EWD 1170

Equilateral triangles and rectangular grids

The other day, I encountered the following problem: “Does there exist an equilateral triangle whose vertices have integer (orthogonal Cartesian) coordinates?”. The problem is, indeed, as elementary as it looks, but in solving it, I had a few pleasant surprises; hence this note. I urge the reader to think about the problem before reading on.

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My first concern was how to characterize the notion “equilateral triangle”: all edges of the same length, all angles of the same size, or a mixture of the two. Considering that, in analytical geometry, lengths are more readily expressed than angles, I chose the first characterization, i.e. upon the triangle with with vertices (0,0), (a,b), (c,d) I imposed the requirement that its sides be of equal length. More precisely, my interest turned to integer quintuples (a,b,c,d,k) satisfying (0) (1) (2) with

(0) a + b = k
(1) c + d = k
(2) (ac) + (bd) = k       .

Using (0) and (1), (2) can be simplified to

(2) 2(ac + bd) = k       .

Seeing that k is even, we turn our attention in view of (0) and (1) to squares and factors of 2. And here we have to make a little jump. It does not suffice to observe (the correct) even.x ≡ even.x, which for a sum of 2 squares only implies even.(x+y) ≡ even.x ≡ even.y. We have to reduce squares modulo 4 and use

(3a) x mod 4 = 0   ≡   even.x
(3b) x mod 4 = 1   ≡   odd.x

from which we conclude about the sum of squares

(4a) (x + y) mod 4 = 0   ≡   even.x even.y
(4b) (x + y) mod 4 = 1   ≡   even.x even.y
(4c) (x + y) mod 4 = 2   ≡   odd.x odd.y       .

And now we observe of an integer solution (a,b,c,d,k) of (0) (1) (2):

        k mod 4 ≠ 0
=         {(2), in particular even.k}
        k mod 4 = 2
=         {(0) and (1)}
        (a+b) mod 4 = 2 (c+d) mod 4 = 2
=         {(4c) twice}
        odd.a odd.b odd.c odd.d
        even.(ac + bd)
=         {(2)}
        k mod 4 = 0       .

Having thus proved

(5) k mod 4 = 0       ,

we conclude on account of (0), (1), (4a)

(6) even.a     even.b     even.c     even.d       .

If (a, b, c, d, k) is an integer solution of (0) (1) (2), (a/2, b/2, c/2, d/2, k/4) obviously solves that equation as well; (5) and (6) tell us now that the latter is again an integer solution. By mathematical induction we conclude that any solution of (0) (1) (2) is divisible by any power of 2 (4), and hence equal to (0,0,0,0,0), 0 being the only integer with an unbounded number of divisors. All zeros is indeed a solution, i.e. there exist equilateral triangles whose vertices have integer coordinates, but such a triangle is degenerate and its vertices coincide.

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For several reasons I was pleased with the above argument. Of course I regret the rabbit embodied by (3a)(3b), but I console myself with the thought that it is a fairly small one. The proof of k mod 4 = 0 is a nice example of proving P by constructing a weakening chain from ¬P to P, and the final part of the argument nicely exploits that only 0 has an unbounded number of divisors.

Remark   The latter observation can be turned into a heuristic: a good way of showing that a Diophantine equation has no other solution than 0, it suffices to show that any solution p can be divided by some n (n>1) such that p/n is again a solution. (End of Remark).

Inks Lake State Park,
12 January 1994

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