Absurd Numbers

This is too long to fit on twitter but I like it too much to forget about it. The word absurd was actually first used to describe irrational numbers.

I’m working my way through a book on all the people that helped or solved problems on David Hilbert’s famous list of 23 great math problems.

Many times a solution only presents itself after cultural change. One of the cultural norms that had to be updated to push math forward was the idea that irrational numbers are actually useful.

There was a time when irrational numbers were avoided by mathematicians. This disdain was so strong that the word “absurd” was created to describe how useless people believed irrationals to be. From Yandell’s book:

An irrational square root was called a “surd,” meaning deaf, silent (expressing the attitude toward it). The word “absurd” was first used in English in 1557, according to Oxford English Dictionary, for the purpose of pronouncing the number 8 - 12 (or -4) absurd.

It’s clear to us now how important the absurd numbers are for solving real problems. But for a while math stood still while the culture had to catch up.

Last modified on 2008-06-24