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Introduction to complex numbers

Suppose I tell you that there's a number, let's call it x, that satisfies the equation: x+3=4. Then you could reply that you know that already (and have known it for some time), and that the number is commonly known as 1. To reach this conclusion you would have used your experience with numbers to recognise that the only number that gives 4 when you add 3 to it is 1. This is all extremely obvious. The purpose of this Notebook is to give you some experience with a new sort of number, so that you can feel equally confident about dealing with them. To introduce this "new sort of number", think about this equation: x2= - 4. We know that if x2=4, then x could be 2 or it could be -2. But we also know that we can't get a negative result by squaring: if we square a positive number the result is positive, if we square a negative number the result is still positive. So we have no number that satisfies the equation x2= - 4. That's why we need this new sort of number, so that we can attach some meaning to the square root of negative numbers. This notion of introducing a new sort of number purely to give meaning to some hitherto meaningless piece of the mathematics language has been used many times before. That's how we got negative numbers, fractions and irrational numbers. These new numbers are called "imaginary" numbers. This is a bit misleading, since all numbers are abstractions existing only in the mind, but that is what they are called and we have to live with it. By combining imaginary numbers and the numbers we know already (called the "real" numbers) we can form "complex" numbers.

Complex numbers: real and imaginary parts


Here's a problem you've probably met before (or something similar). You have a quadratic equation involving a variable x, say for example x2+4x+5=0, and you want to find out what x is.

So you write down the "quadratic formula" (see the Notebook on Quadratic Equations if you're not familiar with this):

and then you write down what the constants a, b and c are in this example. We see that a=1, b=4 and c=5 in this case. Putting those into the formula we find that the quantity inside the square root is negative, in fact it's -4. In the past we have interpreted this as meaning that there's no solution for x. Now we can refine that conclusion to "there's no REAL roots for x". Now that we know the square root of -4 is 2i, we can continue with finding x. From the formula we find x=-2+i or x=-2-i. These are very strange-looking numbers, a combination of real and imaginary numbers put together. Such numbers are called "complex" numbers and it is with the manipulation, description and use of such numbers that the rest of this Notebook is concerned. Every complex number has the following shape: a+ib. The first part of that complex number is real: the real constant a. The second part is imaginary: the real constant b multiplied by i. The constant a is referred to as "the real part", not too controversially, and the constant b is referred to as "the imaginary part". NOTICE: the imaginary part is just the constant b, not ib. If the real part, a, is zero, then the complex number a+ib is just ib, so it's purely imaginary. If the imaginary part, b, is zero, then the complex number a+ib is just a, so it's purely real. The above paragraph shows that all the real numbers and all the imaginary numbers are really part of the wider family of complex numbers, that have either a or b zero. So now we can say that every quadratic equation has two roots (although it may not have two real roots).