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This post follows on from this post where the following principle was presented:

Fundamental Principle of Solving ‘Easy’ Equations

Identify what is difficult or troublesome about the equation and get rid of it. As long as you do the same thing to both numbers (the “Lhs” and the “Rhs”), the equation will be replaced by a simpler equation with the same solution.

There are a number of subtleties here: basically sometimes you get extra ‘solutions’ (that are not solutions at all), and sometimes you can lose solutions.

Let us write the squaring function, e.g. 6\mapsto 36, x\mapsto x^2 by f(x)=x^2 and the square-rooting function by x\mapsto \sqrt{x}. It appears that (x^2,\sqrt{x}) are an inverse pair but not quite exactly. While

\displaystyle 81\overset{\sqrt{x}}{\mapsto} 9\overset{x^2}{\mapsto}81 and

\displaystyle 7\overset{x^2}{\mapsto}49\overset{\sqrt{x}}{\mapsto}7,

check out O.K. note that

-4\overset{x^2}{\mapsto}+16\overset{\sqrt{x}}{\mapsto}=+4\neq -4,

does not bring us back to where we started.

This problem can be fixed by restricting the allowable inputs to x^2 to positive numbers only but for the moment it is better to just treat this as a subtlety, namely while (\sqrt{x})^2=x, \sqrt{x^2}=\pm x… in fact I recommend that we remember that with an x^2 there will generally be two solutions.

The other thing we look out for as much as possible is that we cannot divide by zero.

There are other issues around such as the fact that \sqrt{x}>0, so that the equation \sqrt{x}=-2 has no solutions (no, x=4 is not a solution! Check.). This equation has no solutions.

Often, in context, these subtleties are not problematic. For example, equations with no solutions rarely arise and quantities might be positive so that if we have \pm\sqrt{a}, only +\sqrt{a} need be considered (for example, a might be a length).

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Algebra is the metaphysics of arithmetic.

John Ray

These are not letters, they are numbers.
Me, just there


Introduction: What is x??

Consider an equation: a mathematical statement expressing that two objects — e.g. numbers — are equal, equivalent and one and the same. As an example;


In mathematics there are a number of uses for this = sign. There is the common;


which merely asserts that the sum of 1 and 2 is the same as 3. Also there is the definition-type :=;

3^3:=3\times3\times 3

which defines 3^3 for example, and by extension all these positive integer powers. Finally there is the equation or formula type =, the most famous of which is probably

Energy=(mass)\times (speed of light) \times (speed of


An equation of this type is a statement that one object — e.g. a number — is equal to another.

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Quadratics are ubiquitous in mathematics. For the purposes of this piece a quadratic is a real-valued function q:\mathbb{R}\rightarrow \mathbb{R} of the form


where a,\,b,\,c\in \mathbb{R} such that a\neq 0. There is a little bit more to be said — particularly about the differences between a quadratic and a quadratic function but for those this piece is addressed to (third level: non-maths; all second level), the distinction is unimportant.


The basic object we study is the square function, s:\mathbb{R}\rightarrow \mathbb{R}, x\mapsto x^2:


All quadratics look similar to x^2. If a>0 then the quadratic has this \bigcup geometry. Otherwise it looks like y=-x^2 and has \bigcap geometry

The geometry dictates that quadratics can have either zero, one or two real roots. A root of a function is an input x such that f(x)=0. As the graph of a function is of the form y=f(x), roots are such that y=f(x)=0\Rightarrow y=0, that is where the graph cuts the x-axis. With the geometry of quadratics they can cut the x-axis no times, once (like s(x)=x^2), or twice.

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There are a number of ways of explaining why you cannot divide by zero. Here are my two favourites.

Any Set of Numbers Collapses to a Single Number

How old are you? Zero years old.

How tall are you? Zero metres old.

How many teeth do you have? Zero.

How many Superbowls has Tom Brady won? Zero

Yep, if you allow division by zero you only end up with one number to measure everything with.

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Arguably, the three central concepts in the theory of differential calculus are that of a function, that of a tangent and that of a limit. Here we introduce functions and tangents.


When looking at differential calculus, two good ways to think about functions are via algebraic geometry and interdependent variables. Neither give the proper, abstract, definition of a function, but both give a nice way of thinking about them.

Algebraic Geometry Approach

Let us set up the plane, \Pi. We choose a distinguished point called the origin and a distinguished direction which we call ‘positive x‘. Draw a line through the origin in the direction of positive x. This is the x-axis. Choose a unit distance for the x-direction.

Now, perpendicular to the x-axis, draw a line through the origin. This is the y-axis. By convention positive y is anti-clockwise of positive x. Choose a unit distance for the y-direction.

This is the plane, \Pi:


Now points on the plane can be associated with a pair of numbers (a,b). For example, the point a distance one along the positive x and five along the negative y can be denoted by the coordinates (1,-5):


Similarly, I can take a pair of numbers, say (-1,3), and this corresponds to a point on the plane.

This gives a duality:

points on the plane \Leftrightarrow pairs of numbers

Now consider the completely algebraic objects


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This post follows on from this post where the logic for the below is discussed. I am not going to define here what easy means!

Here is the strategy/guiding principle:

Fundamental Principle of Solving ‘Easy’ Equations

Identify what is difficult or troublesome about the equation and get rid of it. As long as you do the same thing to both numbers (the “Lhs” and the “Rhs”), the equation will be replaced by a simpler equation with the same solution.

Read the rest of this entry »

There is a right way to think about equations and there is a wrong way to think about equations. Let us not speak of the wrong way…

The equations I have in mind are those equations written in the form


where the aim is to find all the real numbers x that ‘satisfy’ the equation.

We aren’t always taught the logic behind solving equations. The first thing to say is that many of us are trained to believe that this ‘=‘ means the ‘the answer is’. This is not what equals means. This may have happened to us because while young children our textbooks had stuff like


written in them… the ‘answer’ of course being eight and the = sign almost suggests that we have to ‘do something’ to 2+6. Of course, this is not what equals means, and while the pupil who writes


is correct, the pupil who writes e.g.


has written a statement just as true as 2+6=8.

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In Ireland at least, we first encounter fractions at age 6-8. At this age, because of our maturity, while we might be capable of some conceptional understanding, by and large we are doing things by rote and, for example, multiplying fractions is just something that we do without ever questioning why fractions multiply together like that. This piece is aimed at second and third level students who want to understand why the ‘calculus’ of fractions is like it is.

Mathematicians can in a rigorous way, write down what a fraction is… this piece is pitched somewhere in between these constructions — perhaps seen in an undergraduate mathematics degree — and the presentation of fractions presented in primary school. It is closer in spirit to a rigorous approach but makes no claims at absolute rigour (indeed it will make no attempt at rigour in places). The facts are real number axioms.

Defining Fractions

We will define fractions in terms of integers and multiplication.

To get the integers we first define the natural numbers.

Definition 1: Natural Numbers

The set of natural numbers is the set of counting numbers


together with the operations of addition (+) and multiplication \times.

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TL;DR: The margin of error gets smaller with the proportion: the given margin of error is most relevant the closer to 50% the support.

Warning: I am taking the polls to be of the form

Will you vote for party X: yes or no?

There is more than a little confusion about the margin of error in political polling amongst the Irish political commentators.

Polls frequently come with margins of error such as “3%” and if a small party polls less than this some people comment that the real support could be zero.

In this piece, I will present a new way of interpreting low poll numbers, show how it is derived, further explain where the approximate 3% figure comes from and show what the calculation should be for mid-ranking proportions.

The main point is that none of these margins of error are accurate for small proportions.

For those who don’t like the mathematics of it all I will explain in a softer way why polling at 1-2% is very unlikely when your true support is 0.5%.

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The reality of the situation is that a far greater proportion than 5.2% of Leaving Cert students sitting Higher Level maths are presenting work that should confer less than 40% on their exam and those in the system know that the marking scheme receives a thorough massaging in order to get 94.8% of this cohort through.

A number of students are simply not allowed fail because failing 8-20+% of those sitting would be a political and logistical nightmare.

The final result of this fear of failing students, is the dumbing down of Higher Level maths and this is good for nobody.

I feel a solution to this is to do away with the pass/fail regime for maths: keep LC points for grades above 40% but mark the papers properly. This would effectively do away with the requirement for a pass in maths for third level courses, save for those such as engineering and science who want students with certain grades.

This will allow students take on Higher Level maths in good faith with the knowledge that if they do get less than 40%, it will not be a total disaster and they will still be able to attend a third level institution.

There is still a cut off in that 35% would confer 0 points and 40% would confer 70 points but this cut-off already exists (in theory!) but it is the failing not the lack of points that is somehow forcing the Department of Education to pass these students who really should be failing.

We should keep the bonus points for higher level maths because we should want our pupils to have good maths skills for the smart economy. However, at the moment, the stick of failing is proving to have more impact than the carrot of the 25 extra points.

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