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The real numbers: Pythagoras to Stevin

Before we begin to discuss the historical development of the real number
system it is useful to consider what a number is. Perhaps the reader might
think that this is a silly question and that it is "obvious" what a number is. Well
the first clear evidence that this is not so is the fact that the concept of number
has changed greatly throughout the development of mathematics up to the
present day. What is equally clear is that there is no reason, other than conceit,
to believe that the present concept of number will not change in the future.
Wittgenstein, in Philosophical Investigations writes:Why do we call something a 'number'? Well, perhaps because it has a direct
relationship with several things that have hitherto been called number; and this
can be said to give it an indirect relationship to other things we call the same
name. And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist
fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that
some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many
fibres. But if someone wished to say: "There is something common to all these
constructions - namely the disjunction of all their common properties" - I should
reply: "Now you are only playing with words. One might as well say: 'Something
runs through the whole thread - namely the continuous overlapping of those
fibres.' "
"All right: the concept of number is defined for you as the logical sum of these
individual interrelated concepts: cardinal numbers, rational numbers, real
numbers etc.; and, in the same way the concept of a game is the logical sum of
a corresponding set of sub-concepts." - It need not be so. For I can give the
concept 'number' rigid limits in this way, that is, use the word "number" for a
rigidly limited concept, but I can also use it so that the extension of the concept
is not closed by a frontier. And this is how we use the word "game". For how is
the concept of a game bounded?

We should begin a discussion of real numbers by looking at the concepts of
magnitude and number in ancient Greek times. The first of these might refer to
the length of a geometrical line while the second concept, namely number, was
thought of as composed of units. Pythagoras seems to have thought that "All is
number"; so what was a number to Pythagoras? It seems clear that Pythagoras
would have thought of 1, 2, 3, 4, ... (the natural numbers in the terminology of
today) in a geometrical way, not as lengths of a line as we do, but rather in the
form of discrete points. Addition, subtraction and multiplication of integers are
natural concepts with this type of representation but there seems to have been
no notion of division. A mathematician of this period, given the number 12,
could easily see that 4 is a submultiple of it since 3 times 4 is exactly 12.

as we have seen. is the number which when compared with the greater can measure it more times than one so as to fill it out exactly. essentially by definition. the Pythagoreans say that things are what they are by intimating numbers .. had to have a separate definition and indeed Nicomachus makes such a parallel definition for magnitudes... and the whole heaven to be a musical scale and a number. were. they fitted into their scheme . √5. (positive integer) multiples of a base unit but ratios of lengths were shown not to have the property of being ratios of numbers (integers). it is important to see the distinction. they supposed the elements of numbers to be the elements of all things. The proof is .Although to us this is clearly the same as division. Magnitudes.. the Pythagoreans take objects themselves to be numbers and do not treat mathematical objects as distinct from them . Heimonen. being distinct entities from numbers. such as the sides of squares whose area was 3 or 5 units. but there for some reason he stopped. so should indicate what the Pythagoreans considered this to be. All numbers. Plato.. The idea of Pythagoras that "all is number" is explained by Aristotle in Metaphysics:[In the time of Pythagoras] since all other things seemed in their whole nature to be modelled on numbers. makes the following definition of a submultiple:- The submultiple. This concept certainly ran into difficulties once various magnitudes were studied. showing that the sides are incommensurable with the unit: he took the examples up to 17.. . Such a triangle has as hypotenuse a line of length √2 times the lengths of the shorter sides. .. We suppose that the discovery that √2 was not commensurable with 1 came earlier which is why Theodorus started with √3.. tells of the discovery that √3. which is by its nature the smaller. And all the properties of numbers and scales which they could show to agree with the attributes and parts and the whole arrangement of the heavens. and numbers seemed to be the first things in the whole of nature. in [10]. following the tradition of Pythagoras. We have used the word "submultiple" above. in Theaetetus. The usual example given of this comes from a right angled triangle whose shorter sides are both of unit length. √17 were not commensurable with 1:Theodorus was writing out for us something about roots. Nicomachus. There is no length x such that 1 and √2 are both multiples (remember integer multiples) of x. looks at the views of different historians concerning the discovery of the irrational numbers:Von Fritz has proposed that the Pythagorean Hippasos first proved the irrationality of the golden ratio by studying the regular pentagon.

However he leaves the concept of magnitude undefined and his first two definitions refer to the part of a magnitude and a multiple of a magnitude: Definition V. It is probable (and claimed in a later version of The Elements) that this was the work of Eudoxus. In Book V Euclid considers magnitudes and the theory of proportion of magnitudes.2 less. The same idea of irrationality proof was expressed by Zeuthen and van der Waerden for the ratio of the diagonal and side of the square also. The Egyptians also looked at approximating irrational numbers. surfaces and solids. but also returned to the continued fractions. when it measures the greater. His theory is some kind of geometrical version on the irrationality proof of the square root of 2 known from school. Euclid also knows that his theory applies to time and angles. This is an important stage since it would remain the state of play for nearly the next 2000 years. However magnitude is an abstract concept to Euclid and applies to lines. it should be mentioned at this stage that the Egyptians and the Babylonians had a different notion of number to that of the ancient Greeks. Let us now look at the position as it occurs in Euclid's Elements.based on the fact that the continued fraction expansion of the ratio of its diagonal and size is periodic. Given that Euclid is famous for an axiomatic approach to mathematics. Also. more generally.. which according to Plato were proved to be irrational by Theodoros.1 A magnitude is a part of a magnitude. the less of the greater. Usually when Euclid wants to illustrate a theorem about magnitudes he gives a diagram representing the magnitude by a line segment. The greater is a multiple of the less when it is measured by the . Fowler accepted the main ideas of Knorr. one might expect him to begin with a definition of magnitude and state some unproved axioms.. such as √2. Before continuing to describe advances in ideas concerning numbers. maintaining even that also the common fractions were handled as continued fractions in Plato's time. The Babylonians looked at reciprocals and also at approximations to irrational numbers. Again the term "measures" here is undefined but clearly Euclid means that (in modern symbols) the smaller magnitude x is a part of the greater magnitude y if nx = y for some natural number n > 1. Definition V.17. long before Greek mathematicians considered approximations. 5. . as well as for the square roots of 3. trying especially to explain better why Theodoros stopped just at the square root of 17. Knorr set out a new theory. .

integers are scalars. 3. were composed of units. Various properties of numbers are assumed but are not listed as axioms. We should note that Euclid never identified the ratio 2 : 1 with the number 2. This is an exceptionally vague definition of ratio which basically fails to define it at all. An important result in Book VII is the Euclidean algorithm.2 (n + m)a = na + ma Proposition V. and parts and multiples are defined as for magnitudes. and he is proving the vector space axioms. He then defines when magnitudes have a ratio.. let us translate it into modern notation. which according to the definition is when there is an multiple (by a natural number) of the first which exceeds the second and a multiple of the second which exceeds the first.. These were two quite different concepts. He then introduces proportion for numbers and shows essentially that for numbers a.3 A ratio is a sort of relation in respect of size between two magnitudes of the same kind. . For example the commutative law for multiplication is assumed without ever being stated as an axiom as are the associative law for addition etc. First he defines a unit.3 n(ma) = (nm)a In Book VII Euclid studies numbers. d that a : b = c : d precisely when the least numbers with ratio a : b is equal to the least numbers with ratio c : d. Definition V. As it is quite hard to understand in Euclid's language.Then come the definition of ratio. as earlier Greek mathematicians. c. For example for magnitudes a and b and natural numbers n and m he proves:- Proposition V. then a number is defined as being composed of a multitude of units. . 4. This is logically equivalent to saying in modern terms that the rational a/b and the rational c/d are equal if they become the same when reduced to their lowest terms. did not consider 1 as a number. Then comes the vital definition of when two magnitudes are in the same ratio as a second pair of magnitudes. Euclid then goes on to prove theorems which look to a modern mathematician as if magnitudes are vectors. It was a unit and the numbers 2. We should note that Euclid. It says that a : b = c : d if given any natural numbers n and m we have na > mb if and only if nc > md na = mb if and only if nc = md na < mb if and only if nc < md.1 n(a + b) = na + nb Proposition V. b. He makes a series of definitions.

division and taking nth roots. These are called radical expressions. by the end of the fifteenth century mathematicians were considering expressions build from positive integers by addition. The Arabic mathematicians went further with constructible magnitudes for they used geometric methods to solve cubic equations which meant that they could construct magnitudes whose ratio to a unit length involved cube roots.. and ratios of numbers were used which (although not considered to be numbers) basically allowed manipulation with what we call rationals. √5. Fibonacci. Euclid goes on to prove.2 says that two magnitudes are incommensurable if the Euclidean algorithm does not terminate.Book X considers commensurable and incommensurable magnitudes. and those incommensurable which cannot have any common measure. Proposition X. division and taking square roots. So where does Euclid's Elements leave us with respect to numbers. using skills learnt from the Arabs. when two unequal magnitudes are set out and the lesser is always subtracted in turn from the greater.. Stifel. No other magnitudes were considered. the remainder never measures the magnitude before it. 2. among many other results. Although no conceptual advances were taking place. Also magnitudes were considered and these were essentially lengths constructible by ruler and compass from a line of unit length. in modern terms. Euclid then proves results such as:Proposition X. We have: Definition X.5 Commensurable magnitudes have to one another the ratio which a number has to a number. For example Omar Khayyam showed how to solve all cubic equations by geometric methods. √17 are incommensurable with a segment of unit length. could be formed from positive integers by addition. He then went on to compute an approximate solution.2 If. those of Theodorus. multiplication. multiplication.. then the magnitudes will be incommensurable. Hence mathematicians studied magnitudes which had lengths which. It is a long book. namely that segments of length √3.. .1 Those magnitudes are said to be commensurable which are measured by the same measure. 3. subtraction. Basically numbers were 1. subtraction. solved a cubic equation showing that its root was not formed from rationals and square roots of rationals as Euclid's magnitudes were. in his Arithmetica Integra (1544) argues that irrationals must be considered valid:- . over one quarter of the whole of The Elements. Notice that Proposition X. . . By the sixteenth century rational numbers and roots of numbers were becoming accepted as numbers although there was still a sharp distinction between these different types of numbers.

He wrote:Thesis 1: That unity is a number. . they cannot be true numbers even if they are correct. but nevertheless a remarkable insight that there were lengths which did not correspond to radical expressions but which could be approximated as closely as one wished. Not too good an argument. and show precisely what rational numbers are unable to show . Only finite decimals were allowed. where rational numbers desert us. Stevin made a number of other important advances in the study of the real numbers. we are moved and compelled to admit that they are correct . He ends up arguing that all irrational numbers result from radical expressions. Because in studying geometrical figures. Well the obvious question the reader might feel they want to ask Stifel is: what about the length of the circumference of a circle with radius of unit length? In fact Stifel gives an answer to this in an appendix to the book.. fourth powers etc. surds. Other rationals could be represented approximately and Stevin saw the system as a means to calculate with approximate rational values. A major advance was made by Stevin in 1585 in La Theinde when he introduced decimal fractions. he goes on to argue that. he claims. However. but one cannot measure a mathematical circle with physical instruments... And thus the circumference of the mathematical circle receives no number. His notation was to be taken up by Clavius and Napier but others resisted using it since they saw it as a backwards step to adopt a system which could not even represent 1/3 exactly.It is rightly disputed whether irrational numbers are true numbers or false. First he makes a distinction between physical circles and mathematical circles. negative numbers etc should all be treated as numbers and not distinguished as being different in nature. One has to understand here that in fact it was in a sense fortuitous that his invention led to a much deeper understanding of numbers for he certainly did not introduce the notation with that in mind.. cubes. neither rational nor irrational. as they are not proportional to rational numbers. so with his notation only certain rationals to be represented exactly. He writes:Therefore the mathematical circle is rightly described as the polygon of infinitely many sides. Thesis 2: That any given numbers can be square. He argued strongly in L'Arithmetique (1585) that all numbers such as square roots. He then goes on to consider the circle as the limit of a sequence of polygons of more and more sides. One can measure the properties of physical circles. irrationals take their place. irrational numbers.

.. Euclid's Proposition X. One further comment by Stevin in L'Arithmetique is worth recording... This manner of cognition is therefore not legitimate.. inexplicable or surds etc and which we deny to be the case for number which turns up. even though it were possible for us to subtract by due process several hundred thousand times the smaller magnitude from the larger and continue that for several thousands of years. as we stated above. irregular. 4. were composed of units. His first thesis was to argue against the Greek idea that 1 is not a number but a unit and the numbers 2.. but rather an impossible position . irregular. 3. He noted that.2 says that two magnitudes are incommensurable if the Euclidean algorithm does not terminate. . Stevin writes about this pointing out what today we would say was the difference between an algorithm and a procedure (or semi-algorithm):Although this theorem is valid.namely a number. which were at that time treated separately. irrational. The other three theses were encouraging people to treat different types of numbers. nevertheless we cannot recognise by such experience the incommensurability of two given magnitudes. which they call absurd. as a single entity . inexplicable or surd It is a very common thing amongst authors of arithmetics to treat numbers like √8 and similar ones. irrational.Thesis 3: That any given root is a number. That there are no absurd.. always ignorant of what could still happen in the end. Thesis 4: numbers. . nevertheless if the two given numbers were incommensurable one would labour eternally.