Stopped by a friend’s house a few days ago to do homework, which somehow devolved into me analyzing what programming language I should try to learn next in a corner, which is completely irrelevant to the rest of this post. Oops.

Anyway, in normal-math-curriculum-land, my classmates are now learning about matrices. How to add them, how to multiply them, how to calculate the determinant and stuff. Being a nice person, and feeling somewhat guilty for my grade stability despite the number of study hours I siphoned off to puzzles and the like, I was eager to help confront the monster. Said classmate basically asked me what they were for.

Well, what a hard question. But of course given the curriculum it’s the only interesting problem I think could be asked.

When I was hurrying through the high-school curriculum I remember having to learn the same thing and not having any idea what the heck was happening. Matrices appeared in that section as a messy, burdensome way to solve equations and never again, at least not in an interesting enough way to make me remember. I don’t have my precalc textbook, but a supplementary precalc book completely confirms my impressions and “matrix” doesn’t even appear in my calculus textbook index. They virtually failed to show up in olympiad training too. I learned that Po-Shen Loh knew how to kill a bunch of combinatorics problems with them (PDF), but not in the slightest how to do that myself.

Somewhere else, during what I’m guessing was random independent exploration, I happened upon the signed-permutation-rule (a.k.a. Leibniz formula) for evaluating determinants, which made a lot more sense for me and looked more beautiful and symmetric

and I was annoyed when both of my linear algebra textbooks defined it first with cofactor expansion. Even though they quickly proved you could expand along any row or column, and one also followed up with the permutation formula a few sections later, it still felt uglier to me. Yes, it’s impossible to understand that equation without knowledge of permutations and their signs, but I’m very much a permutations kind of guy. Sue me.

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