Boxing Pythagoras

Philosophy from the mind of a fighter

Archive for the category “Mathematics”

Some Unfortunate Choices in Mathematics Terminology

Words can be tricky things. The same word can often carry wholly different meanings depending upon the context in which it is used. Take, for instance, the semantic range of the word “light.” This word can carry very different meanings when used in different contexts, as the following sentences illustrate.

  1. That feather is light.
  2. That shade of pink is light.
  3. That laserbeam is light.

Each one of these sentences is of the form “That <noun phrase> is light,” but the word “light” intends an entirely different thing, in each. In (1), “light” is a description of the weight of the feather. In (2), “light” is a description of the intensity of the shade of pink. In (3), “light” is a description of the physical nature of the laserbeam. There is a well known fallacy of logic called equivocation which involves conflating such definitions in order to arrive at a false conclusion. For example, if I said…

  1. Light things weigh less than heavy things
  2. This shade of pink is light
  3. Therefore, this shade of pink weighs less than heavy things

…my logic would be invalid, because the definitions of “light” used in (1) and (2) are completely different.

Mathematics, unfortunately, contains some terminology which tends to lead to these same sorts of equivocation fallacies, because the common usage of a word very often differs from the mathematical usage of that word. While there are numerous examples from which I could likely choose, today I’m going to focus on a case which I believe to be particularly egregious. Today, I’m going to discuss Real and Imaginary numbers.

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Proof that π=2√3

There is an inherent danger attached to blindly accepting the word of someone who sounds like they are presenting a rational, scientific claim. Too many people are willing to accept a proposition solely because they’ve heard it from someone who bears the appearance of intelligence. The line of thought seems to be, “Well, he’s smarter than me, so he must be right!” Unfortunately, this sort of fallacious reasoning goes largely unchecked, and often becomes formative in the common understanding of entire groups of people.

For almost the entirety of your mathematical education, you have been taught that the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, which we affectionately refer to as π, is something close to 3\frac{1}{7}, or about 3.14; however, today I’m going to show you that your math teachers were wrong. In actuality, the value of π is exactly 2√3, or about 3.46.

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Euclid and the Sword

I have written, often, about one of my personal heroes from history, Euclid of Alexandria, who wrote a textbook called Elements which would serve as the foundation for all Western mathematics for 2000 years. You may recall that, outside of his name and a list of his writings, we know almost nothing about Euclid. We know nothing of his birth, or his schooling, or his politics. We don’t know if he traveled extensively or if he was relatively sedentary. We don’t know if he was tall, short, fat, skinny, handsome, or ugly. However, one thing we do know is that Euclid’s work, though purely mathematical, bore a tremendous influence on a wide variety of fields of knowledge.

Euclid’s Elements set out to prove the whole of mathematics deductively from very simple definitions, axioms, and postulates. Deductive logic provided a sound and absolute basis by which mathematics operated for every man, whether rich or poor, high-born or peasant, male or female, famous or obscure. During the 16th and 17th Centuries, this strong foundation became lauded and sought after by philosophers, who began attempting to provide all philosophy with the rigor one found in the Elements. The appeal was obvious: if one could deductively prove his philosophical system, in the manner that Euclid had proved his geometry, then one would be left with incontrovertible conclusions to questions which had previously been highly disputed. Such extremely notable philosophers as Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza, amongst countless others, attempted to replicate the Definitions-Postulates-Proofs format Euclid had employed in order to settle questions of morality and ethics and governance.

Martial philosophy was no less affected, in that period. The sword and swordplay, especially, underwent a dramatic evolution during that same time. Just as Hobbes and Spinoza attempted to replicate Euclid for ethics, fencing masters similarly moved toward a more rigorous and geometric approach towards understanding combat. And, in my opinion, they were far more  successful in that endeavor than the philosophers had been.

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On the Pythagorean Theorem

In right-angled triangles, the square on the side subtending the right-angle is equal to the (sum of the) squares on the sides containing the right-angle.

Euclid’s Elements, Book 1, Proposition 47 (R. Fitzpatrick, trans.)

Figure 1: A right triangle with squares on its sides

Figure 1: A right triangle with squares on its sides


The Pythagorean Theorem is my favorite math problem of all time. I feel so strongly about this particular bit of geometry that I have the theorem tattooed on my chest. Over my heart. In the original Greek. Yeah, I’m that kind of nerd. Most people have some vague recollection from their high school math classes that the Pythagorean Theorem is a^2+b^2=c^2; and a few even remember that the in that equation refers to the hypotenuse of a right triangle, while the a and b refer to the other two legs. However, most of the time, people were just taught to memorize this theorem– they weren’t taught how to prove that it was actually true. Now, the Internet is full of all kinds of really clever visual proofs involving rearranging copies of the triangle in order to form the different squares, but I’m not really a huge fan of these. They make it very easy to see that the Pythagorean Theorem is true, but they don’t really make it easy to see why the Pythagorean Theorem is true. So, today, I wanted to discuss my favorite proof for the Pythagorean Theorem, which comes to us by way of Euclid’s Elements, which was the standard textbook for math in the West for around 2000 years.

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On the Continuum and Indivisibles

Εἰ δ’ ἐστὶ συνεχὲς καὶ ἁπτόμενον καὶ ἐφεξῆς, ὡς διώρισται πρότερον, συνεχῆ μὲν ὧν τὰ ἔσχατα ἕν, ἁπτόμενα δ’ ὧν ἅμα, ἐφεξῆς δ’ ὧν μηδὲν μεταξὺ συγγενές, ἀδύνατον ἐξ ἀδιαιρέτων εἶναί τι συνεχές, οἷον γραμμὴν ἐκ στιγμῶν, εἴπερ ἡ γραμμὴ μὲν συνεχές, ἡ στιγμὴ δὲ ἀδιαίρετον. Οὔτε γὰρ ἓν τὰ ἔσχατα τῶν στιγμῶν (οὐ γάρ ἐστι τὸ μὲν ἔσχατον τὸ δ’ ἄλλο τι μόριον τοῦ ἀδιαιρέτου), οὔθ’ ἅμα τὰ ἔσχατα (οὐ γάρ ἐστιν ἔσχατον τοῦ ἀμεροῦς οὐδέν· ἕτερον γὰρ τὸ ἔσχατον καὶ οὗ ἔσχατον).

–Aristotle, Physics 6.1

There is a concept which is absolutely intrinsic to all of geometry and mathematics. This particular concept is utilized by every single High School student that has ever graphed a line, and yet this concept is so incredibly difficult to understand that most people cannot wrap their heads around it. I’m talking about the concept of the continuum. Basically, the idea is that geometric geometrical objects are composed of a continuous group of indivisibles, objects which literally have no size, but which cannot be considered “nothing.” Despite the fact that these individual objects have no size, they form together into groups which, as a whole, can be measured in length or height or breadth. In mathematics, objects such as lines, planes, volumes, and all other sorts of space are considered to be continua, continuous and contiguous collections of these indivisibles into a unified whole. Because these infinitesimals have no size, themselves, even finite spaces contain an infinite number of these points.

Nearly every mathematician on the planet subscribes to this point of view. However, this was not always the case. Only a little more than 100 years ago, this view was considered extremely controversial and was only held by a fringe minority of scholars. Four centuries before that, this concept was nearly unthinkable. Though it has become, without question, the prevailing view of mathematicians, even today there remain a tiny handful of scholars who object to the use of the infinitesimal, the infinite, the individible, and the continuum in modern math. One such person is Dr. Norman Wildberger, an educator and mathematician for whom I have the utmost respect.

Still, I disagree with Dr. Wildberger’s philosophy on this particular issue.

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Egyptian Math: Multiplication and Division

A little while back, I wrote up a little post on basic Egyptian mathematics, concentrating on how using Egyptian numerals in addition and subtraction can aid students in understanding our base-10 number system. I wanted to continue that discussion, today, by looking at how the ancient Egyptians performed Multiplication and Division. Unlike my discussions of addition and subtraction, I am not advocating Egyptian multiplication and division as a means for teaching the Common Core standards.

To be honest, I just find the system to be really interesting.

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Egyptian Math for the Common Core

A short while back, one of my friends posted a series of videos on Facebook complaining about the Common Core standards which are being rolled out in the United States. Unsurprisingly, not a single one of the videos actually addresses the standards laid out by the Common Core– despite their being freely available on the Internet— and instead the videos display knee-jerk reactions to specific teaching methodologies which are not understood by the complainants. Generally, these sorts of arguments against the Common Core focus on the methods of early, basic arithmetic taught in the 3rd and 4th grades. At this stage, the Core requires that students become familiar with the nature of a base-10 counting system, such as the one we utilize. The Indian-Arabic number system which we have adopted for mathematics has the benefit of simplifying these base-10 properties, but unfortunately that comes at the cost of obfuscation.

Teaching the base-10 system as it ought to be initially taught– without the shortcuts inherent in Indian-Arabic numerals– is a very alien procedure to most people. Because it is new and strange and takes more steps to accomplish than the familiar method of arithmetic, parents are frightened and confused; and when parents are frightened and confused, they tend to lash out rather than taking the time to actually learn the purpose and reasoning behind the methodology.

It occurs to me that a possible solution might be found in Egyptian arithmetic.

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The Death of Dignity and Virtue

There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.

–Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History

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On Infinity and Eternity

As may be evident from my numerous past articles on the subject, I have an avid interest in the philosophy of Time. The nature of time is one of the oldest questions in philosophy, and one which has enormous repercussions on the physical sciences. Since the middle of the 20th Century, the evidence from cosmology has become stronger and stronger for the idea that our universe has a finite starting point, in the past. Many theistic philosophers– especially proponents of the Cosmological family of arguments— have jumped on these reports, claiming vindication for their belief that the universe was therefore created. When I disagree with this claim, I often find that the people with whom I am conversing becoming extremely confused. They ask me if I think the universe is eternal, and I reply that I do. Then, they ask me if I think that cosmologists like Alexander Vilenkin are wrong when they assert that the universe had a finite starting point. I reply that I actually agree with Dr. Vilenkin, and that I believe the universe has a finite past. This is where the confusion abounds: how can something be both finite and eternal?

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The Elements of Geometry

Some time ago, I wrote about Alexandria, the most important city in history, briefly discussing the lives of just 17 of the men and women that made it so. Prime to that list, both in sequence and in importance, was Euclid of Alexandria, a personal hero of mine who I consider to be one of the most inspirational and influential people in all of human history. We know next to nothing about Euclid’s life– we do not know where or when he was born, where or when he died, and extremely little about the time between those events. We know that he lived in Alexandria at roughly the same time as Ptolemy I, circa 300 BCE, and we know that he wrote prolifically about mathematics. Yet, even with so very little information as this, I would strongly argue that Euclid contributed far more to the world than did much more well-known figures like the great historian, Herodotus; or the conquering emperor, Julius Caesar; or even the revolutionary preacher, Jesus of Nazareth. What could Euclid have possibly done that outshines these other, great men? Euclid of Alexandria wrote the Elements.

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