EWD 1155

A prime is in at most 1 way the sum of 2 squares

EWD1154 dealt with D.Zagier’s proof that a prime of the form 4k+1 is the sum of 2 squares. In fact, such a prime is in only 1 way the sum of 2 squares. In this note we show this by proving that if an odd n is the sum of 2 different pairs of squares, then that n is not prime.

Let an odd n be the sum of 2 squares; then the one square is odd, the other is even: the squares are of different parity. Let n be the sum of 2 squares in 2 ways; then there exist positive a, b, c, d such that

(0) (a + b) + (cd) = n
(ab) + (c + d) = n

(Here a is the average of the numbers of the one parity, c is the average of those of the other parity. Because we are considering distinct square decompositions, also b and d can be chosen positive.)

Eliminating n from (0) by equating the left-hand sides, we deduce after simplification

(1) ab = cd       ,

from which we deduce the existence of positive r, s, t, v such that

(2) a = sv
b = rt
c = st
d = rv

(Consider “s := a gcd c;   v := a/s;   t := c/s;   r := b/t”.)

Now we observe
=         {(0)}
        (a + b) + (cd)
=         {(1)}
        a + b + c + d
=         {(2)}
        sv + rt + st + rv
=         {algebra}
        (s + r) ∙ (t + v)

and because the 4 variables are positive, the two factors are each at least 2, and hence n is not a prime number.

*         *         *

The above was written down in Abilene State Park. In contrast to the proof discussed in EWD1154, I designed this proof myself, but the title of this note does not mention “derivation” of the proof, since I did not “derive” it in any technical sense.

I have considered investigation of the situation x+y = n u+v = n prime.n with the aim of showing (x,y) = (u,v) (x,y) = (v,u), but rejected that approach for the disjunction, and for the fact that I saw no way of using n’s primality. So I did some shunting and set myself to show that n was composite by writing it as a product of 2 plurals. I knew my complex numbers, in particular, that the modulus of a product is the product of the moduli, and then discovered that there was no point in looking at (x+yi)(u+vi). Hence

(3) (svrt) + (st + rv) = (s + r) (t + v)

—the 2 expressions for the modulus of (s + ri) (t + vi), which do equate a sum of squares to a product— has to be used differently. The right-hand side being even in r, it also equals (sv + rt) + (strv), and now we see the a, b, c, d entering the picture. The introduction of a b and c d circumvented the disjunctive complication of comparing unordered pairs.

I think I knew (3) outside the context of complex numbers as well; it is very common to separate in (a b) the squares from the cross product, as in

  (a + b) = (ab) + 4ab
  (a + b) + (ab) = 2(a + b)       .

The proof reported provides a striking example of a proof in which the algebra is totally trivial while all subtlety has been invested in the decision what to name.

Austin, 7 June 1993

prof.dr. Edsger W.Dijkstra
Department of Computer Sciences
The University of Texas at Austin
Austin, TX 78712-1188