The Invention of Imaginary Numbers

Why would anyone invent imaginary numbers?

The answer is to solve real world problems you otherwise cannot without them. In the following 24-minute video, Veritaseum's Derek Muller works through the intuitions that led to solving quadratic equations, then to cubic equations, then to the invention of imaginary numbers as a powerful problem-solving tool for maths, with very real world applications in physics:

Put bluntly, imaginary numbers may be essential for describing reality:

A type of experiment known as a Bell test resolved a different quantum quandary, proving that quantum mechanics really requires strange quantum linkages between particles called entanglement. “We started thinking about whether an experiment of this sort could also refute real quantum mechanics,” says theoretical physicist Miguel Navascués of the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information Vienna. He and colleagues laid out a plan for an experiment in a paper posted online at in January 2021 and published December 15 in Nature.

In this plan, researchers would send pairs of entangled particles from two different sources to three different people, named according to conventional physics lingo as Alice, Bob and Charlie. Alice receives one particle, and can measure it using various settings that she chooses. Charlie does the same. Bob receives two particles and performs a special type of measurement to entangle the particles that Alice and Charlie receive. A real quantum theory, with no imaginary numbers, would predict different results than standard quantum physics, allowing the experiment to distinguish which one is correct.

Fan and colleagues performed such an experiment using photons, or particles of light, they report in a paper to be published in Physical Review Letters. By studying how Alice, Charlie and Bob’s results compare across many measurements, Fan, Navascués and colleagues show that the data could be described only by a quantum theory with complex numbers.

Another team of physicists conducted an experiment based on the same concept using a quantum computer made with superconductors, materials which conduct electricity without resistance. Those researchers, too, found that quantum physics requires complex numbers, they report in another paper to be published in Physical Review Letters. “We are curious about why complex numbers are necessary and play a fundamental role in quantum mechanics,” says quantum physicist Chao-Yang Lu of the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, a coauthor of the study.

When we wrapped up the biggest stories in math for 2021, the publication of the paper by Marc-Olivier Renou, David Trillo, Mirjam Weilenmann, Thinh P. Le, Armin Tavakoli, Nicolas Gisin, Antonio Acín, and Miguel Navascués demonstrating quantum theory based only on real numbers can be falsified in Nature just barely missed our cutoff date for inclusion. As such, we consider Renou's advance to be a leading contender for the biggest math story of 2022. And we have nearly 11 more months left to go!