Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Square Roots - Part I

The concept of square roots often gives students trouble. (In fact, it is the topic most searched for on my site!) However, the initial uncertainty and hesitation with this topic is quite unnecessary. Square roots sound daunting, but they're really a simple concept.

The SQUARE ROOT of a number "x" is some number "y", such that when "y"is multiplied by itself, its product is "x". Sounds confusing... but you will see that it's not. The square root sign looks like this: 25 (usually with a line over the top of the number.)  This is called a radical sign, and I will cover radicals in far more detail later.

Find the square root of 25.

So, going along with the definition I gave above, let's say x = 25. So then, we want to know y... that is, what number, when it is multiplied by itself, will equal 25. In this example, most people will be able to say immediately "5 times 5 equals 25!" And they will be right. The square root of 25 is 5, because when 5 is multiplied by itself, it gives 25.

Now, I'm sure that most of you will be saying something like "That's easy! But what about when the numbers are big... or weird... like 529?" While most calculators can tell you the square root by the touch of a single button, figuring it out by hand can take a little more guesswork. To find the square root of, say, 529 (by hand), you have to just keep trying to multiply numbers by themselves to reach it. Watch:

10 x 10 = 100..... not big enough
15 x 15 = 225..... still not big enough
20 x 20 = 400..... getting closer
25 x 25 = 625..... too big! so we've narrowed it down to between 20 and 25
22 x 22 = 484
24 x 24 = 576
23 x 23 = 529 BINGO!

It takes a bit of work, but you see how it can be done. Now, having seen this, there are a few things to note.

1) While it can be said that the SQUARE ROOT of a number "x" is some number "y" that, when multiplied by itself, gives "x", the SQUARE of a number is the result you get when you multiply a number by itself. So, the square root of 25 is 5, whereas the square of 5 is 25. It is important to understand these definitions and not to mix them up. Pay attention to what the question is asking!

2) The examples and method I described use PERFECT SQUARES. A perfect square is a number whose square root is an integer (whole number). So, the square root of 25 is 5, but the square root of 24 is.... less than 5.... but more than 4 (since the square of 4 is 16). Therefore, 25 is a perfect square, but 24 is not. We would call the square root of 24 an IRRATIONAL NUMBER.

I'll have a bit more to say about squares and square roots in following posts.  Make sure you check out my Square Roots - Part II (The Irrational Number) and Part III - Factoring Square Roots posts!

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