Vectors and Complex Numbers

Vectors share a lot of characteristics with complex numbers. They are both multi-dimensional objects, so to speak. Position vectors with 2 components \(\mathtt{(x_1, x_2)}\) behave in much the same way geometrically as complex numbers \(\mathtt{a + bi}\). At the right, you can see that Geogebra displays the position vectors as arrows and the complex numbers as points. In some sense, though, we could use both the vector and the complex number to refer to the same object if we wanted.

You’ll have no problem finding out about how to multiply two complex numbers, though a similar product result for multiplying 2 vectors seems to be hard to come by. For complex numbers, we just use the Distributive Property: \[\mathtt{(a + bi)(c + di) = ac + adi + bci + bdi^2 = ac – bd + (ad + bc)i}\] In fact, we are told that we can think of multiplying complex numbers as rotating points on the complex plane. Since \(\mathtt{0 + i}\) is at a 90° angle to the x-axis, multiplying \(\mathtt{3 + 2i}\) by \(\mathtt{0 + i}\) will rotate the point \(\mathtt{3 + 2i}\) ninety degrees about the origin: \[\mathtt{(3 + 2i)(0 + 1i) = (3)(0) + (3)(1)i + (2)(0)i + (2)(1)i^2 = -2 + 3i}\]

We’ll get the same result after changing the order of the factors too, of course, since complex multiplication is commutative, but now we have to say that \(\mathtt{0 + i}\) was not only rotated by β but scaled as well.

By what was it scaled? Well, since the straight vertical vector has a length of 1, it was scaled by the length of the vector represented by the complex number \(\mathtt{3 + 2i}\), or \(\mathtt{\sqrt{13}}\).

Multiplying Vectors in the Same Way

It seems that we can multiply vectors in the same way that you can multiply complex numbers, though I’m hard pressed to find a source which describes this possibility.

That is, we can rotate the position vector (a, b) so many degrees (\(\mathtt{tan^{-1}(\frac{d}{c})}\)) counterclockwise by multiplying by the position vector (c, d) of unit length, like so: \[\begin{bmatrix}\mathtt{a}\\\mathtt{b}\end{bmatrix}\begin{bmatrix}\mathtt{c}\\\mathtt{d}\end{bmatrix} = \begin{bmatrix}\mathtt{ac – bd}\\\mathtt{ad + bc}\end{bmatrix}\]

Want to rotate the vector (5, 2) by 19°? First we determine the unit vector which forms a 19° angle with the x-axis. That’s (cos(19°), sin(19°)). Then multiply as above:

\[\begin{bmatrix}\mathtt{5}\\\mathtt{2}\end{bmatrix}\begin{bmatrix}\mathtt{cos(19^\circ)}\\\mathtt{sin(19^\circ)}\end{bmatrix} = \begin{bmatrix}\mathtt{5cos(19^\circ) – 2sin(19^\circ)}\\\mathtt{5sin(19^\circ) + 2cos(19^\circ)}\end{bmatrix}\]

Seems like a perfectly satisfactory way of multiplying vectors to me. We have some issues with undefined values and generality, etc., but for chopping some things together, multiplying vectors in a crazy way seems easier to think about than hauling out full blown matrices to do the job.

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Josh Fisher

Instructional designer, software development in K-12 mathematics education.