Do complex numbers really exist?

Complex numbers involve the square root of negative one, and most non-mathematicians find it hard to accept that such a number is meaningful. In contrast, they feel that real numbers have an obvious and intuitive meaning. What’s the best way to explain to a non-mathematician that complex numbers are necessary and meaningful, in the same way that real numbers are?

This is not a Platonic question about the reality of mathematics, or whether abstractions are as real as physical entities, but an attempt to bridge a comprehension gap that many people experience when encountering complex numbers for the first time. The wording, although provocative, is deliberately designed to match the way that many people actually ask this question.


There are a few good answers to this question, depending on the audience. I’ve used all of these on occasion.

A way to solve polynomials

We came up with equations like $x – 5 = 0$, what is $x$?, and the naturals solved them (easily). Then we asked, “wait, what about $x + 5 = 0$?” So we invented negative numbers. Then we asked “wait, what about $2x = 1$?” So we invented rational numbers. Then we asked “wait, what about $x^2 = 2$?” so we invented irrational numbers.

Finally, we asked, “wait, what about $x^2 = -1$?” This is the only question that was left, so we decided to invent the “imaginary” numbers to solve it. All the other numbers, at some point, didn’t exist and didn’t seem “real”, but now they’re fine. Now that we have imaginary numbers, we can solve every polynomial, so it makes sense that that’s the last place to stop.

Pairs of numbers

This explanation goes the route of redefinition. Tell the listener to forget everything he or she knows about imaginary numbers. You’re defining a new number system, only now there are always pairs of numbers. Why? For fun. Then go through explaining how addition/multiplication work. Try and find a good “realistic” use of pairs of numbers (many exist).

Then, show that in this system, $(0,1) * (0,1) = (-1,0)$, in other words, we’ve defined a new system, under which it makes sense to say that $\sqrt{-1} = i$, when $i=(0,1)$. And that’s really all there is to imaginary numbers: a definition of a new number system, which makes sense to use in most places. And under that system, there is an answer to $\sqrt{-1}$.

The historical explanation

Explain the history of the imaginary numbers. Showing that mathematicians also fought against them for a long time helps people understand the mathematical process, i.e., that it’s all definitions in the end.

I’m a little rusty, but I think there were certain equations that kept having parts of them which used $\sqrt{-1}$, and the mathematicians kept throwing out the equations since there is no such thing.

Then, one mathematician decided to just “roll with it”, and kept working, and found out that all those square roots cancelled each other out.

Amazingly, the answer that was left was the correct answer (he was working on finding roots of polynomials, I think). Which lead him to think that there was a valid reason to use $\sqrt{-1}$, even if it took a long time to understand it.

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