# Calculators and complex numbers (Part 23)

In this series of posts, I explore properties of complex numbers that explain some surprising answers to exponential and logarithmic problems using a calculator (see video at the bottom of this post). These posts form the basis for a sequence of lectures given to my future secondary teachers.

To begin, we recall that the trigonometric form of a complex number $z = a+bi$ is

$z = r(\cos \theta + i \sin \theta) = r e^{i \theta}$

where $r = |z| = \sqrt{a^2 + b^2}$ and $\tan \theta = b/a$, with $\theta$ in the appropriate quadrant. As noted before, this is analogous to converting from rectangular coordinates to polar coordinates.

Theorem. If $z = x + i y$, where $x$ and $y$ are real numbers, then

$e^z = e^x (\cos y + i \sin y)$

Definition. Let $z = r e^{i \theta}$ be a complex number so that $-\pi < \theta \le \theta$. Then we define

$\log z = \ln r + i \theta$.

Definition. Let $z$ and $w$ be complex numbers so that $z \ne 0$. Then we define

$z^w = e^{w \log z}$

Technical point: for the latter two definitions, these are the principal values of the functions. In complex analysis, these are usually considered multiply-defined functions. But I’m not going to worry about this technicality here and will only consider the principal values.

In the remaining posts in this series, I want to explore which properties of exponential functions remain true when complex numbers are used.

To begin, if $w$ is a real rational number, then there is an alternative definition of $z^w$ that matches De Moivre’s Theorem. Happily, the two definitions agree. Suppose that $z = r e^{i \theta}$ with $-\pi < \theta \le \pi$. Then

$z^w = e^{w \log z}$

$= e^{w [\ln r + i \theta]}$

$= e^{w \ln r + i w \theta}$

$= e^{w \ln r} e^{i w \theta}$

$= r^w (\cos w\theta + i \sin \theta)$

Next, one of the Laws of Exponents remains true even for complex numbers:

$z^{w_1} z^{w_2} = e^{w_1 \log z} e^{w_2 \log z}$

$= e^{w_1 \log z + w_2 \log z}$

$= e^{(w_1 + w_2) \log z}$

$= z^{w_1 + w_2}$.

However, in previous posts, we’ve seen that the rules $(x^y)^z = x^(yz)$ and $x^z y^z = (xy)^z$ may not be true if nonpositive bases, let alone complex bases, are used.

We can also derive the usual rules $z^0 = 1$ and $z^{-w} = \displaystyle \frac{1}{z^w}$. First,

$z^0 = e^{0 \log z} = e^0 = 1$.

Next, we think like an MIT freshman and use the above Law of Exponents to observe that

$z^w z^{-w} = z^{w-w} = z^0 = 1$.

Dividing, we see that $z^{-w} = \displaystyle \frac{1}{z^w}$.

For completeness, here’s the movie that I use to engage my students when I begin this sequence of lectures.

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