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Square Triangular Numbers

Square triangular numbers are numbers which are both square numbers and also triangular numbers – i.e they can be arranged in a square or a triangle.  The picture above (source: wikipedia) shows that 36 is both a square number and also a triangular number.  The question is how many other square triangular numbers we can find?

The equation we are trying to solve is:

a2 = 0.5(b2+b)

for some a, b as positive integers. The LHS is the formula to generate square numbers and the RHS is the formula to generate the triangular numbers.

We can start with some simple Python code (which you can run here):

for c in range(1,10001):
 for d in range(1,10001):
  if c**2 == (d**2+d)/2:
   print(c**2, c,d)

This checks the first 10000 square numbers and the first 10000 triangular numbers and returns the following:

1 1 1
36 6 8
1225 35 49
41616 204 288
1413721 1189 1681
48024900 6930 9800

i.e 1225 is the next square triangular number after 36, and can be formed as 352 or as 0.5(492+49). We can see that there are very few square triangular numbers to be found in the first 50 million numbers. The largest we found was 48,024,900 which is made by 69302 or as 0.5(98002+9800).

We can notice that the ratio between each consecutive pair of square triangular numbers looks like it converges as it gives:

36/1 = 36
1225/36 = 34.027778
41616/1225 = 33.972245
1413721/41616 = 33.970612
48024900/1413721 = 33.970564

So, let’s use this to predict that the next square triangular number will be around

48024900 x 33.9706 = 1,631,434,668.

If we square root this answer we get approximately 40391
If we solve 0.5(b2+b) = 1,631,434,668 using Wolfram we get approximately 57120.

Therefore let’s amend our code to look in this region:

for c in range(40380,40400):
 for d in range(57100,57130):
  if c**2 == (d**2+d)/2:
   print(c**2, c,d)

This very quickly finds the next solution as:

1631432881 40391 57121

This is indeed 403912 – so our approximation was very accurate. We can see that this also gives a ratio of 1631432881/48024900 = 33.97056279 which we can then use to predict that the next term will be 33.970563 x 1631432881 = 55,420,693,460. Square rooting this gives a prediction that we will use the 235,416 square number. 235,4162 gives 55,420,693,056 (using Wolfram Alpha) and this is indeed the next square triangular number.

So, using a mixture of computer code and some pattern exploration we have found a method for finding the next square triangular numbers. Clearly we will quickly get some very large numbers – but as long as we have the computational power, this method should continue to work.

Using number theory

The ever industrious Euler actually found a formula for square triangular numbers in 1778 – a very long time before computers and calculators, so let’s have a look at his method:

We start with the initial problem, and our initial goal is to rearrange it into the following form:

Next we make a substitution:

Here, when we get to the equation 1 = x2 – 2y2 we have arrived at a Pell Equation (hence the rearrangement to get to this point).  This particular Pell Equation has the solution quoted above where we can define Pk  as


Therefore we have

Therefore for any given k we can find the kth square triangular number.  The a value will give us the square number required and the b value will give us the triangular number required.  For example with k = 3:

This tells us the 3rd square triangular number is the 35th square number or the 49th triangular number.  Both these give us an answer of 1225 – which checking back from our table is the correct answer.

So, we have arrived at 2 possible methods for finding the square triangular numbers – one using modern computational power, and one using the skills of 18th century number theory.

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IB Maths Exploration Guide

IB Maths Exploration Guide

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