My goal in this post is to describe a surprising and beautiful method (the Stern-Brocot tree) for generating all positive reduced fractions. I’ll then discuss how properties of the tree yield a simple, direct proof of a famous result in Diophantine approximation due to Hurwitz. Finally, I’ll discuss how improvements to Hurwitz’s theorem led Markoff to define another tree with some mysterious (and partly conjectural) similarities to the Stern-Brocot tree.
In my last blog post, I discussed a simple proof of the fact that pi is irrational. That pi is in fact transcendental was first proved in 1882 by Ferdinand von Lindemann, who showed that if is a nonzero complex number and is algebraic, then must be transcendental. Since is algebraic, this suffices to establish the transcendence of (and setting it shows that is transcendental as well). Karl Weierstrass proved an important generalization of Lindemann’s theorem in 1885.
The proof by Lindemann that pi is transcendental is one of the crowning achievements of 19th century mathematics. In this post, I would like to explain a remarkable 20th century proof of the Lindemann-Weierstrass theorem due to Bezivin and Robba [Annals of Mathematics Vol. 129, No. 1 (Jan. 1989), pp. 151-160], which uses p-adic analysis in a key way. Their original argument was made substantially more elementary by Beukers in this paper; we refer the reader to [American Mathematical Monthly Vol. 97 Issue 3 (Mar. 1990), pp. 193-197] for a lovely exposition of the resulting proof, which rivals any of the usual approaches in its simplicity. But I’d like to focus here on the original Bezivin-Robba proof, which deserves to be much better known than it is. In the concluding remarks, we will briefly discuss a 21st century theorem of Bost and Chambert-Loir that situates the Bezivin-Robba approach within a much broader mathematical framework. Continue reading