(Roughly) Daily

“He told me that in 1886 he had invented an original system of numbering”*…

A visualization of the 3-adic numbers

The rational numbers are the most familiar numbers: 1, -5, ½, and every other value that can be written as a ratio of positive or negative whole numbers. But they can still be hard to work with.

The problem is they contain holes. If you zoom in on a sequence of rational numbers, you might approach a number that itself is not rational. This short-circuits a lot of basic mathematical tools, like most of calculus.

Mathematicians usually solve this problem by arranging the rationals in a line and filling the gaps with irrational numbers to create a complete number system that we call the real numbers.

But there are other ways of organizing the rationals and filling the gaps: the p-adic numbers. They are an infinite collection of alternative number systems, each associated with a unique prime number: the 2-adics, 3-adics, 5-adics and so on.

The p-adics can seem deeply alien. In the 3-adics, for instance, 82 is much closer to 1 than to 81. But the strangeness is largely superficial: At a structural level, the p-adics follow all the rules mathematicians want in a well-behaved number system…

“We’re all on Earth and we work with the reals, but if you went [anywhere] else, you’d work with the p-adics,” [University of Washington mathematician Bianca] Viray explained. “It’s the reals that are the outliers.”

The p-adics form an infinite collection of number systems based on prime numbers. They’re at the heart of modern number theory… which is itself at the heart of computer science, numerical analysis, and cryptography: “An Infinite Universe of Number Systems.”

* Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths


As we dwell on digits, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to Klaus Friedrich Roth; he was born on this date in 1925. After escaping with his family from Nazi Germany, he was educated at Cambridge, then taught mathematics first at University College London, then at Imperial College London. He made a number of important contribution to Number Theory, for which he won the De Morgan Medal and the Sylvester Medal, and election to Fellowship of the Royal Society. In 1958 he was awarded mathematics’ highest honor, the Fields Medal, for proving Roth’s theorem on the Diophantine approximation of algebraic numbers.


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