# Sums of Unit Fractions

We investigate sums of so called “unit fractions,” the numbers
1
n
for positive integer n. The first
simple question we might ask is, can each (positive) rational number
p
q
be written as a finite sum of
distinct unit fractions? For example,
15
14
= 1 +
1
14
,
3
10
=
1
5
+
1
10
, and
4
3
= 1 +
1
5
+
1
15
+
1
17
+
1
255
+
1
256
+
1
65280
. To show that it is possible, we first need to come up with a
method for determining these constructions. The method we’ll use is the greedy method, where we
decompose a number into unit fractions by approaching it with the largest unit fraction we still have
available (since we are to use distinct unit fractions in the decomposition). The greedy algorithm gives
us a sequence of unit fractions, as well as a sequence of remainders (the sum of the first so many unit
fractions in our sequence is the approximation to the number). For example, if we are try to construct
r
0
= 5 f 3, we would have x
0
= 1 and r
1
= 2 f 3, then x
1
= 1 f 2 and r
2
= 2 f 3 ÷1 f 2 = 1 f 6, so that
x
2
= 1 f 6 and r
0
= 5 f 3 = x
0
+x
1
+x
2
= 1 +1 f 2 +1 f 6. We’ll call the k
th
remainder r
k
and the k
th
greedy unit fraction x
k
.
What we need to show is that for any rational number r
0
, the greedy algorithm terminates (that is,
x
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 r Ε [0, 1): these are the rational numbers
A
B
where A s B. In this case, ¬ i Ε (0, A) with B ÷ i mod A, so we can write B = u A+i for some
u Ε , so that r =
A
u A+i
. We have the following short lemma:
Lemma: If r
k
= r =
A
u A+i
as described, then x
k
= x =
1
u+1
.
Proof: The greedy algorithm asks us to take the largest unit fraction possible without surpassing the
remainder: we have
x = |
1
r
|
÷1
since r ÷¦1 f r ¦
÷1
± r ÷1 f (1 f r ) = 0, while
r ÷(¦1 f r ¦ ÷1)
÷1
s r ÷(r +1 ÷1) = 0.
That is, x is the largest unit fraction that does not exceed r (the next largest unit fraction does exceed
r ). Now, if r =
A
u A+i
, we have x = |
u A+i
A
|
÷1
= |u +
i
A
|
÷1
= (u +1)
÷1
, the desired result. .
Now we can prove that the greedy algorithm terminates on any positive rational number less than
one, 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 r Ε [0, 1).
Proof: Write r
k
=
A
k
u
k
A
k
+i
k
for positive integers A
k
, u
k
and i
k
with 0 < i
k
< A
k
! k ± 0. Apply the
greedy algorithm to r : we obtain a sequence (x
0
, x
1
, ...) of unit fractions and a sequence (r
0
, r
1
, r
2
, ...)
of remainders, and from the sequence of r ’s, sequences (A
0
, ...), (u
0
, ...), and (i
0
, ...). Since A
0
is
finite, it suffices to show that A
k
> A
k+1
! k ± 0, so that the sequence of A’s would have to end in a
0, the desired result. We have that each remainder r
k
=
A
k
u
k
A
k
+i
k
, so that by our lemma, x
k
=
1
u
k
+1
and
r
k+1
= r
k
÷x
k
=
A
k
÷i
k
(u
k
+1) (u
k
A
k
+i
k
)
. This gives us the recursion A
k+1
= A
k
÷i
k
on the sequence of A’s: in
particular, we have that i
k
> 0 ! k, so that A
k+1
= A
k
÷i
k
> A
k
. .
Now we need some way to extend this idea to construct any rational number r . We know it is possi-
ble to get “near” any rational number, since _
k=1
o
1
k
= o: that is, there’s no rational number we can’t
surpass. The question is, how do we hit a given “large” rational number exactly? Imagine we have a
really 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
n
1
k
grows with log(n), so it we would have to go out to around e
10
6
- 10
434294
. For a
while, we’ll just be taking all the big unit fractions we can get our hands on: x
0
= 1, x
1
= 1 f 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 a
unit fraction x
k
that has already been used in the first part of the decomposition. For example, if
r = 2, we might first take x
0
= 1 and x
1
= 1 f 2 to get “in range” (within .5) of the target. But then the
greedy algorithm would ask us to take 1/2 again, which we’ve already used! The way to do it is to go a
little further before invoking lemma 1: we should have taken x
0
= 1, x
1
= 1 f 2, and x
2
= 1 f 3, then
applied lemma 1 to 1/6 to obtain 2 = 1 +1 f 2 +1 f 3 +1 f 6. The solution is simple: we switch over to
lemma 1 when taking the next largest unused unit fraction puts us past the mark. We will show that
such a point occurs (that ¬ N, x
N
= 1 f i > r
i
, x
j
= 1 f j ! j s N), and that invoking lemma 1 after
this point doesn’t give us any duplicates.
Theorem 1: The greedy algorithm on any positive rational number terminates.
Proof: Fix r Ε . If r < 1, apply lemma 1. If r = 1, take x
0
= 1 = done. Assume r > 1. Then let
x
k
= 1 f k so long as x
1
+x
2
+... +x
k
s r . Suppose ¬ ! N ± 0, x
1
+... +x
N
> r . But then we would
have r > 1 +1 f 2 +1 f 3 +... +1 f n ! n > 0, a contradiction. Pick the smallest such N, and call it L.
That is, 1 +1 f 2 +... +1 f (L ÷1) s r < 1 +1 f 2 +... +1 f L, so that r Ε ¡1 +... +
1
L÷1
, 1 +... +
1
L
j.
Then r
L÷1
= r ÷1 +... +
1
L÷1
Ε ¡0,
1
L
]. Since L ± 1,
1
L
s 1=r
L÷1
< 1. We can now safely apply
lemma 1 to the remainder r
L÷1
, since it is less than 1 and all of the unit fractions
¦1, 1 f 2, ..., 1 f (L ÷1)¦ are greater than r
L÷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 ¦n, n +1, ...¦ for some positive integer n - the greedy
algorithm on this set still works by the same method as before, only now lemma 1 will apply to
rationals less than 1 f n instead of those less than 1. We’ll see shortly that if we take the set
¦n, 2 n, 3 n, 4 n, 5 n, ...¦ = ¦a : a ÷ 0 mod n¦ for any positive integer n, we can construct any rational
number, drawing unit fractions only from this set. This offers a general question about sets like this:
letting S
a,b
= ¦s Ε : s ÷ a mod b¦, what subset of can we construct with finite sums of distinct unit
fractions, whose denominators have only elements of S
a,b
for fixed a and b?
Theorem 2: We can construct all of using S
0,n
! n Ε .
Proof: Fix r Ε and n Ε . Now we apply Theorem 1 to the number n - r , so that
n - r = x
1
+x
2
+... +x
k
= 1 f d
1
+... +1 f d
k
, a sum of distinct unit fractions. Now we divide by n to
obtain r = 1 f (n d
1
) +1 f (n d
2
) +... +1 f (n d
k
), a sum of distinct unit fractions whose denominators
are all 0 mod n, the desired result. .
Note that the sets S
0,n
have asymptotic density 1 f n, so that we can have sets with arbitrarily small
asymptotic density that will still construct all of . A natural question to ask is, is there a density 0 set
that will construct ? Erd s has proved that taking the set of squares union the set of primes, we can
construct 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 S as a union of countably many sets ¦S
i
¦, each a subset of a
different “block” of , B
i
. That is, we want families of sets with the following properties:
1. _ B
i
= , B
i
¦ B
j
= O! i, j
2. S
i
ç B
i
! i
3. _
s Ε S
i
1 f s = 1 f i
4. _
i =1
n
¦S
i
¦ s
max(B
n
)
n

These last two conditions reveal our plan. We want to construct the number r using this set by having
the elements of S
i
take the place of 1 f i in the greedy decomposition, and we want the density of the
whole thing to be arbitrarily small (smaller than any 1 f n).
We can accomplish this by building the S
i
’s recursively as follows. For our base case, let
S
1
= ¦1¦, and B
1
= ¦1¦. Then 1 f 1 = 1 and 1 s 1 as desired. Now suppose we have constructed
S
k
and B
k
for some k Ε with the desired properties, and let max(B
k
) = a. We now apply the greedy
algorithm as in Theorem 1 (with the set ÷¦1, 2, 3, ..., a¦, i.e. truncated at a) to the number
1
k+1
,
and obtain a finite sequence of distinct unit fractions that sum to it: call this sequence (x
1
, ..., x
N
)
with x
1
> x
2
>... > x
N
. Now we define S
k+1
= ¦1 f x
1
, 1 f x
2
, ..., 1 f x
N
) and
B
k+1
= |b : a +1 s b s max |(k +1) |N +_
i =1
k+1
¦S
i
¦], 1 f x
N
||.
Property 1 follows from the definition of the sets B
k
. Property 2 is satisfied because x
1
>... > x
N
, so
1 f x
1
<... < 1 f x
N
s max(B
k+1
), while Theorem 1 requires each of the 1 f x
k
> a ! k. Property 3 is
satisfied by Theorem 1. Finally, we have that
max(B
k+1
) ± (k +1) N +(k +1) _
i =1
k
¦S
i
¦ = (k +1) _
i =1
k+1
¦S
i
¦, so that _
i =1
k+1
¦S
i
¦ s
max(B
k+1
)
k+1
, so property
4 is satisfied.
Then S = _
i
S
i
is the desired set. To construct a rational number r , we first write its greedy decomposi-
tion - _
i =1
n
1 f r
i
- then re-write each 1 f r
i
= _
s Ε S
r
i
1 f s. All the sets S
i
are finite disjoint, so this deco-
momposition is also finite and has no duplicates. .
It has not yet been determined what subsets of any of the sets S
a,b
can construct, though the set
S
1,2
= ¦odd numbers¦ has been studied thoroughly, and we conjecture that S
1,2
can construct any
positive rational number with odd denominator. The greedy algorithm seems to terminate on this set,
but we cannot employ the same proof because (as the reader can check for himself) the sequence of
numerators of the remainders does not strictly decrease.
Sums of Unit Fractions
We investigate sums of so called “unit fractions,” the numbers
1
n
for positive integer n. The first
simple question we might ask is, can each (positive) rational number
p
q
be written as a finite sum of
distinct unit fractions? For example,
15
14
= 1 +
1
14
,
3
10
=
1
5
+
1
10
, and
4
3
= 1 +
1
5
+
1
15
+
1
17
+
1
255
+
1
256
+
1
65280
. To show that it is possible, we first need to come up with a
method for determining these constructions. The method we’ll use is the greedy method, where we
decompose a number into unit fractions by approaching it with the largest unit fraction we still have
available (since we are to use distinct unit fractions in the decomposition). The greedy algorithm gives
us a sequence of unit fractions, as well as a sequence of remainders (the sum of the first so many unit
fractions in our sequence is the approximation to the number). For example, if we are try to construct
r
0
= 5 f 3, we would have x
0
= 1 and r
1
= 2 f 3, then x
1
= 1 f 2 and r
2
= 2 f 3 ÷1 f 2 = 1 f 6, so that
x
2
= 1 f 6 and r
0
= 5 f 3 = x
0
+x
1
+x
2
= 1 +1 f 2 +1 f 6. We’ll call the k
th
remainder r
k
and the k
th
greedy unit fraction x
k
.
What we need to show is that for any rational number r
0
, the greedy algorithm terminates (that is,
x
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 r Ε [0, 1): these are the rational numbers
A
B
where A s B. In this case, ¬ i Ε (0, A) with B ÷ i mod A, so we can write B = u A+i for some
u Ε , so that r =
A
u A+i
. We have the following short lemma:
Lemma: If r
k
= r =
A
u A+i
as described, then x
k
= x =
1
u+1
.
Proof: The greedy algorithm asks us to take the largest unit fraction possible without surpassing the
remainder: we have
x = |
1
r
|
÷1
since r ÷¦1 f r ¦
÷1
± r ÷1 f (1 f r ) = 0, while
r ÷(¦1 f r ¦ ÷1)
÷1
s r ÷(r +1 ÷1) = 0.
That is, x is the largest unit fraction that does not exceed r (the next largest unit fraction does exceed
r ). Now, if r =
A
u A+i
, we have x = |
u A+i
A
|
÷1
= |u +
i
A
|
÷1
= (u +1)
÷1
, the desired result. .
Now we can prove that the greedy algorithm terminates on any positive rational number less than
one, 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 r Ε [0, 1).
Proof: Write r
k
=
A
k
u
k
A
k
+i
k
for positive integers A
k
, u
k
and i
k
with 0 < i
k
< A
k
! k ± 0. Apply the
greedy algorithm to r : we obtain a sequence (x
0
, x
1
, ...) of unit fractions and a sequence (r
0
, r
1
, r
2
, ...)
of remainders, and from the sequence of r ’s, sequences (A
0
, ...), (u
0
, ...), and (i
0
, ...). Since A
0
is
finite, it suffices to show that A
k
> A
k+1
! k ± 0, so that the sequence of A’s would have to end in a
0, the desired result. We have that each remainder r
k
=
A
k
u
k
A
k
+i
k
, so that by our lemma, x
k
=
1
u
k
+1
and
r
k+1
= r
k
÷x
k
=
A
k
÷i
k
(u
k
+1) (u
k
A
k
+i
k
)
. This gives us the recursion A
k+1
= A
k
÷i
k
on the sequence of A’s: in
particular, we have that i
k
> 0 ! k, so that A
k+1
= A
k
÷i
k
> A
k
. .
Now we need some way to extend this idea to construct any rational number r . We know it is possi-
ble to get “near” any rational number, since _
k=1
o
1
k
= o: that is, there’s no rational number we can’t
surpass. The question is, how do we hit a given “large” rational number exactly? Imagine we have a
really 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
n
1
k
grows with log(n), so it we would have to go out to around e
10
6
- 10
434294
. For a
while, we’ll just be taking all the big unit fractions we can get our hands on: x
0
= 1, x
1
= 1 f 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 a
unit fraction x
k
that has already been used in the first part of the decomposition. For example, if
r = 2, we might first take x
0
= 1 and x
1
= 1 f 2 to get “in range” (within .5) of the target. But then the
greedy algorithm would ask us to take 1/2 again, which we’ve already used! The way to do it is to go a
little further before invoking lemma 1: we should have taken x
0
= 1, x
1
= 1 f 2, and x
2
= 1 f 3, then
applied lemma 1 to 1/6 to obtain 2 = 1 +1 f 2 +1 f 3 +1 f 6. The solution is simple: we switch over to
lemma 1 when taking the next largest unused unit fraction puts us past the mark. We will show that
such a point occurs (that ¬ N, x
N
= 1 f i > r
i
, x
j
= 1 f j ! j s N), and that invoking lemma 1 after
this point doesn’t give us any duplicates.
Theorem 1: The greedy algorithm on any positive rational number terminates.
Proof: Fix r Ε . If r < 1, apply lemma 1. If r = 1, take x
0
= 1 = done. Assume r > 1. Then let
x
k
= 1 f k so long as x
1
+x
2
+... +x
k
s r . Suppose ¬ ! N ± 0, x
1
+... +x
N
> r . But then we would
have r > 1 +1 f 2 +1 f 3 +... +1 f n ! n > 0, a contradiction. Pick the smallest such N, and call it L.
That is, 1 +1 f 2 +... +1 f (L ÷1) s r < 1 +1 f 2 +... +1 f L, so that r Ε ¡1 +... +
1
L÷1
, 1 +... +
1
L
j.
Then r
L÷1
= r ÷1 +... +
1
L÷1
Ε ¡0,
1
L
]. Since L ± 1,
1
L
s 1=r
L÷1
< 1. We can now safely apply
lemma 1 to the remainder r
L÷1
, since it is less than 1 and all of the unit fractions
¦1, 1 f 2, ..., 1 f (L ÷1)¦ are greater than r
L÷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 ¦n, n +1, ...¦ for some positive integer n - the greedy
algorithm on this set still works by the same method as before, only now lemma 1 will apply to
rationals less than 1 f n instead of those less than 1. We’ll see shortly that if we take the set
¦n, 2 n, 3 n, 4 n, 5 n, ...¦ = ¦a : a ÷ 0 mod n¦ for any positive integer n, we can construct any rational
number, drawing unit fractions only from this set. This offers a general question about sets like this:
letting S
a,b
= ¦s Ε : s ÷ a mod b¦, what subset of can we construct with finite sums of distinct unit
fractions, whose denominators have only elements of S
a,b
for fixed a and b?
Theorem 2: We can construct all of using S
0,n
! n Ε .
Proof: Fix r Ε and n Ε . Now we apply Theorem 1 to the number n - r , so that
n - r = x
1
+x
2
+... +x
k
= 1 f d
1
+... +1 f d
k
, a sum of distinct unit fractions. Now we divide by n to
obtain r = 1 f (n d
1
) +1 f (n d
2
) +... +1 f (n d
k
), a sum of distinct unit fractions whose denominators
are all 0 mod n, the desired result. .
Note that the sets S
0,n
have asymptotic density 1 f n, so that we can have sets with arbitrarily small
asymptotic density that will still construct all of . A natural question to ask is, is there a density 0 set
that will construct ? Erd s has proved that taking the set of squares union the set of primes, we can
construct 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 S as a union of countably many sets ¦S
i
¦, each a subset of a
different “block” of , B
i
. That is, we want families of sets with the following properties:
1. _ B
i
= , B
i
¦ B
j
= O! i, j
2. S
i
ç B
i
! i
3. _
s Ε S
i
1 f s = 1 f i
4. _
i =1
n
¦S
i
¦ s
max(B
n
)
n

These last two conditions reveal our plan. We want to construct the number r using this set by having
the elements of S
i
take the place of 1 f i in the greedy decomposition, and we want the density of the
whole thing to be arbitrarily small (smaller than any 1 f n).
We can accomplish this by building the S
i
’s recursively as follows. For our base case, let
S
1
= ¦1¦, and B
1
= ¦1¦. Then 1 f 1 = 1 and 1 s 1 as desired. Now suppose we have constructed
S
k
and B
k
for some k Ε with the desired properties, and let max(B
k
) = a. We now apply the greedy
algorithm as in Theorem 1 (with the set ÷¦1, 2, 3, ..., a¦, i.e. truncated at a) to the number
1
k+1
,
and obtain a finite sequence of distinct unit fractions that sum to it: call this sequence (x
1
, ..., x
N
)
with x
1
> x
2
>... > x
N
. Now we define S
k+1
= ¦1 f x
1
, 1 f x
2
, ..., 1 f x
N
) and
B
k+1
= |b : a +1 s b s max |(k +1) |N +_
i =1
k+1
¦S
i
¦], 1 f x
N
||.
Property 1 follows from the definition of the sets B
k
. Property 2 is satisfied because x
1
>... > x
N
, so
1 f x
1
<... < 1 f x
N
s max(B
k+1
), while Theorem 1 requires each of the 1 f x
k
> a ! k. Property 3 is
satisfied by Theorem 1. Finally, we have that
max(B
k+1
) ± (k +1) N +(k +1) _
i =1
k
¦S
i
¦ = (k +1) _
i =1
k+1
¦S
i
¦, so that _
i =1
k+1
¦S
i
¦ s
max(B
k+1
)
k+1
, so property
4 is satisfied.
Then S = _
i
S
i
is the desired set. To construct a rational number r , we first write its greedy decomposi-
tion - _
i =1
n
1 f r
i
- then re-write each 1 f r
i
= _
s Ε S
r
i
1 f s. All the sets S
i
are finite disjoint, so this deco-
momposition is also finite and has no duplicates. .
It has not yet been determined what subsets of any of the sets S
a,b
can construct, though the set
S
1,2
= ¦odd numbers¦ has been studied thoroughly, and we conjecture that S
1,2
can construct any
positive rational number with odd denominator. The greedy algorithm seems to terminate on this set,
but we cannot employ the same proof because (as the reader can check for himself) the sequence of
numerators of the remainders does not strictly decrease.
2 Unit Fractions.nb
Sums of Unit Fractions
We investigate sums of so called “unit fractions,” the numbers
1
n
for positive integer n. The first
simple question we might ask is, can each (positive) rational number
p
q
be written as a finite sum of
distinct unit fractions? For example,
15
14
= 1 +
1
14
,
3
10
=
1
5
+
1
10
, and
4
3
= 1 +
1
5
+
1
15
+
1
17
+
1
255
+
1
256
+
1
65280
. To show that it is possible, we first need to come up with a
method for determining these constructions. The method we’ll use is the greedy method, where we
decompose a number into unit fractions by approaching it with the largest unit fraction we still have
available (since we are to use distinct unit fractions in the decomposition). The greedy algorithm gives
us a sequence of unit fractions, as well as a sequence of remainders (the sum of the first so many unit
fractions in our sequence is the approximation to the number). For example, if we are try to construct
r
0
= 5 f 3, we would have x
0
= 1 and r
1
= 2 f 3, then x
1
= 1 f 2 and r
2
= 2 f 3 ÷1 f 2 = 1 f 6, so that
x
2
= 1 f 6 and r
0
= 5 f 3 = x
0
+x
1
+x
2
= 1 +1 f 2 +1 f 6. We’ll call the k
th
remainder r
k
and the k
th
greedy unit fraction x
k
.
What we need to show is that for any rational number r
0
, the greedy algorithm terminates (that is,
x
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 r Ε [0, 1): these are the rational numbers
A
B
where A s B. In this case, ¬ i Ε (0, A) with B ÷ i mod A, so we can write B = u A+i for some
u Ε , so that r =
A
u A+i
. We have the following short lemma:
Lemma: If r
k
= r =
A
u A+i
as described, then x
k
= x =
1
u+1
.
Proof: The greedy algorithm asks us to take the largest unit fraction possible without surpassing the
remainder: we have
x = |
1
r
|
÷1
since r ÷¦1 f r ¦
÷1
± r ÷1 f (1 f r ) = 0, while
r ÷(¦1 f r ¦ ÷1)
÷1
s r ÷(r +1 ÷1) = 0.
That is, x is the largest unit fraction that does not exceed r (the next largest unit fraction does exceed
r ). Now, if r =
A
u A+i
, we have x = |
u A+i
A
|
÷1
= |u +
i
A
|
÷1
= (u +1)
÷1
, the desired result. .
Now we can prove that the greedy algorithm terminates on any positive rational number less than
one, 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 r Ε [0, 1).
Proof: Write r
k
=
A
k
u
k
A
k
+i
k
for positive integers A
k
, u
k
and i
k
with 0 < i
k
< A
k
! k ± 0. Apply the
greedy algorithm to r : we obtain a sequence (x
0
, x
1
, ...) of unit fractions and a sequence (r
0
, r
1
, r
2
, ...)
of remainders, and from the sequence of r ’s, sequences (A
0
, ...), (u
0
, ...), and (i
0
, ...). Since A
0
is
finite, it suffices to show that A
k
> A
k+1
! k ± 0, so that the sequence of A’s would have to end in a
0, the desired result. We have that each remainder r
k
=
A
k
u
k
A
k
+i
k
, so that by our lemma, x
k
=
1
u
k
+1
and
r
k+1
= r
k
÷x
k
=
A
k
÷i
k
(u
k
+1) (u
k
A
k
+i
k
)
. This gives us the recursion A
k+1
= A
k
÷i
k
on the sequence of A’s: in
particular, we have that i
k
> 0 ! k, so that A
k+1
= A
k
÷i
k
> A
k
. .
Now we need some way to extend this idea to construct any rational number r . We know it is possi-
ble to get “near” any rational number, since _
k=1
o
1
k
= o: that is, there’s no rational number we can’t
surpass. The question is, how do we hit a given “large” rational number exactly? Imagine we have a
really 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
n
1
k
grows with log(n), so it we would have to go out to around e
10
6
- 10
434294
. For a
while, we’ll just be taking all the big unit fractions we can get our hands on: x
0
= 1, x
1
= 1 f 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 a
unit fraction x
k
that has already been used in the first part of the decomposition. For example, if
r = 2, we might first take x
0
= 1 and x
1
= 1 f 2 to get “in range” (within .5) of the target. But then the
greedy algorithm would ask us to take 1/2 again, which we’ve already used! The way to do it is to go a
little further before invoking lemma 1: we should have taken x
0
= 1, x
1
= 1 f 2, and x
2
= 1 f 3, then
applied lemma 1 to 1/6 to obtain 2 = 1 +1 f 2 +1 f 3 +1 f 6. The solution is simple: we switch over to
lemma 1 when taking the next largest unused unit fraction puts us past the mark. We will show that
such a point occurs (that ¬ N, x
N
= 1 f i > r
i
, x
j
= 1 f j ! j s N), and that invoking lemma 1 after
this point doesn’t give us any duplicates.
Theorem 1: The greedy algorithm on any positive rational number terminates.
Proof: Fix r Ε . If r < 1, apply lemma 1. If r = 1, take x
0
= 1 = done. Assume r > 1. Then let
x
k
= 1 f k so long as x
1
+x
2
+... +x
k
s r . Suppose ¬ ! N ± 0, x
1
+... +x
N
> r . But then we would
have r > 1 +1 f 2 +1 f 3 +... +1 f n ! n > 0, a contradiction. Pick the smallest such N, and call it L.
That is, 1 +1 f 2 +... +1 f (L ÷1) s r < 1 +1 f 2 +... +1 f L, so that r Ε ¡1 +... +
1
L÷1
, 1 +... +
1
L
j.
Then r
L÷1
= r ÷1 +... +
1
L÷1
Ε ¡0,
1
L
]. Since L ± 1,
1
L
s 1=r
L÷1
< 1. We can now safely apply
lemma 1 to the remainder r
L÷1
, since it is less than 1 and all of the unit fractions
¦1, 1 f 2, ..., 1 f (L ÷1)¦ are greater than r
L÷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 ¦n, n +1, ...¦ for some positive integer n - the greedy
algorithm on this set still works by the same method as before, only now lemma 1 will apply to
rationals less than 1 f n instead of those less than 1. We’ll see shortly that if we take the set
¦n, 2 n, 3 n, 4 n, 5 n, ...¦ = ¦a : a ÷ 0 mod n¦ for any positive integer n, we can construct any rational
number, drawing unit fractions only from this set. This offers a general question about sets like this:
letting S
a,b
= ¦s Ε : s ÷ a mod b¦, what subset of can we construct with finite sums of distinct unit
fractions, whose denominators have only elements of S
a,b
for fixed a and b?
Theorem 2: We can construct all of using S
0,n
! n Ε .
Proof: Fix r Ε and n Ε . Now we apply Theorem 1 to the number n - r , so that
n - r = x
1
+x
2
+... +x
k
= 1 f d
1
+... +1 f d
k
, a sum of distinct unit fractions. Now we divide by n to
obtain r = 1 f (n d
1
) +1 f (n d
2
) +... +1 f (n d
k
), a sum of distinct unit fractions whose denominators
are all 0 mod n, the desired result. .
Note that the sets S
0,n
have asymptotic density 1 f n, so that we can have sets with arbitrarily small
asymptotic density that will still construct all of . A natural question to ask is, is there a density 0 set
that will construct ? Erd s has proved that taking the set of squares union the set of primes, we can
construct 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 S as a union of countably many sets ¦S
i
¦, each a subset of a
different “block” of , B
i
. That is, we want families of sets with the following properties:
1. _ B
i
= , B
i
¦ B
j
= O! i, j
2. S
i
ç B
i
! i
3. _
s Ε S
i
1 f s = 1 f i
4. _
i =1
n
¦S
i
¦ s
max(B
n
)
n

These last two conditions reveal our plan. We want to construct the number r using this set by having
the elements of S
i
take the place of 1 f i in the greedy decomposition, and we want the density of the
whole thing to be arbitrarily small (smaller than any 1 f n).
We can accomplish this by building the S
i
’s recursively as follows. For our base case, let
S
1
= ¦1¦, and B
1
= ¦1¦. Then 1 f 1 = 1 and 1 s 1 as desired. Now suppose we have constructed
S
k
and B
k
for some k Ε with the desired properties, and let max(B
k
) = a. We now apply the greedy
algorithm as in Theorem 1 (with the set ÷¦1, 2, 3, ..., a¦, i.e. truncated at a) to the number
1
k+1
,
and obtain a finite sequence of distinct unit fractions that sum to it: call this sequence (x
1
, ..., x
N
)
with x
1
> x
2
>... > x
N
. Now we define S
k+1
= ¦1 f x
1
, 1 f x
2
, ..., 1 f x
N
) and
B
k+1
= |b : a +1 s b s max |(k +1) |N +_
i =1
k+1
¦S
i
¦], 1 f x
N
||.
Property 1 follows from the definition of the sets B
k
. Property 2 is satisfied because x
1
>... > x
N
, so
1 f x
1
<... < 1 f x
N
s max(B
k+1
), while Theorem 1 requires each of the 1 f x
k
> a ! k. Property 3 is
satisfied by Theorem 1. Finally, we have that
max(B
k+1
) ± (k +1) N +(k +1) _
i =1
k
¦S
i
¦ = (k +1) _
i =1
k+1
¦S
i
¦, so that _
i =1
k+1
¦S
i
¦ s
max(B
k+1
)
k+1
, so property
4 is satisfied.
Then S = _
i
S
i
is the desired set. To construct a rational number r , we first write its greedy decomposi-
tion - _
i =1
n
1 f r
i
- then re-write each 1 f r
i
= _
s Ε S
r
i
1 f s. All the sets S
i
are finite disjoint, so this deco-
momposition is also finite and has no duplicates. .
It has not yet been determined what subsets of any of the sets S
a,b
can construct, though the set
S
1,2
= ¦odd numbers¦ has been studied thoroughly, and we conjecture that S
1,2
can construct any
positive rational number with odd denominator. The greedy algorithm seems to terminate on this set,
but we cannot employ the same proof because (as the reader can check for himself) the sequence of
numerators of the remainders does not strictly decrease.
Unit Fractions.nb 3
Sums of Unit Fractions
We investigate sums of so called “unit fractions,” the numbers
1
n
for positive integer n. The first
simple question we might ask is, can each (positive) rational number
p
q
be written as a finite sum of
distinct unit fractions? For example,
15
14
= 1 +
1
14
,
3
10
=
1
5
+
1
10
, and
4
3
= 1 +
1
5
+
1
15
+
1
17
+
1
255
+
1
256
+
1
65280
. To show that it is possible, we first need to come up with a
method for determining these constructions. The method we’ll use is the greedy method, where we
decompose a number into unit fractions by approaching it with the largest unit fraction we still have
available (since we are to use distinct unit fractions in the decomposition). The greedy algorithm gives
us a sequence of unit fractions, as well as a sequence of remainders (the sum of the first so many unit
fractions in our sequence is the approximation to the number). For example, if we are try to construct
r
0
= 5 f 3, we would have x
0
= 1 and r
1
= 2 f 3, then x
1
= 1 f 2 and r
2
= 2 f 3 ÷1 f 2 = 1 f 6, so that
x
2
= 1 f 6 and r
0
= 5 f 3 = x
0
+x
1
+x
2
= 1 +1 f 2 +1 f 6. We’ll call the k
th
remainder r
k
and the k
th
greedy unit fraction x
k
.
What we need to show is that for any rational number r
0
, the greedy algorithm terminates (that is,
x
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 r Ε [0, 1): these are the rational numbers
A
B
where A s B. In this case, ¬ i Ε (0, A) with B ÷ i mod A, so we can write B = u A+i for some
u Ε , so that r =
A
u A+i
. We have the following short lemma:
Lemma: If r
k
= r =
A
u A+i
as described, then x
k
= x =
1
u+1
.
Proof: The greedy algorithm asks us to take the largest unit fraction possible without surpassing the
remainder: we have
x = |
1
r
|
÷1
since r ÷¦1 f r ¦
÷1
± r ÷1 f (1 f r ) = 0, while
r ÷(¦1 f r ¦ ÷1)
÷1
s r ÷(r +1 ÷1) = 0.
That is, x is the largest unit fraction that does not exceed r (the next largest unit fraction does exceed
r ). Now, if r =
A
u A+i
, we have x = |
u A+i
A
|
÷1
= |u +
i
A
|
÷1
= (u +1)
÷1
, the desired result. .
Now we can prove that the greedy algorithm terminates on any positive rational number less than
one, 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 r Ε [0, 1).
Proof: Write r
k
=
A
k
u
k
A
k
+i
k
for positive integers A
k
, u
k
and i
k
with 0 < i
k
< A
k
! k ± 0. Apply the
greedy algorithm to r : we obtain a sequence (x
0
, x
1
, ...) of unit fractions and a sequence (r
0
, r
1
, r
2
, ...)
of remainders, and from the sequence of r ’s, sequences (A
0
, ...), (u
0
, ...), and (i
0
, ...). Since A
0
is
finite, it suffices to show that A
k
> A
k+1
! k ± 0, so that the sequence of A’s would have to end in a
0, the desired result. We have that each remainder r
k
=
A
k
u
k
A
k
+i
k
, so that by our lemma, x
k
=
1
u
k
+1
and
r
k+1
= r
k
÷x
k
=
A
k
÷i
k
(u
k
+1) (u
k
A
k
+i
k
)
. This gives us the recursion A
k+1
= A
k
÷i
k
on the sequence of A’s: in
particular, we have that i
k
> 0 ! k, so that A
k+1
= A
k
÷i
k
> A
k
. .
Now we need some way to extend this idea to construct any rational number r . We know it is possi-
ble to get “near” any rational number, since _
k=1
o
1
k
= o: that is, there’s no rational number we can’t
surpass. The question is, how do we hit a given “large” rational number exactly? Imagine we have a
really 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
n
1
k
grows with log(n), so it we would have to go out to around e
10
6
- 10
434294
. For a
while, we’ll just be taking all the big unit fractions we can get our hands on: x
0
= 1, x
1
= 1 f 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 a
unit fraction x
k
that has already been used in the first part of the decomposition. For example, if
r = 2, we might first take x
0
= 1 and x
1
= 1 f 2 to get “in range” (within .5) of the target. But then the
greedy algorithm would ask us to take 1/2 again, which we’ve already used! The way to do it is to go a
little further before invoking lemma 1: we should have taken x
0
= 1, x
1
= 1 f 2, and x
2
= 1 f 3, then
applied lemma 1 to 1/6 to obtain 2 = 1 +1 f 2 +1 f 3 +1 f 6. The solution is simple: we switch over to
lemma 1 when taking the next largest unused unit fraction puts us past the mark. We will show that
such a point occurs (that ¬ N, x
N
= 1 f i > r
i
, x
j
= 1 f j ! j s N), and that invoking lemma 1 after
this point doesn’t give us any duplicates.
Theorem 1: The greedy algorithm on any positive rational number terminates.
Proof: Fix r Ε . If r < 1, apply lemma 1. If r = 1, take x
0
= 1 = done. Assume r > 1. Then let
x
k
= 1 f k so long as x
1
+x
2
+... +x
k
s r . Suppose ¬ ! N ± 0, x
1
+... +x
N
> r . But then we would
have r > 1 +1 f 2 +1 f 3 +... +1 f n ! n > 0, a contradiction. Pick the smallest such N, and call it L.
That is, 1 +1 f 2 +... +1 f (L ÷1) s r < 1 +1 f 2 +... +1 f L, so that r Ε ¡1 +... +
1
L÷1
, 1 +... +
1
L
j.
Then r
L÷1
= r ÷1 +... +
1
L÷1
Ε ¡0,
1
L
]. Since L ± 1,
1
L
s 1=r
L÷1
< 1. We can now safely apply
lemma 1 to the remainder r
L÷1
, since it is less than 1 and all of the unit fractions
¦1, 1 f 2, ..., 1 f (L ÷1)¦ are greater than r
L÷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 ¦n, n +1, ...¦ for some positive integer n - the greedy
algorithm on this set still works by the same method as before, only now lemma 1 will apply to
rationals less than 1 f n instead of those less than 1. We’ll see shortly that if we take the set
¦n, 2 n, 3 n, 4 n, 5 n, ...¦ = ¦a : a ÷ 0 mod n¦ for any positive integer n, we can construct any rational
number, drawing unit fractions only from this set. This offers a general question about sets like this:
letting S
a,b
= ¦s Ε : s ÷ a mod b¦, what subset of can we construct with finite sums of distinct unit
fractions, whose denominators have only elements of S
a,b
for fixed a and b?
Theorem 2: We can construct all of using S
0,n
! n Ε .
Proof: Fix r Ε and n Ε . Now we apply Theorem 1 to the number n - r , so that
n - r = x
1
+x
2
+... +x
k
= 1 f d
1
+... +1 f d
k
, a sum of distinct unit fractions. Now we divide by n to
obtain r = 1 f (n d
1
) +1 f (n d
2
) +... +1 f (n d
k
), a sum of distinct unit fractions whose denominators
are all 0 mod n, the desired result. .
Note that the sets S
0,n
have asymptotic density 1 f n, so that we can have sets with arbitrarily small
asymptotic density that will still construct all of . A natural question to ask is, is there a density 0 set
that will construct ? Erd s has proved that taking the set of squares union the set of primes, we can
construct 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 S as a union of countably many sets ¦S
i
¦, each a subset of a
different “block” of , B
i
. That is, we want families of sets with the following properties:
1. _ B
i
= , B
i
¦ B
j
= O! i, j
2. S
i
ç B
i
! i
3. _
s Ε S
i
1 f s = 1 f i
4. _
i =1
n
¦S
i
¦ s
max(B
n
)
n

These last two conditions reveal our plan. We want to construct the number r using this set by having
the elements of S
i
take the place of 1 f i in the greedy decomposition, and we want the density of the
whole thing to be arbitrarily small (smaller than any 1 f n).
We can accomplish this by building the S
i
’s recursively as follows. For our base case, let
S
1
= ¦1¦, and B
1
= ¦1¦. Then 1 f 1 = 1 and 1 s 1 as desired. Now suppose we have constructed
S
k
and B
k
for some k Ε with the desired properties, and let max(B
k
) = a. We now apply the greedy
algorithm as in Theorem 1 (with the set ÷¦1, 2, 3, ..., a¦, i.e. truncated at a) to the number
1
k+1
,
and obtain a finite sequence of distinct unit fractions that sum to it: call this sequence (x
1
, ..., x
N
)
with x
1
> x
2
>... > x
N
. Now we define S
k+1
= ¦1 f x
1
, 1 f x
2
, ..., 1 f x
N
) and
B
k+1
= |b : a +1 s b s max |(k +1) |N +_
i =1
k+1
¦S
i
¦], 1 f x
N
||.
Property 1 follows from the definition of the sets B
k
. Property 2 is satisfied because x
1
>... > x
N
, so
1 f x
1
<... < 1 f x
N
s max(B
k+1
), while Theorem 1 requires each of the 1 f x
k
> a ! k. Property 3 is
satisfied by Theorem 1. Finally, we have that
max(B
k+1
) ± (k +1) N +(k +1) _
i =1
k
¦S
i
¦ = (k +1) _
i =1
k+1
¦S
i
¦, so that _
i =1
k+1
¦S
i
¦ s
max(B
k+1
)
k+1
, so property
4 is satisfied.
Then S = _
i
S
i
is the desired set. To construct a rational number r , we first write its greedy decomposi-
tion - _
i =1
n
1 f r
i
- then re-write each 1 f r
i
= _
s Ε S
r
i
1 f s. All the sets S
i
are finite disjoint, so this deco-
momposition is also finite and has no duplicates. .
It has not yet been determined what subsets of any of the sets S
a,b
can construct, though the set
S
1,2
= ¦odd numbers¦ has been studied thoroughly, and we conjecture that S
1,2
can construct any
positive rational number with odd denominator. The greedy algorithm seems to terminate on this set,
but we cannot employ the same proof because (as the reader can check for himself) the sequence of
numerators of the remainders does not strictly decrease.
4 Unit Fractions.nb