College Math Teaching

October 11, 2016

The bias we have toward the rational numbers

Filed under: analysis, Measure Theory — Tags: , , — collegemathteaching @ 5:39 pm

A brilliant scientist (full tenure at the University of Chicago) has a website called “Why Evolution is True”. He wrote an article titled “why is pi irrational” and seemed to be under the impression that being “irrational” was somehow special or unusual.

That is an easy impression to have; after all, almost every example we use rationals or sometimes special irrationals (e. g. multiples of pi, e^1 , square roots, etc.

We even condition our students to think that way. Time and time again, I’ve seen questions such as “if f(.9) = .94, f(.95) = .9790, f(1.01) = 1.043 then it is reasonable to conclude that f(1) = . It is as if we want students to think that functions take integers to integers.

The reality is that the set of rationals has measure zero on the real line, so if one were to randomly select a number from the real line and the selection was truly random, the probability of the number being rational would be zero!

So, it would be far, far stranger had “pi” turned out to be rational. But that just sounds so strange.

So, why do the rationals have measure zero? I dealt with that in a more rigorous way elsewhere (and it is basic analysis) but I’ll give a simplified proof.

The set of rationals are countable so one can label all of them as q(n), n \in \{0, 1, 2, ... \} Now consider the following covering of the rational numbers: U_n = (q(n) - \frac{1}{2^{n+1}}, q(n) + \frac{1}{2^{n+1}}) . The length of each open interval is \frac{1}{2^n} . Of course there will be overlapping intervals but that isn’t important. What is important is that if one sums the lengths one gets \sum^{\infty}_{n = 0} \frac{1}{2^n} = \frac{1}{1-\frac{1}{2}} = 2 . So the rationals can be covered by a collection of open sets whose total length is less than or equal to 2.

But there is nothing special about 2; one can then find new coverings: U_n = (q(n) - \frac{\epsilon}{2^{n+1}}, q(n) + \frac{\epsilon}{2^{n+1}}) and the total length is now less than or equal to 2 \epsilon where \epsilon is any real number. Since there is no positive lower bound as to how small \epsilon can be, the set of rationals can be said to have measure zero.

June 7, 2016

Pop-math: getting it wrong but being close enough to give the public a feel for it

Space filling curves: for now, we’ll just work on continuous functions f: [0,1] \rightarrow [0,1] \times [0,1] \subset R^2 .

A curve is typically defined as a continuous function f: [0,1] \rightarrow M where M is, say, a manifold (a 2’nd countable metric space which has neighborhoods either locally homeomorphic to R^k or R^{k-1}) . Note: though we often think of smooth or piecewise linear curves, we don’t have to do so. Also, we can allow for self-intersections.

However, if we don’t put restrictions such as these, weird things can happen. It can be shown (and the video suggests a construction, which is correct) that there exists a continuous, ONTO function f: [0,1] \rightarrow [0,1] \times [0,1] ; such a gadget is called a space filling curve.

It follows from elementary topology that such an f cannot be one to one, because if it were, because the domain is compact, f would have to be a homeomorphism. But the respective spaces are not homeomorphic. For example: the closed interval is disconnected by the removal of any non-end point, whereas the closed square has no such separating point.

Therefore, if f is a space filling curve, the inverse image of a points is actually an infinite number of points; the inverse (as a function) cannot be defined.

And THAT is where this article and video goes off of the rails, though, practically speaking, one can approximate the space filling curve as close as one pleases by an embedded curve (one that IS one to one) and therefore snake the curve through any desired number of points (pixels?).

So, enjoy the video which I got from here (and yes, the text of this post has the aforementioned error)

September 3, 2010

Welcome to Fall 2010!

Filed under: applied mathematics, calculus, physics, popular mathematics — Tags: — collegemathteaching @ 10:17 am

I’ll have to fire this back up. There are some interesting things to discuss.

I can recommend this Sixty Symbols video for “infinity” (from a physicist’s point of view)

and Fourier Analysis

Note: this is cool to see, but to make it work, you need the idea of uniform convergence of a sequence of functions.

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