# Continued Fractions. Darren C. Collins

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1 Continued Fractions Darren C Collins Abstract In this paper, we discuss continued fractions First, we discuss the definition and notation Second, we discuss the development of the subject throughout history Third, we recall some theory of continued fractions Finally, we use the theory to examine applications of continued fractions Introduction Continued fractions offer a useful means of expressing numbers and functions In the early ages, 300 bc 200 ad, mathematicians used other algorithms and methods to express numbers and to express solutions of Diophantine equations Many of these algorithms were studied and modeled in the development of the continued fractions Through the eighteenth century, use of continued fractions was limited to the area of mathematics Since the beginning of the twentieth century, continued fractions have become more common in various other areas For example, Robert M Corless s 992 paper [3] examines the connection between chaos theory and continued fractions They have also been used in computer algorithms for computing rational approximations to real numbers, as well as for solving Diophantine and Pell s equations This paper provides an introduction to continued fractions In Section 2, we discuss the general form of a continued fraction We also give some definitions and notations that are needed in later sections In Section 3, we trace the development of continued fractions over the past 2,500 years In Section 4, we begin looking at the theory of continued fractions In particular, we are going to see how to express real numbers as continued fractions In Section 5, we continue our look at the theory We are going to see how to express rational numbers as continued fractions We note some similarities between this process and the Euclidean algorithm In Section 6, we discuss the kth convergent of a continued fraction Finally, in Section 7, we look at some applications We are going to see how continued fractions can be used to find solutions of quadratic equations, to express irrational numbers, and to find factors of large numbers 2 General Form A continued fraction is an expression of the form r = 0 + a + a 2 + b b 2 b 3 a 3 + where a i and b i are either rational numbers, real numbers, or complex numbers If b i = for all i, then the expression is called a simple continued fraction If the expression contains finitely many terms, then it is called a finite continued fraction; otherwise, it is called an infinite continued fraction The numbers a i are called the partial quotients

2 2 MIT Undergraduate Journal of Mathematics If the expression is truncated after k partial quotients, then the value of the resulting expression is called the kth convergent of the continued fraction; it is denoted by C k If the a i and b i repeat cyclically, then the expression is called a periodic continued fraction Due to the complexity of the expression above, mathematicians have adopted several more convenient notations for simple continued fractions The most common of these is r = [a 0, a, a 2, a 3, ] If a 0 is an integer, then it is often separated from the rest of the coefficients with a semicolon: Below, two other simpler notations are listed: r = [a 0 ; a, a 2, a 3, ] (2-) r = a + a a a ; (2-2) r = a + (a 2 + /(a 3 + /( )) (2-3) In the remainder of this paper, we will use these simpler notations when possible 3 Development Early traces of continued fractions appear as far back as 306 bc Other records have been found that show that the Indian mathematician Aryabhata ( ) used a continued fraction to solve a linear equation [5, pp 28 32] However, he did not develop a general method; rather, he used continued fractions only in specific examples Continued fractions were used only in specific examples for more than,000 years In the sixteenth century, two Italian mathematicians, Rafael Bombelli (526 72) and Pietro Cataldi ( ), expressed 3 and 8, respectively, as periodic continued fractions Both mathematicians only provided these examples; they stopped short of further investigation John Wallis (66 703) did go further, and through his work, continued fractions became a subject of study in its own right First, in his 656 book Arithemetica Infinitorium, he worked out the formula, 4 π = Although the right-hand side is not a continued fraction, Lord Brouncker (620 84) rewrote it as follows: 4 π = Brouncker did not go further with continued fractions On the other hand, Wallis then took the first steps toward a general theory In his 695 book, Opera Mathematica, Wallis explained how to compute convergents, and discovered some of their important properties He also introduced the term continued fraction Earlier, they were known as anthyphairetic ratios The Dutch mathematician and astronomer, Christiaan Huygens (629 95), made the first practical application of the theory in 687 He wrote a paper explaining how to use convergents to find the best rational approximations for gear ratios These approximations enabled him to pick the gears with the best numbers of teeth His work was motivated by his desire to build a mechanical planetarium Wallis and Huygens wrote the first general

3 Continued Fractions 3 works on continued fractions Later, the theory grew when Leonard Euler (707 83), Johan Lambert (728 77), and Joseph Louis Lagrange (736 83) worked on the topic Much of the modern theory was developed in Euler s 737 work, De Fractionbous Continuis He showed that every rational number can be expressed as a finite simple continued fraction He also gave the following expression for e as a continued fraction: e = He used this expression to show that e and e 2 are irrational He also showed how to go from a series to a continued fraction, and back In 763, Lambert generalized Euler s work on e to show that both e x and tan x are irrational if x is rational Lagrange used continued fractions to find the value of an irrational root of a quadratic equation He also proved that a real irrational root is given by a periodic continued fraction The nineteenth century can be said to be a popular period for continued fractions, according to Claude Brezinski [, p 2] It was a time in which the subject was known to every mathematician As a result, there was explosive growth, especially in the part concerning convergents (see Theorem 6- and Theorem 6-2 below) Also studied were continued fractions with complex numbers as terms Among those to contribute were Karl Jacobi (804 5), Oskar Perron ( ), Charles Hermite (822 90), Karl Friedrich Gauss ( ), Augustin Cauchy ( ), and Thomas Stieltjes (856 94), see [2, pp 25 28] By the beginning of the twentieth century, the theory had advanced greatly beyond the initial work of Wallis 4 Expression of Real Numbers Every real number x is represented by a point on the real line, and falls between two successive integers, say n and n + : n x < n + In the case where x is an integer, then n = x The integer n is often called the floor of x, and is written as n = x The number u = x n satisfies 0 u < Thus, for a given real x there is a unique decomposition, x = n + u, where n is an integer and u satisfies 0 u < Furthermore, u = 0 if and only if x is an integer This decomposition is called the mod one decomposition of a real number It is the first step in the process of expanding x as a continued fraction The process of finding the continued fraction expansion of a real number is a recursive process Given x, we begin with the mod one decomposition x = n + u, (4-) where n is an integer and 0 u < If u = 0, then the recursive process terminates with this first step If u > 0, then the reciprocal /u of u satisfies /u > since u satisfies 0 u < In this case, the second step of the recursion is to apply the mod one decomposition to /u, which yields /u = n 2 + u 2, (4-2)

4 4 MIT Undergraduate Journal of Mathematics where n 2 is an integer and u 2 satisfies 0 u 2 < Combining (4-) and (4-2), we see that x = n + n 2 + u 2 In general, if u k = 0, then the recursive process ends with x = n k + n k In the case that u k > 0, we can rewrite /u k as /u k = n k+ + u k+, where n k+ is an integer u k+ and satisfies 0 u k+ < After k steps, we can write the real number as x = n + n 2 + n n k + u k We can express any real number as a continued fraction using the above recursive process 5 Expression of Rational Numbers The process of expressing a rational number as a continued fraction is essentially identical to the process of applying the Euclidean algorithm to the pair of integers given by its numerator and denominator in lowest terms Let x = a/b, with b > 0, be a representation of a rational number x The mod one decomposition, a b = n + u, where u = a n b, b shows that u = r /b, where r is the remainder on division of a by b The case where u = 0 is the case where x is an integer Otherwise u and the mod one decomposition of /u gives b = n 2 + u 2, where u 2 = b n 2r r r Hence u 2 = r 2 /r where r 2 is the remainder on division of b by r The successive quotients in the Euclidean algorithm are the integers n, n 2, occurring in the continued fraction The Euclidean algorithm terminates after a finite number of steps with the appearance of a zero remainder Therefore, the continued fraction of every rational number is finite We can now prove the following theorem Theorem 5- The continued fraction expression of a real number is finite if and only if the real number is rational Proof: We have just shown that, if x is rational, then the continued fraction expansion of x is finite To show the converse, we prove by induction that, if a simple continued fraction has n terms, then it is rational Let X represent the value of the continued fraction We first check the base case of n = Then X = a

5 Continued Fractions 5 Since a is an integer, X is rational Thus, the base case is true We now prove the inductive case We assume that the statement is true for all i k, and show that the statement is true for k + Let X be a continued fraction that is represented by n + terms We want to show that X is rational So, we have We can rewrite this expression as X = [a ; a 2, a 3,, a n, a n+ ] X = a + Y, where Y = [a 2 ; a 3,, a n, a n+ ] The continued fraction X now has n terms, and by hypothesis it can be written as follows: By doing some algebra, we see that X = a + p q X = pa + q p Since a, p, and q are integers, X must be a rational Therefore, the theorem is true for n +, and so by induction, it must hold for all integers The proof is now complete Corollary 5-2 If a real number is irrational, then its continued fraction expression is infinite Corollary 5-2 follows directly from Theorem 5-6 Convergents Below are two theorems involving the convergents of a continued fraction Theorem 6- Given a continued fraction [a ; a 2, a 3,, a n, a n ], a numerator p i and a denominator q i of the ith convergent C i are given for all i 0 by the recursive formulas, p i = a i p i + p i 2, q i = a i q i + q i 2, where p = 0, p 0 =, q =, and q 0 = Proof: We prove this assertion by using induction We first check the two base cases: C = p = a = a q = a + 0 a 0 + ; C 2 = p 2 q 2 = q q 2 + q 2 = a 2p + p 0 a 2 q + q 0 Thus both base cases are true We now assume that the assertion is true for all i k, and show that it is true for k + By the recursive formula, C k+ = p k+ q k+ = [a, a 2,, a k, a k+ ]

6 6 MIT Undergraduate Journal of Mathematics We rewrite this fraction as follows: C k+ = p k+ q k+ = [a, a 2, a 3,, a k, a k+] where a k+ = a k + /a k+ The continued fraction now has k terms, and by hypothesis, C k+ = a k+ p k + p k 2 a k+ q k + q k 2 = (a ka k+ + )p k + a k+ p k 2 (a k a k+ + )q k + a k+ q k 2 = a ka k+ + p k + p k + a k+ p k 2 a k a k+ + q k + q k + a k+ q k 2 = a k+ (a kp k + p k 2 ) + p k a k+ (a kq k + q k 2 ) + q k = a k+ p k + p k a k+ q k + q k The last step used the induction hypothesis for the substitution Thus, the theorem is true for k +, and by induction, must hold for all integers The proof is now complete Theorem 6-2 (Fundamental Recurrence Relation) Let p i and q i be the convergents Then p i q i p i q k = ( ) i for all i 0 Proof: We will prove this statement by using induction We first check the two base cases, i = and i = 2: p 0 q p q 0 = () 0(0) = = ( ) 0 ; p q 0 p 0 q = (a p 0 + p )(0) (a q 0 + q ) = 0 (0 + ) = = () Both cases are true We now assume that the statement is true for all i k, and show that the statement is true for k + : p k+ q k p k q k+ = (a k+ p k + p k )q k p k (a k+ q k + q k ) = a k+ p k q k + p k q k a k+ p k q k p k q k = p k q k p k q k = (p k q k p k q k ) = ( ) k = ( ) k+ Since the assertion is true for k +, the assertion is true for all integers, by induction The proof is now complete

7 Continued Fractions 7 7 Applications In this section we consider some examples of the applications of continued fractions in mathematics Several common methods are used to solve quadratic equations, including the quadratic formula, normal factoring, and graphing the equation A less common method involves continued fractions, see [6, pp 32 37] This method is used less often because it requires more calculations, and in many cases it reveals only one of the two solutions For example, consider the quadratic equation, x 2 5x + 6 = 0 Factoring the left-hand side, we find the roots are 2 and 3 We now use continued fractions We begin by solving x 2 5x + 6 = 0 for x: x = 5 6 x (7-) Next, we express x as an infinite continued fraction To do so we substitute the expression 5 6 x in for x: x = x (7-2) We repeat the substitution again, putting 5 6 x into (7-2) and getting x = x (7-3) Continuing this process, we produce an infinite continued fraction Finally, we approximate one of the roots When we set x = in the right-hand side of (7-), we get Taking this value and plugging it into (7-2), we see that x = Placing in (7-3), we see the result is x = If we continue this process, then we produce an infinite sequence that approaches 3 If we change the initial value, then we produce a different infinite sequence that approaches 3 Therefore one solution of this equation is x = 3, and there is no way we can compute the second solution x = 2 using this method The method can be generalized and applied to solve any quadratic equation Some Diophantine equations can be solved using continued fractions, including Pell s equation, linear Diophantine equations, and congruence equations [7, pp 20 27]: x 2 P y 2 = ; ax + by = c; ax = b (mod m) Section 5 explained a method used to express a rational number as a continued fraction Using continued fractions also provides a way to express an irrational number and to approximate its value This expression allows us to study certain interesting properties of an irrational number For example, consider the irrational number 2 At first glance, it may seem difficult to express this number as a continued fraction since its decimal representation never ends However, using steps similar to the ones taken to express a rational number as a continued fraction, we can express 2 as one also In general, any irrational number can be expressed as a continued fraction To express 2 as a continued fraction, we observe that 2 >, 2 = + /x (7-4)

8 8 MIT Undergraduate Journal of Mathematics Solving for some real number x, we find that x = /( 2 ) To get rid of the square root in the denominator, we multiply the numerator and denominator by ( 2 + ), obtaining x = ( 2 + ) Using (7-4) and simplifying, we obtain the equation, x = 2 + /x This equation now looks like equation (7-), which we obtained from the quadratic equation, x 2 5x + 6 = 0 Continuing as in Section 5, we obtain the continued fraction representation of 2 = [; 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, ] Other square roots and irrational numbers can be expressed similarly as a continued fraction In 975, MA Morrison and J Brillhart developed the Continued Fraction Factorization Algorithm, which is a prime factorization algorithm that uses residues produced by the continued fraction of mn Here N is the number to be factored and m is chosen as small as possible so that mn is a square The algorithm solves the equation x 2 = y 2 ( mod N) by finding an m for which m 2 ( mod N) has the smallest possible value This method has a theoretical runtime of O(e 2 log N log log N ), and was the fastest prime factorization algorithm in use until the development of the quadratic sieve method This method was developed in 98 by Carl Pomerance and has a theoretical runtime of O(e log N log log N ) References [] Beskin, NM, Fascinating Fractions, Mir Publishers, Moscow, 980 (Translated by VI Kisln, 986) [2] Brezinski, Claude, History of Continued Fractions and Pade Approximants, Springer-Verlag, 980 [3] Corless, Robert, Continued Fractions and Chaos, Amer Math Monthly, 992 [4] Hardy, G and Wright, E, An Introduction to the Theory of Numbers, Oxford University Press, 965 [5] Kline, Morris, Mathematical Thought from Ancient to Modern Times, Oxford University Press, 972 [6] Moore, Charles D, An Introduction to Continued Fractions, The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Washington, DC, 964 [7] Olds, CD, Continued Fractions, Random House, 963

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