Negative x Negative = Positive? Concrete Illustrations

One of the more common questions we’ve been asked is, How can the product of two negative numbers be positive? Between this post and the next, I’ll put together many of the answers we have given, starting here with examples from the “real world” (gradually getting more abstract), and next time we’ll look at proofs. …

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How Real Are Negative Numbers?

This week we’ll look at some Ask Dr. Math questions like, “How can a number be less than zero?” and “Why do we need negative numbers?” We’ll see a number of examples of their use, and how negative numbers make life easier.

Two Sinusoidal Models

(A new question of the week) Two recent questions involved using trigonometric functions to model real-life (or nearly so) situations, one about breathing, the other about a Ferris wheel. Both can be done by writing a sinusoidal function; the second can be done in other interesting ways as well.

A Random Walk on a Graph

(A new question of the week) It seems that most of the interesting questions recently have been about relatively advanced topics, though commonly in introductory classes. Here, we’ll help a student think through a problem introducing the idea of a random walk on a graph. (“Graph” here doesn’t mean the graph of an equation, which …

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Dividing Fractions: Can You Picture It?

We’ve looked at what it means to multiply fractions, including whole and mixed numbers; now it’s time for division of fractions. We’ll start here with pictures, similar to what we did for multiplication, but a little more complicated. Then next time, we’ll see additional ways to understand why we “invert and multiply”.

Stars and Bars: Counting Ways to Distribute Items

We have been looking at ways to count possibilities (combinatorics), including a couple ways to model a problem using blanks to fill in. Today, we’ll consider a special model called Stars and Bars, which can be particularly useful in certain problems, and yields a couple useful formulas. (I only remember the method, not the formulas.) …

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A Fermi Problem

(An archive problem of the week) A couple weeks ago, in discussing the value of estimates, I included one example of a (very simple) Fermi problem: one in which it is necessary to invent the data as well as the method of solution. Today, I will examine one answer in which we dug deeper into …

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Averaging Angles

(Archive Question of the Week) An interesting question that has been referred to many times since it was written in 1999 deals with averaging angles. At first the question seems trivial; then almost impossible; and then we end up with a rather simple formula that is totally unlike what we started with. And further applications …

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