Research NewsMathematics

Fractions to Make an Egyptian Scribe Blanch

Science  10 Oct 1997:
Vol. 278, Issue 5336, pp. 224
DOI: 10.1126/science.278.5336.224

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Over 3500 years ago, Egyptians wrote fractions as sums of the reciprocals of whole numbers, using as few numbers as possible and always avoiding repetition, giving exact results with a surprising economy of notation. Now, two mathematicians have gone to the opposite extreme by asking how densely spaced the terms in an Egyptian fraction can get and thereby showing how run-of-the-mill numbers can be expressed as surprisingly sprawling fractions.