## Missing a complex opportunity

Submitted by Rachel on November 24, 2017
At the end of the first century AD, the Greek mathematician Heron of Alexandria missed the chance to explore a brand new area of mathematics. He was interested in *frustrums* – truncated pyramids with a square base and top, joined by straight sloping sides. In his book *Stereometria* he asked the question: If the length of the sides of the square base is *a*, the length of the sides of the square top is *b*, and the length of the sloping edges running from top to bottom is *c*, how high is your frustum?

This frustrum is drawn with the values *a*=10, *b*=2, *c*=9 and *h*=7.

He came up with this tidy formula (you can see how here) for calculating the height, , of a frustrum:

Heron then tried this approach for a different example, with a base of side length , top of side length and sloped edge of length . This time his formula gives the height as:

Heron had managed to come up with an impossible example: no frustrum with these measurements could exist. But he had also come up with the first recorded example we have of a calculation involving the square root of a negative number, a *complex number*. The answer was recorded in his book, however, as . We don't know if he deliberately set his jaw and ignored the strange result or simply made a mistake and didn't notice. But he definitely missed his complex opportunity.

*You can find out more about complex numbers and things you can do with them in this introductory package and in our teacher package.*