The (Imaginary) Numbers at the Edge of Reality — Quanta Magazine

Published by MrHonner on

My latest column for Quanta Magazine connects the complex numbers from high school math classrooms to the quaternions and octonions, numbers systems currently being used in cutting-edge math and science research.

Have you ever sat in a math classroom and wondered, “When will I ever use this?” You might have asked yourself this question when you first encountered “imaginary” numbers, and with good reason: What could be less practical than a number described as imaginary?

But imaginary numbers, and the complex numbers they help define, turn out to be incredibly useful. They have a far-reaching impact in physics, engineering, number theory and geometry. And they are the first step into a world of strange number systems, some of which are being proposed as models of the mysterious relationships underlying our physical world.

Some physicists currently believe that the octonions, an eight-dimensional number system with non-commutative, non-associative multiplication and seven square roots of -1, may be the key to understanding the fundamental interactions between particles and forces. Learn more about their connections to “imaginary” numbers in the full article, which is freely available here.


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