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.

Summer 2017 Mathematics A to Z, featuring a coati (it's kind of the Latin American raccoon) looking over alphabet blocks, with a lot of equations in the background.
Art courtesy of Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comic Newshounds. He has a Patreon for those able to support his work. He’s also open for commissions, starting from US$10.

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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JH van ‘t Hoff and the Gaseous Theory of Solutions; also, Pricing Games


Do you ever think about why stuff dissolves? Like, why a spoon of sugar in a glass of water should seem to disappear instead of turning into a slight change in the water’s clarity? Well, sure, in those moods when you look at the world as a child does, not accepting that life is just like that and instead can imagine it being otherwise. Take that sort of question and put it to adult inquiry and you get great science.

Peter Mander of the Carnot Cycle blog this month writes a tale about Jacobus Henricus van ‘t Hoff, the first winner of a Nobel Prize for Chemistry. In 1883, on hearing of an interesting experiment with semipermeable membranes, van ‘t Hoff had a brilliant insight about why things go into solution, and how. The insight had only one little problem. It makes for fine reading about the history of chemistry and of its mathematical study.


In other, television-related news, the United States edition of The Price Is Right included a mention of “square root day” yesterday, 4/4/16. It was in the game “Cover-Up”, in which the contestant tries making successively better guesses at the price of a car. This they do by covering up wrong digits with new guesses. For the start of the game, before the contestant’s made any guesses, they need something irrelevant to the game to be on the board. So, they put up mock calendar pages for 1/1/2001, 2/2/2004, 3/3/2009, 4/4/2016, and finally a card reading \sqrt{DAY} . The game show also had a round devoted to Pi Day a few weeks back. So I suppose they’re trying to reach out to people into pop mathematics. It’s cute.

A Summer 2015 Mathematics A To Z: well-posed problem


Well-Posed Problem.

This is another mathematical term almost explained by what the words mean in English. Probably you’d guess a well-posed problem to be a question whose answer you can successfully find. This also implies that there is an answer, and that it can be found by some method other than guessing luckily.

Mathematicians demand three things of a problem to call it “well-posed”. The first is that a solution exists. The second is that a solution has to be unique. It’s imaginable there might be several answers that answer a problem. In that case we weren’t specific enough about what we’re looking for. Or we should have been looking for a set of answers instead of a single answer.

The third requirement takes some time to understand. It’s that the solution has to vary continuously with the initial conditions. That is, suppose we started with a slightly different problem. If the answer would look about the same, then the problem was well-posed to begin with. Suppose we’re looking at the problem of how a block of ice gets melted by a heater set in its center. The way that melts won’t change much if the heater is a little bit hotter, or if it’s moved a little bit off center. This heating problem is well-posed.

There are problems that don’t have this continuous variation, though. Typically these are “inverse problems”. That is, they’re problems in which you look at the outcome of something and try to say what caused it. That would be looking at the puddle of melted water and the heater and trying to say what the original block of ice looked like. There are a lot of blocks of ice that all look about the same once melted, and there’s no way of telling which was the one you started with.

You might think of these conditions as “there’s an answer, there’s only one answer, and you can find it”. That’s good enough as a memory aid, but it isn’t quite so. A problem’s solution might have this continuous variation, but still be “numerically unstable”. This is a difficulty you can run across when you try doing calculations on a computer.

You know the thing where on a calculator you type in 1 / 3 and get back 0.333333? And you multiply that by three and get 0.999999 instead of exactly 1? That’s the thing that underlies numerical instability. We want to work with numbers, but the calculator or computer will let us work with only an approximation to them. 0.333333 is close to 1/3, but isn’t exactly that.

For many calculations the difference doesn’t matter. 0.999999 is really quite close to 1. If you lost 0.000001 parts of every dollar you earned there’s a fine chance you’d never even notice. But in some calculations, numerically unstable ones, that difference matters. It gets magnified until the error created by the difference between the number you want and the number you can calculate with is too big to ignore. In that case we call the calculation we’re doing “ill-conditioned”.

And it’s possible for a problem to be well-posed but ill-conditioned. This is annoying and is why numerical mathematicians earn the big money, or will tell you they should. Trying to calculate the answer will be so likely to give something meaningless that we can’t trust the work that’s done. But often it’s possible to rework a calculation into something equivalent but well-conditioned. And a well-posed, well-conditioned problem is great. Not only can we find its solution, but we can usually have a computer do the calculations, and that’s a great breakthrough.