The Summer 2017 Mathematics A To Z: Diophantine Equations


I have another request from Gaurish, of the For The Love Of Mathematics blog, today. It’s another change of pace.

Diophantine Equations

A Diophantine equation is a polynomial. Well, of course it is. It’s an equation, or a set of equations, setting one polynomial equal to another. Possibly equal to a constant. What makes this different from “any old equation” is the coefficients. These are the constant numbers that you multiply the variables, your x and y and x2 and z8 and so on, by. To make a Diophantine equation all these coefficients have to be integers. You know one well, because it’s that x^n + y^n = z^n thing that Fermat’s Last Theorem is all about. And you’ve probably seen ax + by = 1 . It turns up a lot because that’s a line, and we do a lot of stuff with lines.

Diophantine equations are interesting. There are a couple of cases that are easy to solve. I mean, at least that we can find solutions for. ax + by = 1 , for example, that’s easy to solve. x^n + y^n = z^n it turns out we can’t solve. Well, we can if n is equal to 1 or 2. Or if x or y or z are zero. These are obvious, that is, they’re quite boring. That one took about four hundred years to solve, and the solution was “there aren’t any solutions”. This may convince you of how interesting these problems are. What, from looking at it, tells you that ax + by = 1 is simple while x^n + y^n = z^n is (most of the time) impossible?

I don’t know. Nobody really does. There are many kinds of Diophantine equation, all different-looking polynomials. Some of them are special one-off cases, like x^n + y^n = z^n . For example, there’s x^4 + y^4 + z^4 = w^4 for some integers x, y, z, and w. Leonhard Euler conjectured this equation had only boring solutions. You’ll remember Euler. He wrote the foundational work for every field of mathematics. It turns out he was wrong. It has infinitely many interesting solutions. But the smallest one is 2,682,440^4 + 15,365,639^4 + 18,796,760^4 = 20,615,673^4 and that one took a computer search to find. We can forgive Euler not noticing it.

Some are groups of equations that have similar shapes. There’s the Fermat’s Last Theorem formula, for example, which is a different equation for every different integer n. Then there’s what we call Pell’s Equation. This one is x^2 - D y^2 = 1 (or equals -1), for some counting number D. It’s named for the English mathematician John Pell, who did not discover the equation (even in the Western European tradition; Indian mathematicians were familiar with it for a millennium), did not solve the equation, and did not do anything particularly noteworthy in advancing human understanding of the solution. Pell owes his fame in this regard to Leonhard Euler, who misunderstood Pell’s revising a translation of a book discussing a solution for Pell’s authoring a solution. I confess Euler isn’t looking very good on Diophantine equations.

But nobody looks very good on Diophantine equations. Make up a Diophantine equation of your own. Use whatever whole numbers, positive or negative, that you like for your equation. Use whatever powers of however many variables you like for your equation. So you get something that looks maybe like this:

7x^2 - 20y + 18y^2 - 38z = 9

Does it have any solutions? I don’t know. Nobody does. There isn’t a general all-around solution. You know how with a quadratic equation we have this formula where you recite some incantation about “b squared minus four a c” and get any roots that exist? Nothing like that exists for Diophantine equations in general. Specific ones, yes. But they’re all specialties, crafted to fit the equation that has just that shape.

So for each equation we have to ask: is there a solution? Is there any solution that isn’t obvious? Are there finitely many solutions? Are there infinitely many? Either way, can we find all the solutions? And we have to answer them anew. What answers these have? Whether answers are known to exist? Whether answers can exist? We have to discover anew for each kind of equation. Knowing answers for one kind doesn’t help us for any others, except as inspiration. If some trick worked before, maybe it will work this time.

There are a couple usually reliable tricks. Can the equation be rewritten in some way that it becomes the equation for a line? If it can we probably have a good handle on any solutions. Can we apply modulo arithmetic to the equation? If it is, we might be able to reduce the number of possible solutions that the equation has. In particular we might be able to reduce the number of possible solutions until we can just check every case. Can we use induction? That is, can we show there’s some parameter for the equations, and that knowing the solutions for one value of that parameter implies knowing solutions for larger values? And then find some small enough value we can test it out by hand? Or can we show that if there is a solution, then there must be a smaller solution, and smaller yet, until we can either find an answer or show there aren’t any? Sometimes. Not always. The field blends seamlessly into number theory. And number theory is all sorts of problems easy to pose and hard or impossible to solve.

We name these equation after Diophantus of Alexandria, a 3rd century Greek mathematician. His writings, what we have of them, discuss how to solve equations. Not general solutions, the way we might want to solve ax^2 + bx + c = 0 , but specific ones, like 1x^2 - 5x + 6 = 0 . His books are among those whose rediscovery shaped the rebirth of mathematics. Pierre de Fermat’s scribbled his famous note in the too-small margins of Diophantus’s Arithmetica. (Well, a popular translation.)

But the field predates Diophantus, at least if we look at specific problems. Of course it does. In mathematics, as in life, any search for a source ends in a vast, marshy ambiguity. The field stays vital. If we loosen ourselves to looking at inequalities — x - Dy^2 < A , let's say — then we start seeing optimization problems. What values of x and y will make this equation most nearly true? What values will come closest to satisfying this bunch of equations? The questions are about how to find the best possible fit to whatever our complicated sets of needs are. We can't always answer. We keep searching.

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