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May 2005

Introduction

For hundreds of centuries, mathematicians and philosophers have been stumped by the

complexities of perfect, amicable, friendly, and sociable numbers. Each of these types of

numbers is defined by the way the sum of its proper divisors interacts with the number

itself. For mathematical, philosophical, and even astrological reasons, these types of

numbers have provided scholars with some of the most perplexing- and apparently

unsolvable- problems in mathematics.

The Characters

Aliquot parts are the proper divisors of a number, excluding the number itself. The

aliquot parts of the number 6, for example, are 1, 2, and 3- they are all the positive

integers which can be divided into 6 without a remainder. Another way to write this is

that the aliquot parts (a) of a number n are all positive integers such that n ≡ 0 mod a.

Perfect numbers are numbers whose value is equal to the sum of its aliquot parts. While

many modern mathematicians prefer to notate the rule for perfect numbers thusly: ∑(n) =

2n, where the ∑ function represents the summing of all the divisors of the number n

including n, the ancient scholars who made the first discoveries about perfect numbers

preferred to emphasize the relationship between the constituent parts, or divisors, of the

number rather than the number itself. This idea will be more fully examined in the

Philosophy portion of this paper.

Amicable numbers, very frequently used interchangeably with friendly numbers, refers to

a pair of numbers in which the sum of the aliquot parts of one is equal to the value of the

other, and vice versa. Another way of writing this is ∑(a) = m and ∑(b) = n, where a is

the set of the aliquot parts of a number n, and b is the set of the aliquot parts of a different

number m. The smallest known pair of amicable numbers are 220 and 284; the aliquot

parts of 220 (1, 2, 4, 5, 10, 11, 20, 22, 44, 55, and 110) sum to 284, and the aliquot parts

of 284 (1, 2, 4, 71, and 142) sum to 220.

set of two numbers whose divisor functions yield the same index. In plainer language, if

the function ∑(a)/n for some number n where ∑(a) is the sum of its aliquot numbers, will

yield a number f, and if the function ∑(b)/m for some number m where ∑(b) is the sum of

its aliquot numbers will also yield the same number f, then f is the index of the two

numbers m and n, and m and n are said to be “friendly” with each other. An example of a

friendly pair are the numbers 30 and 140. The aliquot parts of 30 are 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 10, and

15, so ∑(a) = 42 and ∑(a)/n = 42/30 = 7/5. The aliquot parts of 140 are 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 10,

Horwitz 2

14, 20, 28, 35, and 70, so ∑(b) = 196 and ∑(b)/m = 196/140 = 7/5. Since the divisor

function for both these numbers and their aliquot parts yield the same index (7/5), they

are said to be friendly with each other.

*Note that, because by definition the sum of the aliquot parts of a perfect number is equal

to the value of that number, the index of any perfect number is n/n = 1. All perfect

numbers are therefore friendly with each other!

Sociable numbers are much like amicable numbers, except that they work in a loop rather

than in a pair. That is to say, given the set of values ∑(a) for some number n, ∑(b) for a

different number m, and ∑(c) for another different number p, where ∑(a), ∑(b), and ∑(c)

refer to the respective sums of the respective aliquot parts of the numbers m, n, and p,

∑(a) = m, ∑(b) = p, and ∑(c) = n. Sociable numbers can occur in sets of varying sizes,

but when they occur in sets of three they are usually called “amicable triples,” to stress

the similarity between the two kinds of numbers.

Appealing numbers refers to any or all of the sociable, friendly, amicable, or perfect

numbers.

The History

Pythagoras, a 6th century B.C. mathematician and logician, is the first scholar

credited with work on the discovery and exploration of appealing numbers. He was the

first scholar to recognize that there was something significant or different about these

numbers, and discovered many of the known sets of amicable numbers. When asked why

he chose to refer to these sorts of numbers as “friendly” or “amicable,” Pythagoras

famously responded, “[A friend] is another I.” This concept of “another I” has permeated

the study of the appealing numbers throughout history. With this comment, Pythagoras

established the mathematical significance of finding more of these numbers (how

frequently are numbers so unique that they mimic human emotion?) and also provided

the psychology for the mysticism that would later characterize these numbers.

The work of Pythagoras was explored in the fourth century BC, when Euclid, an

Egyptian mathematician, wrote and published his book The Elements. This book was

essentially the first math book ever to be circulated amongst scholars, and provided the

basis for most of the math-related scholarly work in the subsequent centuries. In Book

Nine of the thirteen-book work, Euclid proposes an algorithm and its justification for

finding any perfect numbers. Most significantly, Euclid established the following facts

about perfect numbers:

- The sum of the inverses of the divisors of a perfect number is equal to 2.

- All even perfect numbers terminate in 6 or 8.

- Whenever 2n-1 is prime, 2n-1(2n-1) will yield a perfect number.

- This formula will always yield a perfect number

- Using these facts, he found the first four perfect numbers (6, 28, 496, and

8128)

In the 9th century C.E., a Mesopotamian mathematician named Thabit Ibn Qurra

read and translated Euclid’s Elements into Arabic and Greek. Thabit Ibn Qurra was a

Horwitz 3

Sabian- a religious sect of star worshippers- so he had particular interest in astrology and

numerology. Euclid’s work on the perfect numbers intrigued him, and inspired him to

look more carefully at the amicable numbers. Thabit wrote a book entitled Book on the

Determination of Amicable Numbers, in which he proved that, if pn-1, pn, and qn are prime

numbers, where pn = 3.2n – 1 , and qn = 9.22n-1 –1 and n>1, then when a = 2npn-1pn and b =

2nqn, a and b are amicable numbers.

The Swiss mathematician Leonard Euler continued to solve for pairs of amicable

numbers and to explore the theory of perfect numbers more carefully in several projects

based on the work of the 16th century French monk Marin Mersenne. Among Euler’s

contributions to the study of the perfect numbers are:

- He worked the partial converse to Euclid’s formula. That is to say, he proved

not only that Euclid’s formula always yields a perfect number, but also that

there is no other way to find a perfect number than by using Euclid’s formula.

- He discovered the eighth perfect number.

- He raised the question about the possible existence of odd perfect numbers.

The Technicalities

Euclid justified his algorithm for obtaining perfect numbers in the following way:

A perfect number, by definition, possesses the quality ∑(n) = 2n for the perfect number n,

because the sum of n’s aliquot numbers equal n, and n added to itself equals 2n. Given

this, it is safe to say that perfect numbers operate in terms of doubling, and that the proof

will somehow involve the ratio 2:1. Euclid called this inevitability the “double

proportion,” which in his proofs came to mean that each number in a series was twice the

preceding one.

It turns out that, while experimenting with the number 2 which arose from the idea of

“double proportion,” some earlier mathematicians had discovered that 2n is always a

deficient number by exactly one. That is to say, ∑(2n) = 2n-1. These mathematicians

realized that, to turn these deficient numbers into potentially perfect numbers, they would

need to multiply them by another factor. Since primes are only divisible by 1 and

therefore easy to work with, these mathematicians decided to try to see if (2n-1)p would

yield any perfect numbers. In the 9th century, Thabit Ibn Qurra confirmed that (2n-1)p

would, in fact, yield a perfect number if for that n (2n+1-1) was prime. Therefore, two

things can be asserted about perfect numbers:

- “doubling” or duplication of the number 2 would have to occur until the sum

of the series yielded a prime, and

- That prime-power of two composite would have to be duplicated until 2n+1 = p

+ 1 is achieved.

B = p, 2p, 4p,…, 2np (for the duplication of the prime)

Horwitz 4

He then stated, “If as many numbers as we please beginning from a unit be set out

continuously in double proportion, until the sum of all becomes a prime, and if the sum

multiplied into the last make some number, the product will be perfect.”1

This means that, if you were to sum a sequence of powers of 2 (say, 1+2+4 = 7) and

multiply the sum by the last number in the series (here, 7 is the sum and 4 is the last

number), then you would obtain a perfect number (7*4 = 28, which is perfect).

Because ancient scholars were aware of the fact that powers of two were deficient by 1

(that is to say, 1 + 2 + 4 + ... + 2n-1 = 2n – 1), then substituting these expressions into the

hypothesis gives the equation 2n-1(2n - 1) = P where P is a perfect number.

This proof is somewhat patchy and stitched together, since Euclid relied heavily on other

ancient scholars for some of the facts about series that he took for granted. Still, his

ultimate equation has been extensively tested, and it turns out that his solution was the

best and only way to obtain perfect numbers.

******

Thabit Ibn Qurra demonstrated his algorithm for obtaining amicable numbers in the

following way:

Write four rows of numbers, such that the first row contains the powers of 2 (1, 2, 4, 8,

16, etc.); the second row contains the powers of two tripled (3, 6, 12, 24, 48, etc.);

subtract one from each number in the second row to obtain the numbers in the third row

(2, 5, 11, 23, 47, etc.); multiply a number in the second row by its left-hand neighbor in

the same row to obtain a product g- the number (g-1) is the entry in the corresponding

place in the fourth row.

1 2 4 8 16 32 64

3 6 12 24 48 96 192

2 5 11 23 47 95 191

17 71 287 1151 4607 18431

If we call any entry in the first row q, the corresponding entry in the second row r, the

corresponding entry in the third row s, and the corresponding entry in the fourth row t,

then a pair of amicable numbers (a,b) is found when s and its left-hand neighbor s-1 are

both prime, and the corresponding number t is also prime. Then a = qs(s-1) and b = qt are

friendly numbers (a,b).

1

Inter-IREM Commission. History of Mathematics: Histories of Problems. 1997.

Horwitz 5

For example, given the pair of amicable numbers (220, 284), 220 = 4*5*11, and 284 =

4*71.

From this data, he was able to generalize the rule and obtain his algorithm.

Related Problems

Many of Euler’s discoveries were based on the work produced by the French scholar

Marin Mersenne, whose name is attached to a certain kind of prime number. For

centuries, the question about whether numbers of the form 2n- 1 would yield a prime for

all primes n. Over the years, various scholars managed to find examples of primes n, such

as 23, 29, and 37, that did not yield a prime number. Although Mersenne did not solve

this problem, his work was perhaps the most substantial contribution to the study of these

kinds of numbers. As a result, all primes that can be given by the formula p = 2n- 1 are

called Mersenne primes. Obviously, Mersenne primes are a very valuable tool in the

study of perfect numbers. Given Euclid’s formula 2n-1(2n-1) = P (a perfect number) when

2n-1 is prime, then all Mersenne primes will necessarily lead to a perfect number.

Although Mersenne primes were studied and developed independently of perfect

numbers, it turns out to be a constituent factor in determining the perfect numbers.

Euler also raised the question of whether there can exist an odd perfect number. More

than a hundred years earlier, philosopher and mathematician René Descartes had written

in a letter to Marin Mersenne that he thought he might be able to determine whether odd

perfect numbers were possible. He wrote:

I think I am able to prove that there are… no odd perfect numbers, unless

they are composed of a single prime number, multiplied by a square whose

root is composed of several other prime numbers… But, whatever method

one might use, it would require a great deal of time to look for these

numbers, and perhaps the shortest would have more than 15 or 20 digits.2

Euler managed to prove that, if an odd prime existed, it would need to take the

form m = p4λ-1Q2 where p is a prime of the form 4n + 1. Later studies indicated that an odd

perfect number would need to contain 47 or more prime factors. Because of the potential

enormity of this number, in addition to the complicated requirements established by

Euler, no mathematician has been able to solve the problem of the existence of odd

perfect numbers to this day. Number theorists, however, are constantly working on

calculating a solution.

In addition to the appealing numbers (sociable, amicable, friendly, and perfect numbers),

mathematicians have also distinguished between the numbers that mimic the appealing

numbers but are not actually a member of that set. The study of these numbers was

2

Ibid. Inter-IREM Commission. History of Mathematics: Histories of Problems. 1997.

Horwitz 6

numbers.

The abundant numbers are those numbers whose aliquot parts sum to a greater value than

the number itself. Twelve, for example, is an abundant number, because its divisors (1, 2,

3, 4, and 6) sum to 16, and 16>12.

Similarly, the deficient numbers are those numbers whose aliquot parts sum to a lesser

value than that of the number itself. Ten is a deficient number, because its aliquot parts

(1, 2, and 5) sum to 8, and 8<10.

*The neo-Pythagorean Nichomachus of Gerasa first explored these concepts and coined

the terms “abundant,” “deficient,” and “perfect.” Note that his distinction between

abundant and deficient numbers is necessary to the discovery of amicable, social, and

friendly numbers, which are defined by their relationships between greater and lesser

values of aliquot parts. Amicable numbers, for example, rely on the idea that an abundant

number can only be balanced out by a deficient number.

equal to the sum of some subset of its factors. Twenty, for example, is a semiperfect

number, because, of its aliquot parts (1, 2, 4, 5, and 10), the subset (1, 4, 5, and 10) sums

to 20.

A quasiperfect number is a theoretical number n whose aliquot parts sum to the value 2n

+ 1. No quasiperfect numbers have been discovered yet, but mathematicians speculate

that a quasiperfect number would have to be greater than 1035 and have at least seven

divisors.

A hyperperfect number is a number n such that, for some integer k, n = 1 + k ∑ (n). The

study of hyperperfects is considered “recreational” by many mathematicians, who solve

for sequences of hyperperfects just for fun.3

For the ancient scholars, an important part of the philosophy of the appealing

numbers was the distinction between their ability to be divided and their relationship to

their constituent parts. Both of these viewpoints ultimately indicate the same thing about

appealing numbers- i.e., that the additive properties of their aliquot parts distinguish them

from other kinds of numbers. The ancients, however, preferred to examine these numbers

in terms of their parts, rather than their divisibility. They liked to define these numbers in

the terminology of construction; they saw appealing numbers as wholes that are utterly

dependent upon its constituent parts.

3

Wikipedia. “Hyperperfect numbers.” 2005.

Horwitz 7

their divisibility- that is to say, how they can be broken down. This “deconstructionist”

mindset wars with the philosophy of the ancients, whose focus on the parts rather than the

whole contributed to the mysticism that surrounded these numbers.

According to Thabit Ibn Qurra, the amicable numbers were used as symbols of

friendship and love in 9th century Baghdad. He described how lovers would carve the

amicable pair 220 and 284 into two halves of a fruit, and then each lover would eat one

half. In this way, they imaged that the parts that constituted one lover were equal to the

whole of the other. He also reports that early friendship necklaces were based on these

two numbers- friends would carve the numbers into pieces of leather, and each would

wear one of the numbers on his wrist or neck. Each number had no significance without

the other number, and relied upon the other for completeness. In this way the two young

men would be united in perfect friendship.

In the world of astrology, 6, as the smallest perfect number, has enormous

significance. Because the aliquot parts of 6 are equal to 6 as a whole, the number is

thought to be completely balanced. Its internal structure is completely harmonious with

its outward value- a highly sought-after characteristic in people as well as numbers.

Dreamtime, a modern-day society of astrologists and numerologists, reports that the

number 6 indicates “equilibrium with others” and “peace between all people.” The

society also notes that the number 6 usually indicates “a negotiator and peace-maker.”4

In Conclusion…

For a field of study that has been so widely and broadly pursued, the study of appealing

numbers has little or no impact on practical, usable mathematics. The appealing numbers

provide insights into the study of primes, unite mathematicians from around the world

and across centuries, and help to integrate number theory into everyday life, but they

have almost no impact on the math world outside the field of number theory. As a result,

the study of appealing numbers has become distinctly secondary to other fields of

mathematical study, and remains somewhat unexplored. Perhaps this relative ignorance,

combined with its complex and intricate uselessness and subtle inner beauty, allows the

ancient aura of mysticism to cling to it, rendering it Godlike and mysterious. However it

lacks in practicality, however, the study of appealing numbers requires the kind of

patience, creativity, and detective work that make number theory so enjoyable and

universally popular today.

4

Dreamtime. “Number Meanings.” 2004.

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