# A geometric proof of the impossibility of angle trisection by straightedge and compass

One of the most well known problems from ancient Greek mathematics was that of trisecting an angle by straightedge and compass, which was eventually proven impossible in 1837 by Pierre Wantzel, using methods from Galois theory.

Formally, one can set up the problem as follows. Define a *configuration* to be a finite collection of points, lines, and circles in the Euclidean plane. Define a *construction step* to be one of the following operations to enlarge the collection :

- (Straightedge) Given two distinct points in , form the line that connects and , and add it to .
- (Compass) Given two distinct points in , and given a third point in (which may or may not equal or ), form the circle with centre and radius equal to the length of the line segment joining and , and add it to .
- (Intersection) Given two distinct curves in (thus is either a line or a circle in , and similarly for ), select a point that is common to both and (there are at most two such points), and add it to .

We say that a point, line, or circle is *constructible by straightedge and compass* from a configuration if it can be obtained from after applying a finite number of construction steps.

Problem 1 (Angle trisection)Let be distinct points in the plane. Is it always possible to construct by straightedge and compass from a line through thattrisectsthe angle , in the sense that the angle between and is one third of the angle of ?

Thanks to Wantzel’s result, the answer to this problem is known to be “no” in general; a *generic* angle cannot be trisected by straightedge and compass. (On the other hand, some *special* angles can certainly be trisected by straightedge and compass, such as a right angle. Also, one can certainly trisect generic angles using other methods than straightedge and compass; see the Wikipedia page on angle trisection for some examples of this.)

The impossibility of angle trisection stands in sharp contrast to the easy construction of angle *bisection* via straightedge and compass, which we briefly review as follows:

- Start with three points .
- Form the circle with centre and radius , and intersect it with the line . Let be the point in this intersection that lies on the same side of as . ( may well be equal to ).
- Form the circle with centre and radius , and the circle with centre and radius . Let be the point of intersection of and that is not .
- The line will then bisect the angle .

The key difference between angle trisection and angle bisection ultimately boils down to the following trivial number-theoretic fact:

*Proof:* Obvious by modular arithmetic, by induction, or by the fundamental theorem of arithmetic.

In contrast, there are of course plenty of powers of that are evenly divisible by , and this is ultimately why angle bisection is easy while angle trisection is hard.

The standard way in which Lemma 2 is used to demonstrate the impossibility of angle trisection is via Galois theory. The implication is quite short if one knows this theory, but quite opaque otherwise. We briefly sketch the proof of this implication here, though we will not need it in the rest of the discussion. Firstly, Lemma 2 implies the following fact about field extensions.

Corollary 3Let be a field, and let be an extension of that can be constructed out of by a finite sequence of quadratic extensions. Then does not contain any cubic extensions of .

*Proof:* If contained a cubic extension of , then the dimension of over would be a multiple of three. On the other hand, if is obtained from by a tower of quadratic extensions, then the dimension of over is a power of two. The claim then follows from Lemma 2.

To conclude the proof, one then notes that any point, line, or circle that can be constructed from a configuration is definable in a field obtained from the coefficients of all the objects in after taking a finite number of quadratic extensions, whereas a trisection of an angle will generically only be definable in a cubic extension of the field generated by the coordinates of .

The Galois theory method also allows one to obtain many other impossibility results of this type, most famously the Abel-Ruffini theorem on the insolvability of the quintic equation by radicals. For this reason (and also because of the many applications of Galois theory to number theory and other branches of mathematics), the Galois theory argument is the “right” way to prove the impossibility of angle trisection within the broader framework of modern mathematics. However, this argument has the drawback that it requires one to first understand Galois theory (or at least field theory), which is usually not presented until an advanced undergraduate algebra or number theory course, whilst the angle trisection problem requires only high-school level mathematics to formulate. Even if one is allowed to “cheat” and sweep several technicalities under the rug, one still needs to possess a fair amount of solid intuition about advanced algebra in order to appreciate the proof. (This was undoubtedly be one reason why, even after Wantzel’s impossibility result was published, a large amount of effort was still expended by amateur mathematicians to try to trisect a general angle.)

In this post I would therefore like to present a different proof (or perhaps more accurately, a disguised version of the standard proof) of the impossibility of angle trisection by straightedge and compass, that avoids explicit mention of Galois theory (though it is never far beneath the surface). With “cheats”, the proof is actually quite simple and geometric (except for Lemma 2, which is still used at a crucial juncture), based on the basic geometric concept of monodromy; unfortunately, some technical work is needed however to remove these cheats.

To describe the intuitive idea of the proof, let us return to the angle bisection construction, that takes a triple of points as input and returns a bisecting line as output. We iterate the construction to create a quadrisecting line , via the following sequence of steps that extend the original bisection construction:

- Start with three points .
- Form the circle with centre and radius , and intersect it with the line . Let be the point in this intersection that lies on the same side of as . ( may well be equal to ).
- Form the circle with centre and radius , and the circle with centre and radius . Let be the point of intersection of and that is not .
- Let be the point on the line which lies on , and is on the same side of as .
- Form the circle with centre and radius . Let be the point of intersection of and that is not .
- The line will then quadrisect the angle .

Let us fix the points and , but not , and view (as well as intermediate objects such as , , , , , , ) as a function of .

Let us now do the following: we begin rotating counterclockwise around , which drags around the other objects , , , , , , that were constructed by accordingly. For instance, here is an early stage of this rotation process, when the angle has become obtuse:

Now for the slightly tricky bit. We are going to keep rotating beyond a half-rotation of , so that now becomes a *reflex angle*. At this point, a singularity occurs; the point collides into , and so there is an instant in which the line is not well-defined. However, this turns out to be a *removable singularity* (and the easiest way to demonstrate this will be to tap the power of complex analysis, as complex numbers can easily route around such a singularity), and we can blast through it to the other side, giving a picture like this:

Note that we have now deviated from the original construction in that and are no longer on the same side of ; we are thus now working in a *continuation* of that construction rather than with the construction itself. Nevertheless, we can still work with this continuation (much as, say, one works with analytic continuations of infinite series such as beyond their original domain of definition).

We now keep rotating around . Here, is approaching a full rotation of :

When reaches a full rotation, a different singularity occurs: and coincide. Nevertheless, this is also a removable singularity, and we blast through to beyond a full rotation:

And now is back where it started, as are , , , and … but the point has moved, from one intersection point of to the other. As a consequence, , , and have also changed, with being at right angles to where it was before. (In the jargon of modern mathematics, the quadrisection construction has a non-trivial monodromy.)

But nothing stops us from rotating some more. If we continue this procedure, we see that after two full rotations of around , all points, lines, and circles constructed from have returned to their original positions. Because of this, we shall say that the quadrisection construction described above is *periodic with period *.

Similarly, if one performs an octisection of the angle by bisecting the quadrisection, one can verify that this octisection is periodic with period ; it takes four full rotations of around before the configuration returns to where it started. More generally, one can show

Proposition 4Any construction of straightedge and compass from the points is periodic with period equal to a power of .

The reason for this, ultimately, is because any two circles or lines will intersect each other in at most two points, and so at each step of a straightedge-and-compass construction there is an ambiguity of at most . Each rotation of around can potentially flip one of these points to the other, but then if one rotates again, the point returns to its original position, and then one can analyse the next point in the construction in the same fashion until one obtains the proposition.

But now consider a putative trisection operation, that starts with an arbitrary angle and somehow uses some sequence of straightedge and compass constructions to end up with a trisecting line :

What is the period of this construction? If we continuously rotate around , we observe that a full rotations of only causes the trisecting line to rotate by a third of a full rotation (i.e. by ):

Because of this, we see that the period of any construction that contains must be a multiple of . But this contradicts Proposition 4 and Lemma 2.

Below the fold, I will make the above proof rigorous. Unfortunately, in doing so, I had to again leave the world of high-school mathematics, as one needs a little bit of algebraic geometry and complex analysis to resolve the issues with singularities that we saw in the above sketch. Still, I feel that at an intuitive level at least, this argument is more geometric and accessible than the Galois-theoretic argument (though anyone familiar with Galois theory will note that there is really not that much difference between the proofs, ultimately, as one has simply replaced the Galois group with a closely related monodromy group instead).

** — 1. Details — **

We now make the argument more rigorous. We will assume for sake of contradiction that for every triple of distinct points, we can find a construction by straightedge and compass that trisects the angle , and eventually deduce a contradiction out of this.

We remark that we do not initially assume any uniformity in this construction; for instance, it could be possible that the trisection procedure for obtuse angles is completely different from that of acute angles, using a totally different set of constructions, while some exceptional angles (e.g. right angles or degenerate angles) might use yet another construction. We will address these issues later.

The first step is to get rid of some possible degeneracies in one’s construction. At present, nothing in our definition of a construction prevents us from adding a point, line, or circle to the construction that was already present in the existing collection of points, lines, and circles. However, it is clear that any such step in the construction is redundant, and can be omitted. Thus, we may assume without loss of generality that for each , the construction used to trisect the angle contains no such redundant steps. (This may make the construction even less uniform than it was previously, but we will address this issue later.)

Another form of degeneracy that we will need to eliminate for technical reasons is that of *tangency*. At present, we allow in our construction the ability to take two tangent circles, or a circle and a tangent line, and add the tangent point to the collection (if it was not already present in the construction). This would ordinarily be a harmless thing to do, but it complicates our strategy of perturbing the configuration, so we now act to eliminate it. Suppose first that one had two circles already constructed in the configuration and tangent to each other, and one wanted to add the tangent point to the configuration. But note that in order to have added and to , one must previously have added the centres and of these circles to also. One can then add to by intersecting the line with and picking the point that lies on ; this way, one does not need to intersect two tangent curves together.

Similarly, suppose that we already had a circle and a tangent line already constructed in the configuration, but with the tangent point absent. The centre of , and at least two points on , must previously have also been constructed in order to have and present; note that are not equal to by hypothesis. One can then obtain by dropping a perpendicular from to by the usual construction (i.e. drawing a circle centred at with radius to hit again at , then drawing circles from and with the same radius to meet at a point distinct from , then intersecting with to obtain ), thus avoiding tangencies again. (This construction may happen to use lines or circles that had already appeared in the construction, but in those cases one can simply skip those steps.)

As a consequence of these reductions, we may now assume that our construction is *nondegenerate* in the sense that

- Any point, line, or circle added at a step in the construction, does not previously appear in that construction.
- Whenever one intersects two circles in a construction together to add another point to the construction, the circles are non-tangent (and thus meet in exactly two points).
- Whenever one intersects a circle and a line in a construction together to add another point to the construction, the circle and line are non-tangent (and thus meet in exactly two points).

The reason why we restrict attention to nondegenerate constructions is that they are *stable with respect to perturbations*. Note for instance that if one has two circles that intersect in two different points, and one of them is labeled , then we may perturb and by a small amount, and still have an intersection point close to (with the other intersection point far away from ). Thus, is locally a continuous function of and . Similarly if one forms the intersection of a circle and a secant (a line which intersects non-tangentially). In a similar vein, given two points and that are distinct, the line between them varies continuously with and as long as one does not move and so far that they collide; and given two lines and that intersect at a point (and in particular are non-parallel), then also depends continuously on and . Thus, in a nondegenerate construction starting from the original three points , every point, line, or circle created by the construction can be viewed as a continuous function of , as long as one only works in a sufficiently small neighbourhood of the original configuration . In particular, the final line varies continuously in this fashion. Note however that the trisection property may be lost by this perturbation; just because happens to trisect when are in the original positions, this does not necessarily imply that after one perturbs , that the resulting perturbed line still trisects the angle. (For instance, there are a number of ways to trisect a right angle (e.g. by bisecting an angle of an equilateral triangle), but if one perturbs the angle to be slightly acute or slightly obtuse, the line created by this procedure would not be expected to continue to trisect that angle.)

The next step is to allow analytic geometry (and thence algebraic geometry) to enter the picture, by using Cartesian coordinates. We may identify the Euclidean plane with the analytic plane ; we may also normalise to be the points , by this identification. We will also restrict to lie on the unit circle , so that there is now just one degree of freedom in the configuration . One can describe a line in by an equation of the form

(with not both zero), and describe a circle in by an equation of the form

with non-zero. There is some non-uniqueness in these representations: for the line, one can multiply by the same constant without altering the line, and for the circle, one can replace by . However, this will not be a serious concern for us. Note that any two distinct points , determine a line

and given three points , , , one can form a circle

with centre and radius . Given two distinct non-parallel lines

and

their unique intersection point is given as

similarly, given two circles

and

their points of intersection (if they exist in ) are given as

and

and the points of intersection between and (if they exist in ) are given as

The precise expressions given above are not particularly important for our argument, save to note that these expressions are always algebraic functions of the input coordinates such as , defined over the reals , and that the only algebraic operations needed here besides the arithmetic operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division is the square root operation. Thus, we see that any particular construction of, say, a line from a configuration will locally be an algebraic function of (recall that we have already fixed ), and this definition can be extended until one reaches a degeneracy (two points, lines, or circles collide, two curves become tangent, or two lines become parallel); however, this degeneracy only occurs in an proper real algebraic set of configurations, and in particular for in a dimension zero subset of the circle .

These degeneracies are annoying because they disconnect the circle , and can potentially block off large regions of that circle for which the construction is not even defined (because two circles stop intersecting, or a circle and line stop intersecting, in , due to the lack of a real square root for negative numbers). To fix this, we move now from the real plane to the complex plane . Note that the algebraic definitions of a line and a circle continue to make perfect sense in (with coefficients such as now allowed to be complex numbers instead of real numbers), and the algebraic intersection formulae given previously continue to make sense in the complex setting. The point now is allowed to range in the complex circle , which is a Riemann surface (conformal to the Riemann sphere after stereogrpahic projection). Furthermore, because all non-zero complex numbers have square roots, any given construction that was valid for at least one configuration is now valid (though possibly multi-valued) as an algebraic function on outside of a dimension zero set of singularities, i.e. outside of a finite number of exceptional values of . But note now that these singularities do not disconnect the complex circle , which has topological dimension two instead of one.

As mentioned earlier, a line given by such a construction may or may not trisect the original angle . But this trisection property can be expressed algebraically (e.g. using the triple angle formulae from trigonometry, or by building rotation matrices), and in particular makes sense over . Thus, for any given construction of a line , the set of in for which the construction is non-degenerate and trisects is a *constructible set* (a boolean combination of algebraic sets). But is an irreducible one-dimensional complex variety. As such, the aforementioned set of is either *generic* (the complement of a dimension one algebraic set), or has dimension at most one. (Here we are implicitly using the fundamental theorem of algebra, because the basic dimension theory of algebraic geometry only works properly over algebraically closed fields.)

On the other hand, there are at most countably many constructions, and by hypothesis, for each choice of in , at least one of these constructions has to trisect the angle. Applying the Baire category theorem (or countable additivity of Lebesgue measure, or using the algebraic geometry fact that an algebraic variety over an uncountable field cannot be covered by the union of countably many algebraic sets of smaller dimension), we conclude that there is a single construction which trisects the angle for a generic choice of , i.e. for all in outside of a finite set of points, there is a construction, which amongst its multiple possible values, is able to output at least one line that trisects .

Now one performs monodromy. Suppose we move around a closed loop in that avoids all points of degeneracy. Then all the other points, lines, and circles constructed from can be continuously extended from an initial configuration as discussed earlier, with each such object tracing out its own path in its own configuration space. Because of the presence of square roots in constructions such as the intersection (1) between two circles, or the intersection (2) between a circle and a line, these constructions may map a closed loop to an open loop; but because the square root function forms a double cover of , we see that any closed loop in , if doubled, will continue to be a closed loop upon taking a square root. (Alternatively, one can argue geometrically rather than algebraically, noting that in the intersection of (say) two non-degenerate circles , there are only two possible choices for the intersection point of these two circles, and so if one performs monodromy along a loop of possible pairs of circles, either these two choices return to where they initially started, or are swapped; so if one doubles the loop, one must necessarily leave the intersection points unchanged.) Iterating this, we see that any object constructed by straightedge and compass from must have period for some power of two , in the sense that if one iterates a loop of in avoiding degenerate points times, the object must return to where it started. (In more algebraic terminology: the monodromy group must be a -group.)

Now, one traverses along a slight perturbation of a single rotation of the real unit circle , taking a slight detour around the finite number of degeneracy points one encounters along the way. Since has to trisect the angle at each of these points, while varying continuously with , we see that when traverses a full rotation, has only traversed one third of a rotation (or two thirds, depending on which trisection one obtained), and so the period of must be a multiple of three; but this contradicts Lemma 2, and the claim follows.

Source : http://terrytao.wordpress.com/

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