# Continued fractions and good approximations.

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1 Continued fractions and good approximations We will study how to find good approximations for important real life constants A good approximation must be both accurate and easy to use For instance, our current calendar was designed to approximate the solar year by means of simple rules for omitting some leap years However, one can find other simple calendars that give a better approximation To find good approximations we will introduce continued fractions fascinating objects related to number theory Introduction The numbers, 3, 2,, 0,, 2, are called integers An integer a is divisible by another integer b 0 if a = bc for some integer c Then b is said to be a divisor of a Eg 0 is divisible by 5 since 0 = 5 2 Clearly, any integer is divisible by itself and by A positive integer p is called prime if it has no positive divisors except for and p The first primes are 2, 3, 5, 7,, 3, 7, 9, 23, 29, 37, 4, 43, 47, 53, The fundamental theorem of arithmetics asserts that every positive integer, except, can be expressed as a product of primes in one way only (up to rearrangement of factors) Such expression is called the prime decomposition Problem Find the prime decomposition of 36, 60, 9, 98, 36 The fractions p, where p and q 0 are integers, are called rational numbers Not every q number is rational Eg the equation x 2 = 2 does not have rational solutions, so 2 is not rational Numbers that are not rational are called irrational Problem 2 (a) Show that the golden ratio is irrational (b) Is rational? Why or why not? Some of the useful constants such as e = and π = are irrational For practical purposes such constants are usually approximated by rational numbers (preferably with small denominators) Eg Archimedes found that π is approximately 22 This is a 7 good approximation because it is both simple and accurate Indeed, the error π 22 is less 7 than Moreover, for q < 0 all approximations p give much bigger error! Ie the q approximation 22 is the best among all approximations with small denominators 7

2 Problem 3 Find the best rational approximation of 2 with the denominator less than 0 In general, for any irrational number α and a positive integer n there exists a good rational approximation p such that the denominator q is less than n and q α p q < nq To find such an approximation we need continued fractions Euclidean algorithm and continued fractions Two numbers α and β are called commensurable if they have a common divisor, that is, a number x such that α = mx and β = nx for some integers m and n Eg any rational number p/q and are commensurable; /q being a common divisor Problem 4 Are numbers 2 and / 2 commensurable? And numbers 2 and 2 + 2? There is an algorithm due to Euclid that allows to find the greatest common divisor gcd(α, β) of any two commensurable numbers α and β This algorithm uses the following fact Problem 5 If n is any integer, then gcd(α, β) = gcd(α nβ, β) Euclidean algorithm Assume that α > β Find an integer n such that nβ α < (n + )β Note that the remainder r = α nβ is smaller than β, and gcd(α, β) = gcd(β, r)! 2 If r = 0, then we are finished, and gcd(α, β) = β If r 0 repeat steps, 2 for β and r Example Take α = 07 and β = = = = The algorithm terminates in three steps, and we get gcd(07, 029) = 2 Euclidean algorithm can also be used to write a rational number p/q as a continued fraction Eg the above calculations for 07 and 029 can be rewritten as 07/029 = + 42/ /42 = /42 42/2 = 2 2

3 This can be presented in the following nice way: = In particular, the truncated continued fraction + /24 = 25/24 = 04(6) approximates 07/029 =, 0408 very well Problem 6 Find gcd(25, 35), gcd(00, 89) and gcd(355, 3) Write the corresponding continued fractions for 25/35, 00/89 and 355/3 2 More on Continued fractions A simple continued fraction is an expression of the form a 0 + a + a 2 + a 3 + We will assume that the a i are nonnegative integers with a i > 0 for i > 0 These expressions can be finite or infinite Moreover every positive number has such an expression We calculate it by a version of the Euclidean algorithm Here is how We will use x to denote the largest integer x Thus 2 = 2, 9 = Given x write x = x + x, and set a 0 = x Then by definition the remainder x satisfies 0 x < If x = 0, stop Otherwise, note that /x > so that x = x + x 2 where a = x > 0, and 0 x 2 < So x = a + x 2, x = a + x 2 So x = a 0 + x = a 0 + a + x 2 If x 2 = 0, stop Otherwise, follow the above procedure to write x 2 = a 2 + x 3, x 2 = 3 a 2 + x 3,

4 so that x = a 0 + = a 0 + a + x 2 a + a 2 +x 3 For example, 33 4 = 2 + 5, 4 33 = = = = = = 4 4 = (The Euclidean algorithm is on the right, so you can compare the two directly) Hence For short we write x = [a 0 ; a, a 2 ] if Thus 33 4 = x = a a + a 2 = [2; 2,, 4] Proposition 2 The continued fraction expansion of a number x is finite if and only if x is rational Proof: Observe that when you construct the continued fraction expansion of a fraction p/q the successive remainders x, x 2, x 3, are rational numbers < Moreover, if x k = b k /c k < then we get x k+ from the equation c k b k = integer + x k+ It follows that the denominator of x k+ is b k which is strictly less than c k Therefore, the denominators of the remainders are positive integers that decrease strictly Hence the process must stop Thus rational numbers have finite continued fraction expansions The converse is left to you Example In the expansion we found above for 33/4 the remainders are x = 5/4, x 2 = 4/5, x 3 = /4 which have strictly decreasing denominators 4

5 Problem 22 Experiment a bit with different rational numbers Must the numerators of the remainders decrease? Some numbers have very pretty continued fraction expansions Lemma 23 2 = [; 2, 2, 2, 2 ] or 2 = Proof: There are three ways of seeing this Method : Find the continued expansion directly, using your calculator Method 2: Calculate by hand (This is possible only for a few numbers) Write 2 = + x Since we must have 3 < x < 2 So ( 4 3 )2 = 6 9 < 2, (3 2 )2 = 9 4 > 2 2 < x < 3, that is x = x + x 2 = 2 + x 2 We claim that x 2 = x so that the calculation repeats itself (This is very special) Since x = 2, x 2 = x 2 = 2 = 2( 2 ) = = (3 2 2)( 2 + ) ( 2 )( 2 + ) = 2 = x Hence x 2 = 2 + x 3 where x 3 = x again Thus 2 = [; 2, 2, 2, ] Method 3: (A good way to check the answer, if you guessed it beforehand) Consider the continued fraction x = [; 2, 2, 2, 2 ] ie x = = + + ( ) Notice that x = + + x Thus x =, and so +x x2 =, that is x 2 = 2 Since x = [; 2, 2, 2, ] is positive, we must have x = 2 5

6 Problem 24 (i) Find the continued fraction expansions of 3, 7, using your calculator (Note: the calculation should repeat after a few steps) (ii) Show that your calculation is correct by finding the equation satisfied by these numbers as in Method 3 above Problem 25 (i) Calculate [; ], [;, ],[;,, ], and [;,,, ] On the basis of this, what do you think the number [;,, ] is (where there are n s)? (ii) What is the infinite fraction [;,,, ]? Problem 26 Use Method 3 above to find the numbers represented by the infinite fractions y = [2; 3, 3, 3, ] and y = [3; 4, 4, 4, ] Can you make a general rule? A continued fraction [a 0 ; a, a 2, a 3, ] is said to be periodic if there is n such that the numbers a n, a n+, a n+2, consist of a infinitely repreated finite sequence eg [2; 3, 4,, 5,, 5,, 5, ] Proposition 27 The number x has a periodic continued fraction expansion if and only if it is a quadratic irrational, ie is the root of a quadratic equation with integer coefficients I am not going to prove this now Here is an example that illustrates why periodic continued fractions give rise to quadratic irrationals Suppose that x = [0; 2, 3,, 3,, 3, ] = Let y = [0; 0, 3,, 3, ] be the repeating part of x Then y satisfies the equation y = 3 + +y = 3y+4 y+ = + y 3y + 4 Thus y satisfies a quadratic equation with integer coeffs and so has the form r + s t for r, s rational and t integral But x = 2 + y and so also has this form 3 The convergents of a continued fraction Given an infinite continued fraction [a 0 ; a, a 2, ] the rational numbers h n = [a 0 ; a, a 2,, a n ] 6

7 are called its convergents (As always when writing a rational number we suppose that p n, q n are mutually prime so that they are defined without ambiguity) For example, the first few convergents to π = [3; 7, 5,, 292, ] = are: h 0 k 0 = 3, h k = = 22 7 = , h 2 = 3 + k 2 h 3 k 3 = = = , 5 + = = (This last approximation 355/33 to π was known to the Chinese mathematician Tsu Chung-Chi It is the best approximation of any fraction below the next convergent which is 03993/3302!) The first few convergents to 2 = [; 2, 2, 2, ] = are h 0 h k 0 =, k = + = 3 = 5, 2 2 h 2 k 2 = + = 7 = 4, h k 2 3 = + = 7 = h 4 k 4 = 4 = h 5 29 k 5 = 99 = If you look at the convergents above, you will notice that they do not simply increase or decrease Rather we have h 0 k 0 < h 2 k 2 < h 4 k 4 < < h 5 k 5 < h 3 k 3 < h k That is, the even ones increase and the odd ones decrease, and both get closer and closer to the number x that we are trying to approximate This is a general pattern To explain why, we need to say more about the convergents Their most important property is that that they can be calculated from the explansion x = [a 0 ; a, a 2, ] by the following rule Put Then define: h =, h 2 = 0, k = 0, k 2 = h 0 := a 0 h + h 2 = a 0, k 0 := a 0 k + k 2 = h := a h 0 + h = a a 0 +, k := a k 0 + k = a 7

8 and for general n = 2, 3, 4, h n := a n h n + h n 2, := a n + 2 NOTE This kind of formula for h n in terms of the previous two elements in the sequence h 2, h h 0, h, h 2, is called a recursive or iterative formula It is reminiscent of the formula for the Fibonacci numbers F k : F 0 =, F =, F 2 = 2, F 3 = 3, F 4 = 5, F 5 = 8, F n = F n + F n 2 Lemma 3 (i) [a 0 ; a,, a n ] = h n (ii) h n h n = ( ) n for all n 0 I won t prove this lemma (Though if you are interested, this could be a project) Instead let s look at an example Example For x = 2 = [; 2, 2, 2, ] we have h 0 = a 0 =, k 0 = ; then So h = a h 0 + h = 2 + = 3, k = a k 0 + k = 2, h 2 = a 2 h + h 0 = = 7, k 2 = a 2 k + k 0 = = 5 h 3 = a 3 h 2 + h = = 7, k 3 = a 3 k 2 + k = = 2, h k = 3 2, h 2 k 2 = 7 5, h 3 k 3 = 7 2, This illustrates the formula in (i) As for (ii), notice that k h 0 k 0 h = 2 3 =, k 2 h k h 2 = =, k 3 h 2 k 2 h 3 = = = Here are some conclusions we can draw from this lemma Conclusion Each convergent is in its lowest terms, ie has greatest common divisor equal to For if d divides both h n and it would also divide h n h n = ( ) n Conclusion 2 The difference between successive convergents is: h n h n = h n h n = ( )n Conclusion 3 [a 0 ; a, a 2,, a n ] = a 0 k k 0 + k 2 k k 3 k 2 + ± 8

9 (This is known as an alternating sum The infinite continued fraction is given by an infinite alternating sum) This holds because the convergent h n can be written as an alternating sum of the differences: ( h n hn = h ) ( n hn + h ) ( n 2 h0 + + h ) 2 k 0 k Finally we can see why the convergents give such good approximations to x For x is given by an alternating sum of the form x = c 0 c + c 2 c 3 + +, s n = c 0 c + c 2 c 3 + ± c n where the convergent is the sum s n of the first n + terms For any such series (assuming that c n tends to 0) the difference x s n is always bounded by the size c n+ of the next term So: Conclusion 4 For any x with convergents hn, x h n < + Theorem 32 h n is the best fractional approximation to x with denominator Proof : Note that the convergents increase strictly and so + 2 So if H := h n, K := we know that H/K approximates x to within /2K 2, ie x H K < 2K 2 Now suppose that p/q is a better approximation and that q K Then p q H K p q x + x H K (triangle inequality) 2 x H K (since p/q is closer to x) On the other hand < K 2 A contradiction So such p/q cannot exist p q H K = pk qh Kq > Kq K 2 Problems and Projects Here are some problems Any of them could be the core of a project You could also expand Problem 34, for example, into a project on the Fibonacci numbers (discuss completely different aspects of these if you want) or Problem 35 into a study of continued fractions in dynamical systems Other possible projects involve applications (eg investigating different calendar systems, or investigating different musical scales, and in particular the well tempered scale) 9

10 Problem 33 (i) Calculate the continued fraction expansion for 2 2 and then find its first 6 convergents (ii) Can you figure out a way to multiply the continued fraction by 2, thus explaining the expansion you found in (i)? Problem 34 (i) Find a formula for the convergents to the golden ratio τ in terms of the Fibonacci numbers (cf Problem 25) (ii) Test the inequalities τ p n <, τ p n < q n qn 2 q n 2qn 2 for at least 5 different values of n (You cannot take n too large, since your calculator will start making significant errors) (iii) Take a few random numbers q (ie ones that are not Fibonacci numbers) and show that the inequality τ p q < 2q 2 has no integer solution p Problem 35 Let x = τ and mark the points x x, 2x 2x, 3x 3x,, kx kx, on the interval [0, ] Try to do this fairly accurately: either do it on a computer or do it by hand on squared paper, scaling the interval to be as large as possible (Note that kx kx ] is the nonintegral part of the number kx) For which k do you get values closest to the endpoints 0,? Note which k give values close to 0 and which give values close to Can you explain what you find? (In principle you can take x to be any irrational number, but you might have to take many more values of k before you see anything However, if you have a computer that can do this kind of thing, you could see what happens for other x Problem 36 (cf Problem 24) Find the continued fraction expansions of d for d = 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 0 Make all possible general conjectures that are consistent with these data and that seem reasonable to you and test them against the cases d =, 2, 3, 4 Can you prove any of your conjectures? 4 Geometry of continued fractions Take the coordinate plane and mark all points, whose coordinates are integers We will call such points nodes Consider the line l given by the equation y = αx The line l passes through 0

11 the origin If α = p/q is rational, then the line l also passes through infinitely many other nodes, namely, through (p, q), (2p, 2q), (3p, 3q), However, if α is irrational, there are no other nodes on the line l Nevertheless, we can always find nodes that are as close to the line l as we wish Imagine that the line l is a string and nodes are pegs Move the string down The pegs it presses against are the closest nodes for the line l from below If we move the string up, then we will get the closest nodes to l from above Example: Let us find the closest nodes with small coordinates in the case where α = ( + 5)/2 is the golden ratio The line l is given by the equation y = ( + 5)/2x (8,5) (3,5) (2,3) (,2) (,) (0,0) Theorem: The closest nodes to the line {y = αx} are in one-to-one correspondence with the convergents of the continued fraction for α: the convergent p n /q n gives the node A n = (q n, p n ) The node A n is above the line, if n is odd, and below otherwise In particular, there are no nodes between the line and the segment A n A n+2 In our example, the closest nodes correspond to the convergents, 2, 3/2, 5/3 and 8/5 Problem: (a) Verify the statement of the theorem for 2/7 and 3/8 (since these numbers are rational we have only finite number of distinct convergents)

12 (b) Verify the statement of the theorem for the first few convergents of 2 and e 2 (c) How to prove the theorem in general? If we are given the nodes A 0, A, A 2, that are the closest to the line {y = αx}, then we can find the coefficients [a 0, a, a 2, a 3, ] of the continued fraction for α Namely, a n is the integral distance between the nodes A n and A n+2 To find the integral distance between two nodes A and B we count the number of nodes on the segment AB and subtract Eg if A = (, ) and B = (2, 3), then the integral distance is And if A = (, ), B = (3, 3), then the distance is 2 In our example, all integral distances between A n and A n+ are equal to Theorem: Let [a 0, a, a 2, ] be the continued fraction for α and let a 0, p /q, p 2 /q 2, be its convergents Then a n is the integral distance between the nodes (q n, p n ) and (q n+2, p n+2 ) Problem: (a) Check this theorem for 2/7 and 3/8 and for the first few coefficients of the continued fraction for 2 and e 2 (b) How to prove this theorem in the general case? Very good approximations We already know that the convergents of a continued fraction give the best approximations Let [a 0, a, a 2, ] be the continued fraction for a number α Then taking [a 0 ], [a o, a ], [a 0, a, a 2 ], we get better and better approximations of α When is it reasonable to stop? Which of the convergents is accurate enough but still simple? Example: The first few convergents of π = [3; 7, 5,, 292,,,, ] = are: [3] = 3, [3, 7] = 22 7 = , [3, 7, 5] = = , [3, 7, 5, ] = = , [3, 7, 5,, 292] = = Obviously, the approximation 355/33 is the best choice Note that it is obtained by cutting the expansion [3, 7, 5,, 292,,,, ] immediately before the largest (among the first eight) coefficient 292 The same is true in general The greater the coefficient a n, the better the approximation [a 0, a,, a n ] In particular, the golden ratio [,,,, ] has the worst possible approximations Similarly, all quadratic irrationals like 2, 3 etc can not be approximated very well Indeed, their continued fractions are periodic so the coefficients a 0, a, a 2, are all bounded by the greatest element in the period 2

13 Surprisingly, the number α = e π 63 has an excellent approximation by an integer number Moreover, even the cubic root of α is almost an integer (up to 9 decimal digits!): The continued fraction for e π 63/3 is e π 63/3 = [640320, , 30,, 32, 2,,,, 4, 3, 4, 2,,, ] The second coefficient is so big that the simplest approximation is already very good 3

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