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A Practical Use For Logarithms, Part 2: How We Multiplied Large Numbers 40 Years Ago, And How Integral Transforms Use The Same Basic Idea | QE…

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A Practical Use For Logarithms, Part 2: How We Multiplied Large Numbers 40 Years Ago, And
How Integral Transforms Use The Same Basic Idea
Posted on April 22, 2011

A common argument for the use of technology is that it frees students from doing boring, tedious calculations,
and they can focus attention on more interesting and stimulating conceptual matters. This is wrong. Mastering
“tedious” calculations frequently goes hand-in-hand with a deep connection with important mathematical ideas.
And that is what mathematics is all about, is it not?
The desire to free students from boring technical matters is a false dichotomy: Mastering technique and deep
conceptual understanding go hand-in-hand, and there is absolutely no reason why one can’t work on both in
tandem. This is what music students do: To learn to play a musical instrument, one must spend a certain amount
of time every day on theory and technique, and a certain amount of time every day practicing pieces of music,
developing musicality, and so on. Trying to take a short-cut by not doing scales every day is deadly for a music
student; can’t we see that the same kind of short-cut is deadly for a mathematics student, too?
A case in point is some of the algorithms we used to learn 40-odd years ago that have now been relegated to the
slag heap. For instance, when I was in high-school (could it have been elementary school?) I learned an algorithm
for extracting the square root of a number; nowadays, this is never taught, because we can quickly determine the
result to many decimal places with hand-calculators, which were not available to students or teachers back then.
Another example is the use of trigonometric tables. But the example I want to talk about in this post is the use of
logarithm and anti-logarithm tables to facilitate the multiplication, division, and exponentiation of numbers,
particularly large numbers.
So take yourself back, back, back, … back to a time when little me and my little classmates had no hand
calculators. Let me show you the technique we learned to multiply large numbers, and then we’ll make a
connection to higher mathematics.
The technique depends on a property of logarithms:

Suppose little 1973 me had the task of multiplying 18793.26 by 54778.18. Using the multiplication algorithm
would take a bit of time, but it’s feasible. But here is the time-saving technique we were taught: Let A = 18793.26
and let B = 54778.18. Now look up the logarithm of each of the numbers from a table. (Back then we would have
relied on tables in the back of our textbooks, but the only book on my shelf that has such tables is my 1971 copy of
the CRC Standard Mathematical Tables, 19th edition. The upcoming 2011 edition is here.)
Reading from the table for figures close to A:
and
Now if we linearly interpolate between these two figures, for greater accuracy, we obtain the approximation

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