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The words of Mr Michael Twomey, physics teacher, in Coláiste an Spioraid Naoimh, I can still hear them.

There were two main reasons to produce this straight-line-graph-through-the-origin:

  • to measure some quantity (e.g. acceleration due to gravity, speed of sound, etc.)
  • to demonstrate some law of nature (e.g. Newton’s Second Law, Ohm’s Law, etc.)

We were correct to draw this straight-line-graph-through-the origin for measurement, but not always, perhaps, in my opinion, for the demonstration of laws of nature.

The purpose of this piece is to explore this in detail.

Direct Proportion

Two variables P and Q are in direct proportion when there is some (real number) constant k such that P=k\cdot Q.

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Occasionally, it might be useful to do as the title here suggests.

Two examples that spring to mind include:

  • solving a\cdot\cos\theta\pm b\cdot\sin\theta=c for \theta (relative velocity example with - below)
  • maximising a\cdot\cos\theta\pm b\cdot\sin\theta without the use of calculus

a\cdot \cos\theta- b\cdot\sin\theta

Note first of all the similarity between:

\displaystyle a\cdot \cos\theta-b\cdot \sin \theta\sim \sin\phi\cos\theta-\cos\phi\sin\theta.

This identity is in the Department of Education formula booklet.

The only problem is that a and b are not necessarily sines and cosines respectively. Consider them, however, as opposites and adjacents to an angle in a right-angled-triangle as shown:


Using Pythagoras Theorem, the hypotenuse is \sqrt{a^2+b^2} and so if we multiply our expression by \displaystyle \frac{\sqrt{a^2+b^2}}{\sqrt{a^2+b^2}} then we have something:

\displaystyle \frac{\sqrt{a^2+b^2}}{\sqrt{a^2+b^2}}\cdot \left(a\cdot \cos\theta- b\cdot\sin\theta\right)

\displaystyle=\sqrt{a^2+b^2}\cdot \left(\frac{a}{\sqrt{a^2+b^2}}\cos\theta-\frac{b}{\sqrt{a^2+b^2}}\sin\theta\right)

=\sqrt{a^2+b^2}\cdot \left(\sin\phi\cos\theta-\cos\phi\sin\theta\right)=\sqrt{a^2+b^2}\sin(\phi-\theta).

Similarly, we have

a\cdot\cos\theta+b\cdot \sin\theta=\sqrt{a^2+b^2}\sin(\phi+\theta),

where \displaystyle\sin\phi=\frac{a}{\sqrt{a^2+b^2}}.

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In school, we learn how a line has an equation… and a circle has an equation… what does this mean?

The short answer is

points (x_0,y_0) on curve \longleftrightarrow solutions (x_0,y_0) of equation

however this note explains all of this from first principles, with a particular emphasis on the set-theoretic fundamentals.

Set Theory

set is a collection of objects. The objects of a set are referred to as the elements or members and if we can list the elements we include them in curly-brackets. For example, call by S the set of whole numbers (strictly) between two and nine. This set is denoted by


We indicate that an object x is an element of a set X by writing x\in X, said, x in X or x is an element of X. We use the symbol \not\in to indicate non-membership. For example, 2\not\in S.

Elements are not duplicated and the order doesn’t matter. For example:


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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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