In this series, I’m compiling some of the quips and one-liners that I’ll use with my students to hopefully make my lessons more memorable for them.

This really awful pun comes from a 1980s special by the comedian Gallagher; I would share a video clip here, but I couldn’t find it. I’ll tell this joke the first time that the Greek letters , , , or appears in a course. For the discussion below, let’s say that appears for the first time.

Where does the symbol come from?

[Students answer: “The Greek alphabet.”]

Good. Now, where did the Greeks get it from?

[Students sit in silence.]

The answer is, ancient cavemen. The sounds in the Greek alphabet correspond to the first sounds that the caveman said when he first stepped out the cave, so you can tell a lot about human psychology based on the Greek alphabet.

The caveman stepped out of the cave, saw a nice bright, sunny day, and said, “Ayyyyy!”

[Students groan.]

So, “Ahhh.” What’s the second sound?

[Students: “buh” or “bee”]

Good, the second sound is “buh.” What’s the third sound?

[Students: “guh” or “cee”]

Don’t forget, it’s the Greek alphabet. “Guh.” What’s the fourth sound?

[Students: “duh”]

Good. Now let’s put these all together to see what the caveman was saying. “Ah buh guh day.”

“Have a good day!”

[Students laugh and/or groan deeply.]

One year, when I told this story, I had a student in the front row who was carefully taking notes as I told this story; she felt very silly when I finally reached the punch line.

In this series, I’m compiling some of the quips and one-liners that I’ll use with my students to hopefully make my lessons more memorable for them.

Professors play many roles. I play the role of quality control when grading exams. However, I also play the role of head cheerleader… though I have standards that enforce, I want my students to meet those standards. At times, I have to play the role of motivational speaker when talking to a student who’s despondent about how he/she performed on a recent exam.

In these situations, if I’m sitting with a student to discuss a recent exam and explaining where he/she went wrong, I’ll use the following line to try to lighten the mood of the meeting as I’m looking over the test:

To quote Billy Crystal in the Princess Bride, I’ve seen worse.

Because the truth is, after over 20 years as a professor, I’ve almost certainly have seen worse.

In this series, I’m compiling some of the quips and one-liners that I’ll use with my students to hopefully make my lessons more memorable for them.

The complex plane is typically used to visually represent complex numbers. (There’s also the Riemann sphere, but I won’t go into that here.) The complex plane looks just like an ordinary Cartesian plane, except the “axis” becomes the real axis and the “axis” becomes the imaginary axis. It makes sense that this visualization has two dimensions since there are two independent components of complex numbers. For real numbers, only a one-dimensional visualization is needed: the number line that (hopefully) has been hammered into my students’ brains ever since elementary school.

While I’m on the topic, it’s unfortunate that “complex numbers” are called complex, as this often has the connotation of difficult. However, that’s not why our ancestors chose the word complex was chosen. Even today, there is a second meaning of the word: a group of associated buildings in close proximity to each other is often called an “apartment complex” or an “office complex.” This is the real meaning of “complex numbers,” since the real and imaginary parts are joined to make a new number.

When I teach my students about complex number, I tell the following true story of when my daughter was just a baby, and I was extremely sleep-deprived and extremely desperate for ways to get her to sleep at night.

I tried counting monotonously, moving my finger to the right on a number line with each number:

That didn’t work, so I tried counting monotonously again, but this time moving my finger to the left on a number line with each number:

That didn’t work either, so I tried counting monotonously once more, this time moving my finger up the imaginary axis:

For the record, that didn’t work either. But it gave a great story to tell my students.

In this series, I’m compiling some of the quips and one-liners that I’ll use with my students to hopefully make my lessons more memorable for them.

I’ll often have my students pull out their calculators and assist me as we proceed through some big procedure… this hopefully keeps students engaged and also provides a deliberate pause so that (hopefully) what I’ve been teaching them has a little extra time to sink in before we move on to the next topic. Still, I hate dead silence, and so I’ll often throw in a little quip now and then to break up the silence.

For example, suppose that it’s necessary to find the first few digits of the decimal expansion of . As they pull out their calculators, I might say something like, “I’ll be nice and spot you the 0,” and write

on the board. This usually gets a knowing laugh… clearly the answer is between 0 and 1, but getting even the next two significant digits requires a little bit more work. When students get the answer from their calculators, then we’ll fill in the next few digits after the decimal point.

Or, say that we have to compute . As they’re punching into their calculators, I’ll say “I’ll be nice and spot you the negative sign”:

,

and then write down the digits after the negative sign after their calculators return the first few significant digits.

In this series, I’m compiling some of the quips and one-liners that I’ll use with my students to hopefully make my lessons more memorable for them. Today’s story is a continuation of yesterday’s post.

When I teach regression, I typically use this example to illustrate the regression effect:

Suppose that the heights of fathers and their adult sons both have mean 69 inches and standard deviation 3 inches. Suppose also that the correlation between the heights of the fathers and sons is 0.5. Predict the height of a son whose father is 63 inches tall. Repeat if the father is 78 inches tall.

Using the formula for the regression line

,

we obtain the equation

,

so that the predicted height of the son is 66 inches if the father is 63 inches tall. However, the prediction would be 73.5 inches if the father is 76 inches tall. As expected, tall fathers tend to have tall sons, and short fathers tend to have short sons. Then, I’ll tell my class:

However, to the psychological comfort of us short people, tall fathers tend to have sons who are not quite as tall, and short fathers tend to have sons who are not quite as short.

This was first observed by Francis Galton (see the Wikipedia article for more details), a particularly brilliant but aristocratic (read: snobbish) mathematician who had high hopes for breeding a race of super-tall people with the proper use of genetics, only to discover that the laws of statistics naturally prevented this from occurring. Defeated, he called this phenomenon “regression toward the mean,” and so we’re stuck with called fitting data to a straight line “regression” to this day.

In this series, I’m compiling some of the quips and one-liners that I’ll use with my students to hopefully make my lessons more memorable for them.

When I teach regression, I typically use this example to illustrate the regression effect:

Suppose that the heights of fathers and their adult sons both have mean 69 inches and standard deviation 3 inches. Suppose also that the correlation between the heights of the fathers and sons is 0.5. Predict the height of a son whose father is 63 inches tall. Repeat if the father is 78 inches tall.

Using the formula for the regression line

,

we obtain the equation

,

so that the predicted height of the son is 66 inches if the father is 63 inches tall. However, the prediction would be 73.5 inches if the father is 76 inches tall.

To make this more memorable for students, I’ll observe:

As expected, tall fathers tend to have tall sons, and short fathers tend to have short sons. For example, my uncle was 6’6″. His two sons, my cousins, were 6’4″ and 6’5″ and were high school basketball stars.

And I have a great story that goes along with this principle, from 30 years ago.

I forget the exact question out of Apostol’s calculus, but there was some equation that I had to prove on my weekly homework assignment that, for the life of me, I just couldn’t get. And for no good reason, I had a flash of insight: subtract the left- and right-hand sides. While it was very difficult to turn the left side into the right side, it turned out that, for this particular problem, was very easy to show that the difference was zero. (Again, I wish I could remember exactly which question this was so that I could show this technique and this particular example to my own students.)

So I finished my homework, and I went outside to a local basketball court and worked on my jump shot.

Later that week, I went to class, and there was a great buzz in the air. It took ten seconds to realize that everyone was up in arms about how to do this particular problem. Despite the intervening 30 years, I remember the scene as clear as a bell. I can still hear one of my classmates ask me, “Quintanilla, did you get that one?”

I said with great pride, “Yeah, I got it.” And I showed them my work.

And, either before then or since then, I’ve never heard the intensity of the cussing that followed.

Truth be told, probably the only reason that I remember this story from my adolescence is that I usually was the one who had to ask for help on the hardest homework problems in that Honors Calculus class. This may have been the one time in that entire two-year calculus sequence that I actually figured out a homework problem that had stumped everybody else.

In this series, I’m compiling some of the quips and one-liners that I’ll use with my students to hopefully make my lessons more memorable for them. Today’s post is certainly not a one-liner but instead is my pseudohistory for how the roots of polynomials were found.

When I teach Algebra II or Precalculus (or train my future high school teachers to teach these subjects), we eventually land on the Rational Root Test and Descartes’ Rule of Signs as an aid for finding the roots of cubic equations or higher. Before I get too deep into this subject, however, I like to give a 10-15 minute pseudohistory about the discovery of how polynomial equations can be solved. Historians of mathematics will certain take issue with some of this “history.” However, the main purpose of the story is not complete accuracy but engaging students with the history of mathematics. I think the story I tell engages students while remaining reasonably accurate… and I always refer students to various resources if they want to get the real history.

To begin, I write down the easiest two equations to solve (in all cases, :

and

These are pretty easy to solve, with solutions well known to students:

and

In other words, there are formulas that you can just stick in the coefficients and get the answer out without thinking too hard. Sure, there are alternate ways of solving for that could be easier, like factoring, but the worst-case scenario is just plugging into the formula.

These formulas were known to Babylonian mathematicians around 2000 B.C. (When I teach this in class, I write the date, and all other dates and discoverers, next to the equations for dramatic pedagogical effect.) Though not written in these modern terms, basically every ancient culture on the globe that did mathematics had some version of these formulas: for example, the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese, and Mayans.

Naturally, this leads to a simple question: is there a formula for the cubic:

Is there some formula that we can just plug , , , and to just get the answer? The answer is, Yes, there is a formula. But it’s nasty. The formula was not discovered until 1535 A.D., and it was discovered by a man named Tartaglia. During the 1500s, the study of mathematics was less about the dispassionate pursuit of truth and more about exercising machismo. One mathematician would challenge another: “Here’s my cubic equation; I bet you can’t solve it. Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah.” Then the second mathematician would solve it and challenge the first: “Here’s my cubic equation; I bet you can’t solve it. Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah.” And so on. Well, Tartaglia came up with a formula that would solve every cubic equation. By plugging in , , , and , you get the answer out.

Tartaglia’s discovery was arguably the first triumph of the European Renaissance. The solution of the cubic was perhaps the first thing known to European mathematicians in the Middle Ages that was unknown to the ancient Greeks.

In 1535, Tartaglia was a relatively unknown mathematician, and so he told a more famous mathematician, Cardano, about his formula. Cardano told Tartaglia, why yes, that is very interesting, and then published the formula under his own name, taking credit without mention of Tartaglia. To this day, the formula is called Cardano’s formula.

So there is a formula. But it would take an entire chalkboard to write down the formula. That’s why we typically don’t make students learn this formula in high school; it’s out there, but it’s simply too complicated to expect students to memorize and use.

This leads to the next natural question: what about quartic equations?

The solution of the quartic was discovered less than five years later by an Italian mathematician named Ferrari. Ferrari found out that there is a formula that you can just plug in , , , , and , turn the crank, and get the answers out. Writing out this formula would take two chalkboards. So there is a formula, but it’s also very, very complicated.

Of course, Ferrari had some famous descendants in the automotive industry.

So now we move onto my favorite equation, the quintic. (If you don’t understand why it’s my favorite, think about my last name.)

After solving the cubic and quartic in rapid succession, surely there should also be a formula for the quintic. So they tried, and they tried, and they tried, and they got nowhere fast. Finally, the problem was solved nearly 300 years later, in 1832 (for the sake telling a good story, I don’t mention Abel) by a French kid named Evariste Galois. Galois showed that there is no formula. That takes some real moxie. There is no formula. No matter how hard you try, you will not find a formula that can work for every quintic. Sure, there are some quintics that can be solved, like . But there is no formula that will work for every single quintic.

Galois made this discovery when he was 19 years old… in other words, approximately the same age as my students. In fact, we know when wrote down his discovery, because it happened the night before he died. You see, he was living in France in 1832. What was going on in France in 1832? I ask my class, have they seen Les Miserables?

France was torn upside-down in 1832 in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and young Galois got into a heated argument with someone over politics; Galois was a republican, while the other guy was a royalist. More importantly, both men were competing for the hand of the same young woman. So they decided to settle their differences like honorable Frenchmen, with a duel. So Galois wrote up his mathematical notes one night, and the next day, he fought the duel, he lost the duel, and he died.

Thus giving complete and total proof that tremendous mathematical genius does not prevent somebody from being a complete idiot.

For the present, there are formulas for cubic and quartic equations, but they’re long and impractical. And for quintic equations and higher, there is no formula. So that’s why we teach these indirect methods like the Rational Root Test and Descartes’ Rule of Signs, as they give tools to use to guess at the roots of higher-order polynomials without using something like the quadratic formula.

In this series, I’m compiling some of the quips and one-liners that I’ll use with my students to hopefully make my lessons more memorable for them.

One of the techniques commonly taught in Algebra II or Precalculus is the Rational Root Test, which is a way of making a list of candidates of rational numbers that might (emphasis, might) be roots of the polynomial. This is a commonly taught method for finding the roots of polynomials whose degree is higher than 3. (Other techniques that are typically taught to students are Descartes’ Rule of Signs and (less commonly) the Upper and Lower Bound Rules.) For example, for the polynomial .

The factors of the constant term are and , and so the numerator of any rational root must be one of these numbers.

The factors of the leading coefficient are and , and so the denominator of any rational root must be one of these numbers.

In conclusion, if there’s a rational root, then it’s and . In other words, we have a list of 16 possible rational roots. Not all of them will be roots, of course, since the cubic polynomial only has at most three distinct roots. Also, there’s no guarantee that any of them will be roots. The only way to find out if any of them work is by testing them, usually using synthetic division.

So, after a practice problem or two, I’ll ask my students,

What guarantee do you have that at least one of the possible rational roots will actually work?

After letting them think for a few seconds, I give them the answer:

The benevolence of your instructor.

In other words, there is no guarantee that any of the possible rational roots will actually work, except that the instructor (or author of the textbook) has rigged things so that it happens.

In this series, I’m compiling some of the quips and one-liners that I’ll use with my students to hopefully make my lessons more memorable for them.

When I was a student, I always appreciated when my professors returned graded exams soon after I took the test. Now that I’m a professor, it’s a courtesy that I try to extend to my students as time permits. That said, grading is no fun at all and takes a fair amount of time and effort to do well. Nevertheless, as I explain to my students,

Grading is like going to the dentist: It’s painful, but it’s still best to get it over with as soon as possible.