The Universe of Discourse


Thu, 26 Jul 2018

Testing for divisibility by 7

There are well-known tests if a number (represented as a base-10 numeral) is divisible by 2, 3, 5, 9, or 11. What about 7?

Let's look at where the divisibility-by-9 test comes from. We add up the digits of our number !!n!!. The sum !!s(n)!! is divisible by !!9!! if and only if !!n!! is. Why is that?

Say that !!d_nd_{n-1}\ldots d_0!! are the digits of our number !!n!!. Then

$$n = \sum 10^id_i.$$

The sum of the digits is

$$s(n) = \sum d_i$$

which differs from !!n!! by $$\sum (10^i-1)d_i.$$ Since !!10^i-1!! is a multiple of !!9!! for every !!i!!, every term in the last sum is a multiple of !!9!!. So by passing from !!n!! to its digit sum, we have subtracted some multiple of !!9!!, and the residue mod 9 is unchanged. Put another way:

$$\begin{align} n &= \sum 10^id_i \\ &\equiv \sum 1^id_i \pmod 9 \qquad\text{(because $10 \equiv 1\pmod 9$)} \\ &= \sum d_i \end{align} $$

The same argument works for the divisibility-by-3 test.

For !!11!! the analysis is similar. We add up the digits !!d_0+d_2+\ldots!! and !!d_1+d_3+\ldots!! and check if the sums are equal mod 11. Why alternating digits? It's because !!10\equiv -1\pmod{11}!!, so $$n\equiv \sum (-1)^id_i \pmod{11}$$

and the sum is zero only if the sum of the positive terms is equal to the sum of the negative terms.

The same type of analysis works similarly for !!2, 4, 5, !! and !!8!!. For !!4!! we observe that !!10^i\equiv 0\pmod 4!! for all !!i>1!!, so all but two terms of the sum vanish, leaving us with the rule that !!n!! is a multiple of !!4!! if and only if !!10d_1+d_0!! is. We could simplify this a bit: !!10\equiv 2\pmod 4!! so !!10d_1+d_0 \equiv 2d_1+d_0\pmod 4!!, but we don't usually bother. Say we are investigating !!571496!!; the rule tells us to just consider !!96!!. The "simplified" rule says to consider !!2\cdot9+6 = 24!! instead. It's not clear that that is actually easier.

This approach works badly for divisibility by 7, because !!10^i\bmod 7!! is not simple. It repeats with period 6.

$$\begin{array}{c|cccccc|ccc} i & 0 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 5 & 6 & 7 & 8 & 9 & 10 & 11 \\ %10^i & 1 & 10 & 100 & 1000 & 10000 & \ldots \\ 10^i\bmod 7 & 1 & 3 & 2 & 6 & 4 & 5 & 1 & 3 & 2 & 6 & 4 &\ldots \\ \end{array} $$

The rule we get from this is:

Take the units digit. Add three times the ones digit, twice the hundreds digit, six times the thousands digit… (blah blah blah) and the original number is a multiple of !!7!! if and only if the sum is also.

For example, considering !!12345678!! we must calculate $$\begin{align} 12345678 & \Rightarrow & 3\cdot1 + 1\cdot 2 + 5\cdot 3 + 4\cdot 4 + 6\cdot 5 + 2\cdot6 + 3\cdot 7 + 1\cdot 8 & = & 107 \\\\ 107 & \Rightarrow & 2\cdot1 + 3\cdot 0 + 1\cdot7 & = & 9 \end{align} $$ and indeed !!12345678\equiv 107\equiv 9\pmod 7!!.

My kids were taught the practical divisibility tests in school, or perhaps learned them from YouTube or something like that. Katara was impressed by my ability to test large numbers for divisibility by 7 and asked how I did it. At first I didn't think about my answer enough, and just said “Oh, it's not hard, just divide by 7 and look at the remainder.” (“Just count the legs and divide by 4.”) But I realized later that there are several tricks I was using that are not obvious. First, she had never learned short division. When I was in school I had been tormented extensively with long division, which looks like this:

This was all Katara had been shown, so when I said “just divide by 7” this is what she was thinking of. But you only need long division for large divisors. For simple divisors like !!7!!, I was taught short division, an easier technique:

Yeah, I wrote 4 when I meant 3. It doesn't matter, we don't care about the quotient anyway.

But that's one of the tricks I was using that wasn't obvious to Katara: we don't care about the quotient anyway, only the remainder. So when I did this in my head, I discarded the parts of the calculation that were about the quotient, and only kept the steps that pertained to the remainder. The way I was actually doing this sounded like this in my mind:

7 into 12 leaves 5. 7 into 53 leaves 4. 7 into 44 leaves 2. 7 into 25 leaves 4. 7 into 46 leaves 4. 7 into 57 leaves 5. 7 into 58 leaves 9. The answer is 9.

At each step, we consider only the leftmost part of the number, starting with !!12!!. !!12\div 7 !! has a remainder of 5, and to this 5 we append the next digit of the dividend, 3, giving 53. Then we continue in the same way: !!53\div 7!! has a remainder of 4, and to this 4 we append the next digit, giving 44. We never calculate the quotient at all.

I explained the idea with a smaller example, like this:

Suppose you want to see if 1234 is divisible by 7. It's 1200-something, so take away 700, which leaves 500-something. 500-what? 530-something. So take away 490, leaving 40-something. 40-what? 44. Now take away 42, leaving 2. That's not 0, so 1234 is not divisible by 7.

This is how I actually do it. For me this works reasonably well up to 13, and after that it gets progressively more difficult until by 37 I can't effectively do it at all. A crucial element is having the multiples of the divisor memorized. If you're thinking about the mod-13 residue of 680-something, it is a big help to know immediately that you can subtract 650.

A year or two ago I discovered a different method, which I'm sure must be ancient, but is interesting because it's quite different from the other methods I described.

Suppose that the final digit of !!n!! is !!b!!, so that !!n=10a+b!!. Then !!-2n = -20a-2b!!, and this is a multiple of !!7!! if and only if !!n!! is. But !!-20a\equiv a\pmod7 !!, so !!a-2b!! is a multiple of !!7!! if and only if !!n!! is. This gives us the rule:

To check if !!n!! is a multiple of 7, chop off the last digit, double it, and subtract it from the rest of the number. Repeat until the answer becomes obvious.

For !!1234!! we first chop off the !!4!! and subtract !!2\cdot4!! from !!123!! leaving !!115!!. Then we chop off the !!5!! and subtract !!2\cdot5!! from !!11!!, leaving !!1!!. This is not a multiple of !!7!!, so neither is !!1234!!. But with !!1239!!, which is a multiple of !!7!!, we get !!123-2\cdot 9 = 105!! and then !!10-2\cdot5 = 0!!, and we win.

In contrast to the other methods in this article, this method does not tell you the remainder on dividing because it does not preserve the residue mod 7. When we started with !!1234!! we ended with !!1!!. But !!1234\not\equiv 1\pmod 7!!; rather !!1234\equiv 2!!. Each step in this method multiplies the residue by -2, or, if you prefer, by 5. The original residue was 2, so the final residue is !!2\cdot-2\cdot-2 = 8 \equiv 1\pmod 7!!. (Or, if you prefer, !!2\cdot 5\cdot 5= 50 \equiv 1\pmod 7!!.) But if we only care about whether the residue is zero, multiplying it by !!-2!! doesn't matter.

There are some shortcuts in this method too. If the final digit is !!7!!, then rather than doubling it and subtracting 14 you can just chop it off and throw it away, going directly from !!10a+7!! to !!a!!. If your number is !!10a+8!! you can subtract !!7!! from it to make it easier to work with, getting !!10a+1!! and then going to !!a-2!! instead of to !!a-16!!. Similarly when your number ends in !!9!! you can go to !!a-4!! instead of to !!a-18!!. And on the other side, if it ends in !!4!! it is easier to go to !!a-1!! instead of to !!a-8!!.

But even with these tricks it's not clear that this is faster or easier than just doing the short division. It's the same number of steps, and it seems like each step is about the same amount of work.

Finally, I once wowed Katara on an airplane ride by showing her this:

To check !!1429!! using this device, you start at ⓪. The first digit is !!1!!, so you follow one black arrow, to ①, and then a blue arrow, to ③. The next digit is !!4!!, so you follow four black arrows, back to ⓪, and then a blue arrow which loops around to ⓪ again. The next digit is !!2!!, so you follow two black arrows to ② and then a blue arrow to ⑥. And the last digit is 9 so you then follow 9 black arrows to ① and then stop. If you end where you started, at ⓪, the number is divisible by 7. This time we ended at ①, so !!1429!! is not divisible by 7. But if the last digit had been !!1!! instead, then in the last step we would have followed only one black arrow from ⑥ to ⓪, before we stopped, so !!1421!! is a multiple of 7.

This probably isn't useful for mental calculations, but I can imagine that if you were stuck on a long plane ride with no calculator and you needed to compute a lot of mod-7 residues for some reason, it could be quicker than the short division method. The chart is easy to construct and need not be memorized. The black arrows obviously point from !!n!! to !!n+1!!, and the blue arrows all point from !!n!! to !!10n!!.

I made up a whole set of these diagrams and I think it's fun to see how the conventional divisibility rules turn up in them. For example, the rule for divisibility by 3 that says just add up the digits:

Or the rule for divisibility by 5 that says to ignore everything but the last digit:


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