Imaginary Carousel

translated by Maria Droujkova

The carousel comes from a Russian book called "The black mask from
Al-Jabr" by Levshin and Alexandrova, first published in 1967. This is
one of the books that I dearly wish were translated into English, so I
could share it with friends who don't read Russian. Let me translate
the relevant pieces for you, and maybe I will put it on the web
somewhere for people to find. This is a rough draft, so if you find
any grammar errors, please let me know. You are welcome to put it on
your web pages, etc.. The Russian book is here: add-on/xussr_av/alelev02.htm Unfortunately,
the good people who put it online did not scan the (very cute)
pictures of characters working on diagrams. Here is the cover of the
1967 edition:

Here is an English web page explaining imaginary numbers visually that
can go with it: articles/a-visual-intuitive- guide-to-imaginary-numbers/

The book is written as a series of letters to a math club from Tanya,
a girl traveling the magical land of Al-Jabr with her friends Oleg and
Seva. Here are excerpts from three of several letters related to the
carousel metaphor, based on the road metaphor for numbers. I hope they
make enough sense without the rest of the context.

The park was full of people. There were numbers and letters walking
around. Lately, we've been meeting a lot of letters. Some of them we
saw before, but some are total strangers. Mother Two greeted a lot of
them and called them by names: "Hello, Mr. Pi! How do you feel today,
dear Lady Omega? Oh Epsilon, baby, it's been too long!"
We wanted to learn more about all those new letters, but
unfortunately, Mother Two stopped to chat with some rather plump
Sigma. At this point, we noticed a building with a large "Automatic
information station" sign. That's where we can get answers to all our
We ascended some stairs and found ourselves in a large well-lit room.
It was full of large plastic machines, each with a microphone and a
speaker. You approach a microphone, ask your questions and immediately
get answers. Al-Jabr has no secrets. Everybody can listen to what the
machine says to others.
Next to us there was a strange little letter with a tiny red umbrella:
i. We heard her sadly asking:
- Please tell me, will I ever find my place in life?
The machine thought for a while, and then replied:
- Even an Imaginary One is good for something.
Little Imaginary One gave a sigh of relief and ran out of the
building. Do you understand what is going on? It was bad enough when
we had negative ones, and now we get imaginary ones!

On our way we met our old acquaintance - the very same Little
Imaginary One who asked the machine earlier if she has a place in
life. We immediately recognized her by the little red umbrella.
- Hello, how are you?
- Excellent, - she replied. - The machine told me the truth: even an
Imaginary One is good for something.
- You don't say you found a place for yourself on the monorail road?
- Of course, but not on the line where real numbers live. We Imaginary
Ones have our own road. It crosses the monorail road exactly at the
Zero station.
- How come we never noticed it? - asked Seva.
- Obviously, because our road is imaginary and hard to pay attention to.
- Too bad! - blurted Seva angrily. - Now we have to go back to look at it.
- Sometimes going back to the old stuff is useful, - observed Little
Imaginary One. - But you can explore a little piece of the imaginary
line right here. There is a new attraction in the park. It's called,
"Imaginary Carousel." I work there. Want to see?

As we walked toward the carousel, the advertisements were getting thicker:


Our handsome friend chattered all the way. She told us many interesting things.
It turns out that imaginary one is simply a square root of negative one: V-1
- But why can't you take a square root from minus one? - asked Seva. -
The square root of one is always equal to one, after all.
- Ouch! - exclaimed the horrified Little Imaginary One. - This only
work for the positive one. For example, what does it mean to take the
square root of, say, nine?
- It means to find such a number that will give you nine when you
square it, - replied Oleg. - This number is three.
- Right. Now try to find a number that gives you minus one when you square it!
Little Imaginary One laughed in her high-pitched voice.
Seva ruffled his hair, puzzled.
- Mmmm... There is no such number! Whatever number you square,
positive or negative, the answer's always positive. This I know for
- You see! That's why the square root of minus one is called "imaginary one."
- This means imaginary ones are very special numbers. I guess your
monorail line works in some special way, too.
- Not at all. Our line looks is very similar to the line where real
numbers live, but perpendicular to it. It's the same sort of an
infinite line with the center at the same Zero station.
- If you have the Zero station, then you must have positive and
negative numbers?
- How could you! Imaginary numbers can never be positive or negative!
Our road simply has two directions from zero, just like the road of
real numbers. One of them is denoted by the plus sign and the other by
the minus sign.
- But how can you tell imaginary numbers from real numbers?
- With some help from the letter i:
2i, 5i, - 8i, - 12i.
- Is that so? But then you must have coefficients, just like all the
other letters of Al-Jabr?
- Of course.
- And where is your coefficient? - blurted out Seva.
When will he ever learn any manners? Good thing well-bred Little
Imaginary One pretended she did not notice his rudeness.
- My coefficient is one, and it's invisible, as usual.
But Seva was plowing right ahead. He can argue you to death.
- Here you are saying that the imaginary monorail road is like the
real monorail road. But that means it has the same traffic rules.
Rigth? Then what does it have to do with carousels? After all, the
real monorail road is a straight line, and carousels go around!
- You are partially right, - replied Little Imaginary One. - Our
traffic rules have more variety. When we add or subtract, our cars
move in the straight line, by the same rules as real numbers:
2i + 3i = 5i;
8i - 15i = - 7i,
Or like this:
- 3i + 9i = 6i,
And, of course:
5i - 5i=0.
Imaginary Ones with opposite signs and the same coefficients destroy
each other at the Zero station.
But multiplication, division, or powers - that's another story! Here
Imaginary Ones move not only in straight lines. You'll see in a
We entered a round building. It was full of Imaginary Ones. All of
them were impatiently waiting their turn on the carousel.
- The seats here are in an amphitheater around the arena in the
middle. It is intersected by two bars. One bar represents the monorail
road of the real numbers. It has the +1 and the -1 signs on its ends.
The other bar represents the road of the imaginary numbers. Here, you
see the +i and -i signs. At the intersection of the roads in the
middle of the arena is the Zero station. It has a rotating axis with a
transparent plastic circle on it, like a record on a turntable.
When we entered, the carousel stopped. An Imaginary One with a green
umbrella lightly jumped off it. Taking her place, exactly next to the
+i sign, an Imaginary One with a yellow umbrella entered.
Our guide took a microphone and commanded:
- Get ready to be taken to powers!
A bell rang, and the circle started to move to the sounds of a rolling
waltz. Except it wasn't moving clockwise, but in the opposite
direction. And then wondrous things started to happen!
Imaginary One with a yellow umbrella crossed the road of real numbers
next to the -1 sign and turned into a real number, Negative One.
At the next sign, she became Imaginary One again, but now with the
minus sign. Then she crossed the real road again, and as she was next
to the +1 sign, she miraculously transformed from Imaginary One to
Real One again, with a plus sign yet! And then she approached the i
sign and turned back into Imaginary One.
The orchestra started to play the song, "You are what you are!" and
everything repeated once more. The carousel was going around and
around, and Imaginary One was transforming again and again.
- I don't get it, - said Seva. - Imaginary One turns into Real One,
and Real One turns back into Imaginary One... How does it happen?!
- That's how powers work! - replied Little Imaginary One. - After all,
Imaginary One is equal to the square root of minus one: i=V-1. But if
you square a square root of any number, what do you get?
- Whatever number was under the square root, - replied Oleg.
- Oh, we saw it recently. One local guy kept squaring either square
root of three, or square root of two for an hour... And every time he
got whatever number was under the V sign.
- The same happens to Imaginary One:
i^2 = i*i = (V-1)^2= - 1.
- This I understand. But how does a real number, minus one, transform
into an imaginary number?
- This happens when Imaginary One is not squared, but cubed, that is,
taken to the third power:
i^3 = i^2* i.
This is the same as multiplying -1 by i
- 1 * i = - i.
- Now, - said Oleg, - it's easy to understand how Imaginary One with
the minus, -i, turns into Real One with the plus, +1. It is taken to
the fourth power:
i^4 = i^2*i^2
You can also imagine it like this:
- 1 * - 1 = + 1.
- Wonderful! - Little Imaginary One exclaimed. - The only thing left
to do is to figure out how Real One becomes imaginary.
Indeed, how? Even Oleg had no idea. But it turned out you need to
raise Imaginary One to the fifth power.
- It's impossible! i^5 is equal to i?! - we got lost. - What does it mean?
- Nothing special: i^4=1. To get i^5, multiply 1 by i. But it's the
same thing as simply i taken once, or 1*i=i
- What a puzzle! Imaginary One does not work with powers over four? -
wondered Oleg.
- Why not! - said Little Imaginary One. - You can raise it to sixth,
seventh, or one hundred twenty first power... Any whole power. You
just won't get anything new. That's why it's a carousel.
At this point, Seva demanded to know what is i^17.
- It's really easy. i to the fifth power is i, - said Little Imaginary
One. - It means that i to the ninth power is also i...
- I get it! - interrupted Seva. - You just add four to the power: i^13
is equal to i, and then i^17 is also equal to i.
Here is a good problem. Try to figure out what's i^24. To make it
easier, look at the picture of the carousel.