Sunday, November 21, 2010

Is -x^2 positive or negative?

So, is -x2 a positive, negative, or undefined quantity for real-valued x?  Ask any physicist or mathematician and they will say that it is a negative number for real valued x making things like: exp(-x2) between 0 and 1.  That is why it came as a BIG surprise to me that computer scientists don't think that, and a program like Excel will interpret:


as positive 25!  After taking quite a while debugging a student problem calculating the normal distribution in Excel, it got me on a quest (and an argument with a colleague) to figure out who else thought this way.  I checked Matlab, Mathematica, Python, and Google as well as a calculator on the computer.  All interpreted -5^2 (properly) as -25.  To do otherwise, I believe, is perverse for any application that is doing mathematical applications.  I was directed to this page, which outlines many languages.  Pretty much just Excel, COBOL, Chipmunk BASIC and a few small scripting languages take the "unary minus" approach, which makes "unary minus" have precedence over exponentiation.

I am not sure why anyone would consider this a good idea, for working with actual math equations.  Of course one could add parentheses, but which is clearer:




The second is obviously not ambiguous, but less clear.  Anyway, that is the entire reason why we have order of operations, so we don't have to do:


So, Excel, come into at least the 20th century and figure out that exponentiation trumps "minus", whatever you want to call it.



  1. I have to disagree with your generalization that computer scientists say +25. I imagine most of my colleagues would agree that it is -25 :)

  2. I love generalizations! Actually, you should ask them. You might be as surprised as I was. I do realize that not all computer scientists have this perspective, but it seems that *only* computer scientists have this perspective which is what I was really trying to say. My CS colleague claimed that mathematicians would agree with her, but a quick test showed that to be incorrect.

    I of course only have anecdotal information on all of these claims, not having done a systematic study.