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 background.

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 algebra.

(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 LETTERS.

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 fair.

How would the math department like it if I started writing articles mostly out of numbers:

1+24789plus+89240171=124810098430108=18=1823489hundred4650++6506546/65412334+ 13516X65sixteen6664542664ohyeah/uhhuh987564987564654987654657andt wothirds46549876510ten64684Pineapple56379874eight87697.

Better yet:

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 factors."

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 kissed her.

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 to ask.

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 number.

But there are these other kinds of numbers, these, 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 worldview.

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:

"The Pythagoreans…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 mathematics."

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 IRRELEVANT numbers…no, wait, IRRESISTABLE numbers…