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Unit Fractions

Unit Fractions

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Published by Jacob Richey

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Published by: Jacob Richey on Jun 26, 2012
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Sums of Unit Fractions
 We investigate sums of so called “unit fractions,” the numbers
1
for positive integer
. The firstsimple question we might ask is, can each (positive) rational number
 p
be written as a finite sum of distinct unit fractions? For example,
1514
1
114
,
310
15
110
, and
43
1
15
115
117
1255
1256
165280
. To show that it is possible, we first need to come up with amethod for determining these constructions. The method we’ll use is the
 greedy method 
, where wedecompose a number into unit fractions by approaching it with the largest unit fraction we still haveavailable (since we are to use distinct unit fractions in the decomposition). The greedy algorithm givesus a sequence of unit fractions, as well as a sequence of remainders (the sum of the first so many unitfractions in our sequence is the approximation to the number). For example, if we are try to construct
0
5
3, we would have
0
1 and
1
2
3, then
1
1
2 and
2
2
3
1
2
1
6, so that
2
1
6and
0
5
3
0
1
2
1
1
2
1
6. We’ll call the
k
th
remainder
k
and the
k
th
greedy unit fraction
k
. What we need to show is that for any rational number
0
, the greedy algorithm terminates (that is,
k
0 for some
k
 ). To do that, we need to get a better picture of what the greedy algorithm actually looks like. In particular, we’ll first look at the set of rationals
Ε
0,1
: these are the rational numbers
 AB
where
 A
B
. In this case,
Ε
0,
A
with
B
mod
A
, so we can write
B
u A
for some
Ε
, so that
Au A
. We have the following short lemma:Lemma: If 
k
Au A
as described, then
k
1
1
.Proof: The greedy algorithm asks us to take the largest unit fraction possible without surpassing theremainder: we have
1
1
since
1
1
1
1
0, while

1
1
1
1
1
0. That is,
is the largest unit fraction that does not exceed
(the next largest unit fraction
does 
exceed
 ). Now, if 
Au A
, we have
u A
 A
1
 A
1
1
1
, the desired result.
Now we can prove that the greedy algorithm terminates on any positive rational number less thanone, another lemma on the way to a proof that the algorithm terminates on
any 
rational number.Lemma 1: The greedy algorithm terminates on any rational
Ε
0,1
.Proof: Write
k
A
k
k
A
k
k
for positive integers
 A
k
,
k
and
k
with 0
k
A
k
k
0. Apply thegreedy algorithm to
: we obtain a sequence
0
,
1
,...
of unit fractions and a sequence
0
,
1
,
2
,...
 
 
 of remainders, and from the sequence of 
’s, sequences
 A
0
,...
,
0
,...
,and
0
,...
. Since
 A
0
isfinite, it suffices to show that
 A
k
A
k
1
k
0, so that the sequence of 
 A
’s would have to end in a0, the desired result. We have that each remainder
k
A
k
k
A
k
k
, so that by our lemma,
k
1
k
1
and
k
1
k
k
A
k
k
k
1
 
k
A
k
k
. This gives us the recursion
 A
k
1
A
k
k
on the sequence of 
 A
’s: inparticular, we have that
k
0
k
, so that
 A
k
1
A
k
k
A
k
.
Now we need some way to extend this idea to construct any rational number
. We know it is possi-ble to get “near” any rational number, since
k
1
1
k
: that is, there’s no rational number we can’tsurpass. The question is, how do we hit a given “large” rational number exactly? Imagine we have areally large number, like 1,000,000. Using just the unit fractions, it’ll take a very long time to get there- the sum
k
1
1
k
grows with log 
, so it we would have to go out to around
10
6
10
434294
. For a while, we’ll just be taking all the big unit fractions we can get our hands on:
0
1,
1
1
2,... Then, when we finally get “in range” of the target, apply Lemma 1 to the remainder. What could go wrong with this approach? It could be that when we try to apply Lemma 1, we need aunit fraction
k
that has already been used in the first part of the decomposition. For example, if 
2, we might first take
0
1and
1
1
2 to get “in range” (within .5) of the target. But then thegreedy algorithm would ask us to take 1/2 again, which we’ve already used! The way to do it is to go alittle further before invoking lemma 1: we should have taken
0
1,
1
1
2,and
2
1
3, thenapplied lemma 1 to 1/6 to obtain 2
1
1
2
1
3
1
6. The solution is simple: we switch over tolemma 1 when taking the next largest unused unit fraction puts us past the mark. We will show thatsuch a point occurs (that
,
 N 
1
,
 j 
1
 ), and that invoking lemma 1 afterthis point doesn’t give us any duplicates. Theorem 1: The greedy algorithm on any positive rational number terminates.Proof: Fix
Ε
. If 
1, apply lemma 1. If 
1, take
0
1
done. Assume
1. Then let
k
1
k
so long as
1
2
...
k
. Suppose
 N 
0,
1
...
 N 
. But then we wouldhave
1
1
2
1
3
...
1
0, a contradiction. Pick the smallest such
 N 
, and call it
. That is, 1
1
2
...
1
1
1
1
2
...
1
, so that
Ε
1
...
1
1
,1
...
1
. Then
1
1
...
1
1
Ε
0,
1
. Since
1,
1
1
1
1. We can now safely appllemma 1 to the remainder
1
, since it is less than 1 and all of the unit fractions
1,1
2,...,1
1

are greater than
1
, so there is no chance of us needing them again.
So any rational number is constructable with finitely many distinct unit fractions. What if we are only allowed to use some unit fractions, but not all of them? If we truncate the natural numbers at any point, and take the tail end - that is, the set
,
1,...
for some positive integer
- the greedy algorithm on this set still works by the same method as before, only now lemma 1 will apply torationals less than 1
instead of those less than 1. We’ll see shortly that if we take the set
,2
,3
,4
,5
,...
:
0mod
for any positive integer
, we can construct any rational 
2
 
Unit Fractions.nb
 
 number, drawing unit fractions only from this set. This offers a general question about sets like this:letting 
,
Ε
:
mod
, what subset of 
can we construct with finite sums of distinct unitfractions, whose denominators have only elements of 
,
for fixed
and
? Theorem 2: We can construct all o
using 
0,
Ε
.Proof: Fix
Ε
and
Ε
. Now we apply Theorem 1 to the number
, so that
1
2
...
k
1
1
...
1
k
, a sum of distinct unit fractions. Now we divide by 
toobtain
1
n
1
1
n
2
...
1
n d 
k
, a sum of distinct unit fractions whose denominatorsare all 0mod
, the desired result.
Note that the sets
0,
have asymptotic density 1
, so that we can have sets with arbitrarily smallasymptotic density that will still construct all of 
. A natural question to ask is, is there a density 0 setthat will construct
? Erds has proved that taking the set of squares union the set of primes, we canconstruct any rational number: this set has density 0, and so answers our question. We offer a differ-ent density 0 set which also constructs the rationals.“Proof:” The idea is to construct a set
as a union of countably many sets
, each a subset of adifferent “block” of 
,
B
. That is, we want families of sets with the following properties:1.
B
,
B
B
 j 
,
 2.
B
 3.
Ε
1
1
4.
1
max
B
  These last two conditions reveal our plan. We want to construct the number
using this set by having the elements of 
take the place of 1
in the greedy decomposition, and we want the density of the whole thing to be arbitrarily small (smaller than any 1
 ). We can accomplish this by building the
’s recursively as follows. For our base case, let
1
1
,and
B
1
1
. Then 1
1
1 and 1
1 as desired. Now suppose we have constructed
k
and
B
k
for some
k
Ε
with the desired properties, and let max
B
k
. We now apply the greedy algorithm as in Theorem 1 (with the set
1,2,3,...,
, i.e.
truncated at
 ) to the number
1
k
1
,and obtain a finite sequence of distinct unit fractions that sum to it: call this sequence
1
,...,
 N 
 with
1
2
...
 N 
. Now we define
k
1
1
1
,1
2
,...,1
 N 
and
B
k
1
:
1
max

k
1
 N 
1
k
1

,1
 N 

.Property 1 follows from the definition of the sets
B
k
. Property 2 is satisfied because
1
...
 N 
, so1
1
...
1
 N 
max
B
k
1
, while Theorem 1 requires each of the 1
k
k
. Property 3 issatisfied by Theorem 1. Finally, we have that 
Unit Fractions.nb
3

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