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Lines, Parallel and Perpendicular

Lines, Parallel and Perpendicular


In mathematics, the term "straight line" is one of the few terms that is left undefined. However, most people are comfortable with this undefined concept, which can be modeled by a pencil, a stiff wire, the edge of a ruler, or even an uncooked piece of spaghetti. Mathematicians sometimes think of a line as a point moving forever through space. Lines can be curved or straight, but in this entry, only straight lines are considered.

A line, in the language of mathematics, has only one dimensionlengthand has no end. It stretches on forever in both directions, so that its length cannot be measured. When a line is modeled with a piece of spaghetti, a line segment is actually being represented. The model of a line segment has thickness (or width), while the idea that it modelsa mathematical linedoes not. So a mathematical line is a notion in one's mind, rather than a real object one can touch and feel, just as the notion of "two" is an idea in one's mindthat quality and meaning that is shared by two apples, two trucks, and the symbols //, 2, , and ii.

Think of two straight lines in a plane (another undefined term in geometry ). Someone can model this idea, imperfectly, by two pencils or two pieces of spaghetti lying on a desktop. Now, mentally or on a desktop, push these lines around, still keeping them on the plane, and see the different ways two lines can be arranged. If these two lines meet or cross, they have one point in common. In the language of mathematics, the two lines intersect at one point, their point of intersection. If two lines are moved so that they coincide, or become one line, then they have all of their points in common.

What other arrangements are possible for two lines in a plane? One can place them so that they do not coincide (that is, one can see that they are two separate lines), and yet they do not cross, and will never cross, no matter how far they are extended. Two lines in the same plane, which have no point in common and will never meet, are called parallel lines. If one draws a grid, or coordinate system, on the plane, she can see that two parallel lines have the same slope, or steepness. Are there any parallel lines in nature, or in the human-made world? There are many models of parallel lines in the world we build: railroad tracks, the opposite sides of a picture frame, the lines at the corners of a room, fence posts. In nature, parallel lines are not quite so common, and the models are only approximate: tracks of an animal in the snow, tree trunks in a forest, rays of sunlight.

The only other possible arrangement for two lines in the plane is also modeled by a picture frame, or a piece of poster board. Two sides of a rectangle that are not parallel are perpendicular . Perpendicular lines meet, or intersect, at right angles, that is, the four angles formed are all equal. The first pair of lines in part (a) of the figure below meet to form four equal angles; they are perpendicular. The second pair in part (b) forms two larger angles and two smaller ones; they are not perpendicular.

Perpendicular lines occur everywhere in buildings and in other constructions. Like parallel lines, they are less common in nature. On a coordinate system, two perpendicular lines (unless one of them is horizontal) have slopes that multiply to a product of -1; for example, if a line has a slope of 3, any line perpendicular to it will have a slope of -.

see also Lines, Skew; Slope.

Lucia McKay

Bibliography

Anderson, Raymond W. Romping Through Mathematics. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961.

Juster, Norton. The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics. New York: Random House, 1963.

Konkle, Gail S. Shapes and Perception: An Intuitive Approach to Geometry. Boston: Prindle, Weber and Schmidt, Inc., 1974.

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