Mathochism: Imaginary numbers

One woman’s attempt to revisit the math that plagued her in school. But can determination make up for 25 years of math neglect?

Last night, the Brofessor introduced us to imaginary numbers.

Apart from being relieved to finally learn something new, I must confess I find them intriguing. This is in large part because math has always seemed to me completely devoid of imagination. I realize that sounds unfair, and that I’m still at a very nuts-and-bolts part of the process. I also realize that, should I study math past calculus, I would likely enter the more mystical realms where mathematicians and theologians finally meet.

But in the meantime, I’m still dealing with the disappointment of finding out that, were I ever to travel across the universe at light speed, math has proven that none of my loved ones would be alive when I got back. (Damn you, relativity! I want to live in a “Star Trek: TNG” universe where dilithium crystals help me warp space! And if Capt. Picard is with me, so much the better!)

Anyway, apart from the fact that imaginary numbers allow me to do cool things like take the square root of negative four, I like that they’ve been so controversial. Mathematicians have been bickering about them for millennia, all the way back to Pythagoras, who flipped them the bird, to Rene Descartes, who gave them their name but refused to use them.

I had a bit of an Ada Lovelace moment with Descartes. Well, unlike Lovelace, I was actually familiar with him, but I knew more about his philosopher side than his mathematician side. You know, that whole “I think therefore I am” thing. I did know he was a scientist, but only so far to know that his theories about the pineal gland meant that he thought animals couldn’t feel pain, which meant he had no trouble cutting up animals alive. Charming, huh?

Being Swedish, I also knew he died in my country while tutoring Queen Kristina, and that he was buried with little fanfare because he was Catholic. And that the French had a heck of a time getting his remains back from the Swedes (who may have been pissed because Descartes influenced Kristina to abdicate and convert to Catholicism). And even that, for the longest time, his skull was missing (though that may be apocryphal).

Yep, I knew all those things about Descartes, yet I never made the connection between him and Cartesian lines. The people-focused journalist rears its head again!

But back to imaginary numbers, it is interesting that they come in so useful, especially when it comes to computing. I probably wouldn’t be blogging if it weren’t for imaginary numbers. Huh. Now there’s something that appeals to my imagination.

All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.



  • Hi, found your site from Shakesville and started going through your archives because I enjoy your writing. Imaginary numbers rock! I read a really excellent book on them that you might enjoy, I think it was called How to think about numbers, particularly the square root of -13.

  • Thanks! I’ll have to find that! Square root of -13 — now there’s a head-scratcher.