Today, dear Reader, we bring you a story. A story of Mathematics and Music, of Reason and Passion, of Drama and Irony. It is the story of Hippasus of Metapontum, of his remarkable life and his equally remarkable death. Before we begin, a note of warning. Not everything presented here is true, but all of it is meaningful.

A Greek philosopher and mathematician from the 5th century BCE, Hippasus was a follower of Pythagoras. The Pythagoreans believed in the transmigration of souls, subscribed to the belief that All is Number (where “Number” is, of course, “Whole Number”), made great strides in the study of musical harmony, and eschewed the eating of beans. Our hero was a particularly illustrious Pythagorean. He performed experiments linking the sizes of metal discs to the tones they emit upon being struck, developed a theory of the musical scale and a theory of proportions, and showed how to inscribe a regular dodecahedron in a sphere. The regular dodecahedron is a twelve-sided solid whose faces are regular pentagons, shapes which were dear to the Pythagoreans and central to our story. The pentagram, the five-sided star formed by extending the sides of a regular pentagon, and whose tips themselves form a regular pentagon, was a religious symbol of the Pythagoreans and a mark of recognition amongst themselves.

A corollary to the Pythagorean doctrine that All is Number was a belief, at the time, that any two lengths are commensurable, i.e., that given any two lengths, they are both whole number multiples of some fixed smaller length. In modern language, this amounts to the assertion that, given any two lengths, their ratio is a rational number, i.e., can be expressed as the ratio of whole numbers. It is only fitting that the first evidence to the contrary would come from the pentagram.

It happened when Hippasus was stargazing. He saw five stars forming a perfect regular pentagon, and inside this regular pentagon he formed a pentagram, at the center of which lay another regular pentagon, into which he formed another pentagram, at the center of which lay another regular pentagon, into which he formed another pentagram. An infinite web of similar triangles was woven through his mind and, in a flash of insight, he realized something terrible: the lengths of one side of the regular pentagon and one side of the pentagram found inside it are incommensurable.

The next day, he told his fellow Pythagoreans of his discovery, and they were horrified. They could not have this knowledge, which struck at the core of their belief system, getting out into the wider world. So they took Hippasus far out to sea, and they threw him overboard.

Infinite descent is a proof technique that morally dates back to the ancient Greeks but really came into its own in the work of Pierre de Fermat in the 17th century. The idea behind it is simple and immediately appealing. Suppose we want to prove that there are no positive integers satisfying a particular property. One way to prove this would be to show that, given any positive integer $n$ satisfying this property, we could always find a smaller positive integer $n'$ satisfying the same property. Repeating the argument with $n'$ in place of $n$, we could find a still smaller positive integer $n''$ satisfying the same property. Continuing, we would construct a decreasing sequence of positive integers, $n > n' > n'' > n''' > \ldots$, the aforementioned “infinite descent”. But of course there can be no infinite decreasing sequences of positive integers (if a decreasing sequence starts with $n$, it can of course have at most $n$ elements). One thus reaches a contradiction and concludes that there are no positive integers with the given property.

Fermat made great use of the method of infinite descent in his work on number theory. One particularly striking application came in the proof of a special case of his famous Last Theorem: there are no positive integers $a,b,c$ such that $a^4 + b^4 = c^4$. Fermat showed that, if $a_0,b_0,c_0$ are positive integers such that $a_0^4 + b_0^4 = c_0^4$, then we can construct positive integers $a_1, b_1, c_1$ such that $a_1^4 + b_1^4 = c_1^4$ and $c_1 < c_0$. One can then continue, with $a_1, b_1, c_1$ in place of $a_0, b_0, c_0$, and obtain $a_2, b_2, c_2$ with $a_2^4 + b_2^4 = c_2^4$ and $c_2 < c_1$. This of course leads to the infinite descent $c_0 > c_1 > c_2 > \ldots$ and a contradiction.

We will use the method of infinite descent to prove the result of Hippasus mentioned above. This will not be exactly the way the ancient Greeks would have presented the proof, but it is very similar in spirit, and we make no apologies for the anachronism. Let’s get started.

Suppose, for the sake of an eventual contradiction, that we have a regular pentagon whose side length is commensurable with the side length of the inscribed pentagram. Let $s$ denote the side length of the pentagon and $t$ denote the side length of the pentagram (i.e., the diagonal of the pentagon). In modern language, our assumption is that $\frac{t}{s}$ is rational, i.e., that there are positive integers $p$ and $q$ such that $\frac{t}{s} = \frac{p}{q}$. By scaling the pentagon, we can in fact assume that $t = p$ and $s = q$. So let this be our starting assumption: there is a regular pentagon whose side length $s$ and diagonal length $t$ are both positive integers.

Let us label the vertices of the pentagon by the letters A,B,C,D,E. The center of the pentagram forms another regular pentagon, whose vertices we shall call a,b,c,d,e. This is shown in the diagram below. Note that $s$ is the length of the line segment connecting A and B (we will denote this length by |AB|), and $t$ is |AC|. Let $s'$ denote the side length of the inner pentagon, i.e., |ab|, and let $t'$ denote the length of the diagonal of the inner pentagon, i.e., |ac|.

We now make use of the wealth of congruent triangles in the diagram. We first observe that, whenever a pentagram is inscribed into a regular pentagon, the diagonals that form the pentagram exactly trisect the angles of the pentagon. (Exercise: Prove this!) Therefore, the triangle formed by A, E and D is congruent to that formed by A, e, and D, on account of their sharing a side and having the same angles on either end of that side. In particular, we have |Ae| = |AE| = $s$.

Next, consider the triangle formed by A, b, and d. By our observation at the start of the previous paragraph, the angle at b in this triangle has the same measure as the angle at A. But then this triangle is isosceles, so we have |Ad| = |db| = $t'$. Of course, we clearly have |Ad| = |Bd| = |Be| = |Ce| =…, so all of these lengths are equal to $t'$.

Let’s now see what we have. Consider first |AC|. By definition, we have |AC| = $t$. But also |AC| = |Ae| + |Ce|, and we saw previously that |Ae| = $s$ and |Ce| = $t'$. All together, we have $t$ = |AC| = |Ae| + |Ce| = $s + t'$, or $t' = t-s$.

Next, consider |Ae|. We have already seen that |Ae| = $s$. But we also have |Ae| = |Ad| + |de|. We saw previously that |Ad| = $t'$, and by definition we have |de| = $s'$. All together, we have $s$ = |Ae| = |Ad| + |de| = $t' + s'$, or $s' = s - t'$. Since we already know that $t' = t-s$, this yields $s' = 2s - t$.

This might not seem like much, but we’re actually almost done now! The key observation is that, since $s$ and $t$ are integers, and since $s' = 2s - t$ and $t' = t-s$, it follows that $s'$ and $t'$ are also (positive) integers. We started with a regular pentagon whose side length $s$ and diagonal length $t$ were integers and produced a smaller pentagon whose side length $s'$ and diagonal length $t'$ are also integers. But now we can continue this process, producing smaller and smaller regular pentagons and producing infinite descending sequences of positive integers, $s > s' > s'' > \ldots$ and $t > t' > t'' > \ldots$.

This is a contradiction, and we have thus shown that $\frac{t}{s}$ is irrational. But what is this ratio exactly? Well, it turns out to be a fascinating number, easily #2 on the list of Most Famous Ratios of All Time: $\phi$, a.k.a. the golden ratio! But that is a story for another time…

As a short addendum to today’s story, here’s a little-known fact about the end of Hippasus’ life. It turns out that, after being thrown overboard by his fellow Pythagoreans, he has not and will never in fact reach the seabed! For to get there, he would first have to travel halfway down, and then he would have to travel half of the remaining distance, and then half of the still remaining distance, and so on and so forth, completing an endless sequence of tasks, and thus he remains to this date in the midst of an infinite descent of his own.

Notes:

(1) $\sqrt{2}$ is more commonly cited as being the first irrational number discovered by the Pythagoreans, and it is almost always the first number proven to be irrational in classrooms today. However, the proof of the irrationality of $\sqrt{2}$ possessed by the Greeks is not the simple number-theoretic proof used today and is in fact a rather complex elaboration of the proof of the incommensurability of the side and diagonal lengths of a regular pentagon. Given this fact and the centrality of the pentagram in Pythagorean intellectual life, some scholars have suggested that perhaps this was in fact the first proof of the existence of incommensurability and that the proof of the irrationality of $\sqrt{2}$ came later. We have adopted this hypothesis for the purpose of our story today.

(2) This story is derived from legends that significantly post-date the death of Hippasus. It seems unlikely actually to have happened as presented here.

(3) This post was in part inspired by the episode “Drowned at Sea”, from the excellent podcast, Hi-Phi Nation, by philosopher Barry Lam. Check it out!

Cover image: “Rainstorm Over the Sea” by John Constable