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any product of the form ai, in which a is a real number and i is the imaginary unit defined as √(−1) .

Complex analysis

In the 18th century a far-reaching generalization of analysis was discovered, centred on the so-called imaginary number i = √(−1) . (In engineering this number is usually denoted by j.) The numbers commonly used in everyday life are known as real numbers, but in one sense this name is misleading. Numbers are abstract concepts, not objects in the physical universe. So mathematicians consider real numbers to be an abstraction on exactly the same logical level as imaginary numbers.

The name imaginary arises because squares of real numbers are always positive. In consequence, positive numbers have two distinct square roots—one positive, one negative. Zero has a single square root—namely, zero. And negative numbers have no “real” square roots at all. However, it has proved extremely fruitful and useful to enlarge the number concept to include square roots of negative numbers. The resulting objects are numbers in the sense that arithmetic and algebra can be extended to them in a simple and natural manner; they are imaginary in the sense that their relation to the physical world is less direct than that of the real numbers. Numbers formed by combining real and imaginary components, such as 2 + 3i, are said to be complex (meaning composed of several parts rather than complicated).

The first indications that complex numbers might prove useful emerged in the 16th century from the solution of certain algebraic equations by the Italian mathematicians Girolamo Cardano and Raphael Bombelli. By the 18th century, after a lengthy and controversial history, they became fully established as sensible mathematical concepts. They remained on the mathematical fringes until it was discovered that analysis, too, can be extended to the complex domain. The result was such a powerful extension of the mathematical tool kit that philosophical questions about the meaning of complex numbers became submerged amid the rush to exploit them. Soon the mathematical community had become so used to complex numbers that it became hard to recall that there had been a philosophical problem at all.