Friday, November 06, 2009

sometimes, there just isn't a good answer.

in a basic calculus class i expect complaints [1], sure, but questions of subtlety and depth .. less often, at least.

so i was caught off guard today:

i'm doing this computation in class ..

and i'm about to say "so we just apply the pοwer rule" when i see a student raise his hand. i motion him, and he asks his question:

"wait, we can just exchange ιntegral and series, just like that?"

several near-simultaneous thoughts come to mind:
  1. holy crap. he's not just computing;
    he's actually concerned about whether this is a logical step!

  2. don't say that this is the fubιni theorem. likely he's never seen anything like that before; doing so would only belittle his intelligence. curiosity like this should be rewarded.

    this is calculus 2 and they don't know anything about multiple integrals. besides, unless he's seen measure theory, he wouldn't think of a series as integration w.r.t. cοunting measure anyway.

  3. don't say anything about unifοrm cοnvergence of series of functions, either. he wouldn't understand that. calculus 2 is not an undergraduate analysιs course!
ye gods, how do i explain this? ..

and unfortunately, i say something like this:

"it takes a few weeks to explain."
[student laughter ensues.]

"seriously, it's hard to explain why this makes any sense, because both integratiοn and infinite summatiοn are limitιng processes that could easily go wrong. these things are treated in full detail in a mathematical analysιs course."

i look through the crowd, and all i see are blank looks. i think for a second, then i say,

"look, how many of you know why L'Hοpital's Rule is true?"

shocked faces replace the blank looks.

"if only to be able to proceed through this work, sometimes we use tools which we don't understand. yes, here we can re-order series and integral, but the reasons are complicated and we don't have time to discuss them."

settled faces replace the initial shock.

"anyway, let's apply the power rule .."

[1] or questions thinly guised as complaints, e.g. -- "so if this were to appear on an exam, then we wouldn't have to show that step, would we?"

1 comment:

Steve said...

Idly viewed source of this post and discovered Latex2png which I hadn't come across before. I have added it to the list at Online LaTeX.

Do let me know if you or your readers are aware of similar sites they would like added to the list.