My Favorite One-Liners: Part 18

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 is a quip that I’ll use when a theoretical calculation can be easily confirmed with a calculator.

Sometimes I teach my students how people converted decimal expansions into fractions before there was a button on a calculator to do this for them. For example, to convert  x = 0.\overline{432} = 0.432432432\dots into a fraction, the first step (from the Bag of Tricks) is to multiply by 1000: How do we change this into a decimal? Let’s call this number x.

1000x = 432.432432\dots

x = 0.432432\dots

Notice that the decimal parts of both x and 1000x are the same. Subtracting, the decimal parts cancel, leaving

999x = 432


x = \displaystyle \frac{432}{999} = \displaystyle \frac{16}{37}

In my experience, most students — even senior math majors who have taken a few theorem-proof classes and hence are no dummies — are a little stunned when they see this procedure for the first time.

To make this more real and believable to them, I then tell them my one-liner: “I can see that no one believes me. OK, let’s try something that you will believe. Pop out your calculators. Then punch in 16 divided by 37.”

Indeed, my experience many students really do need this technological confirmation to be psychologically sure that it really did work. Then I’ll tease them that, by pulling out their calculators, I’m trying to speak my students’ language.


See also my fuller post on this topic as well as the index for the entire series.


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