Technology in proofs?

October 15, 2008, 8:54 pm

We interrupt this blogging hiatus to throw out a question that came up while I was grading today. The item being graded was a homework set in the intro-to-proof course that I teach. One paper brought up two instances of the same issue.

  • The student was writing a proof that hinged on arguing that both sin(t) and cos(t) are positive on the interval 0 < t < π/2. The “normal” way to argue this is just to appeal to the unit circle and note that in this interval, you’re remaining in the first quadrant and so both sin(t) and cos(t) are positive. But what the student did was to draw graphs of sin(t) and cos(t) in Maple, using the plot options to restrict the domain; the student then just said something to the effect of “The graph shows that both sin(t) and cos(t) are positive.”
  • Another proof was of a proposition claiming that there cannot exist three consecutive natural numbers such that the cube of the largest is equal to the sum of the cubes of the other two. The “normal” way to prove this is by contradiction, assuming that there are three consecutive natural numbers with the stated property. Setting up the equation representing that property leads to a certain third-degree polynomial P(x), and the problem boils down to showing that this polynomial has no roots in the natural numbers. In the contradiction proof, you’d assume P(x) does have a natural number root, and then proceed to plug that root into P(x) and chug until a contradiction is reached. (Often a proof like that would proceed by cases, one case being that the root is even and the other that the root is odd.) The student set up the contradiction correctly and made it to the polynomial. But then, rather than proceeding in cases or making use of some other logical deduction method, the student just used the solver on a graphing calculator to get only one root for the polynomial, that root being something like 4.7702 (clearly non-integer) and so there was the contradiction.

So what the student did was to substitute “normal” methods of proof — meaning, methods of proof that go straight from logic — with machine calculations. Those calculations are convincing and there were no errors made in performing them, and there seemed to be no hidden “gotchas” in what the student did (such as, “That graph looks like it’s positive, but how do you know it’s positive?”). So I gave full credit, but put a note asking the student not to depend on technology when writing (otherwise exemplary) proofs.

But it raises an important question in today’s tech-saturated mathematics curriculum: Just how much technology is acceptable in a mathematical proof? This question has its apotheosis in the controversy surrounding the machine proof of the Four-Color Theorem but I’m finding a central use of (a reliance upon?) technology to be more and more common in undergraduate proof-centered classes. What do you think? (This gives me an opportunity to show off WordPress’ nifty new polling feature.)

[polldaddy poll=1000973]

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