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The Laws of Exponents

Appendix A: The Laws of Exponents

Exponents are a short -hand notation used to represent many factors multiplied together. All
of the rules for manipulating exponents may be deduced from the laws of multiplication and
division
that you are already familiar with.

Exponential notation

Repeated multiplication is represented using exponential notation, for example:

There are four factors in the product , each of which is a 3. In the mathematical expression
34, 4 is called the exponent and 3 is usually called the base.

For a real number a and a positive integer n, exponentials are defined by:

a total of n factors, each of which is an a.

A special case of exponential notation to note:

a1 = a.

This makes sense, since a1 should have only one factor of a .

Rules for combining exponents

Suppose that a and b are real numbers and that m and n are positive integers.

Justifications of these laws are based on the laws of multiplication and division that you are
familiar
with. Rules 1, 3 and 4 are justified below, and the ideas of the justifications for
Rules 2 and 4 described. (The justifications of Rules 2 and 4 are exercises for this
appendix.)

For the first exponential rule,

For the third exponential rule,

For the fourth exponential rule,

The idea for justifying second exponential rule is this: there are n copies of a in the
numerator of the fraction , and m copies of a in the denominator of the fraction . Some of
these copies of a will cancel out.

Lastly, the idea for the justification of the fifth exponential rule is this: there are n copies of
the fraction a/b . Thus, the numerator will consist of n copies of a multiplied together, so the
numerator is an. The denominator will consist of n copies of b multiplied together, so the
denominator is bn. (To review concepts such as numerator, denominator and multiplication
of fractions, see Appendix E.)

Many of these rules also work when m and n are not positive integers - for example, if m
and n are fractions. Some special considerations apply when m and n are not positive
integers in order to make sure that the expression makes good mathematical sense. For
example, while it is possible to write down a collection of symbols like :

The collection of symbols should represent the number that is the square root of
negative two. However, since squaring any real number gives a result that is greater than or
equal to zero , there is no real number that, when squared, gives -2. While it is possible to
write down the collection of symbols: , there is no real number that equals this
collection of symbols.

Example A.1

Use the laws of exponents to simplify the following algebraic expressions when possible.

Solution :

Part (b) illustrates an interesting point - the application of the exponent rules can generate
algebraic expressions such as , which we have no way of interpreting at this point.

Interpreting and simplifying fractional and negative exponents

The way that we defined exponential notation as a short-hand for repeated multiplication
makes complete sense for exponents that are positive integers. However, exactly what an
expression like should mean is not so clear.

Let a be a real number, and let m and n be positive integers.

(provided that a ≠ 0)
(provided that a ≠ 0)
(if n is an even integer, then this only makes sense when a ≥  0)
(if n is an even integer, then this only makes sense when a ≥ 0)

Example A.2

Using the laws of exponents, simplify the following expressions as much as possible.

Solution:

The important point in Part (c) is that there in no exponential rule that is valid when the
terms inside the bracket are added (rather than multiplied or divided) together. In particular,

The important thing to remember here that that (a + b)n and an + bn are not the same. (To
review the expansion of complicated algebraic expressions, see Appendix B.)

Example A.3

Solution:

b)

c) The simplification of is not completely straight-forward. If a is a positive number
or zero, then

as you might expect. If a is a negative number, then the situation is more complicated. If n
is an odd number, then   To illustrate this consider the case where n = 3 and a =
-2,

If n is an even number, then  To illustrate this consider the case where n = 2 and
a = -2,

Exercises for Appendix A

For Problems 1-10, evaluate the quantity (if possible) without using a calculator .

For Problems 11-20, simplify the expression as much as possible.

For Problems 21-25, decide whether each of the statements are true or false.

In problems 26 and 27 you will justify the last two exponential rules.

26. Suppose that a is a real number, and that n and m are positive integers. Explain why:

27. Suppose that a and b are real numbers, and that n is a positive integer. Explain why:

Answers to Exercises for Appendix A

26. The basic idea here is cancellation of common factors from the numerator and
denominator. There are n factors of a in the numerator and m factors of a in the
denominator. In the case where n > m, all of the factors of a in the denominator
will cancel with factors of a in the numerator, leaving n - m factors of a remaining
in the numerator. In the case where n < m, the n factors of a in the numerator will
cancel with factors in the denominator, leaving m - n factors of a in the
denominator. Thus, the simplified expressions will be:
.

27. The basic idea here is that you will have n factors, each of which is a/b. Thus,
the overall numerator will consist of n copies of a all multiplied together, i.e. the
overall numerator is an. Similarly, the overall denominator is bn.

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