Catalan’s Conjecture

Although popularly known as Catalan’s conjecture, this is in fact a theorem in number theory, proven by Preda Mihăilescu in 2002, 158 years after it was conjecture in 1844 by French and Belgian mathematician Eugène Charles Catalan.

The theorem states that the only solution in the natural numbers of

{\displaystyle x^{a}-y^{b}=1}

for a,b>1; x,y>0 is x = 3, a=2, y=2, b=3.

Catalan ‘Near Misses’ (i.e. xa – yb <= 10; 2 <= x,y,a,b <= 100; a,b prime)

  • 33 – 52 = 2
  • 27 – 53 = 3
  • 23 – 22 = 62 – 25 = 53 – 112 = 4
  • 25 – 33 = 5
  • 25 – 52 = 42 – 32 = 27 – 112 = 7
  • 42 – 23 = 8
  • 52 – 42 = 62 – 33 = 152 – 63 = 9
  • 133 – 37 = 10

Proving the Conjecture

Similarly to Fermat’s last theorem, the solution to this conjecture was assembled over a long period of time. In 1850, Victor Lebesgue established that b cannot equal 2. But then it was only after around 100 years, in 1960, that Chao Ko constructed a proof for the other quadratic case: a cannot equal 2 unless x = 3.

Hence, this left a,b odd primes. Expressing the equation as (x-1)(xa-1)/(x-1) = yb one can show that the greatest common divisor of the two left hand factors is either 1 or a. The case where the gcd = 1 was eliminated by J.W.S Cassels in 1960. Hence, only the case where gcd = a remained.

It was this “last, formidable, hurdle” that Mihailescu surmounted. In 2000, he showed that a and b would have to be a ‘Wieferich pair’, i.e. they would have to satisfy ab-1 ≡ 1 (mod b2) and ba-1 ≡ 1 (mod a2). In 2002,  he showed that such solutions were impossible!

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