Logarithms, Part 1

Logarithms confuse many of my students so I thought it is time to explain these. I touched on these before on a post about inverse operations, but let’s add some more detail.

Let’s first define some terms here. Consider the expression x2. Here, x is raised to the power of 2. x is the base and 2 is the exponent, power, order, or index. Lots of different terms for the exponent – I will mostly use the term exponent. So the exponent defines what to do with the base.

Now before I talk about logarithms specifically, I want to review what various kinds of exponents mean. I have talked about this before, but these concepts should be fully understood if logarithms are to make sense to you.

Now x2 means x × x. Positive integer exponents means how many times you multiply the base by itself. So in general, for a positive integer m,

xm = x × x × x × x … where x is listed m times.

The special case of when m = 0 is defined as x0 = 1, no matter how small or how large x is. Now what about negative integers?


So a negative exponent is the same as the positive one except it and its base is in the denominator or vice versa. You can freely move a factor that is a base and its exponent between the numerator and the denominator, as long as you change the sign of the exponent.

What about fractional exponents? Let’s start with fractions where “1” is in the numerator. The denominator in a fraction exponent refers to the root of the number. For example,


The “2” for the square root is usually assumed if it is not there. However, for other roots (like cube roots), the index must be there to indicate the kind of root it is. Other examples:


The numerator in a fractional exponent means the same as if it wasn’t in a fraction. so we can combine these two definitions for more general fractions:


Now we have not covered irrational exponents like x????. The development of these are a bit more complex so I’ll just say “use your calculator”.

Indeed, you can use your calculator to calculate a number raised to a power if it has a key labelled as “yx” or has a key with the “^” symbol on it. I will leave it to you to find out how to use these keys. If you do not have a fancy calculator, there is always the all-knowing internet.

So we have talked before on how to solve equations like x2 = 16 by taking the square root of both sides of the equation. But how do you solve 2x = 16? Notice that x is now in the exponent. That changes everything as you can’t take the xth root of a number on your calculator……………but can you?

In the next post on this topic, I’ll introduce you to logarithms then later, how they are used.