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69 (2005) 257–262

0001-9054/05/030257-6

DOI 10.1007/s00010-004-2738-6

c Birkh¨auser Verlag, Basel, 2005

Aequationes Mathematicae

A continued fraction from Ramanujan’s lost notebook

Bruce C. Berndt

1

and Geumlan Choi

Summary. In his lost notebook, Ramanujan recorded without a proof the value of an elegant

periodic continued fraction. The authors provide an elementary proof of a corrected version of

Ramanujan’s claim.

Mathematics Subject Classiﬁcation (2000). 11A55.

Keywords. Periodic continued fraction, Ramanujan’s lost notebook, recurrence relations.

In the spring of 1976, George Andrews discovered a sheaf of 138 pages of Ramanu-

jan’s mathematics in the library at Trinity College, Cambridge. This manuscript

was in the possession of the English mathematician G. N. Watson at the time of

his death in 1965, and was sent to Trinity College Library on December 26, 1968

by R. A. Rankin of the University of Glasgow. Although technically neither lost

nor a notebook, in view of the fame of Ramanujan’s notebooks, it was natural

for Andrews to call his discovery Ramanujan’s lost notebook. When Ramanujan’s

lost notebook was photocopied and published in 1988, other manuscripts and frag-

ments by Ramanujan from the libraries at Cambridge and Oxford were included

in the volume [2]. The continued fraction in the title of this paper does not appear

in Ramanujan’s lost notebook, but in one of these fragments published with the

lost notebook [2, p. 341]. We state next Ramanujan’s claim about this continued

fraction.

Theorem 1 (p. 341). If

µ

n

:=

√

a

2

+ 4

a +

√

a

2

+ 4

2

n

−

a −

√

a

2

+ 4

2

n

, (1)

1

Research partially supported by grant MDA904-00-1-0015 from the National Security

Agency.

258 B. C. Berndt and G. Choi AEM

then

1

2

¸

−c + b

µ

n+1

µ

n

+

c + b

µ

n+1

µ

n

2

+ (−1)

n

µ

2

n+1

¸

=

1

a

+

1

a

+ · · · +

1

a

+

b

c

+

1

a

+

1

a

+ · · ·

, (2)

where in each grouping, there are n fractions

1

a

.

We ﬁrst remark that this entry is diﬃcult to read. In the demoninator of µ

n

the “4” at the left is hardly legible, and the other “4” in the denominator is more

illegible. Second, we can easily see that (2) is false, in general. For example,

suppose that a = b = c = n = 1. Then µ

1

= µ

2

= 1, and (2) yields

1

2

−1 + 1 +

(1 + 1)

2

−1

=

√

3

2

=

1

1

+

1

1

+

1

1

+ · · ·

.

But it is well-known and easy to prove that the continued fraction on the right

side above has the value (

√

5 −1)/2. It is surprising that Ramanujan would have

made such a mistake.

The entry is an isolated one on page 341 of [2], and, in fact, it may be that

this entry is on a scrap of paper attached to a larger page for photocopying. The

remainder of the page is devoted to generating a family of solutions to Euler’s

Diophantine equation a

3

+b

3

= c

3

+d

3

, and nothing on adjoining pages is related

to continued fractions. Furthermore, immediately to the right of Theorem 1 are

two vertical lines drawn with a straightedge. It is possible that the entry has

been cropped, and so the entry may be incomplete, providing an explanation for

Ramanujan’s “mistake.”

We are therefore faced with the problem of ﬁnding the “correct” theorem that

Ramanujan likely possessed. We have two choices: we could try to ﬁnd a continued

fraction for the left side of (2), or we could ﬁnd an algebraic representation for the

continued fraction on the right side of (2). Because the continued fraction is an

extremely elegant continued fraction, the latter tack is desirable. In fact, we at-

tempted both strategies. However, we were not able to ﬁnd any kind of a continued

fraction representation for the left side resembling anything similar to the contin-

ued fraction on the right side. On the other hand, we were indeed successful in

ﬁnding an algebraic representation for Ramanujan’s beautiful continued fraction.

Of course, it is then tempting to convert our representation into a form resembling

what Ramanujan claimed on the left side of (2). Our attempts, partially with

computer algebra, to “correct” Ramanujan in this way were fruitless.

Our goal in this short note is to determine an evaluation for the continued

fraction on the right side of (2). Most likely, Ramanujan intended a, b, and c

to be positive real numbers, and so we make this assumption in the statement

of our theorem. After the conclusion of our proof, we discuss the values of the

continued fraction for other real values of a, b, and c. Although we could easily

Vol. 69 (2005) A continued fraction 259

examine the convergence and values for complex a, b, and c, even for real values of

the parameters, it is very diﬃcult to relate all the possibilities for the convergence

and values of the continued fraction in an eﬃcient manner. The sizes, signs, and

possible zero values for each parameter, a, b, and c, and the parity of n present

a large variety of cases that must be individually examined, yielding a variety of

results.

Theorem 2. Set

α :=

1

a

+

1

a

+ · · · +

1

a

+

b

c

+

1

a

+

1

a

+ · · ·

(3)

and recall that µ

n

is deﬁned by (1).

Then, for any positive numbers a, b, and c,

α =

1

2

−c + (1 −b)

µ

n+1

µ

n

+

c + (1 + b)

µ

n+1

µ

n

2

+ 4b(−1)

n

µ

2

n+1

¸

. (4)

Proof. It will be convenient to deﬁne

σ :=

a +

√

a

2

+ 4

2

and τ :=

a −

√

a

2

+ 4

2

= −

1

σ

.

Furthermore, deﬁne, for each nonnegative integer n,

ν

n

:=

1

µ

n

. (5)

Then, by (5),

ν

n

=

σ

n

−τ

n

√

a

2

+ 4

. (6)

It will be more convenient to work with ν

n

. Using (6), it is easy to verify that ν

n

satisﬁes the recurrence relation

ν

n

= aν

n−1

+ ν

n−2

, n ≥ 2, ν

0

= 0, ν

1

= 1. (7)

Then, from the elementary recurrence formulas for the numerator and denominator

of a continued fraction [1, p. 9, eq. (1.2.9)],

ν

n

ν

n+1

=

1

a

+

1

a

+ · · · +

1

a

, (8)

where there are n fractions

1

a

.

Now, by (3) and (8), write α in the form

α :=

1

a

+

1

a

+ · · · +

1

a

+

b

c

+

1

a

+

1

a

+ · · ·

=

1

a

+

1

a

+ · · · +

1

a

+

b

c + α

=

(c + α)ν

n

+ bν

n−1

(c + α)ν

n+1

+ bν

n

, (9)

260 B. C. Berndt and G. Choi AEM

where we have employed (8) and again used the elementary recurrence relations

for a continued fraction’s numerator and denominator [1, p. 9, eq. (1.2.9)]. Solving

(9) for α, we ﬁnd that

α

2

ν

n+1

−(ν

n

−bν

n

−cν

n+1

)α −bν

n−1

−cν

n

= 0. (10)

Solving (10) and taking the requisite positive root, we ﬁnd that

α =

(1 −b)ν

n

−cν

n+1

+

((1 −b)ν

n

−cν

n+1

)

2

+ 4ν

n+1

(bν

n−1

+ cν

n

)

2ν

n+1

. (11)

We now utilize another elementary relation for the numerators and denomi-

nators of continued fractions [1, p. 9, eq. (1.2.10)] and apply it to (8) to deduce

that

ν

2

n

−ν

n+1

ν

n−1

= (−1)

n−1

. (12)

Using the elementary relation (A + B)

2

= (A − B)

2

+ 4AB and employing (12)

under the radical sign, we conclude that

α =

1

2

¸

−c + (1 −b)

ν

n

ν

n+1

+

c + (1 + b)

ν

n

ν

n+1

2

+ 4b(−1)

n

1

ν

2

n+1

¸

. (13)

Since, by (6), ν

n

= 1/µ

n

, we see that (13) is the same as (4). The convergence

of (4) and its convergence to the given value follow from a general theorem on

periodic continued fractions found in Lorentzen and Waadeland’s book [1, p. 104,

Thm. 6]. This completes the proof.

We conclude our paper with a more thorough, but by no means complete

discussion of the conditions under which Ramanujan’s continued fraction converges

to either the right side of (4) or to its conjugate. For brevity, set

α

1

:=

(1 −b)ν

n

−cν

n+1

+

√

D

2ν

n+1

and α

2

:=

(1 −b)ν

n

−cν

n+1

−

√

D

2ν

n+1

, (14)

where

D := (cν

n+1

+ (1 + b)ν

n

)

2

+ 4b(−1)

n

. (15)

Set

α

1

:=

|(1 + b)ν

n

+ cν

n+1

+

√

D|

2

and α

2

:=

|(1 + b)ν

n

+ cν

n+1

−

√

D|

2

.

(16)

From [1, p. 104, Thm. 6], α converges to α

i

if α

i

> α

j

for i, j = 1, 2, i = j.

Observe that

α

1

> α

2

, if D > 0 and (1 + b)ν

n

+ cν

n+1

> 0,

α

2

> α

1

, if D > 0 and (1 + b)ν

n

+ cν

n+1

< 0,

α

1

= α

2

, if D = 0.

Vol. 69 (2005) A continued fraction 261

Denote

δ

n

:= (1 + b)ν

n

+ cν

n+1

.

Thus, by (15),

D = δ

2

n

+ 4b(−1)

n

.

Suppose ﬁrst that abc = 0. Then, using the aforementioned theorem in [1], we

conclude that α converges to α

1

in the following cases:

b > 0 b < 0

n even δ

n

> 0 δ

n

> 2

√

−b

n odd δ

n

> 2

√

b δ

n

> 0

Moreover, α converges to α

2

in the following cases:

b > 0 b < 0

n even δ

n

< 0 δ

n

< −2

√

−b

n odd δ

n

< −2

√

b δ

n

< 0

We do not give any details but provide some examples as an illustration. If n

is odd, ac > 0, and −1 < b < 0, then α converges to α

1

. Using (7), we can bound

ν

n

from above and below in terms of Fibonacci numbers in various cases and then

give alternative criteria for convergence. If n is even, b, c > 0, and a < −1, then α

converges to α

1

if

(1 + b)|a|

n−1

c

<

F

n+1

F

n

,

where F

j

, j ≥ 0, denotes the jth Fibonacci number.

If abc = 0, then, as above, we must consider separately several cases. We state

one such result. Suppose that n is even, a = 0, c = 0, and c

2

+ 4b ≥ 0. Then the

continued fraction α converges to

−c + (sgn c)

√

c

2

+ 4b

2

,

where

sgn c =

+1, if c > 0,

−1, if c < 0.

Suppose that n is odd, a = 0, |b| > 1, and c = 0. Then the continued fraction α

converges to

c

b −1

.

Note that if b = 0, α trivially converges, since it terminates.

Lastly, note that there are cases when α does not converge, e.g., when a = c = 0

and b > 0, and when a = 0 and c

2

+ 4b < 0.

We are grateful to both referees for valuable suggestions, especially the referee

who advised us that we need to pay more attention to the convergence of (4).

262 B. C. Berndt and G. Choi AEM

References

[1] L. Lorentzen and H. Waadeland, Continued Fractions with Applications, North Hol-

land, Amsterdam, 1992.

[2] S. Ramanujan, The Lost Notebook and Other Unpublished Papers, Narosa, New Delhi,

1988.

B. C. Berndt and G. Choi

Department of Mathematics

University of Illinois

1409 West Green Street

Urbana, IL 61801

USA

e-mail: berndt@math.uiuc.edu

e-mail: g-choi1@math.uiuc.edu

Manuscript received: September 8, 2003 and, in ﬁnal form, February 22, 2004.

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