The Universe of Discourse
Sat, 30 Jun 2007

How to calculate the square root of 2
A few weeks ago I mentioned the following recurrence:

p0 = 1 q0 = 1
pi+1 = pi + 2qi qi+1 = pi + qi
If you carry this out, you get pairs p and q that have p2 - 2q2 = ±1, which means that p/q ≈ √2. The farther you carry the recurrence, the better the approximation is.

I said that this formula comes from consideration of continued fractions. But I was thinking about it a little more, and I realized that there is a way to get such a recurrence for pretty much any algebraic constant you want.

Consider for a while the squaring function s : xx2. This function has two obvious fixed points, namely 0 and 1, by which I mean that s(0) = 0 and s(1) = 1. Actually it has a third fixed point, ∞.

If you consider the behavior on some x in the interval (0, 1), you see that s(x) is also in the same interval. But also, s(x) < x on this interval. Now consider what happens when you iterate s on this interval, calculating the sequence s(x), s(s(x)), and so on. The values must stay in (0, 1), but must always decrease, so that no matter what x you start with, the sequence converges to 0. We say that 0 is an "attracting" fixed point of s, because any starting value x, no matter how far from 0 it is (as long as it's still in (0, 1)), will eventually be attracted to 0. Similarly, 1 is a "repelling" fixed point, because any starting value of x, no matter how close to 1, will be repelled to 0.

Consideration of the interval (1, ∞) is similar. 1 is a repeller and ∞ is an attractor.

Fixed points are not always attractors or repellers. The function x → 1/x has fixed points at ±1, but these points are neither attractors nor repellers.

Also, a fixed point might attract from one side and repel from the other. Consider xx/(x+1). This has a fixed point at 0. It maps the interval (0, ∞) onto (0, 1), which is a contraction, so that 0 attracts values on the right. On the other hand, 0 repels values on the left, because 1/-n goes to 1/(-n+1). -1/4 goes to -1/3 goes to -1/2 goes to -1, at which point the whole thing blows up and goes to -∞.

The idea about the fixed point attractors is suggestive. Suppose we were to pick a function f that had √2 as a fixed point. Then √2 might be an attractor, in which case iterating f will get us increasingly accurate approximations to √2.

So we want to find some function f such that f(√2) = √2. Such functions are very easy to find! For example, take √2. square it, and divide by 2, and add 1, and take the square root, and you have √2 again. So x → √(1+x2/2) is such a function. Or take √2. Take the reciprocal, double it, and you have √2 again. So x → 2/x is another such function. Or take √2. Add 1 and take the reciprocal. Then add 1 again, and you are back to √2. So x → 1 + 1/(x+1) is a function with √2 as a fixed point.

Or we could look for functions of the form ax2 + bx + c. Suppose √2 were a fixed point of this function. Then we would have 2a + b√2 + c = √2. We would like a, b, and c to be simple, since the whole point of this exercise is to calculate √2 easily. So let's take a=b=1, c=-2. The function is now xx2 + x - 2.

Which one to pick? It's an embarrasment of riches.

Let's start with the polynomial, xx2 + x - 2. Well, unfortunately this is the wrong choice. √2 is a fixed point of this function, but repels on both sides: √2 ± ε → √2 ± ε(1 + 2√2), which is getting farther away.

The inverse function of xx2 + x - 2 will have √2 as an attractor on both sides, but it is not so convenient to deal with because it involves taking square roots. Still, it does work; if you iterate ½(-1 + √(9 + 4x)) you do get √2.

Of the example functions I came up with, x → 2/x is pretty simple too, but again the fixed points are not attractors. Iterating the function for any initial value other than the fixed points just gets you in a cycle of length 2, bouncing from one side of √2 to the other forever, and not getting any closer.

But the next function, x → 1 + 1/(x+1), is a winner. (0, ∞) is crushed into (1, 2), with √2 as the fixed point, so √2 attracts from both sides.

Writing x as a/b, the function becomes a/b → 1 + 1/(a/b+1), or, simplifying, a/b → (a + 2b) / (a + b). This is exactly the recurrence I gave at the beginning of the article.

We did get a little lucky, since the fixed point of interest, √2, was the attractor, and the other one, -√2, was the repeller. ((-∞, -1) is mapped onto (-∞, 1), with -√2 as the fixed point; -√2 repels on both sides.) But had it been the other way around we could have exchanged the behaviors of the two fixed points by considering -f(-x) instead. Another way to fix it is to change the attractive behavior into repelling behavior and vice versa by running the function backwards. When we tried this for xx2 + x - 2 it was a pain because of the square roots. But the inverse of x → 1 + 1/(x+1) is simply x → (-x + 2) / (x - 1), which is no harder to deal with.

The continued fraction stuff can come out of the recurrence, instead of the other way around. Let's iterate the function x → 1 + 1/(1+x) formally, repeatedly replacing x with 1 + 1/(1+x). We get:

1 + 1/(1+x)
1 + 1/(1+1 + 1/(1+x))
1 + 1/(1+1 + 1/(1+1 + 1/(1+x)))
So we might expect the fixed point, if there is one, to be 1 + 1/(2 + 1/(2 + 1/(2 + ...))), if this makes sense. Not all such expressions do make sense, but this one is a continued fraction, and continued fractions always make sense. This one is eventually periodic, and a theorem says that such continued fractions always have values that are quadratic surds. The value of this one happens to be √2. I hope you are not too surprised.

In the course of figuring all this out over the last two weeks or so, I investigated many fascinating sidetracks. The x → 1 + 1/(x+1) function is an example of a "Möbius transformation", which has a number of interesing properties that I will probably write about next month. Here's a foretaste: a Möbius transformation is simply a function x → (ax + b) / (cx + d) for some constants a, b, c, and d. If we agree to abbreviate this function as !!{ a\, b \choose c\,d}!!, then the inverse function is also a Möbius transformation, and is in fact !!{a\, b\choose c\,d}^{-1}!!.

[ Addendum 20070719: There is a followup article to this one. ]

[Other articles in category /math] permanent link