Real Mathematics – Killer Numbers #1

Hippasus: First Victim of the Science Mob


Pythagoras is a very well known historic figure. Even though most of the people know him through the geometry theorem attributed to him, he had accomplished more than just a theorem. He was also the head of the first known science mob in the history.

Pythagorean Theorem: In a right-angled triangle square of the perpendicular sides add up to the square of the third side of the triangle that is also known as the hypotenuse.

Pythagoras was born in the island of Samos. He had an enormous reputation as a mathematician throughout the ancient Greece. His followers (Pythagoreans) chose to live as their leader. They were a tight and closed group that ate neither meat nor beans and isolated themselves from having any kind of possession.

According to Pythagoras universe was built on the numbers. Every number had a character and everything that is happening around us could be explained with numbers. He believed that numbers have categories such as beautiful, ugly, masculine, feminine, perfect and such. For instance 10 was the best number because it contained the summation of the first four numbers: 1+2+3+4=10.

Pythagoreans also believe that every number is rational: Meaning that each number can be represented as a division of two other numbers. (E.g. 10/2 = 5)

Oath Breaker

One day one of Pythagoras’ followers broke his oath and asked the forbidden question: What is the length of the hypotenuse of an equilateral right-angled triangle?


Geogebra shows that the hypotenuse is around 1,41 units. This is not the exact value of the length as this length can never be measured.

Hippasus was a devoted Pythagorean. One day he sailed away with his brothers. When he was in the open sea, he started thinking about the problem of the right-angled equilateral triangle. In the end he claimed that he found irrational numbers. This was an oath breaker as it was forbidden to question Pythagoras’ words. Hippasus never came back from that trip, and Pythagoreans continued to keep the existence of the irrational numbers as secret.

Incommensurables: Do they exist?

According to the Pythagorean Theorem: Length of hypotenuse on a right-angled equilateral triangle.


If Hippasus was wrong, √2 was a rational number which means √2 can be written as the division of two other numbers. Let’s say that this is true and a/b is equal to √2.

Ps: a and b are relatively prime. This means that a/b can’t be simplified; they are the smallest numbers for that ratio.


Let’s square both sides so that we are free from the square root.


Now send the denominator to the left side of the equality.


This actually means that two squares that have side b add up to another square that has side a.


Hence, we just need to show that when we add two identical squares, we can get another square.


Since the little squares add up to the large square, let’s try to put them inside the large one.


As seen above, little squares intersect in the middle and leave gaps on the corners. If we stick to our initial assertion, this intersection must have same area as the gaps. But there is something absurd here, because this intersection is a square. Also the gaps are identical squares that add up to the intersection.

If I call sides of the little squares d, and the big square c:


This result is the same as our starting point. We just found ourselves in a loop which means that our initial assertion was wrong. √2 can’t be shows as a ratio of a/b. Hence, √2 is not a rational number.

One Wonders…

  1. Try to prove that √2 is an irrational number, using Euclid’s tools which are compass and an unmarked ruler.
  2. How can we understand if √3 is rational or not? (Hint: Try to prove geometrically like I did in the article.)

M. Serkan Kalaycıoğlu

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