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### Why Factor?

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Date: 08/18/2001 at 16:54:19
From: Kevin O'Neil
Subject: Factoring in algebra

I haven't seen this answer yet anywhere I've looked. WHY specifically
does one have to factor out a problem? My daughter is homeschooling
and we have an excellent Algebra 1 teacher, but it seems to be a
hard question to answer. I've been explained the how's, the where's,
the what's, but not the WHY. My daughter seems to need a practical
explanation in order to understand math or how it applies to
something. If you had a problem like  4b^2y^2 - 8b^2y + 24b^2 =  ?

What is the practical use of factoring this out? I know it's like
unmultiplying, but trying to explain that without a reason "why"
behind it gets my daughter confused. She wants to know where it is
used and why it is used, to help her figure out how. What applications
would it serve? An example where a formula like that might be used
would be helpful. Why not just solve the problem anyway? Aren't all
the individual pieces needed there to solve it?
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Date: 08/20/2001 at 18:01:07
From: Doctor Ian
Subject: Re: Factoring in algebra

Hi Kevin,

If I understand you correctly, you want to know why the expression

4b^2(y^2 - 5y + 6) =  ?

is preferable to the expression

4b^2y^2 - 20b^2y + 24b^2 =  ?

Well, the main reason for identifying common factors is to let you see
more deeply into the pattern. In this case, once we get the 4b^2 out
in front, we can see that we have a standard quadratic form in y,
which we can simplify even more:

4b^2y^2 - 20b^2y + 24b^2 =  4b^2(y^2 - 5y + 6)

= 4b^2(y - 2)(y - 3)

Now, why is _this_ form preferable?  Well, for one thing, if the '?'
is a zero, as it is in 'standard' form, then we know that

4b^2(y - 2)(y - 3) = 0

Just by looking at this, we can see that if b is non-zero, there are
only two possible values of y that can make this equation true:
y = 2 and y = 3.

It's also easy to see that halfway in between those two values,

4b^2(2.5 - 2)(2.5 - 3) = 4b^2(0.5)(-0.5)

the value of the expression is negative, which means that since we
know that every quadratic expression is the description of a parabola,
we now have enough information to draw a pretty good graph of the
expression. Try doing that with the original form of the equation.

Note that this also tells us that if we vary the value of b, we can
alter the shape of the parabola, but we can't move the axis of
symmetry (since that would require us to change where it hits the
x-axis).

In general, when mathematicians develop a technique like factoring out
common terms, you can be sure it's because they've found that it turns
some really tedious and error-prone task (like trying to draw the
graph of a function) into a very easy one, e.g.,

Why study Prime and Composite Numbers?
http://mathforum.org/library/drmath/view/57182.html

Have you heard the joke in our archives toward the end of this answer?

http://mathforum.org/library/drmath/view/52370.html

Such jokes expose a deep truth about the way mathematicians do
mathematics, and I mention them because one way to make learning math
more entertaining is to try to approach the subject the way a
mathematician would.

I'm not saying that you should learn to enjoy jotting down pages and
pages of equations!  What I mean is that you should get into the habit
of looking for the easiest possible way to get from the statement of a
problem to its solution, which in many cases means finding a short
connection between the problem you're working on and one that you know
has already been solved... whether or not you were the one who solved
it.

Factoring things out is, ultimately, a technique for helping you do
this.

As you've noted, you can solve problems without factoring out common
terms... and you can get from New York to Los Angeles on foot, if you
want to, but it will take longer.

more, or if you have any other questions.

- Doctor Ian, The Math Forum
http://mathforum.org/dr.math/
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Associated Topics:
High School Basic Algebra
High School Polynomials
Middle School Algebra
Middle School Factoring Expressions

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