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Wed, 23 Apr 2008

Recounting the rationals
I just read a really excellent math paper, Recounting the rationals, by Calkin and Wilf.

Let b(n) be the number of ways of adding up powers of 2 to get n, with each power of 2 used no more than twice. So, for example, b(5) = 2, because there are 2 ways to get 5:
5 = 4 + 1
 = 2 + 2 + 1

And b(10) = 5, because there are 5 ways to get 10:
10 = 8 + 2
  = 8 + 1 + 1
  = 4 + 4 + 2
  = 4 + 4 + 1 + 1
  = 4 + 2 + 2 + 1 + 1

The sequence of values of b(n) begins as follows:

1 1 2 1 3 2 3 1 4 3 5 2 5 3 4 1 5 4 7 3 8 5 7 2 7 5 8 3 7 4 5 ...
Now consider the sequence b(n) / b(n+1). This is just what you get if you take two copies of the b(n) sequence and place one over the other, with the bottom one shifted left one place, like this:

    1 1 2 1 3 2 3 1 4 3 5 2 5 3 4 1 5 4 7 3 8 5 7 2 7 5 8 3 7 4 5 ...
    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 
    1 2 1 3 2 3 1 4 3 5 2 5 3 4 1 5 4 7 3 8 5 7 2 7 5 8 3 7 4 5 ...
Reading each pair as a rational number, we get the sequence b(n) / b(n+1), which is 1/1, 1/2, 2/1, 1/3, 3/2, 2/3, 3/1, 1/4, 4/3, 3/5, 5/2, ... .

Here is the punchline: This sequence contains each positive rational number exactly once.

If you are just learning to read math papers, or you think you might like to learn to read them, the paper in which this is proved would be a good place to start. It is serious research mathematics, but elementary. It is very short. The result is very elegant. The proofs are straightforward. The techniques used are typical and widely applicable; there is no weird ad-hockery. The discussion in the paper is sure to inspire you to tinker around with it more on your own. All sorts of nice things turn up. The b(n) sequence satisfies a simple recurrence, the fractions organize themselves neatly into a tree structure, and everything is related to everything else. Check it out.

Thanks to Brent Yorgey for bringing this to my attention. I saw it in this old blog article, but then discovered he had written a six-part series about it. I also discovered that M. Yorgey independently came to the same conclusion that I did about the paper: it would be a good first paper to read.

[ Addendum 20080505: Brad Clow agrees that it was a good place to start. ]


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