Hippasus and the Infinite Descent

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.


Ippaso_di_Metaponto
Hippasus of Metapontum

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.

pentagram_coin
Ancient Greek coin with a pentagram

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.

first_diagram
The lengths of one side of a regular pentagon and one side of the inscribed pentagram are incommensurable. In other words, if s denotes the length of the black line segment AB and t denotes the length of the blue line segment AC, then t/s (and therefore also s/t) is irrational.

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|.

proof_diagram
Figure 1

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'.

proof_diagram
Figure 1 again

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.

pentagons
The infinite descent

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

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The (Ultra)finitists

Infinity is a fascinating and seductive topic, but it is also a contentious one and, throughout intellectual history, has been attacked on religious, philosophical, and practical grounds. Today, we turn away from the vastness of infinity and toward those who deny its existence.

Consider the Pythagoreans, followers of the famous 6th century BC Greek philosopher. According to the Pythagoreans, numbers are the first of all beings the “dominant and self-produced bond of the eternal continuance of things.” Pythagoreans saw numbers in everything, from the motions of the planets to musical harmony. But they saw only rational numbers, i.e. ratios of finite integers; according to legend, the Pythagorean Hippasus was drowned at sea after proving that \sqrt{2} is irrational.

As we have mentioned in earlier posts, actual infinity did not establish a real foothold in mathematics until the late 19th century and the work of Dedekind and Cantor, which naturally engendered fierce opposition. Perhaps the most prominent opponent of Cantorian set theory was Leopold Kronecker, who is widely known for having said, “God made the integers, all else is the work of man” and thought that irrational numbers do not exist. I have given this exact quote before, but I will do so again now:

I don’t know what predominates in Cantor’s theory – philosophy or theology, but I am sure that there is no mathematics there.

Finitism, the philosophy of mathematics that denies the existence of infinite objects, is today a minority view but is nonetheless very much alive, and a number of mathematicians are doing work to remove infinities (and, hence, irrationalities) from mathematics. Among these is N.J. Wildberger, a professor at the University of New South Wales who is developing what he calls Rational Trigonometry, a reworking of trigonometry replacing the notions of ‘distance’ and ‘angle,’ which readily produce irrational numbers even when applied only to points with rational coordinates, with ‘quadrance’ and ‘spread’ to measure the amount of separation between two points and two lines, respectively.

(A related but separate movement, which we will return to in a later post, is the attempt by prominent scientists such as Max Tegmark and Raphael Bousso, to remove infinities from physics. The assertion that our physical universe is entirely finite is a weaker (and, in my opinion, much more plausible) assertion than the assertion that infinity does not exist mathematically, and we will devote attention to it in the future.)

There are some, though, for whom the finitists do not go far enough. These people, known as ‘ultra-finitists,’ not only deny the existence of mathematical infinity but even refrain from accepting the existence of very large finite integers. For example, let N be the largest integer less than e^{e^{e^{79}}}, a number known as Skewes’ number and that has appeared in proofs in number theory. An ultra-finitist will likely refrain from accepting the existence of N on the basis that this natural number has not actually been calculated and may in fact be too large to be physically calculated at all.

Ultra-finitism in its modern guise was initiated by Alexander Yessenin-Volpin, a mathematician who was a prominent human-rights activist in the Soviet Union, for which he was imprisoned in 1968. There is a wonderful anecdote about him from Harvey Friedman, who had occasion to confront him about his extreme ultra-finitist views.

I have seen some ultrafinitists go so far as to challenge the existence of 2100 as a natural number, in the sense of there being a series of “points” of that length. There is the obvious “draw the line” objection, asking where in 21, 22, 23, … , 2100 do we stop having “Platonistic reality”? Here this … is totally innocent, in that it can be easily be replaced by 100 items (names) separated by commas. I raised just this objection with the (extreme) ultrafinitist Yessenin-Volpin during a lecture of his. He asked me to be more specific. I then proceeded to start with 21 and asked him whether this is “real” or something to that effect. He virtually immediately said yes. Then I asked about 22, and he again said yes, but with a perceptible delay. Then 23, and yes, but with more delay. This continued for a couple of more times, till it was obvious how he was handling this objection. Sure, he was prepared to always answer yes, but he was going to take 2100 times as long to answer yes to 2100 then he would to answering 21. There is no way that I could get very far with this.

Harvey M. Friedman “Philosophical Problems in Logic”

Perhaps the most prominent ultra-finitist working today is Doron Zeilberger, a mathematician at Rutgers. Zeilberger, like many ultra-finitists, believe there is a largest natural number. When asked the inevitable question about what happens when you add 1 to it, he replies that, in a very elegant circularity, you go back to 0. Zeilberger also has a fascinating web page of his Opinions. I present to you in full Opinion 146: Why the “fact” that 0.99999999…(ad infinitium)=1 is NOT EVEN WRONG.

The statement of the title, is, in fact, meaningless, because it tacitly assumes that we can add-up “infinitely” many numbers, and good old Zenon already told us that this is absurd.

The true statement is that the sequence, a(n), defined by the recurrence

a(n)=a(n-1)+9/10n   a(0)=0   ,

has the finitistic property that there exists an algorithm that inputs a (symbolic!) positive rational number ε and outputs a (symbolic!) positive integer N=N(ε) such that

|a(n)-1|<ε for (symbolic!) n>N   .

Note that nowhere did I use the quantifier “for every”, that is completely meaningless if it is applied to an “infinite” set. There are no infinite sets! Everything can be reduced to manipulations with a (finite!) set of symbols.

We end with the classic instructional video, “Look Around You (Maths),” which addresses ultra-finitism in its first segment. Enjoy!

Look Around You (Maths) from Numbers on Vimeo.