Last time I opened with basic exponentiation and raised it to the idea of complex exponents (which may, or may not, have been surprising to you). I also began exploring the ubiquitous exp function, which enables the complex math needed to deal with such exponents.
The exp(x) function, which is the same as ex, appears widely throughout physics. The complex version, exp(ix), is especially common in wave-based physics (such as optics, sound, and quantum mechanics). It’s instrumental in the Fourier transform.
Which in turn is as instrumental to mathematicians and physicists as a hammer is to carpenters and pianos.
Five years ago today I posted, Beautiful Math, which is about Euler’s Identity. In the first part of that post I explored why the Identity is so exquisitely beautiful (to mathematicians, anyway). In the second part, I showed that the Identity is a special case of Euler’s Formula, which relates trigonometry to the complex plane.
Since then I’ve learned how naive that post was! It wasn’t wrong, but the relationship expressed in Euler’s Formula is fundamental and ubiquitous in science and engineering. It’s particularly important in quantum physics with regard to the infamous Schrödinger equation, but it shows up in many wave-based contexts.
It all hinges on the complex unit circle and the exp(i×π×a) function.
Multiplying by i…
Recently I did a series of posts about how the complex numbers arise from a natural progression of math realizations. I’ve done posts in the past about how the natural numbers lead through the integers and rationals to the real numbers. (And I’ve done posts about how weird the real numbers are, but that’s another topic.)
I recently came across another way a progression of obvious natural questions directly leads to the necessity of a new type of number, and this progression takes us all the way from the naturals to the complex numbers.
All by asking, “What do you get when you…”
In the first post I explained why the mathematical “imaginary” number i is “real” (in more than one sense of the word). That weird number is just a stepping stone to the complex numbers, which are themselves stepping stones to the complex plane.
Which, in turn, is a big stepping stone to a fun fact about the Mandelbrot I want to write about. (But we all have to get there, first.) I think it’s a worthwhile journey — understanding the complex plane opens the door to more than just the Mandelbrot. (For instance, Euler’s beautiful “sonnet” also lives on the complex plane.)
As it turns out, the complex numbers cause this plane to “fly” a little bit differently than the regular X-Y plane does.
Yes, this is a math post, but don’t run off too quickly. I’ll keep it as simple as possible (but no simpler), and I’ll do all the actual math so you can just ride along and watch. What I’m about here is laying the groundwork to explain a fun fact about the Mandelbrot.
This post is kind of an origin story. It seeks to explain why something rather mind-bending — the so-called “imaginary numbers” — are actually vital members of the mathematical family despite being based on what seems an impossibility.
The truth is, math would be a bit stuck without them.