My very first lemma, which also happened to involve a philosophical dispute

Doppelverh-zentralproj.svgLet me recall the time of my very first lemma, which also happened to involve a philosophical dispute.

It was about 35 years ago; I was a kid in ninth grade at McKinley Junior High School, taking a class in geometry, taught by a charismatic math teacher. We were learning how to do proofs, which in that class always consisted of a numbered list of geometrical assertions, with a specific reason given for each assertion, either stating that it was “given” or that it followed from previous assertions by a theorem that we had come to know. Only certain types of reasons were allowed.

My instructor habitually used the overhead projector, writing on a kind of infinite scroll of transparency film, which he could wind up on one end of the projector, so as never to run out of room. During the semester, he had filled enough spools, it seemed, to fill the library of Alexandria.

One day, it came to be my turn to present to the rest of the class my proof of a certain geometrical theorem I had been assigned. I took the black marker and drew out my diagram and theorem statement. In my proof, I had found it convenient to first establish a certain critical fact, that two particular line segments in my diagram were congruent $\vec{PQ}\cong\vec{RS}$. In order to do so, I had added various construction lines to my diagram and reasoned with side-angle-side and so on.

Having established the congruency, I had then wanted to continue with my proof of the theorem. Since the previous construction lines were cluttering up my diagram, however, I simply erased them, leaving only my original diagram.

The class erupted with objection!  How could I sensibly continue now with my proof, claiming that $\vec{PQ}\cong\vec{RS}$, after I had erased the construction lines? After all, are those lines segments still congruent once we erase the construction lines that provided the reason we first knew this to be true? Many of the students believed that my having erased the construction lines invalidated my proof.

So there I was, in a ninth-grade math class, making a philosophical argument to my fellow students that the truth of the congruence $\vec{PQ}\cong\vec{RS}$ was independent of my having drawn the construction lines, and that we could rely on the truth of that fact later on in my proof, even if I were to erase those construction lines.

After coming to an uneasy, tentative resolution of this philosophical dispute, I was then allowed to continue with the rest of my proof, establishing the main theorem.

I realized only much later that this had been my very first lemma, since I had isolated a mathematically central fact about a certain situation, proving it with a separate argument, and then I had used that fact in the course of proving a more general theorem.

2 thoughts on “My very first lemma, which also happened to involve a philosophical dispute

  1. This reminds me the old question in the philosophy of mathematics:

    “Is mathematics a discovery of human beings or their invention? Or possibly it is a mixture of discoveries and inventions? Maybe neither this nor that!”

    It is always interesting to hear the working mathematicians’ opinion about this question. I already got some very strange responses regarding this problem from my colleagues, those who revealed their fascinating beliefs about the true nature of mathematical objects and theorems. They were just amazing!

  2. It is noteworthy that some computer proof systems (for instance HOL Light) are on the other students’ side. HOL (Higher Order Logic) provides formalizations of naturals, real numbers, etc, but every time it is turned on it proves every single lemma concerning the starting from scratch. So you can’t “save” into your hard disk any proven result, let alone make the statement that it still a theorem once you erase the proof!

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