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On Generalizing the Pythagorean Theorem Author(s): John F. Putz and Timothy A.

Sipka Reviewed work(s): Source: The College Mathematics Journal, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Sep., 2003), pp. 291-295 Published by: Mathematical Association of America Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3595766 . Accessed: 14/11/2011 10:20
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On Generalizingthe Pythagorean Theorem

John F Putz and TimothyA. Sipka

John Putz (putz@alma.edu) is Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at Alma College. Among his interests are the borders that mathematics shares with other disciplines. He enjoys teaching mathematics at many levels, and especially finding new ways to use technology to enhance the teaching of mathematics. He also enjoys sailing the Great Lakes. Timothy Sipka (sipka@alma.edu) is an Associate Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at Alma College. A dabbler in the history of mathematics for most of his professional life, his recent sabbatical gave him the opportunityto pursue the topic in a more serious and formal manner. A portion of that time was spent reading Euclid's Elements, which gave rise to this article.

In 1993, as May deferred to June, the most famously stubborn mathematical problem of moder times surrenderedto the relentless mind of Andrew Wiles. The 350year-old problem known as Fermat's last theorem derived its appeal, and guile, from its apparent simplicity: Although a" + bn = cn has (nonzero) integer solutions when n = 2, there are none when n = 3, 4, 5, ... Everyone could understandit; no one could prove it. Posed by the great amateurmathematician, Pierre de Fermat (1601-1665), as a marginal note in his copy of Diophantus' Arithmetica, the problem withstood the efforts of many mathematicians, including Euler, Legendre, and Gauss [6, p. 555]. It gained public attention in 1909, when the German mathematician Wolfskehl bequeathed 100,000 marks to the Academy of Science at G6ttingen for the first complete proof [4, p. 207]. The Academy was deluged with attempts, mostly from hopeful amateurs, prompting Landau to order pre-printed postcards that read, "Dear Sir or Madam: Your proof of Fermat's Last Theorem has been received. The first mistake is on page __, line _" [3, p. 305]. Graduatestudents filled in the blanks. The totality of human effort, both serious and innocent, that this problem has received is inestimable. Its solution is monumental. Although it was not without further struggle that the proof was perfected, the honor belongs to Wiles, who, for seven years, would not quit. No longer an open question, Fermat's last theorem has taken its place within the standing body of mathematical knowledge. That being so, it is interesting to consider the implications the theorem may have, in particular to the related Pythagorean theorem. One way to interpret what Fermat's last theorem says is that the Pythagorean theorem does not generalize in the algebraic, number-theoretic way that characterizes Fermat's last theorem. But the Pythagorean theorem is, after all, a fundamentally geometric idea. Although today we might think of the Pythagorean theorem as a re2003 THECOLLEGE MATHEMATICS JOURNAL VOL.34, NO.4, SEPTEMBER


lationship among the squares of the sides, the ancient Greeks would have expressed it as In right-angled triangles the square on the side subtending the right angle is equal to the squares on the sides containing the right angle [2, Bk. I, Prop. 47, italics added]. The distinction is an important one. In the post-Cartesian era, we think of squaring as an algebraic operation, but, to the Greeks, it was a geometric one. To them, the Pythagorean theorem was a relationship among squares constructed on the sides of a right triangle. Fermat's last theorem demonstrates that it is not by generalizing the exponentiation that we will realize the fullness of the Pythagorean theorem. It tells us how firmly geometric the Pythagorean theorem really is. Let's pursue a generalization of the Pythagorean theorem, then, by thinking about its geometry. If the area of a square constructed on the hypotenuse is the sum of the areas of the squares constructed on the other two sides, what if we were to construct other polygons as shown in Figure 1? Would the polygons need to be regular? Must they be convex? What we will show is that the area of a polygon constructed on the

Figure 1. hypotenuse of a right triangle is the sum of the areas of similar polygons constructed in like manner on the other two sides. To do this, we'll use a relationship between the areas of any two similar polygons: Lemma. Let a(R) denote the area of region R. If two polygons, P and P', are similar, then a(P) = k2a(P') where each side of P is k times the corresponding side of P'. Proof. We first show that the result holds when P and P' are triangles. Let /ABC AA'B'C', and let a, b, c and a', b', c' be the sides of AABC and AA'B'C', respectively, where each side of AABC is k times the corresponding side of AA'B'C'. Then, by Heron's formula, a(AABC) = /s(s - a)(s - b)(s - c) = Vks'(ks' - ka')(ks' - kb')(ks' - kc') = k2/s'(s' - a')(s' - b')(s' - c') = k2a(AA'B'C'), where s and s' are the semi-perimeters, (a + b + c) and (a' + b'+ c'). 292

To prove the lemma, we have only to notice that any polygon can be triangulatedand that a triangulation of any polygon similar to it can consist of corresponding triangles that are similar as shown in Figure 2. Let P and P' be any similar polygons where each


similarly Figure 2. Similarpolygonstriangulated side of P is k times the corresponding side of P'. Now triangulate P as a collection {TI I i = 1, 2,..., n}, and in like manner triangulate P' as the collection Ti' I i = 1, 2, ..., n} so that Ti corresponds to Ti'. Then T, - Ti' for i = 1, 2,..., n and each side of Ti is k times the corresponding side of Ti',so
n n

a(P) =

a(Ti) =

k2a(Ti') = k2



From this lemma, the theorem follows easily: Theorem. The area of a polygon with one side the hypotenuse of a right triangle is the sum of the areas of similar polygons whose corresponding sides are the other two sides. Proof. Let P3 be any polygon with one side the hypotenuse c of a right triangle, and let P1 and P2 be polygons, similar to P3, whose corresponding sides are the legs a and b, respectively. Then each side of PI is a/c times the corresponding side of P3, and each side of P2 is b/c times the corresponding side of P3. So, by the lemma, + a(Pa(Pi)
a2 =()
a\2 (

+a /b\2 (


a2 + b2 a(P3)

= a(P3),

by the Pythagorean theorem.

We can extend our generalization beyond polygons to include more general regions since the area of a region may be found by a limiting process using polygonal approximations. It would not even matter whether the regions overlapped the interior of the right triangle as shown in Figure 3 where the areas of the three circles are
a 2 b r ( (2 sin0 2

( 2 sin 0),


( 2 sin )

so the Pythagorean relation does hold. The only requirement is that the three similar regions have corresponding parts that are the sides of a right triangle. Our generalization is not new. The Pythagorean theorem is the world's most well known, and the mathematics here is straightforward. How long, then, has the


Figure 3. Threecircles with corresponding parts(chords)the sides of a righttriangle Pythagorean theorem been known at this level of generality? Readers may be surprised, as we were, to learn that it has been known since at least the fifth century BCE. Hippocrates of Chios (c. 470-c. 410 BCE) was aware of the generalized theorem [1, p. 397], and Euclid recorded it as Proposition 31, Book VI of the Elements: In right-angled triangles the figure on the side subtending the right angle is equal to the similar and similarly described figures on the sides containing the right angle. having defined a figure in Book I as "that which is contained by any boundary or boundaries" [2]. Proclus, referring to the Pythagorean theorem in his fifth-century commentary on Euclid's Elements, wrote: For my part, though I marvel at those who first noted the truth of this theorem, I admire more the author of the Elements, not only for the very lucid proof by which he made it fast, but also because in the sixth book he laid hold of a theorem even more general than this and secured it by irrefutable scientific arguments. For in that book he proves generally that in right-angled triangles the figure on the side that subtends the right angle is equal to the similar and similarly drawn figures on the sides that contain the right angle. [5, pp. 377-338] We join Proclus in his admiration, although Euclid's proof does deal only with convex polygons. We didn't find any record that the Pythagoreans knew of the more general theorem. There is a legend that, when Pythagoras (c. 569-c. 475 BCE) learned of the theorem that we now name for him, he celebrated by sacrificing an ox. If the Pythagoreans did eventually develop a more general result, with Pythagoras presumably in an even more celebratory mood, it would not have come as welcome news to Greek oxen. This generalized Pythagorean relationship is a beautiful theorem. To some readers, it will be a familiar fact. Because it was not to us, we had occasion to do a very worthwhile thing: consult primary classical sources such as Euclid's Elements. Reading these great and seminal works opened a fresh perspective. It gave us pause, amid celebration of the success of contemporary mathematicians, to reflect upon the successes of those of ancient times, to marvel as Proclus did at their accomplishments, to rediscover how much they knew... and how thoroughly. 294




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1. T. L. Heath,A History of GreekMathematics,OxfordUniversityPress, 1921. Reprintedby Dover, 1981. 2. , The ThirteenBooks of Euclid's Elements, CambridgeUniversity Press, 1926. Reprintedby Dover, 1956. 3. D. H. Lehmer,in TheLast Problemby E. T. Bell, Simon and Schuster, 1961. Reprintedby the Mathematical Association of America, 1990. 4. O. Ore, NumberTheoryand Its History, McGraw-Hill,1948. Reprintedby Dover, 1988. 5. Proclus, A Commentary the First Book of Euclid's Elements, translatedby G. R. Morrow,PrincetonUnion versity Press, 1970. 6. H. S. Vandiver,Fermat'slast theorem,AmericanMathematicalMonthly53 (1946) 555-578.

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