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Why dividing by zero is undefined

As much as we would like to have an answer for "what's 1 divided by 0?" it's sadly impossible to have an answer. The reason, in short, is that whatever we may answer, we will then have to agree that that answer times 0 equals to 1, and that cannot be ​true, because anything times 0 is 0. Created by Sal Khan.

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  • Based on the limit that Sal just did, why couldn't a number divided by zero just be defined as ±infinity ?
    (408 votes)
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  • purple pi purple style avatar for user Trurl
    Playing a bit of devil's advocate, so please take this post as more or a philosophical discussion than a question...

    Just wondering why this is not defined as an imaginary number or an "imaginary ratio". Seems to me if we can define the square root of -1, which for real numbers is nonsensical, we could define 1/0.

    Also, I am not convinced by the argument that it breaks down because we can have infinity or negative infinity. Why not simply state that infinity is an absolute (perhaps unobtainable) limit and that it is approached from either the positive or negative side? We do not give a sign to zero--we say that 0/-1 is the same is 0/1 so why not define infinity the same way?

    I am of course not really trying to argue that 1/0 can be defined. If it could, far, far more brilliant people than me would have figured that out years ago, but I wanted to throw this out for discussion.
    (52 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user maxtn
    Sal, is it possible that 0 is the intersection of positive and negative numbers, since all other division results in some other non zero number and multiplication by zero is zero? Therefore infinity exists as an intersection.
    (42 votes)
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  • leafers sapling style avatar for user Dennis Fisher
    Why couldn't it just be defined like this:

    0=nothing

    If i divide something by nothing, I'm left with that something. I simply didn't divide it.

    Therefore, x/0=x

    If I divide by .0000000001 or -.00000000001, I am then dividing by something again and therefore have an answer that is quantifiable. This could still allow us to hold true that dividing something by nothing simply means you did not divide it at all.
    (14 votes)
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    • leaf red style avatar for user Bean Jaudrillard
      Okay, let's accept the fact the x/0=x but accepting it leads to all sorts of contradictions,
      Consider V=S/T (Velocity=displacement divided by time)
      say you have to cover 1m in 0 sec,which means in no time,then you ask what is the velocity, according to you it must be 1m/s. Does that make sense?
      The contradiction becomes more apparent after you rearrange the equation by solving for time.
      T=S/V (Time=displacement/velocity)
      Say you have to cover 1 metre,with a velocity of 0m/s,but a velocity of 0m/s means that you are standing still,and if you are standing still how can you cover a given distance?Even if you stand motionless at a fixed point for an eternity you will never be able to cover any given distance,in this case asking the question 'what is the time if the velocity is 0 and distance 1' does not make sense,the solution is not infinity,the solution is not 1,there is no solution.
      I guess in this universe dividing by 0 does not make sense but probably in a universe where you could cover distance without moving,it would make sense.
      (16 votes)
  • male robot donald style avatar for user Ronald Das
    Guys What is square root of Zero??
    (11 votes)
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    • old spice man blue style avatar for user saurabhag12
      if you go and check a calculator it will show 0 and if you even think square root means its asking to what number we should put ^2 that the number which is being square rooted will come . so the answer for square root of zero is always=0. hope this helps:)
      (1 vote)
  • leaf orange style avatar for user Alexander L
    Hi, I'm failing to understand the issue here? It seems to me that 2 different questions are trying to be represented here with the same mathematical formula:

    1. What happens when you have nothing to divide?

    If you have 7 and you want to divide by nothing then no division is going to happen, so it seems to me that 7/0 = 7

    If you owe 1 and you want to divide by nothing then nothing is going to happen either -1/0 = -1 Again, no division is happening because you have nothing to divide.

    2. If we are asking the question: How many times can I fit a number into another like how many times can we fit 0.1 into 1 then is obvious that the smaller the number the more times we can fit it, that is what happens when we do:

    1/0.1 = 10

    Obviously here the smaller the numbers we are using to divide the more times we can fit them and since we know that there are an infinite amount of numbers in between 0.1 & 1, then as long as we have something to divide, no matter how small, we get a result. But the assumption that because we are dividing by smaller and smaller numbers then 1/0=∞ seems wrong to me because the moment we are dealing with 0 we really have nothing to divide, therefore the division doesn't happen.

    CONCLUSION:
    So I'm failing to see the issue here and why there is a problem determining the value? Where is the problem with this line of thinking and what are the other ways of reasoning that contradict this?
    (10 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user MusicWizz
      I like to think of it this way.
      When you are dividing say, 7/0, you are dividing it by nothing, but into a number of groups, which in this case would be no groups.
      So if you divide 7 items into 0 groups, how many are there in each group? 0.

      As for your second question. Let's consider factors.
      So continuing with 7/0. If 7/0 is a question of how many 0's can we fit into 7, then once again the answer is 0.
      Why? Because 0 cannot fit into 7, the only numbers that can are 1, and 7 (the factors of 7).

      This is a great question, and I hope my answer helps clear it up a little!
      (3 votes)
  • starky ultimate style avatar for user CR_DragoUchiha
    If infinity is not a real number, what exactly is it?
    (3 votes)
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    • old spice man green style avatar for user jmascaro
      Hi,
      Infinity is a concept. We cannot put a value on infinity because there will always be something bigger that we can come up with.

      We tend to think of infinity as "the biggest number" but it's not, infinity is just an idea. If I give you my biggest number, you will be able to come up with a bigger number. Then I can come up with a number bigger than yours, and you come up with an even bigger number, and so on and so on forever.

      By trying to put a value on infinity, we are limiting infinity which, by definition, is limitless. Hope that helps :-)
      (8 votes)
  • male robot donald style avatar for user Alfredo
    If I divide a pie by three, I end up with three parts or pieces. If I divide it by two, I end up with two pieces, and if I divide by one I end up with one piece. Dividing by zero would produce zero slices of pie. In doing that, I would be turning an existing amount of something into Nothing (no pie, etc.) through the process of division, and that's impossible. Assuming that x is not equal to zero, multiplying x by zero is possible because it just produces zero instances of x, but dividing x by zero is not producing zero instances of x-- it's converting a non-zero amount into zero through the process of division. Is this correct?
    (2 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Singularity9876
      That's illogical. You basically said that 1/0=0. That doesn't make sense. Dividing a pie by zero will give you infinitely many, although nonexistent, slices of pie. Since an infinite cannot exist in this word, it disintegrates before even coming close to it. In an infinite realm however, the slices are there and not there at the same time.
      (3 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Joseph Fletcher
    I wonder is you could put a fraction inside of a fraction, inside of a fraction, inside of a fraction, inside a fraction, and it just keeps on going on and on and on.
    (4 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user Judith Gibson
      You have hit upon a field of mathematics that is called "continued fractions".
      Although I know it exists, it is far beyond my knowledge at this point to be able to understand it well enough to explain it. Some PhD dissertations have covered this topic.
      (3 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Jason Z
    What happens if you divide any number by infinity?
    (3 votes)
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    • leaf blue style avatar for user Stefen
      Infinity is not a number, it is an abstract concept to describe the "never ending" property that many structures have, like the non-positive integers for example, you start at 0, then 1,2,3, and where does it end? It doesn't. Since infinity is not a number, you can't use it for any arithmetic computation.

      The concept of infinity becomes really important in math once you get to calculus, where we talk about it all the time.
      (4 votes)

Video transcript

Comedian Steven Wright-- and I guess we can credit him with being a bit of a philosopher-- once commented that "Black holes are where God divided by zero." And I won't get in to the physics of it, and obviously the metaphor breaks down in certain ways But it is strangely appropriate, because black holes are where our current understanding of physics seems to break down and dividing by zero, as simple of idea as that seems to be, is where our mathematics also breaks down. This is "undefined." Sometimes when you see "undefined" in math class it seems like a very strange thing. It seems like a very bizarre idea. But it really means exactly what the word means. Mathematicians have never defined what it must mean to divide by zero. What is that value? And the reason they haven't done it is because they couldn't come up with a good answer. There's no good answer here, no good definition. And because of that, any non-zero number, divided by zero, is left just "undefined." 7 divided by 0. 8 divided by 0. Negative 1 divided by 0. We say all of these things are just "undefined." You might say, well if we can just define it, let's at least try to come up with a definition of what it means to take a non-zero number divided by zero. So let's do that right now. We could just take the simplest of all non-zero numbers. We'll just do it with one. But we could have done this with any non-zero number. Let's take the example of one. Since we don't know what it means-- or we're trying to figure out what it means to divide by zero Lets just try out really, really, small positive numbers. Let's divide by really, really small positive numbers and see what happens as we get close to zero. So lets divide by 0.1 Well, this will get us to 10. If we divide 1 by 0.01 that gets us to 100. If I go really, really close to zero. If I divide 1 by 0.000001 this gets us-- so this is not a tenth, hundredth, thousandth, ten thousandth, hundred thousandth. This is a millionth. 1 divided by a millionth, that's going to give us 1 million. So we see a pattern here. As we divide one by smaller and smaller and smaller positive numbers, we get a larger and larger and larger value. Based on just this you might say, well, hey, I've got somewhat of a definition for 1 divided by 0. Maybe we can say that 1 divided by 0 is positive infinity. As we get smaller and smaller positive numbers here, we get super super large numbers right over here. But then, your friend might say, well, that worked when we divided by positive numbers close to zero but what happens when we divide by negative numbers close to zero? So lets try those out. Well, 1 divided by negative 0.1, that's going to be negative 10. 1 divided by negative 0.01, that's going to be negative 100. And, if we go all the way to 1 divided by negative 0.000001-- yup, I drew the same number of zeros-- that gets us to negative 1 million. So you when we keep dividing 1 by negative numbers that are closer and closer and closer and closer to zero, we get a very different answer. We actually start approaching negative infinity. So over here we said maybe it would be positive infinity, but you can make an equally strong argument that it could be a very different number. Negative infinity is going the exact opposite direction. So you could make an equally strong argument that it should be negative infinity. And this is why mathematicians say there's just no good answer here. Especially one that's consistent with the rest of mathematics. They could have just said it's equal to 42 or something like that. But that would make no sense. It's neither one of these values, and it wouldn't be consistent with everything else we know. So they just left the whole thing "undefined."