A Leap Day 2016 Mathematics A To Z: Orthonormal


Jacob Kanev had requested “orthogonal” for this glossary. I’d be happy to oblige. But I used the word in last summer’s Mathematics A To Z. And I admit I’m tempted to just reprint that essay, since it would save some needed time. But I can do something more.

Orthonormal.

“Orthogonal” is another word for “perpendicular”. Mathematicians use it for reasons I’m not precisely sure of. My belief is that it’s because “perpendicular” sounds like we’re talking about directions. And we want to extend the idea to things that aren’t necessarily directions. As majors, mathematicians learn orthogonality for vectors, things pointing in different directions. Then we extend it to other ideas. To functions, particularly, but we can also define it for spaces and for other stuff.

I was vague, last summer, about how we do that. We do it by creating a function called the “inner product”. That takes in two of whatever things we’re measuring and gives us a real number. If the inner product of two things is zero, then the two things are orthogonal.

The first example mathematics majors learn of this, before they even hear the words “inner product”, are dot products. These are for vectors, ordered sets of numbers. The dot product we find by matching up numbers in the corresponding slots for the two vectors, multiplying them together, and then adding up the products. For example. Give me the vector with values (1, 2, 3), and the other vector with values (-6, 5, -4). The inner product will be 1 times -6 (which is -6) plus 2 times 5 (which is 10) plus 3 times -4 (which is -12). So that’s -6 + 10 – 12 or -8.

So those vectors aren’t orthogonal. But how about the vectors (1, -1, 0) and (0, 0, 1)? Their dot product is 1 times 0 (which is 0) plus -1 times 0 (which is 0) plus 0 times 1 (which is 0). The vectors are perpendicular. And if you tried drawing this you’d see, yeah, they are. The first vector we’d draw as being inside a flat plane, and the second vector as pointing up, through that plane, like a thumbtack.

So that’s orthogonal. What about this orthonormal stuff?

Well … the inner product can tell us something besides orthogonality. What happens if we take the inner product of a vector with itself? Say, (1, 2, 3) with itself? That’s going to be 1 times 1 (which is 1) plus 2 times 2 (4, according to rumor) plus 3 times 3 (which is 9). That’s 14, a tidy sum, although, so what?

The inner product of (-6, 5, -4) with itself? Oh, that’s some ugly numbers. Let’s skip it. How about the inner product of (1, -1, 0) with itself? That’ll be 1 times 1 (which is 1) plus -1 times -1 (which is positive 1) plus 0 times 0 (which is 0). That adds up to 2. And now, wait a minute. This might be something.

Start from somewhere. Move 1 unit to the east. (Don’t care what the unit is. Inches, kilometers, astronomical units, anything.) Then move -1 units to the north, or like normal people would say, 1 unit o the south. How far are you from the starting point? … Well, you’re the square root of 2 units away.

Now imagine starting from somewhere and moving 1 unit east, and then 2 units north, and then 3 units straight up, because you found a convenient elevator. How far are you from the starting point? This may take a moment of fiddling around with the Pythagorean theorem. But you’re the square root of 14 units away.

And what the heck, (0, 0, 1). The inner product of that with itself is 0 times 0 (which is zero) plus 0 times 0 (still zero) plus 1 times 1 (which is 1). That adds up to 1. And, yeah, if we go one unit straight up, we’re one unit away from where we started.

The inner product of a vector with itself gives us the square of the vector’s length. At least if we aren’t using some freak definition of inner products and lengths and vectors. And this is great! It means we can talk about the length — maybe better to say the size — of things that maybe don’t have obvious sizes.

Some stuff will have convenient sizes. For example, they’ll have size 1. The vector (0, 0, 1) was one such. So is (1, 0, 0). And you can think of another example easily. Yes, it’s \left(\frac{1}{\sqrt{2}}, -\frac{1}{2}, \frac{1}{2}\right) . (Go ahead, check!)

So by “orthonormal” we mean a collection of things that are orthogonal to each other, and that themselves are all of size 1. It’s a description of both what things are by themselves and how they relate to one another. A thing can’t be orthonormal by itself, for the same reason a line can’t be perpendicular to nothing in particular. But a pair of things might be orthogonal, and they might be the right length to be orthonormal too.

Why do this? Well, the same reasons we always do this. We can impose something like direction onto a problem. We might be able to break up a problem into simpler problems, one in each direction. We might at least be able to simplify the ways different directions are entangled. We might be able to write a problem’s solution as the sum of solutions to a standard set of representative simple problems. This one turns up all the time. And an orthogonal set of something is often a really good choice of a standard set of representative problems.

This sort of thing turns up a lot when solving differential equations. And those often turn up when we want to describe things that happen in the real world. So a good number of mathematicians develop a habit of looking for orthonormal sets.

A Summer 2015 Mathematics A To Z: orthogonal


Orthogonal.

Orthogonal is another word for perpendicular. So why do we need another word for that?

It helps to think about why “perpendicular” is a useful way to organize things. For example, we can describe the directions to a place in terms of how far it is north-south and how far it is east-west, and talk about how fast it’s travelling in terms of its speed heading north or south and its speed heading east or west. We can separate the north-south motion from the east-west motion. If we’re lucky these motions separate entirely, and we turn a complicated two- or three-dimensional problem into two or three simpler problems. If they can’t be fully separated, they can often be largely separated. We turn a complicated problem into a set of simpler problems with a nice and easy part plus an annoying yet small hard part.

And this is why we like perpendicular directions. We can often turn a problem into several simpler ones describing each direction separately, or nearly so.

And now the amazing thing. We can separate these motions because the north-south and the east-west directions are at right angles to one another. But we can describe something that works like an angle between things that aren’t necessarily directions. For example, we can describe an angle between things like functions that have the same domain. And once we can describe the angle between two functions, we can describe functions that make right angles between each other.

This means we can describe functions as being perpendicular to one another. An example. On the domain of real numbers from -1 to 1, the function f(x) = x is perpendicular to the function g(x) = x^2 . And when we want to study a more complicated function we can separate the part that’s in the “direction” of f(x) from the part that’s in the “direction” of g(x). We can treat functions, even functions we don’t know, as if they were locations in space. And we can study and even solve for the different parts of the function as if we were pinning down the north-south and the east-west movements of a thing.

So if we want to study, say, how heat flows through a body, we can work out a series of “direction” for functions, and work out the flow in each of those “directions”. These don’t have anything to do with left-right or up-down directions, but the concepts and the convenience is similar.

I’ve spoken about this in terms of functions. But we can define the “angle” between things for many kinds of mathematical structures. Once we can do that, we can have “perpendicular” pairs of things. I’ve spoken only about functions, but that’s because functions are more familiar than many of the mathematical structures that have orthogonality.

Ah, but why call it “orthogonal” rather than “perpendicular”? And I don’t know. The best I can work out is that it feels weird to speak of, say, the cosine function being “perpendicular” to the sine function when you can’t really say either is in any particular direction. “Orthogonal” seems to appeal less directly to physical intuition while still meaning something. But that’s my guess, rather than the verdict of a skilled etymologist.