Tag Archives: power


I have rewritten the entry to “power” in the abstractmath.org Glossary:


Here are three variant phrases that say that $125=5^3$:

  • “$125$ is a power of $5$ with exponent $3$”.
  • “$125$ is the third power of $5$”.
  • “$125$ is $5$ to the third power”.

Some students are confused by such statements, and conclude that $3$ is the “power”. This usage appears in print in Wikipedia in its entry on Exponentiation (as it was on 22 November 2016):

“…$b^n$ is the product of multiplying $n$ bases:

\[b^n = \underbrace{b \times \cdots \times b}_n\]

In that case, $b^n$ is called the $n$-th power of $b$, or $b$ raised to the power $n$.”

As a result, students (and many mathematicians) refer to $n$ as the “power” in any expression of the form “$a^n$”. The number $n$ should be called the “exponent”. The word “power” should refer only to the result $a^n$. I know mathematical terminology is pretty chaotic, but it is silly to refer both to $n$ and to $a^n$ as the “power”.

Almost as silly as using $(a,b)$ to refer to an open interval, an ordered pair and the GCD. (See The notation $(a,b)$.)

Suggestion for lexicographical research: How widespread does referring to $n$ as the “power” come up in math textbooks or papers? (See usage.)

Thanks to Tomaz Cedilnik for comments on the first version of this entry.

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Visible algebra II

The interactive examples in this post require installing Wolfram CDF player, which is free and works on most desktop computers using Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer, but not Chrome. The source code is the Mathematica Notebook Wolfram website. The code for the demos is in the Mathematica notebook algebra2.nb, which is available for free use under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License. The notebook can be read by CDF Player if you cannot make the embedded versions in this post work.

More about visible algebra

I have written about visible algebra in previous posts (see References). My ideas about the interface are constantly changing. Some new ideas are described here.

In the first place I want to make it clear that what I am showing in these posts is a simulation of a possible visual algebra system.  I have not constructed any part of the system; these posts only show something about what the interface will look like.  My practice in the last few years is to throw out ideas, not construct completed documents or programs.  (I am not saying how long I will continue to do this.)  All these posts, Mathematica programs and abstractmath.org are available to reuse under a Creative Commons license.

Commutative and associative operations

Times and Plus are commutative and associative operations.  They are usually defined as binary operations.  A binary operation $*$ is said to be commutative if for all $x$ and $y$ in the underlying set of the operation, $x*y=y*x$, and it is associative if for all $x$,$y$ and $z$ in the underlying set of the operation, $(x*y)*z=x*(y*z)$. 

It is far better to define a commutative and associative operation $*$ on some underlying set $S$ as an operation on any multiset of elements of $S$.  A multiset is like a set, in particular elements can be rearranged in any way, but it is not like a set in that elements can be repeated and a different number of repetitions of an element makes a different multiset.  So for any particular multiset, the number of repetitions of each element is fixed.  Thus $\{a,a,b,b,c\} = \{c,b,a,b,a\}$ but $\{a,a,b,b,c\}\neq\{c,b,a,b,c\}$. This means that the function (operation) Plus, for example, is defined on any multiset of numbers, and \[\mathbf{Plus}\{a,a,b,b,c\}=\mathbf{Plus} \{c,b,a,b,a\}\] but $\mathbf{Plus}\{a,a,b,b,c\}$ might not be equal to $\mathbf{Plus} \{c,b,a,b,c\}$.

This way of defining (any) associative and commutative operation comes from the theory of monads.  An operation defined on all the multisets drawn from a particular set is necessarily commutative and associative if it satisfies some basic monad identities, the main one being it commutes with union of multisets (which is defined in the way you would expect, and if this irritates you, read the Wikipedia article on multisets.). You don't have to impose any conditions specifically referring to commutativity or associativity.  I expect to write further about monads in a later post. 

The input process for a visible algebra system should allow the full strength of this fact. You can attach as many inputs as you want to Times or Plus and you can move them around.  For example, you can click on any input and move it to a different place in the following demo.

Other input notations might be suitable for different purposes.  The example below shows how the inputs can be placed randomly in two dimensions (but preserving multiplicity).  I experimented with making it show the variables slowly moving around inside the circle the way the fish do in that screensaver (which mesmerizes small children, by the way — never mind what it does to me), but I haven't yet made it work.

A visible algebra system might well allow directly input tables to be added up (or multiplied), like the one below. Spreadsheets have such an operation In particular, the spreadsheet operation does not insist that you apply it only as a binary operation to columns with two entries.  By far the most natural way to define addition of numbers is as an operation on multisets of numbers.

Other operations

Operations that are associative but not commutative, such as matrix multiplication, can be defined the monad way as operations on finite lists (or tuples or vectors) of numbers.  The operation is automatically associative if you require it to preserve concatenation of lists and some other monad requirements.

Some binary operations are neither commutative nor associative.  Two such operations on numbers are Subtract and Power.  Such operations are truly binary operations; there is no obvious way to apply them to other structures.  They are only binary because the two inputs have different roles.  This suggests that the inputs be given names, as in the examples below.

Later, I will write more about simplifying trees, solving the max area problem for rectangles surmounted by semicircles, and other things concerning this system of doing algebra.


Previous posts about visible algebra

Other references


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Visible algebra I supplement

The interactive examples in this post require installing Wolfram CDF player, which is free and works on most desktop computers using Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer, but not Chrome. The source code is the Mathematica Notebook algebra1.nb, which is available for free use under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License. The notebook can be read by CDF Player if you cannot make the embedded versions in this post work.

Active calculation of area

In my previous post Visible algebra I constructed a computation tree for calculating the area of a window consisting of a rectangle surmounted by a semicircle. The visual algebra system described there constructs a computation by selecting operations and attaching them to a tree, which can then be used to calculate the area of the window. 

I promised to produce a live computation tree later; it is below.

Press the buttons from left to right to simulate the computation that would take place in a genuine algebra system.  Note that if you skip button 2 you get the effect of parallel computation (the only place in the calculation that can be parallelized).

In Visual Algebra I the tree was put together step by step by reasoning out how you would calculate the area of the window: (1) the area is the sum of the areas of the semidisk and the rectangle, (2) the rectangle is width times height, (3) the semidisk has half the area of a disk of radius half the width of the rectangle, and so on.  So the resulting tree is a transparent construction that lets you see the reasoning that created it.  

The resulting tree could obviously be simplified.  But if you were designing a few such windows, why should you simplify it?  You certainly don't need to simplify it to speed up the computation.  On the other hand, if you are going on to solve the problem of finding the maximum area you can get if the perimeter is fixed, you will have to do some algebraic manipulation and so you do want a simplified expression.    

Later, I will write more about simplifying trees, solving the max area problem, and other things concerning this system of doing algebra.


What I am showing in these posts is a simulation of a possible visible algebra system.  I have not constructed any part of the system; these posts only show something about what the interface will look like.  My practice in the last few years is to throw out ideas, not construct completed documents or programs.  (I am not saying how long I will continue to do this.)  All these posts, Mathematica programs and abstractmath.org are available to reuse under a Creative Commons license.

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Semantics of algebra I

Note: This post uses MathJax. If you see mathematical formulas with dollar signs around them, or badly formatted formulas, try refreshing the screen. Sometimes you have to do it two or three times.

In the post Algebra is a difficult foreign language  I listed some of the difficulties of the syntax of the symbolic language of math (which includes high school algebra and precalculus).  The semantics causes difficulties as well.  Again I will list some examples without any attempt at completeness.

The status of the symbolic language as a language

There is a sharp distinction between the symbolic language of math and mathematical English, which I have written about in The languages of math and in the Handbook of mathematical discourse. Other authors do not make this sharp distinction (see the list of references at the end of this post). The symbolic language occurs embedded in mathematical English and the embedding has its own semantics which may cause great difficulty for students.

The symbolic language of math can be described as a natural formal language. Pieces of it were invented by mathematicians and others over the course of the last several hundred years. Individual pieces (notation such as "$3x+1=2y$") can be given a strictly formal syntax, but the whole system is ambiguous, inconsistent, and context-sensitive.  When you get to the research level, it has many dialects: Research mathematicians in one field may not be able to read research articles in a very different field.


I think the examples below will make these claims plausible.  This should be the subject of deep research.

Superscripts and functions

  • A superscript, as in $5^2$ or $x^3$, has a pretty standard meaning denoting a power, at least until you get to higher level stuff such as tensors.  
  • A function can be denoted by a letter, symbol, or string, and the notation $f(x)$ refers to the value of the function at input $x$.  

For functions defined on numbers, it is common in precalculus and higher to write $f^2(x)$ to denoted $(f(x))^2=f(x)\,f(x)$.  Since the value of certain multiletter functions are commonly written without the parentheses (for example, $\sin\,x$), one writes $\sin^2x$ to mean $(\sin\,x)^2$.

The notation $f^n$ is also widely used to mean the $n$th iterate of $f$ (if it exists), so $f^3(x)=f(f(f(x)))$ and so on.  This leads naturally to writing $f^{-1}(x)$ for the inverse function of $f$; this is common notation whether the function $f$ is bijective or not (in which case $f^{-1}$ is set-valued).  Thus $\sin^{-1}x$ means $\arcsin\,x$.

It is notorious that words in mathematical English have different meanings in different texts.  This is an example in the symbolic language (and not just at the research level) of a systematic construction that can give expressions that have ambiguous meanings.

This phenomenon is an example of why I say the symbolic language of math is a natural formal language: I have described a natural extension of notation used with multiplication of values that has been extended to being used for the binary operation of composition.  And that leads to students thinking that $\sin^{-1}x$ means $\frac{1}{\sin\,x}$. 

History can overtake notation, too: Mathematicians probably took to writing $\sin\,x$ instead of $\sin(x)$ because it saves writing.  That was not very misleading in the old days when mathematical variables were always single symbols.  But students see multiletter variable names all the time these days (in programming languages, Excel and elsewhere), so of course some of them think $\sin\,x$ means $\sin$ times $x$. People who do this are not idiots.


Juxtaposition of two symbols means many different things.

  • If $m$ and $n$ are numbers, $mn$ denotes the product of the two numbers.
    • Multiplication is commutative, so $mn$ and $nm$ denote the same number, but they correspond to different calculations.  
  • If $M$ and $N$ are matrices, $MN$ denotes the matrix product of the two matrices.
    • This is a binary operation but it is not the same operation denoted by juxtaposition of numbers. (In fact it involves both addition and multiplication of numbers.)
    • Now $MN$ may not be the same matrix as $NM$.
  • If $A$ and $B$ are points in a geometric drawing, $AB$ denotes the line segment from $A$ to $B$.
    • This is a function of two variables denoting points whose value is a line segment.  
    • It is not what is usually called a binary operation, although as an opinionated category theorist I would call it a multisorted binary operation.
    • It is commutative, but it doesn't make sense to ask if it is associative.

This phenomenon is called overloaded notation.  

  • In order to understand the meaning of the juxtaposition of symbols, you have to know the type of the variables.
  • The surrounding text may tell you specifically the variables denote matrices or whatever. So this is an instance of context-sensitive semantics. 
    • Students tend to expect that they know what any formula means in isolation from the text.  It may make them very sad to discover that this doesn't work — once they believe it, which can take quite a while.
  • In many cases the problem is alleviated by the use of convention.
    • Matrices are usually denoted by capital letters, numbers by lower case letters.
    • But points in geometry are usually denoted by capital letters too.  So you have to know that referring to a geometric diagram is significant to understanding the notation. This is an indirect form of context-sensitivity.  Did any teacher every point this out to students?  Does it appear anywhere in print?

The earlier example of $\sin^{-1}x$ is a case which is not context-sensitive.  Knowing the types of the variables won't help.  Of course, if the author explains which meaning is meant, that explanation is within the context of the book!  That is not a lot of help for grasshoppers like me that look back and forth at different parts of a math book instead of reading it straight through..  


Consider the expressions

  1. $x^2-5x+4=0$
  2. $x^2+y^2=1$
  3. $x^2+2x+1=(x+1)^2$

They are assertions that two expressions have the same value. A strictly logical view of an equation containing variables is that it puts a constraint on the variables.  It is true of some numbers (or pairs of numbers) and false of others.  That is the defining property of an equation. Equation 1 requires that $x=1$ or $x=4$.  Equation 2 imposes a constraint which is satisfied by uncountably many pairs of real numbers, and is also not true of uncountably many pairs. But equation 3 puts no constraint on the variable.  It is true of every number $x$.

A strictly logical view of symbolic notation does math a disservice.  Here, the notion that an equation is by definition a symbolic statement that has a truth set and a falsity set may be correct but it is not the important thing about any particular equation. When we read and do math we have many different metaphors and images about a concept.  The definition of a kind of object is often in terms of things that may not be the most important things to know about it.  (One of the most important fact about groups is that it is an abstraction of symmetries, which the axioms don't mention at all.)

Equation 1. is something that would make most people set out to discover the truth set.  Equation 2. calls out for drawing its graph.  Equation 3. being an identity means that is useful in algebraic reasoning.  The images they call up are different and what you do with them is different.  The images and metaphors that cluster around a concept are an important part of the semantics of the symbolic language.

I expect to post separately about the semantics of variables and about the semantics of symbolic language embedded in mathematical English.


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Visible Algebra I

This is the first in a series of articles about how algebra could be implemented without using the standard language of algebra that so many people find difficult. The code for the graphs are in the Mathematica notebook Algebra1.nb.

An algebra problem

Suppose you are designing a window that is in the shape of a rectangle surmounted by a semicircle, shown above for the window with width 2 and rectangle height 3. 

This example occurs in a tiresomely familiar calculus problem where you put a constraint on the perimeter of the window, thus turning it into a one-variable problem, then finding the values of the width and height that give the maximum area.  In this post, I am not going to get that far.  All I will do is come up with a calculation for the area.  I will describe a way you might do it on a laptop five or ten years from now. 

You have an algebra application that shows a screen with some operations that you may select to paste into your calculation.  The ones we use are called plus, times, power, value and input. You choose a function called value, and label it "Area of window". You recognize that the answer is the sum of the areas of the rectangle and the area of the semicircle, so you choose plus and attach to it two inputs which you label "area of rectangle" and "area of semicircle", like this:


The notational metaphor is that the computation starts at the bottom and goes upward, performing the operations indicated.

You know (or are told by the system) that the area of a rectangle is the product of its width and height, so you replace the value called "area of rectangle" with a times button and attach two values called $w$ and $h$:


You also determine that the area under the semicircle is half the area of a circle of radius $r$ (where $r$ must be calculated).


You have a function for the area of a circle of radius $r$, so you attach that:

Finally, you use the fact that you know that the semicircle has a radius which is half the width of the rectangle.

Now, to make the calculation operational, you attach two inputs named "width" and "height" and feed them into the values $w$ and $h$.  When you type numbers into these buttons, the calculation will proceed upward and finally show the area of the window at the top.

In a later post I will produce a live version of this diagram.  (Added 2012-09-08: the live version is here.) Right now I want to get this post out before I leave for MathFest.  (I might even produce the live version at MathFest, depending on how boring the talks are.) 

You can see an example of a live calculation resembling this in my post A visualization of a computation in tree form.



  • This calculation might be a typical exercise for a student part way along learning basic algebra. 
  • College students and scientists and engineers would have a system with a lot more built-in functions, including some they built themselves.


  • Once you have grasped the idea that the calculation proceed upward from the inputs, carrying out the operations shown, this picture is completely self-explanatory.
    • Well, you have to know what the operations do.
    • The syntax for standard algebra is much more difficult to learn (more later about this).
  • The syntax actually used in later years may not look like mine.
    • For one thing, the flow might run top down or left to right instead of bottom up. 
    • Or something very different might be used. What works best will be discovered by using different approaches.
  • The syntax is fully two-dimensional, which makes it simple to understand (because it uses the most powerful tool our brain has: the visual system).
    • The usual algebraic code was developed because people used pencil and paper. 
    • I would guess that the usual code has fractional dimension about 1.2. 
    • The tree syntax would require too much writing with pencil and paper.  That is alleviated on a computer by using menus.
    • Once you construct the computation and input some data it evaluates automatically.
  • It may be worthwhile to use 3D syntax.  I have an experiment with this in my post Showing categorical diagrams in 3D.

Later posts will cover related topics:

  • The difficulties with standard algebraic notation.  They are not trivial.
  • Solving equations in tree form.
  • Using properties such as associativity and commutativity in tree form.
  • Using this syntax with calculus.
  • The deep connection with Lawvere theories and sketches.


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