Diversions in Mathematics 3b: The Cauchy-Schwarz inequality (part 2)

In the previous post, we introduced the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality purely as a statement about real numbers:

\displaystyle \sum_{k=1}^n x_k y_k \le \left( \displaystyle \sum_{k=1}^n x_k^2 \right)^{1/2} \left( \displaystyle \sum_{k=1}^n y_k^2 \right)^{1/2}.

We proved this inequality using mathematical induction. However, one could argue that the method did not yield much insight. As our proof was entirely algebraic, it is not easy to see why the sums that appear in the inequality are reasonable quantities to consider, and there is no hint as to how they could arise naturally in mathematical problems. Therefore, in this post, we will look at the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality from a geometric perspective, which reveals a much richer structure. Moreover, we will see how the inequality arises naturally from a basic optimisation problem.

Note: I continue with the convention from the previous post that a quantity x is called positive if x \ge 0. We say that x is strictly positive if x > 0.

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Diversions in Mathematics 3a: The Cauchy-Schwarz inequality (part 1)


After a long time, I have decided to resurrect the mathematics part of this blog! I started Diversions in Mathematics as a way for me to try to explain mathematics to the general public. This continues to be the main goal of this series of blogposts — for a more detailed introduction, please read the introductory remarks. I wrote two posts in this series, but then abruptly stopped. Part of the reason was that my studies got in the way, but I was also unsure exactly what material to present, and how to present it. I wrote down some of my thoughts on this matter in a previous update post.

One of the main issues as a writer is to consider the readers’ background in mathematics. For posts targeting the general public (like the previous two Diversions), I have tried to assume as little as possible while maintaining the discussion at an intelligent level, i.e. without “dumbing down” anything) However, this already assumes familiarity with many mathematical concepts taught in high school, or at least, some level of maturity in regard to abstract reasoning. Consequently I have decided to relaunch Diversions in Mathematics with high school mathematics as a foundation.

In this blogpost, I will introduce the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality, one of the most fundamental results in mathematical analysis, with the aim of connecting various topics that are typically studied in the Year 12 HSC maths curriculum in NSW. The main article is below.

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On the value of recording your mistakes (occasionally)

Let me tell you about a mistake I made recently. Some months ago, I made a few calculations which seemed promising, and I thought they could lead to some new results. When I showed the calculations to my supervisor, he was skeptical, and rightly so. Our project involved some fairly abstract concepts in the theory of operator semigroups, so his immediate advice was to check the calculations against some simple, concrete examples . So of course I did that, and quickly realised that the calculations were totally wrong! Moreover, they were wrong for a rather silly, elementary reason — a pitfall that I thought I should be capable of detecting with my current mathematical experience.

To clarify what I mean by “elementary”: no, it wasn’t a silly error in the sense of a missing minus sign or multiplying two numbers incorrectly. Mathematicians say that something in their field of study is “elementary” if it is a basic fact in that particular field. However, to paraphrase my supervisor, “basic does not mean easy”, so if I were to describe the mistake to a non-mathematical audience, it would still be extremely difficult. Another interesting point is the following. When you do research in pure mathematics, quite often you deal with abstractions upon abstractions, and it is easy to forget the humble origins of these abstract concepts. For example, the concept of a linear operator is fundamental to many areas of maths, and as cool as it is to be working with linear operators on infinite dimensional Banach spaces or whatever, it is also worth checking a statement about abstract linear operators on, let’s say, a 2-by-2 matrix as encountered in 1st year university maths (or even high school, depending on where you were educated). This comic sums up the sentiment quite well (excuse the pun).

Source: https://mathwithbaddrawings.com/2017/01/11/why-are-mathematicians-so-bad-at-arithmetic/

Now this brings us to the main point of this blogpost. The wrong calculation I described above is not the mistake I want to write about; rather, I want to focus on what happened next. I assume that most people do not enjoy looking at their failures. I am not sure what I did with those few pages of calculations: either I threw them out, or I shelved them away somewhere I had forgotten. In any case, recently I wanted to return to the same problem with a different perspective, but now I have lost my point of reference. Because I had misplaced or thrown out the incorrect calculations, I cannot really remember what I had got wrong the first time! To be fair to myself, I have a vague idea of the kind of error it was, and it is very unlikely I will make exactly the same error again, but nevertheless it would have been more efficient to keep the original calculations, wrong as they are, so that I can remember exactly what the lapse of judgment was. As I have learned by now, mathematical work is not only about putting one true statement after another. It is equally important and even illuminating to know what kind of result cannot be true. In hindsight, throwing away those calculations was a bigger mistake than the calculations themselves.

There are certain similarities with the performing arts, although I have to admit that the comparison gets fuzzy on closer inspection. For a start, mistakes in mathematics are objective errors: you are objectively wrong if you claim that 1 + 1 = 3, for instance. On the other hand, speaking from a background in Western classical music, even though there are certain objective errors (e.g. playing a wrong note), usually we are unhappy with a performance because we feel that we could have done certain things better. One could say this is a “subjective” error. Despite this fundamental difference though, both mathematicians and performing artists undeniably improve by learning from their mistakes, objective or subjective. Indeed, I would say that learning from mistakes is an essential part of development in the two disciplines.

As a violin student, I used to dislike making recordings — what a way to highlight one’s faults and weaknesses! However, in hindsight I should have taken more opportunities to record my playing, and to embrace whatever mistakes (objective or subjective) occurred during a performance.  One should not take this viewpoint too pessimistically. The idea is not to focus only on failures; rather it is about using those failures strategically to improve one’s understanding or problem solving technique in the case of mathematics, or one’s expression capabilities in the case of the performing arts.

I end this post with a nice little comic, which comes with some wise words from the great mathematician Paul Halmos:


Update post (July 2019)

It seems that every time I return to write something on this blog, it’s about how infrequently I write (and that I’m awfully sorry, and I promise to write more, but it never happens). I see three main reasons for this:

  • I am now in a masters program in the School of Mathematics at the University of Sydney! My honours year went quite well overall, and my supervisor was happy to take me as a postgraduate research student.
  • Since March, I have also been working casually for Matrix Education, a private tutoring company that is well-known in particular for its HSC preparation courses.

From the two reasons listed above, you can appreciate that most of my time is spent doing mathematics in some way — reading articles and learning new theory for my research project, working on exercises from textbooks, or preparing tutorials and classes. The third reason is really a blend of two:

  • My own laziness coupled with a lack of direction about this blog.

This update post will explain this last point further.


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Update post (June 2018)


Hey, I almost forgot I have a blog! (Since I’m paying for the site hosting, why not make more use of it).

This post will simply be an update, to let the readers of this blog (the number of which is non-zero) know what I am currently doing. It will be a random assortment of thoughts and comments. Right now, I am busy preparing for the semester 1 exams in the Pure Mathematics Honours program at the University of Sydney, but it is nice to take a break from study and write something here. Needless to say, it has been a very challenging semester, but also quite a rewarding one. Mathematics honours students are required to take a total of 6 courses throughout the honours year, as well as prepare a thesis. Many (?) people opt to take 4 of the 6 courses in the first semester, with the intention that more time can be devoted to the preparation of the thesis in second semester. But naturally, this means that one undertakes a lot of coursework in first semester (4 honours level courses at the same time is no joking matter), and as I am prone to procrastination, the time management has been especially challenging. Fortunately, I get along well with my thesis supervisor — who is conveniently also the honours coordinator this year — and he has been understanding and supportive during the periods when I had many assessments to submit and had not worked on the honours project!

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Learning, Unlearning & Relearning

This piece is slightly different from what I usually post on this blog, but I believe I have a unique perspective on the issues concerned, as I will explain in the main text.

I would like to discuss the current advertising campaign from the University of Sydney, and in particular the chosen keyword:


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Diversions in Mathematics #2: Hilbert’s Hotel

In this instalment, I introduce the concept of infinity in a simple and (hopefully) entertaining way, which puts into practice the counting concepts introduced in the previous Diversion. In fact, Hilbert‘s infinite hotel was one of the ‘stories’ that got me seriously interested in mathematics in the first place, and so it is a pleasure to share it here. This is a very well-known piece of story-driven mathematics. I hope that experienced mathematicians who happen to come across this blog do not tire of hearing (reading) it again, and that they see the value in telling the story to the general public.

Just before we start: I assume knowledge of the definitions and notations introduced in the previous instalment, namely, the very basics of set theory.

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