The Short, Unhappy Life Of A Doomed Conjecture


So last month amongst the talk about the radius of a circle inscribed in a Pythagorean right triangle I mentioned that I had, briefly, floated a conjecture that might have spun off it. It didn’t, though I promised to describe the chain of thought I had while exploring it, on the grounds that the process of coming up with mathematical ideas doesn’t get described much, and certainly doesn’t get described for the sorts of fiddling little things that make up a trifle like this.

A triangle with sides a, b, and c, and an inscribed circle. From the center of the circle are lines going to the vertices of the triangle, dividing the circle into three smaller triangles, with bases of lengths, a, b, and c respectively and all with the same height, r, the radius of the inscribed circle.
A triangle (meant to be a right triangle) with an inscribed circle of radius r. The triangle is divided into three smaller triangles meeting at the center of the inscribed circle.

The point from which I started was a question about the radius of a circle inscribed in the right triangle with legs of length 5, 12, and 13. This turns out to have a radius of 2, which is interesting because it’s a whole number. It turns out to be simple to show that for a Pythagorean right triangle, that is, a right triangle whose legs are a Pythagorean triple — like (3, 4, 5), or (5, 12, 13), any where the square of the biggest number is the same as what you get adding together the squares of the two smaller numbers — the inscribed circle has a radius that’s a whole number. For example, the circle you could inscribe in a triangle of sides 3, 4, and 5 would have radius 1. The circle inscribed in a triangle of sides 8, 15, and 17 would have radius 3; so does the circle inscribed in a triangle of sides 7, 24, and 25.

Since I now knew that (and in multiple ways: HowardAt58 had his own geometric solution, and you can also do this algebraically) I started to wonder about the converse. If a Pythagorean right triangle’s inscribed circle has a whole number for a radius, can does knowing a circle has a whole number for a radius tell us anything about the triangle it’s inscribed in? This is an easy way to build new conjectures: given that “if A is true, then B must be true”, can it also be that “if B is true, then A must be true”? Only rarely will that be so — it’s neat when it is — but we might be able to patch something up, like, “if B, C, and D are all simultaneously true, then A must be true”, or perhaps, “if B is true, then at least E must be true”, where E resembles A but maybe doesn’t make such a strong claim. Thus are tiny little advances in mathematics created.

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A Wonder of Rationality


I’d like to talk about a neat little property of the rational numbers, which does involve there being infinitely many of them, and which isn’t about how there are just as many rational numbers as there are integers but there are more real numbers than there are rational numbers. (It’s true, but the point has already been well-covered by every mathematics blog ever.) Anyway, I’m laying the groundwork for something else.

Now, it’s common in mathematics to talk about the set of rational numbers, the numbers you get as one integer divided by another, as Q. The notation seems to trace back to the 1930s and the Bourbaki group which did so much to put mathematics on a basis of set theory, and the Q was chosen as it’s the start of “quotient”, which rational numbers after all are. (“R” was already called on to stand for the set of Real numbers.) I’m interested in two subsets of the rational numbers, the first of them, all the positive integers. For that I’ll write Q+. The other is just the rational numbers between zero and one. For that I’ll write Q(0, 1).

I can match every rational number between 0 and 1 to some rational number greater than zero. Here’s one way (there are many ways) to do it. Start out with some number, let me call it q, that’s in Q(0, 1). That’s a rational number between zero and one. Well, let me take its reciprocal: the result of one divided by q, which is going to be some rational number greater than 1. That’s a nice matching of the rational numbers between zero and one to the rational numbers greater than one, but I claimed I’d do this matching for rational numbers greater than zero. No matter; I can get there easily. Take that reciprocal and subtract one from it. This new number — let me call it p — is a rational number greater than zero, something in Q+. That is, each q (a rational between 0 and 1) can be matched with p (a positive rational), among other ways, by letting p equal (1/q) minus 1.

For example, let’s say, let q be 3/4. Then the reciprocal of that is 4/3, and subtracting one from that gets us a p of 1/3, which is certainly a positive number.

Or let’s say that q is 2/9. Then the reciprocal of q is 9/2, and subtracting one from that gets us a p of 7/2. (Some math teachers would want to change that 9/2 into 4 ½, and that 7/2 into 3 ½, but I don’t really know why they bother. I suppose the teachers are having fun and it’s quite easy to test, so, let them.)

If we start with a q of 3/32, then we go to its reciprocal, 32/3, and subtract one from that for a p of 29/3.

And I can run it the other way, too. Pick some rational number p, anything that’s positive. Add one to it, which will make it a rational number greater than 1. Take the reciprocal of this, and you have a rational number between 0 and 1. That is, p (a positive rational) can be matched with q (a rational between 0 and 1) by (again, among other ways) letting q equal 1/(p + 1).

For example, let’s let p be 3/5. Add one to that and we have 8/5, and the reciprocal of that is our q, 5/8, which is a rational number between zero and one.

Or let p be 14. Add one to that and we have 15, and the reciprocal of that is our q, 1/15, which is again between zero and one.

Or say that p is 39/7. Add one to that and we have 46/7, and the reciprocal of that is q, 7/46.

There are many ways to do this sort of matching. For example, you can match the rationals between 0 and 1 to the rationals between -1 and 1, or for that matter to all the rationals, positive and negative. It doesn’t have to be with a single rule, either; you’re allowed to set up a rule like “if q is less than one-half, find p by this rule; if q is greater than one-half, find p by that rule; if q is exactly one-half, do this other thing instead”. You can have a good bit of mental exercise by picking sets and trying to work out rules that match the numbers in one to the numbers in the other, and if I were smart I might try making a weekly puzzle section for that.

A reasonable person may point out that it’s absurd that you can match Q(0, 1) exactly to Q+. The rules I worked out give you one and only one p for each q, and vice-versa; but, the rationals between zero and one are all also positive rational numbers. That you can match the positive rational numbers to a subset of the positive rational numbers is counter-intuitive, at least when you first encounter it. It’s also the simplest definition for being “infinitely large” that I know of, though; if you can set up a one-to-one match of a set with a proper subset of itself, the set is considered to have an infinitely large cardinality, which is one of the ways mathematicians describe the sizes of things.

Augustin-Louis Cauchy’s birthday


The Maths History feed on Twitter mentioned that the 21st of August was the birthday of Augustin-Louis Cauchy, who lived from 1789 to 1857. His is one of those names you get to know very well when you’re a mathematics major, since he published 789 papers in his life, and did very well at publishing important papers, ones that established concepts people would actually use.

He’s got an intriguing biography, as he lived (mostly) in France during the time of the Revolution, the Directorate, Napoleon, the Bourbon Restoration, the July Monarchy, the Revolutions of 1848, the Second Republic, and the Second Empire, and had a career which got inextricably tangled with the political upheavals of the era. I note that, according to the MacTutor biography linked to earlier this paragraph, he followed the deposed King Charles X to Prague in order to tutor his grandson, but might not have had the right temperament for it: at least once he got annoyed at the grandson’s confusion and screamed and yelled, with the Queen, Marie Thérèse, sometimes telling him, “too loud, not so loud”. But we’ve all had students that frustrate us.

Cauchy’s name appears on many theorems and principles and definitions of interesting things — I just checked Mathworld and his name returned 124 different items — though I’ll admit I’m stumped how to describe what the Cauchy-Frobenius Lemma is without scaring readers off. So let me talk about something simpler.

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