Engaging students: Introducing the number e

In my capstone class for future secondary math teachers, I ask my students to come up with ideas for engaging their students with different topics in the secondary mathematics curriculum. In other words, the point of the assignment was not to devise a full-blown lesson plan on this topic. Instead, I asked my students to think about three different ways of getting their students interested in the topic in the first place.

I plan to share some of the best of these ideas on this blog (after asking my students’ permission, of course).

This student submission comes from my former student Jillian Greene. Her topic, from Precalculus: introducing the number e.

green line

How does this topic extend what your students should have learned in previous courses?


By this point in their mathematics career, the students have had plenty of experience with simple and compound interest formulas. Whether or not they discovered it them themselves through exploration in a class or their teacher just gave it to them, they’ve used it before. Now we can do an exploration activity that will connect that formula to the number e, and then to the limit. The activity will say: what if you invested $1 for 1 year at 100% compound interest? It’s a pretty good deal! But how much does the number of compounding periods affect the final value? Using the formula they have, A=P(1+r/n)^nt, they will calculate how much money they will make if it’s compounded:

  • Yearly
  • Biannually
  • Quarterly
  • Weekly
  • Daily
  • Hourly
  • Every minute
  • And every second

The first time it’s compounded, the final value will be $2. However, the more compounding periods you add, the closer to e you’ll get. For instance, weekly would be A=1(1+1/52)^52=2.69259695. Every second will get you A=1(1+1/31536000)^31536000=2.71828162, which is pretty to 2.718. The last three calculations will actually begin with 2.718. We can have some discussion with this as a class, bringing in the concept of limits. Then we can assess and see if anyone has seen this number before. If not, they can pop out their calculators and you can have them type “e” and then hit enter, and blow their minds.



green line

What interesting things can you say about the people who contributed to the discovery and/or the development of this topic?

Though Euler does not receive credit for the first discovery of the number e, he does receive credit for naming it and first publishing it. Some say the e means exponential, some say he’d already published uses for a-d, and some say he named it after himself. He is quoted directly for saying “For the number whose logarithm is unity, let e be written, which is 2,7182817… [sic] whose logarithm according to Vlacq is 0,4342944… “ regarding the number e. He also has a couple of other choice quotes that illustrate his humor, ie “[upon losing the use of his right eye] ‘Now I will have less distraction.’” And “”Sir,

hence God exists; reply!” In response to the French philosophe Diderot, who was trying to convert the court of Catherine the Great of Russia to atheism. Diderot had no idea what Euler was talking about and left the court to a chorus of laughter.”  Back to e, however. If Euler did not first discover it, who did? A man name John Napier did the best he could to discover e. Napier was alive from 1550-1617, so he did not have access to a rich history of advanced algebra. Logarithm tables existed, some close to natural log, but none to identify this mystical number. Napier was merely trying to find an easier way to approach multiplication (and consequently exponentiation). His work, Construction of the Marvelous Rule of Logarithms, he states that X=Nap log y, where Nap log (107)=0. In today’s terms, with today’s math, we can translate that to Nap log y = 107 log1/e(y/107).



green line

How has this topic appeared in high culture (art, classical music, theatre, poetry* etc.)?

After some discussion on this topic, if my class is a pre-AP or particularly curious class, I will have them go around and read this poem about e out loud. Then from this poem, I can have the students split up into groups. Each group will be responsible for dissecting this poem for certain things and then presenting their most interesting/exciting/relatable findings. One group will tackle the names; what history lesson is given to us here? Another group will handle applications; what did the various figures say we can do with e? The final group will report back on different representations of e; what all is e equal to? My expectations here would be for the students to see the insanely vast history and application of this number and gain some appreciation. I would expect to see Napier, Euler, and Leibniz for sure from the first group. From the second group, I would expect continuous compound interest, 1/e in probability and statistics, and calculus. The third group would be expected to present the numerical value of e, the limit that e is equal to, its infinite sum representation, and Euler’s identity. A number worthy of a 500 word poem and a slew of historical mathematicians must be important.


The Enigmatic Number e

by Sarah Glaz

It ambushed Napier at Gartness,
like a swashbuckling pirate
leaping from the base.
He felt its power, but never realized its nature.
e‘s first appearance in disguise—a tabular array
of values of ln, was logged in an appendix
to Napier‘s posthumous publication.
Oughtred, inventor of the circular slide rule,
still ignorant of e‘s true role,
performed the calculations.

A hundred thirteen years the hit and run goes on.
There and not there—elusive e,
escape artist and trickster,
weaves in and out of minds and computations:
Saint-Vincent caught a glimpse of it under rectangular hyperbolas;
Huygens mistook its rising trace for logarithmic curve;
Nicolaus Mercator described its log as natural
without accounting for its base;
Jacob Bernoulli, compounding interest continuously,
came close, yet failed to recognize its face;
and Leibniz grasped it hiding in the maze of calculus,
natural basis for comprehending change—but
misidentified as b.

The name was first recorded in a letter
Euler sent Goldbach in November 1731:
“e denontat hic numerum, cujus logarithmus hyperbolicus est=1.”
Since a was taken, and Euler
was partial to vowels,
e rushed to make a claim—the next in line.

We sometimes call e Euler‘s Number: he knew
e in its infancy as 2.718281828459045235.

On Wednesday, 6th of May, 2009,
e revealed itself to Kondo and Pagliarulo,
digit by digit, to 200,000,000,000 decimal places.
It found a new digital game to play.

In retrospect, following Euler‘s naming,
e lifted its black mask and showed its limit:
Bernoulli‘s compounded interest for an investment of one.

Its reciprocal gave Bernoulli many trials,
from gambling at the slot machines to deranged parties
where nameless gentlemen check hats with butlers at the door,
and when they leave, e‘s reciprocal hands each a stranger’s hat.

In gratitude to Eulere showed a serious side,
infinite sum representation:

For Euler‘s eyes alone, e fanned the peacock tail of
e−12e−12’s continued fraction expansion,
displaying patterns that confirmed
its own irrationality.

A century passed till e—through Hermite‘s pen,
was proved to be a transcendental number.
But to this day it teases us with
speculations about ee.

e‘s abstract beauty casts a glow on Euler’s Identity:
eið + 1 = 0,
the elegant, mysterious equation,
where waltzing arm in arm with i and π,
e flirts with complex numbers and roots of unity.

We meet e nowadays in functional high places
of CalculusDifferential EquationsProbabilityNumber Theory,
and other ancient realms:
y = ex
 is the base of the unique exponential function
whose derivative is equal to itself.
The more things change the more they stay the same. 
 gathers gravitas as solid under integration,
a constant c is the mere difference;
and often e makes guest appearances in Taylor series expansions.
And now and then e stars in published poetry—
honors and administrative duties multiply with age.












Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: