# Inverse Functions: Rational Exponents (Part 8)

In this series of posts, we have seen that the definition of $\sqrt[n]{x}$ and saw that the definition was a little different depending if $n$ is even or odd:

1. If $n$ is even, then $y = \sqrt[n]{x}$ means that $x = y^n$ and $y \ge 0$. In particular, this is impossible (for real $y$) if $x < 0$.
2. If $n$ is odd, then $y = \sqrt[n]{x}$ means that $x = y^n$. There is no need to give a caveat on the possible values of $y$.

Let’s now consider the definition of $x^{m/n}$, where $m$ and $n$ are positive integers greater than 1. Ideally, we’d like to simply defined $x^{m/n} = \left[ x^{1/n} \right]^m$

This definition reduces to previous work (like a good MIT freshman), using prior definition for raising to powers that are either integers or reciprocals of integers. Indeed, if $x \ge 0$, there is absolutely no ambiguity about this definition.

Unfortunately, if $x < 0$, then a little more care is required. There are four possible cases.

Case 1. $m$ and $n$ are odd. In this case, there is no ambiguity if $x < 0$ is negative. For example, $(-32)^{3/5} = \left[ (-32)^{1/5} \right]^3 = [-2]^3 = -8$

Case 2: $m$ is even but $n$ is odd. Again, there is no ambiguity if $x< 0$ is negative. For example, $(-32)^{4/5} = \left[ (-32)^{4/5} \right]^3 = [-2]^4 = 16$ Case 3: $m$ is odd but $n$ is even. In this case, $x^{m/n}$ is undefined if $x < 0$. For example, we would like $(-16)^{3/2}$ to be equal to $\left[ (-16)^{1/2} \right]^3$, but ${-16}^{1/2} = \sqrt{-16}$ is undefined (using real numbers). Case 4. $m$ and $latex$n\$ are both even. This is perhaps the most interesting case. For example, how should we evaluate $(-8)^{4/6}$?. There are two legitimate choices… which lead to different answers!

Option #1: If we just apply the proposed definition of $x^{m/n}$, we find that $(-8)^{2/6} = \left[ (-8)^2 \right]^{1/6} = ^{1/6} = 2$

Option #2: We could first reduce $2/6$ to lowest terms: $(-8)^{2/6} = (-8)^{1/3} = -2$

So… which is it?!?!?!?! The rule that mathematicians have chosen is that simplifying the exponent takes precedence over the above definition. In other words, the definition $x^{m/n} = \left[ x^{1/n} \right]^m$ should only be applied in $m/n$ has been reduced to lowest terms in order to remove the above ambiguity.  For the sake of completeness, I note that the above discussion restricts our attention to real numbers. If complex numbers are permitted, then things become a lot more interesting. If we repeat a few of the above calculations using complex numbers, we get answers that are different! The explanation for this surprising result is not brief, but I discussed it in a previous series of posts:

https://meangreenmath.com/2014/06/19/calculators-and-complex-numbers-part-1/

https://meangreenmath.com/2014/06/20/calculators-and-complex-numbers-part-2/

https://meangreenmath.com/2014/06/21/calculators-and-complex-numbers-part-3/

https://meangreenmath.com/2014/06/22/calculators-and-complex-numbers-part-4/

https://meangreenmath.com/2014/06/23/calculators-and-complex-numbers-part-5/

https://meangreenmath.com/2014/06/24/calculators-and-complex-numbers-part-6/

https://meangreenmath.com/2014/06/25/calculators-and-complex-numbers-part-7/

https://meangreenmath.com/2014/06/26/calculators-and-complex-numbers-part-8/

https://meangreenmath.com/2014/06/27/calculators-and-complex-numbers-part-9/

https://meangreenmath.com/2014/06/28/calculators-and-complex-numbers-part-10/

https://meangreenmath.com/2014/06/29/calculators-and-complex-numbers-part-11/

https://meangreenmath.com/2014/06/30/calculators-and-complex-numbers-part-12/

https://meangreenmath.com/2014/07/01/calculators-and-complex-numbers-part-13/

https://meangreenmath.com/2014/07/02/calculators-and-complex-numbers-part-14/

https://meangreenmath.com/2014/07/03/calculators-and-complex-numbers-part-15-2/

https://meangreenmath.com/2014/07/04/calculators-and-complex-numbers-part-16/

https://meangreenmath.com/2014/07/05/calculators-and-complex-numbers-part-17/

https://meangreenmath.com/2014/07/06/calculators-and-complex-numbers-part-18/

https://meangreenmath.com/2014/07/07/calculators-and-complex-numbers-part-19/

https://meangreenmath.com/2014/07/08/calculators-and-complex-numbers-part-20/

https://meangreenmath.com/2014/07/09/calculators-and-complex-numbers-part-21/

https://meangreenmath.com/2014/07/10/calculators-and-complex-numbers-part-22/

https://meangreenmath.com/2014/07/11/calculators-and-complex-numbers-part-23/

https://meangreenmath.com/2014/07/12/calculators-and-complex-numbers-part-24/

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