I just finished Humble Pi (2019), by Matt Parker, and I absolutely loved it. Parker, a former high school maths teacher, now a maths popularizer, has an easy breezy style dotted with wry jokes and good humor. I read three-quarters of the book in one sitting because I couldn’t stop (just one more chapter, then I’ll go to bed).
It’s a book about mathematical mistakes, some funny, some literally deadly. It’s also about how we need to be better at numbers and careful how we use them. Most importantly, it’s about how mathematics is so deeply embedded in modern life.
It’s my third maths book in a month and the only one I thoroughly enjoyed.
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.
Graph of ax2 for diff a values.
(green < 1; blue = 1; red > 1)
This is a little detour before the main event. The first post of this series, which explained why the imaginary unit, i, is important to math, was long enough; I didn’t want to make it longer. However there is a simple visual way of illustrating exactly why it seems, at least initially, that the original premise isn’t right.
There is also a visual way to illustrate the solution, but it requires four dimensions to display. Three dimensions can get us there if we use some creative color shading, but we’re still stuck displaying it on a two-dimensional screen, so it’ll take a little imagination on our part.
And while the solution might not be super obvious, the problem sure is.
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.
In the Rational vs Real post I mentioned that real numbers were each “an infinitely tiny island separated from direct contact with all other numbers.” The metaphor of each real number as an island comes from how, given any real number, it’s not possible to name the next (or previous) real number.
It’s easy enough to name a particular real number. For instance 1.0 are 3.14159… real numbers. There are infinitely many more we can name, but given any one of them, there is no way to get to any other number other than by explicitly naming it, too.
This applies to a variety of numeric spaces.
One of the great philosophical conundrums involves the origin of numbers and mathematics. I first learned of it as Platonic vs Aristotelian views, but these days it’s generally called Platonism vs Nominalism. I usually think of it as the question of whether numbers are invented or discovered.
Whatever it’s called, there is something transcendental about numbers and math. It’s hard not to discover (or invent) the natural numbers. Even from a theory standpoint, the natural numbers are very simply defined. Yet they directly invoke infinity — which doesn’t exist in the physical world.
There is also the “unreasonable effectiveness” of numbers in describing our world.
One of my earliest posts was Analog vs Digital. A few years later, I wrote about it in more detail (twice). Since then I’ve touched on it here and there. In all cases, I wrote from the perspective that of course they’re a Yin-Yang pair.
Recently I’ve encountered arguments challenging that “night and day” distinction (usually in the context of computationalism), so here I’d like to approach the topic with the intent of justifying the difference.
I do agree the grooves on a record, and the pits on a CD, are both just physical representations of information, but the nature of that information is what is night and day different.
Folded into the mixed baklava of my 2018, was a special mathematical bit of honey. With the help of some excellent YouTube videos, the light bulb finally went on for me, and I could see quaternions. Judging by online comments I’ve read, I wasn’t alone in the dark.
There does seem a conceptual stumbling block (I tripped, anyway), but once that’s cleared up, quaternions turn out to be pretty easy to use. Which is cool, because they are very useful if you want to rotate some points in 3D space (a need I’m sure many of have experienced over the years).
The stumbling block has to do with quaternions having not one, not two, but three distinct “imaginary” numbers.
But my brain is full!
You may have noticed that, in a number of recent posts, the topic has been math. The good-bad news is that there’s more to come (sorry, but I love this stuff). The good-good news is that I’m done with math foundations. For now.
To wrap up the discussion of math’s universality and inevitability — and also of its fascination and beauty — today I just have some YouTube videos you can watch this Sunday afternoon. (Assuming you’re a geek like me.)
So get a coffee and get comfortable!