College Math Teaching

January 18, 2014

Fun with divergent series (and uses: e. g. string theory)

One “fun” math book is Knopp’s book Theory and Application of Infinite Series. I highly recommend it to anyone who frequently teaches calculus, or to talented, motivated calculus students.

One of the more interesting chapters in the book is on “divergent series”. If that sounds boring consider the following:

we all know that \sum^{\infty}_{n=0} x^n = \frac{1}{1-x} when |x| < 1 and diverges elsewhere, PROVIDED one uses the “sequence of partial sums” definition of covergence of sums. But, as Knopp points out, there are other definitions of convergence which leaves all the convergent (by the usual definition) series convergent (to the same value) but also allows one to declare a larger set of series to be convergent.

Consider 1 - 1 + 1 -1 + 1.......

of course this is a divergent geometric series by the usual definition. But note that if one uses the geometric series formula:

\sum^{\infty}_{n=0} x^n = \frac{1}{1-x} and substitutes x = -1 which IS in the domain of the right hand side (but NOT in the interval of convergence in the left hand side) one obtains 1 -1 +1 -1 + 1.... = \frac{1}{2} .

Now this is nonsense unless we use a different definition of sum convergence, such as the Cesaro summation: if s_k is the usual “partial sum of the first k terms: s_k = \sum^{n=k}_{n =0}a_n then one declares the Cesaro sum of the series to be lim_{m \rightarrow \infty} \frac{1}{m}\sum^{m}_{k=1}s_k provided this limit exists (this is the arithmetic average of the partial sums).

(see here)

So for our 1 -1 + 1 -1 .... we easily see that s_{2k+1} = 0, s_{2k} = 1 so for m even we see \frac{1}{m}\sum^{m}_{k=1}s_k = \frac{\frac{m}{2}}{m} = \frac{1}{2} and for m odd we get \frac{\frac{m-1}{2}}{m} which tends to \frac{1}{2} as m tends to infinity.

Now, we have this weird type of assignment.

But that won’t help with \sum^{\infty}_{k = 1} k = 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5...... But weirdly enough, string theorists find a way to assign this particular series a number! In fact, the number that they assign to this makes no sense at all: -\frac{1}{12} .

What the heck? Well, one way this is done is explained here:

Consider \sum^{\infty}_{k=0}x^k = \frac{1}{1-x} Now differentiate term by term to get 1 +2x + 3x^2+4x^3 .... = \frac{1}{(1-x)^2} and now multiply both sides by x to obtain x + 2x^2 + 3x^3 + .... = \frac{x}{(1-x)^2} This has a pole of order 2 at x = 1. But now substitute x = e^h and calculate the Laurent series about h = 0 ; the 0 order term turns out to be \frac{1}{12} . Yes, this has applications in string theory!

Now of course, if one uses the usual definitions of convergence, I played fast and loose with the usual intervals of convergence and when I could differentiate term by term. This theory is NOT the usual calculus theory.

Now if you want to see some “fun nonsense” applied to this (spot how many “errors” are made….it is a nice exercise):

And read this to see exploding heads. 🙂

What is going on: when one sums a series, one is really “assigning a value” to an object; think of this as a type of morphism of the set of series to the set of numbers. The usual definition of “sum of a series” is an especially nice morphism as it allows, WITH PRECAUTIONS, some nice algebraic operations in the domain (the set of series) to be carried over into the range. I say “with precautions” because of things like the following:

1. If one is talking about series of numbers, then one must have an absolutely convergent series for derangements of a given series to be assigned the same number. Example: it is well known that a conditionally convergent alternating series can be arranged to converge to any value of choice.

2. If one is talking about a series of functions (say, power series where one sums things like x^n ) one has to be in OPEN interval of absolute convergence to justify term by term differentiation and integration; then of course a series is assigned a function rather than a number.

So when one tries to go with a different notion of convergence, one must be extra cautious as to which operations in the domain space carry through under the “assignment morphism” and what the “equivalence classes” of a given series are (e. g. can a series be deranged and keep the same sum?)

This Phil Plait article started this post in motion for me and I got to it via 3-quarks daily.



  1. […] there is something mathematical that I want to talk about; it is a follow up to this post. It has to do with what string theorist tell us: . Needless to say, they are using a non-standard […]

    Pingback by A bit more prior to admin BS | College Math Teaching — January 20, 2014 @ 5:36 pm

  2. I need info .Do u teach taylor series to high school students

    Comment by narin — February 23, 2014 @ 5:47 pm

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