Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Base n to mod n in one easy step.

We learn how to write numbers (well, integers) in bases other than ten fairly early in our mathematical education. A bit later, we learn how about congruence arithmetic and doing arithmetic modulo any integer \(n \gt 1\). I remember that there was a certain degree of initial confusion between the two, though that was really just about remembering which label went with what: after all, the two are entirely different, aren't they?

As it turns out, not so much.

Let's have a brief reminder of congruence arithmetic, and then see what representing numbers in different bases has to do with it.

Congruence arithmetic modulo \(n\)

The simplest and most familiar form of congruence arithmetic is something we're all familiar with long before we meet congruence arithmetic as a thing.

We all know right from a very early stage that an even number plus an even number is even, an even plus an odd is odd, and so on. But an even number is one which leaves a remainder of zero when it's divided by two, and an odd number is one which leaves a remainder of one. So these odd and even rules are telling us that when we do sums with integers, the remainder on division by two is well behaved with respect to addition and multiplication. Or in the hieratic jargon, we can do arithmetic modulo two.

It's not so obvious that this works with numbers other than two, but it's just as true.

Choose any integer \(n>1\). We say that two integers, \(a\) and \(b\) are congruent modulo \(n\) if their difference is a multiple of \(n\), or, equivalently, if they have the same remainder on division by \(n\).

Then with a bit of work, we can show that arithmetic modulo \(n\) makes sense: it doesn't matter what numbers we start with, the remainder after doing an arithmetic operation only depends on the remainders of the numbers we combine.

This takes a little bit of algebra. On the other hand...

Arithmetic modulo ten and modulo two

If we carry out the usual addition and multiplication operations of integer arithmetic, writing all numbers in base ten, then it is obvious (as long as we believe the standard algorithms!) that the units digit of a sum or product depends only on the units digits of the numbers multiplied or added.

But the units digit of a number (written in base ten) is just the remainder when you divide by ten! Looking only at the units digits is doing arithmetic modulo ten.

In just the same way, if we write our numbers in binary, then the units digit of a sum or product depends only on the units digits of the numbers combined. And the units digits is \(1\) for an odd number and \(0\) for an even one.

Looking only at the units digits is now doing arithmetic modulo two.

Arithmetic modulo \(n\) again

But there's nothing special about two or ten (at least, not in this regard).

If we choose any integer \(n \gt 1\), and write integers in base \(n\), then the units digit of a sum or product depends only on the units digits of the numbers combined.

And now, looking at the units digits is working modulo \(n\).

So although base \(n\) and modulo \(n\) look like entirely different ideas, they turn out to be rather closely related.

What's the point?

I'm not entirely sure. Thinking about last digits in base \(n\) might be an interesting way to approach congruence arithmetic, as it comes from a more concrete direction. It also suggests various investigative projects, such as when the last digit of a product can be zero, or how negative numbers fit into this picture. For me, the point was really that there is actually a real relationship between these two apparently different bits of maths, and it's always fun to see connections like that.

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