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 use today’s one-liner to explain why mathematicians settled on a particular convention that could have been chosen differently. For example, let’s consider the definition of by first looking at the graph of .

Of course, we can’t find an inverse for this function; colloquially, the graph of fails the horizontal line test. More precisely, there exist two numbers and so that but . Indeed, there are infinitely many such pairs.

So how will we find the inverse of ? Well, we can’t. But we can do something almost as good: we can define a new function that’s going look an awful lot like . We will restrict the domain of this new function so that satisfies the horizontal line test.

For the sine function, there are plenty of good options from which to choose. Indeed, here are four legitimate options just using the two periods of the sine function shown above. The fourth option is unorthodox, but it nevertheless satisfies the horizontal line test (as long as we’re careful with .

So which of these options should we choose? Historically, mathematicians have settled for the interval .

So, I’ll ask my students, why have mathematicians chosen this interval? That I can answer with one word: tradition.

I'm a Professor of Mathematics and a University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of North Texas. For eight years, I was co-director of Teach North Texas, UNT's program for preparing secondary teachers of mathematics and science.
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