The title of this post, “To prove that two things are equal, show that the difference is zero,” is surprisingly handy in the secondary mathematics curriculum. For example, it is the basis for the proof of the Mean Value Theorem, one of the most important theorems in calculus that serves as the basis for curve sketching and the uniqueness of antiderivatives (up to a constant).

And I have a great story that goes along with this principle, from 30 years ago.

I forget the exact question out of Apostol’s calculus, but there was some equation that I had to prove on my weekly homework assignment that, for the life of me, I just couldn’t get. And for no good reason, I had a flash of insight: subtract the left- and right-hand sides. While it was very difficult to turn the left side into the right side, it turned out that, for this particular problem, was very easy to show that the difference was zero. (Again, I wish I could remember exactly which question this was so that I could show this technique and this particular example to my own students.)

So I finished my homework, and I went outside to a local basketball court and worked on my jump shot.

Later that week, I went to class, and there was a great buzz in the air. It took ten seconds to realize that everyone was up in arms about how to do this particular problem. Despite the intervening 30 years, I remember the scene as clear as a bell. I can still hear one of my classmates ask me, “Quintanilla, did you get that one?”

I said with great pride, “Yeah, I got it.” And I showed them my work.

And, either before then or since then, I’ve never heard the intensity of the cussing that followed.

Truth be told, probably the only reason that I remember this story from my adolescence is that I usually was the one who had to ask for help on the hardest homework problems in that Honors Calculus class. This may have been the one time in that entire two-year calculus sequence that I actually figured out a homework problem that had stumped everybody else.

I'm a Professor of Mathematics and a University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of North Texas. For eight years, I was co-director of Teach North Texas, UNT's program for preparing secondary teachers of mathematics and science.
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