I’m back

Hey everyone.

I took a two year hiatus from blogging. Life got busy and I let the blog slide. I’m sorry.

But I’m back, and my New Year’s Resolution for 2017 is to post at least once a month!

new-year_resolutions_list

Here’s what I’ve been up to over the last two years:

  • Twitter. When people ask why I haven’t blogged, I say “twitter ate my blog.” It’s true. Twitter keeps feeding me brilliant things to read, engaging me in wonderful conversations, and providing the amazing fellowship of the MTBoS.
  • James Key. I consistently receive mathematical distractions from my colleague and friend, James, who has a revolutionary view on math education and a keen love for geometry. This won’t be the last time I mention his work. Go check out his blog and let’s start the revolution.

    with my nerdy friends named James

    with my nerdy friends named James

  • My Masters. I finally finished my 5-year long masters program at Johns Hopkins. I now have a MS in Applied and Computational Mathematics…whatever that means!
  • Life. My wife and I had our second daughter, Heidi. We’re super involved in our church. I tutor two nights a week. Sue me for having a life! 🙂
family photo

family photo

  • New curriculum. In our district, like many others, we’ve been rolling out new Common Core aligned curriculum. This has been good for our district, but also a monumental chore. I’m a huge fan of the new math standards, and I’d love to chat with you about the positive transitions that come with the CCSS.
  • Curriculum development. I’ve been working with our district, helping review curriculum, write assessments, and I even helped James Key make some video resources for teachers.
  • Books. Here are a few I’ve read in the last few months: The Joy of x, Mathematical Mindsets, The Mathematical Tourist, Principles to Actions
  • Math Newsletters. Do you get the newsletters from Chris Smith or James Tanton (did you know he’s pushing three essays on us these days?). Email these guys and they’ll put you on their mailing list immediately.
  • Growing. I’ve grown a lot as a teacher in the last two years. For example, my desks are finally in groups. See?
my classroom

my classroom

  • Pi day puzzle hunt! Two years ago we started a new annual tradition. To correspond with the “big” pi-day back in 2015, we launched a giant puzzle hunt that involves dozens of teams of players in a multi-day scavenger hunt. Each year we outdo ourselves. Check out some of the puzzles we’ve done in the last two years.
  • Quora. This question/answer site is awesome, but careful. You’ll be on the site and an hour later you’ll look up and wonder what happened. Here are some of the answers I’ve written recently, most of which are math-related. I know, I know, I should have been pouring that energy into blog posts. I promise I won’t do it again.
  • National Math Festival. Two years ago we had the first ever National Math Festival on the mall in DC. It was a huge success. I helped coordinate volunteers for MoMATH and I’ll be doing it again this year. See you downtown on April 22!
famous mathematicians you might run into at the National Math Festival

famous mathematicians you might run into at the National Math Festival

Now you’ll hopefully find me more regularly hanging out here on my blog. I have some posts in mind that I think you’ll like, and I also invited my colleague Will Rose to write some guest posts here on the blog. Please give him a warm welcome.

Thanks for all the love and comments on recent posts. Be assured that Random Walks is back in business!

Proving identities – what’s your philosophy?

What happens in your classroom when you give students the following task?

Prove 1+\frac{1}{\cos{\theta}}=\frac{\tan^2{\theta}}{\sec{\theta}-1}.

Sometimes the command is Verify or Show instead of Prove, but the intent is the same.

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Two non-examples

Here are two ways that a student might work the problem.

Method 1

1+\frac{1}{\cos{\theta}}=\frac{\tan^2{\theta}}{\sec{\theta}-1}

1+\sec{\theta}=\frac{\tan^2{\theta}}{\sec{\theta}-1}

(\sec{\theta}-1)(1+\sec{\theta})=\tan^2{\theta}

\sec^2{\theta}-1=\tan^2{\theta}

\tan^2{\theta}=\tan^2{\theta}

Method 2

1+\frac{1}{\cos{\theta}}=\frac{\tan^2{\theta}}{\sec{\theta}-1}

1+\sec{\theta}=\frac{\sec^2{\theta}-1}{\sec{\theta}-1}

1+\sec{\theta}=\frac{(\sec{\theta}-1)(\sec{\theta}+1)}{\sec{\theta}-1}

\sec{\theta}+1=\sec{\theta}+1

How do you feel about these methods? In my opinion, both methods represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the prompt. Method 1 is especially grotesque, but Method 2 also leaves a lot to be desired. Let me explain. And if you think the above methods are perfectly fine, please be patient and hear me out.

This is the crux of the issue:

The prompt was to prove the statement. But if the first line of our work is the very thing we’re out to prove, then we are already assuming the thing we want to prove. We’re Begging the Question.

It’s as if someone demands,

“Prove Statement X, please!”

and we reply,

“Well, let’s first start by assuming that Statement X is true.”

This is nonsense.

What went wrong?

So what is the proper way to engage this proof? Let’s roll back a bit.

The error in these approaches seems to stem from a desire to perform algebraic operations on both sides of an equation in the same way that you might if you were solving an equation.

When we “do algebra” and write Equation B below another Equation A without any words, we always mean that Equation A implies Equation B. That is, when we write

Equation A

Equation B

Equation C

etc…

we mean that Equation C follows from Equation B, which follows from Equation A.

Some might claim that each line should be equivalent to the last. But, again, when we “do algebra” by performing algebraic manipulations to both sides of an equation to transform it from equation A into equation B, we always mean A\Rightarrow B, we don’t mean A\iff B. Take, for example, the following algebra which results in an extraneous solution:

\sqrt{x+2}=x

(\sqrt{x+2})^2=x^2

x+2=x^2

0=x^2-x-2

0=(x-2)(x+1)

x=2 \text{ or } x=-1

In this example, each line follows from the previous, however reversing the logic doesn’t work. But we accept that this is the usual way we do algebra (A\Rightarrow B\Rightarrow C\Rightarrow \cdots). Here the last line doesn’t hold because only one solution satisfies the original equation (x=2). Remember that our logic is still flawless, though. Our logic just says that IF \sqrt{x+2}=x for a given x, THEN (\sqrt{x+2})^2=x^2.

As we move through the algebra line by line, we either preserve the solution set or increase its size. In the case above, the solution set for the original equation is {2}, and as we go to line 2 and beyond, the solution set is {2,-1}.

For more, James Tanton has a nice article about extraneous solutions and why they arise, which I highly recommend.

So if this is the universal way we interpret algebraic work, which is what I argue, then it is wrong to construct an argument of the form A\Rightarrow B\Rightarrow C in order to prove statement A is true from premise C. The argument begs the question.

Both Method 1 and Method 2 make this mistake.

 

How does a proof go again?

I want to actually make a more general statement. The argument I gave above regarding how we “do algebra” is actually how we present any sort of deductive argument. We always present such an argument in order, where later statements are supported by earlier statements.

ANY time we see a sequence of statements (not just equations) A, B, C that is being put forward as a proof, if logical connectives are missing, the mathematical community agrees that “\Rightarrow” is the missing logical connection.

That is, if we see the proof A,B,C as a proof of statement C from premise A, we assume that the argument really means A\Rightarrow B\Rightarrow C.

This is usually the interpretation in the typical two-column proof, as well. We just provide the next step with a supporting theorem/definition/axiom, but we don’t also go out of our way to say “oh, and line #7 follows from the previous lines.”

Example: Given a non-empty set E with lower bound a and upper bound b, show that a\leq b.

1. E is non-empty and a and b are lower and upper bounds for E. (given)
2. Set E contains at least one element x. (definition of non-empty)
3. a\leq x and x\leq b. (definitions of lower and upper bound)
4. a\leq b. (transitive property of inequality)

Notice I never say that one line follows from the next. And also notice that it would be a mistake to interpret the logical connectives as biconditional.

The path of righteousness

I encourage my students to work with only ONE side of the expression and manipulate it independently, in its own little dark box, and when it comes out into the light, if it looks the same as the other side, you’ve proved the equivalence of the expressions.

For example, to show that \log\left(\frac{1}{t-2}\right)-\log\left(\frac{10}{t}\right)=-1+\log\left(\frac{t}{t-2}\right) for t>2, I would expect this kind of work for “full credit”:

\text{LHS }=\log\left(\frac{1}{t-2}\right)-\log\left(\frac{10}{t}\right)

=-\log(t-2)-\log(10)+\log(t)

=-\log(10)+\log(t)-\log(t-2)

= -1 + \log\left(\frac{t}{t-2}\right)

=\text{ RHS}

Interestingly, I WOULD also accept an argument of the form A\iff B\iff C as justification for conclusion A from premise C, but I would want a student to say “A is true if and only if B is true, which is true if and only if C is true.” Even though it provides a valid proof, I discourage students from using this somewhat cumbersome construction.

So let’s return to the original problem and show a few ways a student could do it correctly.

Three examples

Method A – A direct proof by manipulating only one side

\text{LHS}=\frac{\tan^2{\theta}}{\sec{\theta}-1}

=\frac{\sec^2{\theta}-1}{\sec{\theta}-1}

=\frac{(\sec{\theta}-1)(\sec{\theta}+1)}{\sec{\theta}-1}

=\sec{\theta}+1

=\text{RHS}

Method B – A proof starting with a known equality

\tan^2{\theta}=\tan^2{\theta}

\sec^2{\theta}-1=\tan^2{\theta}

(\sec{\theta}-1)(1+\sec{\theta})=\tan^2{\theta}

1+\sec{\theta}=\frac{\tan^2{\theta}}{\sec{\theta}-1}

1+\frac{1}{\cos{\theta}}=\frac{\tan^2{\theta}}{\sec{\theta}-1}

Method C – Carefully specifying biconditional implications

1+\frac{1}{\cos{\theta}}=\frac{\tan^2{\theta}}{\sec{\theta}-1}

\text{if and only if}

1+\sec{\theta}=\frac{\tan^2{\theta}}{\sec{\theta}-1}

\text{if and only if}

(\sec{\theta}-1)(1+\sec{\theta})=\tan^2{\theta}

\text{if and only if}

\sec^2{\theta}-1=\tan^2{\theta}

\text{if and only if}

\tan^2{\theta}=\tan^2{\theta}

While all of these are now technically correct, I think we all prefer Method A. The other methods are cool too. But please, please, promise me you won’t use Methods 1 or 2 which I presented in my introduction.

In conclusion

Some might argue that the heavy criticism I’ve leveled against Methods 1 and 2 is nitpicking. But I disagree. This kind of careful reasoning is exactly the business of mathematicians. It’s not good enough to just produce “answers,” our job is to produce good reasoning. Mathematics, remember, is a sense-making discipline.

Thanks for staying with me to the end of this long-winded post. Can you tell I’ve had this conversation with a lot of students over the last ten years?

Further reading

  1. Dave Richeson has a similar rant with a similar thesis here.
  2. This article was originally inspired by this recent post on Patrick Honner’s blog. A bunch of us fought about this topic in the comments, and in the end, Patrick encouraged me to write my own post on the subject. So here I am. Thanks for pushing me in the right direction, Mr. Honner!

 

What does it mean to truly prove something?

Let me point you to the following recent blog post from Prof Keith Devlin, entitled “What is a proof, really?”

After a lifetime in professional mathematics, during which I have read a lot of proofs, created some of my own, assisted others in creating theirs, and reviewed a fair number for research journals, the one thing I am sure of is that the definition of proof you will find in a book on mathematical logic or see on the board in a college level introductory pure mathematics class doesn’t come close to the reality.

For sure, I have never in my life seen a proof that truly fits the standard definition. Nor has anyone else.

The usual maneuver by which mathematicians leverage that formal notion to capture the arguments they, and all their colleagues, regard as proofs is to say a proof is a finite sequence of assertions that could be filled in to become one of those formal structures.

It’s not a bad approach if the goal is to give someone a general idea of what a proof is. The trouble is, no one has ever carried out that filling-in process. It’s purely hypothetical. How then can anyone know that the purported proof in front of them really is a proof?

(more)

Click the link to read the rest of the article. Also read the comments below the article to see what conversation has already been generated.

I won’t be shy in saying that I disagree with Keith Devlin. Maybe I misunderstand the subtle nuance of his argument. Maybe I haven’t done enough advanced mathematics. Please help me understand.

Devlin says that proofs created by the mathematical community (on the blackboard, and in journals) are informal and non-rigorous. I think we all agree with him on this point.

But the main point of his article seems to be that these proofs are non-rigorous and can never be made rigorous. That is, he’s suggesting that there could be holes in the logic of even the most vetted & time-tested proofs. He says that these proofs need to be filled in at a granular level, from first principles. Devlin writes, “no one has ever carried out that filling-in process.”

The trouble is, there is a whole mathematical community devoted to this filling-in process. Many high-level results have been rigorously proven going all the way back to first principles. That’s the entire goal of the metamath project. If you haven’t ever stumbled on this site, it will blow your mind. Click on the previous link, but don’t get too lost. Come back and read the rest of my post!

I’ve reread his blog post multiple times, and the articles he linked to. And I just can’t figure out what he could possibly mean by this. It sounds like Devlin thoroughly understands what the metamath project is all about, and he’s very familiar with proof-checking and mathematical logic. So he definitely isn’t writing his post out of ignorance–he’s a smart guy! Again, I ask, can anyone help me understand?

I know that a statement is only proven true relative to the axioms of the formal system. If you change your axioms, different results arise (like changing Euclid’s Fifth Postulate or removing the Axiom of Choice). And I’ve read enough about Gödel to understand the limits of formal systems. As mathematicians, we choose to make our formal systems consistent at the expense of completeness.

Is Devlin referring to one of these things?

I don’t usually make posts that are so confrontational. My apologies! I didn’t really want to post this to my blog. I would have much rather had this conversation in the comments section of Devlin’s blog. I posted two comments but neither one was approved. I gather that many other comments were censored as well.

Here’s the comment I left on his blog, which still hasn’t shown up. (I also left one small comment saying something similar.)

Prof. Devlin,

You said you got a number of comments like Steven’s. Can you approve those comments for public viewing? (one of those comments was mine!)

I think Steven’s comment has less to do with computer *generated* proofs as it does with computer *checked* proofs, like those produced by the http://us.metamath.org/ community.

There’s a big difference between the proof of the Four Color Theorem, which doesn’t really pass our “elegance” test, and the proof of e^{i\pi}=-1 which can be found here: http://us.metamath.org/mpegif/efipi.html

A proof like the one I just linked to is done by humans, but is so rigorous that it can be *checked* by a computer. For me, it satisfies both my hunger for truth AND my hunger to understand *why* the statement is true.

I don’t understand how the metamath project doesn’t meet your criteria for the filling in process. I’ll quote you again, “The trouble is, no one has ever carried out that filling-in process. It’s purely hypothetical. How then can anyone know that the purported proof in front of them really is a proof?”

What is the metamath project, if not the “filling in” process?

John

If anyone wants to continue this conversation here at my blog, uncensored, please feel free to contribute below :-). Maybe Keith Devlin will even stop by!

When will she pass me for the first time? [solution]

Recently, my dad posed the following question here:

My wife and I walk on a circular track, starting at the same point.  She does m laps in the time that it takes me to do n laps.  She walks faster than I do, so m > n.  After how many laps will she catch up with me again?

If you haven’t solved it yet, give it a crack. It’s a fun problem that has surprising depth.

Here’s my solution (in it, I refer to “mom” rather than “my wife” for obvious reasons!):

Since mom’s lap rate is m laps per unit time, and dad’s lap rate is n laps per unit time, in time t, mom goes mt laps and dad goes nt laps.

They meet whenever their distance (measured in laps) is separated by an integer number of laps k. That is, mom and dad meet when

mt=nt+k, k\in\mathbb{Z}.

This happens at time

t=\frac{k}{m-n}.

Mom will have gone

mt=\frac{mk}{m-n}

laps and dad will have gone

nt=\frac{nk}{m-n}

laps when they meet for the kth time.

And that’s it! That’s the general solution. This means that:

  • At time t=0, dad and mom “meet” because they haven’t even started walking at all (they are k=0 laps apart).
  • At time t=\frac{1}{m-n}, dad and mom meet for their first time after having started walking (they are k=1 lap apart). This is the answer to the problem as it was originally stated. Mom will have gone mt=\frac{m}{m-n} laps and dad will have gone nt=\frac{n}{m-n} laps when they meet for the first time.
  • At time t=\frac{2}{m-n}, dad and mom meet for their second time (now k=2 laps apart).
  • At time t=\frac{k}{m-n}, dad and mom meet for their kth time.

Here are two examples:

  • If mom walks 15 laps in the time it takes dad to walk 10 laps, when they meet up for the first time, mom will have gone \frac{m}{m-n}=3 laps and dad will have gone \frac{n}{m-n}=2 laps.
  • If mom walks 12 laps in the time it takes dad to walk 5 laps, when they meet up for the first time, mom will have gone \frac{m}{m-n}=1\frac{5}{7} laps and dad will have gone \frac{n}{m-n}=\frac{5}{7} laps.

Boom! Problem solved! 🙂

Catch yourself up on the world of origami

Have you been doing other things and failed to notice the origami world evolve without you? Have you fallen asleep and been left behind? If you want to get caught up on what you’ve been missing in the world of origami, I suggest you visit Hannah’s origami blog, A Soul Made of Paper. She’ll have you caught up in no time.

I especially like giving her blog a shout-out because Hannah is a student of mine. She often comes by my classroom to show me her latest paper creations. I like origami, and I’ve dabbled in it–stuck my toe in the stream, if you will–but Hannah is like a scuba diver in the origami world. She’s loves modular origami, but she’s also great at the artsy curved creations (like origami roses), textures, and tessellations.

If you haven’t clicked over to her blog yet, here are a few more pictures to whet your appetite.

Go get lost at A Soul Made of Paper. Maybe you can join her other 3000 followers on tumblr :-).

*All of the above are Hannah’s pieces and Hannah’s photos.

Looking back on 299 random walks

This is my 300th post and I’m feeling all nostalgic. Here are some of the popular threads that have appeared on my blog over the last few years. If you’ve missed them, now’s your chance to check them out:

Thanks for randomly walking with me over these last few years (though, some say it’s a “drunken walk” 🙂 ). Either way, I’ll raise a glass to another 300 posts!

Challenge Problems

Want to enrich your Precalculus course with difficult problems? Look no further!

Very-Difficult-Mazes-Coloring-Page-1I teach a high-octane version of Precalculus to students in our magnet program. Our course, like most Precalculus courses, covers a very wide variety of topics. As often as possible, I like to give them more difficult problems that enrich the material from the book. These documents are a work in progress, but feel free to steal them (just email me a copy if you improve them!):

If you want solutions for any of these, shoot me an email.

These aren’t 100% polished by any means, but I’m sharing them anyway! Long live the spirit of sharing :-).

By the way, many of these problems are collected from other sources but I’m too far removed from those sources to properly attribute the problem-creator. My sincere apologies!