Ask Uncle Colin: Computing $\sqrt{2}$

Dear Uncle Colin,

If I didn’t have a calculator and wanted to know the decimal expansion of $\sqrt{2}$, how would I be best to go about it?

Roots As Decimals – Irrational Constant At Length

Hi, RADICAL, and thanks for your message!

There are several options for finding $\sqrt{2}$ as a decimal (although why you’d want to know it beyond about three places, I have no idea).

One is the ‘long division’ method that @colinthemathmo has explained in more detail than I would ever care to, so I’ll just send you there if you’re interested in that.

But there are two other methods I would consider.

The binomial expansion

If you have a reasonable guess for the value of $R \approx \sqrt{n}$, you can find an improved guess by working out $R’ = R + \frac{n – R^2}{2R}$, which comes from the binomial expansion. For example, if you guessed that $\sqrt{2} \approx 1$, your second guess would be $1 + \frac{2 – 1}{2} = 1.5$, which is significantly closer.

You can repeat this process as often as you like: with $R = 1.5$, the next guess is $1.5 + \frac{2-\frac{9}{4}}{3} = \frac{3}{2} – \frac{1}{12}$. That’s $\frac{17}{12} \approx 1.4167$, which is still closer to the true value.

You can either work with fractions and do a great big long division at the end, or you can say (for example) “15 is my estimate for $\sqrt{200}$”, or “142 is my estimate for $\sqrt{20000}$” – which will converge more slowly, but may be less annoying.

Continued fractions.

With a litte bit of surd work, you can show that:

$\sqrt{2} = 1 + \br{\sqrt{2} – 1} = 1 + \frac{1}{1 + \sqrt{2}}$

But, you know that the $\sqrt{2}$ on the bottom of the last term can be written as $1 + \frac{1}{1 + \sqrt{2}}$, which would make the whole thing $1 + \frac{1}{2 + \frac{1}{1+\sqrt{2}}}$. That can be repeated again, and it turns out that:

$\sqrt{2} = \frac{1}{2 + \frac{1}{2 + \frac{1}{2 + …}}}$, following the same pattern forever. The more levels you expand the continued fraction to, the more accurate your result – the first few terms in the sequence are $1$, $\frac{3}{2}$, $\frac{7}{5}$, $\frac{17}{12}$, …

In fact, if you know that the $k$th term is $\frac{a}{b}$, the $(k+1)$th term is $\frac{a + 2b}{a+b}$, and a better approximation to $\sqrt{2}$.

Again, you can use this to generate an approximation as close to the answer as you would like!

Hope that helps,

– Uncle Colin

* Updated 2019-02-06 to correct LaTeX in title.


Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.


2 comments on “Ask Uncle Colin: Computing $\sqrt{2}$

  • Fenn

    The first method looks more like the Newton-Raphson method than the binomial expansion.

    • Colin

      It’s almost as if they’re linked!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Sign up for the Sum Comfort newsletter and get a free e-book of mathematical quotations.

No spam ever, obviously.

Where do you teach?

I teach in my home in Abbotsbury Road, Weymouth.

It's a 15-minute walk from Weymouth station, and it's on bus routes 3, 8 and X53. On-road parking is available nearby.

On twitter