Little Enough Differences

It’s as far from my workplace to home as it is from my workplace to my sister-in-law’s home. That’s a fair coincidence, but nobody thinks it’s precisely true. I don’t think it’s exactly true myself, but let me try to make it a little interesting. I’d be surprised if it were the same number of miles from work to either home. I’d be shocked if it were the same number of miles down to the tenth of the mile. To be precisely the same distance, down to the n-th decimal point, would be just impossibly unlikely. But I’d still make the claim, and most people would accept it, and everyone knows what the claim is supposed to mean and why it’s true. What I mean, and what I imagine anyone hearing the claim takes me to mean, is that the difference between these two quantities, the distance from work to home and the distance from work to my sister-in-law’s home, is smaller than some tolerable margin for error.

That’s a good definition of equality between two things in the practical world. It applies mathematically as well. A good number of proofs, particularly the ones that go into proving calculus works, amount to showing that there is some number in which we are interested, and there is some number which we are actually able to calculate, and the difference between those two numbers is less than some tolerated difference. If we’re just looking for an approximate answer, that’s about where we stop. If we want to do prove something rigorously and exactly, then we use a slightly different trick.

Instead of proving that the difference is smaller than some tolerated error — say, that the distance to these two homes is the same plus or minus two miles, or that these two cups of soda have the same amount of drink plus or minus a half-ounce, or so — what we do is prove that we can pick some arbitrary small tolerated difference, and find that the number we want and the number we can calculate must be smaller than that tolerated difference. But that tolerated difference might be any positive number. We weren’t given it up front. If the difference is smaller than any positive number, then, we can, at least in imagination, make sure the difference is smaller than every positive number, however tiny. The conclusion, then, is that if the difference between what-we-want and what-we-have is smaller than every positive number, then the difference must be zero. The two quantities have to be equal.

That probably read fairly smoothly. It’s worth going over and thinking about closely because, at least in my experience, that’s one of the spots where calculus and analysis gets really confusing. It’s going to deserve some examples.

The Power Of Near Enough

Now here’s another great tool Chiaroscuro did, in figuring out what number raised to the fifth power would be 1/6000. Besides trying out a variety of numbers which were judged to be a little bit low or a little bit high, he eventually stopped.

Wisely, too. The number he really wanted was the fifth root of 1/6000, and while there is one, it’s not a rational number. It goes on forever without repeating and without falling into any obvious patterns. But neither he nor anyone else is really interested in any but the first couple of these digits. We’d wanted to know whether this number was close to 0.25, and it’s closer to 0.17 instead. What the tenth digit past the decimal was we don’t really care about. It’s fine to be close enough to the right answer.

This runs a little against the stereotype of the mathematician. To the extent that popular culture notices mathematicians at all, it’s as people who have a lot of digits past a decimal point. But a mathematician is, in practice, much more likely to be interested in saying something that’s true, even if it isn’t so very precise, and to say that the fifth root of 1/6000 is somewhere near 0.17, or better, is between 0.17 and 0.18, is certainly true. Probably — and I’m attempting here to read Chiaroscuro’s mind, as the only guidance I’ve gotten from him is the occasional confirmation about what my guesses to his calculation were — he found that 0.17 was a little low, and 0.18 was a little high, and the actual value had to be somewhere between the two. The Intermediate Value Theorem, discussed in the previous non-Gemini-Chronology entry, guarantees that between those two is an exactly correct answer. (It’s conceivable that there would be more than one, in fact, although for this problem there’s not.)

Chiaroscuro specifically judged the fifth root of 1/6000 to be 0.176, or 17.6%, and I doubt anyone would seriously argue with that claim. This is even though the actual number is a little bit less than that: it’s nearer 0.175537, but even that is only an approximation. We are putting one of those big ideas into play, subtly, when we accept saying one number is equal to another in this way.