Inductive Proofs, Constructive Understanding

I remember when I first learned that advertisers will often use glue instead of milk in breakfast cereal commercials. The whole thing blew my mind. Initially, I felt confused. Why would they do something like that? Of course, because glue looks more like what people expect milk to look like than milk does [on camera]. Even after my personal revelation, I still felt confused. Except now my confusion came from within: why had I assumed that things on TV were what they looked like? Even now, I still feel a little uncomfortable thinking about it.

Again in the the seventh grade, another discovery left me feeling the same way: the infinitely repeating decimal 0.999··· is the same as the whole number one (1). I know that this must be true; my math teacher Mr. Heleen proved it to us. First, let’s hide the infinite string of 9s under a clean variable name, say x. Then we can distract ourselves long enough to arrive at a meaningful conclusion. Here’s what Mr. Heleen did:

10x = 9.999···
—x = —0.999···

Subtract the two lines (something that is hard to do in HTML) and you’ll get

9x = 9,

Or, as I claimed earlier, that x = 1. Even now, I find that fact a little bit mysterious. And this is one of my central problems with algebraic methods in general. They’ll tell you that a statement is true, but they seldom lend themselves to obvious readings of just why a statement is true.

In fact, this reminds me of a frequent difference between inductive proofs and constructive proofs: inductive proofs often accompany theorems which speak only about existence—what you’re looking is out there, the proof guarantees it, but you have no idea where; constructive proofs, on the other hand, actually give you what you looking for. Constructive proofs are usually more useful than inductive proofs because they automatically satisfy existence by virtue of demonstration. (Imagine what economists would do with a constructive proof of the Brouwer fixed point theorem; and I’d understand Sard’s lemma a lot better if the proof I learned didn’t rely so heavily on induction.)

So, is it any wonder that I gravitated toward geometry over algebra in college? Geometers use inductive arguments, too, to be sure. However, problems are usually cast in ways that are about as tangible as mathematical problem can be. Some of them even have straight-forward physical interpretations. It’s not (too) hard to imagine that soap bubbles could represent minimal surfaces, for example. However, what does a Dedekind domain look like? (If you can help me visualize a Dedekind domain, I’d be very grateful. Had you helped me three years ago when I was taking algebra, I’d’ve been even more grateful.) Like I said, algebra is hard.

But let’s get back to our infinitely repeating decimal. Why should it be the same thing as one? Well, I suppose we should ask, what is the number one? There are lots of answers—many of them correct. In this case, one is particularly useful: the number one is a label for a point on the number line.

The decimal 0.999… is also a label. But then again it’s so much more. Both 1 and 0.999··· are directions to the points that they label. How convenient! Here’s how you read the roadmap embedded in every decimal. First you need to arbitrarily pick a point called zero. That’s up to you. Next you need to pick another point that’s a unit length away from zero. This choice is also arbitrary. In the metric system you might use centimeters. In the English system, the unit you pick might be feet. If we were measuring something large, maybe you’d choose lightyears. What you choose is really a matter of convenience.

Now the fun part comes in. The first digit d after the decimal tells you to chop up the unit length into 10 smaller pieces of equal length. This smaller distance (1/10) will become the unit you use in the next step. Then you go to walk to the d-th piece. In this case, we chop up the length 1 into 10 equal pieces and walk to the ninth piece.

In the second stage, you chop up our new unit (1/10) into 10 smaller pieces of equal length. That smaller length becomes our new unit (1/100) for the next iteration, so remember it for later. Now walk over to the piece that the second digit in the decimal tells us to go to. In the third stage, we repeat the process, always taking tinier and tinier steps. For an infinitely repeating decimal we have to take an infinite number of steps to get the point the directions describe. Eventually, the steps we take will be so small that for all practical purposes we stop. This is the idea behind a limit point.

Of course I haven’t been terribly rigorous. That’s where the algebra comes in. We already proved that 1 = 0.999··· above, but the geometry is where the understanding is, at least for me. Ideally, I would’ve had some pictures in this post—but modern technology is years behind pencil and paper. But kindergarteners can draw; more importantly they can walk. Maybe limit points aren’t especially useful in most kindergarten curricula, but I think that this shows that they probably have a fair shot at understanding the concepts. And maybe now I can put this demon 0.999··· to rest.

p.s.—Wikipedia also has an entry on 0.999··· with more pictures and deeper, more confusing jargon.

p.p.s.—Now I really need to write up something about infinity. After all, 0.999··· has an infinite number of 9s in it. What does that even mean?

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