Number Theory: Lecture 20

In which we find a link between continued fractions and Pell’s equation.

  • Theorem 63: Let n be a natural number, and let \theta have convergents \frac{p_k}{q_k}.  If p and q are integers with 0 < q < q_n, then |q \theta - p| \geq |q_{n-1} \theta - p_{n-1}|(So |q\theta - p| \geq | q_n \theta - p_n|.)  The key idea of the proof was to find a way to link p and q (about which we know very little) with p_{n-1}, q_{n-1}, p_n and q_n (about which we know quite a lot).  We were able to do this by finding integers u and v such that p = u p_{n-1} + v p_n and q = u q_{n-1} + v q_n.  By thinking about the signs of u and v (which must be different), we were able to obtain a lower bound for |q \theta - p|.
  • Corollary 64: If p is an integer and q is a natural number with |\theta - \frac{p}{q}| < \frac{1}{2q^2}, then \frac{p}{q} is a convergent for \theta.  This is one of those proofs that becomes easier if you try to prove something slightly stronger.  We showed that if q_n \leq q < q_{n+1} and | \theta - \frac{p}{q}| < \frac{1}{2q^2}, then | \frac{p}{q} - \frac{p_n}{q_n}| < \frac{1}{q q_n}, and so \frac{p}{q} = \frac{p_n}{q_n}.
  • Definition of Pell’s equation x^2 - Ny^2 = 1 (where N is a fixed natural number that is not a square, and we are interested in integer solutions for x and y).
  • Corollary 65: Let N be a natural number that is not a square.  If x and y are positive integers satisfying Pell’s equation x^2 - Ny^2 = 1, then \frac{x}{y} is a convergent for \sqrt{N}.  This follows nicely from the previous result.
  • Theorem 66 (Lagrange): The continued fraction of \theta is eventually periodic if and only if \theta is a quadratic irrational.  We did not prove this in the lecture, but saw an outline of some of the ideas of the proof.
  • Theorem 67: Let N be a natural number that is not a square.  Then \sqrt{N} has a continued fraction of the form [a_0; \overline{a_1, a_2, \dotsc, a_2, a_1, 2a_0}].  We did not prove this either.
  • Proposition 68: Let N be a natural number that is not a square.  Then there are integers x and y such that x^2 - Ny^2 = 1.  We showed that there is a convergent \frac{p_n}{q_n} for \sqrt{N} such that p_n^2 - N q_n^2 = 1, namely the convergent at the end of either the first or second period.

Further reading

Davenport (The Higher Arithmetic), Baker (A concise introduction to the theory of numbers) and Hardy and Wright (An Introduction to the Theory of Numbers) all cover this material on continued fractions and Pell’s equation.

There’s also some nice material related to this on NRICH, based on Conway’s tangles.  There’s an article by Mike Pearson, which starts by mentioning two NRICH problems; I encourage you to try those problems before reading Mike’s article.

Preparation for Lecture 21

Next time we’ll be thinking about primality testing.  That is, given a large number we wish to check (rapidly!) whether it is prime.  In this course so far we’ve seen a few results of the form “If p is prime, then …”, for example Fermat’s Little Theorem and Euler’s criterion.  It would be helpful to go back to those two results in particular, to think about whether the result could hold if p is not prime.  Does either result give us a useful primality test?

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2 Responses to “Number Theory: Lecture 20”

  1. Joseph McCullough Says:

    I’m really looking forward to the primality testing. I haven’t read up on that in a long time, and it’ll be nice to see a fresh perspective on it.

  2. Percentages for sceptics: part III | Out of the Norm Says:

    […] see how continued fractions can fit into a number theory course, see these three lecture […]

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