The History of Calculus / Honor Your Dissatisfaction Saturday, May 21 2016 

I was just rereading an email exchange with a friend (actually the O of this post), and found that I had summarized the history of calculus from the 17th to 20th centuries, up through and including Abraham Robinson’s invention of nonstandard analysis, in the form of a short play! I’m sharing it with you.

Mainly this is for fun, but it’s also part of my ongoing campaign promoting the value of honoring your dissatisfaction. The dialectic between honoring our impulse to invent ideas to understand the world better and honoring our dissatisfaction with these ideas is where mathematics comes from.

Here’s the play!

The History of Calculus, in 4 Extremely Short Acts

Featuring a lot of oversimplification and a certain amount of harmless cursing

Act I

Late 17th century

Leibniz, Newton: Look everybody, we can calculate instantaeous speed!

Everybody: How??

Leibniz: well, you consider the distance traveled during an infinitesimal interval of time, and you divide distance/time.

Everybody: Leibniz, what do you mean, “infinitesimal”? Like, a millisecond?

Leibniz: No, way smaller than that.

Everybody: A nanosecond?

Leibniz: Nah, dude, you’re missing the point. Smaller than any finite amount.

Everybody: So, zero time?

Leibniz: No, bigger than that.

Some people: Oh, cool! Look we can use this idea to accurately calculate planetary motion and stuff!

Other people: WTF are you talking about Leibniz? That makes no effing sense.

Act II

18th century

Bernoullis, Euler, Lagrange, Laplace, and everybody else: Whee, look at everything we can calculate with Newton and Leibniz’s crazy infinitesimals! This is awesome!

Bishop George Berkeley: But nobody answered the question of WTF they are even talking about. “What are these [infinitesimals]? May we not call them the ghosts of departed quantities?”

Lagrange: Hold on, let me try to rebuild this theory from scratch, I will make no mention of spooky infinitesimals, and will do the whole thing using the algebra of power series.

Everybody: Cool, good luck with that.

Act III

19th century

Cauchy: Lagrange, homie, it’s not gonna work. e^{-1/x^2} doesn’t match its power series at zero.

Lagrange: Sh*t.

Everybody: I think we don’t actually understand this as well as we thought we did.

Ghost of departed Bishop Berkeley: OMG I HAVE BEEN TRYING TO TELL YOU THIS.

Cauchy: How about we forget the whole “infinitesimal” thing and just say that the average speeds are approaching a certain limit to whatever desired degree of accuracy. As long as we can identify the limit and prove that it gets as close as we want it to, we can call that limit the “instantaneous speed” without ever trying to divide some spooky infinitesimals by each other.

Everybody: Awesome.

Weierstrass: I have an even better idea. Let’s formalize Cauchy’s thinking into some tight symbols and quantifiers. “Let us say that the limit of a function f(x) at c is a number L if for every \varepsilon > 0 there exists a \delta > 0 such that whenever 0 <|x-c|<\delta, it follows that |f(x)-L|<\varepsilon…”

All the mathematicians: AWESOME. Down with spooky infinitesimals! Calculus can be built soundly on the firm footing of “for any \varepsilon>0 there exists a \delta>0 such that…” and you never have to talk about any spooky sh*t!

All the mathematicians, in private: … but thinking about infinitesimals sure streamlines some of these calculations…

[Meanwhile all the physicists and engineers miss this whole episode and continue blithely using infinitesimals.]

Act IV

20th century

Scene i

Mathematicians: Infinitesimals are satanic voodoo!

Physicists and engineers: What are you talking about, what about CALCULUS?

Mathematicians: Whatever dude, don’t you know about Weierstrass and \varepsilon and \delta?

Physicists and engineers: Um, no, and I don’t care either! What’s the point when everything already works fine?

Mathematicians, in public: No, dude, there are all these tricky convergence issues and you will F*CK UP EVERYTHING IF YOU’RE NOT CAREFUL!

Mathematicians, in private: … but those infinitesimals are indispensible as a heuristic guide…

Scene ii

Abraham Robinson: Um, whatever happened to infinitesimals?

Mathematicians: I mean we rejected them as satanic voodoo because nobody was ever able to tell us WTF THEY ARE.

Robinson: I have a proposal. How about we consider them to be [fancy-*ss definition based on formal logic and other fancy sh*t]. Would you say that constitutes an answer to “wtf they are?”

Mathematicians: … why, yes!

Some mathematicians: omg awesome I can now RESPECTABLY use infinitesimals in calculations, I don’t have to hide anymore!

Other mathematicians: Whatever, I have no need to do the work to master this fancy sh*t. It doesn’t do anything good ole’ Weierstrass \varepsilon and \delta couldn’t do.

Physicists and engineers: wow, you guys are way over-concerned with the little stuff. Literally.

End

(Long-time readers of this blog will recognize the bit of dialogue with Leibniz from something I shared long ago.)

The point is that the whole episode is driven by uncertainty about what is even being discussed. The early developers of calculus shared the conviction that there was something there when they talked about “infinitesimals”, but none of them (not even Euler) gave a definition that was satisfying to everybody at the time (let alone to a modern audience). But this encounter, between the intuition that there’s something there and the insistence of the world to honor its dissatisfaction until a really satisfying account was given, was a generative encounter, resulting in several hundred years’ worth of powerful math progress.

So. Honor your dissatisfaction.

Over the Course of an Instant… Friday, Oct 15 2010 

As you may recall, I’m teaching analysis to this class of teachers, developing the \epsilon\delta limit. Two weeks ago I bewildered everybody. Last week and this week, I set out to bewilder everyone even further.

Let me say what I’m going for here. The \epsilon\delta limit is a notoriously difficult definition.1 How to scaffold my class to handle this difficulty? I am banking on the following strategy: make them need the definition. Make them unsatisfied with anything less. Continue poking holes in their current understanding, continue showing them inconsistencies between what they believe and the language they have to describe it, till they have no choice but to try to build something new. Then, let them try to build it. If they build the very thing I’m going for, rejoice. If they build something equally precise and powerful, rejoice. If they cannot build either (the most likely outcome, since the “right answer” took the world mathematical community 150 years to come up with), then it will still make powerful sense to them because it satisfactorily answers a question they were already engaged in trying to answer. That’s the plan anyway.

I will leave you with the two problem sets from the last class, and the readings and presentation from this one. I am very proud of the presentation. After that, I’ll write down one new thought for where to take this.

We engaged people’s attempts to define infinite decimals from the previous class, then abruptly shifted topics:

I let them work long enough so everyone got to do the first section of problems. My goals were:

1) Make participants recognize that they believe the speed of a moving object is something that exists in a particular moment of time.
2) Make them recognize that their naive definition of speed (distance / time) doesn’t actually handle this case.
3) Realize that we thus have a similar definitional problem as with repeating decimals.

We got this far. Then, with just 7 or so minutes left, I gave them another problem set:2

This problem set was designed to get somebody who has never studied calculus basically to take a simple derivative, to bring them into the conversation, and to refresh everyone else’s memory about the basic idea of derivatives. The last problem was on there just so that the calculus folks had a challenge available if they wanted it. Anyway, I had people finish the “Algebra Calisthenics” and “Speed” sections for homework.

This class, we began by engaging this homework, getting a feel for the standard calculus computation in which you identify the speed of an object in a moment as the value toward which average speeds seem to be headed as you look at smaller and smaller intervals. Then we began to press on what this really means.

I handed out a xerox of the scholium from the end of the first section of Book 1 of Newton’s Principia. (The last page of this pdf.) This is where Newton tries to explain what the hell he’s even talking about. I directed their attention to this telling sentence:

An in like manner, by the ultimate ratio of evanescent quantities is to be understood the ratio of the quantities, not before they vanish, nor afterwards, but with which they vanish.

Then, I showed them the following presentation. Wanting to share this with you is the real reason for this blog post. I had a lot of fun making it.

What’sCalculusReallyDoing (as pdf)

What’sCalculusReallyDoing (as powerpoint)

Then I passed out a choice excerpt from the awesome criticism of early calculus by Bishop George Berkeley. (Specif, section XIV.)

I asked for the connection between the definitional problem we have here and the definitional problem we had 2 classes ago regarding infinite decimals. (“They both involve getting closer and closer to something but never getting there.”) Then I asked them to try to come up with definitions to address these problems.

This is such a non-sequitur but here’s my one additional thought. I’ve been thinking about how to push participants to recognize a definition as unsatisfying. Tonight, reading Judith Grabiner’s 1983 essay in the AMM about Cauchy and the origins of the \epsilon\delta limit (here it is as a pdf), I had an idea that is totally new to me. Retrospectively I think it’s sort of obvious, but I totally never thought of it before:

To get people to recognize that a definition is mathematically inadequate, have them try to use the definition, for example to prove something! In my case, all of them think that 1/3 = 0.333… Great. So, if we have a candidate definition of the meaning of limits or convergence, can we use it to prove 1/3 = 0.333…? If not, maybe we need a better definition.

(I had this idea when I read Grabiner’s statement that thought Cauchy gave the definition of the limit purely verbally and a bit vaguely, he translated it into the more rigorous language of inequalities when he actually started using it to prove theorems.)

[1] This is for at least 2 distinct (though related reasons): first of all, it’s got three nested quantifiers. “For all \epsilon>0, there exists a \delta>0, such that for all x satisfying …” That just makes it inherently confusing. Secondly, it does not in any way psychologically resemble the intuitive image it is intended to capture. This is the definition of the limit. When I think of limits I have these beautiful visual images of little points getting closer to something. When I try to identify a limit, I just imagine the thing that they’re getting closer to. That’s the whole story. When I try to get rigorous, I replace this beautiful and simple image with three nested quantifiers. Yuck.

[2] You will notice some interconnections in the sequence of problems. After a few good experiences with this last year and then hearing how much fun everyone had at PCMI, I am beginning to feel like these sequences of densely but subtly interconnected problems are really, really awesome. Constructing them is a deep art and I am a tiny apprentice. But you can get started humbly and still see payoff: it was certainly a cool moment today in class when we went over these problems and a number of folks who had done out Speed problems #1-3 “the long way” realized that they could have applied their answer to Algebra Calisthenics #2 to do these three problems in moments in their heads.

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