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Thu, 30 Dec 2021

A little more about the pedagogy of what it means to be transcendental

[ This is a followup to In simple English, what does it mean to be transcendental? ]

A while back a Math SE user posted a comment on my simple explanation of transcendental and algebraic numbers that asked why my explanation had contained some redundancies:

Are there any numbers for which division is necessary? I can't think of any. Likewise, subtracting integers is redundant; I believe all you need is "you can add any integer; you can multiply by any non-zero integer; you can multiply by x."

This is true! I had said:

We will play a game. Suppose you have some number !!x!!. You start with !!x!! and then you can add, subtract, multiply, or divide by any integer, except zero. You can also multiply by !!x!!. You can do these things as many times as you want. If the total becomes zero, you win.

and you don't need subtraction or division. (The underlying mathematical fact that motivated this answer is that integer polynomials are the free ring over the integers. For a ring you only need addition and multiplication.) So why did I mention subtraction and division? They're not mathematically necessary, doesn't it make the answer more complicated to put them in?

I had considered this carefully, and had decided it was simpler this way. The target audience is a person with no significant mathematical training. To a mathematician, it's obvious that inclusion of integers includes subtraction as a special case because you can simply add a negative integer. But non-mathematicians are not used to thinking this way. They have been taught that there are four arithmetic operations. If I mention all four, they will understand that all the operations of basic arithmetic are allowed. But if I had said only "addition and multiplication" many people would have been distracted and wondered "why just those two? Why not some other two?". Including all four avoids this distraction.

I could have said only “addition and multiplication” and later on explained that allowing subtraction and division doesn't change anything. I think this would have been an inferior choice. It's best to get to the point as quickly as possible. In this case the point is that all the operations of basic arithmetic are allowed. The fact that you can omit two is not relevant. My version is shorter and clearer, and avoids the whole issue.

If my version were less technically correct, that would be a major drawback. Sacrificing correctness for clarity is a seductive but usually harmful choice. The result may appear more clear, when it actually isn't, because of the subtle errors that have been papered over. In this case, though, nothing was sacrificed. It's 100% correct both ways. Mathematicians might prefer the minimal statement, but whole point of this answer is that it is correct even though it is not written in the way that a mathematician would prefer.

I'd like to boil this down to a pithy maxim, but I'm not sure I can do it without being inane. There's something in it about how, when you write something for non mathematicians, you should try to write every part of it for non-mathematicians, not just at the surface presentation but in the deeper layers too.

There's also something about how you should be very careful to distinguish the underlying mathematical truth on the one hand, from the practices that mathematicians have developed to help them in their day-to-day business, or to help them communicate with other mathematicians, or that are merely historical accidents, on the other. The underlying truth is the important part. The rest can be jettisoned.

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