Introducing the Factorial: the Exclamation Mark of Math

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N Factorial from 1 to 5 or 10. Image by Mike DeHaan

What is a “factorial,” and how is it used in mathematics?

The Mathematical Definition of Factorial for Positive Integers

In mathematics, a factorial is a function applied to natural numbers greater than zero. The symbol for the factorial function is an exclamation mark after a number, like this: 2!

The usual definition of “n factorial” is “n! = n * (n – 1) * (n – 2) *…* 2 * 1,” where ‘n’ is a positive integer.

The first handful of factorial values from positive integers are: 1! = 1; 2! = 2; 3! = 3*2 = 6; 4! = 4*3*2 = 24; and 5! = 5*4*3*2 = 120. In the image, only the first five factorial results are plotted although the first ten have been calculated.

Recursive Definition for the Factorial

A recursive definition for the factorial function is “n! = n * (n-1)!”, placing the lower limit for the recursion at n=2.

Factorial Function: Practical Uses

Although the factorial function deals with repeated multiplication, its most obvious use in math is to compute the number of ways in which ‘n’ objects can be permuted.

A permutation is a re-arrangement of a set. For example, set A={a} has exactly one arrangement. However, set B={a,b} could be re-arranged as {b,a}; and set C={a,b,c} has the six permutations {(a,b,c), (a,c,b), (b,a,c), (b,c,a), (c,a,b), (c,b,a)}.

Note that |A| = 1 (set A has one element), |B| = 2 and |C| has three; but they have 1, 2 and 6 permutations respectively. Our readers are invited to list the permutations for set D={a,b,c,d}, but there should be two dozen in that permutation set.

This extends to selecting permutations of an ordered subset. From set C={a,b,c}, how many ways can two elements be selected and permuted? The solution set is {(a,b), (b,a), (a,c), (c,a), (b,c), (c,b)}, and has six elements.

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