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Section 15.5 Making More and More and More Points

Recall from Fact 15.1.5 that the following two strategies should give new rational points on a conic section. We will give these strategies names.

Subsection 15.5.1 Toward integer points

More germane to our investigation, our limited experience in the previous section suggests these processes may often give you integer points. This is not a coincidence; in general, we should try to add or double points to get (new) integer points.
As we are only guaranteed rational points, this doesn’t always work. Below, I try this on the ellipse from the beginning of Section 15.4.
described in detail following the image
Trying to find more integer points on an ellipse
Figure 15.5.3. Trying to find more integer points on an ellipse
Rotten luck. But in some circumstances, this strategy works very well indeed. Figure 15.5.4 gives an example of the simple family of hyperbolas \(x^2-dy^2=1\) where \(d=2\text{.}\)
described in detail following the image
The hyperbola \(x^2-2y^2=1\)
Figure 15.5.4. The hyperbola \(x^2-2y^2=1\)
So let’s try the strategy of Algorithm 15.5.1. What happens when we take the tangent line to the curve \(x^2-2y^2=1\) at the point \((3,2)\text{,}\) and then create a new line with the same slope through \((1,0)\text{?}\) See Figure 15.5.5.
described in detail following the image
The hyperbola \(x^2-2y^2=1\) with more points
Figure 15.5.5. The hyperbola \(x^2-2y^2=1\) with more points
It intersects in a new integer point, amazing! And if we repeat the process with the new point, we get another one – use the interact to see. Hmm …
As it turns out, this is quite an old idea. Finding integer solutions to this hyperbola is called solving Pell’s equation, and has been studied in this form since the seventeenth century. But a process very similar to this was already rigorously discussed by Brahmagupta centuries before that!

Historical remark 15.5.6. Brahmagupta.

is one of the earliest Indian mathematicians we have records from, though as was typical for mathematicians around the world for over a millennium, he was the head of an astronomical observatory. In addition to working on Pell’s equation (see for example Wikipedia
), we saw earlier the Brahmagupta-Fibonacci identity, and he also had prescient results in approximation and geometry.

Historical remark 15.5.7. Stigler’s Law.

In the event, Pell did not have anything to do with these equations; it was all based on a misunderstanding. But names stick. In mathematics this phenomenon of not naming things after the actual discoverer is sometimes called Boyer’s law, more generally Stigler’s law of eponymy (which are themselves self-referential).

Subsection 15.5.2 A surprising application

The particular equation \(x^2-2y^2=1\) was studied by Greeks such as Theon of Smyrna (though not in this generality) to shed light on \(\sqrt{2}\text{.}\) Why would solutions to this equation help?
Well, imagine that \((x,y)\) fulfill the equation. Then divide and rearrange the original equation to get
\begin{equation*} \frac{x^2}{y^2}=2+\frac{1}{y^2} \end{equation*}
If you can find a solution to this equation with a big \(y\text{,}\) then \(\frac{x^2}{y^2}\) should be pretty close to \(2\text{,}\) which means \(x/y\) itself is pretty close to \(\sqrt{2}\text{.}\)
Let’s see this in action. We already tried to find integer points on the curve in the following interact.
The easy one for \(d=2\) was \((3,2)\text{.}\) And after all, \(\frac{3}{2}=1.5\) isn’t too far from \(\sqrt{2}\approx 1.414\text{.}\) There seems to be another point if we zoom out, but that would be a tedious way to compute them …

Example 15.5.8.

What if we double the point and take the tangent at \((3,2)\text{?}\) (See Algorithm 15.5.1.) Then we take that slope, and make a new line through the “base” point (in this case, \((1,0)\)).
Then the next point we get is \((17,12)\text{.}\) (See Exercise 15.7.14.) Indeed, \(17^2-2\cdot 12^2=1\) and \(17/12\approx 1.417\text{,}\) already correct to three significant digits. Those Greeks!