What is a number? Particularly √2

After the previous post, on the reality or otherwise of the square root of -1, I thought that the square root of 2 might benefit from a similar inquiry. After all, what can we actually say about √2 ? The answer to this question is very simple. “Not a lot !”.

In the real world of engineering, architecture, mathematical modelling, business, medicine and so on numbers are either counts (1,2,3,4,…) or absolute or relative measurements (1.20cm, 240 secs, 15 mins, 4096 ft, 35.7 mph,….). The first group is the natural or counting numbers, the second group is the rational numbers, and not so many of them. In practice it is rare for the size of a quantity to be expressed with more than four significant figures. So every practical quantity has a measurement in the form of a rational number, and most importantly IT CAN BE WRITTEN DOWN. I am going to call this the VALUE of the number.

The only thing is an assertion that there is a sort of number which when multiplied by itself produces the value 2.

So where does that leave √2 ?  It cannot be written down in the form of a rational number, so it has NO value in the above sense.
Ok, I can write  1.41422 < 2 < 1.41432 but neither of the two values shown is the value of √2. I could go on and get more digits in the two numbers and this would still be true.

This all started with the ancient Greeks, who found out that the length of the diagonal of a unit square was a quantity very different from quantities which could be measured using the side length of a unit square as the measurement unit. They described this state of affairs as “The side length and the diagonal length of a square are incommensurable”, which is a nice long word.

In passing I have to say that the Common Core math makes a real pig’s ear of this stuff.

So the Greeks were happy with the idea that every line segment has a length, and that the length is expressed as a number, but this wasn’t good enough for the nineteenth century mathematicians. I may write about this later, but for now we should be seeing if √2 can reasonably be “joined ” to the rational number system in a non magical, non wishful thinking way.

Let’s pretend that √2 is a sort of number, and that new numbers can be formed by a rational number “a” plus a rational amount “b” of √2, and write this as a + b√2

Then the sum of two these comes in as
(a + b√2) + (p + q√2) = (a + p) + (b + q)√2

and the product comes in as 
(a + b√2)(p + q√2) = (ap + 2bq) + (aq + bp)√2

In each case we have another of the “new” numbers.

One tricky question remains. What about division ?

If I multiply a + b√2 by a – b√2 I get a2 – 2b2 which has no √2 in it, it is a normal rational number, and it is only zero if BOTH a and b are zero.
This is called the root(2) conjugate.
In a division, if the divisor has its b not zero then I can multiply the top and the bottom (the divisor and the dividend) by the conjugate of the bottom, and the only √2’s are then on top.

(3+2√2)/(4-√2) = (3+2√2)(4+√2)/((4-√2)(4+√2)) = (16+11√2)/(16-2) …

As with the square root of -1 we can see that this is all about pairs of rational numbers, and the √2 symbol just keeps the members of each pair in order.

So rewriting the multiplication we get (a,b)(p,q) = (ap + 2bq, aq + bp)
and all the rules for operations can be expressed in this way and be seen to work.

We have ended up with a totally valid extension of the rational numbers by √2.
It is quite amusing to represent these pairs on an xy grid, and see the effect of multiplication.

But √2 still does not have a value ! ! ! ! !



Filed under extension, irrational numbers, math, square roots

2 responses to “What is a number? Particularly √2

  1. The beauty of this “rationalizing” comes in the explanation of the verb. When we rationalize the denominator, we really are changing the state of the number. We civilize a savage; we rationalize an irrational!

  2. /*In passing I have to say that the Common Core math makes a real pig’s ear of this stuff.*/
    i went ahead and memorized this.
    it’s sure to come in handy.

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