Tag Archives: negative

A minus times a minus is a plus -Are you sure you know why?

What exactly are negative numbers?
A reference , from Wikipedia:
In A.D. 1759, Francis Maseres, an English mathematician, wrote that negative numbers “darken the very whole doctrines of the equations and make dark of the things which are in their nature excessively obvious and simple”.
He came to the conclusion that negative numbers were nonsensical.[25]

A minus times a minus is a plus
Two minuses make a plus
Dividing by a negative, especially a negative fraction !!!!
(10 – 2) x (7 – 3) = 10 x 7 – 2 x 7 + 10 x -3 + 2 x 3, really? How do we know?
Or we use “the area model”, or some hand waving with the number line.

It’s time for some clear thinking about this stuff.

Mathematically speaking, the only place that requires troublesome calculations with negative numbers is in algebra, either in evaluation or in rearrangement, but what about the real world ?
Where in the real world does one encounter negative x negative ?
I found two situations, in electricity and in mechanics:

1: “volts x amps = watts”, as it it popularly remembered really means “voltage drop x current flowing = power”
It is sensible to choose a measurement system (scale) for each of these so that a current flowing from a higher to a lower potential point is treated as positive, as is the voltage drop.

Part of simple circuit A———–[resistors etc in here]————–B
Choosing point A, at potential a, as the reference, and point B, at potential b, as the “other” point, then the potential drop from A to B is a – b
If b<a then a current flows from A to B, and its value is positive, just as a – b is positive
If b>a then a current flows from B to A, and its value is negative, just as a – b is negative

In each case the formula for power, voltage drop x current flowing = power, must yield an unsigned number, as negative power is a nonsense. Power is an “amount”.
So when dealing with reality minus times minus is plus (in this case nosign at all).

The mechanics example is about the formula “force times distance = work done”
You can fill in the details.

Now let’s do multiplication on the number line, or to be more precise, two number lines:
Draw two number lines, different directions, starting together at the zero. The scales do not have to be the same.
To multiply 2 by three (3 times 2):
1: Draw a line from the 1 on line A to the 2 on line B
2: Draw a line from the 3 on line A parallel to the first line.
3: It meets line B at the point 6
4: Done: 3 times 2 is 6
numberlines mult pospos
Number line A holds the multipliers, number line B holds the numbers being multiplied.

To multiply a negative number by a positive number we need a pair of signed number lines, crossing at their zero points.

So to multiply -2 by 3 (3 times -2) we do the same as above, but the number being multiplied is now -2, so 1 on line A is joined to -2 on line B

numberlines mult posneg
The diagram below is for -2 times 3. Wow, it ends in the same place.
numberlines mult posneg

Finally, and you can see where this is going, we do -2 times -3.

Join the 1 on line A to the -3 on line B, and then the parallel to this line passing through the -2 on line A:

numberlines mult negneg

and as hoped for, this line passes through the point 6 on the number line B.

Does this “prove” the general case? Only in the proverbial sense. The reason is that we do not have a proper definition of signed numbers. (There is one).

Incidentally, the numbering on the scales above is very poor. The positive numbers are NOT NOT NOT the same things as the unsigned numbers 1, 1.986, 234.5 etc

Each of them should have a + in front, but mathematicians are Lazy. More on this another day.

Problem for you: Show that (a-b)(c-d) = ac – bc – ad + bd without using anything to do with “negative numbers”


Reference direction for current
Since the current in a wire or component can flow in either direction, when a variable I is defined to represent
that current, the direction representing positive current must be specified, usually by an arrow on the circuit
schematic diagram. This is called the reference direction of current I. If the current flows in the opposite
direction, the variable I has a negative value.

Yahoo Answers: Reference direction for potential difference
Best Answer: Potential difference can be negative. It depends on which direction you measure the voltage – e.g.
which way round you connect a voltmeter. (if this is the best answer, I hate to think of what the worst answer is)



Filed under algebra, arithmetic, definitions, education, geometrical, math, meaning, negative numbers, Number systems, operations, subtraction, teaching, Uncategorized

A. N. Whitehead on negative numbers (1911)

This is really worth reading. It is from his book, “Introduction to Mathematics”, published in 1911.

whitehead intro to math negative nos





Filed under abstract, arithmetic, Number systems, teaching, Uncategorized

Double negatives, or the meaning of -(-2)

In the extended number system of signed numbers, that is, the positive and negative numbers I see a lot of heart searching over the meaning of -(-2). This can be put to rest in one or both of two quite satisfactory ways:

1: Signed numbers are directed numbers, used for position, temperature, voltage etcetera. The basic question is “How far apart are the two numbers  A  and  B ?”, or more useful in a practical situation “How far is it from  A  to  B ?”.

This is a subtraction problem with direction and the answer is  B – A
For A=3 and B=7 we get
Distance from A to B = B – A = 7 – 3 = 4
For A=-3 and B=7 we get
Distance from A to B = B – A = 7 – (-3) = ???????????????
But a quick look at a number line shows that the distance is 10
So 7 – (-3) = 10
But 7 + 3 = 10 as well
Conclusion: -(-3) = +3

2: A simple and more abstract approach:
Starting with 7 – (-3) = ??????????????? we give a name to the unknown answer. Call it D.
Then using the basic fact that 12 – 4 = 8 is equivalent to 12 = 8 + 4 we have
7 – (-3) = D is equivalent to 7 = D + (-3)
7 = D + (-3) is equivalent to 7 = D – 3
7 = D – 3 is equivalent to 7 + 3 = D
which says that D = 10
So subtracting -3 is the same as adding 3

A meaningful example is as follows:
My friend from Anchorage calls me and says “It’s cold here this morning, -5 degrees”.
Down here in Puerto Rico it’s 68 degrees this morning.
How much warmer is it here than in Alaska?


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Commutative, associative, distributive – These are THE LAWS

Idly passing the time this morning I thought of a – b = a + (-b).
Fair enough, it is the interpretation of subtraction in the extended positive/negative number system.

I then thought of a – (b + c)
Sticking to the rules I got a + (-(b + c))
To proceed further I had to guess that -(b + c) = (-b) + (-c)
and then, quite ok, a – (b + c) = a – b – c

But -(b + c) = (-b) + (-c) is guesswork.
I cannot see a rule to apply to this situation.

The only way forward is to use -1 as a multiplier:
So a – b = a + (-1)b = a + (-b),
and then -(b + c) = (-1)(b + c) = (-1)b + (-1)c = (-b) + (-c)
by the distributive law.

It’s not surprising that kids have trouble with negative numbers!

Do we just assert that the distributive law applies everywhere, even when it is only defined with ++’s ?

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Read this : Negative numbers, by A. N. Whitehead

Alfred North Whitehead, professor of mathematics and philosophy, and famous for his collaboration with Bertrand Russell on their joint effort, the Principia Mathematica, also wrote a book, “Introduction to Mathematics”, in 1911, for High School students and others who really wanted to know what math was all about.
The section on negative numbers is so relevant to the teaching of that topic today that it is a MUST READ. Click the link to download this section.

Alfred North Whitehead: Introduction to Mathematics

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Negative numbers: truth, existence, reality, abstraction.

There are things with names which I can pick up, see, feel, or if too radioactive then at least observe and measure…..this is the reality we have (though some philosophers, and neuroscientists would have us believe otherwise). But what with numbers?

I can see three coconuts, I can count them, and match the count to the quantity, but the number THREE is not real, it is an abstraction from all the occurrences of three object that I have seen or can visualize.

Well, if THREE is not real then MINUS THREE hasn’t got a chance at being real, it is in fact a second stage abstraction, as negative numbers were invented by humans to deal with situations not adequately described with “ordinary” numbers. It gets worse, as complex numbers were invented to get over the difficulties with “real” numbers (the positive and negative numbers). It is a shame about the use of the word “real” in this situation (see above). They should have been called “simple numbers”.

Abstraction is also the basis of geometry. Euclid says “A line is that with extent but no breadth”, which does make it difficult to see! 

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-1 x -1 = 1, but some need convincing

Here is a popular argument:   -1 x -1 has to be 1 or -1

If it was equal to -1 then -1 x -1 = -1 x -1 x 1 = -1 x1 and so dividing both sides by -1 we get -1 = 1, which is not a good idea!, hence -1 x -1 = 1

This argument begs so many questions that it is difficult to know where to start.

Here is a much better one, but it does stretch the idea of area a little :


From the diagram  (a – 1) x (b – 1) = a x b – a – b + 1

Set a = 0 and b = 0 to get  (0 – 1) x ( 0 – 1) = 1, and since 0 – 1 is equal to -1        we get -1 x -1 = 1

This has some connection with evaluating for example  3 x ( 8 – 2)  using the distributive law.

The distributive law is a law for  a(b + c) and says nothing about  a(b – c), but never mind, we go gaily about the common task.

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