## From my Sixth A-to-Z: Operator

One of the many small benefits of these essays is getting myself clearly grounded on terms that I had accepted without thinking much about. Operator, like functional (mentioned in here), is one of them. I’m sure that when these were first introduced my instructors gave them clear definitions. Buut when they’re first introduced it’s not clear why these are important, or that we are going to spend the rest of grad school talking about them. So this piece from 2019’s A-to-Z sequence secured my footing on a term I had a fair understanding of. You get some idea of what has to be intended from the context in which the term is used. Also from knowing how terms like this tend to be defined. But having it down to where I could certainly pass a true-false test about “is this an operator”? That was new.

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. 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.

## My All 2020 Mathematics A to Z: Delta

I have Dina Yagodich to thank for my inspiration this week. As will happen with these topics about something fundamental, this proved to be a hard topic to think about. I don’t know of any creative or professional projects Yagodich would like me to mention. I’ll pass them on if I learn of any. 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.

# Delta.

In May 1962 Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton did not orbit the Earth. He had been grounded for (of course) a rare medical condition. Before his grounding he had selected his flight’s callsign and capsule name: Delta 7. His backup, Wally Schirra, who did not fly in Slayton’s place, named his capsule the Sigma 7. Schirra chose sigma for its mathematical and scientific meaning, representing the sum of (in principle) many parts. Slayton said he chose Delta only because he would have been the fourth American into space and Δ is the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet. I believe it, but do notice how D is so prominent a letter in Slayton’s name. And S, Σ, prominent in both Slayton and Schirra’s.

Δ is also a prominent mathematics and engineering symbol. It has several meanings, with several of the most useful ones escaping mathematics and becoming vaguely known things. They blur together, as ideas that are useful and related and not identical will do.

If “Δ” evokes anything mathematical to a person it is “change”. This probably owes to space in the popular imagination. Astronauts talking about the delta-vee needed to return to Earth is some of the most accessible technical talk of Apollo 13, to pick one movie. After that it’s easy to think of pumping the car’s breaks as shedding some delta-vee. It secondarily owes to school, high school algebra classes testing people on their ability to tell how steep a line is. This gets described as the change-in-y over the change-in-x, or the delta-y over delta-x.

Δ prepended to a variable like x or y or v we read as “the change in”. It fits the astronaut and the algebra uses well. The letter Δ by itself means as much as the words “the change in” do. It describes what we’re thinking about, but waits for a noun to complete. We say “the” rather than “a”, I’ve noticed. The change in velocity needed to reach Earth may be one thing. But “the” change in x and y coordinates to find the slope of a line? We can use infinitely many possible changes and get a good result. We must say “the” because we consider one at a time.

Used like this Δ acts like an operator. It means something like “a difference between two values of the variable ” and lets us fill in the blank. How to pick those two values? Sometimes there’s a compelling choice. We often want to study data sampled at some schedule. The Δ then is between one sample’s value and the next. Or between the last sample value and the current one. Which is correct? Ask someone who specializes in difference equations. These are the usually numeric approximations to differential equations. They turn up often in signal processing or in understanding the flows of fluids or the interactions of particles. We like those because computers can solve them.

Δ, as this operator, can even be applied to itself. You read ΔΔ x as “the change in the change in x”. The prose is stilted, but we can understand it. It’s how the change in x has itself changed. We can imagine being interested in this Δ2 x. We can see this as a numerical approximation to the second derivative of x, and this gets us back to differential equations. There are similar results for ΔΔΔ x even if we don’t wish to read it all out.

In principle, Δ x can be any number. In practice, at least for an independent variable, it’s a small number, usually real. Often we’re lured into thinking of it as positive, because a phrase like “x + Δ x” looks like we’re making a number a little bigger than x. When you’re a mathematician or a quality-control tester you remember to consider “what if Δ x is negative”. From testing that learn you wrote your computer code wrong. We’re less likely to assume this positive-ness for the dependent variable. By the time we do enough mathematics to have opinions we’ve seen too many decreasing functions to overlook that Δ y might be negative.

Notice that in that last paragraph I faithfully wrote Δ x and Δ y. Never Δ bare, unless I forgot and cannot find it in copy-editing. I’ve said that Δ means “the change in”; to write it without some variable is like writing √ by itself. We can understand wishing to talk about “the square root of”, as a concept. Still it means something else than √ x does.

We do write Δ by itself. Even professionals do. Written like this we don’t mean “the change in [ something ]”. We instead mean “a number”. In this role the symbol means the same thing as x or y or t might, a way to refer to a number whose value we might not know. We might not care about. The implication is that it’s small, at least if it’s something to add to the independent variable. We use it when we ponder how things would be different if there were a small change in something.

Small but not tiny. Here we step into mathematics as a language, which can be as quirky and ambiguous as English. Because sometimes we use the lower-case δ. And this also means “a small number”. It connotes a smaller number than Δ. Is 0.01 a suitable value for Δ? Or for δ? Maybe. My inclination would be to think of that as Δ, reserving δ for “a small number of value we don’t care to specify”. This may be my quirk. Others might see it different.

We will use this lowercase δ as an operator too, thinking of things like “x + δ x”. As you’d guess, δ x connotes a small change in x. Smaller than would earn the title Δ x. There is no declaring how much smaller. It’s contextual. As with δ bare, my tendency is to think that Δ x might be a specific number but that δ x is “a perturbation”, the general idea of a small number. We can understand many interesting problems as a small change from something we already understand. That small change often earns such a δ operator.

There are smaller changes than δ x. There are infinitesimal differences. This is our attempt to make sense of “a number as close to zero as you can get without being zero”. We forego the Greek letters for this and revert to Roman letters: dx and dy and dt and the other marks of differential calculus. These are difficult numbers to discuss. It took more than a century of mathematicians’ work to find a way our experience with Δ x could inform us about dx. (We do not use ‘d’ alone to mean an even smaller change than δ. Sometimes we will in analysis write d with a space beside it, waiting for a variable to have its differential taken. I feel unsettled when I see it.)

Much of the completion of work we can credit to Augustin Cauchy, who’s credited with about 800 publications. It’s an intimidating record, even before considering its importance. Cauchy is, per Florian Cajori’s History Mathematical Notations, one of the persons we can credit with the use of Δ as symbol for “the change in”. (Section 610.) He’s not the only one. Leonhardt Euler and Johann Bernoulli (section 640) used Δ to represent a finite difference, the difference between two values.

I’m not aware of an explicit statement why Δ got the pick, as opposed to other letters. It’s hard to imagine a reason besides “difference starts with d”. That an etymology seems obvious does not make it so. It does seem to have a more compelling explanation than the use of “m” for the slope of a line, or $\frac{\Delta y}{\Delta x}$, though.

Slayton’s Mercury flight, performed by Scott Carpenter, did not involve any appreciable changes in orbit, a Δ v. No crewed spacecraft would until Gemini III. The Mercury flight did involve tests in orienting the spacecraft, in Δ θ and Δ φ on the angles of the spacecraft’s direction. These might have been in Slayton’s mind. He eventually flew into space on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, when an accident during landing exposed the crew to toxic gases. The investigation discovered a lesion on Slayton’s lung. A tiny thing, ultimately benign, which discovered earlier could have kicked him off the mission and altered his life so.

Thank you all for reading. I’m gathering all my 2020 A-to-Z essays at this link, and have all my A-to-Z essays of any kind at this link. Here is hoping there’s a good week ahead.

## 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. 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 2018 Mathematics A To Z: Commutative

Today’s A to Z term comes from Reynardo, @Reynardo_red on Twitter, and is a challenge. And the other A To Z posts for this year should be at this link. Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Newshounds, Something Happens, and Infinity Refugees. His current project is Projection Edge. And you can get Projection Edge six months ahead of public publication by subscribing to his Patreon. And he’s on Twitter as @Newshoundscomic.

# Commutative.

Some terms are hard to discuss. This is among them. Mathematicians find commutative things early on. Addition of whole numbers. Addition of real numbers. Multiplication of whole numbers. Multiplication of real numbers. Multiplication of complex-valued numbers. It’s easy to think of this commuting as just having liberty to swap the order of things. And it’s easy to think of commuting as “two things you can do in either order”. It inspires physical examples like rotating a dial, clockwise or counterclockwise, however much you like. Or outside the things that seem obviously mathematical. Add milk and then cereal to the bowl, or cereal and then milk. As long as you don’t overfill the bowl, there’s not an important different. Per Wikipedia, if you’re putting one sock on each foot, it doesn’t matter which foot gets a sock first.

When something is this accessible, and this universal, it gets hard to talk about. It threatens to be invisible. It was hard to say much interesting about the still air in a closed room, at least before there was a chemistry that could tell it wasn’t a homogenous invisible something, and before there was a statistical mechanics that it was doing something even when it was doing nothing.

But commutativity is different. It’s easy to think of mathematics that doesn’t commute. Subtraction doesn’t, for all that it’s as familiar as addition. And despite that we try, in high school algebra, to fuse it into addition. Division doesn’t either, for all that we try to think of it as multiplication. Rotating things in three dimensions doesn’t commute. Nor does multiplying quaternions, which are a kind of number still. (I’m double-dipping here. You can use quaternions to represent three-dimensional rotations, and vice-versa. So they aren’t quite different examples, even though you can use quaternions to do things unrelated to rotations.) Clothing is a mass of things that can and can’t be put on first.

We talk about commuting as if it’s something in (or not in) the operations we do. Adding. Rotating. Walking in some direction. But it’s not entirely in that. Consider walking directions. From an intersection in the city, walk north to the first intersection you encounter. And walk east to the first intersection you encounter. Does it matter whether you walk north first and then east, or east first and then north? In some cases, no; famously, in Midtown Manhattan there’s no difference. At least if we pretend Broadway doesn’t exist.

Also if we don’t start from near the edge of the island, or near Central Park. An operation, even something familiar like addition, is a function. Its domain is an ordered pair. Each thing in the pair is from the set of whatever might be added together. (Or multiplied, or whatever the name of the operation is.) The operation commutes if the order of the pair doesn’t matter. It’s easy to find sets and operations that won’t commute. I suppose it’s for the same reason it’s easier to find rectangular rather than square things. We’re so used to working with operations like multiplication that we forget that multiplication needs things to multiply.

Whether a thing commutes turns up often in group theory. This shouldn’t surprise. Group theory studies how arithmetic works. A “group”, which is a set of things with an operation like multiplication on it, might or might not commute. A “ring”, which has a set of things and two operations, has some commutativity built into it. One ring operation is something like addition. That commutes, or else you don’t have a ring. The other operation is something like multiplication. That might or might not commute. It depends what you need for your problem. A ring with commuting multiplication, plus some other stuff, can reach the heights of being a “field”. Fields are neat. They look a lot like the real numbers, but they can be all weird, too.

But even in a group, that doesn’t have to have a commuting multiplication, we can tease out commutativity. There is a thing named the “commutator”, which is this particular way of multiplying elements together. You can use it to split the original group in the way that odds and evens split the whole numbers. That splitting is based on the same multiplication as the original group. But its domain is now classes based on elements of the original group. What’s created, the “commutator subgroup”, is commutative. We can find a thing, based on what we are interested in, which offers commutativity right nearby.

It reaches further. In analysis, it can be useful to think of functions as “mappings”. We describe this as though a function took a domain and transformed it into a range. We can compose these functions together: take the range from one function and use it as the domain for another. Sometimes these chains of functions will commute. We can get from the original set to the final set by several paths. This can produce fascinating and beautiful proofs that look as if you just drew a lattice-work. The MathWorld page on “Commutative Diagram” has some examples of this, and I recommend just looking at the pictures. Appreciate their aesthetic, particularly the ones immediately after the sentence about “Commutative diagrams are usually composed by commutative triangles and commutative squares”.

Whether these mappings commute can have meaning. This takes us, maybe inevitably, to quantum mechanics. Mathematically, this represents systems as either a wave function or a matrix, whichever is more convenient. We can use this to find the distribution of positions or momentums or energies or anything else we would like to know. Distributions are as much as we can hope for from quantum mechanics. We can say what (eg) the position of something is most likely to be but not what it is. That’s all right.

The mathematics of finding these distributions is just applying an operator, taking a mapping, on this wave function or this matrix. Some pairs of these operators commute, like the ones that let us find momentum and find kinetic energy. Some do not, like those to find position and angular momentum.

We can describe how much two operators do or don’t commute. This is through a thing called the “commutator”. Its form looks almost playfully simple. Call the operators ‘f’ and ‘g’. And that by ‘fg’ we mean, “do g, then do f”. (This seems awkward. But if you think of ‘fg’ as ‘f(g(x))’, where ‘x’ is just something in the domain of g, then this seems less awkward.) The commutator of ‘f’ and ‘g’ is then whatever ‘fg – gf’ is. If it’s always zero, then ‘f’ and ‘g’ commute. If it’s ever not zero, then they don’t.

This is easy to understand physically. Imagine starting from a point on the surface of the earth. Travel south one mile and then west one mile. You are at a different spot than you would be, had you instead travelled west one mile and then south one mile. How different? That’s the commutator. It’s obviously zero, for just multiplying some regular old numbers together. It’s sometimes zero, for these paths on the Earth’s surface. It’s never zero, for finding-the-position and finding-the-angular-momentum. The amount by which that’s never zero we can see as the famous Uncertainty Principle, the limits of what kinds of information we can know about the world.

Still, it is a hard subject to describe. Things which commute are so familiar that it takes work to imagine them not commuting. (How could three times four equal anything but four times three?) Things which do not commute either obviously shouldn’t (add hot water to the instant oatmeal, and eat it), or are unfamiliar enough people need to stop and think about them. (Rotating something in one direction and then another, in three dimensions, generally doesn’t commute. But I wouldn’t fault you for testing this out with a couple objects on hand before being sure about it.) But it can be noticed, once you know to explore.

## The End 2016 Mathematics A To Z: The Fredholm Alternative

Some things are created with magnificent names. My essay today is about one of them. It’s one of my favorite terms and I get a strange little delight whenever it needs to be mentioned in a proof. It’s also the title I shall use for my 1970s Paranoid-Conspiracy Thriller.

## The Fredholm Alternative.

So the Fredholm Alternative is about whether this supercomputer with the ability to monitor every commercial transaction in the country falls into the hands of the Parallax Corporation or whether — ahm. Sorry. Wrong one. OK.

The Fredholm Alternative comes from the world of functional analysis. In functional analysis we study sets of functions with tools from elsewhere in mathematics. Some you’d be surprised aren’t already in there. There’s adding functions together, multiplying them, the stuff of arithmetic. Some might be a bit surprising, like the stuff we draw from linear algebra. That’s ideas like functions having length, or being at angles to each other. Or that length and those angles changing when we take a function of those functions. This may sound baffling. But a mathematics student who’s got into functional analysis usually has a happy surprise waiting. She discovers the subject is easy. At least, it relies on a lot of stuff she’s learned already, applied to stuff that’s less difficult to work with than, like, numbers.

(This may be a personal bias. I found functional analysis a thoroughgoing delight, even though I didn’t specialize in it. But I got the impression from other grad students that functional analysis was well-liked. Maybe we just got the right instructor for it.)

I’ve mentioned in passing “operators”. These are functions that have a domain that’s a set of functions and a range that’s another set of functions. Suppose you come up to me with some function, let’s say $f(x) = x^2$. I give you back some other function — say, $F(x) = \frac{1}{3}x^3 - 4$. Then I’m acting as an operator.

Why should I do such a thing? Many operators correspond to doing interesting stuff. Taking derivatives of functions, for example. Or undoing the work of taking a derivative. Describing how changing a condition changes what sorts of outcomes a process has. We do a lot of stuff with these. Trust me.

Let me use the name T’ for some operator. I’m not going to say anything about what it does. The letter’s arbitrary. We like to use capital letters for operators because it makes the operators look extra important. And we don’t want to use O’ because that just looks like zero and we don’t need that confusion.

Anyway. We need two functions. One of them will be called ‘f’ because we always call functions ‘f’. The other we’ll call ‘v’. In setting up the Fredholm Alternative we have this important thing: we know what ‘f’ is. We don’t know what ‘v’ is. We’re finding out something about what ‘v’ might be. The operator doing whatever it does to a function we write down as if it were multiplication, that is, like ‘Tv’. We get this notation from linear algebra. There we multiple matrices by vectors. Matrix-times-vector multiplication works like operator-on-a-function stuff. So much so that if we didn’t use the same notation young mathematics grad students would rise in rebellion. “This is absurd,” they would say, in unison. “The connotations of these processes are too alike not to use the same notation!” And the department chair would admit they have a point. So we write ‘Tv’.

If you skipped out on mathematics after high school you might guess we’d write ‘T(v)’ and that would make sense too. And, actually, we do sometimes. But by the time we’re doing a lot of functional analysis we don’t need the parentheses so much. They don’t clarify anything we’re confused about, and they require all the work of parenthesis-making. But I do see it sometimes, mostly in older books. This makes me think mathematicians started out with ‘T(v)’ and then wrote less as people got used to what they were doing.

I admit we might not literally know what ‘f’ is. I mean we know what ‘f’ is in the same way that, for a quadratic equation, “ax2 + bx + c = 0”, we “know” what ‘a’, ‘b’, and ‘c’ are. Similarly we don’t know what ‘v’ is in the same way we don’t know what ‘x’ there is. The Fredholm Alternative tells us exactly one of these two things has to be true:

For operators that meet some requirements I don’t feel like getting into, either:

1. There’s one and only one ‘v’ which makes the equation $Tv = f$ true.
2. Or else $Tv = 0$ for some ‘v’ that isn’t just zero everywhere.

That is, either there’s exactly one solution, or else there’s no solving this particular equation. We can rule out there being two solutions (the way quadratic equations often have), or ten solutions (the way some annoying problems will), or infinitely many solutions (oh, it happens).

It turns up often in boundary value problems. Often before we try solving one we spend some time working out whether there is a solution. You can imagine why it’s worth spending a little time working that out before committing to a big equation-solving project. But it comes up elsewhere. Very often we have problems that, at their core, are “does this operator match anything at all in the domain to a particular function in the range?” When we try to answer we stumble across Fredholm’s Alternative over and over.

Fredholm here was Ivar Fredholm, a Swedish mathematician of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He worked for Uppsala University, and for the Swedish Social Insurance Agency, and as an actuary for the Skandia insurance company. Wikipedia tells me that his mathematical work was used to calculate buyback prices. I have no idea how.