November 15, 2019

Mathematics and Memes

“Mathematical Twitter is normally a quiet, well-ordered place, a refuge from the aggravations of the internet. But on July 28, someone who must have been a troll off-duty decided to upset the stillness, and did so with a surefire provocation.

It has to do with something that high school teachers call “the order of operations.” The latest blowup concerned this seemingly simple question:

8 ÷ 2(2+2)

The question above has a clear and definite answer, provided we all agree to play by the same rules governing “the order of operations.” When, as in this case, we are faced with several mathematical operations to perform — to evaluate expressions in parentheses, carry out multiplications or divisions, or do additions or subtractions — the order in which we do them can make a huge difference.

When confronted with 8 ÷ 2(2+2), everyone on Twitter agreed that the 2+2 in parentheses should be evaluated first. That’s what our teachers told us: Deal with whatever is in parentheses first. Of course, 2+2 = 4. So the question boils down to 8÷2×4.

And there’s the rub. Now that we’re faced with a division and a multiplication, which one takes priority? If we carry out the division first, we get 4×4 = 16; if we carry out the multiplication first, we get 8÷8 = 1.”

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