The Summer 2017 Mathematics A To Z: X


We come now almost to the end of the Summer 2017 A To Z. Possibly also the end of all these A To Z sequences. Gaurish of, For the love of Mathematics, proposed that I talk about the obvious logical choice. The last promising thing I hadn’t talked about. I have no idea what to do for future A To Z’s, if they’re even possible anymore. But that’s a problem for some later time.

Summer 2017 Mathematics A to Z, featuring a coati (it's kind of the Latin American raccoon) looking over alphabet blocks, with a lot of equations in the background.
Art courtesy of Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comic Newshounds. He has a Patreon for those able to support his work. He’s also open for commissions, starting from US$10.

X.

Some good advice that I don’t always take. When starting a new problem, make a list of all the things that seem likely to be relevant. Problems that are worth doing are usually about things. They’ll be quantities like the radius or volume of some interesting surface. The amount of a quantity under consideration. The speed at which something is moving. The rate at which that speed is changing. The length something has to travel. The number of nodes something must go across. Whatever. This all sounds like stuff from story problems. But most interesting mathematics is from a story problem; we want to know what this property is like. Even if we stick to a purely mathematical problem, there’s usually a couple of things that we’re interested in and that we describe. If we’re attacking the four-color map theorem, we have the number of territories to color. We have, for each territory, the number of territories that touch it.

Next, select a name for each of these quantities. Write it down, in the table, next to the term. The volume of the tank is ‘V’. The radius of the tank is ‘r’. The height of the tank is ‘h’. The fluid is flowing in at a rate ‘r’. The fluid is flowing out at a rate, oh, let’s say ‘s’. And so on. You might take a moment to go through and think out which of these variables are connected to which other ones, and how. Volume, for example, is surely something to do with the radius times something to do with the height. It’s nice to have that stuff written down. You may not know the thing you set out to solve, but you at least know you’ve got this under control.

I recommend this. It’s a good way to organize your thoughts. It establishes what things you expect you could know, or could want to know, about the problem. It gives you some hint how these things relate to each other. It sets you up to think about what kinds of relationships you figure to study when you solve the problem. It gives you a lifeline, when you’re lost in a sea of calculation. It’s reassurance that these symbols do mean something. Better, it shows what those things are.

I don’t always do it. I have my excuses. If I’m doing a problem that’s very like one I’ve already recently done, the things affecting it are probably the same. The names to give these variables are probably going to be about the same. Maybe I’ll make a quick sketch to show how the parts of the problem relate. If it seems like less work to recreate my thoughts than to write them down, I skip writing them down. Not always good practice. I tell myself I can always go back and do things the fully right way if I do get lost. So far that’s been true.

So, the names. Suppose I am interested in, say, the length of the longest rod that will fit around this hallway corridor. Then I am in a freshman calculus book, yes. Fine. Suppose I am interested in whether this pinball machine can be angled up the flight of stairs that has a turn in it Then I will measure things like the width of the pinball machine. And the width of the stairs, and of the landing. I will measure this carefully. Pinball machines are heavy and there are many hilarious sad stories of people wedging them into hallways and stairwells four and a half stories up from the street. But: once I have identified, say, ‘width of pinball machine’ as a quantity of interest, why would I ever refer to it as anything but?

This is no dumb question. It is always dangerous to lose the link between the thing we calculate and the thing we are interested in. Without that link we are less able to notice mistakes in either our calculations or the thing we mean to calculate. Without that link we can’t do a sanity check, that reassurance that it’s not plausible we just might fit something 96 feet long around the corner. Or that we estimated that we could fit something of six square feet around the corner. It is common advice in programming computers to always give variables meaningful names. Don’t write ‘T’ when ‘Total’ or, better, ‘Total_Value_Of_Purchase’ is available. Why do we disregard this in mathematics, and switch to ‘T’ instead?

First reason is, well, try writing this stuff out. Your hand (h) will fall off (foff) in about fifteen minutes, twenty seconds. (15′ 20”). If you’re writing a program, the programming environment you have will auto-complete the variable after one or two letters in. Or you can copy and paste the whole name. It’s still good practice to leave a comment about what the variable should represent, if the name leaves any reasonable ambiguity.

Another reason is that sure, we do specific problems for specific cases. But a mathematician is naturally drawn to thinking of general problems, in abstract cases. We see something in common between the problem “a length and a quarter of the length is fifteen feet; what is the length?” and the problem “a volume plus a quarter of the volume is fifteen gallons; what is the volume?”. That one is about lengths and the other about volumes doesn’t concern us. We see a saving in effort by separating the quantity of a thing from the kind of the thing. This restores danger. We must think, after we are done calculating, about whether the answer could make sense. But we can minimize that, we hope. At the least we can check once we’re done to see if our answer makes sense. Maybe even whether it’s right.

For centuries, as the things we now recognize as algebra developed, we would use words. We would talk about the “thing” or the “quantity” or “it”. Some impersonal name, or convenient pronoun. This would often get shortened because anything you write often you write shorter. “Re”, perhaps. In the late 16th century we start to see the “New Algebra”. Here mathematics starts looking like … you know … mathematics. We start to see stuff like “addition” represented with the + symbol instead of an abbreviation for “addition” or a p with a squiggle over it or some other shorthand. We get equals signs. You start to see decimals and exponents. And we start to see letters used in place of numbers whose value we don’t know.

There are a couple kinds of “numbers whose value we don’t know”. One is the number whose value we don’t know, but hope to learn. This is the classic variable we want to solve for. Another kind is the number whose value we don’t know because we don’t care. I mean, it has some value, and presumably it doesn’t change over the course of our problem. But it’s not like our work will be so different if, say, the tank is two feet high rather than four.

Is there a problem? If we pick our letters to fit a specific problem, no. Presumably all the things we want to describe have some clear name, and some letter that best represents the name. It’s annoying when we have to consider, say, the pinball machine width and the corridor width. But we can work something out.

But what about general problems?

Is m b \cos(e) + b^2 \log(y) = \sqrt{e} an easy problem to solve?

If we want to figure what ‘m’ is, yes. Similarly ‘y’. If we want to know what ‘b’ is, it’s tedious, but we can do that. If we want to know what ‘e’ is? Run and hide, that stuff is crazy. If you have to, do it numerically and accept an estimate. Don’t try figuring what that is.

And so we’ve developed conventions. There are some letters that, except in weird circumstances, are coefficients. They’re numbers whose value we don’t know, but either don’t care about or could look up. And there are some that, by default, are variables. They’re the ones whose value we want to know.

These conventions started forming, as mentioned, in the late 16th century. François Viète here made a name that lasts to mathematics historians at least. His texts described how to do algebra problems in the sort of procedural methods that we would recognize as algebra today. And he had a great idea for these letters. Use the whole alphabet, if needed. Use the consonants to represent the coefficients, the numbers we know but don’t care what they are. Use the vowels to represent the variables, whose values we want to learn. So he would look at that equation and see right away: it’s a terrible mess. (I exaggerate. He doesn’t seem to have known the = sign, and I don’t know offhand when ‘log’ and ‘cos’ became common. But suppose the rest of the equation were translated into his terminology.)

It’s not a bad approach. Besides the mnemonic value of consonant-coefficient, vowel-variable, it’s true that we usually have fewer variables than anything else. The more variables in a problem the harder it is. If someone expects you to solve an equation with ten variables in it, you’re excused for refusing. So five or maybe six or possibly seven choices for variables is plenty.

But it’s not what we settled on. René Descartes had a better idea. He had a lot of them, but here’s one. Use the letters at the end of the alphabet for the unknowns. Use the letters at the start of the alphabet for coefficients. And that is, roughly, what we’ve settled on. In my example nightmare equation, we’d suppose ‘y’ to probably be the variable we want to solve for.

And so, and finally, x. It is almost the variable. It says “mathematics” in only two strokes. Even π takes more writing. Descartes used it. We follow him. It’s way off at the end of the alphabet. It starts few words, very few things, almost nothing we would want to measure. (Xylem … mass? Flow? What thing is the xylem anyway?) Even mathematical dictionaries don’t have much to say about it. The letter transports almost no connotations, no messy specific problems to it. If it suggests anything, it suggests the horizontal coordinate in a Cartesian system. It almost is mathematics. It signifies nothing in itself, but long use has given it an identity as the thing we hope to learn by study.

And pirate treasure maps. I don’t know when ‘X’ became the symbol of where to look for buried treasure. My casual reading suggests “never”. Treasure maps don’t really exist. Maps in general don’t work that way. Or at least didn’t before cartoons. X marking the spot seems to be the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, renowned for creating a fanciful map and then putting together a book to justify publishing it. (I jest. But according to Simon Garfield’s On The Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way The World Looks, his map did get lost on the way to the publisher, and he had to re-create it from studying the text of Treasure Island. This delights me to no end.) It makes me wonder if Stevenson was thinking of x’s service in mathematics. But the advantages of x as a symbol are hard to ignore. It highlights a point clearly. It’s fast to write. Its use might be coincidence.

But it is a letter that does a needed job really well.

Reading the Comics, October 10, 2015: Wordplay Edition


Some of the past several days’ mathematically-themed comic strips have bits of wordplay in them. That’ll do for the theme. We get some familiar topics along the way.

Ruth's grandmother remarks on running into someone twice in two days, and her grandfather asks what are the odds. Ruthie says they're 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and so on.
Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 6th of October, 2015. Ruthie works out the odds.

Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 6th of October is one of the wordplay jokes you can do about probability. (This is the strip that ran in newspapers this year. One Big Happy strips on Gocomics.com are reruns from several years back.)

Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 6th of October is a badly-timed Pi Day strip.

'Boy that bird just goes on and on and on ... ' The bird says, 'pi'.
Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 6th of October, 2015.

Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 8th of October is a kids-resisting-algebra problem. The kid asks why ‘x’ has to be equal to something, why it can’t just be ‘x’. He’s wiser than his teacher has taught. We use ‘x’ as the name for a number whose exact identity we don’t know right away. Often, especially in introductory algebra, we hope to work out what number it is. That’s the sort of problem that makes us find x, or solve for x. But we don’t always care what x is. Sometimes we just want to say that it’s an example of a number with some interesting properties. We often use it this way when we try drawing the plot of a function. The plot shows all the coordinate sets that make some equation true, and we need x to organize our thoughts about that, but we never really care what x is.

Or we might use x as a ‘dummy variable’, the mathematical equivalent of falsework. We use the variable to get some work done, but never see it once we’re finished, and don’t ever care what it was. If we take the definite integral of a function of x over x, for example, the one thing our answer should not have is an ‘x’ in it. (Well, if we’re integrating some nasty function that can’t be evaluated except in terms of another integral maybe an ‘x’ will appear. But that’s a pathological case.)

Alternatively, x might be a parameter, something which has to be a fixed number for the sake of doing other work, but whose value we don’t really care about. This would be an eccentric choice — usually parameters are from earlier in the alphabet, rarely later than ‘l’ and almost never past ‘t’ — but sometimes that’s the best alternative.

In Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 8th of October, Caulfield answers his teacher’s demand to “show his work” by presenting a slide rule. It’s a cute joke although I’m not on Caulfield’s side here. If all anyone cared about was whether the calculation was right we’d need no mathematics. We have computers. What is worth teaching is “how do you know what to compute”, with a sideline of “can you do the computations correctly”. It’s important to know what you mean to do. It’s also important to know how to plausibly find an answer if you don’t know exactly what to do. None of that is shown by the answer alone.

Jim Benton’s Jim Benton Cartoons for the 8th of October is some more mathematics wordplay. I’m amused by its logic.

Samson’s Dark Side of the Horse for the 9th of October is the first anthropomorphized-numerals joke we’ve had in a while.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 9th of October is our Venn Diagram joke for this installment. And it’s not quite a proper Venn diagram, but it’s hard to draw a proper Venn diagram for four propositions. Wikipedia’s entry offers a couple of examples of four-set Venn diagrams. The one made of ellipses is not too bad, although it also evokes “logo for some maybe European cable TV channel” to my eye.

Ludwig von Drake comes to 'the hardest part of all': erasing all the stuff filling his blackboard.
Disney’s Donald Duck for the 10th of October, 2015. A tough moment for any academician.

Disney’s Donald Duck for the 10th of October, a rerun from goodness knows when, depicts accurately the most terrifying moment a mathematician endures. I am delighted to see that the equations written out are correct and even consistent from one panel to the next. And yes, real mathematicians will sometimes write down what seem like altogether too-obvious propositions. That’s a good way of making sure you aren’t tripping over the easy stuff on the way to the bigger conclusions. I think it’s a bit implausible that the entire board would be this level of stuff — by the time you have your PhD, at least in mathematics or physics, you don’t need help remembering what the cosine of 120 degrees is — but it’s all valid stuff. Well, I could probably use the help remembering the tangent angle-addition formula, if I ever needed to work out the tangent of the sum of two angles.

Reading the Comics, July 29, 2015: Not Entirely Reruns Edition


Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (July 25) gets its scheduled appearance here with a properly formed Venn Diagram joke. I’m unqualified to speak for rap musicians. When mathematicians speak of something being “for reals” they mean they’re speaking about a variable that might be any of the real numbers. This is as opposed to limiting the variable to being some rational or irrational number, or being a whole number. It’s also as opposed to letting the variable be some complex-valued number, or some more exotic kind of number. It’s a way of saying what kind of thing we want to find true statements about.

I don’t know when the Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal first ran, but I know I’ve seen it appear in my Twitter feed. I believe all the Gocomics.com postings of this strip are reruns, but I haven’t read the strip long enough to say.

Steve Sicula’s Home And Away (July 26) is built on the joke of kids wise to mathematics during summer vacation. I don’t think this is a rerun, although we’ve seen the joke this summer before.

An angel with a square halo explains he was good^2.
Daniel Beyer’s Offbeat Comics for the 27th of July, 2015.

Daniel Beyer’s Offbeat Comics (July 27) depicts an angel with a square halo because “I was good2.” The association between squaring a number and squares goes back a long time. Well, it’s right there in the name, isn’t it? Florian Cajori’s A History Of Mathematical Notations cites the term “latus” and the abbreviation “l” to represent the side of a square being used by the Roman surveyor Junius Nipsus in the second century; for centuries this would be as good a term as anyone had for the thing to be calculated. (Res, meaning “thing”, was also popular.) Once you’ve taken the idea of calculating based on the length of a square, the jump to “square” for “length times itself” seems like a tiny one. But Cajori doesn’t seem to have examples of that being written until the 16th century.

The square of the quantity you’re interested in might be written q, for quadratus. The cube would be c, for cubus. The fourth power would be b or bq, for biquadratus, and so on. This is tolerable if you only have to work with a single unknown quantity, but the notation turns into gibberish the moment you want two variables in the mix. So it collapsed in the 17th century, replaced by the familiar x2 and x3 and so on. Many authors developed notations close to this: James Hume would write xii or xiii; Pierre Hérigone x2 or x3, all in one line. Rene Descartes would write x2 or x3 or so, and many, many followed him. Still, quite a few people — including Rene Descartes, Isaac Newton, and even as late a figure as Carl Gauss, in the early 19th century — would resist “x2”. They’d prefer “xx”. Gauss defended this on the grounds that “x2” takes up just as much space as “xx” and so fails the biggest point of having notation.

Corey Pandolph’s Toby, Robot Satan (July 27, rerun) uses sudoku as an example of the logic and reasoning problems that one would expect a robot should be able to do. It is weird to encounter one that’s helpless before them.

Cory Thomas’s Watch Your Head (July 27, rerun from 2007) mentions “Chebyshev grids” and “infinite boundaries” as things someone doing mathematics on the computer would do. And it does so correctly. Differential equations describe how things change on some domain over space and time. They can be very hard to solve exactly, but can be put on the computer very well. For this, we pick a representative set of points which we call a mesh. And we find an approximate representation of the original differential question, which we call a discretization or a difference equation. We can then solve this difference equation on the mesh, and if we’ve done our work right, this approximation will let us get a good estimate for the solution to the original problem over the whole original domain.

A Chebyshev grid is a particular arrangement of mesh points. It’s not uniform; it tends to clump up, becoming more common near the ends of the boundary. This is useful if you have reason to expect that the boundaries are more interesting than the middle of the domain. There’s no sense wasting good computing power calculating boring stuff. The mesh is named for Pafnuty Chebyshev, a 19th Century Russian mathematician whose name is all over mathematics. Unfortunately since he was a 19th Century Russian mathematician, his name is transcribed into English all sorts of ways. Chebyshev seems to be most common today, though Tchebychev used to be quite popular, which is why polynomials of his might be abbreviated as T. There are many alternatives.

Ah, but how do you represent infinite boundaries with the finitely many points of any calculatable mesh? There are many approaches. One is to just draw a really wide mesh and trust that all the action is happening near the center so omitting the very farthest things doesn’t hurt too much. Or you might figure what the average of things far away is, and make a finite boundary that has whatever that value is. Another approach is to make the boundaries repeating: go far enough to the right and you loop back around to the left, go far enough up and you loop back around to down. Another approach is to create a mesh that is bundled up tight around the center, but that has points which do represent going off very, very far, maybe in principle infinitely far away. You’re allowed to create meshes that don’t space points uniformly, and that even move points as you compute. That’s harder work, but it’s legitimate numerical mathematics.

So, the mathematical work being described here is — so far as described — legitimate. I’m not competent to speak about the monkey side of the research.

Greg Evans’s Luann Againn (July 29; rerun from July 29, 1987) name-drops the Law of Averages. There are actually multiple Laws of Averages, with slightly different assumptions and implications, but they all come to about the same meaning. You can expect that if some experiment is run repeatedly, the average value of the experiments will be close to the true value of whatever you’re measuring. An important step in proving this law was done by Pafnuty Chebyshev.

Hopefully, Saying Something True


I wanted to talk about drawing graphs that represent something, and to get there have to say what kinds of things I mean to represent. The quick and expected answer is that I mean to represent some kind of equation, such as “y = 3*x – 2” or “x2 + y2 = 4”, and that probably does come up the most often. We might also be interested in representing an inequality, something like “x2 – 2 y2 ≤ 1”. On occasion we’re interested just in the region where something is not true, saying something like “y ≠ 3 – x”. (I’ve used nice small counting numbers here not out of any interest in these numbers, or because larger ones or non-whole numbers or even irrational numbers don’t work, but because there is something pleasantly reassuring about seeing a “1” or a “2” in an equation. We strongly believe we know what we mean by “1”.)

Anyway, what we’ve written down is something describing a relationship which we are willing to suppose is true. We might not know what x or y are, and we might not care, but at least for the length of the problem we will suppose that the number represented by y must be equal to three times whatever number is represented by x and minus two. There might be only a single value of x we find interesting; there might be several; there might be infinitely many such values. There’ll be a corresponding number of y’s, at least, so long as the equation is true.

Sometimes we’ll turn the description in terms of an equation into a description in terms of a graph right away. Some of these descriptions are like as those of a line — the “y = 3*x – 2” equation — or a simple shape — “x2 + y2 = 4” is a circle — in that we can turn them into graphs right away without having to process them, at least not once we’re familiar and comfortable with the idea of graphing. Some of these descriptions are going to be in awkward forms. “x + 2 = – y2 / x + 2 y /x” is really just an awkward way to describe a circle (more or less), but that shape is hidden in the writing.

Continue reading “Hopefully, Saying Something True”