What is ?
I posted a long answer on Quora.com where it sort of didn’t do well. Answers given by others were much shorter but they seemed, at least to me, to lack geometric insights. After two days my answer was ranked as the most read, but for some reason no one upvoted it. It did receive a few positive replies, though.
I can’t help but believe that there must be nerds in cyberspace who might enjoy my answer. Why not post it on my blog? Maybe someday one of my grandkids will get interested in math and read it. Who knows?
I added some graphics here that wouldn’t post on Quora. The site lacks graphics functionality, apparently. Either that or I’m too dense to figure out how to insert something.
NOTE: 24 Oct 2017: Today Billy Lee finally figured out how to post media on Quora.com. After admonishment and chastisement by the staff, he added a pic and a GIF to his “answer.” Unfortunately, Billy Lee never did get the GIF to run right, so he took it down. Otherwise, Billy Lee is doing good. He really is. THE EDITORIAL BOARD
Anyway, this pic and a working GIF below make a big difference in understanding, I hope. And anyone who doesn’t understand something can always click on a link for more information. (No one ever clicks on links, but I spend a lot of time adding them—maybe so I can click on them myself during times when remembering my name or where I live seems to lie just outside my intellectual skill-set.)
Here is the drawing I added and the answer:
What is ?
The expression evaluates to minus one; the answer is (-1). Why?
Numbers like these are called complex numbers. They are two-dimensional numbers that can be drawn on graph-paper instead of on a one-dimensional number line, like the counting numbers. They are used to analyse wave functions—i.e. phenomenon that are repetitive—like alternating current in the field of electrical engineering, for example.
“e” is a number that cannot be written as a fraction (or a ratio of whole numbers). It is an irrational number (like π, for instance). It can be approximated by adding up an arbitrary number of terms in a certain infinite series to reach whatever level of precision one wants. To work with “e” in practical problems, it must be rounded off to some convenient number of decimal places.
Punch “e” into a calculator and it returns the value 2.7182…. The beauty of working with “e” is that derivatives and integrals of functions based on exponential powers of “e” are easy to calculate.
What is “e” raised to the power of (-iπ) ?
A wonderful feature of the mathematics of complex numbers is that all the values of expressions that involve the number “e” raised to the power of “i” times anything conveniently lie on the edge (or perimeter) of a circle of radius one. This happy fact makes understanding the expressions easy.
I should mention that any point in the complex plane can be reached by adding a number in front of to stretch or shrink the unit circle of values. We aren’t going to go there. In this essay “e” is always preceded by the number one, which by the familiar convention is never shown.
The number next to the letter “i” is simply the angle in radians where the answer lies on the circle. Draw a line from the center of the circle at the angle specified in the exponent of “e” and it will intersect the circle at the value of the expression. What could be easier?
For the particular question we are struggling to answer, the number in the exponent next to “i” is (-π), correct?
“π radians” is 180 degrees, right? The minus sign is simply a direction indicator that says to move clockwise around the unit circle—instead of counter-clockwise if the sign was positive.
After drawing a unit circle on graph paper, place your pencil at (1 + 0i)—located at zero radians (or zero degrees)—-and trace 180 degrees clockwise around the circle. Remember that the circle’s radius is one and its center is located at zero, which in two dimensional, complex space is (0 + 0i). You will end up at the value (-1 + 0i) on the opposite side of the circle, which is the answer, by the way.
[Trace the diagram several paragraphs above with your finger if you don’t have graph paper and a pencil. No worries.]
Notice that +π radians takes you to the same place. The value you land on is (-1 + 0i), which is -1. The answer is minus one.
Imagine that the number next to “i” is (π/2) radians. That’s 90 degrees, agreed? The sign is positive, so trace the circle 90 degrees counter-clockwise. You end at (0 + i), which is straight up. “i” in this case is a distance of one unit upward from the horizontal number line, so the number is written (0 + i)—-zero distance in the horizontal direction and “plus one” distance in the “i” (or vertical) direction.
So, the “i” in the exponent of “e” says to “look here” to find the angle where the value of the answer lies on the unit circle; on the other hand, the “i” in the rectangular coordinates of a two-dimensional number like (0 + i) says “look here” to find the vertical distance above or below the horizontal number line.
When evaluating “e” raised to the power of “i” times anything, the angle next to “i”—call it “θ”—can be transformed into rectangular coordinates by using this expression: [cos(θ) + i sin(θ)].
For example: say that the exponent of “e” is i(π/3). (π/3) radians is 60 degrees, right? The cosine of 60 degrees is 0.5 and the sine of 60 degrees is .866….
So the value of “e” raised to the power of i(π/3) is by substitution (0.5 + .866… i ). It is a two-dimensional number. And it lies on the unit circle.
The bigger the exponent on “e” the more times someone will have to trace around the circle to land at the answer. But they never leave the circle. The answer is always found on the circle between 0 and 2π radians (or 0 and 360 degrees) no matter how large the exponent.
It’s why these expressions involving “e” and “i” are ideal for working with repetitive, sinusoidal (wave-like) phenomenon.
Some readers might wonder about what radians are. A radian is the radius of a circle, which can be lifted and bent to fit perfectly on the edge of the circle. It takes a little more than three radius pieces (3.14159… to be more precise) to wrap from zero degrees to half-way around any circle of any size. This number—3.14159…—is the number called “π”. 2π radians are a little bit more than six-and-a-quarter radians (radius pieces) and will completely span the perimeter (or circumference) of a circle.
A radian is about 57.3 degrees of arc. Multiply 3.1416 by 57.3 to see how close to 180 degrees it is. I get 180.01… . The result is really close to 180 degrees considering that both numbers are irrational and rounded off to only a few decimal places.
One of the rules of working with complex numbers is this: multiplying any number by “i” rotates that number by 90 degrees. The number “i” is always located at 90 degrees on the unit circle by definition, right? By the rule, multiplying “i” by “i” rotates it another 90 degrees counter-clockwise, which moves it to 180 degrees on the circle.
180 degrees on the unit circle is the point (-1 + 0i), which is minus one, right?
So yes, absolutely, “i” multiplied by “i” is equal to -1. It follows that the square root of minus one must be “i”. Thought of in this way, the square root of a minus one isn’t mysterious.
It is helpful to think of complex numbers as two dimensional numbers with real and imaginary components. There is nothing imaginary, though, about the vertical component of a two-dimensional number.
The people who came up with these numbers thought they were imagining things. The concept of two-dimensional numbers was too radical at the time for anyone to believe that numbers could exist on a plane as naturally as they do on a simple number line of one dimension.
Thanks, I was confused about the -i part, so it’s not – sqrt(-1)? My calculator gives me an answer of -1.
Good answer, I approve 🙂