Monday, November 24, 2008

Secant and Tangent

The names of the trigonometric ratios tangent and secant are derived from the Latin “to touch” and “to cut” – the tangent to a figure is a line that touches it in one place, where a secant cuts through it in two or more. But how are these geometric terms related to the ratios that bear their names? The answer can be shown using the diagram at the top of the post - a diagram that used to be a standard one in high school trig text books.

Consider the acute angle BAC. Allow |AC| = 1, and construct a unit circle about A that goes through C. Construct a tangent to this circle at C, and extend the segment AB so that it meets this tangent at E. So, the segment CE lies on the tangent while the segment AE lies on the secant of the unit circle formed around BAC. ACE is a new right triangle that contains the original BAC.

The tangent of BAC is BC/AB (opposite/adjacent), but if we now look at the second triangle ACE, we see tht it is also given by (CE/AC)=(CE/1)=CE - the tangent is measured by the segment of the tangent, CE. Similarly, the secant of BAC is given by AC/AB (hypoteneuse/adjacent), but again turning to the second triangle ACE, we see that this is (AC/AB)=(AE/AC)=(AE/1)=AE - and the secant is provided by the length of the secant, AE.

This treatment was taken from the book "Plane Trigonometry and Tables" by G. Wentworth, published in 1903. In some of the texts of this era, the "primary" trigonometric ratios were sin, sec, and tan (rather than sin, cos, and tan), perhaps owing their primacy to constructions like the one described above.

The cosine was considered a secondary trigonometric ratio - its name coming from the phrase "complement's sine." Along with the usual ratios, texts often presented several convienience ratios that are now antiquated, such as the versedsine vrsin(x) = 1-cos(x) and the half-versed sine or haversine hvrsn(x)= (1/2)vrsin(x).

The most fundamental trigonometric ratio has the most obscure name. It is generally claimed that the word “sine” comes from Latin word for “bend,” but some have suggested that the word is ultimately derived from the name of the curve formed by the gathering of a toga, or from the Latin word for “bowstring.” In Arithmetic, Algebra, Analysis, Felix Klein states that “sine” represents a Latin mis-translation of an Arabic word, but does not go on to explain its origins any further.

My edition of Wentworth is from 1903 - a PDF of the 1887 edition can be downloaded here.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Metaphors and Mathematics 3

In many traditions, Biedermann's Dictionary of Symbols tells us, "the tree was widely seen as the axis mundi around which the cosmos is organized" and, as mentioned in a previous post, has been widely used to describe the relationship between mathematics and other sciences. Mathematics itself, like many subjects, is often portrayed as a tree whose sub-topics make up branches that continue to grow and bifurcate.

Some recent articles have take a more postmodern perspective on using the tree metaphor to describe mathematics.

Dan Kennedy 's "Climbing around on the Tree of Mathematics," (full text here) and Greg McColm's "A Metaphor for Mathematics Education" are two recent articles that make arguments by analogy about what mathematics is and how it should be taught. In Kennedy's argument, mathematics is a tree, while in McColm's it is a vine - both are organic, growing, and branching. What distinguishes these two uses of metaphor from traditional tree analogies is that both authors are not at all suggesting that we can stand back and survey the structure as a whole and understand how all its parts are related. The ability to provide a comprehensive view of the subject, to make it surveyable, was the raison-d'ĂȘtre of metaphors like the "Tree of Science." Instead of using the metaphor this way, both authors suggest that we think of ourselves as part of the growing structure - as climbers and gardeners who cannot see the complex organic whole, but who can explore and tend to our small part of it. In these descriptions, natural forms like trees and plants, once metaphors for simplicity and comprehensibility, now provide metaphors for complexity.

Up in the Tree of Mathematics, Kennedy suggests that working mathematicians are labouring at extending its outer branches. This is where the view is best, where the fruit is found, and where the beauty of mathematics can be seen most clearly. School Mathematics is part of the trunk, the solid, oldest, stable part of the tree, and math teachers spend their time helping students climb the trunk, hoping that some may one day reach its outer branches. Unfortunately, the difficulty of the trunk prevents most people from ever climbing beyond it. Kennedy suggests that we should be less concerned with the trunk than with the branches, and that technology can provide a ladder to assist the climb.

McColm's Mathematical Vine is not mathematics itself, but a structure that clings to the underlying reality of mathematical truth. Mathematics, in this analogy, is like a hidden tower, whose shape can only be seen by looking at the vine that has taken shape around it. Like in Kennedy's analogy, working mathematicians are the caretakers who help the structure grow. For McColm, this analogy emphasizes the importance of mathematics education - a process of strengthening the vine so that it may continue to grow. Perhaps because his audience is primarily post-secondary researchers, he does not advocate finding shortcuts to "higher" views, but rather suggests that education be promoted through "tending to the vine" - clarifying mathematics and strengthening connections between different branches.

Although they suggest more of a structure at play, rather that a stable unified whole, organic metaphors like those used by McColm and Kennedy continue to suggest a natural unity among the various parts of mathematics. In that sense they are still rooted (or centered), and, although they have somewhat destabilized the tree analogy, they haven't quite deconstructed it. They have not, for example, gone quite as far as Wittgenstein, who seemed to suggest that metaphors that attempt to link the subjects of mathematics in a defining way like this are misguided. In his view, as described by Ackerman (1988, p. 115):
mathematics is an assemblage of language games, having no sharp and uniform external boundary, with potentially confusing and criss-crossing subdisciplines held together by an internal network of analogous proof techniques.
It is easy to appreciate how some climbers in Kennedy's trees and McColm's vines end up like the protagonist in Roz Chast's cartoon "Falling off the Math Cliff", where step 1 is "A boy begins his wondrous journey," and step 8 is "The plummet."

The images in this post are "Pythagoras Tree" fractals, made using GSP.

The "series" of posts on this is:
Metaphors and Mathematics 1
Metaphors and Mathematics 2
Metaphors and Mathematics 3

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Bit More on Factors and Extended Multiplication Tables

As described in earlier posts, factor lattices and the extended multiplication table have a common link in an arithmetic function that we'll just call f.

In the formula above, the p_i values are distinct primes. The function f tells us the number of times n appears in the extended multiplication table, and tells us the number of nodes in n's factor lattice. Note that f(1) = 1, and f(p) = 2 for every prime number p.

We can see from its formula that f(n) is multiplicative - if n and m are relatively prime, then f(nm) = f(n)f(m). This fact makes it easier to calculate f(n) values.

Other multiplicative arithmetic functions include the Euler totient function, theta(n), and the function that sums the divisors of n, sigma(n).

The graph at the top of this post shows the first 500 values of f(n).