What is 0^0? And is math true, or just useful?

When you hear mathematicians talk about “searching” for a proof or having “discovered” a new theorem, the implication is that math is something that exists out there in the world, like nature, and that we gradually learn more about it. In other words, mathematical questions are objectively true or false, independent of us, and it’s up to us to discover the answer. That’s a very popular way to think about math, and a very intuitive one.

The alternate view, however, is that math is something we invent, and that math has the form it does because we decided that form would be useful to us, not because we discovered it to be true. Skeptical? Consider imaginary numbers: The square root of X is the number which, when you square it, yields X. And there’s no real number which, when you square it, yields -1. But mathematicians realized centuries ago that it would be useful to be able to use square roots of negative numbers in their formulas, so they decided to define an imaginary number, “i,” to mean “the square root of -1.” So this seems like a clear example in which a mathematical concept was invented, rather than discovered, and in which our system of math has a certain form simply because we decided it would be useful to define it that way, not because that’s how things “really are.”

This is too large of a debate to resolve in one blog post, but I do want to bring up one interesting case study I came across that points in favor of the “math is invented” side of the debate. My friends over at the popular blog Ask a Mathematician, Ask a Physicist did a great post a while ago addressing one of their readers’ questions: What is 0^0?

The reason this question is a head-scratcher is that our rules about how exponents work seem to yield two contradictory answers. On the one hand, we have a rule that zero raised to any power equals zero. But on the other hand, we have a rule that anything raised to the power of zero equals one. So which is it? Does 0^0 = 0 or does 0^0 = 1?

Well, I asked Google and according to their super-official calculator, the answer is unambiguous:

Indeed, the Mathematician at AAMAAP confirms, mathematicians in practice act as if 0^0 = 1. But why? Because it’s more convenient, basically. If we let 0^0=0, there are certain important theorems, like the Binomial Theorem, that would need to be rewritten in more complicated and clunky ways. Note that it’s not even the case that letting 0^0=0 would contradict our theorems (if so, we could perhaps view that as a disproof of the statement 0^0=0). It’s just that it would make our theorems less elegant. Says the mathematician:

“There are some further reasons why using 0^0 = 1 is preferable, but they boil down to that choice being more useful than the alternative choices, leading to simpler theorems, or feeling more “natural” to mathematicians. The choice is not “right”, it is merely nice.”

This is what happens when you fish for a pep talk from a mathematician

ME (whining at being unable to accomplish something): “Ugh, I feel so useless and pointless.”

MATHEMATICIAN: “Aw, you’re not pointless! You have lots of points. An infinite number, in fact.”

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