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Constants are real numbers or numerical values which are significantly interesting in some way[1]. The term "constant" is used both for mathematical constants and for physical constants, but with quite different meanings.

One always talks about definable, and almost always also computable, mathematical constants — Chaitin's constant being a notable exception. However for some computable mathematical constants only very rough numerical estimates are known.

When dealing with physical dimensionful constants, a set of units must be chosen. Sometimes, one unit is defined in terms of other units. For example, the metre is defined as of a light-second. This definition implies that, in metric units, the speed of light in vacuum is exactly metres per second[2]. No increase in the precision of the measurement of the speed of light could alter this numerical value expressed in metres per second.

Mathematical constants

Ubiquitous in many different fields of science, such recurring constants include , and the Feigenbaum constants which are linked to the mathematical models used to describe physical phenomena, Euclidean geometry, analysis and logistic maps respectively. However, mathematical constants such as Apéry's constant and the Golden ratio occur unexpectedly outside of mathematics.

Archimedes' constant π

The circumference of a circle with diameter 1 is .

Pi, though having a natural definition in Euclidean geometry (the circumference of a circle of diameter 1), may be found in many different places in mathematics. Key examples include the Gaussian integral in complex analysis, nth roots of unity in number theory and Cauchy distributions in probability. However, its universality is not limited to mathematics. Indeed, various formulas in physics, such as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, and constants such as the cosmological constant bear the constant pi. The presence of pi in physical principles, laws and formulas can have very simple explanations. For example, Coulomb's law, describing the inverse square proportionality of the magnitude of the electrostatic force between two electric charges and their distance, states that, in SI units, [3].

The exponential growth – or Napier's – constant e

Exponential growth (green) describes many physical phenomena.

The exponential growth constant appears in many parts of applied mathematics. For example, as the Swiss mathematician Jacob Bernoulli discovered, arises in compound interest. Indeed, an account that starts at $1, and yields dollars at simple interest, will yield dollars with continuous compounding. also has applications to probability theory, where it arises in a way not obviously related to exponential growth. Suppose that a gambler plays a slot machine with a one in n probability and plays it n times. Then, for large n (such as a million) the probability that the gambler will win nothing at all is (approximately) . Another application of , also discovered in part by Jacob Bernoulli along with French mathematician Pierre Raymond de Montmort is in the problem of derangements, also known as the hat check problem[4]. Here n guests are invited to a party, and at the door each guest checks his hat with the butler who then places them into labelled boxes. But the butler does not know the name of the guests, and so must put them into boxes selected at random. The problem of de Montmort is: what is the probability that none of the hats gets put into the right box. The answer is and as tends to infinity, approaches .

The Feigenbaum constants α and δ

File:LogisticMap BifurcationDiagram.png
Bifurcation diagram of the logistic map.

Iterations of continuous maps serve as the simplest examples of models for dynamical systems.[5] Named after mathematical physicist Mitchell Feigenbaum, the two Feigenbaum constants appear in such iterative processes: they are mathematical invariants of logistic maps with quadratic maximum points[6] and their bifurcation diagrams.

The logistic map is a polynomial mapping, often cited as an archetypal example of how chaotic behaviour can arise from very simple non-linear dynamical equations. The map was popularized in a seminal 1976 paper by the English biologist Robert May[7], in part as a discrete-time demographic model analogous to the logistic equation first created by Pierre François Verhulst. The difference equation is intended to capture the two effects or reproduction and starvation.

Apéry's constant ζ(3)

Despite being a special value of the Riemann zeta function, Apéry's constant arises naturally in a number of physical problems, including in the second- and third-order terms of the electron's gyromagnetic ratio, computed using quantum electrodynamics[8]. Also, Pascal Wallisch noted that [9], where are the neutron mass, the electron mass and the Golden ratio respectively.

The golden ratio φ

Golden rectangles in an icosahedron
An explicit formula for the nth Fibonacci number involving the golden ratio.

The number turns up frequently in geometry, particularly in figures with pentagonal symmetry. Indeed, the length of a regular pentagon's diagonal is times its side. The vertices of a regular icosahedron are those of three mutually orthogonal golden rectangles. Also, it appears in the Fibonacci sequence, related to growth by recursion[10].

Adolf Zeising, whose main interests were mathematics and philosophy, found the golden ratio expressed in the arrangement of branches along the stems of plants and of veins in leaves. He extended his research to the skeletons of animals and the branchings of their veins and nerves, to the proportions of chemical compounds and the geometry of crystals, even to the use of proportion in artistic endeavours. In these phenomena he saw the golden ratio operating as a universal law.[11] Zeising wrote in 1854:

[The Golden Ratio is a universal law] in which is contained the ground-principle of all formative striving for beauty and completeness in the realms of both nature and art, and which permeates, as a paramount spiritual ideal, all structures, forms and proportions, whether cosmic or individual, organic or inorganic, acoustic or optical; which finds its fullest realization, however, in the human form.[12]

The Euler-Mascheroni constant γ

The area between the two curves (red) tends to a limit.

The Euler–Mascheroni constant is a recurring constant in number theory. The French mathematician Charles Jean de la Vallée-Poussin proved in 1898 that when taking any positive integer n and dividing it by each positive integer m less than n, the average fraction by which the quotient n/m falls short of the next integer tends to as n tends to infinity. Surprisingly, this average doesn't tend to one half[13]. The Euler-Mascheroni constant also appears in Merten's third theorem and has relations to the gamma function, the zeta function and many different integrals and series. The definition of the Euler-Mascheroni constant exhibits a close link between the discrete and the continuous (see curves on the right).

Conway's constant λ

Conway's constant is the invariant growth rate of all derived strings similar to the look-and-say sequence (except two trivial ones)[14]. It is given by the unique positive real root of a polynomial of degree 71 with integer coefficients[15].

Khinchin's constant K

If a real number is written using simple continued fraction

then, as Russian mathematician Aleksandr Khinchin proved in 1934, the limit as tends to infinity of the geometric mean exists, and, except for a set of measure 0, this limit is a constant, Khinchin's constant[16][17].

Physical constants

In physics, universal constants appear in the basic theoretical equations upon which the entire science rests or are the properties of the fundamental particles of physics of which all matter is constituted (the electron charge , the electron mass and the fine-structure constant ).

The speed of light c and Planck's constant h

The speed of light and the Planck constant are examples of quantities that occur naturally in the mathematical formulation of certain fundamental physical theories, the former in James Clerk Maxwell's theory of electric and magnetic fields and Albert Einstein's theories of relativity, and the latter in quantum theory. For example, in special relativity, mass and energy are equivalent: E = mc2[18] where is the constant of proportionality. In quantum mechanics, the energy and frequency of a photon are related by .

The speed of light is also used to express other fundamental constants [19] such as the electric constant , Coulomb's constant and the characteristic impedance of vacuum .

The electron charge and the electron mass

The electron charge and the electron mass are examples of constants that characterize the basic, or elementary, particles that constitute matter, such as the electron, alpha particle, proton, neutron, muon, and pion[20]. Many constants can be expressed using the fundamental constants . For example. it is a property of a supercurrent (superconducting electrical current) that the magnetic flux passing through any area bounded by such a current is quantized. The magnetic flux quantum is a physical constant, as it is independent of the underlying material as long as it is a superconductor. Also, the fundamental fine-structure constant where the permeability of free space is just a numerical constant equal to


Mathematical curiosities, specific physical facts and unspecified constants

Simple representatives of sets of numbers

This Babylonian clay tablet gives an approximation of in four sexagesimal figures, which is about six decimal figures [21].

Some constants, such as the square root of 2, Liouville's constant and Champernowne constant are not important mathematical invariants but retain interest being simple representatives of special sets of numbers, the irrational numbers[22], the transcendental numbers[23] and the normal numbers (in base 10)[24] respectively. The discovery of the irrational numbers is usually attributed to the Pythagorean Hippasus of Metapontum who proved, most likely geometrically, the irrationality of . As for Liouville's constant, named after French mathematician Joseph Liouville, it was the first transcendental number ever constructed[25].

Chaitin's constant Ω

In the computer science subfield of algorithmic information theory, Chaitin's constant is the real number representing the probability that a randomly-chosen Turing machine will halt, formed from a construction due to Argentine-American mathematician and computer scientist Gregory Chaitin. Amusingly, Chaitin's constant, though not being computable, has been proven transcendental and normal.

Physical properties
Density (near r.t.) 19.3  g·cm−3
Liquid density at m.p. 17.31  g·cm−3
Melting point 1337.33 K
(1064.18 °C, 1947.52 °F)
Boiling point 3129 K
(2856 °C, 5173 °F)
Heat of fusion 12.55  kJ·mol−1
Heat of vaporization 324  kJ·mol−1
Heat capacity (25 °C) 25.418  J·mol−1·K−1

Constants representing physical properties of elements

Such constants represents characteristics of certain physical objects such as the chemical elements. Examples include density, melting point and heat of fusion. Some of the properties of gold are listed in the box on the right.

Unspecified constants

When unspecified, constants indicate classes of similar objects, commonly functions, all equal up to a constant - technically speaking, this is may be viewed as 'similarity up to a constant'. Such constants appear frequently when dealing with integrals and differential equations. Though unspecified, they have a specific value, which often isn't important.

File:Different constants of integration.jpg
Solutions with different constants of integration of .

In integrals

Indefinite integrals are called indefinite because their solutions are only unique up to a constant. For example, when working over the field of real numbers where , the constant of integration, is an arbitrary fixed real number[26]. In other words, whatever the value of , differentiating with respect to always yields .

In differential equations

In a similar fashion, constants appear in the solutions to differential equations where not enough initial values or boundary conditions are given. For example, the ordinary differential equation has solution where is an arbitrary constant.

When dealing with partial differential equations, the constants may be functions, constant with respect to some variables (but not necessarily all of them). For example, the PDE has solutions where is an arbitrary function in the variable .


Representing constants

Different symbols are used to represent and manipulate constants, such as , and . It is common, both in mathematics and physics, to express the numerical value of a constant by giving its decimal representation (or just the first few digits of it). For two reasons this representation may cause problems. First, even though rational numbers all have a finite or ever-repeating decimal expansion, some numbers don't have such an expression making them impossible to completely describe in this manner. Also, the decimal expansion of a number is not necessarily unique. For example, the two representations 0.999... and 1 are equivalent[27][28] in the sense that they represent the same number.

Calculating digits of the decimal expansion of constants has been a common enterprise for many centuries. For example, german mathematician Ludolph van Ceulen of the 16th century spent a major part of his life calculating the first 35 digits of pi[29]. Nowadays, using computers and supercomputers, some of the mathematical constants, including , have been computed to more than one hundred billion — — digits. Fast algorithms have been developed, some of which — as for Apéry's constant — are unexpectedly fast. In physics, the knowledge of the numerical values of the fundamental constants with high accuracy is crucial. First, it is necessary to achieve accurate quantitative descriptions of the physical universe. Also, it is helpful for testing the overall consistency and correctness of the basic theories of physics.

Some constants differ so much from the usual kind that a new notation has been invented to represent them reasonably. Graham's number illustrates this as Knuth's up-arrow notation is used[30][31].

Commonly, constants in the physical sciences are represented using the scientific notation, with, when appropriate, the inaccuracy - or measurement error - attached. When writing the Planck constant [32] it is meant that . Only the significant figures are shown and a greater precision would be superfluous, extra figures coming from experimental inaccuracies. When writing Isaac Newton's gravitational constant [33] only 6 significant figures are given.

For mathematical constants, it may be of interest to represent them using continued fractions to perform various studies, including statistical analysis. Many mathematical constants have an analytic form, that is they can constructed using well-known operations that lend themselves readily to calculation. However, Grossman's constant has no known analytic form[34].

Symbolizing and naming of constants

Symbolizing constants with letters is a frequent means of making the notation more concise. A standard convention, instigated by Leonhard Euler in the 18th century, is to use lower case letters from the beginning of the Latin alphabet or the Greek alphabet when dealing with constants in general.

Erdős–Borwein constant
Embree-Trefethen constant
Brun's constant for twin prime
Rydberg constant
cardinal number aleph naught
Different kinds of notation.

However, for more important constants, the symbols may be more complex and have an extra letter, an asterisk, a number, a lemniscate or use different alphabets such as Hebrew, Cyrillic or Gothic[31].

Sometimes, the symbol representing a constant is a whole word. For example, American mathematician Edward Kasner's 9-year-old nephew coined the names googol and googolplex[35][31]

File:Parabolic constant illustration v4.svg
The parabolic constant is the ratio of the arc length of the parabolic segment formed by the latus rectum (red) to its focal parameter (green).

The names are either related to the meaning of the constant (parabolic constant, characteristic impedance of vacuum, twin prime constant, electric constant, conductance quantum, ...), to a specific person (Planck's constant, Sierpiński's constant, Dirac's constant, Josephson constant, ...) or both (Newtonian constant of gravitation, Bohr magneton, Fermi coupling constant[36],...).

Lumping constants

A common practice in physics is to lump constants to simplify the equations and algebraic manipulations. For example, Coulomb's constant [37] is just , and lumped together. Also, combining old constants does not necessarily make the new one less fundamental. For example, the -notably- dimensionless fine-structure constant is a fundamental constant of quantum electrodynamics and in the quantum theory of the interaction among electrons, muons and photons.

A notation simplifier : the Avogadro constant

The Avogadro constant is the number of entities in one mole, commonly used in chemistry, where the entities are often atoms or molecules. Its unit is inverse mole. However, the mole being a counting unit, we can consider the Avogadro constant dimensionless, and, contrary to the speed of light, the Avogadro constant doesn't convert units, but acts as a scaling factor for dealing practically with large numbers.

Mystery and aesthetics behind constants

Euler's identity relating five of the most important mathematical constants.

For some authors, constants, either mathematical or physical may be mysterious, beautiful or fascinating. For example, English mathematician Glaisher (1915) writes [1]: "No doubt the desire to obtain the values of these quantities to a great many figures is also partly due to the fact that most of them are interesting in themselves; for , and many other numerical quantities occupy a curious, and some of them almost a mysterious, place in mathematics, so that there is a natural tendency to do all that can be done towards their precise determination".

Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan discovered the following mysterious identity containing pi and Pythagoras' constant :.

Steven Finch writes that "The fact that certain constants appear at all and then echo throughout mathematics, in seemingly independent ways, is a source of fascination."[38]

During the 1920s until his death, British astrophysicist Eddington increasingly concentrated on what he called "fundamental theory" which was intended to be a unification of quantum theory, relativity and gravitation. At first he progressed along "traditional" lines, but turned increasingly to an almost numerological analysis of the dimensionless ratios of fundamental constants. In a similar fashion, British theoretical physicist Paul Dirac studied ratios of fundamental physical constant to build his large numbers hypothesis.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Constant". MathWorld. Retrieved 2007-12-09.
  2. CODATA. "Speed of light in vacuum". CODATA recommended values. NIST. Retrieved 2007-08-08.
  3. "Sphere". MathWorld.
  4. Grinstead, C.M. and Snell, J.L. "Introduction to probability theory". p. 85. Retrieved 2007-12-09. Unknown parameter |licence= ignored (help)
  5. Collet & Eckmann (1980). Iterated maps on the inerval as dynamical systems. Birkhauser. ISBN 3-7643-3026-0.
  6. Finch, Steven (2003). Mathematical constants. Cambridge University Press. p. 67. ISBN 0-521-81805-3.
  7. May, Robert (1976). Theoretical Ecology: Principles and Applications. Blackwell Scientific Publishers. ISBN 0-632-00768-0.
  8. Finch, Steven. "Apéry's constant". Retrieved 2007-12-08.
  9. "The Eagleman Prize in Mathematics and Physics".
  10. Livio, Mario (2002). The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, The World's Most Astonishing Number. New York: Broadway Books. ISBN 0-7679-0815-5.
  11. Padovan, Richard (2002). "Proportion: Science, Philosophy, Architecture". Nexus Network Journal. 4 (1): 113–122. doi:10.1007/s00004-001-0008-7.
  12. Zeising, Adolf (1854). Neue Lehre van den Proportionen des meschlischen Körpers. p. preface.
  13. Finch, Steven. "Euler-Mascheroni constant". Mathcad. Retrieved 2007-12-08.
  14. Finch, Steven (2003). Mathematical constants. Cambridge University Press. p. 453. ISBN 0-521-81805-3.
  15. Finch, Steven. "Conway's Constant". MathWorld. Retrieved 2007-12-07.
  16. M. Statistical Independence in Probability, Analysis and Number Theory. Mathematical Association of America. 1959. |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
  17. Finch, Steven. "Khinchin's Constant". MathWorld. Retrieved 2007-12-08.
  18. Einstein, Albert (1905), "Ist die Trägheit eines Körpers von dessen Energieinhalt abhängig?" (PDF), Annalen der Physik, 18: 639–643, retrieved 2007-12-09 See also the english translation.
  19. CODATA. "Values of the Fundamental Constants". CODATA recommended values. NIST. Retrieved 2007-12-09.
  20. "Physical Constants". Encyclopædia Britannica. 5 (15 ed.). Helen Hemingway Benton. 1974. p. 75. ISBN 0-85229-290-2.
  21. Fowler, David (1998). "Square Root Approximations in Old Babylonian Mathematics: YBC 7289 in Context" (PDF). Historia Mathematica. 25 (4): 368. Retrieved 2007-12-09. Unknown parameter |month= ignored (help); Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (help)
    Photograph, illustration, and description of the root(2) tablet from the Yale Babylonian Collection
    High resolution photographs, descriptions, and analysis of the root(2) tablet (YBC 7289) from the Yale Babylonian Collection
  22. Bogomolny, Alexander. "Square root of 2 is irrational".
  23. Aubrey J. Kempner (Oct 1916). "On Transcendental Numbers". Transactions of the American Mathematical Society. 17 (4): 476–482.
  24. Champernowne, david (1933). "The onstruction of decimals normal in the scale of ten". Journal of the London Mathematical Society. 8: 254–260.
  25. "Liouville's Constant". MathWorld. Retrieved 2007-12-09.
  26. Edwards, Henry. Calculus with analytic geometry (4e ed.). Prentice Hall. p. 269. ISBN 0-13-300575-5. Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (help); More than one of |author= and |last= specified (help)
  27. Rudin, Walter (1976) [1953]. Principles of mathematical analysis (3e ed.). McGraw-Hill. p. 61. ISBN 0-07-054235-X. Unknown parameter |theorem= ignored (help)
  28. Stewart, James (1999). Calculus: Early transcendentals (4e ed.). Brooks/Cole. p. 706. ISBN 0-534-36298-2.
  29. Pi Digits - from Wolfram MathWorld
  30. Knuth, Donald (1976). "Mathematics and Computer Science: Coping with Finiteness. Advances in Our Ability to Compute are Bringing Us Substantially Closer to Ultimate Limitations". Science. 194: 1235–1242.
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 "mathematical constants". Retrieved 2007-11-27.
  32. CODATA. "Planck constant". CODATA recommended values. NIST. Retrieved 2007-12-09.
  33. CODATA. "Newtonian constant of gravitation". CODATA recommended values. NIST. Retrieved 2007-12-09.
  34. Finch, Steven. "Grossman's constant". Retrieved 2007-12-09.
  35. Edward Kasner and James R. Newman (1989). Mathematics and the Imagination. Microsoft Press. p. 23.
  36. CODATA. "Fermi coupling constant". CODATA recommended values. NIST. Retrieved 2007-12-09.
  37. "Coulomb's constant". Wolfram World of Physics. Retrieved 2007-12-09.
  38. Finch, Steven (2003). Mathematical constants. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-81805-3.

Further reading

Look up constant in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.

External links

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