Zero and Negative Infinity
Date: 06/02/2003 at 19:42:32 From: Sree Dharani Subject: Smallest number - Zero or negative infinity What is the smallest number? Zero or negative infinity? I was able to sort of explain the concept of infinity to my almost 4-year-old as a very large number. Her next question was 'what is the opposite of infinity?' I am getting confused between the concept of 'less' and 'small' when it applies to numbers. I would also like a real world example of negative infinity that I can use to explain it to my daughter.
Date: 06/03/2003 at 14:34:47 From: Doctor Achilles Subject: Re: smallest number - Zero or negative infinity Hi Sree, Thanks for writing to Dr. Math. It's great that you're taking time to talk about high-level math concepts with your child. It's often best to only teach one hard concept at a time, like infinity, and let that one sink in before teaching something else that is also difficult, like negative numbers. Zero is the smallest number. Infinity isn't a number; rather, it's the concept of something larger than any number, but for a 4-year-old it can suffice to say it's the largest number to get the idea across as a first pass.) What follows is not necessarily an explanation for a 4-year-old: The difference between "less" and "small" is very difficult (especially to explain to a 4-year-old. I think of them in terms of a number line. The number line is a line that starts at zero and goes to negative infinity on the left and to positive infinity on the right. Something like this: (to neg inf)<--------------------|-------------------->(to pos inf) ...-6 -5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 ... If you're comparing two numbers, you can say that the one farther to the left on the number line is "less" and the one farther to the right is "greater." "Less" and "greater" are concerned with *position*: where the number lies on the line. "Small" and "big" on the other hand are concerned not with position, but with *size*. Zero is defined as the smallest number. The closer something is to zero, the smaller it is. Size is a way to talk about "absolute value." The absolute value of a positive number is just that number, and the absolute value of a negative number is just the inverse of it (so the absolute value of -4 is 4). I hope this helps. If you have other questions or you'd like to talk about this some more, please write back. >I would also like a real world example of negative infinity that I >can use to explain it to my daughter. Regarding this question, I don't think I can help because I am at a loss to come up with an example of negative numbers or of positive infinity which would work for a 4-year-old (and I can't even come up with an example of negative infinity for anyone, offhand. Best wishes for you and your child in working through tough math concepts. - Doctor Achilles, The Math Forum http://mathforum.org/dr.math/
Date: 06/03/2003 at 15:02:45 From: Sree Dharani Subject: Thank you (Smallest number - Zero or negative infinity) Thanks Dr. Achilles. That was a speedy response and has provided me the relevant direction to answer my daughter. I discovered this site accidentally and am happy for that discovery. I am sure I will visit this site many more times in future. One of my colleagues was suggesting the 'debt of U.S.' as a closest example of negative infinity he could think of. I was thinking of explaining negative infinity relative to current time. The time when the universe was created is negative infinity seconds from the current time.
Date: 06/03/2003 at 17:10:12 From: Doctor Peterson Subject: Re: Smallest number - Zero or negative infinity Hi, Sree. Properly speaking, infinity is not "a very large number," as you have said; I would say it is BEYOND any number you can think of. In fact, infinity really has nothing to do with numbers; the main idea (if you look at the Latin root of the word) is "endlessness," reflecting the fact that the number line goes on forever. Too many children get a wrong idea of what infinity is, from attempts to give them an explanation at this level, which they later have to unlearn. So I would avoid connecting infinity with large numbers, and certainly with actual large numbers, even as a joke. Rather, I would say that infinity is "as far up as anyone can imagine, and then some." And negative infinity is "as far DOWN as you can imagine, and then some." I don't think you've told us how well your daughter understands the idea of negative numbers, or of positive infinity; I think the best early introduction to the former is on the number line, with the idea of "numbers" to the left of zero. In my version above, I avoided "left" and "right" and used "up" and "down" because the latter seem more intuitively positive and negative than the latter, for someone not yet accustomed to the conventions of the number line. Representing negative numbers as used in counting (as in your example of a debt) seems like a later concept, not the best way to introduce the concept. If you have any further questions, feel free to write back. - Doctor Peterson, The Math Forum http://mathforum.org/dr.math/
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