College math in a single symbol

From Prelude to Mathematics by W. W. Sawyer (1955):

There must be many universities today where 95 percent, if not 100 percent, of the functions studied by physics, engineering, and even mathematics students, are covered by the single symbol F(a, b; c; x).

The symbol Sawyer refers to is the hypergeometric function. (There are hypergeometric functions with any number of parameters, but the case with three parameters is so common that it is often called “the” hypergeometric function.) The most commonly used functions in application — trig functions, exp, log, the error function, Bessel functions, etc. — are either hypergeometric functions or closely related to hypergeometric functions. Sawyer continues:

I do not wish to imply that the hypergeometric function is the only function about which mathematics knows anything. That is far from being true. … but the valley inhabited by schoolboys, by engineers, by physicists, and by students of elementary mathematics, is the valley of the Hypergeometric Function, and its boundaries are (but for one or two small clefts explored by pioneers) virgin rock.

Related links:

4 thoughts on “College math in a single symbol

  1. How does this function relate to discrete math? (Or am I going to have to define discrete math?)

  2. Chris: Hypergeometric functions come up frequently as generating functions for discrete math problems. The book Concrete Mathematics, for example, introduces hypergeometric function for their use in solving discrete problems and analytically evaluating infinite sums.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>