Magnitude (mathematics)

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The magnitude of a mathematical object is its size: a property by which it can be larger or smaller than other objects of the same kind.

In mathematical language one would say: It is an ordering of the class of objects to which it belongs.

The Ancient Greeks distinguished between several types of magnitude, including:

They had proven that the first two could not be the same, or even isomorphic systems of magnitude. They did not consider negative magnitudes to be meaningful, and magnitude is still chiefly used in contexts in which zero is either the lowest size or less than all possible sizes.

Real numbers[change | change source]

The magnitude of a real number is usually called the absolute value or modulus. It is written | x |, and is defined by:

| x | = x, if x ≥ 0
| x | = -x, if x < 0

This gives the number's distance from zero on the real number line. For example, the modulus of -5 is 5.

Practical math[change | change source]

A magnitude is never negative. When comparing magnitudes, it is often helpful to use a logarithmic scale. Real-world examples include the loudness of a sound (decibel), the brightness of a star, or the Richter scale of earthquake intensity.

To put it another way, often it is not meaningful to simply add and subtract magnitudes.