X+Y and Then He Kissed Her
By Michael Warren
I have been looking into this whole polynomial thing, and
I've reached some conclusions you'll want to know about. But first a little
Algebra is an Arabic word that means "the reduction." Think
about that for a while, then let's look at some history.
According to that really cool encyclopedia (Compton's) you
can access on America On-Line:
"As long ago as 2000 B.C., the Babylonians and Egyptians
posed problems like those found in today's elementary algebra texts. For
example, in the Rhind papyrus, dating from about 1650 B.C., problem 24 asks for
the value of 'heap' if heap and a seventh of heap is 19."
That sounds like some algebra problems I've been dealing
with lately. "Just what is that pesky value of heap?" I'll ask myself as I
wander down the school halls.
Here's why I've become so interested in this fascinating
subject: My last class before I can graduate from college is freshman
(It's not that I've procrastinated, you understand. It's
that, until now, it hasn't been convenient, fun-wise, to take algebra. Now that
I need my degree, it's become convenient, graduation-wise.)
So lately I've been dabbling in the study of algebra. And
there's something in this whole algebraic ball of wax that disturbs me.
This is supposed to be mathematics, right? If it's math, why
doesn't it use NUMBERS? Have you ever seen an algebra problem? It's full of
Who gave these math types the right to start messing with
letters? Most of you probably don't take this personally, but I do. You don't'
see English majors composing sonnets out of numbers. So why are these math
people spending their days creating MATH problems out of LETTERS? It's not
How would the math department like it if I started writing
articles mostly out of numbers:
She looked deeply into his strong, steel blue eyes and said,
"Twenty-seven minus four is three times the square root of pi plus a lot of
He flexed his bulging muscles and turned his stony chin out
toward the Caribbean sunset. "Three fourths 'X' over the cube route of 'Y' is
the sum of eighty-seven to the negative one-fourth," he replied and then he
There. Weird, isn't it? Crazy you might even say. So I say,
"Let's have more math problems featuring numbers!" I don't think it's too much
But what's even worse, on those FEW occasions when algebra
bothers to use numbers, they aren't just good, solid, rational numbers.
Rational numbers I can deal with. Seven - there's a good
rational number. The number of days in the week. A good, solid FACTUAL
But there are these other kinds of numbers, these,
IRRATIONAL numbers. (There, I've said it.)
What is an irrational number anyway? Should it seek
counseling? Is it psychopathic?
No, as it turns out. Irrational numbers are NUMBERS THAT
DON'T EXIST. Let that sink in for a minute. It's the kind of thing that may -
if you think about it for long periods of time - seriously undermine your
If they don't exist, why not just leave them alone? But real
mathematicians (some of my best friends are mathematicians, by the way) have
had a joke at the expense of the rest of us. Sometimes, when they get together
for math parties, they call these numbers "imaginary numbers." Don't think for
a minute that mathematicians don't have a measurable sense of humor.
I'm convinced they've made the whole thing up. The only
irrational number I've ever encountered was my checkbook balance. (Editor's
note: Groan!) But seriously
enough of my complaining.
Irrational numbers have had a long, complicated history that
I haven't bothered to really investigate. I have, however, got another neat
quote from that encyclopedia that I can download into my computer:
discovered the existence of
irrational numbers, then known as incommensurable magnitudes. The discovery of
incommensurable magnitudes was very troubling to Pythagorean philosophy
Some have called this the first great crisis in the history of
I know what they must have suffered. I about had a crisis of
"incommensurable magnitude" myself studying for my last test.
But I'm charged. I'll get through this course. That is,
unless they have some new kind of number they're going to spring on me.
Maybe IRRESPONSIBLE numbers (numbers that don't fit into
equations). Or IRREFUTABLE numbers (numbers that are always right). How about
no, wait, IRRESISTABLE numbers