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If you are a teacher then please also visit my new site: for over 2000+ pdf pages of resources for teaching IB maths!

Rational Approximations to Irrational Numbers

This year two mathematicians (James Maynard and Dimitris Koukoulopoulos) managed to prove a long-standing Number Theory problem called the Duffin Schaeffer Conjecture.  The problem is concerned with the ability to obtain rational approximations to irrational numbers.  For example, a rational approximation to pi is 22/7.  This gives 3.142857 and therefore approximates pi to 2 decimal places.  You can find ever more accurate rational approximations and the conjecture looks at how efficiently we can form these approximation, and to within what error bound.

Finding Rational Approximations for  pi

The general form of the inequality I want to solve is as follows:

Here alpha is an irrational number, p/q is the rational approximation, and f(q)/q can be thought of as the error bound that I need to keep my approximation within.

If I take f(q) = 1/q then I will get the following error bound:

So, the question is, can I find some values of q (where p and q are integers) such that the error bound is less than 1/(q squared)?

Let’s see if we can solve this for when our irrational number is pi, and when we choose q = 6.

We can see that this returns a rational approximation, 19/6 which only 0.02507… away from  pi. This is indeed a smaller error than 1/36.  We won’t be able to find such solutions to our inequality for every value of q that we choose, but we will be able to find an infinite number of solutions, each getting progressively better at approximating pi.

The General Case (Duffin Schaeffer Conjecture)

The general case of this problem states that there will be infinite solutions to the inequality for any given irrational number alpha if and only if the following condition holds:


We will have infinitely many solutions (with p and q as integers in their lowest terms) if and only if:

Here the new symbol represents the Euler totient.  You can read about this at the link if you’re interested, but for the purposes of the post we can transform into something else shortly!

Does f(q) = 1/q provide infinite solutions?

When f(q) = 1/q we have:

Therefore we need to investigate the following sum to infinity:

Now we can make use of an equivalence, which shows that:


Where the new symbol on the right is the Zeta function.  The Zeta function is defined as:

So, in our case we have s = 2.  This gives:

But we know the limit of both the top and the bottom sum to infinity.  The top limit is called the Harmonic series, and diverges to infinity. Therefore:

Whereas the bottom limit is a p-series with p=2, this is known to converge. In fact we have:

Therefore because we have a divergent series divided by a convergent one, we will have the following result:

This shows that our error bound 1/(q squared) will be satisfied by infinitely many values of q for any given irrational number.

Does f(q) = 1/(q squared) provide infinite solutions?

With f(q) = 1/(q squared) we follow the same method to get:

But this time we have:

Therefore we have a convergent series divided by a convergent series which means:

So we can conclude that f(q) = 1/(q squared) which generated an error bound of 1/(q cubed) was too ambitious as an error bound – i.e there will not be infinite solutions in p and q for a given irrational number.  There may be solutions out there but they will be rare.

Understanding mathematicians 

You can watch the Numberphile video where James Maynard talks through the background of his investigation and also get an idea what a mathematician feels like when they solve a problem like this!

Essential resources for IB students:

1) Revision Village

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Revision Village has been put together to help IB students with topic revision both for during the course and for the end of Year 12 school exams and Year 13 final exams.  I would strongly recommend students use this as a resource during the course (not just for final revision in Y13!) There are specific resources for HL and SL students for both Analysis and Applications.

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There is a comprehensive Questionbank takes you to a breakdown of each main subject area (e.g. Algebra, Calculus etc) and then provides a large bank of graded questions.  What I like about this is that you are given a difficulty rating, as well as a mark scheme and also a worked video tutorial.  Really useful!

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The Practice Exams section takes you to a large number of ready made quizzes, exams and predicted papers.   These all have worked solutions and allow you to focus on specific topics or start general revision.  This also has some excellent challenging questions for those students aiming for 6s and 7s.

Essential Resources for IB Teachers


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If you are a teacher then please also visit my new site.  This has been designed specifically for teachers of mathematics at international schools.  The content now includes over 2000 pages of pdf content for the entire SL and HL Analysis syllabus and also the SL Applications syllabus.  Some of the content includes:

  1. Original pdf worksheets (with full worked solutions) designed to cover all the syllabus topics.  These make great homework sheets or in class worksheets – and are each designed to last between 40 minutes and 1 hour.
  2. Original Paper 3 investigations (with full worked solutions) to develop investigative techniques and support both the exploration and the Paper 3 examination.
  3. Over 150 pages of Coursework Guides to introduce students to the essentials behind getting an excellent mark on their exploration coursework.
  4. A large number of enrichment activities such as treasure hunts, quizzes, investigations, Desmos explorations, Python coding and more – to engage IB learners in the course.

There is also a lot more.  I think this could save teachers 200+ hours of preparation time in delivering an IB maths course – so it should be well worth exploring!

Essential Resources for both IB teachers and IB students

1) Exploration Guides and Paper 3 Resources

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I’ve put together a 168 page Super Exploration Guide to talk students and teachers through all aspects of producing an excellent coursework submission.  Students always make the same mistakes when doing their coursework – get the inside track from an IB moderator!  I have also made Paper 3 packs for HL Analysis and also Applications students to help prepare for their Paper 3 exams.  The Exploration Guides can be downloaded here and the Paper 3 Questions can be downloaded here.

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All content on this site has been written by Andrew Chambers (MSc. Mathematics, IB Mathematics Examiner).

New website for International teachers

I’ve just launched a brand new maths site for international schools – over 2000 pdf pages of resources to support IB teachers.  If you are an IB teacher this could save you 200+ hours of preparation time.

Explore here!

Free HL Paper 3 Questions

P3 investigation questions and fully typed mark scheme.  Packs for both Applications students and Analysis students.

Available to download here

IB Maths Super Exploration Guide

A Super Exploration Guide with 168 pages of essential advice from a current IB examiner to ensure you get great marks on your coursework.

Available to download here.

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