The Value of Counter-Intuition

Numberphile caused quite a stir when it posted a video explaining why

\displaystyle 1+2+3+4+...=- \frac{1}{12}

Doug Kuhlman recently posted a great follow-up Numberphile video explaining a broader perspective behind this sum.

It’s a great reminder that there are often different ways of thinking about problems, and sometimes we have to abandon tradition to discover deeper, more elegant connections.

For those deeply bothered by this summation result, the second video contains a lovely analogy to the “reality” of \sqrt{-1} .  From one perspective, it is absolutely not acceptable to do something like square roots of negative numbers.  But by finding a way to conceptualize what such a thing would mean, we gain a far richer understanding of the very real numbers that forbade \sqrt{-1}  in the first place as well as opening the doors to stunning mathematics far beyond the limitations of real numbers.

On the face of it, \displaystyle 1+2+3+...=-\frac{1}{12} is obviously wrong within the context of real numbers only.  But the strange thing in physics and the Zeta function and other places is that \displaystyle -\frac{1}{12} just happens to work … every time.  Let’s not dismiss this out of hand.  It gives our students the wrong idea about mathematics, discovery, and learning.

There’s very clearly SOMETHING going on here.  It’s time to explore and learn something deeper.  And until then, we can revel in the awe of manipulations that logically shouldn’t work, but somehow they do.

May all of our students feel the awe of mathematical and scientific discovery.  And until the connections and understanding are firmly established, I hope we all can embrace the spirit, boldness, and fearless of Euler.

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One response to “The Value of Counter-Intuition

  1. For me, the hinge is assigning that S=1/2. Then the rest is fun.

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