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

Squaring and Paring

Squares are often thought to be the most boring of all shapes. Yet every square holds a stunning secret – something that in legend prompted a mathematical cult to murder a traitor. If each side of a square is one unit long, how long is the square’s diagonal, that is, the line from one corner to the opposite corner?

By Pythagoras’ theorem, the answer is this:

• x^2 = 1^2 + 1^2
• x^2 = 2
• x = √2

But what is √2? Pythagoras and his followers thought that all numbers could be represented as either whole numbers or ratios of whole numbers. To their dismay, so it’s said, they discovered that they were wrong. √2 is an irrational number – it can’t be represented as a ratio. In modern notation, it’s an infinitely decimal that never repeats:

• √2 = 1·414213562373095048801688724209698…

A modern story, unattested in ancient records, says that the irrationality of √2 was a closely guarded secret in the Pythagorean cult. When Hippasus of Metapontum betrayed the secret, he was drowned at sea by enraged fellow cultists. Apocryphal or not, the story shows that squares aren’t so boring after all.

Nor are they boring when they’re caught in the fract. Divide one square into nine smaller copies of itself:


Discard three of the copies like this:

Stage 1
Retain squares 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 9 (reading left-to-right, bottom-to-top)


Then do the same to each of the sub-squares:

Stage 1


And repeat:

Stage 3


Stage 4


Stage 5


Stage 6


The result is a fractal of endlessly subdividing contingent hexagons:

Animated vesion


Retain squares 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 9 (reading left-to-right, bottom-to-top)


Here are a few more of the fractals you can create by squaring and paring:

Retain squares 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 (reading left-to-right, bottom-to-top)


Retain squares 2, 4, 5, 6, 8


Retain squares 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9


Retain squares 1, 4, 6, 7, 10, 11, 13, 16


Retain squares 1, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 14, 16


Retain squares 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 14, 15


Retain squares 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 25


Retain squares 1, 3, 7, 8, 11, 12, 14, 15, 18, 19, 23, 25


Retain squares 1, 5, 7, 8, 9, 12, 14, 17, 18, 19, 21, 25


Retain squares 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 15, 16, 17, 19, 20, 22, 23, 24


Retain squares 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 9, 13, 17, 19, 20, 21, 24, 25


Previously pre-posted (please peruse):

M.i.P. Trip