Why

Compass and Straightedge: Why?

Some time ago I looked at questions about trisecting an angle by compass and straightedge, which entailed discussing the rules for such constructions. We left open another common question: Why are such constructions important, and why do we use those particular tools? This probably isn’t explained as often as it should be. Why does it …

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L’Hôpital’s Rule: What and Why

The next few posts will look at a powerful technique for finding limits in calculus, called L’Hôpital’s Rule. Here, we’ll introduce what it is, and why it works. In the next post we’ll examine some harder cases. Indeterminate forms The method we will be discussing is used to find limits that have an indeterminate form. …

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Significant Digits: Operations

Last time, we introduced what we mean by significant digits (or figures), and touched on why they are defined as they are. Here we will look at how significant digits and decimal places differ, and how they are affected by operations (primarily addition and multiplication). This is another aspect of why they are defined at …

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Shifting and Stretching Graphs

A common topic in algebra courses is how to transform functions and their graphs. In the series starting today, we’ll start with the basics of how and why a graph is moved or stretched, then combine transformations and look at various special cases and other transformations, ending up with graphing trigonometric functions. Translating (shifting) a …

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Zero Divided By Zero: Undefined and Indeterminate

Back in January, I discussed the issue of division by zero. There is a special case of that that causes even more trouble, in every field from arithmetic to calculus: zero divided by zero. I’ll look at several typical questions that we answered at different levels. Conflicting rules for division? Let’s start here: Zero Laws …

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What’s the Point of Limits?

(An archive question of the week) Many calculus courses start out with a chapter on limits; or they may be introduced in a “precalculus” course. But too often the concept is not sufficiently motivated. What good are limits? Why did they have to be invented? Are they as simple as they seem? Why is an epsilon-delta …

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