Chapter 4: Systems Based on Numbers

Section 5: Mathematical Constants

[Computing] square roots

A standard way to compute n is Newton's method (actually used already in 2000 BC by the Babylonians), in which one takes an estimate of the value x and then successively applies the rule x 1/2 (x + n/x). After t steps, this method yields a result accurate to about t2 digits.

Another approach to computing square roots is based on the fact that the ratio of successive terms in for example the sequence f[i] = 2 f[i - 1] + f[i - 2] with f[1] = f[2] = 1 tends to 1 + 2. This method yields about 2.5 t base 2 digits after t steps.

The method of computing square roots shown in the main text is less efficient (it computes t digits in t steps), but illustrates more of the mechanisms involved. The basic idea is at every step t to maintain the relation s2 + 4 r 4t n, keeping r as small as possible so as to make s 2t n < s + 4. Note that the method works not only for integers, but for any rational number n for which 1 n < 4.

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From Stephen Wolfram: A New Kind of Science [citation]