# Teaching Square Roots Conceptually

teaching square roots

How to Teach Square Roots Conceptually

If you have taught for any length of time, you’ll surely have seen one of these two things below.

Sure, this can be corrected procedurally.  But, over time, they’ll forget the procedure and revert back to following whatever misconception they possess that has them make these mistakes in the first place.

I’d like to share with you a few approaches that can help.   Keep in mind, there is no way to have students seamlessly integrate new information with their existing body of knowledge.  There will always be confusion and misunderstanding.  By focusing in on the very nature of the issues here, and that is lack of conceptual understanding and lack of mathematical literacy, we can make things smoother, quicker, and improve retention.

Step one is to teach students to properly read square roots.  Sure, a square root can be an operation, but it is also the best way to write a lot of irrational numbers.  Make sure you students understand these two ways of reading a square root number.

Students are quick studies when it comes to getting out of responsibility and side-stepping expectations.  Very quickly, when asked “What does the square root of 11 ask?” students will say, “What squared is the radicand?”

When pressed on the radicand, they may or may not understand it is 11.  But, they’ll be unlikely to have really considered the question for what it asks.  Do not be satisfied with students that are just repeating what they’ve heard.  Make them demonstrate what they know.  A good way to do so is by asking a question like the one below.

Another way to test their knowledge is to ask them to evaluate the following:

$\sqrt{2}×\sqrt{2}.$

We do not want students saying it is the square root of four at this point.  To do so means they have not made sense of the second fact listed about the number.  An alternative to using a Natural Number as the radicand is to use an unknown.  For example:

$\sqrt{m}×\sqrt{m}.$

Step two requires them to understand why the square root of nine, for example, is three.  The reason why it is true has nothing to do with steps.  Instead, the square root of nine asks, “What squared is 9?”  The answer is three.  There is no other reason.

Once again, students make excellent pull-toy dolls, saying random things when prompted.  Once in a while they recite the correct phrase, even though they don’t understand it, and we get fooled.  It is imperative to be creative and access their knowledge in a new way.

Before I show you how that can be done with something like the square root of a square number, let’s consider the objections of students here.  Students will complain that we’re making it complicated, or that we are confusing them.

First, we’re not making the math complicated.  Anything being learned for the first time is complicated.  Things only become simple with the development of expertise.  How complicated is it to teach a small child to tie their shoes?  But once the skill is mastered, it is done without thought.

The second point is that we are not confusing them, they are already confused.  They just don’t know it yet.   They will not move from being ignorant to knowledgeable without first working through the confusion.  If we want them to understand so they can develop related, more advanced skills, and we want them to retain what they’re learning, they have to understand.  They must grasp the concept.

So how can we really determine if they know why the square root of twenty-five is really five?  We do so by asking the same question in a new way.

Another way to get at the knowledge is by asking why the square root of 25 is not 6.  Students will say, “Because it’s five.”  While they’re right, that does not explain why the square root of 25 is not six.  Only when they demonstrate that 62 = 36, not 25, will they have shown their correct thinking.  But, as is the case with the other questions, students will soon learn to mimic this response while not possessing the knowledge.  So, you have to be clever and on your toes.  This point is worth laboring!

Step three involves verifying square root simplification of non-perfect squares.  This uncovers a slew of misconceptions, which will address. Before we get into that, here is exactly what I mean.

Have students explain what is true about the square root of twenty-four.  There are two ways they should be able to think of this number (and one of them is not as an operation, yet).

1.      What squared is 24?

2.      This number squared is 24.

The statement is true if “two times the square root of six, squared, is twenty-four.”  Just like the square root of 9 is three only because 32 = 9.

The first hurdle here is that students do not really understand irrational numbers like the square root of six.  They’ve learned how to approximate and do calculation with the approximations. Here is how they see it.

$\sqrt{2}=1.4$

$3+\sqrt{2}=4.4$

$3×\sqrt{2}=4.2$

What this means is that students believe:

1.      Addition of a rational number and an irrational number is rational.

2.      The product of a rational and irrational number is also rational.

a.       This can be true if the rational number is zero.

This misunderstanding, which naturally occurs as a byproduct of learning to approximate without understanding what approximation means, is a major hurdle for students.  It must be addressed at this time.

To do so, students need to be made to understand that irrational numbers cannot be written with our decimal or fraction system.  We use special symbols in the place of the number itself, because we quite literally have no other way to write the number.

A good place to start is with π.  This number is the ratio of a circle’s diameter and its circumference.  The number cannot be written as a decimal.  It is not 3.14, 22/7, or anything we can write with a decimal or as a fraction.  The square root of two is similar.  The picture below shows probably over 1,000 decimal places, but it is not complete.  This is only close, but not it.

Students will know the Pythagorean Theorem.  It is a good idea to show them how an isosceles right triangle, with side lengths of one, will have a hypotenuse of the square root of two.  So while we cannot write the number, we can draw it!

The other piece of new information here is how square roots can be irrational.  If the radicand is not a perfect square, the number is irrational.  At this point, we cannot pursue this too far because we’ll lose sight of our goal, which is to get them to understand irrational and rational arithmetic.

This point, and all others, will be novel concepts.  You will need to circle back and revisit each of them periodically.  Students only will latch on to correct understanding when they fully realize that their previously held believes are incorrect.  What typically happens is they pervert new information to fit what they already believed, creating new misconceptions.  So be patient, light-hearted and consistent.

Once students see that the square root of two is irrational, they can see how they cannot carry out and write with our number system, either of these two arithmetic operations:

This will likely be the first time they will understand one of the standards for the Number Unit in High School level mathematics.

Students must demonstrate that the product of a non-zero rational and irrational number is irrational.

Students must demonstrate the sum of a rational and an irrational number is irrational.

Keep in mind, this may seem like a huge investment of time at this point, and they don’t even know how to simplify a square root number yet.  However, we have uncovered many misconceptions and taught them what the math really means!  This will pay off as we move forward.  It will also help establish an expectation and introduce a new way to learn.  Math, eventually, will not be thought of as steps, but instead consequences of ideas and facts.

Back to our question:

Just like the square root of nine being three because 32 = 9, this is true if:

${\left(2\sqrt{6}\right)}^{2}=24.$

Make sure students understand that there is an unwritten operation at play between the two and the irrational number.  We don’t write the multiplication, which is confusing because 26 is just considered differently.  It isn’t 12 at all (2 times 6)!

Once that is established, because of the commutative property of multiplication,

$2\sqrt{6}×2\sqrt{6}=2×2×\sqrt{6}×\sqrt{6}.$

There should be no talk of cancelling.  The property of the square root of six is that if you square it, you get six.  That’s the first thing they learned about square root numbers.

$2×2×\sqrt{6}×\sqrt{6}=4×6.$

As mentioned before, students are quick studies.  They learn to mimic and get right answers without developing understanding. This may seem like a superficial and easy task, but do not allow them to trick themselves or you regarding their understanding.

A good type of question to ask is:

To do this, we students to square the expression on the left of the equal sign to verify it equals the radicand.  This addresses the very meaning of square root numbers.

Last step is to teach them what the word simplify means in the context of square roots.  It means to rewrite the number so that the radicand does not contain a perfect square.

The way to coach students to do this is to factor the radicand to find the largest square number.  This is aligned with the meaning of square roots because square roots ask about square numbers.  When they find the LARGEST perfect square that is a factor of the radicand, the rewrite the expression as a product and then simply answer the question asked by the square roots.  Here’s what it looks like.

$48=2×24,\text{\hspace{0.17em}}3×16,\text{\hspace{0.17em}}4×12,\text{\hspace{0.17em}}6×8.$

$\sqrt{48}=\sqrt{16}×\sqrt{3}$
Write the square root of the perfect square first so that you do not end up with
$\sqrt{3}4,$ which looks like $\sqrt{34}.$

$\sqrt{48}=4×\sqrt{3}$.

At this point, students should be ready to simplify square roots.  However, be warned about a common misconception developed at this point.  They’ll easily run the two procedures into one.  They often write things like:

$\sqrt{18}=\sqrt{9}×\sqrt{2}$

$\sqrt{18}=3\sqrt{2}$

${\left(3\sqrt{2}\right)}^{2}=9×2$

$9×2=18$

$\sqrt{18}=18.$

The moral of the story here is that to teach students conceptually means that you must be devoted, diligent and consistent with reverting back to the foundational facts, #1 and #2 at the beginning of this discussion.

This approach in no way promises to prevent silly mistakes or misconceptions.  But what it does do is create a common understanding that can be used to easily explain why $\sqrt{12}$ is not $3\sqrt{2}.$  It is not “three root two,” because

This referring to the conceptual facts and understanding is powerful for students. Over time they will start referring to what they know to be true for validation instead of examination of steps.  There is not a step in getting $\sqrt{12}=3\sqrt{2},$ that is wrong.  What is wrong is that their work is not mathematically consistent and their answer does not answer the question, what squared is twelve?

If a student really understands square roots, how to multiply them with other roots, and how arithmetic works irrational and rational numbers, the topics that follow go much more quickly.  After this will be square root arithmetic, like $5\sqrt{2}-3\sqrt{8},$ and then cube roots and the like.  Each topic that you can use to dig deep into the mathematical meaning will, over time, quicken the pace of the class.

In summary:

1.      Square roots have a meaning.  The meaning can be considered a question or a statement, and both need to be understood by students.

a.       This meaning is why the square root of 16 is 4.

2.      Square roots of non-square numbers are irrational.  Arithmetic with rational and irrational numbers is irrational (except with zero).

3.      To simplify a square root is to rewrite any factor of the radicand that is a perfect square.

a.       When rewriting, place the square root of the square number first.

4.      The simplification of a square root number is only right if that number squared is the radicand.

I hope you find this informative, thought-provoking, and are encouraged to take up the challenge of teaching conceptually!  It is well worth the initial struggles.

For lessons, assignments, and further exploration with this topic, please visit: https://thebeardedmathman.com/squareroots/

## Try to Solve This Problem … without Algebra

Can you solve the following, without doing any Algebraic manipulation?  Just by reading and thinking about what it says, can you figure out what x is?  (The numbers a, x, andare not zero.)

Given:  3ak

And:  ax = 4k

What must x be?

If you’re versed much at all in basic Algebra you will be tempted to substitute and solve.  After all, this is a system of equations.  But that will bypass the purpose and benefit of the exercise.

The intended benefit of this problem is that it promotes mathematical literacy, in particular, seeing relationships between terms.  It’s not a complicated relationship but it is of utmost importance to this problem.  Once you read and make sense of what the mathematical relationships are you can talk your way through the problem.

Once again, I believe the purpose of homework is learning.  Sure, sometimes it is practice and familiarity, but those are the only times that answer-getting is important.  Without understanding, having the right answer is often of little to no use.  If it were, then copying the answers from the back of the book would be sufficient for learning, right?

If you’re ready to see the solution, you can watch the video or read the text after the video.

I understand that sometimes it’s appropriate to read, but not listen or watch a video.  So here’s how this works.

Given:  3ak

And:  ax = 4k

The first statement says that the number k is three times bigger than the number a.  We don’t know what or k are but we know how they’re related and can think of lots of numbers that fit this relationship.  One number that’s three times as large as the other.

The number k is three times as big as the number a.

Think of this relationship one more way, for a moment.  The number k has two factors, 3 and a.  Whether is composite or prime is irrelevant really, it won’t change the fact that we could write k as the product of two numbers.  I mention this, not because it helps solve this problem but because it might.  Without knowing the path, sometimes it is a good idea to brain storm for a  moment and list as many things you know about the information given, before seeking an answer.  Sometimes, doing so, makes the answer apparent to you!

Let’s look at the second statement now.

Another number times a is four times as big as k.  This is perhaps a bit distracting, but the key information is there.  Remember, k is three times as big as a.  Now we have something four times larger than k.

Let’s look at this a different way.  The number 4k is not k at all, but instead, k and 4 are factors of new number.

If this new number is four times larger than k, and k is three times larger than a, how much larger is this new number than a?

You have three times as much money as me.  Bobert has four times as much as you do.  How much more money does Bob have than me?

For every dollar I have you have three.  For every dollar you have, Bobert has four.

Still don’t see it?  I know…picture good, word bad.  Here you go.

If 3ak, and ax = 4k, then is 12 because

## Vestiges of the Past Making Math Confusing

Something in Math HAS to Change

Convention is a beautiful thing.  It allows us to use symbols to convey little things like direction or a sound.  We can piece those things together to make larger things, and eventually use it to create something like what you’re reading now.  There are no inherent meanings to these shapes we call letters, or the sounds we use when speaking.  It all works because we agree, somehow, upon what they mean.  Of course, over generations and cultures, and between even different languages, some things get crossed up in translation, but it’s still pretty powerful.

The structure of writing, punctuation, and the Oxford comma, they all work because we agree.  We can look back and try to see the history of how the conventions have changed and sometimes find interesting connections.  Sometimes, there are artifacts from our past that just don’t really make sense anymore.  Either the language has evolved passed the usefulness, or the language adopted other conventions that conflict.

One example of this is the difference between its and it’s.  An apostrophe can be used in a conjunction and can also be used to show ownership.  Pretty simple rule to keep straight with its and it’s, but whose and who’s.  Why is it whose, with an e at the end?

According to my friendly neighborhood English teacher there was a great vowel shift, which can be read about here, where basically, people in around the 15th century wanted to sound fancy and wanted their words to look fancy when written.  So the letters e and b were added to words like whose and thumb.

Maybe we should take this one step further, and use thumbe.  Sounds good, right?

But then, there’s the old rule, i before e except after c, except in words like neighbor and weight, and in the month of May, or on a Tuesday.  Weird, er, wierd, right?

All said, not a big deal because those tricks of language will not cause a student to be illiterate.  A student can mix those things up and still have access to symbolism and writing and higher level understanding of language.

There are some conventions in math that work this way, too.  There are things that simply are a hold-over of how things were done a long time ago.  The convention carries with it a history, that’s what makes it powerful.  But sometimes the convention needs to change because it no longer is useful at helping making clear the intentions of the author.

One of the issues with changing this convention is that the people who would be able to make such changes are so well versed in the topic, they don’t see it as an issue.  Or, maybe they do, but they believe that since they got it right, figured it out, so could anybody else.

There is one particular thing in math that stands out as particularly problematic.  The radical symbol, it must go!  There’s a much more elegant method of writing that is intuitive and makes sense because it ties into other, already established ways of writing mathematics.

But, before I get into that exactly, let me say there’s an ancillary issue at hand. It starts somewhere in 3rd or 4th grade here in the US and causes problems that are manifested all the way through Calculus.  Yup, it’s multiplication.

Let me take just a moment to reframe multiplication by whole numbers and then by fractions for you so that the connection between those things and rational exponents will be more clear.

Consider first, 3 × 5, which is of course 15.  But this means we start with a group that has three and add it to itself five times.

Much like exponents are repeated multiplication, multiplication is repeated addition.  A key idea here is that with both we are using the same number over and again, the number written first.  The second number describes how many times we are using that first number.

Now of course 3 × 5 is the same as 5 × 3, but that doesn’t change the meaning of the grouping as I described.

3 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 = 3 × 5

Now let’s consider how this works with a fraction.

15 × ⅕.  The denominator describes how many times a number has been added to itself to arrive at fifteen.  We know that’s three.  So 15 × ⅕ = 3.

3 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 = 15

Three is added to itself five times to arrive at fifteen.

Let’s consider 15 × ⅖, where the five in the denominator is saying we are looking for a number that’s been repeatedly added to get to 15, but exactly added to itself 5 times.

In other words, what number can you add to itself to arrive at 15 in five equal steps?  That’s ⅕.

The two in the numerator is asking, how far are you after the 2nd step?

3 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 = 15

The second step is six.

Another way to see this is shown below:

3 →6→9→12→15

Step 1: 3 → Step 2: 6 → Step 3: 9 → Step 4: 12 → Step 5: 15

Thinking of it this way we can easily see that 15 × ⅘ is 12 and 15 × 5/5 is 15.  All of this holds true and consistent with the other ways we thinking about fractions.

So we see how multiplication is repeated addition of the same number and how fractions ask questions about the number of repeats taken to arrive at an end result.

Exponents are very similar, except instead of repeated addition they are repeated multiplication.

Multiplication:  3 × 5 = 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 3

Exponents:  3⁵ = 3 × 3 × 3 × 3 × 3

Do you see how the trailing numbers describe how many of the previous number there exists, but the way the trailing number is written, as normal text or a superscript (tiny little number up above), informs the reader of the operation?

Pretty cool, eh?

Just FYI, 3 times itself 5 times is 243.

15 × ⅕ = 3, because 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 = 15.  That is, three plus itself five times is fifteen.

2431/5= 3 because 3 × 3 × 3 × 3 × 3 = 243.  That is, three times itself five times is two hundred and forty three.

You might be thinking, big deal... but watch how much simpler this way of thinking about rational exponents is with something like an exponent of ⅗.  Let’s look at this like steps:

3 × 3 × 3 × 3 × 3 = 243

3→9→27→81→243

Step one is three, step two is nine, step three is twenty-seven, the fourth step is eighty one, and the fifth step is 243.  So, 2433/5is asking, looking at the denominator first, what number multiplied by itself five times is 243, and the numerator says, what’s the third step?  Twenty-seven, do you see?

Connecting the notation this way makes it simple and easy to read.  The only tricky parts would be the multiplication facts.

## Back in Session

I’m trying a few new things this year in math.  I will try to summarize how each week goes throughout the year and highlight successes and failures.

This week I really tried to introduce the honors freshmen to “real” math.  That is, some basic proofs, how generalize things in math and expose them to some difficult questions that are easy to approach, but difficult or surprising in their answers. But all of it was done in a way that is accessible to the students and with high levels of participation.

I really like when a student shares a thought and I repeat their thinking outloud and ask if the others understand, not necessarily agree, but understand.  This seems to really get them thinking and communicating.

Some of the questions we explored were, Is 0.999… less than one or equal to one, why/how we know the square root of two is irrational (we actually did the proof in class, carefully), is zero odd or even, why can’t we divide by zero?

There is also a challenge question posted, in two parts.  Part 1:  Given that a and x are natural numbers, and a is less than or equal to x, and is greater than 1, could the following number be prime:  (x! + a)?

Part 2:  If = 99, how many values of  would be composite.

The purpose of all of it was to challenge their thinking, hopefully incite some curiosity and promote deeper understanding.

One thing I really wanted them to understand is that rational numbers could be expressed as a ratio of integers. The old way I would’ve quizzed them on this knowledge would be to say, Write the following numbers as fractions.  The better question is, Express the following as a ratio of integers, as that addresses the definitions of rational and irrational numbers.

The number zero was a little difficult for some, but since we discussed that division is best thought of as a question, the denominator times what is the numerator?, that went well for most.  For example, instead of reading 8/2 as “eight divided by two,” it is better to ask, “two times what is eight?”

This is most effective when showing why you cannot divide by zero.

I was pleasantly surprised by the show of knowledge and understanding when I asked them, on their quiz, to express the square root of two as a ratio of integers.  Many said that the square root of two could not be expressed as a ratio of integers, that’s why it is irrational.

The depth of that understanding is of little consequence really, but it is a big victory that they have taken something that they always memorized in the past, and now truly grasp.

How well this translates to them owning their learning will remain to be seen, but I think we’re off to a good start.

## Why Does the Order of Operations Work?

Why does the order of operations help us arrive at the correct calculation?  How does it work, why is it PEMDAS?  Why not addition first, then multiplication then groups, or something else?

I took it upon myself to get to the bottom of this question because I realized that I am so familiar with manipulating Algebra and mathematical expressions that I know how to navigate the pitfalls.  That instills a sense of conceptual knowledge, but that was a false sense.  I did not understand why we followed PEMDAS, until now.

By fully understanding why we follow the order of operations we can gain insight into the way math is written and have better abilities to understand and explain ourselves to others.  So, if you’re a teacher, this is powerful because you’ll have a foundation that can be shared with others without them having to trip in all of the holes.  If you’re a student, this is a great piece of information because it will empower you to see mathematics more clearly.

Let’s start with the basics, addition and subtraction.  First off, subtraction is addition of negative integers.  We are taught “take-away,” but that’s not the whole story.  Addition and subtraction are the same operation.  We do them from left to right as a matter of convention, because we read from left to right.

But what is addition?  In order to unpack why the order of operations works we must understand this most basic question.  Well, addition, is repeated counting, nothing more.  Suppose you have 3 vials of zombie vaccine and someone donates another 6 to your cause.  Instead of laying them out and counting from the beginning, we can combine six and three to get the count of nine.

And what is 9?  Nine is | | | | | | | | |.

What about multiplication?  That’s just skip counting.  For example, say you now have four baskets, each with 7 vials of this zombie vaccine.  Four groups of seven is twenty-eight.  We could lay them all out and count them, we could lay them all out and add them, or we could multiply.

Now suppose someone gave you another 6 vials.  To calculate how many vials you had, you could not add the six to one of the baskets, and then multiply because not all of the baskets would have the same amount.  When we are multiplying we are skip counting by the same amount, however many times is appropriate.

For example:

4 baskets of 7 vials each

4 × 7 = 28

or

7 + 7 + 7 + 7 = 28

or

[ | | | | | | | ]   [ | | | | | | | ]   [ | | | | | | | ]   [ | | | | | | | ]

Consider the 4 × 7 method of calculation.  We are repeatedly counting by 7.  If we considered the scenario where we received an additional six vials, it would look like this:

4 × 7 + 6

If you add first, you end up with 4 baskets of 13 vials each, which is not the case.  We have four baskets of 7 vials each, plus six more vials.

Addition compacts the counting.  Multiplication compacts the addition of same sized groups of things.  If you add before you multiply, you are changing the size of the groups, or the number of the groups, when in fact, addition really only changes single pieces that belong in those groups, but not the groups themselves.

Division is multiplication by the reciprocal.  In one respect it can be thought of as skip subtracting, going backwards, but that doesn’t change how it fits with respect to the order of operations.  It is the same level of compacting counting as multiplication.

Exponents are repeated multiplication, of the same thing!

Consider:

3 + 6

4 × 7 = 7 + 7 + 7 + 7

74 = 7 × 7 × 7 × 7

This is one layer of further complexity.  Look at 7 × 7.  That is seven trucks each with seven boxes.  The next × 7 is like seven baskets per box.  The last × 7 is seven vials in each basket.

The 4 × 7 is just four baskets of seven vials.

The 3 + 9 is like having 3 vials and someone giving you six more.

So, let’s look at:

9 + 4 × 74

Remember that the 74 is seven trucks of seven boxes of seven baskets, each with seven vials!  Multiplication is skip counting and we are skip counting repeatedly by 7, four times.

Now, the 4 × 74 means that we have four groups of seven trucks, each with seven boxes, each with seven baskets containing seven vials of zombie vaccine each.

The 9 in the front means we have nine more vials of zombie vaccine.  To add the nine to the four first, would increase the number of trucks of vaccine we have!

Now parentheses don’t have a mathematical reason to go first, not any more than why we do math from left to right.  It’s convention.  We all agree that we group things with the highest priority with parentheses, so we do them first.

(9 + 4) × 74

The above expression means we have 9 and then four more groups of seven trucks with seven boxes with …  and so on.

Exponents are compacted multiplication, but the multiplication is of the same number.  The multiplication is compacting the addition.  The addition is compacting the counting.  Each layer kind of nests or layers groups of like sized things, allowing us to skip over repeated calculations that are the same.

We write mathematics with these operations because it is clean and clear.  If we tried to write out 35, we would have a page-long monstrosity.  We can perform this calculation readily, but often write the expression instead of the calculation because it is cleaner.

The order of operations respects level of nesting, or compaction, of exponents, multiplication and addition, as they related to counting individual things.  The higher the order of arithmetic we go, up to exponents, the higher the level of compaction.

Exponents are repeated multiplication, and multiplication is repeated addition, and addition is repeated, or skip counting.  We group things together with all of these operations, but how that grouping is done must be done in order when perform the calculations.

## What is Algebra?

This past month has been very busy here for The Bearded Math Man.  I’ve learned a lot about things I have merely taken for granted and have shared most of them with you here on my site.  And while I have a goal and a mission, the methods of achieving that goal are still forming.  I’m learning what works best and what doesn’t work.  One such thing I’ve discovered is the purpose of this blog.

This blog is meant for two audiences.  Those interested in math and those teaching math.  Now that I have that defined, I’ll keep a more focused range of topics.  I just thought that was worth mentioning.

Now, for today’s topic, Algebra.  I do not intend to teach you Algebra, but would like to share something I did not know about the subject.  Algebra means to make complete, or to resolve.  I knew it was named after a Persian mathematician in the early 9th century, but that the branch of mathematics goes farther back in time than the name itself, even the Babylonians used Algebriac concepts.  But I thought the name was just that, a name.

It is stunningly powerful to recognize what Algebra means.  Everything operation we perform in Algebra is to meet this end, to complete or resolve an equation!  That’s what we do when we’re solving an Algebraic Equation.

One other thing you may not have known about Algebra is the equal sign.  The symbol itself never appeared until the 16th century and it traveled the entire width of the page.  It is hard to imagine how this would be a more efficient way of describing the equality present between two things, but it was.  Over time it was shortened to what we have today.  This is more than just an interesting factoid, too.  It goes to show that sometimes great ideas are so revolutionary that they seem obvious in hindsight.  First, we have a symbol that means equals, then we have, over time, an easier way of writing that symbol.

In many ways, isn’t that what makes mathematics so difficult, the jargon and abstraction?  That’s why one of my main points of focus is instilling mathematical literacy in students.  If they can read the math for what it says, not just as a funky collection of shapes and symbols, the mathematical ideas present themselves in a sensible and approachable fashion.

That’s what I’ve tried to do with my introduction to Algebra as a branch of mathematics, which is taught in Algebra 1, the class.  Here’s the link to the page.

As always, I thank you for reading and hope I’ve stirred some curiosity in you.

PS:  If you are interested in some of the history behind Algebra, the following book is highly recommended.  If you purchase it through this link you will help support the mission here of changing math from a hurdle in the way of young peoples’ dreams to a platform upon which success is built, and at no additional cost to you.

## Is Infinity Real?

### How Many Primes are There Is Infinity Real Part 1

Teachers: The following is a discussion that can be had with students to create interest in mathematics by discussing two very easy to understand, but perplexing problems in mathematics.  First, the nature of infinity.  The second is the lack of pattern and order in the prime numbers.

The number of primes is infinite.  Euclid proved it in a beautiful, easily understood proof by contradiction.  Paraphrasing, he said that there are either infinitely many primes, or a finite number of primes.  So let’s pick one and explore it.  Say there are a finite number of prime numbers.  If you were to list them all, then take their product you would have a very large number.  But if you just add one to that number, it would be prime because none of the other prime numbers would be a factor of it.  It would have exactly two factors, one and itself.

In case you don’t believe this works, let’s say we can list all of the primes, but there are only four.  Let’s say the entire list of primes was 2, 3, 5, and 7.  Their product, 2 × 3 × 5 × 7 = 210.  This number is composite because all of the primes are factors of it.  Add one to it, arriving and 211 and none of the prime numbers are a factor of it…making it have the factors of 211 and 1.  That means it is prime.

So it is false that there are a finite number of primes. Therefore, the are infinitely many prime numbers.

Beautiful, right?  Case closed. … or is it?

The case is closed, if you believe infinity exists.  To be clear, infinity is not a number, it’s a concept.  A set can only approach infinity, nothing ever equals infinity because it’s an idea.  The idea behind infinity is that the collection of things just keeps growing and growing.

We, as humans, have a very big problem with very big numbers, even large groups of things.  For example, there are some things that we only have a plural word for, we do not possess a singular word for these things.  A few examples are rice, sand, hair, shrimp and fish.  You can have a single hair, a grain of sand (or rice), and so on.  They are so vast in quantity they become indistinguishable.

And yet, they’re finite. You could conceivably collect all of the sand in the world and count every grain.  More sand does not magically appear once it is all collected.

What about stars in the sky?  What we call the observable universe is how far we can see.  We don’t know if it goes on forever, or if it is somehow contained.  Perhaps the word, universe, is misleading.  Perhaps there are multiples of it, maybe as many as there are grains of sand on the earth.

Before we chase that rabbit down its hole, let’s get back to earth.  Euclid’s proof that there are infinitely many prime numbers is beautiful.  But is he right?  Surely his proof is flawless, but what about infinity.  We have no examples of infinity, it might just be a human construction.  Now, if mathematics can discover things that are real and applicable from such a thing, that’s all the more powerful the tool it is, but what if we’re wrong about infinity?  There are two things I want you to consider as we explore prime numbers and their relationship with infinity.

The first thing is:  There’s an axiom (a statement we just accept as truth), called the Axiom of Infinity.  It basically says that there are infinite sets of things, like natural numbers.  We just say it’s true and roll with it until we discover a problem.  Then, we either adjust our axiom or start a new one.

The second thing is:  In the early 20th century a man named Kurt Gödel showed that we cannot actually prove any system of mathematics is true without assuming some supporting evidence is true.  We have to assume something is true in order to know if other things are true, roughly speaking.  In order to know if the thing we assumed to be true is actually true or not (like infinity), we have to assume that something else, more basic, is true.  So, and I’m taking some liberties here to make my point, but a conclusion, like the number of primes being infinite, is only as worthy as the presupposition (infinities exist).

Let’s look at a few strings of prime numbers and see if we can’t get our heads around this whole infinity thing.

2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29

The gaps between these prime numbers are below.

1, 2, 2, 4, 2, 4, 2, 4, 6

Another string would be:

907, 911, 919, 929, 937, 941, 947

The gaps here are listed below.

4, 8, 10, 8, 4, 6

They are still relatively close.  Many mathematicians have tried to find a pattern in prime numbers.  After all, if you can find a pattern, then you can find the next one.  How cool would that be, right?

You might be thinking, uh, why would that be cool?

Well, there’s big money being paid if you can find the next prime number.  There is a project called GIMPS (Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search), where you can participate in the search.  And if your computer finds the next prime, you get some cash!

The last prime found with GIMPS was in 2013.  (At the time of this being written, it is 2017.) The number is massive.  The text file of the digits in the number is 7.7 MB.  That’s more data that a song and this is just a list of numbers.  The number is 257,885,161 – 1.  The number is huge that to verify that it is prime takes massive super computers days upon days to perform the calculation.  Finding the next prime number is a huge undertaking, very complicated and difficult, requiring computers all over the world working together before one is discovered.

Why all the fuss? What good are they?

Well, they keep you from being robbed, for one.  Internet security uses prime numbers to encrypt (code) your banking information.  The merchant will have a huge number that they multiply your card number by (kind of).  The huge number is the product of two of these gigantic prime numbers.  It’s so big that even though everybody (would be thieves) know it’s the product of two primes, they can’t figure out which two numbers.  The encrypted number is sent to your financial institution, who knows which two primes were used, which is basically like a key.

It’s also weird, and cool, that some bugs have a life cycle that only occurs in prime numbers!  Cicadas only come out and breed, and then die, in prime number years.  Incredible.

Back on track, forgive me.  It feels there are infinitely many tangents I can follow with math!  We have not been able to find a pattern in the prime numbers yet and let’s take a look at why.  You see, as these primes get huge, the gaps get larger and larger…approaching infinity!

Let’s take a look at one more string of prime numbers.

10009, 10037, 10039, 10061, 10067, 10069, 10079, 10091, 10093, 10099

The differences here are as follows.

28, 2, 22, 6, 10, 12, 2, 6

No discernable pattern, right?  If you can find one, you stand to make significant history, no one has found one yet.  We have some approximations that work within certain constraints but they all break down eventually.

But, to be clear, if you could find a pattern in the gaps between the primes a formula could be created that would generate prime numbers.  We can generate natural numbers by just adding one to the largest we have come up with so far.  But primes, as you’ve seen with the GIMPS project, aren’t so easily discovered.

And here’s one of the issues.  The gaps between prime numbers can get huge, perhaps infinitely huge.  Consider this.

Fact 1:  5! = 5×4×3×2 = 120

Fact 2:  120 is not prime because it is divisible by 5 and 4 and 3 and 2.

Fact 3:  5! + 5 is not prime because it is divisible by 5.  (When we add another 5, it’s like skip counting when you first learned multiplication.)

The same is true for 5! + 4 being divisible by 4, because 120/4 = 30.  5! + 4 is 4 × 31, there’s one more four.

The same holds true for 5! + 3 being divisible by 3 and 5! + 2 being divisible by 2.

Fact 4:  What all this means is that there after 5! + 1 there are four consecutive numbers that are composite.

This would also work for 100!  The number 100! + 100 would be composite.  For that matter, 100! + 37 would be composite also.  100! Plus all of the numbers up to and including 100 would be composite, (except possibly adding 1).

This means there is a gap of 99 after 100! + 1.

This goes on forever, arbitrarily large numbers, like 1,000,000,000,000!  There would be a gap of 1,000,000,000,000 – 1 numbers after this number that are composite.

We could write this in a general sense.  Let a and x be a whole numbers such that a is less than or equal to x.  (a x).

Then x! + a is composite.

Since x is a whole number and whole numbers are infinite, then there are infinitely large gaps between the large prime numbers, themselves being infinite.

Crazy, right?

So if the gaps between primes gets infinitely large, how can there be infinitely many prime numbers?

Well, there’s one more piece of information to be considered.  Twin primes are prime numbers that are just two numbers apart.  The primes 2 and 3 are only one apart, but all others are an even number apart, the smallest gap being a gap of two, like 5 and 7, or 11 and 13.

There’s a conjecture (not as strong as an axiom), that is yet unproven, but we’re getting closer, that states that there are an infinite number of twin primes.  The largest known pair of twin primes is below:

3,756,801,695,685 × 2666,689 – 1
and

3,756,801,695,685 × 2666,689 +1

Those numbers are too large to be written out!

While we do not yet know, with a proof, that there are infinitely many twin primes, we do know that there are infinitely many primes that have a maximum distance between them and it might be as low as a difference of sixteen.  This is all being discovered and explored and fought over at the moment.

So on one hand we have infinitely large gaps between prime numbers, but when they do pop up, they will do so in clumps and groups?

If all of this makes your head spin, then I have succeeded.  I am not trying to convince you that infinities do not exist, or that they do.  I am trying to show that math is contentious and changing.  As we learn and discover new things math is changing.  Math is just a language we use to describe the world around us.  So powerful is math that we are not even sure if it is a human invention at all or rather a discovery!

As always, thank you for your time. I hope this has stirred some thought, maybe even sparked a passion for mathematics!

At the time of the making of this video the world’s largest prime number is not the last one found by the GIMPS project.  However, they’re likely to find another even larger one, sometime soon.  There’s a video below (Largest prime number) that discusses that number and prints it out … it takes up as much paper as three large books!

For some fascinating and approachable treatment of prime numbers, consider the following videos:

Gaps between prime numbers: https://youtu.be/vkMXdShDdtY

If you found this helpful and would like to help make these videos possible, to help break down the obstacle that math presents itself as to young people, please consider visiting my patreon site:

www.patreon.com/beardedmathman

## The Problem with PEMDAS

The problem with PEMDAS

This problem has really stirred a lot of interest and created a buzz on the internet. I can see why, it’s an easy one to miss.  And yet, PEMDAS is such an easy thing to remember, the mnemonic devices offered make for a strong memory.  So people passionately defend their answers.

6 ÷ 2(2 + 1)

I am going to tell you the answer in just a moment, but before I do, please listen to why I think this is a worthy problem to explore.

There are two fundamental misconceptions with math that make math into a monster for so many people, and this problem touches on both.  In a sense, neither has anything to do with the order of operations specifically.

The first issue is understanding that spatial arrangements in math mean something.  The way we write the numbers and symbols has a meaning, very specific at that.  In this video by Mind Your Decisions, https://youtu.be/URcUvFIUIhQ, he shares where there was a moment in time when we used different conventions to write math.

And while math may or may not be a human invention, the symbols and arrangements and their meanings certainly are.  Just like the letter A is only a letter and with a specific sound because we all agree.  Just like a red light means stop, a green light means go and a yellow light means HURRY HURRY HURRY!

The second, and more over-arching issue here, is the misconception that addition and subtraction are different.  They are fundamentally the same thing.  Subtraction is really addition of opposite numbers.  Perhaps to shore this misconception negative numbers should be introduced instead of subtraction.

Now you might argue and say, Wait, addition has properties that subtraction lacks, like the commutative property.

You’re correct, 5 + 3 = 3 + 5, while 5 – 3 does not equal 3 – 5.  However, 5 – 3 is really five plus the opposite of three, like written below.

5 + - 3

And that is the same as this expression below.

-3 + 5

So the AS at the end of PEMDAS is really just A, or S, whichever leads to the better nursey rhyme type device to improve recall.

Since we believe that addition and subtraction are different, we also come away with the belief that multiplication and division are different.  Sorry, they’re not.  Division is multiplication of the reciprocal.  Remember that whole phrase from your school days? (How was that for a mnemonic device?)

And while division does not have the commutative property, that again is a consequence of the way we write math.  If we only wrote division as multiplication of the reciprocal, we would see that multiplication and division are in fact the same.

So, back to the problem.  The most common wrong answer is 1.  The correct answer is 9.  Here’s a great video on the order of operations, super catchy and articulates the importance of left to right as written for multiplication and addition.

Last thing:  Now, in creative writing the intent of the author must be considered, should it also be considered here?

Let me know what about this you like, dislike or disagree with.  Let me know what is helpful.  I really want to promote success through making math transparent.  It’s my mission.  You can help support my mission by just sharing and liking this.  Subscribe to my blog if you’re a teacher as I will be populating it with lots of teacher advice, not all math related.

## The Square Root Club

If you’re a teacher, I have a short story that you can share, adapted to fit your own style, that you can use to address the biggest issue with teaching … students learn what they want to learn.  Creating interest in mathematics for teenagers can sometimes be a challenge.  One of the easiest ways to do so is with humor.  The following story is actually true, but humorous, and I think will create some curiosity and thus learning opportunities for students.

I believe the appropriate audience would be pre-algebra students learning about square roots up to algebra students learning about square roots.  Anyhow, if you find this helpful, please let me know.

# The Square Root Club

My daughter, a senior at the University of Arizona, called and said she’d uncovered an issue in math that is both absolutely impossible and yet, true.  My interest piqued, I listened attentively as she asked if I’d ever heard of the square root club.

The square root club, I was informed, is a club of dubious membership.  To become a member the square root of your GPA must exceed your GPA.  What a delightful treat this was…and to think, I’d never heard of such a thing!

She continues to tell me that she met someone who was a member.  I asked her how she knew, because certainly her friend would be ignorant of his membership.  Surely, someone in the club would not be smart enough to be aware of the fact, right?

That’s what she said was the funniest part, the part that was seemingly impossible!  He knew about it, even made up the name of the club himself.  He was no longer a member, just graduated with his bachelor’s degree with a 3.0 GPA.

Note:  GPA (grade point average) is calculated by assigning a numerical value to letter grades.  An A is 4, B is 3, C is 2, D is 1 and an F is zero.

The moral of the story is that grades don’t reflect potential, they reflect what you show you know.  Many high school students get by with intelligence but never work.  Upon arriving in college they are overwhelmed, never having had to work hard or apply themselves.  Before they know it, they’re buried and there’s no quick fix like there can be in high school.

To that point, nobody cares about someone’s potential, not even your mother. Imagine your mom told you to clean your room.  Because she told you to do it, she believes you have the potential.  However, if you do not clean it, she will be satisfied by the fact that you could have cleaned it.

Now of course, the question being begged here is, what could his GPA have been?

## How Math Fixed Music

### Rational Exponents Sound GREAT

Before we dive in, music is primarily defined by what we hear, not by the analysis and insight provided by math.  For example, an octave is a note whose frequency is double that of its parent note.  The mathematical relationship was discovered after the fact.  The following is an exploration of how math is used in music, but I don’t want to put the cart before the horse here.  The math supports the music, makes it work.  But the math is really fine-tuning what we hear.

Pythagoras developed a musical system that over the years evolved into what we have today. (At least Pythagoras is often credited for it.)  Not until “recently,” however, has one of the major problems with music been resolved (see what I did there with resolve?).

The problem the ancients had is that their octaves didn’t line up.  An octave, as I mentioned early, is a note that has twice (or half) the frequency of another note.  Octaves, in modern western music, share the same names, too.  The note A, at 440 Hz, has an octave at 880 Hz, and also 220 Hz.   (There are infinitely many octaves, in theory, though our ears have a limited range of things we can hear.)  The ancients, however, had a problem because after a few octaves, well, they were no longer octaves.

In western music we have 12 semi-tones, A, A# (or B-flat), B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G# and then A again.  It’s cyclic, repeated infinitely both higher and lower. Each semi-tone in the next series of 12 notes is an octave of our first series of notes.  And the relationship between notes is what makes them, well, musical, not just sounds.

The problem is defining that relationship.  You see, because each note is slightly higher (has a higher frequency), and each note’s octave is double that frequency, what happens is the notes get further and further apart (the differences in their frequencies increases).

Let’s take a look at the frequencies:

 Note Frequency A 220.00 A# 233.08 B 246.94 C 261.63 C# 277.18 D 293.66 D# 311.13 E 329.63 F 349.23 F# 369.99 G 392.00 G# 415.30 A 440.00 A# 466.16 B 493.88 C 523.25 C# 554.37 D 587.33 D# 622.25 E 659.25 F 698.46 F# 739.99 G 783.99 G# 830.61 A 880.00

As you can see, the differences between consecutive notes is increasing, at an increasing rate!  This is not a linear relationship.  Because of this, the ancients had a very hard time defining what was an A and what was a D, especially when you started moving around between octaves.  Things got jumbled, and out of tune.

It is tricky to find the proportion and rate of change between consecutive notes, any two consecutive notes that is.  That’s where math comes in to save the day.  Let’s build the rate of change, shall we.

First, note that the rate is increasing, at an increasing rate, so we cannot add.  I show that in the video below.  We have to multiply.  When we repeatedly multiply, we can use exponents.  Since we need a note and it’s octave to be doubles, our base number is 2.

Since there are twelve notes between a note and its octave, we need to break the multiple of two into twelve equal, multiplicative parts.  That’s a rational exponent, 1/12.

The number we need to multiply each note by is 21/12.  Each note is one-twelfth of the way to the octave.  It is pretty cool indeed.