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Fri, 17 May 2019

What's the difference between 0/0 and 1/0?

Last year a new Math Stack Exchange user asked What's the difference between !!\frac00!! and !!\frac10!!?.

I wrote an answer I thought was pretty good, but the question was downvoted and deleted as “not about mathematics”. This is bullshit, but what can I do?

I can repatriate my answer here, anyway.

This long answer has two parts. The first one is about the arithmetic, and is fairly simple, and is not very different from the other answers here: neither !!\frac10!! nor !!\frac00!! has any clear meaning. But your intuition is a good one: if one looks at the situation more carefully, !!\frac10!! and !!\frac00!! behave rather differently, and there is more to the story than can be understood just from the arithmetic part. The second half of my answer tries to go into these developments.

The notation !!\frac ab!! has a specific meaning:

The number !!x!! for which $$x\cdot b=a.$$

Usually this is simple enough. There is exactly one number !!x!! for which !!x\cdot 7=21!!, namely !!3!!, so !!\frac{21}7=3!!. There is exactly one number !!x!! for which !!x\cdot 4=7!!, namely !!\frac74!!, so !!\frac74\cdot4=7!!.

But when !!b=0!! we can't keep the promise that is implied by the word "the" in "The number !!x!! for which...". Let's see what goes wrong. When !!b=0!! the definition says:

The number !!x!! for which $$x\cdot 0=a.$$

When !!a\ne 0!! this goes severely wrong. The left-hand side is zero and the right-hand size is not, so there is no number !!x!! that satisfies the condition. Suppose !!x!! is the ugliest gorilla on the dairy farm. But the farm has no gorillas, only cows. Any further questions you have about !!x!! are pointless: is !!x!! a male or female gorilla? Is its fur black or dark gray? Does !!x!! prefer bananas or melons? There is no such !!x!!, so the questions are unanswerable.

When !!a!! and !!b!! are both zero, something different goes wrong:

The number !!x!! for which $$x\cdot 0=0.$$

It still doesn't work to speak of "The number !!x!! for which..." because any !!x!! will work. Now it's like saying that !!x!! is ‘the’ cow from the dairy farm, But there are many cows, so questions about !!x!! are still pointless, although in a different way: Does !!x!! have spots? I dunno man, what is !!x!!?

Asking about this !!x!!, as an individual number, never makes sense, for one reason or the other, either because there is no such !!x!! at all (!!\frac a0!! when !!a≠0!!) or because the description is not specific enough to tell you anything (!!\frac 00!!).

If you are trying to understand this as a matter of simple arithmetic, using analogies about putting cookies into boxes, this is the best you can do. That is a blunt instrument, and for a finer understanding you need to use more delicate tools. In some contexts, the two situations (!!\frac00!! and !!\frac10!!) are distinguishable, but you need to be more careful.

Suppose !!f!! and !!g!! are some functions of !!x!!, each with definite values for all numbers !!x!!, and in particular !!g(0) = 0!!. We can consider the quantity $$q(x) = \frac{f(x)}{g(x)}$$ and ask what happens to !!q(x)!! when !!x!! gets very close to !!0!!. The quantity !!q(0)!! itself is undefined, because at !!x=0!! the denominator is !!g(0)=0!!. But we can still ask what happens to !!q!! when !!x!! gets close to zero, but before it gets all the way there. It's possible that as !!x!! gets closer and closer to zero, !!q(x)!! might get closer and closer to some particular number, say !!Q!!; we can ask if there is such a number !!Q!!, and if so what it is.

It turns out we can distinguish quite different situations depending on whether the numerator !!f(0)!! is zero or nonzero. When !!f(0)\ne 0!!, we can state decisively that there is no such !!Q!!. For if there were, it would have to satisfy !!Q\cdot 0=f(0)!! which is impossible; !!Q!! would have to be a gorilla on the dairy farm. There are a number of different ways that !!q(x)!! can behave in such cases, when its denominator approaches zero and its numerator does not, but all of the possible behaviors are bad: !!q(x)!! can increase or decrease without bound as !!x!! gets close to zero; or it can do both depending on whether we approach zero from the left or the right; or it can oscillate more and more wildly, but in no case does it do anything like gently and politely approaching a single number !!Q!!.

But if !!f(0) = 0!!, the answer is more complicated, because !!Q!! (if it exists at all) would only need to satisfy !!Q\cdot 0=0!!, which is easy. So there might actually be a !!Q!! that works; it depends on further details of !!f!! and !!g!!, and sometimes there is and sometimes there isn't. For example, when !!f(x) = x^2+2x!! and !!g(x) = x!! then !!q(x) = \frac{x^2+2x}{x}!!. This is still undefined at !!x=0!! but at any other value of !!x!! it is equal to !!x+2!!, and as !!x!! approaches zero, !!q(x)!! slides smoothly in toward !!2!! along the straight line !!x+2!!. When !!x!! is close to (but not equal to) zero, !!q(x)!! is close to (but not equal to) !!2!!; for example when !!x=0.001!! then !!q(x) = \frac{0.002001}{0.001} = 2.001!!, and as !!x!! gets closer to zero !!q(x)!! gets even closer to !!2!!. So the number !!Q!! we were asking about does exist, and is in fact equal to !!2!!. On the other hand if !!f(x) = x!! and !!g(x) = x^2!! then there is still no such !!Q!!.

The details of how this all works, when there is a !!Q!! and when there isn't, and how to find it, are very interesting, and are the basic idea that underpins all of calculus. The calculus part was invented first, but it bothered everyone because although it seemed to work, it depended on an incoherent idea about how division by zero worked. Trying to frame it as a simple matter of putting cookies into boxes was no longer good enough. Getting it properly straightened out was a long process that took around 150 years, but we did eventually get there and now I think we understand the difference between !!\frac10!! and !!\frac00!! pretty well. But to really understand the difference you probably need to use the calculus approach, which may be more delicate than what you are used to. But if you are interested in this question, and you want the full answer, that is definitely the way to go.

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