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Rational number

In mathematics, a rational number is a number that can be written as the ratio of two integers, usually written as a / b, where b is not zero. Rational numbers are informally called fractions, but a whole number such as 5 is rational, since it can be written as 5/1. Numbers which are not rational are called irrational numbers.

The set of all rational numbers is denoted by Q, or in blackboard bold:


Each rational number can be written in many forms, for example 3/6 = 2/4 = 1/2. The simplest form is when a and b have no common factors, and every rational number has a simplest form of this type. The decimal expansion of a rational number is either finite or eventually periodic, and this property characterises rational numbers. A real number that is not rational is called an irrational number.

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Formal Construction

Mathematically we may define them as an ordered pair of integers (a, b), with b not equal to zero. We can define addition and multiplication upon these pairs with the following rules:

(a, b) + (c, d) = (a × d + b × c, b × d)
(a, b) × (c, d) = (a × c, b × d)

To conform to our expectation that 2/4 = 1/2, we define an equivalence relation ~ upon these pairs with the following rule:

(a, b) ~ (c, d) if, and only if, a × d = b × c.

This equivalence relation is compatible with the addition and multiplication defined above, and we may define Q to be the quotient set of ~, i.e. we identify two pairs (a, b) and (c, d) if they are equivalent in the above sense.

We can also define a total order on Q by writing

(a, b) ≤ (c, d) if, and only if, adbc.

Properties The set of all rational numbers is countable. Since the set of all real numbers is uncountable we can say that almost all real numbers are irrational.

The set Q, together with the addition and multiplication operations shown above, forms a field, the quotient field of the integers Z.

The rationals are the smallest field with characteristic 0: every other field of characteristic 0 contains a copy of Q.

The rationals are a densely ordered set: between any two rationals there sits another one, in fact infinitely many other ones.

The rationals are a dense subset of the real numbers: every real number is arbitrarily close to rational numbers.

By virtue of their order, the rationals carry an order topology. The rational numbers are a (dense) subset of the real numbers, and as such they also carry a subspace topology. The rational numbers form a metric space by using the metric d(x,y) = |x - y|, and this yields a third topology on Q. Fortunately, all three topologies coincide and turn the rationals into a topological field[?]. The rational numbers are an important example of a space which is not locally compact. The space is also totally disconnected. The rational numbers are not complete; the real numbers are the completion of Q.

Egyptian fractions

Any positive rational number can be expressed as a sum of distinct reciprocals of positive integers. For instance, 5/7 = 1/2 + 1/6 + 1/21. For any positive rational number, there are infinitely many different such representations. These representations are called Egyptian fractions, because the ancient Egyptians used them. The hieroglyph used for this is the letter that looks like a mouth, which is transliterated R, so the above fraction would be written as R2R6R21. The Egyptians also had a different notation for dyadic fractions.

Other metrics

In addition to the absolute value metric mentioned above, there are other metrics which turn Q into a topological field: let p be a prime number and for any non-zero integer a let |a|p = p-n, where pn is the highest power of p dividing a; in addition write |0|p = 0. For any rational number a/b, we set |a/b|p = |a|p / |b|p. Then dp(x, y) = |x - y|p defines a metric on Q. The metric space (Q, dp) is not complete, and its completion is given by the p-adic numbers.

See also: integer -- irrational number -- real number -- division ---

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