A log by any other name

“Hey, Mr Moire?”

“Yes, Jeremy?”

“What we did with logarithms and exponents.  You showed me how my Dad’s slide-rule uses powers of 10, but we did that compound interest stuff with powers of 1.1.  Does that mean we could make a slide-rule based on powers of any number?”

“Sure could, in principle, but it’d be a lot harder to use.  A powers-of-ten model works well with scientific notation.  Suppose you want to calculate the number of atoms in 5.3 grams of carbon.  Remember Avagadro’s number?”

“Ohhh, yeah, chem class etched that into my brain.  It’s 6.02×10²³ atoms per gram atomic weight.  Carbon’s atomic weight is 12, so the atom count would be (5.3 grams)×(6.02×10²³ atoms / 12 grams), whatever that works out to be.”

“Nicely set up.  With the slide-rule you’d do the 5.3×6.02/12 part, then take care of the ten-powers in your head or on a scrap of paper.  It’d be ugly to do that with a slide-rule based on powers of π, for example.  Although, once you get away from the slide-rule it’s perfectly possible to do log-and-exponent calculations on other bases.  A couple of them are real popular.  Base-2, for instance.”2-10-e logs

“Powers of two?  Oh, binary!   2, 4, 8, 16, like that.  And 1/2, 1/4, 1/8.  Hard to imagine what a base-2 slide-rule would look like — zero at one end, I suppose, and one at the other and lots of fractions in-between.”

“Well, no.  Is there a zero on your Dad’s base-10 slide-rule there?”

“Uh, no, the C scale has a one at each end.”

“The left-hand ‘1’ can stand for one or ten or a thousand or a thousandth.  Whatever you pick for it, the right-hand ‘1’ stands for ten times that.”

“Ah, then a base-2 slide-rule would also have ones at either end in binary but they’d mean numbers that differ by a factor of two.  But there’d still be a bunch of fractions in-between, right?”

“Right, but no zero anywhere.  Why not?”

“Oh, there’s no power-of-two that equals zero.”

“No power-of-anything that equals zero.  Except zero, of course, but zero-to-anything is still zero so that’s not much use for calculating.  On the other hand, anything to the zero power is 1 so log(1)=0 in every base system.”

“You said a couple of popular bases.  What’s the other one?”

“Euler’s number e=2.71828…  It’s actually closely related to that compound interest calculation you did.  There’s several ways to compute e, but the most relevant for us is the limit of [1+(1/n)]n as n gets very large.  Try that on your spreadsheet app.”

“OK, I’m loading B1 with =(1+(1/C1))^C1 and I’ll try different numbers in C1.  One hundred gives me 2.7048, a thousand gives me 2.7169 (diminishing returns, hey) — ah, a million sure enough comes up with 2.71828.”

“There you go.  Changing C1 to even bigger values would get you even closer to e‘s exact value but it’s one of those irrationals like π so you can only get better and better approximations.  You see the connection between that formula and the $×[1+(rate/n)]n formula?”

“Sure, but what use is it?  If that’s the e formula the rate is 100%.”

“You can think of e as what happens when growth is compounded continuously.  It’s not often used in retail financial applications, but it’s everywhere in advanced math and physics.  I don’t want to get too much into that because calculus, but here’s one specialness.  The exponential function ex is the only one whose slope at every point is equal to its value there.”

“Nice.  But we’ve been talking logs.  Are base-e logarithms special?”

“So special that they’ve got their own name — natural logarithms, as opposed to common logarithms, the base-10 kind that power slide-rules.  They’ve even got their own abbreviations — ln(x) or loge(x) as opposed to log(x) or log10(x).”

“What makes them ‘natural’?”

“That’s harder to answer.  The simplest way is to point out that you can convert a log on one base to any other base.  For instance, ln(10)=2.303 therefore e2.303=10=101.  So log10 of any number x is 2.303 times ln(x) and ln(x)=log10(x)/2.303.  There are loads of equations that look simple and neat in terms of ln but get clumsy if you have to plug in 2.303 everywhere.”

“Don’t want to be clumsy.”

~~ Rich Olcott

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