by Susan J Lamon. It’s The Development of Unitizing: Its Role in Children’s Partitioning Strategies. Lamon investigated how children understand quantity, and the paper describes several experiments. A typical example is asking children how to evenly divide four pizzas among six people. And how their strategies change if all the pizzas are cut beforehand, versus whether they have to make the cuts themselves. Or how the question changes if things that are not pizza are considered. One child had different cutting strategies for four pizzas versus four cookies. The good reason: cookies are harder to slice than pizzas. You need to be more economical with your cuts so you don’t ruin the food.

And what kids found to be units depended on what was being divided. Four pizzas with different toppings would be divided differently from four identical pizzas. Four Chinese dinners were split by different strategies too. One child explained it just didn’t seem right to call what each person got four-sixths of each dinners. Lamon speculates this reflects cultural conventions about meals that are often eaten in common, and that feels right to me.

There’s obvious uses to this unitizing, in figuring how to divide pizzas and cases of 24 pop cans. There are subtler uses. Positional notation depends on unitizing. We group ten individual things into a new block, and denote it as something in a tens column. Or ten individual blocks-of-ten, which we denote as something in a hundreds column. And we go the other way as we need, when subtracting or dividing.

When I was learning base-ten (and other) arithmetic, they taught me to think of exchanging ten pennies for a dime, or ten dimes for a dollar, or back the other way. To someone hoarding pennies so as to afford things from the bookmobile the practice working out units worked well.

With that context you see why it’s hard to point out what’s happening. You aren’t reading a pop mathematics blog unless you’re quite at ease with calculation. That there is a particular skill done becomes invisible due to its ubiquity. It takes special circumstances to see it again.


Thanks for reading. This and the other essays for the Fall 2019 A to Z should appear at this link. I hope to publish the letter V on Thursday. And all past A to Z essays ought to be at this link.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Taylor Series


Today’s A To Z term was nominated by APMA, author of the Everybody Makes DATA blog. It was a topic that delighted me to realize I could explain. Then it started to torment me as I realized there is a lot to explain here, and I had to pick something. So here’s where things ended up.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Taylor Series.

In the mid-2000s I was teaching at a department being closed down. In its last semester I had to teach Computational Quantum Mechanics. The person who’d normally taught it had transferred to another department. But a few last majors wanted the old department’s version of the course, and this pressed me into the role. Teaching a course you don’t really know is a rush. It’s a semester of learning, and trying to think deeply enough that you can convey something to students. This while all the regular demands of the semester eat your time and working energy. And this in the leap of faith that the syllabus you made up, before you truly knew the subject, will be nearly enough right. And that you have not committed to teaching something you do not understand.

So around mid-course I realized I needed to explain finding the wave function for a hydrogen atom with two electrons. The wave function is this probability distribution. You use it to find things like the probability a particle is in a certain area, or has a certain momentum. Things like that. A proton with one electron is as much as I’d ever done, as a physics major. We treat the proton as the center of the universe, immobile, and the electron hovers around that somewhere. Two electrons, though? A thing repelling your electron, and repelled by your electron, and neither of those having fixed positions? What the mathematics of that must look like terrified me. When I couldn’t procrastinate it farther I accepted my doom and read exactly what it was I should do.

It turned out I had known what I needed for nearly twenty years already. Got it in high school.

Of course I’m discussing Taylor Series. The equations were loaded down with symbols, yes. But at its core, the important stuff, was this old and trusted friend.

The premise behind a Taylor Series is even older than that. It’s universal. If you want to do something complicated, try doing the simplest thing that looks at all like it. And then make that a little bit more like you want. And then a bit more. Keep making these little improvements until you’ve got it as right as you truly need. Put that vaguely, the idea describes Taylor series just as well as it describes making a video game or painting a state portrait. We can make it more specific, though.

A series, in this context, means the sum of a sequence of things. This can be finitely many things. It can be infinitely many things. If the sum makes sense, we say the series converges. If the sum doesn’t, we say the series diverges. When we first learn about series, the sequences are all numbers. 1 + \frac{1}{2}  + \frac{1}{3}  + \frac{1}{4} + \cdots , for example, which diverges. (It adds to a number bigger than any finite number.) Or 1 + \frac{1}{2^2}  + \frac{1}{3^2}  + \frac{1}{4^2} + \cdots , which converges. (It adds to \frac{1}{6}\pi^2 .)

In a Taylor Series, the terms are all polynomials. They’re simple polynomials. Let me call the independent variable ‘x’. Sometimes it’s ‘z’, for the reasons you would expect. (‘x’ usually implies we’re looking at real-valued functions. ‘z’ usually implies we’re looking at complex-valued functions. ‘t’ implies it’s a real-valued function with an independent variable that represents time.) Each of these terms is simple. Each term is the distance between x and a reference point, raised to a whole power, and multiplied by some coefficient. The reference point is the same for every term. What makes this potent is that we use, potentially, many terms. Infinitely many terms, if need be.

Call the reference point ‘a’. Or if you prefer, x0. z0 if you want to work with z’s. You see the pattern. This ‘a’ is the “point of expansion”. The coefficients of each term depend on the original function at the point of expansion. The coefficient for the term that has (x - a) is the first derivative of f, evaluated at a. The coefficient for the term that has (x - a)^2 is the second derivative of f, evaluated at a (times a number that’s the same for the squared-term for every Taylor Series). The coefficient for the term that has (x - a)^3 is the third derivative of f, evaluated at a (times a different number that’s the same for the cubed-term for every Taylor Series).

You’ll never guess what the coefficient for the term with (x - a)^{122,743} is. Nor will you ever care. The only reason you would wish to is to answer an exam question. The instructor will, in that case, have a function that’s either the sine or the cosine of x. The point of expansion will be 0, \frac{\pi}{2} , \pi , or \frac{3\pi}{2} .

Otherwise you will trust that this is one of the terms of (x - a)^n , ‘n’ representing some counting number too great to be interesting. All the interesting work will be done with the Taylor series either truncated to a couple terms, or continued on to infinitely many.

What a Taylor series offers is the chance to approximate a function we’re genuinely interested in with a polynomial. This is worth doing, usually, because polynomials are easier to work with. They have nice analytic properties. We can automate taking their derivatives and integrals. We can set a computer to calculate their value at some point, if we need that. We might have no idea how to start calculating the logarithm of 1.3. We certainly have an idea how to start calculating 0.3 - \frac{1}{2}(0.3^2) + \frac{1}{3}(0.3^3) . (Yes, it’s 0.3. I’m using a Taylor series with a = 1 as the point of expansion.)

The first couple terms tell us interesting things. Especially if we’re looking at a function that represents something physical. The first two terms tell us where an equilibrium might be. The next term tells us whether an equilibrium is stable or not. If it is stable, it tells us how perturbations, points near the equilibrium, behave.

The first couple terms will describe a line, or a quadratic, or a cubic, some simple function like that. Usually adding more terms will make this Taylor series approximation a better fit to the original. There might be a larger region where the polynomial and the original function are close enough. Or the difference between the polynomial and the original function will be closer together on the same old region.

We would really like that region to eventually grow to the whole domain of the original function. We can’t count on that, though. Roughly, the interval of convergence will stretch from ‘a’ to wherever the first weird thing happens. Weird things are, like, discontinuities. Vertical asymptotes. Anything you don’t like dealing with in the original function, the Taylor series will refuse to deal with. Outside that interval, the Taylor series diverges and we just can’t use it for anything meaningful. Which is almost supernaturally weird of them. The Taylor series uses information about the original function, but it’s all derivatives at a single point. Somehow the derivatives of, say, the logarithm of x around x = 1 give a hint that the logarithm of 0 is undefinable. And so they won’t help us calculate the logarithm of 3.

Things can be weirder. There are functions that just break Taylor series altogether. Some are obvious. A function needs lots of derivatives at a point to have a good Taylor series approximation. So, many fractal curves won’t have a Taylor series approximation. These curves are all corners, points where they aren’t continuous or where derivatives don’t exist. Some are obviously designed to break Taylor series approximations. We can make a function that follows different rules if x is rational than if x is irrational. There’s no approximating that, and you’d blame the person who made such a function, not the Taylor series. It can be subtle. The function defined by the rule f(x) = \exp{-\frac{1}{x^2}} , with the note that if x is zero then f(x) is 0, seems to satisfy everything we’d look for. It’s a function that’s mostly near 1, that drops down to being near zero around where x = 0. But its Taylor series expansion around a = 0 is a horizontal line always at 0. The interval of convergence can be a single point, challenging our idea of what an interval is.

That’s all right. If we can trust that we’re avoiding weird parts, Taylor series give us an outstanding new tool. Grant that the Taylor series describes a function with the same rule as our original function. The Taylor series is often easier to work with, especially if we’re working on differential equations. We can automate, or at least find formulas for, taking the derivative of a polynomial. Or adding together derivatives of polynomials. Often we can attack a differential equation too hard to solve otherwise by supposing the answer is a polynomial. This is essentially what that quantum mechanics problem used, and why the tool was so familiar when I was in a strange land.

Roughly. What I was actually doing was treating the function I wanted as a power series. This is, like the Taylor series, the sum of a sequence of terms, all of which are (x - a)^n times some coefficient. What makes it not a Taylor series is that the coefficients weren’t the derivatives of any function I knew to start. But the experience of Taylor series trained me to look at functions as things which could be approximated by polynomials.

This gives us the hint to look at other series that approximate interesting functions. We get a host of these, with names like Laurent series and Fourier series and Chebyshev series and such. Laurent series look like Taylor series but we allow powers to be negative integers as well as positive ones. Fourier series do away with polynomials. They instead use trigonometric functions, sines and cosines. Chebyshev series build on polynomials, but not on pure powers. They’ll use orthogonal polynomials. These behave like perpendicular directions do. That orthogonality makes many numerical techniques behave better.

The Taylor series is a great introduction to these tools. Its first several terms have good physical interpretations. Its calculation requires tools we learn early on in calculus. The habits of thought it teaches guides us even in unfamiliar territory.


And I feel very relieved to be done with this. I often have a few false starts to an essay, but those are mostly before I commit words to text editor. This one had about four branches that now sit in my scrap file. I’m glad to have a deadline forcing me to just publish already.

Thank you, though. This and the essays for the Fall 2019 A to Z should be at this link. Next week: the letters U and V. And all past A to Z essays ought to be at this link.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Sample Space


Today’s A To Z term is another from goldenoj. It’s one important to probability, and it’s one at the center of the field.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Sample Space.

The sample space is a tool for probability questions. We need them. Humans are bad at probability questions. Thinking of sample spaces helps us. It’s a way to recast probability questions so that our intuitions about space — which are pretty good — will guide us to probabilities.

A sample space collects the possible results of some experiment. “Experiment” means what way mathematicians intend, so, not something with test tubes and colorful liquids that might blow up. Instead it’s things like tossing coins and dice and pulling cards out of reduced decks. At least while we’re learning. In real mathematical work this turns into more varied stuff. Fluid flows or magnetic field strengths or economic forecasts. The experiment is the doing of something which gives us information. This information is the result of flipping this coin or drawing this card or measuring this wind speed. Once we know the information, that’s the outcome.

So each possible outcome we represent as a point in the sample space. Describing it as a “space” might cause trouble. “Space” carries connotations of something three-dimensional and continuous and contiguous. This isn’t necessarily so. We can be interested in discrete outcomes. A coin’s toss has two possible outcomes. Three, if we count losing the coin. The day of the week on which someone’s birthday falls has seven possible outcomes. We can also be interested in continuous outcomes. The amount of rain over the day is some nonnegative real number. The amount of time spent waiting at this traffic light is some nonnegative real number. We’re often interested in discrete representations of something continuous. We did not have \frac{1}{2}\sqrt{2} inches of rain overnight, even if we did. We recorded 0.71 inches after the storm.

We don’t demand every point in the sample space to be equally probable. There seems to be a circularity to requiring that. What we do demand is that the sample space be a “sigma algebra”, or σ-algebra to write it briefly. I don’t know how σ came to be the shorthand for this kind of algebra. Here “algebra” means a thing with a bunch of rules. These rules are about what you’d guess if you read pop mathematics blogs and had to bluff your way through a conversation of rules about sets. The algebra’s this collection of sets made up of the elements of X. Subsets of this algebra have to be contained in this collection. Their complements are also sets in the collection. The unions of sets have to be in the collection.

So the sample space is a set. All the possible outcomes of the experiment we’re thinking about are its elements. Every experiment must have some outcome that’s inside the sample space. And any two different outcomes have to be mutually exclusive. That is, if outcome A has happened, then outcome B has not happened. And vice-versa; I’m not so fond of A that I would refuse B.

I see your protest. You’ve worked through probability homework problems where you’re asked the chance a card drawn from this deck is either a face card or a diamond. The jack of diamonds is both. This is true; but it’s not what we’re looking at. The outcome of this experiment is the card that’s drawn, which might be any of 52 options.

If you like treating it that way. You might build the sample space differently, like saying that it’s an ordered pair. One part of the pair is the suit of the card. The other part is the value. This might be better for the problem you’re doing. This is part of why the probability department commands such high wages. There are many sample spaces that can describe the problem you’re interested in. This does include one where one event is “draw a card that’s a face card or diamond” and the other is “draw one that isn’t”. (These events don’t have an equal probability.) The work is finding a sample space that clarifies your problem.

Working out the sample space that clarifies the problem is the hard part, usually. Not being rigorous about the space gives us many probability paradoxes. You know, like the puzzle where you’re told someone’s two children are either boys or girls. One walks in and it’s a girl. You’re told the probability the other is a boy is two-thirds. And you get mad. Or the Monty Hall Paradox, where you’re asked to pick which of three doors has the grand prize behind it. You’re shown one that you didn’t pick which hasn’t. You’re given the chance to switch to the remaining door. You’re told the probability that the grand prize is behind that other door is two-thirds, and you get mad. There are probability paradoxes that don’t involve a chance of two-thirds. Having a clear idea of the sample space avoids getting the answers wrong, at least. There’s not much to do about not getting mad.

Like I said, we don’t insist that every point in the sample space have an equal probability of being the outcome. Or, if it’s a continuous space, that every region of the same area has the same probability. It is certainly easier if it does. Then finding the probability of some result becomes easy. You count the number of outcomes that satisfy that result, and divide by the total number of outcomes. You see this in problems about throwing two dice and asking the chance the total is seven, or five, or twelve.

For a continuous sample space, you’d find the area of all the results that satisfy the result. Divide that by the area of the sample space and there’s the probability of that result. (It’s possible for a result to have an area of zero, which implies that the thing cannot happen. This presents a paradox. A thing is in the sample space because it is a possible outcome. What these measure-zero results are, typically, is something like every one of infinitely many tossed coins coming up tails. That can’t happen, but it’s not like there’s any reason it can’t.)

If every outcome isn’t equally likely, though? Sometimes we can redesign the sample space to something that is. The result of rolling two dice is a familiar example. The chance of the dice totalling 2 is different from the chance of them totalling 4. So a sample space that’s just the sums, the numbers 2 through 12, is annoying to deal with. But rewrite the space as the ordered pairs, the result of die one and die two? Then we have something nice. The chance of die one being 1 and die two being 1 is the same as the chance of die one being 2 and die two being 2. There happen to be other die combinations that add up to 4 is all.

Sometimes there’s no finding a sample space which describes what you’re interested in and that makes every point equally probable. Or nearly enough. The world is vast and complicated. That’s all right. We can have a function that describes, for each point in the sample space, the probability of its turning up. Really we had that already, for equally-probable outcomes. It’s just that was all the same number. But this function is called the probability measure. If we combine together a sample space, and a collection of all the events we’re interested in, and a probability measure for all these events, then this triad is a probability space.

And probability spaces give us all sorts of great possibilities. Dearest to my own work is Monte Carlo methods, in which we look for particular points inside the sample space. We do this by starting out anywhere, picking a point at random. And then try moving to a different point, picking the “direction” of the change at random. We decide whether that move succeeds by a rule that depends in part on the probability measure, and in part on how well whatever we’re looking for holds true. This is a scheme that demands a lot of calculation. You won’t be surprised that it only became a serious tool once computing power was abundant.

So for many problems there is no actually listing all the sample space. A real problem might include, say, the up-or-down orientation of millions of magnets. This is a sample space of unspeakable vastness. But thinking out this space, and what it must look like, helps these probability questions become ones that our intuitions help us with instead. If you do not know what to do with a probability question, think to the sample spaces.


This and other essays for the Fall 2019 A to Z should be at this link. Later this week I hope to publish the letter T. And all of the A to Z essays ought to be at this link. Thanks for reading.

I’m Looking For The Final Subjects For My 2019 A-To-Z


And now the most challenging part of doing an A to Z series: the time after the end of Daylight Saving, when I absolutely positively have to have my final copy ready to go at 1 pm, rather than 2 pm. I’m looking for nominations for what to write about for the last half-dozen letters of the alphabet.

These letters do include X. There’s no getting around that. After about two iterations of this the choices for ‘X’ I was running out of candidates on Mathworld’s dictionary of topics. Last year I opened up ‘X’ as a wild card topic, taking subjects from other letters. It’s just coincidence that we then went with ‘extreme’, like it was the 90s or something.

And I do thank everyone who makes a suggestion. As much as I sometimes feel crushed by the attempt to write two 800-word essays that both blow up to 1900 words each week, they get me to learn things, and to practice thinking about things, and that’s such fantastic fun.

Please nominate topics in comments here. I have a better chance of keeping nominations organized if they’re all together. Also please, if you do suggest something, let me know if you have a blog or YouTube channel or Twitter or Mathstodon account, or even a good old-fashioned web site, that you’d like to show off. I do try to credit ideas and let folks know what the people who give me ideas are doing that’s worth showing off, too.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Here’s the essays I’ve written in past years for the letters U through Z.

U.

V.

W.

X.

Y.

Z.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Relatively Prime


I have another subject nominated by goldenoj today. And it even lets me get into number theory, the field of mathematics questions that everybody understands and nobody can prove.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Relatively Prime.

I was once a young grad student working as a teaching assistant and unaware of the principles of student privacy. Near the end of semesters I would e-mail students their grades. This so they could correct any mistakes and know what they’d have to get on the finals. I was learning Perl, which was an acceptable pastime in the 1990s. So I wrote scripts that would take my spreadsheet of grades and turn it into e-mails that were automatically sent. And then I got all fancy.

It seemed boring to send out completely identical form letters, even if any individual would see it once. Maybe twice if they got me for another class. So I started writing variants of the boilerplate sentences. My goal was that every student would get a mass-produced yet unique e-mail. To best the chances of this I had to make sure of something about all these variant sentences and paragraphs.

So you see the trick. I needed a set of relatively prime numbers. That way, it would be the greatest possible number of students before I had a completely repeated text. We know what prime numbers are. They’re the numbers that, in your field, have exactly two factors. In the counting numbers the primes are numbers like 2, 3, 5, 7 and so on. In the Gaussian integers, these are numbers like 3 and 7 and 3 - 2\imath . But not 2 or 5. We can look to primes among the polynomials. Among polynomials with rational coefficients, x^2 + x + 1 is prime. So is 2x^2 + 14x + 1 . x^2 - 4 is not.

The idea of relative primes appears wherever primes appears. We can say without contradiction that 4 and 9 are relative primes, among the whole numbers. Though neither’s prime, in the whole numbers, neither has a prime factor in common. This is an obvious way to look at it. We can use that definition for any field that has a concept of primes. There are others, though. We can say two things are relatively prime if there’s a linear combination of them that adds to the identity element. You get a linear combination by multiplying each of the things by a scalar and adding these together. Multiply 4 by -2 and 9 by 1 and add them and look what you get. Or, if the least common multiple of a set of elements is equal to their product, then the elements are relatively prime. Some make sense only for the whole numbers. Imagine the first quadrant of a plane, marked in Cartesian coordinates. Draw the line segment connecting the point at (0, 0) and the point with coordinates (m, n). If that line segment touches no dots between (0, 0) and (m, n), then the whole numbers m and n are relatively prime.

We start looking at relative primes as pairs of things. We can be interested in larger sets of relative primes, though. My little e-mail generator, for example, wouldn’t work so well if any pair of sentence replacements were not relatively prime. So, like, the set of numbers 2, 6, 9 is relatively prime; all three numbers share no prime factors. But neither the pair 2, 6 and the pair 6, 9 are not relatively prime. 2, 9 is, at least there’s that. I forget how many replaceable sentences were in my form e-mails. I’m sure I did the cowardly thing, coming up with a prime number of alternate ways to phrase as many sentences as possible. As an undergraduate I covered the student government for four years’ worth of meetings. I learned a lot of ways to say the same thing.

Which is all right, but are relative primes important? Relative primes turn up all over the place in number theory, and in corners of group theory. There are some thing that are easier to calculate in modulo arithmetic if we have relatively prime numbers to work with. I know when I see modulo arithmetic I expect encryption schemes to follow close behind. Here I admit I’m ignorant whether these imply things which make encryption schemes easier or harder.

Some of the results are neat, certainly. Suppose that the function f is a polynomial. Then, if its first derivative f’ is relatively prime to f, it turns out f has no repeated roots. And vice-versa: if f has no repeated roots, then it and its first derivative are relatively prime. You remember repeated roots. They’re factors like (x - 2)^2 , that foiled your attempt to test a couple points and figure roughly where a polynomial crossed the x-axis.

I mentioned that primeness depends on the field. This is true of relative primeness. Polynomials really show this off. (Here I’m using an example explained in a 2007 Ask Dr Math essay.) Is the polynomial 3x + 6 relatively prime to 3x^2 + 12 ?

It is, if we are interested in polynomials with integer coefficients. There’s no linear combination of 3x + 6 and 3x^2 + 12 which gets us to 1. Go ahead and try.

It is not, if we are interested in polynomials with rational coefficients. Multiply 3x + 6 by \frac{1}{12}\left(1 - \frac{1}{2}x\right) and multiply 3x^2 + 12 by \frac{1}{24} . Then add those up.

Tell me what polynomials you want to deal with today and I will tell you which answer is right.

This may all seem cute if, perhaps, petty. A bunch of anonymous theorems dotting the center third of an abstract algebra text will inspire that. The most important relative-primes thing I know of is the abc conjecture, posed in the mid-80s by Joseph Oesterlé and David Masser. Start with three counting numbers, a, b, and c. Require that a + b = c.

There is a product of the unique prime factors of a, b, and c. That is, let’s say a is 36. This is 2 times 2 times 3 times 3. Let’s say b is 5. This is prime. c is 41; it’s prime. Their unique prime factors are 2, 3, 5, and 41; the product of all these is 1,230.

The conjecture deals with this product of unique prime factors for this relatively prime triplet. Almost always, c is going to be smaller than this unique prime factors product. The conjecture says that there will be, for every positive real number \epsilon , at most finitely many cases where c is larger than this product raised to the power 1 + \epsilon . I do not know why raising this product to this power is so important. I assume it rules out some case where this product raised to the first power would be too easy a condition.

Apart from that 1 + \epsilon bit, though, this is a classic sort of number theory conjecture. Like, it involves some technical terms, but nothing too involved. You could almost explain it at a party and expect to be understood, and to get some people writing down numbers, testing out specific cases. Nobody will go away solving the problem, but they’ll have some good exercise and that’s worthwhile.

And it has consequences. We do not know whether the abc conjecture is true. We do know that if it is true, then a bunch of other things follow. The one that a non-mathematician would appreciate is that Fermat’s Last Theorem would be provable by an alterante route. The abc conjecture would only prove the cases for Fermat’s Last Theorem for powers greater than 5. But that’s all right. We can separately work out the cases for the third, fourth, and fifth powers, and then cover everything else at once. (That we know Fermat’s Last Theorem is true doesn’t let us conclude the abc conjecture is true, unfortunately.)

There are other implications. Some are about problems that seem like fun to play with. If the abc conjecture is true, then for every integer A, there are finitely many values of n for which n! + A is a perfect square. Some are of specialist interest: Lang’s conjecture, about elliptic curves, would be true. This is a lower bound for the height of non-torsion rational points. I’d stick to the n! + A stuff at a party. A host of conjectures about Diophantine equations — (high school) algebra problems where only integers may be solutions — become theorems. Also coming true: the Fermat-Catalan conjecture. This is a neat problem; it claims that the equation

a^m + b^n = c^k

where a, b, and c are relatively prime, and m, n, and k are positive integers satisfying the constraint

\frac{1}{m} + \frac{1}{n} + \frac{1}{k} < 1

has only finitely many solutions with distinct triplets \left(a^m, b^n, c^k\right) . The inequality about reciprocals of m, n, and k is needed so we don’t have boring solutions like 2^2 + 3^3 = 31^1 clogging us up. The bit about distinct triplets is so we don’t clog things up with a or b being 1 and then technically every possible m or n giving us a “different” set. To date we know something like ten solutions, one of them having a equal to 1.

Another implication is Pillai’s Conjecture. This one asks whether every positive integer occurs only finitely many times as the difference between perfect powers. Perfect powers are, like 32 (two to the fifth power) or 81 (three to the fourth power) or such.

So as often happens when we stumble into a number theory thing, the idea of relative primes is easy. And there are deep implications to them. But those in turn give us things that seem like fun arithmetic puzzles.


This closes out the A to Z essays for this week. Tomorrow and Saturday I hope to bring some attention to essays from past years. And next week I figure to open for topics for the end of the alphabet, the promising letters U through Z. This and the rest of the 2019 essays should appear at this link, as should the letter S next Tuesday. And all of the A to Z essays ought to be at this link. Thank you for reading.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Quadrature


I got a good nomination for a Q topic, thanks again to goldenoj. It was for Qualitative/Quantitative. Either would be a good topic, but they make a natural pairing. They describe the things mathematicians look for when modeling things. But ultimately I couldn’t find an angle that I liked. So rather than carry on with an essay that wasn’t working I went for a topic of my own. Might come back around to it, though, especially if nothing good presents itself for the letter X, which will probably need to be a wild card topic anyway.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Quadrature.

We like comparing sizes. I talked about that some with norms. We do the same with shapes, though. We’d like to know which one is bigger than another, and by how much. We rely on squares to do this for us. It could be any shape, but we in the western tradition chose squares. I don’t know why.

My guess, unburdened by knowledge, is the ancient Greek tradition of looking at the shapes one can make with straightedge and compass. The easiest shape these tools make is, of course, circles. But it’s hard to find a circle with the same area as, say, any old triangle. Squares are probably a next-best thing. I don’t know why not equilateral triangles or hexagons. Again I would guess that the ancient Greeks had more rectangular or square rooms than the did triangles or hexagons, and went with what they knew.

So that’s what lurks behind that word “quadrature”. It may be hard for us to judge whether this pentagon is bigger than that octagon. But if we find squares that are the same size as the pentagon and the octagon, great. We can spot which of the squares is bigger, and by how much.

Straightedge-and-compass lets you find the quadrature for many shapes. Like, take a rectangle. Let me call that ABCD. Let’s say that AB is one of the long sides and BC one of the short sides. OK. Extend AB, outwards, to another point that I’ll call E. Pick E so that the length of BE is the same as the length of BC.

Next, bisect the line segment AE. Call that point F. F is going to be the center of a new semicircle, one with radius FE. Draw that in, on the side of AE that’s opposite the point C. Because we are almost there.

Extend the line segment CB upwards, until it touches this semicircle. Call the point where it touches G. The line segment BG is the side of a square with the same area as the original rectangle ABCD. If you know enough straightedge-and-compass geometry to do that bisection, you know enough to turn BG into a square. If you’re not sure why that’s the correct length, you can get there quickly. Use a little algebra and the Pythagorean theorem.

Neat, yeah, I agree. Also neat is that you can use the same trick to find the area of a parallelogram. A parallelogram has the same area as a square with the same bases and height between them, you remember. So take your parallelogram, draw in some perpendiculars to share that off into a rectangle, and find the quadrature of that rectangle. you’ve got the quadrature of your parallelogram.

Having the quadrature of a parallelogram lets you find the quadrature of any triangle. Pick one of the sides of the triangle as the base. You have a third point not on that base. Draw in the parallel to that base that goes through that third point. Then choose one of the other two sides. Draw the parallel to that side which goes through the other point. Look at that: you’ve got a parallelogram with twice the area of your original triangle. Bisect either the base or the height of this parallelogram, as you like. Then follow the rules for the quadrature of a parallelogram, and you have the quadrature of your triangle. Yes, you’re doing a lot of steps in-between the triangle you started with and the square you ended with. Those steps don’t count, not by this measure. Getting the results right matters.

And here’s some more beauty. You can find the quadrature for any polygon. Remember how you can divide any polygon into triangles? Go ahead and do that. Find the quadrature for every one of those triangles then. And you can create a square that has an area as large as all those squares put together. I’ll refrain from saying quite how, because realizing how is such a delight, one of those moments that at least made me laugh at how of course that’s how. It’s through one of those things that even people who don’t know mathematics know about.

With that background you understand why people thought the quadrature of the circle ought to be possible. Moreso when you know that the lune, a particular crescent-moon-like shape, can be squared. It looks so close to a half-circle that it’s obvious the rest should be possible. It’s not, and it took two thousand years and a completely different idea of geometry to prove it. But it sure looks like it should be possible.

Along the way to modernity quadrature picked up a new role. This is as part of calculus. One of the legs of calculus is integration. There is an interpretation of what the (definite) integral of a function means so common that we sometimes forget it doesn’t have to be that. This is to say that the integral of a function is the area “underneath” the curve. That is, it’s the area bounded by the limits of integration, by the horizontal axis, and by the curve represented by the function. If the function is sometimes less than zero, within the limits of integration, we’ll say that the integral represents the “net area”. Then we allow that the net area might be less than zero. Then we ignore the scolding looks of the ancient Greek mathematicians.

No matter. We love being able to find “the” integral of a function. This is a new function, and evaluating it tells us what this net area bounded by the limits of integration is. Finding this is “integration by quadrature”. At least in books published back when they wrote words like “to-day” or “coördinate”. My experience is that the term’s passed out of the vernacular, at least in North American Mathematician’s English.

Anyway the real flaw is that there are, like, six functions we can find the integral for. For the rest, we have to make do with approximations. This gives us “numerical quadrature”, a phrase which still has some currency.

And with my prologue about compass-and-straightedge quadrature you can see why it’s called that. Numerical integration schemes often rely on finding a polynomial with a part that looks like a graph of the function you’re interested in. The other edges look like the limits of the integration. Then the area of that polygon should be close to the area “underneath” this function. So it should be close to the integral of the function you want. And we’re old hands at how the quadrature of polygons, since we talked that out like five hundred words ago.

Now, no person ever has or ever will do numerical quadrature by compass-and-straightedge on some function. So why call it “numerical quadrature” instead of just “numerical integration”? Style, for one. “Quadrature” as a word has a nice tone, clearly jargon but not threateningly alien. Also “numerical integration” often connotes the solving differential equations numerically. So it can clarify whether you’re evaluating integrals or solving differential equations. If you think that’s a distinction worth making. Evaluating integrals and solving differential equations are similar together anyway.

And there is another adjective that often attaches to quadrature. This is Gaussian Quadrature. Gaussian Quadrature is, in principle, a fantastic way to do numerical integration perfectly. For some problems. For some cases. The insight which justifies it to me is one of those boring little theorems you run across in the chapter introducing How To Integrate. It runs something like this. Suppose ‘f’ is a continuous function, with domain the real numbers and range the real numbers. Suppose a and b are the limits of integration. Then there’s at least one point c, between a and b, for which:

\int_a^b f(x) dx = f(c) \cdot (b - a)

So if you could pick the right c, any integration would be so easy. Evaluate the function for one point and multiply it by whatever b minus a is. The catch is, you don’t know what c is.

Except there’s some cases where you kinda do. Like, if f is a line, rising or falling with a constant slope from a to b? Then have c be the midpoint of a and b.

That won’t always work. Like, if f is a parabola on the region from a to b, then c is not going to be the midpoint. If f is a cubic, then the midpoint is probably not c. And so on. And if you don’t know what kind of function f is? There’s no guessing where c will be.

But. If you decide you’re only trying to certain kinds of functions? Then you can do all right. If you decide you only want to integrate polynomials, for example, then … well, you’re not going to find a single point c for this. But what you can find is a set of points between a and b. Evaluate the function for those points. And then find a weighted average by rules I’m not getting into here. And that weighted average will be exactly that integral.

Of course there’s limits. The Gaussian Quadrature of a function is only possible if you can evaluate the function at arbitrary points. If you’re trying to integrate, like, a set of sample data it’s inapplicable. The points you pick, and the weighting to use, depend on what kind of function you want to integrate. The results will be worse the less your function is like what you supposed. It’s tedious to find what these points are for a particular assumption of function. But you only have to do that once, or look it up, if you know (say) you’re going to use polynomials of degree up to six or something like that.

And there are variations on this. They have names like the Chevyshev-Gauss Quadrature, or the Hermite-Gauss Quadrature, or the Jacobi-Gauss Quadrature. There are even some that don’t have Gauss’s name in them at all.

Despite that, you can get through a lot of mathematics not talking about quadrature. The idea implicit in the name, that we’re looking to compare areas of different things by looking at squares, is obsolete. It made sense when we worked with numbers that depended on units. One would write about a shape’s area being four times another shape’s, or the length of its side some multiple of a reference length.

We’ve grown comfortable thinking of raw numbers. It makes implicit the step where we divide the polygon’s area by the area of some standard reference unit square. This has advantages. We don’t need different vocabulary to think about integrating functions of one or two or ten independent variables. We don’t need wordy descriptions like “the area of this square is to the area of that as the second power of this square’s side is to the second power of that square’s side”. But it does mean we don’t see squares as intermediaries to understanding different shapes anymore.


Thank you again for reading. This essay and all the others written for the Fall 2019 A to Z should be at this link. This should include, later this week, something for the letter R. And all of the A to Z essays ought to be at this link.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Platonic


Today’s A To Z term is another from goldenoj. It was just the proposal “Platonic”. Most people, prompted, would follow that adjective with one of three words. There’s relationship, ideal, and solid. Relationship is a little too far off of mathematics for me to go into here. Platonic ideals run very close to mathematics. Probably the default philosophy of western mathematics is Platonic. At least a folk Platonism, where the rest of us follow what the people who’ve taken the study of mathematical philosophy seriously seem to be doing. The idea that mathematical constructs are “real things” and have some “existence” that we can understand even if we will never see a true circle or an unadulterated four. Platonic solids, though, those are nice and familiar things. Many of them we can find around the house. That’s one direction to go.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Platonic.

Before I get to the Platonic Solids, though, I’d like to think a little more about Platonic Ideals. What do they look like? I gather our friends in the philosophy department have debated this question a while. So I won’t pretend to speak as if I had actual knowledge. I just have an impression. That impression is … well, something simple. My reasoning is that the Platonic ideal of, say, a chair has to have all the traits that every chair ever has. And there’s not a lot that every chair has. Whatever’s in the Platonic Ideal chair has to be just the things that every chair has, and to omit things that non-chairs do not.

That’s comfortable to me, thinking like a mathematician, though. I think mathematicians train to look for stuff that’s very generally true. This will tend to be things that have few properties to satisfy. Things that look, in some way, simple.

So what is simple in a shape? There’s no avoiding aesthetic judgement here. We can maybe use two-dimensional shapes as a guide, though. Polygons seem nice. They’re made of line segments which join at vertices. Regular polygons even nicer. Each vertex in a regular polygon connects to two edges. Each edge connects to exactly two vertices. Each edge has the same length. The interior angles are all congruent. And if you get many many sides, the regular polygon looks like a circle.

So there’s some things we might look for in solids. Shapes where every edge is the same length. Shapes where every edge connects exactly two vertices. Shapes where every vertex connects to the same number of edges. Shapes where the interior angles are all constant. Shapes where each face is the same polygon as every other face. Look for that and, in three-dimensional space, we find nine shapes.

Yeah, you want that to be five also. The four extra ones are “star polyhedrons”. They look like spikey versions of normal shapes. What keeps these from being Platonic solids isn’t a lack of imagination on Plato’s part. It’s that they’re not convex shapes. There’s no pair of points in a convex shape for which the line segment connecting them goes outside the shape. For the star polyhedrons, well, look at the ends of any two spikes. If we decide that part of this beautiful simplicity is convexity, then we’re down to five shapes. They’re famous. Tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, icosahedron, and dodecahedron.

I’m not sure why they’re named the Platonic Solids, though. Before you explain to me that they were named by Plato in the dialogue Timaeus, let me say something. They were named by Plato in the dialogue Timaeus. That isn’t the same thing as why they have the name Platonic Solids. I trust Plato didn’t name them “the me solids”, since if I know anything about Plato he would have called them “the Socratic solids”. It’s not that Plato was the first to group them either. At least some of the solids were known long before Plato. I don’t know of anyone who thinks Plato particularly advanced human understanding of the solids.

But he did write about them, and in things that many people remembered. It’s natural for a name to attach to the most famous person writing them. Still, someone had the thought which we follow to group these solids together under Plato’s name. I’m curious who, and when. Naming is often a more arbitrary thing than you’d think. The Fibonacci sequence has been known at latest since Fibonacci wrote about it in 1204. But it could not have that name before 1838, when historian Guillaume Libri gave Leonardo of Pisa the name Fibonacci. I’m not saying that the name “Platonic Solid” was invented in, like, 2002. But traditions that seem age-old can be surprisingly recent.

What is an age-old tradition is looking for physical significance in the solids. Plato himself cleverly matched the solids to the ancient concept of four elements plus a quintessence. Johannes Kepler, whom we thank for noticing the star polyhedrons, tried to match them to the orbits of the planets around the sun. Wikipedia tells me of a 1980s attempt to understand the atomic nucleus using Platonic solids. The attempt even touches me. Along the way to my thesis I looked at uniform charges free to move on the surface of a sphere. It was obvious if there were four charges they’d move to the vertices of a tetrahedron on the sphere. Similarly, eight charges would go to the vertices of the cube. 20 charges to the vertices of the icosahedron. And so on. The Platonic Solids seem not just attractive but also of some deep physical significance.

There are not the four (or five) elements of ancient Greek atomism. Attractive as it is to think that fire is a bunch of four-sided dice. The orbits of the planets have nothing to do with the Platonic solids. I know too little about the physics of the atomic nucleus to say whether that panned out. However, that it doesn’t even get its own Wikipedia entry suggests something to me. And, in fact, eight charges on the sphere will not settle at the vertices of a cube. They’ll settle on a staggered pattern, two squares turned 45 degrees relative to each other. The shape is called a “square antiprism”. I was as surprised as you to learn that. It’s possible that the Platonic Solids are, ultimately, pleasant to us but not a key to the universe.

The example of the Platonic Solids does give us the cue to look for other families of solids. There are many such. The Archimedean Solids, for example, are again convex polyhedrons. They have faces of two or more regular polygons, rather than the lone one of Platonic Solids. There are 13 of these, with names of great beauty like the snub cube or the small rhombicuboctahedron. The Archimedean Solids have duals. The dual of a polyhedron represents a face of the original shape with a vertex. Faces that meet in the original polyhedron have an edge between their dual’s vertices. The duals to the Archimedean Solids get the name Catalan Solids. This for the Belgian mathematician Eugène Catalan, who described them in 1865. These attract names like “deltoidal icositetrahedron”. (The Platonic Solids have duals too, but those are all Platonic solids too. The tetrahedron is even its own dual.) The star polyhedrons hint us to look at stellations. These are shapes we get by stretching out the edges or faces of a polyhedron until we get a new polyhedron. It becomes a dizzying taxonomy of shapes, many of them with pointed edges.

There are things that look like Platonic Solids in more than three dimensions of space. In four dimensions of space there are six of these, five of which look like versions of the Platonic Solids we all know. The sixth is this novel shape called the 24-cell, or hyperdiamond, or icositetrachoron, or some other wild names. In five dimensions of space? … it turns out there are only three things that look like Platonic Solids. There’s versions of the tetrahedron, the cube, and the octahedron. In six dimensions? … Three shapes, again versions of the tetrahedron, cube, and octahedron. And it carries on like this for seven, eight, nine, any number of dimensions of space. Which is an interesting development. If I hadn’t looked up the answer I’d have expected more dimensions of space to allow for more Platonic Solid-like shapes. Well, our experience with two and three dimensions guides us to thinking about more dimensions of space. It doesn’t mean that they’re just regular space with a note in the corner that “N = 8”. Shapes hold surprises.


The essays for the Fall 2019 A To Z should be gathered here. And, in time, every past A to Z essay should be at this link. For now, it’s at least several years’ worth there. Thank you.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Operator


Today’s A To Z term is one I’ve mentioned previously, including in this A to Z sequence. But it was specifically nominated by Goldenoj, whom I know I follow on Twitter. I’m sorry not to be able to give you an account; I haven’t been able to use my @nebusj account for several months now. Well, if I do get a Twitter, Mathstodon, or blog account I’ll refer you there.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Operator.

An operator is a function. An operator has a domain that’s a space. Its range is also a space. It can be the same sapce but doesn’t have to be. It is very common for these spaces to be “function spaces”. So common that if you want to talk about an operator that isn’t dealing with function spaces it’s good form to warn your audience. Everything in a particular function space is a real-valued and continuous function. Also everything shares the same domain as everything else in that particular function space.

So here’s what I first wonder: why call this an operator instead of a function? I have hypotheses and an unwillingness to read the literature. One is that maybe mathematicians started saying “operator” a long time ago. Taking the derivative, for example, is an operator. So is taking an indefinite integral. Mathematicians have been doing those for a very long time. Longer than we’ve had the modern idea of a function, which is this rule connecting a domain and a range. So the term might be a fossil.

My other hypothesis is the one I’d bet on, though. This hypothesis is that there is a limit to how many different things we can call “the function” in one sentence before the reader rebels. I felt bad enough with that first paragraph. Imagine parsing something like “the function which the Laplacian function took the function to”. We are less likely to make dumb mistakes if we have different names for things which serve different roles. This is probably why there is another word for a function with domain of a function space and range of real or complex-valued numbers. That is a “functional”. It covers things like the norm for measuring a function’s size. It also covers things like finding the total energy in a physics problem.

I’ve mentioned two operators that anyone who’d read a pop mathematics blog has heard of, the differential and the integral. There are more. There are so many more.

Many of them we can build from the differential and the integral. Many operators that we care to deal with are linear, which is how mathematicians say “good”. But both the differential and the integral operators are linear, which lurks behind many of our favorite rules. Like, allow me to call from the vasty deep functions ‘f’ and ‘g’, and scalars ‘a’ and ‘b’. You know how the derivative of the function af + bg is a times the derivative of f plus b times the derivative of g? That’s the differential operator being all linear on us. Similarly, how the integral of af + bg is a times the integral of f plus b times the integral of g? Something mathematical with the adjective “linear” is giving us at least some solid footing.

I’ve mentioned before that a wonder of functions is that most things you can do with numbers, you can also do with functions. One of those things is the premise that if numbers can be the domain and range of functions, then functions can be the domain and range of functions. We can do more, though.

One of the conceptual leaps in high school algebra is that we start analyzing the things we do with numbers. Like, we don’t just take the number three, square it, multiply that by two and add to that the number three times four and add to that the number 1. We think about what if we take any number, call it x, and think of 2x^2 + 4x + 1 . And what if we make equations based on doing this 2x^2 + 4x + 1 ; what values of x make those equations true? Or tell us something interesting?

Operators represent a similar leap. We can think of functions as things we manipulate, and think of those manipulations as a particular thing to do. For example, let me come up with a differential expression. For some function u(x) work out the value of this:

2\frac{d^2 u(x)}{dx^2} + 4 \frac{d u(x)}{dx} + u(x)

Let me join in the convention of using ‘D’ for the differential operator. Then we can rewrite this expression like so:

2D^2 u + 4D u + u

Suddenly the differential equation looks a lot like a polynomial. Of course it does. Remember that everything in mathematics is polynomials. We get new tools to solve differential equations by rewriting them as operators. That’s nice. It also scratches that itch that I think everyone in Intro to Calculus gets, of wanting to somehow see \frac{d^2}{dx^2} as if it were a square of \frac{d}{dx} . It’s not, and D^2 is not the square of D . It’s composing D with itself. But it looks close enough to squaring to feel comfortable.

Nobody needs to do 2D^2 u + 4D u + u except to learn some stuff about operators. But you might imagine a world where we did this process all the time. If we did, then we’d develop shorthand for it. Maybe a new operator, call it T, and define it that T = 2D^2 + 4D + 1 . You see the grammar of treating functions as if they were real numbers becoming familiar. You maybe even noticed the ‘1’ sitting there, serving as the “identity operator”. You know how you’d write out Tv(x) = 3 if you needed to write it in full.

But there are operators that we use all the time. These do get special names, and often shorthand. For example, there’s the gradient operator. This applies to any function with several independent variables. The gradient has a great physical interpretation if the variables represent coordinates of space. If they do, the gradient of a function at a point gives us a vector that describes the direction in which the function increases fastest. And the size of that gradient — a functional on this operator — describes how fast that increase is.

The gradient itself defines more operators. These have names you get very familiar with in Vector Calculus, with names like divergence and curl. These have compelling physical interpretations if we think of the function we operate on as describing a moving fluid. A positive divergence means fluid is coming into the system; a negative divergence, that it is leaving. The curl, in fluids, describe how nearby streams of fluid move at different rate.

Physical interpretations are common in operators. This probably reflects how much influence physics has on mathematics and vice-versa. Anyone studying quantum mechanics gets familiar with a host of operators. These have comfortable names like “position operator” or “momentum operator” or “spin operator”. These are operators that apply to the wave function for a problem. They transform the wave function into a probability distribution. That distribution describes what positions or momentums or spins are likely, how likely they are. Or how unlikely they are.

They’re not all physical, though. Or not purely physical. Many operators are useful because they are powerful mathematical tools. There is a variation of the Fourier series called the Fourier transform. We can interpret this as an operator. Suppose the original function started out with time or space as its independent variable. This often happens. The Fourier transform operator gives us a new function, one with frequencies as independent variable. This can make the function easier to work with. The Fourier transform is an integral operator, by the way, so don’t go thinking everything is a complicated set of derivatives.

Another integral-based operator that’s important is the Laplace transform. This is a great operator because it turns differential equations into algebraic equations. Often, into polynomials. You saw that one coming.

This is all a lot of good press for operators. Well, they’re powerful tools. They help us to see that we can manipulate functions in the ways that functions let us manipulate numbers. It should sound good to realize there is much new that you can do, and you already know most of what’s needed to do it.


This and all the other Fall 2019 A To Z posts should be gathered here. And once I have the time to fiddle with tags I’ll have all past A to Z essays gathered at this link. Thank you for reading. I should be back on Thursday with the letter P.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Norm


Today’s A To Z term is another free choice. So I’m picking a term from the world of … mathematics. There are a lot of norms out there. Many are specialized to particular roles, such as looking at complex-valued numbers, or vectors, or matrices, or polynomials.

Still they share things in common, and that’s what this essay is for. And I’ve brushed up against the topic before.

The norm, also, has nothing particular to do with “normal”. “Normal” is an adjective which attaches to every noun in mathematics. This is security for me as while these A-To-Z sequences may run out of X and Y and W letters, I will never be short of N’s.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Norm.

A “norm” is the size of whatever kind of thing you’re working with. You can see where this is something we look for. It’s easy to look at two things and wonder which is the smaller.

There are many norms, even for one set of things. Some seem compelling. For the real numbers, we usually let the absolute value do this work. By “usually” I mean “I don’t remember ever seeing a different one except from someone introducing the idea of other norms”. For a complex-valued number, it’s usually the square root of the sum of the square of the real part and the square of the imaginary coefficient. For a vector, it’s usually the square root of the vector dot-product with itself. (Dot product is this binary operation that is like multiplication, if you squint, for vectors.) Again, these, the “usually” means “always except when someone’s trying to make a point”.

Which is why we have the convention that there is a “the norm” for a kind of operation. The norm dignified as “the” is usually the one that looks as much as possible like the way we find distances between two points on a plane. I assume this is because we bring our intuition about everyday geometry to mathematical structures. You know how it is. Given an infinity of possible choices we take the one that seems least difficult.

Every sort of thing which can have a norm, that I can think of, is a vector space. This might be my failing imagination. It may also be that it’s quite easy to have a vector space. A vector space is a collection of things with some rules. Those rules are about adding the things inside the vector space, and multiplying the things in the vector space by scalars. These rules are not difficult requirements to meet. So a lot of mathematical structures are vector spaces, and the things inside them are vectors.

A norm is a function that has these vectors as its domain, and the non-negative real numbers as its range. And there are three rules that it has to meet. So. Give me a vector ‘u’ and a vector ‘v’. I’ll also need a scalar, ‘a. Then the function f is a norm when:

  1. f(u + v) \le f(u) + f(v) . This is a famous rule, called the triangle inequality. You know how in a triangle, the sum of the lengths of any two legs is greater than the length of the third leg? That’s the rule at work here.
  2. f(a\cdot u) = |a| \cdot f(u) . This doesn’t have so snappy a name. Sorry. It’s something about being homogeneous, at least.
  3. If f(u) = 0 then u has to be the additive identity, the vector that works like zero does.

Norms take on many shapes. They depend on the kind of thing we measure, and what we find interesting about those things. Some are familiar. Look at a Euclidean space, with Cartesian coordinates, so that we might write something like (3, 4) to describe a point. The “the norm” for this, called the Euclidean norm or the L2 norm, is the square root of the sum of the squares of the coordinates. So, 5. But there are other norms. The L1 norm is the sum of the absolute values of all the coefficients; here, 7. The L norm is the largest single absolute value of any coefficient; here, 4.

A polynomial, meanwhile? Write it out as a_0 + a_1 x + a_2 x^2 + a_3 x^3 + \cdots + a_n x^n . Take the absolute value of each of these a_k terms. Then … you have choices. You could take those absolute values and add them up. That’s the L1 polynomial norm. Take those absolute values and square them, then add those squares, and take the square root of that sum. That’s the L2 norm. Take the largest absolute value of any of these coefficients. That’s the L norm.

These don’t look so different, even though points in space and polynomials seem to be different things. We designed the tool. We want it not to be weirder than it has to be. When we try to put a norm on a new kind of thing, we look for a norm that resembles the old kind of thing. For example, when we want to define the norm of a matrix, we’ll typically rely on a norm we’ve already found for a vector. At least to set up the matrix norm; in practice, we might do a calculation that doesn’t explicitly use a vector’s norm, but gives us the same answer.

If we have a norm for some vector space, then we have an idea of distance. We can say how far apart two vectors are. It’s the norm of the difference between the vectors. This is called defining a metric on the vector space. A metric is that sense of how far apart two things are. What keeps a norm and a metric from being the same thing is that it’s possible to come up with a metric that doesn’t match any sensible norm.

It’s always possible to use a norm to define a metric, though. Doing that promotes our normed vector space to the dignified status of a “metric space”. Many of the spaces we find interesting enough to work in are such metric spaces. It’s hard to think of doing without some idea of size.


I’ve made it through one more week without missing deadline! This and all the other Fall 2019 A To Z posts should be at this link. I remain open for subjects for the letters Q through T, and would appreciate nominations at this link. Thank you for reading and I’ll fill out the rest of this week with reminders of old A-to-Z essays.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Martingales


Today’s A To Z term was nominated again by @aajohannas. The other compelling nomination was from Vayuputrii, for the Mittag-Leffler function. I was tempted. But I realized I could not think of a clear way to describe why the function was interesting. Or even where it comes from that avoided being a heap of technical terms. There’s no avoiding technical terms in writing about mathematics, but there’s only so much I want to put in at once either. It also makes me realize I don’t understand the Mittag-Leffler function, but it is after all something I haven’t worked much with.

The Mittag-Leffler function looks like it’s one of those things named for several contributors, like Runge-Kutta Integration or Cauchy-Kovalevskaya Theorem or something. Not so here; this was one person, Gösta Mittag-Leffler. His name’s all over the theory of functions. And he was one of the people helping Sofia Kovalevskaya, whom you know from every list of pioneering women in mathematics, secure her professorship.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Martingales.

A martingale is how mathematicians prove you can’t get rich gambling.

Well, that exaggerates. Some people will be lucky, of course. But there’s no strategy that works. The only strategy that works is to rig the game. You can do this openly, by setting rules that give you a slight edge. You usually have to be the house to do this. Or you can do it covertly, using tricks like card-counting (in blackjack) or weighted dice or other tricks. But a fair game? Meaning one not biased towards or against any player? There’s no strategy to guarantee winning that.

We can make this more technical. Martingales arise form the world of stochastic processes. This is an indexed set of random variables. A random variable is some variable with a value that depends on the result of some phenomenon. A tossed coin. Rolled dice. Number of people crossing a particular walkway over a day. Engine temperature. Value of a stock being traded. Whatever. We can’t forecast what the next value will be. But we now the distribution, which values are more likely and which ones are unlikely and which ones impossible.

The field grew out of studying real-world phenomena. Things we could sample and do statistics on. So it’s hard to think of an index that isn’t time, or some proxy for time like “rolls of the dice”. Stochastic processes turn up all over the place. A lot of what we want to know is impossible, or at least impractical, to exactly forecast. Think of the work needed to forecast how many people will cross this particular walk four days from now. But it’s practical to describe what are more and less likely outcomes. What the average number of walk-crossers will be. What the most likely number will be. Whether to expect tomorrow to be a busier or a slower day.

And this is what the martingale is for. Start with a sequence of your random variables. How many people have crossed that street each day since you started studying. What is the expectation value, the best guess, for the next result? Your best guess for how many will cross tomorrow? Keeping in mind your knowledge of how all these past values. That’s an important piece. It’s not a martingale if the history of results isn’t a factor.

Every probability question has to deal with knowledge. Sometimes it’s easy. The probability of a coin coming up tails next toss? That’s one-half. The probability of a coin coming up tails next toss, given that it came up tails last time? That’s still one-half. The probability of a coin coming up tails next toss, given that it came up tails the last 40 tosses? That’s … starting to make you wonder if this is a fair coin. I’d bet tails, but I’d also ask to examine both sides, for a start.

So a martingale is a stochastic process where we can make forecasts about the future. Particularly, the expectation value. The expectation value is the sum of the products of every possible value and how probable they are. In a martingale, the expected value for all time to come is just the current value. So if whatever it was you’re measuring was, say, 40 this time? That’s your expectation for the whole future. Specific values might be above 40, or below 40, but on average, 40 is it.

Put it that way and you’d think, well, how often does that ever happen? Maybe some freak process will give you that, but most stuff?

Well, here’s one. The random walk. Set a value. At each step, it can increase or decrease by some fixed value. It’s as likely to increase as to decrease. This is a martingale. And it turns out a lot of stuff is random walks. Or can be processed into random walks. Even if the original walk is unbalanced — say it’s more likely to increase than decrease. Then we can do a transformation, and find a new random variable based on the original. Then that one is as likely to increase as decrease. That one is a martingale.

It’s not just random walks. Poisson processes are things where the chance of something happening is tiny, but it has lots of chances to happen. So this measures things like how many car accidents happen on this stretch of road each week. Or where a couple plants will grow together into a forest, as opposed to lone trees. How often a store will have too many customers for the cashiers on hand. These processes by themselves aren’t often martingales. But we can use them to make a new stochastic process, and that one is a martingale.

Where this all comes to gambling is in stopping times. This is a random variable that’s based on the stochastic process you started with. Its value at each index represents the probability that the random variable in that has reached some particular value by this index. The language evokes a gambler’s decision: when do you stop? There are two obvious stopping times for any game. One is to stop when you’ve won enough money. The other is to stop when you’ve lost your whole stake.

So there is something interesting about a martingale that has bounds. It will almost certainly hit at least one of those bounds, in a finite time. (“Almost certainly” has a technical meaning. It’s the same thing I mean when I say if you flip a fair coin infinitely many times then “almost certainly” it’ll come up tails at least once. Like, it’s not impossible that it doesn’t. It just won’t happen.) And for the gambler? The boundary of “runs out of money” is a lot closer than “makes the house run out of money”.

Oh, if you just want a little payoff, that’s fine. If you’re happy to walk away from the table with a one percent profit? You can probably do that. You’re closer to that boundary than to the runs-out-of-money one. A ten percent profit? Maybe so. Making an unlimited amount of money, like you’d want to live on your gambling winnings? No, that just doesn’t happen.

This gets controversial when we turn from gambling to the stock market. Or a lot of financial mathematics. Look at the value of a stock over time. I write “stock” for my convenience. It can be anything with a price that’s constantly open for renegotiation. Stocks, bonds, exchange funds, used cars, fish at the market, anything. The price over time looks like it’s random, at least hour-by-hour. So how can you reliably make money if the fluctuations of the price of a stock are random?

Well, if I knew, I’d have smaller student loans outstanding. But martingales seem like they should offer some guidance. Much of modern finance builds on not dealing with a stock price varying. Instead, buy the right to buy the stock at a set price. Or buy the right to sell the stock at a set price. This lets you pay to secure a certain profit, or a worst-possible loss, in case the price reaches some level. And now you see the martingale. Is it likely that the stock will reach a certain price within this set time? How likely? This can, in principle, guide you to a fair price for this right-to-buy.

The mathematical reasoning behind that is fine, so far as I understand it. Trouble arises because pricing correctly means having a good understanding of how likely it is prices will reach different levels. Fortunately, there are few things humans are better at than estimating probabilities. Especially the probabilities of complicated situations, with abstract and remote dangers.

So martingales are an interesting corner of mathematics. They apply to purely abstract problems like random walks. Or to good mathematical physics problems like Brownian motion and the diffusion of particles. And they’re lurking behind the scenes of the finance news. Exciting stuff.


Thanks for reading. This and all the other Fall 2019 A To Z posts should be at this link. Yes, I too am amazed to be halfway done; it feels like I’m barely one-fifth of the way done. For Thursday I hope to publish ‘N’. And I am taking nominations for subjects for the letters O through T, at this link.

I’m Looking For The Next Six Subjects For My 2019 A-To-Z


I’m hopefully going to pass the halfway point on this year’s mathematics A-To-Z. This makes it a good time to panel for topics for the next several letters in the alphabet. It’s easier for me to keep my notes straight if you post requests as comments on this thread, but I’ll try to keep up if you do comment on other threads.

As ever, I’m happy to consider most mathematical topics, including ones that I’ve written about in the past if I think I can better an old essay. If there’s several suggestions for the same letter, I’ll pick the one that I think I can do most interestingly. If several seem interesting I might try rephrasing, if the subject allows for that.

And I do thank everyone who makes a suggestion, especially if it’s one that surprises me and that makes me learn something along the way.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Here’s the essays I’ve written in past years for the letters O through T.

O.

P.

Q.

R.

S.

T.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Linear Programming


Today’s A To Z term is another proposed by @aajohannas.

I couldn’t find a place to fit this in the essay proper. But it’s too good to leave out. The simplex method, discussed within, traces to George Dantzig. He’d been planning methods for the US Army Air Force during the Second World War. Dantzig is a person you have heard about, if you’ve heard any mathematical urban legends. In 1939 he was late to Jerzy Neyman’s class. He took two statistics problems on the board to be homework. He found them “harder than usual”, but solved them in a couple days and turned in the late homework hoping Neyman would be understanding. They weren’t homework. They were examples of famously unsolved problems. Within weeks Neyman had written one of the solutions up for publication. When he needed a thesis topic Neyman advised him to just put what he already had in a binder. It’s the stuff every grad student dreams of. The story mutated. It picked up some glurge to become a narrative about positive thinking. And mutated further, into the movie Good Will Hunting.

The story gets better, for my purposes. The simplex method can be understood as one of those homework problems. Dantzig describes some of that in this 1987 essay about the origins of the method. The essay is worth reading to understand some of how people come to think of good mathematics.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Linear Programming.

Every three days one of the comic strips I read has the elderly main character talk about how they never used algebra. This is my hyperbole. But mathematics has got the reputation for being difficult and inapplicable to everyday life. We’ll concede using arithmetic, when we get angry at the fast food cashier who hands back our two pennies before giving change for our $6.77 hummus wrap. But otherwise, who knows what an elliptic integral is, and whether it’s working properly?

Linear programming does not have this problem. In part, this is because it lacks a reputation. But those who have heard of it, acknowledge it as immensely practical mathematics. It is about something a particular kind of human always finds compelling. That is how to do a thing best.

There are several kinds of “best”. There is doing a thing in as little time as possible. Or for as little effort as possible. For the greatest profit. For the highest capacity. For the best score. For the least risk. The goals have a thousand names, none of which we need to know. They all mean the same thing. They mean “the thing we wish to optimize”. To optimize has two directions, which are one. The optimum is either the maximum or the minimum. To be good at finding a maximum is to be good at finding a minimum.

It’s obvious why we call this “programming”; obviously, we leave the work of finding answers to a computer. It’s a spurious reason. The “programming” here comes from an independent sense of the word. It means more about finding a plan. Think of “programming” a night’s entertainment, so that every performer gets their turn, all scene changes have time to be done, you don’t put two comedians right after the other, and you accommodate the performer who has to leave early and the performer who’ll get in an hour late. Linear programming problems are often about finding how to do as well as possible given various priorities. All right. At least the “linear” part is obvious. A mathematics problem is “linear” when it’s something we can reasonably expect to solve. This is not the technical meaning. Technically what it means is we’re looking at a function something like:

ax + by + cz

Here, x, y, and z are the independent variables. We don’t know their values but wish to. a, b, and c are coefficients. These values are set to some constant for the problem, but they might be something else for other problems. They’re allowed to be positive or negative or even zero. If a coefficient is zero, then the matching variable doesn’t affect matters at all. The corresponding value can be anything at all, within the constraints.

I’ve written this for three variables, as an example and because ‘x’ and ‘y’ and ‘z’ are comfortable, familiar variables. There can be fewer. There can be more. There almost always are. Two- and three-variable problems will teach you how to do this kind of problem. They’re too simple to be interesting, usually. To avoid committing to a particular number of variables we can use indices. x_j for values of j from 1 up to N. Or we can bundle all these values together into a vector, and write everything as \vec{x} . This has a particular advantage since when we can write the coefficients as a vector too. Then we use the notation of linear algebra, and write that we hope to maximize the value of:

\vec{c}^T\vec{x}

(The superscript T means “transpose”. As a linear algebra problem we’d usually think of writing a vector as a tall column of things. By transposing that we write a long row of things. By transposing we can use the notation of matrix multiplication.)

This is the objective function. Objective here in the sense of goal; it’s the thing we want to find the best possible value of.

We have constraints. These represent limits on the variables. The variables are always things that come in limited supply. There’s no allocating more money than the budget allows, nor putting more people on staff than work for the company. Often these constraints interact. Perhaps not only is there only so much staff, but no one person can work more than a set number of days in a row. Something like that. That’s all right. We can write all these constraints as a matrix equation. An inequality, properly. We can bundle all the constraints into a big matrix named A, and demand:

A\vec{x} \le \vec{b}

Also, traditionally, we suppose that every component of \vec{x} is non-negative. That is, positive, or at lowest, zero. This reflects the field’s core problems of figuring how to allocate resources. There’s no allocating less than zero of something.

But we need some bounds. This is easiest to see with a two-dimensional problem. Try it yourself: draw a pair of axes on a sheet of paper. Now put in a constraint. Doesn’t matter what. The constraint’s edge is a straight line, which you can draw at any position and any angle you like. This includes horizontal and vertical. Shade in one side of the constraint. Whatever you shade in is the “feasible region”, the sets of values allowed under the constraint. Now draw in another line, another constraint. Shade in one side or the other of that. Draw in yet another line, another constraint. Shade in one side or another of that. The “feasible region” is whatever points have taken on all these shades. If you were lucky, this is a bounded region, a triangle. If you weren’t lucky, it’s not bounded. It’s maybe got some corners but goes off to the edge of the page where you stopped shading things in.

So adding that every component of \vec{x} is at least as big as zero is a backstop. It means we’ll usually get a feasible region with a finite volume. What was the last project you worked on that had no upper limits for anything, just minimums you had to satisfy? Anyway if you know you need something to be allowed less than zero go ahead. We’ll work it out. The important thing is there’s finite bounds on all the variables.

I didn’t see the bounds you drew. It’s possible you have a triangle with all three shades inside. But it’s also possible you picked the other sides to shade, and you have an annulus, with no region having more than two shades in it. This can happen. It means it’s impossible to satisfy all the constraints at once. At least one of them has to give. You may be reminded of the sign taped to the wall of your mechanics’ about picking two of good-fast-cheap.

But impossibility is at least easy. What if there is a feasible region?

Well, we have reason to hope. The optimum has to be somewhere inside the region, that’s clear enough. And it even has to be on the edge of the region. If you’re not seeing why, think of a simple example, like, finding the maximum of 2x + y , inside the square where x is between 0 and 2 and y is between 0 and 3. Suppose you had a putative maximum on the inside, like, where x was 1 and y was 2. What happens if you increase x a tiny bit? If you increase y by twice that? No, it’s only on the edges you can get a maximum that can’t be locally bettered. And only on the corners of the edges, at that.

(This doesn’t prove the case. But it is what the proof gets at.)

So the problem sounds simple then! We just have to try out all the vertices and pick the maximum (or minimum) from them all.

OK, and here’s where we start getting into trouble. With two variables and, like, three constraints? That’s easy enough. That’s like five points to evaluate? We can do that.

We never need to do that. If someone’s hiring you to test five combinations I admire your hustle and need you to start getting me consulting work. A real problem will have many variables and many constraints. The feasible region will most often look like a multifaceted gemstone. It’ll extend into more than three dimensions, usually. It’s all right if you just imagine the three, as long as the gemstone is complicated enough.

Because now we’ve got lots of vertices. Maybe more than we really want to deal with. So what’s there to do?

The basic approach, the one that’s foundational to the field, is the simplex method. A “simplex” is a triangle. In three dimensions, anyway. In four dimensions it’s a tetrahedron. In two dimensions it’s a line segment. Generally, however many dimensions of space you have? The simplex is the simplest thing that fills up volume in your space.

You know how you can turn any polygon into a bunch of triangles? Just by connecting enough vertices together? You can turn a polyhedron into a bunch of tetrahedrons, by adding faces that connect trios of vertices. And for polyhedron-like shapes in more dimensions? We call those polytopes. Polytopes we can turn into a bunch of simplexes. So this is why it’s the “simplex method”. Any one simplex it’s easy to check the vertices on. And we can turn the polytope into a bunch of simplexes. And we can ignore all the interior vertices of the simplexes.

So here’s the simplex method. First, break your polytope up into simplexes. Next, pick any simplex; doesn’t matter which. Pick any outside vertex of that simplex. This is the first viable possible solution. It’s most likely wrong. That’s okay. We’ll make it better.

Because there are other vertices on this simplex. And there are other simplexes, adjacent to that first, which share this vertex. Test the vertices that share an edge with this one. Is there one that improves the objective function? Probably. Is there a best one of those in this simplex? Sure. So now that’s our second viable possible solution. If we had to give an answer right now, that would be our best guess.

But this new vertex, this new tentative solution? It shares edges with other vertices, across several simplexes. So look at these new neighbors. Are any of them an improvement? Which one of them is the best improvement? Move over there. That’s our next tentative solution.

You see where this is going. Keep at this. Eventually it’ll wind to a conclusion. Usually this works great. If you have, like, 8 constraints, you can usually expect to get your answer in from 16 to 24 iterations. If you have 20 constraints, expect an answer in from 40 to 60 iterations. This is doing pretty well.

But it might take a while. It’s possible for the method to “stall” a while, often because one or more of the variables is at its constraint boundary. Or the division of polytope into simplexes got unlucky, and it’s hard to get to better solutions. Or there might be a string of vertices that are all at, or near, the same value, so the simplex method can’t resolve where to “go” next. In the worst possible case, the simplex method takes a number of iterations that grows exponentially with the number of constraints. This, yes, is very bad. It doesn’t typically happen. It’s a numerical algorithm. There’s some problem to spoil any numerical algorithm.

You may have complaints. Like, the world is complicated. Why are we only looking at linear objective functions? Or, why only look at linear constraints? Well, if you really need to do that? Go ahead, but that’s not linear programming anymore. Think hard about whether you really need that, though. Linear anything is usually simpler than nonlinear anything. I mean, if your optimization function absolutely has to have y^2 in it? Could we just say you have a new variable w that just happens to be equal to the square of y? Will that work? If you have to have the sine of z? Are you sure that z isn’t going to get outside the region where the sine of z is pretty close to just being z? Can you check?

Maybe you have, and there’s just nothing for it. That’s all right. This is why optimization is a living field of study. It demands judgement and thought and all that hard work.


Thank you for reading. This and all the other Fall 2019 A To Z posts should be at this link. They should be joined next week by letters ‘M’ and ‘N’. Also next week I hope to open for nominations for the next set of letters. All of my past A To Z essays should be available at this link.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Koenigsberg Bridge Problem


Today’s A To Z term was nominated by Bunny Hugger. I’m glad to write about it. The problem is foundational to both graph theory and topology.

I’m more fluent in graph theory, and my writing will reflect that. But its critical insight involves looking at spaces and ignoring things like distance and area and angle. It is amazing that one can discard so much of geometry and still have anything to consider. What we do learn then applies to very many problems.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Königsberg Bridge Problem.

Once upon a time there was a city named Königsberg. It no longer is. It is Kaliningrad now. It’s no longer in that odd non-contiguous chunk of Prussia facing the Baltic Sea. It’s now in that odd non-contiguous chunk of Russia facing the Baltic Sea.

I put it this way because what the city evokes, to mathematicians, is a story. I do not have specific reason to think the story untrue. But it is a good story, and as I think more about history I grow more skeptical of good stories. A good story teaches, though not always the thing it means to convey.

The story is this. The city is on two sides of the Pregel river, now the Pregolya River. Two large islands are in the river. For several centuries these four land masses were connected by a total of seven bridges. And we are told that people in the city would enjoy free time with an idle puzzle. Was there a way to walk all seven bridges one and only one time? If no one did something fowl like taking a boat to cross the river, or not going the whole way across a bridge, anyway? There were enough bridges, though, and enough possible ways to cross them, that trying out every option was hopeless.

Then came Leonhard Euler. Who is himself a preposterous number of stories. Pick any major field of mathematics; there is an Euler’s Theorem at its center. Or an Euler’s Formula. Euler’s Method. Euler’s Function. Likely he brought great new light to it.

And in 1736 he solved the Königsberg Bridge Problem. The answer was to look at what would have to be true for a solution to exist. He noticed something so obvious it required genius not to dismiss it. It seems too simple to be useful. In a successful walk you enter each land mass (river bank or island) the same number of times you leave it. So if you cross each bridge exactly once, you use an even number of bridges per land mass. The exceptions are that you must start at one land mass, and end at a land mass. Maybe a different one. How you get there doesn’t count for the problem. How you leave doesn’t either. So the land mass you start from may have an odd number of bridges. So may the one you end on. So there are up to two land masses that may have an odd number of bridges.

Once this is observed, it’s easy to tell that Königsberg’s Bridges did not match that. All four land masses in Königsberg have an odd number of bridges. And so we could stop looking. It’s impossible to walk the seven bridges exactly once each in a tour, not without cheating.

Graph theoreticians, like the topologists of my prologue, now consider this foundational to their field. To look at a geographic problem and not concern oneself with areas and surfaces and shapes? To worry only about how sets connect? This guides graph theory in how to think about networks.

The city exists, as do the islands, and the bridges existed as described. So does Euler’s solution. And his reasoning is sound. The reasoning is ingenious, too. Everything hard about the problem evaporates. So what do I doubt about this fine story?

Well, I don’t know that this bridge problem was something the people of Königsberg thought about. At least not in the way it’s presented, this idle problem everyone who visited the river wondered about without trying very hard to solve. The only people I ever hear discussing this are mathematicians. And mathematicians are as fond of good stories as anyone else, and accept that when the reality is messy and ambiguous and confused. I’m not alone in having doubts. The Mathematics Association of America’s web page about the problem concedes it is “according to lore” that the people of the city had this problem.

Teo Paoletti, author of that web page, says Danzig mayor Carl Leonhard Gottlieb Ehler wrote Euler, asking for a solution. This falls short of proving that the bridges were a common subject of speculation. It does show at least that Ehler thought it worth pondering. Euler apparently did not think it was even mathematics. Not that he thought it was hard; he simply thought it didn’t depend on mathematical principles. It took only reason. But he did find something interesting: why was it not mathematics? Paoletti quotes Euler as writing:

This question is so banal, but seemed to me worthy of attention in that [neither] geometry, nor algebra, nor even the art of counting was sufficient to solve it.

I am reminded of a mathematical joke. It’s about the professor who always went on at great length about any topic, however slight. I have no idea why this should stick with me. Finally one day the professor admitted of something, “This problem is not interesting.” The students barely had time to feel relief. The professor went on: “But the reasons why it is not interesting are very interesting. So let us explore that.”

The Königsberg Bridge Problem is in the first chapter of every graph theory book ever. And it is a good graph theory problem. It may not be fair to say it created graph theory, though. Euler seems to have treated this as a little side bit of business, unrelated to his real mathematics. Graph theory as we know it — as a genre — formed in the 19th century. So did topology. In hindsight we can see how studying these bridges brought us good questions to ask, and ways to solve them. But for something like a century after Euler published this, it was just the clever solution to a recreational mathematics puzzle. It was as important as finding knight’s tours of chessboards.

That we take it as the introduction to graph theory, and maybe topology, tells us something. It is an easy problem to pose. Its solution is clever, but not obscure. It takes no long chains of complex reasoning. Many people approach mathematics problems with fear. By telling this story, we promise mathematics that feels as secure as a stroll along the riverfront. This promise is good through about chapter three, section four, where there are four definitions on one page and the notation summons obscure demons of LaTeX.

Still. Look at what the story of the bridges tells us. We notice something curious about our environment. The problem seems mathematical, or at least geographic. The problem is of no consequence. But it lingers in the mind. The obvious approaches to solving it won’t work. But think of the problem differently. The problem becomes simple. And better than simple. It guides one to new insights. In a century it gives birth to two fields of mathematics. In two centuries these are significant fields. They’re things even non-mathematicians have heard of. It’s almost a mathematician’s fantasy of insight and accomplishment.

But this does happen. The world suggests no end of little mathematics problems. Sometimes they are wonderful. Richard Feynman’s memoirs tell of his imagination being captured by a plate spinning in the air. Solving that helped him resolve a problem in developing Quantum Electrodynamics. There are more mundane problems. One of my professors in grad school remembered tossing and catching a tennis racket and realizing he didn’t know why sometimes it flipped over and sometimes didn’t. His specialty was in dynamical systems, and he could work out the mechanics of what a tennis racket should do, and when. And I know that within me is the ability to work out when a pile of books becomes too tall to stand on its own. I just need to work up to it.

The story of the Königsberg Bridge Problem is about this. Even if nobody but the mayor of Danzig pondered how to cross the bridges, and he only got an answer because he infected Euler with the need to know? It is a story of an important piece of mathematics. Good stories will tell us things that are true, which are not necessarily the things that happen in them.


Thanks for reading this. All of the Fall 2019 A To Z posts ought to be at this link. On Thursday I should publish my ‘L’ post. All of my past A To Z essays should be available at this link, And tomorrow I hope to finish off the comic strips worth just quick mentions from last week. See you then.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Julia set


Today’s A To Z term is my pick again. So I choose the Julia Set. This is named for Gaston Julia, one of the pioneers in chaos theory and fractals. He was born earlier than you imagine. No, earlier than that: he was born in 1893.

The early 20th century saw amazing work done. We think of chaos theory and fractals as modern things, things that require vast computing power to understand. The computers help, yes. But the foundational work was done more than a century ago. Some of these pioneering mathematicians may have been able to get some numerical computing done. But many did not. They would have to do the hard work of thinking about things which they could not visualize. Things which surely did not look like they imagined.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Julia set.

We think of things as moving. Even static things we consider as implying movement. Else we’d think it odd to ask, “Where does that road go?” This carries over to abstract things, like mathematical functions. A function is a domain, a range, and a rule matching things in the domain to things in the range. It “moves” things as much as a dictionary moves words.

Yet we still think of a function as expressing motion. A common way for mathematicians to write functions uses little arrows, and describes what’s done as “mapping”. We might write f: D \rightarrow R . This is a general idea. We’re expressing that it maps things in the set D to things in the set R. We can use the notation to write something more specific. If ‘z’ is in the set D, we might write f : z \rightarrow z^2 + \frac{1}{2} . This describes the rule that matches things in the domain to things in the range. f(2) represents the evaluation of this rule at a specific point, the one where the independent variable has the value ‘2’. f(z) represents the evaluation of this rule at a specific point without committing to what that point is. f(D) represents a collection of points. It’s the set you get by evaluating the rule at every point in D.

And it’s not bad to think of motion. Many functions are models of things that move. Particles in space. Fluids in a room. Populations changing in time. Signal strengths varying with a sensor’s position. Often we’ll calculate the development of something iteratively, too. If the domain and the range of a function are the same set? There’s no reason that we can’t take our z, evaluate f(z), and then take whatever that thing is and evaluate f(f(z)). And again. And again.

My age cohort, at least, learned to do this almost instinctively when we discovered you could take the result on a calculator and hit a function again. Calculate something and keep hitting square root; you get a string of numbers that eventually settle on 1. Or you started at zero. Calculate something and keep hitting square; you settle at either 0, 1, or grow to infinity. Hitting sine over and over … well, that was interesting since you might settle on 0 or some other, weird number. Same with tangent. Cosine you wouldn’t settle down to zero.

Serious mathematicians look at this stuff too, though. Take any set ‘D’, and find what its image is, f(D). Then iterate this, figuring out what f(f(D)) is. Then f(f(f(D))). f(f(f(f(D)))). And so on. What happens if you keep doing this? Like, forever?

We can say some things, at least. Even without knowing what f is. There could be a part of D that all these many iterations of f will send out to infinity. There could be a part of D that all these many iterations will send to some fixed point. And there could be a part of D that just keeps getting shuffled around without ever finishing.

Some of these might not exist. Like, f: z \rightarrow z + 4 doesn’t have any fixed points or shuffled-around points. It sends everything off to infinity. f: z \rightarrow \frac{1}{10} z has only a fixed point; nothing from it goes off to infinity and nothing’s shuffled back and forth. f: z \rightarrow -z has a fixed point and a lot of points that shuffle back and forth.

Thinking about these fixed points and these shuffling points gets us Julia Sets. These sets are the fixed points and shuffling-around points for certain kinds of functions. These functions are ones that have domain and range of the complex-valued numbers. Complex-valued numbers are the sum of a real number plus an imaginary number. A real number is just what it says on the tin. An imaginary number is a real number multiplied by \imath . What is \imath ? It’s the imaginary unit. It has the neat property that \imath^2 = -1 . That’s all we need to know about it.

Oh, also, zero times \imath is zero again. So if you really want, you can say all real numbers are complex numbers; they’re just themselves plus 0 \imath . Complex-valued functions are worth a lot of study in their own right. Better, they’re easier to study (at the introductory level) than real-valued functions are. This is such a relief to the mathematics major.

And now let me explain some little nagging weird thing. I’ve been using ‘z’ to represent the independent variable here. You know, using it as if it were ‘x’. This is a convention mathematicians use, when working with complex-valued numbers. An arbitrary complex-valued number tends to be called ‘z’. We haven’t forgotten x, though. We just in this context use ‘x’ to mean “the real part of z”. We also use “y” to carry information about the imaginary part of z. When we write ‘z’ we hold in trust an ‘x’ and ‘y’ for which z = x + y\imath . This all comes in handy.

But we still don’t have Julia Sets for every complex-valued function. We need it to be a rational function. The name evokes rational numbers, but that doesn’t seem like much guidance. f:z \rightarrow \frac{3}{5} is a rational function. It seems too boring to be worth studying, though, and it is. A “rational function” is a function that’s one polynomial divided by another polynomial. This whether they’re real-valued or complex-valued polynomials.

So. Start with an ‘f’ that’s one complex-valued polynomial divided by another complex-valued polynomial. Start with the domain D, all of the complex-valued numbers. Find f(D). And f(f(D)). And f(f(f(D))). And so on. If you iterated this ‘f’ without limit, what’s the set of points that never go off to infinity? That’s the Julia Set for that function ‘f’.

There are some famous Julia sets, though. There are the Julia sets that we heard about during the great fractal boom of the 1980s. This was when computers got cheap enough, and their graphic abilities good enough, to automate the calculation of points in these sets. At least to approximate the points in these sets. And these are based on some nice, easy-to-understand functions. First, you have to pick a constant C. This C is drawn from the complex-valued numbers. But that can still be, like, ½, if that’s what interests you. For whatever your C is? Define this function:

f_C: z \rightarrow z^2 + C

And that’s it. Yes, this is a rational function. The numerator function is z^2 + C . The denominator function is 1 .

This produces many different patterns. If you picked C = 0, you get a circle. Good on you for starting out with something you could double-check. If you picked C = -2? You get a long skinny line, again, easy enough to check. If you picked C = -1? Well, now you have a nice interesting weird shape, several bulging ovals with peninsulas of other bulging ovals all over. Pick other numbers. Pick numbers with interesting imaginary components. You get pinwheels. You get jagged streaks of lightning. You can even get separate islands, whole clouds of disjoint threatening-looking blobs.

There is some guessing what you’ll get. If you work out a Julia Set for a particular C, you’ll see a similar-looking Julia Set for a different C that’s very close to it. This is a comfort.

You can create a Julia Set for any rational function. I’ve only ever seen anyone actually do it for functions that look like what we already had. z^3 + C . Sometimes z^4 + C . I suppose once, in high school, I might have tried z^5 + C but I don’t remember what it looked like. If someone’s done, say, \frac{1}{z^2 + C} please write in and let me know what it looks like.

The Julia Set has a famous partner. Maybe the most famous fractal of them all, the Mandelbrot Set. That’s the strange blobby sea surrounded by lightning bolts that you see on the cover of every pop mathematics book from the 80s and 90s. If a C gives us a Julia Set that’s one single, contiguous patch? Then that C is in the Mandelbrot Set. Also vice-versa.

The ideas behind these sets are old. Julia’s paper about the iterations of rational functions first appeared in 1918. Julia died in 1978, the same year that the first computer rendering of the Mandelbrot set was done. I haven’t been able to find whether that rendering existed before his death. Nor have I decided which I would think the better sequence.


Thanks for reading. All of Fall 2019 A To Z posts should be at this link. And next week I hope to get to the letters ‘K’ and ‘L’. Sunday, yes, I hope to get back to the comics.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Infimum


Today’s A To Z term is a free pick. I didn’t notice any suggestions for a mathematics term starting with this letter. I apologize if you did submit one and I missed it. I don’t mean any insult.

What I’ve picked is a concept from analysis. I’ve described this casually as the study of why calculus works. That’s a good part of what it is. Analysis is also about why real numbers work. Later on you also get to why complex numbers and why functions work. But it’s in the courses about Real Analysis where a mathematics major can expect to find the infimum, and it’ll stick around on the analysis courses after that.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Infimum.

The infimum is the thing you mean when you say “lower bound”. It applies to a set of things that you can put in order. The order has to work the way less-than-or-equal-to works with whole numbers. You don’t have to have numbers to put a number-like order on things. Otherwise whoever made up the Alphabet Song was fibbing to us all. But starting out with numbers can let you get confident with the idea, and we’ll trust you can go from numbers to other stuff, in case you ever need to.

A lower bound would start out meaning what you’d imagine if you spoke English. Let me call it L. It’ll make my sentences so much easier to write. Suppose that L is less than or equal to all the elements in your set. Then, great! L is a lower bound of your set.

You see the loophole here. It’s in the article “a”. If L is a lower bound, then what about L – 1? L – 10? L – 1,000,000,000½? Yeah, they’re all lower bounds, too. There’s no end of lower bounds. And that is not what you mean be a lower bound, in everyday language. You mean “the smallest thing you have to deal with”.

But you can’t just say “well, the lower bound of a set is the smallest thing in the set”. There’s sets that don’t have a smallest thing. The iconic example is positive numbers. No positive number can be a lower bound of this. All the negative numbers are lowest bounds of this. Zero can be a lower bound of this.

For the postive numbers, it’s obvious: zero is the lower bound we want. It’s smaller than all of the positive numbers. And there’s no greater number that’s also smaller than all the positive numbers. So this is the infimum of the positive numbers. It’s the greatest lower bound of the set.

The infimum of a set may or may not be part of the original set. But. Between the infimum of a set and the infimum plus any positive number, however tiny that is? There’s always at least one thing in the set.

And there isn’t always an infimum. This is obvious if your set is, like, the set of all the integers. If there’s no lower bound at all, there can’t be a greatest lower bound. So that’s obvious enough.

Infimums turn up in a good number of proofs. There are a couple reasons they do. One is that we want to prove a boundary between two kinds of things exist. It’s lurking in the proof, for example, of the intermediate value theorem. This is the proposition that if you have a continuous function on the domain [a, b], and range of real numbers, and pick some number g that’s between f(a) and f(b)? There’ll be at least one point c, between a and b, where f(c) equals g. You can structure this: look at the set of numbers x in the domain [a, b] whose f(x) is larger than g. So what’s the infimum of this set? What does f have to be for that infimum?

It also turns up a lot in proofs about calculus. Proofs about functions, particularly, especially integrating functions. A proof like this will, generically, not deal with the original function, which might have all kinds of unpleasant aspects. Instead it’ll look at a sequence of approximations of the original function. Each approximation is chosen so it has no unpleasant aspect. And then prove that we could make arbitrarily tiny the difference between the result for the function we want and the result for the sequence of functions we make. Infimums turn up in this, since we’ll want a minimum function without being sure that the minimum is in the sequence we work with.

This is the terminology of stuff to work as lower bounds. There’s a similar terminology to work with upper bounds. The upper-bound equivalent of the infimum is the supremum. They’re abbreviated as inf and sup. The supremum turns up most every time an infimum does, and for the reasons you’d expect.

If an infimum does exist, it’s unique; there can’t be two different ones. Same with the supremum.

And things can get weird. It’s possible to have lower bounds but no infimum. This seems bizarre. This is because we’ve been relying on the real numbers to guide our intuition. And the real numbers have a useful property called being “complete”. So let me break the real numbers. Imagine the real numbers except for zero. Call that the set R’. Now look at the set of positive numbers inside R’. What’s the infimum of the positive numbers, within R’? All we can do is shrug and say there is none, even though there are plenty of lower bounds. The infimum of a set depends on the set. It also depends on what bigger set that the set is within. That something depends both on a set and what the bigger set of things is, is another thing that turns up all the time in analysis. It’s worth becoming familiar with.


Thanks for reading this. All of Fall 2019 A To Z posts should be at this link. Later this week I should have my ‘J’ post. All of my past A To Z essays should be available at this link and when I get a free afternoon I’ll make that “should be” into “are”. For tomorrow I hope to finish off last week’s comic strips. See you then.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Hamiltonian


Today’s A To Z term is another I drew from Mr Wu, of the Singapore Math Tuition blog. It gives me more chances to discuss differential equations and mathematical physics, too.

The Hamiltonian we name for Sir William Rowan Hamilton, the 19th century Irish mathematical physicists who worked on everything. You might have encountered his name from hearing about quaternions. Or for coining the terms “scalar” and “tensor”. Or for work in graph theory. There’s more. He did work in Fourier analysis, which is what you get into when you feel at ease with Fourier series. And then wild stuff combining matrices and rings. He’s not quite one of those people where there’s a Hamilton’s Theorem for every field of mathematics you might be interested in. It’s close, though.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Hamiltonian.

When you first learn about physics you learn about forces and accelerations and stuff. When you major in physics you learn to avoid dealing with forces and accelerations and stuff. It’s not explicit. But you get trained to look, so far as possible, away from vectors. Look to scalars. Look to single numbers that somehow encode your problem.

A great example of this is the Lagrangian. It’s built on “generalized coordinates”, which are not necessarily, like, position and velocity and all. They include the things that describe your system. This can be positions. It’s often angles. The Lagrangian shines in problems where it matters that something rotates. Or if you need to work with polar coordinates or spherical coordinates or anything non-rectangular. The Lagrangian is, in your general coordinates, equal to the kinetic energy minus the potential energy. It’ll be a function. It’ll depend on your coordinates and on the derivative-with-respect-to-time of your coordinates. You can take partial derivatives of the Lagrangian. This tells how the coordinates, and the change-in-time of your coordinates should change over time.

The Hamiltonian is a similar way of working out mechanics problems. The Hamiltonian function isn’t anything so primitive as the kinetic energy minus the potential energy. No, the Hamiltonian is the kinetic energy plus the potential energy. Totally different in idea.

From that description you maybe guessed you can transfer from the Lagrangian to the Hamiltonian. Maybe vice-versa. Yes, you can, although we use the term “transform”. Specifically a “Legendre transform”. We can use any coordinates we like, just as with Lagrangian mechanics. And, as with the Lagrangian, we can find how coordinates change over time. The change of any coordinate depends on the partial derivative of the Hamiltonian with respect to a particular other coordinate. This other coordinate is its “conjugate”. (It may either be this derivative, or minus one times this derivative. By the time you’re doing work in the field you’ll know which.)

That conjugate coordinate is the important thing. It’s why we muck around with Hamiltonians when Lagrangians are so similar. In ordinary, common coordinate systems these conjugate coordinates form nice pairs. In Cartesian coordinates, the conjugate to a particle’s position is its momentum, and vice-versa. In polar coordinates, the conjugate to the angular velocity is the angular momentum. These are nice-sounding pairs. But that’s our good luck. These happen to match stuff we already think is important. In general coordinates one or more of a pair can be some fusion of variables we don’t have a word for and would never care about. Sometimes it gets weird. In the problem of vortices swirling around each other on an infinitely great plane? The horizontal position is conjugate to the vertical position. Velocity doesn’t enter into it. For vortices on the sphere the longitude is conjugate to the cosine of the latitude.

What’s valuable about these pairings is that they make a “symplectic manifold”. A manifold is a patch of space where stuff works like normal Euclidean geometry does. In this case, the space is in “phase space”. This is the collection of all the possible combinations of all the variables that could ever turn up. Every particular moment of a mechanical system matches some point in phase space. Its evolution over time traces out a path in that space. Call it a trajectory or an orbit as you like.

We get good things from looking at the geometry that this symplectic manifold implies. For example, if we know that one variable doesn’t appear in the Hamiltonian, then its conjugate’s value never changes. This is almost the kindest thing you can do for a mathematical physicist. But more. A famous theorem by Emmy Noether tells us that symmetries in the Hamiltonian match with conservation laws in the physics. Time-invariance, for example — time not appearing in the Hamiltonian — gives us the conservation of energy. If only distances between things, not absolute positions, matter, then we get conservation of linear momentum. Stuff like that. To find conservation laws in physics problems is the kindest thing you can do for a mathematical physicist.

The Hamiltonian was born out of planetary physics. These are problems easy to understand and, apart from the case of one star with one planet orbiting each other, impossible to solve exactly. That’s all right. The formalism applies to all kinds of problems. They’re very good at handling particles that interact with each other and maybe some potential energy. This is a lot of stuff.

More, the approach extends naturally to quantum mechanics. It takes some damage along the way. We can’t talk about “the” position or “the” momentum of anything quantum-mechanical. But what we get when we look at quantum mechanics looks very much like what Hamiltonians do. We can calculate things which are quantum quite well by using these tools. This though they came from questions like why Saturn’s rings haven’t fallen part and whether the Earth will stay around its present orbit.

It holds surprising power, too. Notice that the Hamiltonian is the kinetic energy of a system plus its potential energy. For a lot of physics problems that’s all the energy there is. That is, the value of the Hamiltonian for some set of coordinates is the total energy of the system at that time. And, if there’s no energy lost to friction or heat or whatever? Then that’s the total energy of the system for all time.

Here’s where this becomes almost practical. We often want to do a numerical simulation of a physics problem. Generically, we do this by looking up what all the values of all the coordinates are at some starting time t0. Then we calculate how fast these coordinates are changing with time. We pick a small change in time, Δ t. Then we say that at time t0 plus Δ t, the coordinates are whatever they started at plus Δ t times that rate of change. And then we repeat, figuring out how fast the coordinates are changing now, at this position and time.

The trouble is we always make some mistake, and once we’ve made a mistake, we’re going to keep on making mistakes. We can do some clever stuff to make the smallest error possible figuring out where to go, but it’ll still happen. Usually, we stick to calculations where the error won’t mess up our results.

But when we look at stuff like whether the Earth will stay around its present orbit? We can’t make each step good enough for that. Unless we get to thinking about the Hamiltonian, and our symplectic variables. The actual system traces out a path in phase space. Everyone on that path the Hamiltonian is a particular value, the energy of the system. So use the regular methods to project most of the variables to the new time, t0 + Δ t. But the rest? Pick the values that make the Hamiltonian work out right. Also momentum and angular momentum and other stuff we know get conserved. We’ll still make an error. But it’s a different kind of error. It’ll project to a point that’s maybe in the wrong place on the trajectory. But it’s on the trajectory.

(OK, it’s near the trajectory. Suppose the real energy is, oh, the square root of 5. The computer simulation will have an energy of 2.23607. This is close but not exactly the same. That’s all right. Each step will stay close to the real energy.)

So what we’ll get is a projection of the Earth’s orbit that maybe puts it in the wrong place in its orbit. Putting the planet on the opposite side of the sun from Venus when we ought to see Venus transiting the Sun. That’s all right, if what we’re interested in is whether Venus and Earth are still in the solar system.

There’s a special cost for this. If there weren’t we’d use it all the time. The cost is computational complexity. It’s pricey enough that you haven’t heard about these “symplectic integrators” before. That’s all right. These are the kinds of things open to us once we look long into the Hamiltonian.


This wraps up my big essay-writing for the week. I will pluck some older essays out of obscurity to re-share tomorrow and Saturday. All of Fall 2019 A To Z posts should be at this link. Next week should have the letter I on Tuesday and J on Thursday. All of my A To Z essays should be available at this link. And I am still interested in topics I might use for the letters K through N. Thank you.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Green’s function


Today’s A To Z term is Green’s function. Vayuputrii nominated the topic, and once again I went for one close to my own interests.

These are named for George Green, an English mathematician of the early 19th century. He’s one of those people who gave us our idea of mathematical physics. He’s credited with coining the term “potential”, as in potential energy, and in making people realize how studying this simplified problems. Mostly problems in electricity and magnetism, which were so very interesting back then. On the side also came work in multivariable calculus. His work most famous to mathematics and physics majors connects integrals over the surface of a shape with (different) integrals over the entire interior volume. In more specific problems, he did work on the behavior of water in canals.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Green’s function.

There’s a patch of (high school) algebra where you solve systems of equations in a couple variables. Like, you have to do one system where you’re solving, say,

6x + 1y - 2z = 1 \\  7x + 3y + z = 4 \\  -2x - y + 2z = -2

And then maybe later on you get a different problem, one that looks like:

6x + 1y - 2z = 14 \\  7x + 3y + z = -4 \\  -2x - y + 2z = -6

If you solve both of them you notice you’re doing a lot of the same work. All the same hard work. It’s only the part on the right-hand side of the equals signs that are different. Even then, the series of steps you follow on the right-hand-side are the same. They have different numbers is all. What makes the problem distinct is the stuff on the left-hand-side. It’s the set of what coefficients times what variables add together. If you get enough about matrices and vectors you get in the habit of writing this set of equations as one matrix equation, as

A\vec{x} = \vec{b}

Here \vec{x} holds all the unknown variables, your x and y and z and anything else that turns up. Your \vec{b} holds the right-hand side. Do enough of these problems and you notice something. You can describe how to find the solution for these equations before you even know what the right-hand-side is. You can do all the hard work of solving this set of equations for a generic set of right-hand-side constants. Fill them in when you need a particular answer.


I mentioned, while writing about Fourier series, how it turns out most of what you do to numbers you can also do to functions. This really proves itself in differential equations. Both partial and ordinary differential equations. A differential equation works with some not-yet-known function u(x). For what I’m discussing here it doesn’t matter whether ‘x’ is a single variable or a whole set of independent variables, like, x and y and z. I’ll use ‘x’ as shorthand for all that. The differential equation takes u(x) and maybe multiplies it by something, and adds to that some derivatives of u(x) multiplied by something. Those somethings can be constants. They can be other, known, functions with independent variable x. They can be functions that depend on u(x) also. But if they are, then this is a nonlinear differential equation and there’s no solving that.

So suppose we have a linear differential equation. Partial or ordinary, whatever you like. There’s terms that have u(x) or its derivatives in them. Move them all to the left-hand-side. Move everything else to the right-hand-side. This right-hand-side might be constant. It might depend on x. Doesn’t matter. This right-hand-side is some function which I’ll call f(x). This f(x) might be constant; that’s fine. That’s still a legitimate function.

Put this way, every differential equation looks like:

(\mbox{stuff with } u(x) \mbox{ and its derivatives}) = f(x)

That stuff with u(x) and its derivatives we can call an operator. An operator’s a function which has a domain of functions and a range of functions. So we can give give that a name. ‘L’ is a good name here, because if it’s not the operator for a linear differential equation — a linear operator — then we’re done anyway. So whatever our differential equation was we can write it:

Lu(x) = f(x)

Writing it Lu(x) makes it look like we’re multiplying L by u(x). We’re not. We’re really not. This is more like if ‘L’ is the predicate of a sentence and ‘u(x)’ is the object. Read it like, to make up an example, ‘L’ means ‘three times the second derivative plus two x times’ and ‘u(x)’ as ‘u(x)’.

Still, looking at Lu(x) = f(x) and then back up at A\vec{x} = \vec{b} tells you what I’m thinking. We can find some set of instructions to, for any \vec{b} , find the \vec{x} that makes A\vec{x} = \vec{b} true. So why can’t we find some set of instructions to, for any f(x) , find the u(x) that makes Lu(x) = f(x) true?

This is where a Green’s function comes in. Or, like everybody says, “the” Green’s function. “The” here we use like we might talk about “the” roots of a polynomial. Every polynomial has different roots. So, too, does every differential equation have a different Green’s function. What the Green’s function is depends on the equation. It can also depend on what domain the differential equation applies to. It can also depend on some extra information called initial values or boundary values.

The Green’s function for a differential equation has twice as many independent variables as the differential equation has. This seems like we’re making a mess of things. It’s all right. These new variables are the falsework, the scaffolding. Once they’ve helped us get our work done they disappear. This kind of thing we call a “dummy variable”. If x is the actual independent variable, then pick something else — s is a good choice — for the dummy variable. It’s from the same domain as the original x, though. So the Green’s function is some G(f, s) . All right, but how do you find it?

To get this, you have to solve a particular special case of the differential equation. You have to solve:

L G(f, s) = \delta(x - s)

This may look like we’re not getting anywhere. It may even look like we’re getting in more trouble. What is this \delta(x - s) , for example? Well, this is a particular and famous thing called the Dirac delta function. It’s called a function as a courtesy to our mathematical physics friends, who don’t care about whether it truly is a function. Dirac is Paul Dirac, from over in physics. The one whose biography is called The Strangest Man. His delta function is a strange function. Let me say that its independent variable is t. Then \delta(t) is zero, unless t is itself zero. If t is zero then \delta(t) is … something. What is that something? … Oh … something big. It’s … just … don’t look directly at it. What’s important is the integral of this function:

\int_D\delta(t) dt =  0, \mbox{ if 0 is not in D} \\  \int_D\delta(t) dt = 1, \mbox{ if 0 is in D}

I write it this way because there’s delta functions for two-dimensional spaces, three-dimensional spaces, everything. If you integrate over a region that includes the origin, the integral of the delta function is 1. If you integrate over a region that doesn’t, the integral of the delta function is 0.

The delta function has a neat property sometimes called filtering. This is what happens if you integrate some function times the Dirac delta function. Then …

\int_D f(t)\delta(t) dt =  0, \mbox{ if 0 is not in D} \\  \int_D f(t)\delta(t) dt = f(0), \mbox{ if 0 is in D}

This may look dumb. That’s fine. This scheme is so good at getting rid of integrals where you don’t want them. Or at getting integrals in where it’d be convenient to have.

So, I have a mental model of what the Dirac delta function does. It might help you. Think of beating a drum. It can sound like many different things. It depends on how hard you hit it, how fast you hit it, what kind of stick you use, where exactly you hit it. I think of each differential equation as a different drumhead. The Green’s function is then the sound of a specific, uniform, reference hit at a reference position. This produces a sound. I can use that sound to extrapolate how every different sort of drumming would sound on this particular drumhead.

So solving this one differential equation, to find the Green’s function for a particular case, may be hard. Maybe not. Often it’s easier than some particular f(x) because the Dirac delta function is so weird that it becomes kinda easy-ish. But you do have to find one solution to this differential equation, somehow.

Once you do, though? Once you have this G(x, s) ? That is glorious. Because then, whatever your f is? The solution to Lu(x) = f(x) is:

u(x) = \int G(x, s) f(s) ds

Here the integral is over whatever the domain of the differential equation is, and whatever the domain of f is. This last integral is where the dummy variable finally evaporates. All that remains is x, as we want.

A little bit of … arithmetic isn’t the right word. But symbol manipulation will convince you this is right, if you need convincing. (The trick is remembering that ‘x’ and ‘s’ are different variables. When you differentiate with respect to ‘x’, ‘s’ acts like a constant. When you integrate with respect to ‘s’, ‘x’ acts like a constant.)

What can make a Green’s function worth finding is that we do a lot of the same kinds of differential equations. We do a lot of diffusion problems. A lot of wave transmission problems. A lot of wave-transmission-with-losses problems. So there are many problems that can all use the same tools to solve.

Consider remote detection problems. This can include things like finding things underground. It also includes, like, medical sensors. We would like to know “what kind of thing produces a signal like this?” We can detect the signal easily enough. We can model how whatever it is between the thing and our sensors changes what we could detect. (This kind of thing we call an “inverse problem”, finding the thing that could produce what we know.) Green’s functions are one of the ways we can get at the source of what we can see.

Now, Green’s functions are a powerful and useful idea. They sprawl over a lot of mathematical applications. As they do, they pick up regional dialects. Things like deciding that LG(x, s) = - \delta(x - s) , for example. None of these are significant differences. But before you go poking into someone else’s field and solving their problems, take a moment. Double-check that their symbols do mean precisely what you think they mean. It’ll save you some petty quarrels.


I should have the ‘H’ essay in the Fall 2019 series on Thursday. That and all other Fall 2019 A To Z posts should be at this link.

Also, I really don’t like how those systems of equations turned out up at the top of this essay. But I couldn’t work out how to do arrays of equations all lined up along the equals sign, or other mildly advanced LaTeX stuff like doing a function-definition-by-cases. If someone knows of the Real Official Proper List of what you can and can’t do with the LaTeX that comes from a standard free WordPress.com blog I’d appreciate a heads-up. Thank you.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Fourier series


Today’s A To Z term came to me from two nominators. One was @aajohannas, again offering a great topic. Another was Mr Wu, author of the Singapore Maths Tuition blog. I hope neither’s disappointed here.

Fourier series are named for Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier, and are maybe the greatest example of the theory that’s brilliantly wrong. Anyone can be wrong about something. There’s genius in being wrong in a way that gives us good new insights into things. Fourier series were developed to understand how the fluid we call “heat” flows through and between objects. Heat is not a fluid. So what? Pretending it’s a fluid gives us good, accurate results. More, you don’t need to use Fourier series to work with a fluid. Or a thing you’re pretending is a fluid. It works for lots of stuff. The Fourier series method challenged assumptions mathematicians had made about how functions worked, how continuity worked, how differential equations worked. These problems could be sorted out. It took a lot of work. It challenged and expended our ideas of functions.

Fourier also managed to hold political offices in France during the Revolution, the Consulate, the Empire, the Bourbon Restoration, the Hundred Days, and the Second Bourbon Restoration without getting killed for his efforts. If nothing else this shows the depth of his talents.

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Fourier series.

So, how do you solve differential equations? As long as they’re linear? There’s usually something we can do. This is one approach. It works well. It has a bit of a weird setup.

The weirdness of the setup: you want to think of functions as points in space. The allegory is rather close. Think of the common association between a point in space and the coordinates that describe that point. Pretend those are the same thing. Then you can do stuff like add points together. That is, take the coordinates of both points. Add the corresponding coordinates together. Match that sum-of-coordinates to a point. This gives us the “sum” of two points. You can subtract points from one another, again by going through their coordinates. Multiply a point by a constant and get a new point. Find the angle between two points. (This is the angle formed by the line segments connecting the origin and both points.)

Functions can work like this. You can add functions together and get a new function. Subtract one function from another. Multiply a function by a constant. It’s even possible to describe an “angle” between two functions. Mathematicians usually call that the dot product or the inner product. But we will sometimes call two functions “orthogonal”. That means the ordinary everyday meaning of “orthogonal”, if anyone said “orthogonal” in ordinary everyday life.

We can take equations of a bunch of variables and solve them. Call the values of that solution the coordinates of a point. Then we talk about finding the point where something interesting happens. Or the points where something interesting happens. We can do the same with differential equations. This is finding a point in the space of functions that makes the equation true. Maybe a set of points. So we can find a function or a family of functions solving the differential equation.

You have reasons for skepticism, even if you’ll grant me treating functions as being like points in space. You might remember solving systems of equations. You need as many equations as there are dimensions of space; a two-dimensional space needs two equations. A three-dimensional space needs three equations. You might have worked four equations in four variables. You were threatened with five equations in five variables if you didn’t all settle down. You’re not sure how many dimensions of space “all the possible functions” are. It’s got to be more than the one differential equation we started with.

This is fair. The approach I’m talking about uses the original differential equation, yes. But it breaks it up into a bunch of linear equations. Enough linear equations to match the space of functions. We turn a differential equation into a set of linear equations, a matrix problem, like we know how to solve. So that settles that.

So suppose f(x) solves the differential equation. Here I’m going to pretend that the function has one independent variable. Many functions have more than this. Doesn’t matter. Everything I say here extends into two or three or more independent variables. It takes longer and uses more symbols and we don’t need that. The thing about f(x) is that we don’t know what it is, but would quite like to.

What we’re going to do is choose a reference set of functions that we do know. Let me call them g_0(x), g_1(x), g_2(x), g_3(x), \cdots going on to however many we need. It can be infinitely many. It certainly is at least up to some g_N(x) for some big enough whole number N. These are a set of “basis functions”. For any function we want to represent we can find a bunch of constants, called coefficients. Let me use a_0, a_1, a_2, a_3, \cdots to represent them. Any function we want is the sum of the coefficient times the matching basis function. That is, there’s some coefficients so that

f(x) = a_0\cdot g_0(x) + a_1\cdot g_1(x) + a_2\cdot g_2(x) + a_3\cdot g_3(x) + \cdots

is true. That summation goes on until we run out of basis functions. Or it runs on forever. This is a great way to solve linear differential equations. This is because we know the basis functions. We know everything we care to know about them. We know their derivatives. We know everything on the right-hand side except the coefficients. The coefficients matching any particular function are constants. So the derivatives of f(x) , written as the sum of coefficients times basis functions, are easy to work with. If we need second or third or more derivatives? That’s no harder to work with.

You may know something about matrix equations. That is that solving them takes freaking forever. The bigger the equation, the more forever. If you have to solve eight equations in eight unknowns? If you start now, you might finish in your lifetime. For this function space? We need dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of equations and as many unknowns. Maybe infinitely many. So we seem to have a solution that’s great apart from how we can’t use it.

Except. What if the equations we have to solve are all easy? If we have to solve a bunch that looks like, oh, 2a_0 = 4 and 3a_1 = -9 and 2a_2 = 10 … well, that’ll take some time, yes. But not forever. Great idea. Is there any way to guarantee that?

It’s in the basis functions. If we pick functions that are orthogonal, or are almost orthogonal, to each other? Then we can turn the differential equation into an easy matrix problem. Not as easy as in the last paragraph. But still, not hard.

So what’s a good set of basis functions?

And here, about 800 words later than everyone was expecting, let me introduce the sine and cosine functions. Sines and cosines make great basis functions. They don’t grow without bounds. They don’t dwindle to nothing. They’re easy to differentiate. They’re easy to integrate, which is really special. Most functions are hard to integrate. We even know what they look like. They’re waves. Some have long wavelengths, some short wavelengths. But waves. And … well, it’s easy to make sets of them orthogonal.

We have to set some rules. The first is that each of these sine and cosine basis functions have a period. That is, after some time (or distance), they repeat. They might repeat before that. Most of them do, in fact. But we’re guaranteed a repeat after no longer than some period. Call that period ‘L’.

Each of these sine and cosine basis functions has to have a whole number of complete oscillations within the period L. So we can say something about the sine and cosine functions. They have to look like these:

s_j(x) = \sin\left(\frac{2\pi j}{L} x\right)

c_k(x) = \cos\left(\frac{2\pi k}{L} x\right)

Here ‘j’ and ‘k’ are some whole numbers. I have two sets of basis functions at work here. Don’t let that throw you. We could have labelled them all as g_k(x) , with some clever scheme that told us for a given k whether it represents a sine or a cosine. It’s less hard work if we have s’s and c’s. And if we have coefficients of both a’s and b’s. That is, we suppose the function f(x) is:

f(x) = \frac{1}{2}a_0 + b_1 s_1(x) + a_1 c_1(x) + b_2 s_2(x) + a_2 s_2(x) + b_3 s_3(x) + a_3 c_3(x) + \cdots

This, at last, is the Fourier series. Each function has its own series. A “series” is a summation. It can be of finitely many terms. It can be of infinitely many. Often infinitely many terms give more interesting stuff. Like this, for example. Oh, and there’s a bare \frac{1}{2}a_0 there, not multiplied by anything more complicated. It makes life easier. It lets us see that the Fourier series for, like, 3 + f(x) is the same as the Fourier series for f(x), except for the leading term. The ½ before that makes easier some work that’s outside the scope of this essay. Accept it as one of the merry, wondrous appearances of ‘2’ in mathematics expressions.

It’s great for solving differential equations. It’s also great for encryption. The sines and the cosines are standard functions, after all. We can send all the information we need to reconstruct a function by sending the coefficients for it. This can also help us pick out signal from noise. Noise has a Fourier series that looks a particular way. If you take the coefficients for a noisy signal and remove that? You can get a good approximation of the original, noiseless, signal.

This all seems great. That’s a good time to feel skeptical. First, like, not everything we want to work with looks like waves. Suppose we need a function that looks like a parabola. It’s silly to think we can add a bunch of sines and cosines and get a parabola. Like, a parabola isn’t periodic, to start with.

So it’s not. To use Fourier series methods on something that’s not periodic, we use a clever technique: we tell a fib. We declare that the period is something bigger than we care about. Say the period is, oh, ten million years long. A hundred light-years wide. Whatever. We trust that the difference between the function we do want, and the function that we calculate, will be small. We trust that if someone ten million years from now and a hundred light-years away wishes to complain about our work, we will be out of the office that day. Letting the period L be big enough is a good reliable tool.

The other thing? Can we approximate any function as a Fourier series? Like, at least chunks of parabolas? Polynomials? Chunks of exponential growths or decays? What about sawtooth functions, that rise and fall? What about step functions, that are constant for a while and then jump up or down?

The answer to all these questions is “yes,” although drawing out the word and raising a finger to say there are some issues we have to deal with. One issue is that most of the time, we need an infinitely long series to represent a function perfectly. This is fine if we’re trying to prove things about functions in general rather than solve some specific problem. It’s no harder to write the sum of infinitely many terms than the sum of finitely many terms. You write an ∞ symbol instead of an N in some important places. But if we want to solve specific problems? We probably want to deal with finitely many terms. (I hedge that statement on purpose. Sometimes it turns out we can find a formula for all the infinitely many coefficients.) This will usually give us an approximation of the f(x) we want. The approximation can be as good as we want, but to get a better approximation we need more terms. Fair enough. This kind of tradeoff doesn’t seem too weird.

Another issue is in discontinuities. If f(x) jumps around? If it has some point where it’s undefined? If it has corners? Then the Fourier series has problems. Summing up sines and cosines can’t give us a sudden jump or a gap or anything. Near a discontinuity, the Fourier series will get this high-frequency wobble. A bigger jump, a bigger wobble. You may not blame the series for not representing a discontinuity. But it does mean that what is, otherwise, a pretty good match for the f(x) you want gets this region where it stops being so good a match.

That’s all right. These issues aren’t bad enough, or unpredictable enough, to keep Fourier series from being powerful tools. Even when we find problems for which sines and cosines are poor fits, we use this same approach. Describe a function we would like to know as the sums of functions we choose to work with. Fourier series are one of those ideas that helps us solve problems, and guides us to new ways to solve problems.


This is my last big essay for the week. All of Fall 2019 A To Z posts should be at this link. The letter G should get its chance on Tuesday and H next Thursday. I intend to have A To Z essays should be available at this link. If you’d like to nominate topics for essays, I’m asking for the letters I through N at this link. Thank you.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Encryption schemes


Today’s A To Z term is encryption schemes. It’s another suggested by aajohannas. It’s a chance to dip into information theory.

Mr Wu, author of the Mathtuition88 blog, suggested the Extreme Value Theorem. I was tempted and then realized that I had written this in the 2018 A-to-Z, as the “X” letter. The end of the alphabet has a shortage of good mathematics words. Sometimes we have to work around problems.

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Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Encryption schemes.

Why encrypt anything?

The oldest reason is to hide a message, at least from all but select recipients. Ancient encryption methods will substitute one letter for another, or will mix up the order of letters in a message. This won’t hide a message forever. But it will slow down a person trying to decrypt the message until they decide they don’t need to know what it says. Or decide to bludgeon the message-writer into revealing the secret.

Substituting one letter for another won’t stop an eavesdropper from working out the message. Not indefinitely, anyway. There are patterns in the language. Any language, but take English as an example. A single-letter word is either ‘I’ or ‘A’. A two-letter word has a great chance of being ‘in’, ‘on’, ‘by’, ‘of’, ‘an’, or a couple other choices. Solving this is a fun pastime, for people who like this. If you need it done fast, let a computer work it out.

To hide the message better requires being cleverer. For example, you could substitue letters according to a slightly different scheme for each letter in the original message. The Vignère cipher is an example of this. I remember some books from my childhood, written in the second person. They had programs that you-the-reader could type in to live the thrill of being a child secret agent computer programmer. This encryption scheme was one of the programs used for passing on messages. We can make the plans more complicated yet, but that won’t give us better insight yet.

The objective is to turn the message into something less predictable. An encryption which turns, say, ‘the’ into ‘rgw’ will slow the reader down. But if they pay attention and notice, oh, the text also has the words ‘rgwm’, ‘rgey’, and rgwb’ turn up a lot? It’s hard not to suspect these are ‘the’, ‘them’, ‘they’, and ‘then’. If a different three-letter code is used for every appearance of ‘the’, good. If there’s a way to conceal the spaces as something else, that’s even better, if we want it harder to decrypt the message.

So the messages hardest to decrypt should be the most random. We can give randomness a precise definition. We owe it to information theory, which is the study of how to encode and successfully transmit and decode messages. In this, the information content of a message is its entropy. Yes, the same word as used to describe broken eggs and cream stirred into coffee. The entropy measures how likely each possible message is. Encryption matches the message you really want with a message of higher entropy. That is, one that’s harder to predict. Decrypting reverses that matching.

So what goes into a message? We call them words, or codewords, so we have a clear noun to use. A codeword is a string of letters from an agreed-on alphabet. The terminology draws from common ordinary language. Cryptography grew out of sending sentences.

But anything can be the letters of the alphabet. Any string of them can be a codeword. An unavoidable song from my childhood told the story of a man asking his former lover to tie a yellow ribbon around an oak tree. This is a tiny alphabet, but it only had to convey two words, signalling whether she was open to resuming their relationship. Digital computers use an alphabet of two memory states. We label them ‘0’ and ‘1’, although we could as well label them +5 and -5, or A and B, or whatever. It’s not like actual symbols are scrawled very tight into the chips. Morse code uses dots and dashes and short and long pauses. Naval signal flags have a set of shapes and patterns to represent the letters of the alphabet, as well as common or urgent messages. There is not a single universally correct number of letters or length of words for encryption. It depends on what the code will be used for, and how.

Naval signal flags help me to my next point. There’s a single pattern which, if shown, communicates the message “I require a pilot”. Another, “I am on fire and have dangerous cargo”. Still another, “All persons should report on board as the vessel is about to set to sea”. These are whole sentences; they’re encrypted into a single letter.

And this is the second great use of encryption. English — any human language — has redundancy to it. Think of the sentence “No, I’d rather not go out this evening”. It’s polite, but is there anything in it not communicated by texting back “N”? An encrypted message is, often, shorter than the original. To send a message costs something. Time, if nothing else. To send it more briefly is typically better.

There are dangers to this. Strike out any word from “No, I’d rather not go out this evening”. Ask someone to guess what belongs there. Only the extroverts will have trouble. I guess if you strike out “evening” people might guess “time” or “weekend” or something. The sentiment of the sentence endures.

But strike out a letter from “N” and ask someone to guess what was meant. And this is a danger of encryption. The encrypted message has a higher entropy, a higher unpredictability. If some mistake happens in transmission, we’re lost.

We can fight this. It’s possible to build checks into an encryption. To carry a bit of extra information that lets one know that the message was garbled. These are “error-detecting codes”. It’s even possible to carry enough extra information to correct some errors. These are “error-correcting codes”. There are limits, of course. This kind of error-correcting takes calculation time and message space. We lose some economy but gain reliability. There is a general lesson in this.

And not everything can compress. There are (if I’m reading this right) 26 letter, 10 numeral, and four repeater flags used under the International Code of Symbols. So there are at most 40 signals that could be reduced to a single flag. If we need to communicate “I am on fire but have no dangerous cargo” we’re at a loss. We have to spell things out more. It’s a quick proof, by way of the pigeonhole principle, which tells us that not every message can compress. But this is all right. There are many messages we will never need to send. (“I am on fire and my cargo needs updates on Funky Winkerbean.”) If it’s mostly those that have no compressed version, who cares?

Encryption schemes are almost as flexible as language itself. There are families of kinds of schemes. This lets us fit schemes to needs: how many different messages do we need to be able to send? How sure do we need to be that errors are corrected? Or that errors are detected? How hard do we want it to be for eavesdroppers to decode the message? Are we able to set up information with the intended recipients separately? What we need, and what we are willing to do without, guide the scheme we use.


Thank you again for reading. All of Fall 2019 A To Z posts should be at this link. I hope to have a letter F piece on Thursday. All of the A To Z essays should be at this link and if I can sort out some trouble with the first two, they will be soon. And if you’d like to nominate topics for essays, I’m asking for the letters I through N at this link.

I Ask For The Second Topics For My Fall 2019 Mathematics A-to-Z


We’re only in the third week of the Fall 2019 Mathematics A-to-Z, but this is when I should be nailing down topics for the next several letters. So again, I ask you kind readers for suggestions. I’ve done five A-to-Z sequences before, from 2015 through 2018, and am listing the essays I’ve already written for the middle part of the alphabet. I’m open to revisiting topics, if I think I can improve on what I already wrote. But I reserve the right to use whatever topic feels most interesting to me.

To suggest anything for the letters I through N please leave the comment here. Also do please let me know if you have a mathematics blog, a Twitter or Mathstodon account, a YouTube channel, or anything else that you’d like to share.

I.

J.

K.

L.

M.

N.

I thank you again you for any thoughts you have. Please ask if there are any questions. I hope to be open to topics in any field of mathematics, including ones I don’t really know. The fun and terror of writing about a thing I’m only learning about is part of what I get from this kind of project.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Differential Equations


The thing most important to know about differential equations is that for short, we call it “diff eq”. This is pronounced “diffy q”. It’s a fun name. People who aren’t taking mathematics smile when they hear someone has to get to “diffy q”.

Sometimes we need to be more exact. Then the less exciting names “ODE” and “PDE” get used. The meaning of the “DE” part is an easy guess. The meaning of “O” or “P” will be clear by the time this essay’s finished. We can find approximate answers to differential equations by computer. This is known generally as “numerical solutions”. So you will encounter talk about, say, “NSPDE”. There’s an implied “of” between the S and the P there. I don’t often see “NSODE”. For some reason, probably a quite arbitrary historical choice, this is just called “numerical integration” instead.

To write about “differential equations” was suggested by aajohannas, who is on Twitter as @aajohannas.

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Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Differential Equations.

One of algebra’s unsettling things is the idea that we can work with numbers without knowing their values. We can give them names, like ‘x’ or ‘a’ or ‘t’. We can know things about them. Often it’s equations telling us these things. We can make collections of numbers based on them all sharing some property. Often these things are solutions to equations. We can even describe changing those collections according to some rule, even before we know whether any of the numbers is 2. Often these things are functions, here matching one set of numbers to another.

One of analysis’s unsettling things is the idea that most things we can do with numbers we can also do with functions. We can give them names, like ‘f’ and ‘g’ and … ‘F’. That’s easy enough. We can add and subtract them. Multiply and divide. This is unsurprising. We can measure their sizes. This is odd but, all right. We can know things about functions even without knowing exactly what they are. We can group together collections of functions based on some properties they share. This is getting wild. We can even describe changing these collections according to some rule. This change is itself a function, but it is usually called an “operator”, saving us some confusion.

So we can describe a function in an equation. We may not know what f is, but suppose we know \sqrt{f(x) - 2} = x is true. We can suppose that if we cared we could find what function, or functions, f made that equation true. There is shorthand here. A function has a domain, a range, and a rule. The equation part helps us find the rule. The domain and range we get from the problem. Or we take the implicit rule that both are the biggest sets of real-valued numbers for which the rule parses. Sometimes biggest sets of complex-valued numbers. We get so used to saying “the function” to mean “the rule for the function” that we’ll forget to say that’s what we’re doing.

There are things we can do with functions that we can’t do with numbers. Or at least that are too boring to do with numbers. The most important here is taking derivatives. The derivative of a function is another function. One good way to think of a derivative is that it describes how a function changes when its variables change. (The derivative of a number is zero, which is boring except when it’s also useful.) Derivatives are great. You learn them in Intro Calculus, and there are a bunch of rules to follow. But follow them and you can pretty much take the derivative of any function even if it’s complicated. Yes, you might have to look up what the derivative of the arc-hyperbolic-secant is. Nobody has ever used the arc-hyperbolic-secant, except to tease a student.

And the derivative of a function is itself a function. So you can take a derivative again. Mathematicians call this the “second derivative”, because we didn’t expect someone would ask what to call it and we had to say something. We can take the derivative of the second derivative. This is the “third derivative” because by then changing the scheme would be awkward. If you need to talk about taking the derivative some large but unspecified number of times, this is the n-th derivative. Or m-th, if you’ve already used ‘n’ to mean something else.

And now we get to differential equations. These are equations in which we describe a function using at least one of its derivatives. The original function, that is, f, usually appears in the equation. It doesn’t have to, though.

We divide the earth naturally (we think) into two pairs of hemispheres, northern and southern, eastern and western. We divide differential equations naturally (we think) into two pairs of two kinds of differential equations.

The first division is into linear and nonlinear equations. I’ll describe the two kinds of problem loosely. Linear equations are the kind you don’t need a mathematician to solve. If the equation has solutions, we can write out procedures that find them, like, all the time. A well-programmed computer can solve them exactly. Nonlinear equations, meanwhile, are the kind no mathematician can solve. They’re just too hard. There’s no processes that are sure to find an answer.

You may ask. We don’t need mathematicians to solve linear equations. Mathematicians can’t solve nonlinear ones. So what do we need mathematicians for? The answer is that I exaggerate. Linear equations aren’t quite that simple. Nonlinear equations aren’t quite that hopeless. There are nonlinear equations we can solve exactly, for example. This usually involves some ingenious transformation. We find a linear equation whose solution guides us to the function we do want.

And that is what mathematicians do in such a field. A nonlinear differential equation may, generally, be hopeless. But we can often find a linear differential equation which gives us insight to what we want. Finding that equation, and showing that its answers are relevant, is the work.

The other hemispheres we call ordinary differential equations and partial differential equations. In form, the difference between them is the kind of derivative that’s taken. If the function’s domain is more than one dimension, then there are different kinds of derivative. Or as normal people put it, if the function has more than one independent variable, then there are different kinds of derivatives. These are partial derivatives and ordinary (or “full”) derivatives. Partial derivatives give us partial differential equations. Ordinary derivatives give us ordinary differential equations. I think it’s easier to understand a partial derivative.

Suppose a function depends on three variables, imaginatively named x, y, and z. There are three partial first derivatives. One describes how the function changes if we pretend y and z are constants, but let x change. This is the “partial derivative with respect to x”. Another describes how the function changes if we pretend x and z are constants, but let y change. This is the “partial derivative with respect to y”. The third describes how the function changes if we pretend x and y are constants, but let z change. You can guess what we call this.

In an ordinary differential equation we would still like to know how the function changes when x changes. But we have to admit that a change in x might cause a change in y and z. So we have to account for that. If you don’t see how such a thing is possible don’t worry. The differential equations textbook has an example in which you wish to measure something on the surface of a hill. Temperature, usually. Maybe rainfall or wind speed. To move from one spot to another a bit east of it is also to move up or down. The change in (let’s say) x, how far east you are, demands a change in z, how far above sea level you are.

That’s structure, though. What’s more interesting is the meaning. What kinds of problems do ordinary and partial differential equations usually represent? Partial differential equations are great for describing surfaces and flows and great bulk masses of things. If you see an equation about how heat transmits through a room? That’s a partial differential equation. About how sound passes through a forest? Partial differential equation. About the climate? Partial differential equations again.

Ordinary differential equations are great for describing a ball rolling on a lumpy hill. It’s given an initial push. There are some directions (downhill) that it’s easier to roll in. There’s some directions (uphill) that it’s harder to roll in, but it can roll if the push was hard enough. There’s maybe friction that makes it roll to a stop.

Put that way it’s clear all the interesting stuff is partial differential equations. Balls on lumpy hills are nice but who cares? Miniature golf course designers and that’s all. This is because I’ve presented it to look silly. I’ve got you thinking of a “ball” and a “hill” as if I meant balls and hills. Nah. It’s usually possible to bundle a lot of information about a physical problem into something that looks like a ball. And then we can bundle the ways things interact into something that looks like a hill.

Like, suppose we have two blocks on a shared track, like in a high school physics class. We can describe their positions as one point in a two-dimensional space. One axis is where on the track the first block is, and the other axis is where on the track the second block is. Physics problems like this also usually depend on momentum. We can toss these in too, an axis that describes the momentum of the first block, and another axis that describes the momentum of the second block.

We’re already up to four dimensions, and we only have two things, both confined to one track. That’s all right. We don’t have to draw it. If we do, we draw something that looks like a two- or three-dimensional sketch, maybe with a note that says “D = 4” to remind us. There’s some point in this four-dimensional space that describes these blocks on the track. That’s the “ball” for this differential equation.

The things that the blocks can do? Like, they can collide? They maybe have rubber tips so they bounce off each other? Maybe someone’s put magnets on them so they’ll draw together or repel? Maybe there’s a spring connecting them? These possible interactions are the shape of the hills that the ball representing the system “rolls” over. An impenetrable barrier, like, two things colliding, is a vertical wall. Two things being attracted is a little divot. Two things being repulsed is a little hill. Things like that.

Now you see why an ordinary differential equation might be interesting. It can capture what happens when many separate things interact.

I write this as though ordinary and partial differential equations are different continents of thought. They’re not. When you model something you make choices and they can guide you to ordinary or to partial differential equations. My own research work, for example, was on planetary atmospheres. Atmospheres are fluids. Representing how fluids move usually calls for partial differential equations. But my own interest was in vortices, swirls like hurricanes or Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. Since I was acting as if the atmosphere was a bunch of storms pushing each other around, this implied ordinary differential equations.

There are more hemispheres of differential equations. They have names like homogenous and non-homogenous. Coupled and decoupled. Separable and nonseparable. Exact and non-exact. Elliptic, parabolic, and hyperbolic partial differential equations. Don’t worry about those labels. They relate to how difficult the equations are to solve. What ways they’re difficult. In what ways they break computers trying to approximate their solutions.

What’s interesting about these, besides that they represent many physical problems, is that they capture the idea of feedback. Of control. If a system’s current state affects how it’s going to change, then it probably has a differential equation describing it. Many systems change based on their current state. So differential equations have long been near the center of professional mathematics. They offer great and exciting pure questions while still staying urgent and relevant to real-world problems. They’re great things.


Thanks again for reading. All Fall 2019 A To Z posts should be at this link. I should get to the letter E for Tuesday. All of the A To Z essays should be at this link. If you have thoughts about other topics I might cover, please offer suggestions for the letters G and H.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Category Theory


Today’s A To Z term is category theory. It was suggested by aajohannas, on Twitter as @aajohannas. It’s a topic I have long wanted to know better, and that every year or so I make a new attempt to try learning without ever feeling like I’ve made progress.

The language of it is beautiful, though. Much of its work is attractive just to see, too, as the field’s developed notation that could be presented as visual art. Much of mathematics could be visual art, yes, but these are art you can almost create in ASCII. It’s amazing.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Category Theory.

What is the most important part of mathematics? Well, the part you wish you understood, yes. But what’s the fundamental part? The piece of mathematics that we could feel most sure an alien intelligence would agree is mathematics?

There’s idle curiosity behind this, yes. It’s a question implicit in some ideals of the Enlightenment. The notion that we should be able to find truths that all beings capable of reason would agree upon, and find themselves. Mathematics seems particularly good for this. If we have something proven by deductive logic from clearly stated axioms and definitions, then we know something true.

There’s practicality too. In the late 19th and early 20th century (western) mathematics tried to find logically rigorous foundations. You might have thought we always had that and, uh, not so much. It turns out a complete rigorous logical proof of even simple stuff takes forever. Mathematicians compose enough of an argument to convince other mathematicians that we could fill in the details. But we still trusted there was a rigorous foundation. The question is, what is it?

A great candidate for this was set theory. This was a great breakthrough. The basic modern idea of set theory builds on bunches of things, called elements. And collections of those things, called sets. And we build rigorous ideas of what it means for elements to be members of sets. This doesn’t sound like much. Powerful ideas never do.

I don’t know that everyone’s intuition is like this. But my gut wants to think a “powerful” result is, like, a great rocket. Some enormous and prominent and mighty thing that blasts through a problem like gravity or an atmosphere. This is almost the opposite of what mathematics means by “powerful”. A rocket is a fiddly, delicate thing. It has millions of components made to tight specifications. It can only launch when lots of conditions are exactly right. A theorem that gives a great result, but has a long list of prerequisites and lemmas that feed into it resembles this. A powerful mathematical result is more like the gravity that the rocket overcomes. It tends to suppose little about the situation, and so it provides results that are applicable over the whole field. Or over a wide field, or a surprising breadth of topics. And, really, mighty as a rocket might be, the gravity it fights is moreso.

So set theory is powerful. It can explain many things. Most amazing is that we can represent arithmetic with it. At least we can get to integers, and all that we do with integers, and that in not too much work. It makes sense that mathematicians latched onto this as critical. It fueled much of the thinking behind the New Math, the infamous attempted United States educational reform of the 1960s and 70s. I grew up in the tail end of this, learning unions and intersections and complements along with times tables and delighted in it.

But even before New Math became a coherent idea there was a better idea. Emmy Noether, mentioned yesterday, is not a part of it. But a part of her insight into physics, and into group theory, was an understanding of structure. That important mathematics results from considering what we can do with sets of things. And what things we can do that produce invariants, things that don’t change. Saunders Mac Lane, one of Noether’s students, and Samuel Eilenberg in the 1940s used what looks to me like this principle. They organized category theory.

Category Theory looks at first like set theory only made terrifying. I’m not very comfortable with it myself. It’s an abstract field, and I’m more at home with stuff I can write a quick Octave program to double-check. Many results in category theory are described, or even proved, with beautiful directed-graph lattices. They show how things relate to one another. This is definitely the field to study if you like drawing arrows.

Part of the statement of a theorem, which includes three squares showing relations between objects labelled A and A', D(I) and D'(I), lim D and lim D'.
I admit I don’t know what point is being proved here. But the square structure illustrated here, and the way successive squares will, say, replace lim D with A, or pI with fI, is almost a sestina. From page 145 of Dr Tom Leinster’s Basic Category Theory.

Just as set theory does, category theory starts with things, called objects. And these objects get piled together into collections. And then there’s another collection of relationships between these collections. These relationships you call maps or morphisms or arrows, based on whatever the first book you kind of understood called them. I’m partial to “maps”. And then we have rules by which these maps compose, that is, where two maps reduce to a single map. This bundle of things — the objects, the collections, and the maps — is a category.

These objects can start out looking like elements, and the collections like sets, and the maps like functions. This gives me, at least, a patch of ground where I feel like I know what I’m doing. But what we need of things to be objects and collections and maps is very little. The result is great power. We can describe set theory in the language of categories. So we can describe arithmetic in category theory. There’s a bit of a hike from the start of category theory to, like, knowing what 18 plus 7 is.

But we’re not bound to anything that concrete. We can describe, for example, groups as categories. This gives us results like when we can factor polynomials. Or whether compass and straightedge can trisect an arbitrary angle. (There’s some work behind this too.) We can describe vector spaces as categories. Heady results like the idea that one function might be orthogonal to another lurk within this field. Manifolds, spaces that work like normal space, are part of the field. So are topological spaces, which tell us about shapes.

If you aren’t yet dizzy then consider this. A category is itself an object. So we can define maps between categories. These we call functors. Which themselves have use in computer science, as a way some kinds of software can be programmed well. More, maps themselves are objects. We can define mappings between maps. These we call natural transformations. Which are the things that Eilenberg and Mac Lane were particularly interested in, to start with. Category theory grew in part out of needing a better understanding of natural transformations.

I do not know what to recommend for people who want to really learn category theory. I haven’t found the textbook or the blog that makes me feel like I am mastering the subject. Writing this essay has introduced me to Dr Tom Leinster’s Basic Category Theory, which I’ve enjoyed skimming. Exercise 3.3.1, for example, seems like exactly the sort of problem I would pose if I knew category theory well enough to write a book on it.

Is this, finally, the mathematics we could be sure an alien would recognize? I’m skeptical, but I always am. It seems to me we build mathematics on arithmetic and geometry. Category theory, seeming to offer explanations of both, is a natural foundation for that. But we are evolved to see the world in terms of number and shape. Of course we see arithmetic and geometry as mathematics. Can we count on every being capable of reason seeing the same things as important? … I admit I can’t imagine a being we might communicate with not recognizing both. But this may say more about the limits of my imagination than about the limits of what could be mathematics.


Thanks for reading. All the Fall 2019 A To Z posts should be at this link. I hope to have the second essay of the week posted Thursday. This year’s and all past A To Z sequences should be at this link. And if you have thoughts about other topics I might cover, please offer suggestions for the letters F through H.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Buffon’s Needle


Today’s A To Z term was suggested by Peter Mander. Mander authors CarnotCycle, which when I first joined WordPress was one of the few blogs discussing thermodynamics in any detail. When I last checked it still was, which is a shame. Thermodynamics is a fascinating field. It’s as deeply weird and counter-intuitive and important as quantum mechanics. Yet its principles are as familiar as a mug of warm tea on a chilly day. Mander writes at a more technical level than I usually do. But if you’re comfortable with calculus, or if you’re comfortable nodding at a line and agreeing that he wouldn’t fib to you about a thing like calculus, it’s worth reading.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Buffon’s Needle.

I’ve written of my fondness for boredom. A bored mind is not one lacking stimulation. It is one stimulated by anything, however petty. And in petty things we can find great surprises.

I do not know what caused Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, to discover the needle problem named for him. It seems like something born of a bored but active mind. Buffon had an active mind: he was one of Europe’s most important naturalists of the 1700s. He also worked in mathematics, and astronomy, and optics. It shows what one can do with an engaged mind and a large inheritance from one’s childless uncle who’s the tax farmer for all Sicily.

The problem, though. Imagine dropping a needle on a floor that has equally spaced parallel lines. What is the probability that the needle will land on any of the lines? It could occur to anyone with a wood floor who’s dropped a thing. (There is a similar problem which would occur to anyone with a tile floor.) They have only to be ready to ask the question. Buffon did this in 1733. He had it solved by 1777. We, with several centuries’ insight into probability and calculus, need less than 44 years to solve the question.

Let me use L as the length of the needle. And d as the spacing of the parallel lines. If the needle’s length is less than the spacing then this is an easy formula to write, and not too hard to calculate. The probability, P, of the needle crossing some line is:

P = \frac{2}{\pi}\frac{L}{d}

I won’t derive it rigorously. You don’t need me for that. The interesting question is whether this formula makes sense. That L and d are in it? Yes, that makes sense. The length of the needle and the gap between lines have to be in there. More, the probability has to have the ratio between the two. There’s different ways to argue this. Dimensional analysis convinces me, at least. Probability is a pure number. L is a measurement of length; d is a measurement of length. To get a pure number starting with L and d means one of them has to divide into the other. That L is in the numerator and d the denominator makes sense. A tiny needle has a tiny chance of crossing a line. A large needle has a large chance. That \frac{L}{d} is raised to the first power, rather than the second or third or such … well, that’s fair. A needle twice as long having twice the chance of crossing a line? That sounds more likely than a needle twice as long having four times the chance, or eight times the chance.

Does the 2 belong there? Hard to say. 2 seems like a harmless enough number. It appears in many respectable formulas. That π, though …

That π …

π comes to us from circles. We see it in calculations about circles and spheres all the time. We’re doing a problem with lines and line segments. What business does π have showing up?

We can find reasons. One way is to look at a similar problem. Imagine dropping a disc on these lines. What’s the chance the disc falls across some line? That’s the chance that the center of the disc is less than one radius from any of the lines. What if the disc has an equal chance of landing anywhere on the floor? Then it has a probability of \frac{L}{d} of crossing a line. If the radius is smaller than the distance between lines, anyway. If the radius is larger than that, the probability is 1.

Now draw a diameter line on this disc. What’s the chance that this diameter line crosses this floor line? That depends on a couple things. Whether the center of the disc is near enough a floor line. And what angle the diameter line makes with respect to the floor lines. If the diameter line is parallel the floor line there’s almost no chance. If the diameter line is perpendicular to the floor line there’s the best possible chance. But that angle might be anything.

Let me call that angle θ. The diameter line crosses the floor line if the diameter times the sine of θ is less than half the distance between floor lines. … Oh. Sine. Sine and cosine and all the trigonometry functions we get from studying circles, and how to draw triangles within circles. And this diameter-line problem looks the same as the needle problem. So that’s where π comes from.

I’m being figurative. I don’t think one can make a rigorous declaration that the π in the probability formula “comes from” this sine, any more than you can declare that the square-ness of a shape comes from any one side. But it gives a reason to believe that π belongs in the probability.

If the needle’s longer than the gap between floor lines, if L > d , there’s still a probability that the needle crosses at least one line. It never becomes certain. No matter how long the needle is it could fall parallel to all the floor lines and miss them all. The probability is instead:

P = \frac{2}{\pi}\left(\frac{L}{d} - \sqrt{\left(\frac{L}{d}\right)^2 - 1} + \sec^{-1}\left(\frac{L}{d}\right)\right)

Here \sec^{-1} is the world-famous arcsecant function. That is, it’s whatever angle has as its secant the number \frac{L}{d} . I don’t mean to insult you. I’m being kind to the person reading this first thing in the morning. I’m not going to try justifying this formula. You can play with numbers, though. You’ll see that if \frac{L}{d} is a little bit bigger than 1, the probability is a little more than what you get if \frac{L}{d} is a little smaller than 1. This is reassuring.

The exciting thing is arithmetic, though. Use the probability of a needle crossing a line, for short needles. You can re-write it as this:

\pi = 2\frac{L}{d}\frac{1}{P}

L and d you can find by measuring needles and the lines. P you can estimate. Drop a needle many times over. Count how many times you drop it, and how many times it crosses a line. P is roughly the number of crossings divided by the number of needle drops. Doing this gives you a way to estimate π. This gives you something to talk about on Pi Day.

It’s a rubbish way to find π. It’s a lot of work, plus you have to sweep needles off the floor. Well, you can do it in simulation and avoid the risk of stepping on an overlooked needle. But it takes a lot of needle-drops to get good results. To be certain you’ve calculated the first two decimal points correctly requires 3,380,000 needle-drops. Yes, yes. You could get lucky and happen to hit on an estimate of 3.14 for π with fewer needle-drops. But if you were sincerely trying to calculate the digits of π this way? If you did not know what they were? You would need the three and a third million tries to be confident you had the number correct.

So this result is, as a practical matter, useless. It’s a heady concept, though. We think casually of randomness as … randomness. Unpredictability. Sometimes we will speak of the Law of Large Numbers. This is several theorems in probability. They all point to the same result. That if some event has (say) a probability of one-third of happening, then given 30 million chances, it will happen quite close to 10 million times.

This π result is another casting of the Law of Large Numbers, and of the apparent paradox that true unpredictability is itself predictable. There is no way to predict whether any one dropped needle will cross any line. It doesn’t even matter whether any one needle crosses any line. An enormous number of needles, tossed without fear or favor, will fall in ways that embed π. The same π you get from comparing the circumference of a circle to its diameter. The same π you get from looking at the arc-cosine of a negative one.

I suppose we could use this also to calculate the value of 2, but that somehow seems to touch lesser majesties.


Thank you again for reading. All of the Fall 2019 A To Z posts should be at this link. This year’s and all past A To Z sequences should be at this link. I’ve made my picks for next week’s topics, and am fooling myself into thinking I have a rough outline for them already. But I’m still open for suggestions for the letters E through H and appreciate suggestions.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Abacus


Today’s A To Z term is the Abacus. It was suggested by aajohannas, on Twitter as @aajohannas. Particularly asked for was how to use an abacus. The abacus has been used by a great many cultures over thousands of years. So it’s hard to say that there is any one right way to use it. I’m going to get into a way to use it to compute, any more than there is a right way to use a hammer. There are many hammers, and many things to hammer. But there are similarities between all hammers, and the ways to use them as hammers are similar. So learning one kind, and one way to use that kind, can be a useful start.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Abacus.

I taught at the National University of Singapore in the first half of the 2000s. At the student union was this sheltered overhang formed by a stairwell. Underneath it, partly exposed to the elements (a common building style there) was a convenience store. Up front were the things with high turnover, snacks and pop and daily newspapers, that sort of thing. In the back, beyond the register, in the areas that the rain, the only non-gentle element, couldn’t reach even whipped by wind, were other things. Miscellaneous things. Exam bluebooks faded with age and dust. Good-luck cat statues colonized by spiderwebs. Unlabelled power cables for obsolete electronics. Once when browsing through this I encountered two things that I bought as badges of office.

One was a slide rule, a proper twelve-inch one. I’d had one already, a $2 six-inch-long one I’d gotten as an undergraduate from a convenience store the university had already decided to evict. The NUS one was a slide rule you could do actual work on. Another was a soroban, a compact Japanese abacus, in a patterned cardboard box a half-inch too short to hold it. I got both. For the novelty, yes. Also, I taught Computational Science. I felt it appropriate to have these iconic human computing devices.

But do I use them? Other than for decoration? … No, not really. I have too many calculators to need them. Also I am annoyed that while I can lay my hands on the slide rule I have put the soroban somewhere so logical and safe I can’t find it. A couple photographs would improve this essay. Too bad.

Do I know how to use them? If I find them? The slide rule, sure. If you know that a slide rule works via logarithms, and you play with it a little? You know how to use a slide rule. At least a little, after a bit of experimentation and playing with the three times table.

The abacus, though? How do you use that?

In childhood I heard about abacuses. That there’s a series of parallel rods, each with beads on them. Four placed below a center beam, one placed above. Sometimes two placed above. That the lower beads on a rod represent one each. That the upper bead represents five. That some people can do arithmetic on that faster than others can an electric calculator. And that was about all I got, or at least retained. How to do this arithmetic never penetrated my brain. I imagined, well, addition must be easy. Say you wanted to do three plus six, well, move three lower beads up to the center bar. Then slide one lower and one upper bead, for six, to the center bar, and read that off. Right?

The bizarre thing is my naive childhood idea is right. At least in the big picture. Let each rod represent one of the numbers in base-ten style. It’s anachronistic to the abacus’s origins to speak of a ones rod, a tens rod, a hundreds rod, and so on. So what? We’re using this tool today. We can use the ideas of base ten to make our understanding easier.

Pick a row of beads that you want to represent the ones. The row to the left of that represents tens. To the left of that, hundreds. To the right of the ones is the one-tenths, and the one-hundredths, and so on. This goes on to however far your need and however big your abacus is.

Move beads to the center to represent numbers you want. If you want ’21’, slide two lower beads up in the tens column and one lower bead in the ones column. If you want ’38’, slide three lower beads up in the tends column and one upper and three lower beads in the ones column.

To add two numbers, slide more beads representing those numbers toward the center bar. To subtract, slide beads away. Multiplication and division were beyond my young imagination. I’ll let them wait a bit.

There are complications. The complications are for good reason. When you master them, they make computation swifter. But you pay for that later speed with more time spent learning. This is a trade we make, and keep making, in computational mathematics. We make a process more reliable, more speedy, by making it less obvious.

Some of this isn’t too difficult. Like, work in one direction so far as possible. It’s easy to suppose this is better than jumping around from, say, the thousands digit to the tens to the hundreds to the ones. The advice I’ve read says work from the left to the right, that is, from the highest place to the lowest. Arithmetic as I learned it works from the ones to the tens to the hundreds, but this seems wiser. The most significant digits get calculated first this way. It’s usually more important to know the answer is closer to 2,000 than to 3,000 than to know that the answer ends in an 8 rather than a 6.

Some of this is subtle. This is to cope with practical problems. Suppose you want to add 5 to 6? There aren’t that many beads on any row. A Chinese abacus, which has two beads on the upper part, could cope with this particular problem. It’s going to be in trouble when you want to add 8 to 9, though. That’s not unique to an abacus. Any numerical computing technique can be broken by some problem. This is why it’s never enough to calculate; we still have to think. For example, thinking will let us handle this five plus six difficulty.

Consider this: four plus one is five. So four and one are “complementary numbers”, with respect to five. Similarly, three and two are five’s complementary numbers. So if we need to add four to a number, that’s equivalent to adding five and subtracting one. If we need to add two, that’s equivalent to adding five and subtracting three. This will get us through some shortages in bead count.

And consider this: four plus six is ten. So four and six are ten-complementary numbers. Similarly, three and seven are ten’s complementary numbers. Two and eight. One and nine. This gets us through much of the rest of the shortage.

So here’s how this works. Suppose we have 35, and wish to add 6 to it. There aren’t the beads to add six to the ones column. So? Instead subtract the complement of six. That is, add ten and subtract four. In moving across the rows, when you reach the tens, slide one lower bead up, making the abacus represent 45. Then from the ones column subtract four. that is, slide the upper bead away from the center bar, and slide the complement to four, one bead, up to the center. And now the abacus represents 41, just like it ought.

If you’re experienced enough you can reduce some of these operations, sliding the beads above and below the center bar at once. Or sliding a bead in the tens and another in the ones column at once. Don’t fret doing this. Worry about making correct steps. You’ll speed up with practice. I remember advice from a typesetting manual I collected once: “strive for consistent, regular keystrokes. Speed comes with practice. Errors are time-consuming to correct”. This is, mutatis mutandis, always good advice.

Subtraction works like addition. This should surprise few. If you have the beads in place, just remove them: four minus two takes no particular insight. If there aren’t enough beads? Fall back on complements. If you wish to do 35 minus 6? Set up 35, and calculate 35 minus 10 plus 4. When you get to the tens rod, slide one bead down; this leaves you with 25. Then in the ones column, slide four beads up. This leaves you with 29. I’m so glad these seem to be working out.

Doing longer additions and subtractions takes more rows, but not actually more work. 35.2 plus 6.4 is the same work as 35 plus 6 and 2 plus 4, each of which you, in principle, know how to do. 35.2 minus 6.4 is a bit more fuss. When you get to the 2 minus 4 bit you have to do that addition-of-complements stuff. But that’s not any new work.

Where the decimal point goes is something you have to keep track of. As with the slide rule, the magnitude of these numbers is notional. Your fingers move the same way to add 352 and 64 as they will 0.352 and 0.064. That’s convenient.

Multiplication gets more tedious. It demands paying attention to where the decimal point is. Just like the slide rule demands, come to think of it. You’ll need columns on the abacus for both the multiplicands and the product. And you’ll do a lot of adding up. But at heart? 2038 times 3.7 amounts to doing eight multiplications. 8 times 7, 3 times 7, 0 times 7 (OK, that one’s easy), 2 times 7, 3 times 7, 3 times 3, 0 times 3 (again, easy), and 2 times 3. And then add up these results in the correct columns. This may be tedious, but it’s not hard. It does mean the abacus doesn’t spare you having to know some times tables. I mean, you could use the abacus to work out 8 times 7 by adding seven to itself over and over, but that’s time-consuming. You can save time, and calculation steps, by memorization. By knowing some answers ahead of time.

Totton Heffelfinger and Gary Flom’s page, from which I’m drawing almost all my practical advice, offers a good notation of lettering the rods of the abacus, A, B, C, D, and so on. To multiply, say, 352 by 64 start by putting the 64 on rods BC. Set the 352 on rods EFG. We’ll get the answer with rod K as the ones column. 2 times 4 is 8; put that on rod K. 5 times 4 is 20; add that to rods IJ. 3 times 4 is 12; add that to rods HI. 2 times 6 is 12; add that to rods IJ. 5 times 6 is 30; add that to rods HI. 3 times 6 is 18; add that to rods GH. All going well this should add up to 22,528, spread out along rods GHIJK. I can see right away at least the 8 is correct.

You would do the same physical steps to multiply, oh, 3.52 by 0.0064. You have to take care of the decimal place yourself, though.

I see you, in the back there, growing suspicious. I’ll come around to this. Don’t worry.

Division is … oh, I have to fess up. Division is not something I feel comfortable with. I can read the instructions and repeat the examples given. I haven’t done it enough to have that flash where I understand the point of things. I recognize what’s happening. It’s the work of division as done by hand. You know, 821 divided by 56 worked out by, well, 56 goes into 82 once with a remainder of 26. Then drop down the 1 to make this 261. 56 goes into 261 … oh, it would be so nice if it went five times, but it doesn’t. It goes in four times, with a remainder of 37. I can walk you through the steps but all I am truly doing is trying to keep up with Totton Heffelfinger and Gary Flom’s instructions here.

There are, I read, also schemes to calculate square roots on the abacus. I don’t know that there are cube-root schemes also. I would bet on there being such, though.

Never mind, though. The suspicious thing I expect you’ve noticed is the steps being done. They’re represented as sliding beads along rods, yes. But the meaning of these steps? They’re the same steps you would do by doing arithmetic on paper. Sliding two beads and then two more beads up to the center bar isn’t any different from looking at 2 + 2 and representing that as 4. All this ten’s-complement stuff to subtract one number from another is just … well, I learned it as subtraction by “borrowing”. I don’t know the present techniques but I’m sure they’re at heart the same. But the work is eerily like what you would do on paper, using Arabic numerals.

The slide rule uses a logarithm-based ruler. This makes the addition of distances along the slides match the multiplication of the values of the rulers. What does the abacus do to help us compute?

Why use an abacus?

What an abacus gives us is memory. It stores numbers. It lets us break a big problem into a series of small problems. It lets us keep a partial computation while we work through those steps. We don’t add 35.2 to 6.4. We add 3 to 0 and 5 to 6 and 2 to 4. We don’t multiply 2038 by 3.7. We multiply 8 by 7, and 8 by 3, and 3 by 7, and 3 by 3, and so on.

And this is most of numerical computing, even today. We describe what we want to do as these high-level operations. But the computation is a lot of calculations, each one of them simple. We use some memory to hold partially completed results. Memory, the ability to store results, lets us change hard problems into long strings of simple ones.

We do more things the way the abacus encourages. We even use those complementary numbers. Not five’s or ten’s complements, not with binary arithmetic computers. Two’s complement arithmetic makes it possible to subtract, or write negative numbers, in ways that are easy to calculate. That there are a set number of rods even has its parallel in modern computing. When representing a real number on the computer we have only so many decimal places. (Yes, yes, binary digit places.) At least unless we use a weird data structure. This affects our calculations. There are numbers we can’t represent perfectly, such as one-third. We need to think about whether this affects what we are using our calculation for.

There are major differences between a digital computer and a person using the abacus. But the processes are similar. This may help us to understand why computational science works the way it does. It may at least help us understand those contests in the 1950s where the abacus user was faster than the calculator user.

But no, I confess, I only use mine for decoration, or will when I find it again.


Thank you for reading. All the Fall 2019 A To Z posts should be at this link. Furthermore, both this year’s and all past A To Z sequences should be at this link. And I am still soliciting subjects for the first third of the alphabet.

I Ask For The First Topics For My Fall 2019 Mathematics A-To-Z


And a good late August to all my readers. I’m as ready as can be for my Fall 2019 Mathematics A-To-Z. For this I hope to explore one word or concept for each letter in the alphabet, one essay for each. I’m trying, as I did last year, to publish just two essays per week. I like to think this will keep my writing load from being too much. I’m fooling only myself.

For topics, though, I like to ask readers for suggestions. And I’ll be asking just for parts of the alphabet at a time. I’ve found this makes it easier for me to track suggestions. It also makes it easier for me to think about which subjects I feel I can write the most interesting essay about. This is in case I get more than one nomination for a particular letter. That’s hardly guaranteed, but I do like thinking this might happen.

If you do leave a suggestion, please also mention whether you host your own blog or YouTube channel or Twitter or Mathstodon account. Anything that you’d like people to know about.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

I’ve done five of these A To Z sequences before, from 2015 through to last year. I won’t necessarily refuse to re-explore something I’ve already written up. There are certainly ones I could improve, given another chance. But I’d probably look to write about a fresh topic.

I hope to start the first week of September, mostly so that I end by (United States) Thanksgiving. The letters that I would like to finish by September are the first eight, A through H. Covered in past years from this have been:

A.

B.

C.

D.

E.

F.

G.

H.


Thank you for any thoughts you have. Please ask if there are any questions. And I intend for this to be open to topics in any field of mathematics, including the ones I don’t really know. Writing about something I’m just learning about is terrifying and fun. It’s a large part of why I do these things every year, and also why I don’t do them more than once a year.

The Fall 2019 Mathematics A To Z Is Looking Good


I’m happy to say the most important part of preparing an A To Z sequence has come in. I have my banner art. It’s by Thomas K Dye, creator of the Projection Edge and Newshounds web comics. He keeps up a Patreon at this account.

The A To Z is about my most successful tradition. In it I write essays that are never as short as I think they should be, one for a concept from each letter of the alphabet. And I take nominations from readers for these concepts. If there’s more than one nomination I’ll go for whatever I think I can write the most interesting piece about. But if several things seem interesting I might try rephrasing them, which is how I got into the whole continued fractions trouble.

Before I take nominations I’ll post indexes to the past A to Z’s. I’m willing to revisit a topic I’ve already written about, since I hope I’m getting better at both mathematics and writing. But I’m inclined more to try new stuff where I can. Also the end of the alphabet, the X’s and Y’s and such, tend to be pretty dire. It’s not too soon to start thinking up possibilities.

I Plan To Do A Fall 2019 Mathematics A To Z


Long-time readers may have felt like something’s missing from my 2019 writing around here. It is an A To Z. This is one of my traditions, to write essays explaining some mathematical concept or related term, one for each letter of the alphabet. I’ve traditionally taken nominations from readers for this, and I plan to do so again.

I’m not taking nominations just yet. I’d like people to have the chance to think about stuff they’d like to see explained. This is how we get things like people asking me what the Ricci tensor is and why we need it. I’m still not perfectly sure I know why we need it, but the essay is out there, so that’s something.

Anyway I have banner art commissioned, again from Thomas K Dye of the Projection Edge and Newshounds web comics, and whose Patreon is here. When I have that I’ll open up at least part of the alphabet to subject nominations.


Also I continue to have the problem where Twitter won’t load on my web browser, Safari. I’m getting close to desperate measures, such as restarting my computer or trying to load it on a different web browser. If you wonder why I am even more quiet on Twitter than usual, this is one reason why.