Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Imaginary Numbers

Contrary to what some people might tell you, imaginary numbers are not numbers that only exist in the brains of weird people. Or maybe they are; all numbers in math are "imaginary" in the sense that you can't touch them or experience them directly.

But this is not what people mean when they talk about imaginary numbers. Imaginary numbers are numbers that can be written as a real number times i.

So what is a real number, and what is i?

Well, the real numbers are all the positive numbers, negative numbers, and zero. These are numbers like


So the real numbers are the numbers that you probably already know: they're the ones on the number line.

What is i? It's the square root of -1 (see footnote below). And it's NOT a real number. i was invented because people wanted to be able to take square roots of negative numbers, and you can't do that if you limit yourself to real numbers.

So we can make an imaginary number by taking a real number like 5 and multiplying it by i. That gives us 5i. Some other imaginary numbers are


Note that the square of any imaginary number (except 0) is a negative number.

Complex numbers are numbers like 7 + .4i; they're a real number plus an imaginary number.

Footnote: actually, there are TWO numbers that are the square root of -1, and those numbers are i and -i , just as there are two numbers that are the square root of 4, 2 and -2.

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