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Introduction to Complex Numbers

Frances Kirwan, based on notes by Balazs Szendroi and Richard Earl

Michaelmas 2013
The shortest path between two truths in the real domain passes through the complex domain.

Complex numbers: basics

Solving quadratic equations is something that mathematicians have been able to do since the time of the
Babylonians: as you know, the two roots of the equation
ax2 + bx + c = 0
are
x=

b2 4ac
.
2a

(1)

When b2 4ac > 0, these two roots are real and distinct; graphically they are where the curve y =
ax2 + bx + c cuts the x-axis. When b2 4ac = 0, then we have one real root and the curve just touches
the x-axis here. But what happens when b2 4ac < 0? In this case there are no real solutions to the
equation, as no real number squares to give the negative b2 4ac. From the graphical point of view, the
curve y = ax2 + bx + c lies either entirely above or entirely below the x-axis.

If we imagine 1 to exist, and that it behaves much like other numbers, then the two roots of the
quadratic ax2 + bx + c = 0 can be written in the form

x = A B 1
(2)

where A = b/2a and B = 4ac b2 /2a are real numbers.

Notation 1 We shall from now on write i for 1. This is standard notation amongst mathematicians,
though many books, particularly those written for engineers and physicists, use j instead.
Definition 2 A complex number is a number of the form
z = a + bi
where a and b are real numbers. The real number a is known as the real part of z and b as the imaginary
part. We write a = Re z and b = Im z. Two complex numbers are equal precisely when their real and
imaginary parts are equal; that is, a + bi = c + di if and only if a = c and b = d. This is called
comparing real and imaginary parts.
1

Note that we can regard real numbers as complex: a real number is simply a complex number with
zero imaginary part.
Notation 3 We write C for the set of all complex numbers. Thus
C = {a + bi : a, b R}.

Operations on complex numbers

We add, subtract, multiply and divide complex numbers much as one would expect. We add and subtract
complex numbers by adding their real and imaginary parts:
(a + bi) + (c + di)
(a + bi) (c + di)

=
=

(a + c) + (b + d) i,
(a c) + (b d) i.

We can multiply complex numbers by expanding the brackets in the usual fashion and using i2 = 1:
(a + bi) (c + di) = ac + bci + adi + bdi2 = (ac bd) + (ad + bc) i.
To divide complex numbers, we note firstly that (c + di) (c di) = c2 +d2 is always real and non-negative,
and it is strictly positive if c + di 6= 0. Then
 


a + bi
a + bi c di
ac + bd
+
i.
=

=
c + di
c + di c di
c 2 + d2
c 2 + d2
The number c di which we used in this calculation has a special name in relation to c + di.
Definition 4 Let z = a + bi where a, b R. The (complex) conjugate of z is the number a bi, and this
is denoted z (or in some books z ).
Let us see some useful algebraic properties of the conjugate function.
Proposition 5 Let z, w C. Then
z+w
zw

zw
z/w

=
=
=
=

z + w.

z w.

zw.

z/w
if w 6= 0.

(3)
(4)
(5)
(6)

Proof Let us prove one of these statements; the remaining ones are left as exercises.
(5): let z = a + bi and w = c + di. Then
zw

=
=
=

(ac bd) (bc + ad) i

(a bi) (c di) = z w.

Note from equation (2) that when the real quadratic equation ax2 + bx + c = 0 has complex roots
which are not real, then these roots are conjugates of each other. More generally, we have
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Corollary 6 The complex (non-real) roots of a real polynomial come in complex conjugate pairs. Equivalently, if C satisfies the polynomial equation ak z k + ak1 z k1 + + a0 = 0, where each ai is real,
then is also a root of this equation.
Proof Note from the algebraic properties of the conjugate function, proved in the previous proposition,
that
k

ak () + ak1 ()

k1

+ + a1 + a0

=
=

k1

k1

ak () + ak1 ()
ak () + ak1 ()
k

+ + a1 + a0
+ + a1 + a0 [since each ai is real]

k1

=
=

ak () + ak1 ()
+ + a0
0 [since is a root]

0.


We needed a special symbol i for 1, but we proceed to show that no further symbols are needed
to find the square root of i. Suppose that z = a + bi, where a and b are real. Then z 2 = i if and only if

2
i = (a + bi) = a2 b2 + 2abi.
Comparing real and imaginary parts, this is equivalent to

a2 b2 = 0 and 2ab = 1.
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So b = 1/2a from the second
equation, and
substituting for b into the first equation gives a = 1/4, which
has real solutions a = 1/ 2 or a = 1/ 2. So the two complex numbers z which satisfy z 2 = i (i.e. the
two square roots of i) are
1+i
1 i

.
and
2
2

Similarly any non-zero complex number has exactly two complex square roots.
In the same spirit, the quadratic formula (1) is also valid for any complex coefficients a, b, c with a 6= 0,
provided that appropriate sense is made of the square roots of the complex number b2 4ac.
Example 7 We can use the quadratic formula (1) to find the two solutions of
z 2 (3 + i) z + (2 + i) = 0.
We take a = 1, b = 3 i, and c = 2 + i in (1). Then
2

b2 4ac = (3 i) 4 1 (2 + i) = 9 1 + 6i 8 4i = 2i.

Knowing

b b2 4ac
x =
2a
(3 + i) 2i
=
2
(3 + i) 2 i
=
2
(3 + i) (1 + i)
=
2
4 + 2i
2
=
or
2
2
= 2 + i or 1.

The Argand Plane

The real numbers are often represented on the real line, increasing as we move from left to right.
The complex numbers, having two components, their real and imaginary parts, can be represented
as points on a plane; we call it the complex plane or Argand plane or Argand diagram. The point (a, b)
represents the complex number a + bi so that the horizontal axis contains all the real numbers, and
thus is termed the real axis, while the vertical axis contains all those complex numbers which are purely
imaginary (i.e. have no real part), and thus is called the imaginary axis.

0110
0000000000
1111111111
1010
0000000000
1111111111
0000000000
1111111111
0000000000
1111111111
1010
0000000000
1111111111
0000000000
1111111111

real axis

a + bi

imaginary axis

Figure 1: Complex numbers on the Argand plane

A complex number z in the complex plane can be represented by Cartesian coordinates (that is, its
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real and imaginary parts), but equally useful is the representation of z by polar coordinates. If we let r
be the distance of z from the origin, and if, for z 6= 0, we define to be the angle that the line connecting
the origin to z makes with the positive real axis (measured in the clockwise direction), then we can write
z = a + bi = r cos + ir sin .

(7)

The relationship between the Cartesian and polar coordinates of z is simple we see that
a

r cos and b = r sin ,

p
b
a2 + b2 and tan = .
a

Definition 8 The number r is called the modulus of z = a + bi and is written |z|. The number is called
the argument of z and is written arg z. The argument of 0 is undefined.
For the complex number z = a + bi, we have the formulas
|z| =

a 2 + b2

and

b
sin arg z =
,
2
a + b2

a
cos arg z =
.
2
a + b2

In particular, complex numbers of the form

z = cos + i sin
have modulus
|z| =

(cos )2 + (sin )2 = 1.

Note also that arg z is defined only up to the addition of integer multiples of 2. For example, the
argument of 1 + i could be taken as /4 or 9/4 or 7/4, etc. For simplicity, in these notes we shall
give all arguments in the range 0 < 2, so that /4 would be the preferred choice here.
We now come to some useful algebraic properties of the modulus and argument functions.
Proposition 9 Let z, w C. Then
|zw|
|z/w|

=
=

z z =
|
z| =

|z| |w| .
|z| / |w| if w 6= 0.
2

|z| .
|z| .

(8)
(9)
(10)
(11)

Moreover, up to the addition of integer multiples of 2, the following equations also hold for z, w 6= 0.
arg (zw) =
arg (z/w) =
arg z =

arg z + arg w.
arg z arg w.
arg z.

(12)
(13)
(14)

Proof A selection of the above statements is proved here; the remaining ones are left as exercises.

(8): let z = a + bi and w = c + di. Then zw = (ac bd) + (bc + ad) i, so that
q
2
2
|zw| =
(ac bd) + (bc + ad)
p
a 2 c 2 + b2 d 2 + b2 c 2 + a 2 d 2
=
p
=
(a2 + b2 ) (c2 + d2 )
p
p
a2 + b2 c2 + d2 = |z| |w| .
=

(12): let

z = r (cos + i sin )
and
w = R (cos + i sin ) .
Then
zw

= rR (cos + i sin ) (cos + i sin )

= rR ((cos cos sin sin ) + i (sin cos + cos sin ))
= rR (cos ( + ) + i sin ( + )) .

We can read off that |zw| = rR = |z| |w| which gives us a second proof of (8), and also that
arg (zw) = + = arg z + arg w up to the addition of integer multiples of 2.

An important geometric property of the modulus is
Proposition 10 (The Triangle Inequality) Let z, w C. Then
|z + w|
||z| |w||

|z| + |w| .
|z w| .

(15)
(16)

Proof Let us discuss the inequality

|z + w| |z| + |w| .
Note that the shortest distance between 0 and z + w is the modulus of z + w. This is shorter in length
than the path which goes from 0 to z to z + w. The total length of this second path is |z| + |w|.
For an algebraic proof, note that for any complex number z + z = 2 Re z and Re z |z| . So for
z, w C,
zw
+ zw
= Re (z w)
|z w|
= |z| |w|
= |z| |w| .
2
Then
|z + w|

(z + w) (z + w)

=
=

(z + w) (
z + w)

z z + z w
+ zw + ww

|z| + 2 |z| |w| + |w| = (|z| + |w|) ,

000000000000000000000001010
11111111111111111111111
00000000000000000000000
11111111111111111111111
00000000000000000000000
11111111111111111111111
00000000000000000000000
11111111111111111111111
00000000000000000000000
11111111111111111111111
00000000000000000000000
11111111111111111111111
00000000000000000000000
11111111111111111111111
00000000000000000000000
11111111111111111111111
00000000000000000000000
11111111111111111111111
01
00000000000000000000000
11111111111111111111111
00000000000000000000000
11111111111111111111111

z+w

|w|

|z + w|

|z|

|z|

|w|

Figure 2: Triangle inequality on the Argand plane

to give the required result.

To conclude this section, we introduce a new notation for non-zero complex numbers of modulus r
and argument : write
z = r cos + ir sin = rei
where ei = cos + i sin . In this notation, complex numbers of unit length (length 1) are simply those
of the form ei for some R. More generally we write
ec+id = ec (cos d + i sin d)
for any c, d R. Our new notation is consistent with earlier uses of the exponential function, as the
following proposition shows:
Proposition 11 If z = rei and w = sei then zw = rsei(+) , and in particular z n = rn ein for any
positive integer n.
Proof The first identity is simply a re-statement of (8) and (12) of Proposition 9. The second follows
by repeated application of the first.

Finally, here is a useful result summarising multiple angle formulas:
Corollary 12 (De Moivres Theorem) For a real number and integer n we have that
n

n



Transformations of the Argand plane

We can think of complex numbers z = a + bi as points in an Argand plane, but it can often be useful to
think of them as vectors as well. Addition of a complex number z = a + bi then becomes a transformation

of the complex plane: adding z to another complex number w translates that number by the vector ab .
That is, the map
w 7 w + z
represents a translation by a units to the right and b units up in the complex plane.
In a similar vein, we can also think of conjugation as a transformation. The conjugate w
of a point w
is its mirror image in the real axis. So
w 7 w

11111111
1100000000
00
00000000
11111111
00000000
11111111
00000000
11111111
0000000000
11111111
111010
1010
1110
00
z+w

translation by z
w

reflection

Figure 3: Translation and reflection on the Argand plane

Turning to multiplication, write a non-zero complex number in polar coordinates as
z = x + iy = rei .
Then the transformation of the complex plane given by multiplication by z,
w 7 z w
can be decomposed as the composition of two maps
w 7 ei w
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and
w 7 rw.
The latter, with r positive real, is very easy to understand: it is just dilation by magnitude r. Turning to
the former, recall that ei is a complex number with modulus one, and, using the formula in Proposition 11,
w = sei 7 ei w = sei(+) .
So the modulus of ei w is the same as that of w, whereas the argument is increased by . Thus this
transformation is a rotation of the complex plane by angle in the anti-clockwise direction around the
origin.

0110
0000
1111
0000
1111
00
11
0000
1111
00
1010 11
000000000000000000
111111111111111111
0000
1111
000000000000000000
111111111111111111
0000
1111
000000000000000000
111111111111111111
0000
1111
000000000000000000
111111111111111111
ei w

rotation

rw

dilation

The Fundamental Theorem of Algebra

From the quadratic formula (1), we know that a real quadratic polynomial can be solved using complex
numbers. Here is a much more general result.
Theorem 13 (The Fundamental Theorem of Algebra) Any polynomial equation
a0 + a1 x + a2 x 2 + + an x n = 0
with complex coefficients ai C has a complex root C.
The proof of this theorem is far beyond the scope of these notes. Note that for any given polynomial
with complex coefficients the theorem only guarantees the existence of the a root somewhere in C, unlike
the quadratic formula, which gives us a formula for the two roots. The Fundamental Theorem gives no
hint as to where in C a root is to be found.
Corollary 14 Given any polynomial equation
a0 + a1 x + a2 x2 + + an xn = 0,
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with complex coefficients ai C and an 6= 0, there are n (not necessarily distinct) complex numbers
1 , . . . , n such that
a0 + a1 x + a2 x2 + + an xn = an (x 1 ) (x 2 ) (x n ) .
In particular, this shows that any complex polynomial of degree n has, counting repetitions, exactly n
roots in C.
This statement is not hard to derive from the Fundamental Theorem, although the Fundamental
Theorem itself is very hard to prove.

Roots of Unity

Problem 15 Let n be a natural number. Find all those complex numbers z such that z n = 1.
We know from the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra that there are (counting repetitions) n solutions:
these are known as the nth roots of unity. Let us first solve z n = 1 directly for n = 2, 3, 4.
When n = 2 we have

0 = z 2 1 = (z 1) (z + 1)

When n = 3 we can factorise as follows:


0 = z 3 1 = (z 1) z 2 + z + 1 .

2

0=z +z+1=

1
z+
2

2

3
4

1
3
i.

2
2

When n = 4 we can factorise as follows:



0 = z 4 1 = z 2 1 z 2 + 1 = (z 1) (z + 1) (z i) (z + i) ,
so that the fourth roots of 1 are 1, 1, i and i.

Plotting these roots on the Argand plane we can see a pattern developing.
Returning to the general case, suppose that z = r (cos + i sin ) satisfies z n = 1. Then by Proposition 9, z n has modulus rn and has argument n. As 1 has modulus 1 and argument 0, we can compare
their moduli to find rn = 1 giving r = 1 (remember r is a non-negative real number). Comparing arguments, we see n = 0 up to the addition of integer multiples of 2. Thus n = 2k for some integer k,
giving = 2k/n. So the roots of z n = 1 are




2k
2k
+ i sin
where k is an integer.
z = cos
n
n
10

1+ 3i
2

01
10

01
01 10

01
10

1 3i
2

0110
01

Figure 5: Roots of unity on the Argand plane for n = 2, 3, 4

At first glance there seem to be an infinite number of roots, but since cos and sin have period 2 these
roots repeat with period n. So the nth roots of unity are the n complex numbers




2k
2k
z = cos
+ i sin
where k = 0, 1, 2, . . . , n 1,
n
n
in accordance with Corollary 14.
Plotted on an Argand plane, the nth roots of unity form a regular n-gon inscribed within the unit
circle with a vertex at 1.

0110

01
11
00
00
11

0110
0110

0110
0110

0110

Figure 6: Roots of unity on the Argand plane for large n

Problem 16 Find all the solutions of the cubic z 3 = 2 + 2i.
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If we write 2 + 2i in its polar form, we have


 
 

3
3
+ i sin
.
2 + 2i = 8 cos
4
4
So if z 3 = 2 + 2i, and z has modulus r and argument , then
r3 =

3
8 and 3 =
up to the addition of integer multiples of 2,
4

which gives
r=

2k
for some integer k.
2 and = +
4
3

As before, we need only consider k = 0, 1, 2 (as other integer values of k lead to repeats) and we see the
three roots are

 

2 cos
+ i sin
= 1 + i,
4
4
!

!






1
11
3
3 1
11
+ i sin
=
+i
,

2 cos
12
12
2
2
2
2
!

!






3
3 1
19
1
19
2 cos
+ i sin
=
+i
.
+

12
12
2
2
2
2

Historical notes
It is only comparatively recently that mathematicians have become comfortable with the roots of the quadratic
equation ax2 + bx + c = 0 when b2 4ac < 0. During the Renaissance the quadratic would have been considered
unsolvable, or its roots would have been called imaginary.
The term imaginary was first used by the French Mathematician Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Whilst he is
known more as a philosopher, Descartes made many important contributions to mathematics and helped found
coordinate geometry hence the naming of Cartesian coordinates.
But what meaning can imaginary roots have? This philosophical point pre-occupied mathematicians until
the start of the 19th century; afterwards these imaginary numbers started proving so useful (especially in the
work of Cauchy and Gauss) that these philosophical concerns were essentially forgotten.
The i notation was first introduced by the Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler (1707-1783). Much of our
modern notation is due to him including e and . Euler was a giant in 18th century mathematics and the most
prolific mathematician ever. His most important contributions were in analysis (eg. on infinite series, calculus of
variations). The study of topology arguably dates back to his solution of the K
onigsberg Bridge Problem.
The term complex number is due to the German mathematician Carl Gauss (1777-1855). Gauss is considered
by many the greatest mathematician ever. He made major discoveries in almost every area of mathematics from
number theory and non-Euclidean geometry, to astronomy and magnetism. His name precedes a multitude of
theorems and definitions throughout mathematics. In 1799, he proved the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra, one
of the first major results concerning complex numbers, which conclusively demonstrated their usefulness.
The Argand plane is named after the Swiss mathematician Jean-Robert Argand (1768-1822).
Abraham De Moivre (1667-1754) was a French protestant who moved to England. He is best remembered
for this formula, but his major contributions were in probability and appeared in his The Doctrine Of Chances
(1718).

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