Root Rite

A square contains one of the great — perhaps the greatest — intellectual rites of passage. If each side of the square is 1 unit in length, how long are its diagonals? By Pythagoras’ theorem:

a^2 + b^2 = c^2
1^2 + 1^2 = 2, so c = √2

So each diagonal is √2 units long. But what is √2? It’s a new kind of number: an irrational number. That doesn’t mean that it’s illogical or against reason, but that it isn’t exactly equal to any ratio of integers like 3/2 or 17/12. When represented as decimals, the digits of all integer ratios either end or fall, sooner or later, into an endlessly repeating pattern:

3/2 = 1.5

17/12 = 1.416,666,666,666,666…

577/408 = 1.414,2156 8627 4509 8039,2156 8627 4509 8039,2156 8627 4509 8039,2156 8627 4509 8039,2156 8627 4509 8039,…

But when √2 is represented as a decimal, its digits go on for ever without any such pattern:

√2 = 1.414,213,562,373,095,048,801,688,724,209,698,078,569,671,875,376,948,073,176,679,737,990,732,478,462,107…

The intellectual rite of passage comes when you understand why √2 is irrational and behaves like that:

Proof of the irrationality of √2

1. Suppose that there is some ratio, a/b, such that

2. a and b have no factors in common and

3. a^2/b^2 = 2.

4. It follows that a^2 = 2b^2.

5. Therefore a is even and there is some number, c, such that 2c = a.

6. Substituting c in #4, we derive (2c)^2 = 4c^2 = 2b^2.

7. Therefore 2c^2 = b^2 and b is also even.

8. But #7 contradicts #2 and the supposition that a and b have no factors in common.

9. Therefore, by reductio ad absurdum, there is no ratio, a/b, such that a^2/b^2 = 2. Q.E.D.

Given that subtle proof, you might think the digits of an irrational number like √2 would be difficult to calculate. In fact, they’re easy. And one method is so easy that it’s often re-discovered by recreational mathematicians. Suppose that a is an estimate for √2 but it’s too high. Clearly, if 2/a = b, then b will be too low. To get a better estimate, you simply split the difference: a = (a + b) / 2. Then do it again and again:

a = (2/a + a) / 2

If you first set a = 1, the estimates improve like this:

(2/1 + 1) / 2 = 3/2
2 – (3/2)^2 = -0.25
(2/(3/2) + 3/2) / 2 = 17/12
2 – (17/12)^2 = -0.00694…
(2/(17/12) + 17/12) / 2 = 577/408
2 – (577/408)^2 = -0.000006007…
(2/(577/408) + 577/408) / 2 = 665857/470832
2 – (665857/470832)^2 = -0.00000000000451…

In fact, the estimate doubles in accuracy (or better) at each stage (the first digit to differ is underlined):

1.5… = 3/2 (matching digits = 1)
1.4… = √2

1.416… = 17/12 (m=3)
1.414… = √2

1.414,215… = 577/408 (m=6)
1.414,213… = √2

1.414,213,562,374… = 665857/470832 (m=12)
1.414,213,562,373… = √2

1.414,213,562,373,095,048,801,689… = 886731088897/627013566048 (m=24)
1.414,213,562,373,095,048,801,688… = √2

1.414,213,562,373,095,048,801,688,724,209,698,078,569,671,875,377… (m=48)
1.414,213,562,373,095,048,801,688,724,209,698,078,569,671,875,376… = √2

1.414,213,562,373,095,048,801,688,724,209,698,078,569,671,875,376,948,073,176,679,737,990,732,478,46
2,107,038,850,387,534,327,641,6… (m=97)
1.414,213,562,373,095,048,801,688,724,209,698,078,569,671,875,376,948,073,176,679,737,990,732,478,46
2,107,038,850,387,534,327,641,5… = √2

1.414,213,562,373,095,048,801,688,724,209,698,078,569,671,875,376,948,073,176,679,737,990,732,478,46
2,107,038,850,387,534,327,641,572,735,013,846,230,912,297,024,924,836,055,850,737,212,644,121,497,09
9,935,831,413,222,665,927,505,592,755,799,950,501,152,782,060,8… (m=196)
1.414,213,562,373,095,048,801,688,724,209,698,078,569,671,875,376,948,073,176,679,737,990,732,478,46
2,107,038,850,387,534,327,641,572,735,013,846,230,912,297,024,924,836,055,850,737,212,644,121,497,09
9,935,831,413,222,665,927,505,592,755,799,950,501,152,782,060,5… = √2

1.414,213,562,373,095,048,801,688,724,209,698,078,569,671,875,376,948,073,176,679,737,990,732,478,46
2,107,038,850,387,534,327,641,572,735,013,846,230,912,297,024,924,836,055,850,737,212,644,121,497,09
9,935,831,413,222,665,927,505,592,755,799,950,501,152,782,060,571,470,109,559,971,605,970,274,534,59
6,862,014,728,517,418,640,889,198,609,552,329,230,484,308,714,321,450,839,762,603,627,995,251,407,98
9,687,253,396,546,331,808,829,640,620,615,258,352,395,054,745,750,287,759,961,729,835,575,220,337,53
1,857,011,354,374,603,43… (m=392)
1.414,213,562,373,095,048,801,688,724,209,698,078,569,671,875,376,948,073,176,679,737,990,732,478,46
2,107,038,850,387,534,327,641,572,735,013,846,230,912,297,024,924,836,055,850,737,212,644,121,497,09
9,935,831,413,222,665,927,505,592,755,799,950,501,152,782,060,571,470,109,559,971,605,970,274,534,59
6,862,014,728,517,418,640,889,198,609,552,329,230,484,308,714,321,450,839,762,603,627,995,251,407,98
9,687,253,396,546,331,808,829,640,620,615,258,352,395,054,745,750,287,759,961,729,835,575,220,337,53
1,857,011,354,374,603,40… = √2

1.414,213,562,373,095,048,801,688,724,209,698,078,569,671,875,376,948,073,176,679,737,990,732,478,46
2,107,038,850,387,534,327,641,572,735,013,846,230,912,297,024,924,836,055,850,737,212,644,121,497,09
9,935,831,413,222,665,927,505,592,755,799,950,501,152,782,060,571,470,109,559,971,605,970,274,534,59
6,862,014,728,517,418,640,889,198,609,552,329,230,484,308,714,321,450,839,762,603,627,995,251,407,98
9,687,253,396,546,331,808,829,640,620,615,258,352,395,054,745,750,287,759,961,729,835,575,220,337,53
1,857,011,354,374,603,408,498,847,160,386,899,970,699,004,815,030,544,027,790,316,454,247,823,068,49
2,936,918,621,580,578,463,111,596,668,713,013,015,618,568,987,237,235,288,509,264,861,249,497,715,42
1,833,420,428,568,606,014,682,472,077,143,585,487,415,565,706,967,765,372,022,648,544,701,585,880,16
2,075,847,492,265,722,600,208,558,446,652,145,839,889,394,437,092,659,180,031,138,824,646,815,708,26
3,010,059,485,870,400,318,648,034,219,489,727,829,064,104,507,263,688,131,373,985,525,611,732,204,02
4,509,122,770,022,694,112,757,362,728,049,574… (m=783)
1.414,213,562,373,095,048,801,688,724,209,698,078,569,671,875,376,948,073,176,679,737,990,732,478,46
2,107,038,850,387,534,327,641,572,735,013,846,230,912,297,024,924,836,055,850,737,212,644,121,497,09
9,935,831,413,222,665,927,505,592,755,799,950,501,152,782,060,571,470,109,559,971,605,970,274,534,59
6,862,014,728,517,418,640,889,198,609,552,329,230,484,308,714,321,450,839,762,603,627,995,251,407,98
9,687,253,396,546,331,808,829,640,620,615,258,352,395,054,745,750,287,759,961,729,835,575,220,337,53
1,857,011,354,374,603,408,498,847,160,386,899,970,699,004,815,030,544,027,790,316,454,247,823,068,49
2,936,918,621,580,578,463,111,596,668,713,013,015,618,568,987,237,235,288,509,264,861,249,497,715,42
1,833,420,428,568,606,014,682,472,077,143,585,487,415,565,706,967,765,372,022,648,544,701,585,880,16
2,075,847,492,265,722,600,208,558,446,652,145,839,889,394,437,092,659,180,031,138,824,646,815,708,26
3,010,059,485,870,400,318,648,034,219,489,727,829,064,104,507,263,688,131,373,985,525,611,732,204,02
4,509,122,770,022,694,112,757,362,728,049,573… = √2