Number theory

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Mathematics

Number theory is the branch of pure mathematics concerned with the properties of numbers in general, and integers in particular, as well as the wider classes of problems that arise from their study.

Number theory may be subdivided into several fields, according to the methods used and the type of questions investigated. (See the list of number theory topics.)

The term "arithmetic" is also used to refer to number theory. This is a somewhat older term, which is no longer as popular as it once was. Number theory used to be called the higher arithmetic, but this too is dropping out of use. Nevertheless, it still shows up in the names of mathematical fields ( arithmetic functions, arithmetic of elliptic curves, fundamental theorem of arithmetic). This sense of the term arithmetic should not be confused either with elementary arithmetic, or with the branch of logic which studies Peano arithmetic as a formal system. Mathematicians working in the field of number theory are called number theorists.

When arranging the natural numbers in a spiral and emphasizing the prime numbers, an intriguing and not fully explained pattern is observed, called the Ulam spiral.
When arranging the natural numbers in a spiral and emphasizing the prime numbers, an intriguing and not fully explained pattern is observed, called the Ulam spiral.


Elementary number theory

In elementary number theory, integers are studied without use of techniques from other mathematical fields. Questions of divisibility, use of the Euclidean algorithm to compute greatest common divisors, integer factorizations into prime numbers, investigation of perfect numbers and congruences belong here. Several important discoveries of this field are Fermat's little theorem, Euler's theorem, the Chinese remainder theorem and the law of quadratic reciprocity. The properties of multiplicative functions such as the Möbius function and Euler's φ function, integer sequences, factorials, and Fibonacci numbers all also fall into this area.

Many questions in number theory can be stated in elementary number theoretic terms, but they may require very deep consideration and new approaches outside the realm of elementary number theory to solve. Examples include:

  • The Goldbach conjecture concerning the expression of even numbers as sums of two primes.
  • Catalan's conjecture (now Mihăilescu's theorem) regarding successive integer powers.
  • The twin prime conjecture about the infinitude of prime pairs.
  • The Collatz conjecture concerning a simple iteration.
  • Fermat's last theorem (stated in 1637, but not proved until 1994) concerning the impossibility of finding nonzero integers x, y, z such that xn + yn = zn for some integer n greater than 2.

The theory of Diophantine equations has even been shown to be undecidable (see Hilbert's tenth problem).

Analytic number theory

Analytic number theory employs the machinery of calculus and complex analysis to tackle questions about integers. The prime number theorem (PNT) and the related Riemann hypothesis are examples. Waring's problem (representing a given integer as a sum of squares, cubes etc.), the twin prime conjecture (finding infinitely many prime pairs with difference 2) and Goldbach's conjecture (writing even integers as sums of two primes) are being attacked with analytical methods as well. Proofs of the transcendence of mathematical constants, such as π or e, are also classified as analytical number theory. While statements about transcendental numbers may seem to be removed from the study of integers, they really study the possible values of polynomials with integer coefficients evaluated at, say, e; they are also closely linked to the field of Diophantine approximation, where one investigates "how well" a given real number may be approximated by a rational one.

Algebraic number theory

In algebraic number theory, the concept of a number is expanded to the algebraic numbers which are roots of polynomials with rational coefficients. These domains contain elements analogous to the integers, the so-called algebraic integers. In this setting, the familiar features of the integers (e.g. unique factorization) need not hold. The virtue of the machinery employed—Galois theory, group cohomology, class field theory, group representations and L-functions—is that it allows to recover that order partly for this new class of numbers.

Many number theoretic questions are best attacked by studying them modulo p for all primes p (see finite fields). This is called localization and it leads to the construction of the p-adic numbers; this field of study is called local analysis and it arises from algebraic number theory.

Geometric number theory

Geometric number theory (traditionally called the geometry of numbers) incorporates some basic geometric concepts, such as lattices, into number-theoretic questions. It starts with Minkowski's theorem about lattice points in convex sets, and leads to basic proofs of the finiteness of the class number and Dirichlet's unit theorem, two fundamental theorems in algebraic number theory.

Combinatorial number theory

Combinatorial number theory deals with number theoretic problems which involve combinatorial ideas in their formulations or solutions. Paul Erdős is the main founder of this branch of number theory. Typical topics include covering system, zero-sum problems, various restricted sumsets, and arithmetic progressions in a set of integers. Algebraic or analytic methods are powerful in this field.

Computational number theory

Computational number theory studies algorithms relevant in number theory. Fast algorithms for prime testing and integer factorization have important applications in cryptography.


Vedic number theory

Mathematicians in India were interested in finding integral solutions of Diophantine equations since the Vedic era. The earliest geometric use of Diophantine equations can be traced back to the Sulba Sutras, which were written between the 8th and 6th centuries BC. Baudhayana (c. 800 BC) found two sets of positive integral solutions to a set of simultaneous Diophantine equations, and also used simultaneous Diophantine equations with up to four unknowns. Apastamba (c. 600 BC) used simultaneous Diophantine equations with up to five unknowns.

Jaina number theory

In India, Jaina mathematicians developed the earliest systematic theory of numbers from the 4th century BC to the 2nd century CE. The Jaina text Surya Prajinapti (c. 400 BC) classifies all numbers into three sets: enumerable, innumerable and infinite. Each of these was further subdivided into three orders:

  • Enumerable: lowest, intermediate and highest.
  • Innumerable: nearly innumerable, truly innumerable and innumerably innumerable.
  • Infinite: nearly infinite, truly infinite, infinitely infinite.

The Jains were the first to discard the idea that all infinites were the same or equal. They recognized five different types of infinity: infinite in one and two directions (one dimension), infinite in area (two dimensions), infinite everywhere (three dimensions), and infinite perpetually (infinite number of dimensions).

The highest enumerable number N of the Jains corresponds to the modern concept of aleph-null \aleph_0 (the cardinal number of the infinite set of integers 1, 2, ...), the smallest cardinal transfinite number. The Jains also defined a whole system of transfinite cardinal numbers, of which \aleph_0 is the smallest.

In the Jaina work on the theory of sets, two basic types of transfinite numbers are distinguished. On both physical and ontological grounds, a distinction was made between asmkhyata and ananata, between rigidly bounded and loosely bounded infinities.

Greek number theory

Number theory was a favorite study among the Greek mathematicians of the late Hellenistic period (3rd century AD) in Alexandria, Egypt, who were aware of the Diophantine equation concept in numerous special cases. The first Greek mathematician to study these equations was Diophantus.

Diophantus also looked for a method of finding integer solutions to linear indeterminate equations, equations that lack sufficient information to produce a single discrete set of answers. The equation x + y = 5 is such an equation. Diophantus discovered that many indeterminate equations can be reduced to a form where a certain category of answers is known even though a specific answer is not.

Classical Indian number theory

Diophantine equations were extensively studied by mathematicians in medieval India, who were the first to systematically investigate methods for the determination of integral solutions of Diophantine equations. Aryabhata (499) gave the first explicit description of the general integral solution of the linear Diophantine equation ay + bx = c, which occurs in his text Aryabhatiya. This kuttaka algorithm is considered to be one of the most significant contributions of Aryabhata in pure mathematics, which found solutions to Diophantine equations by means of continued fractions. The technique was applied by Aryabhata to give integral solutions of simulataneous linear Diophantine equations, a problem with important applications in astronomy. He also found the general solution to the indeterminate linear equation using this method.

Brahmagupta in 628 handled more difficult Diophantine equations. He used the chakravala method to solve quadratic Diophantine equations, including forms of Pell's equation, such as 61x2 + 1 = y2. His Brahma Sphuta Siddhanta was translated into Arabic in 773 and was subsequently translated into Latin in 1126. The equation 61x2 + 1 = y2 was later posed as a problem in 1657 by the French mathematician Pierre de Fermat. The general solution to this particular form of Pell's equation was found over 70 years later by Leonhard Euler, while the general solution to Pell's equation was found over 100 years later by Joseph Louis Lagrange in 1767. Meanwhile, many centuries ago, the general solution to Pell's equation was recorded by Bhaskara II in 1150, using a modified version of Brahmagupta's chakravala method, which he also used to find the general solution to other indeterminate quadratic equations and quadratic Diophantine equations. Bhaskara's chakravala method for finding the general solution to Pell's equation was much simpler than the method used by Lagrange over 600 years later. Bhaskara also found solutions to other indeterminate quadratic, cubic, quartic, and higher-order polynomial equations. Narayana Pandit further improved on the chakravala method and found more general solutions to other indeterminate quadratic and higher-order polynomial equations.

Islamic number theory

From the 9th century, Islamic mathematics had a keen interest in number theory. The first of these mathematicians was Thabit ibn Qurra, who discovered an algorithm which allowed pairs of amicable numbers to be found, that is two numbers such that each is the sum of the proper divisors of the other. In the 10th century, Al-Baghdadi looked at a slight variant of Thabit ibn Qurra's method.

In the 10th century, al-Haitham seems to have been the first to attempt to classify all even perfect numbers (numbers equal to the sum of their proper divisors) as those of the form 2k − 1(2k − 1) where 2k − 1 is prime. Al-Haytham is also the first person to state Wilson's theorem, namely that if p is prime then 1 + (p − 1)! is divisible by p. It is unclear whether he knew how to prove this result. It is called Wilson's theorem because of a comment made by Edward Waring in 1770 that John Wilson had noticed the result. There is no evidence that John Wilson knew how to prove it and most certainly Waring did not. Lagrange gave the first proof in 1771.

Amicable numbers played a large role in Islamic mathematics. In the 13th century, Persian mathematician Al-Farisi gave a new proof of Thabit ibn Qurra's theorem, introducing important new ideas concerning factorisation and combinatorial methods. He also gave the pair of amicable numbers 17296, 18416 which have been attributed to Euler, but we know that these were known earlier than al-Farisi, perhaps even by Thabit ibn Qurra himself. In the 17th century, Muhammad Baqir Yazdi gave the pair of amicable numbers 9,363,584 and 9,437,056 still many years before Euler's contribution.

Early European number theory

Number theory began in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, with François Viète, Bachet de Meziriac, and especially Fermat, whose infinite descent method was the first general proof of diophantine questions. Fermat's last theorem was posed as a problem in 1637, a proof of which wasn't found until 1994. Fermat also posed the equation 61x2 + 1 = y2 as a problem in 1657.

In the eighteenth century, Euler and Lagrange made important contributions to number theory. Euler did some work on analytic number theory, and found a general solution to the equation 61x2 + 1 = y2. Lagrange found a solution to the more general Pell's equation. Euler and Lagrange solved these Pell equations by means of continued fractions, though this was more difficult than the Indian chakravala method.

Beginnings of modern number theory

Around the beginning of the nineteenth century books of Legendre (1798), and Gauss put together the first systematic theories in Europe. Gauss's Disquisitiones Arithmeticae (1801) may be said to begin the modern theory of numbers.

The formulation of the theory of congruences starts with Gauss's Disquisitiones. He introduced the symbolism

a \equiv b \pmod c,

and explored most of the field. Chebyshev published in 1847 a work in Russian on the subject, and in France Serret popularised it.

Besides summarizing previous work, Legendre stated the law of quadratic reciprocity. This law, discovered by induction and enunciated by Euler, was first proved by Legendre in his Théorie des Nombres (1798) for special cases. Independently of Euler and Legendre, Gauss discovered the law about 1795, and was the first to give a general proof. The following have also contributed to the subject: Cauchy; Dirichlet whose Vorlesungen über Zahlentheorie is a classic; Jacobi, who introduced the Jacobi symbol; Liouville, Zeller(?), Eisenstein, Kummer, and Kronecker. The theory extends to include cubic and quartic reciprocity, (Gauss, Jacobi who first proved the law of cubic reciprocity, and Kummer).

To Gauss is also due the representation of numbers by binary quadratic forms.

Prime number theory

A recurring and productive theme in number theory is the study of the distribution of prime numbers. Carl Friedrich Gauss conjectured the limit of the number of primes not exceeding a given number (the prime number theorem) as a teenager.

Chebyshev (1850) gave useful bounds for the number of primes between two given limits. Riemann introduced complex analysis into the theory of the Riemann zeta function. This led to a relation between the zeros of the zeta function and the distribution of primes, eventually leading to a proof of prime number theorem independently by Hadamard and de la Vallée Poussin in 1896. However, an elementary proof was given later by Paul Erdős and Atle Selberg in 1949. Here elementary means that it does not use techniques of complex analysis; however, the proof is still very ingenious and difficult. The Riemann hypothesis, which would give much more accurate information, is still an open question.

Nineteenth-century developments

Cauchy, Poinsot (1845), Lebesgue (1859, 1868), and notably Hermite have added to the subject. In the theory of ternary forms, Eisenstein has been a leader, and to him and H. J. S. Smith is also due a noteworthy advance in the theory of forms in general. Smith gave a complete classification of ternary quadratic forms, and extended Gauss's researches concerning real quadratic forms to complex forms. The investigations concerning the representation of numbers by the sum of 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 squares were advanced by Eisenstein and the theory was completed by Smith.

Dirichlet was the first to lecture upon the subject in a German university. Among his contributions is the extension of Fermat's last theorem:

x^n+y^n \neq z^n, (x,y,z \neq 0, n > 2)

which Euler and Legendre had proven for n = 3,4 (and therefore by implication, all multiples of 3 and 4), Dirichlet showing that x^5+y^5 \neq z^5. Among the later French writers are Borel; Poincaré, whose memoirs are numerous and valuable; Tannery, and Stieltjes. Among the leading contributors in Germany were Kronecker, Kummer, Schering, Bachmann, and Dedekind. In Austria Stolz's Vorlesungen über allgemeine Arithmetik (1885-86), and in England Mathews' Theory of Numbers (Part I, 1892) were scholarly general works. Genocchi, Sylvester, and J. W. L. Glaisher have also added to the theory.

Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century developments

It was the time of major advancements in number theory due to the work of Axel Thue on diophantine equations, of David Hilbert in algebraic number theory (he also proved the Waring's prime number conjecture), and to the creation of geometric number theory by Hermann Minkowski, but also thanks to Adolf Hurwitz, Georgy F. Voronoy, Waclaw Sierpinski, Derrick Norman Lehmer and several others.

Twentieth-century developments

Major figures in twentieth-century number theory include Hermann Weyl, Nikolai Chebotaryov, Emil Artin, Erich Hecke, Helmut Hasse, Alexander Gelfond, Yuri Linnik, Paul Erdős, Gerd Faltings, G. H. Hardy, Edmund Landau, Louis Mordell, John Edensor Littlewood, Srinivasa Ramanujan, André Weil, Ivan Vinogradov, Atle Selberg, Carl Ludwig Siegel, Igor Shafarevich, John Tate, Robert Langlands, Goro Shimura, Kenkichi Iwasawa, Jean-Pierre Serre, Pierre Deligne, Enrico Bombieri, Alan Baker, Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, Bryan Birch, Vladimir Drinfeld, Laurent Lafforgue, Andrew Wiles, and Richard Taylor.

Milestones in twentieth-century number theory include the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem by Andrew Wiles in 1994 and the proof of the related Taniyama–Shimura conjecture in 1999.


  • Mathematics is the queen of the sciences and number theory is the queen of mathematics.Gauss
  • God invented the integers; all else is the work of man. Kronecker
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