Calendars and continued fractions

Calendars are based on three frequencies: the rotation of the Earth on its axis, the rotation of the moon around the Earth, and the rotation of the Earth around the sun. Calendars are complicated because none of these periods is a simple multiple of any other. The ratios are certainly not integers, but they’re not even fractions with a small denominator.

As I wrote about the other day in the context of rational approximations for π, the most economical rational approximations of an irrational number come from convergents of continued fractions. The book Calendrical Calculations applies continued fractions to various kinds of calendars.

Ratio of years to days

The continued fraction for the number of days in a year is as follows.

365.2424177 = 365 + \cfrac{1}{4 + \cfrac{1}{7+ \cfrac{1}{1 + \cfrac{1}{2 + \cfrac{1}{1 + \cfrac{1}{5 + \ldots }}}}}}

This means that the best approximations for the length of a year are 365 days plus a fraction of 1/4, or 7/29, or 8/33, or 23/95, etc.

You could have one leap day every four years. More accurate would be 7 leap days every 29 years, etc. The Gregorian calendar has 97 leap days every 400 years.

Ratio of years to months

If we express the ratio of the length of the year to the length of the month, we get

\frac{365.24244}{29.53059} = 12 +\cfrac{1}{2 + \cfrac{1}{1+ \cfrac{1}{2 + \cfrac{1}{1 + \cfrac{1}{1 + \cfrac{1}{18 + \cfrac{1}{3 + \ldots }}}}}}}

By taking various convergents we get 37/3, 99/8, 136/11, etc. So if you want to design successively more accurate lunisolar calendars, you’d have 37 lunar months every 3 years, 99 lunar months every 8 years, etc.

Related posts

10 best rational approximations for pi

It’s easy to create rational approximations for π. Every time you write down π to a few decimal places, that’s a rational approximation. For example, 3.14 = 314/100. But that’s not the best approximation.

Think of the denominator of your fraction as something you have to buy. If you have enough budget to buy a three-digit denominator, then you’re better off buying 355/113 rather than 314/100 because the former is more accurate. The approximation 355/113 is accurate to 6 decimal places, whereas 314/100 is only accurate to 2 decimal places.

There’s a way to find the most economical rational approximations to π, or any other irrational number, using continued fractions. If you’re interested in details, see the links below.

Here are the 10 best rational approximations to π, found via continued fractions.

    | Fraction       | Decimals |
    | 3              |      0.8 |
    | 22/7           |      2.9 |
    | 333/106        |      4.1 |
    | 355/113        |      6.6 |
    | 103993/33102   |      9.2 |
    | 104348/33215   |      9.5 |
    | 208341/66317   |      9.9 |
    | 312689/99532   |     10.5 |
    | 833719/265381  |     11.1 |
    | 1146408/364913 |     11.8 |

If you only want to know the number of correct decimal places, ignore the fractional parts of the numbers in the Decimals column above. For example, 22/7 gives two correct decimal places. But it almost gives three. (Technically, the Decimals column gives the -log10 of the absolute error.)

In case you’re curious, here’s a plot of the absolute errors on a log scale.

Errors in rational approximations to pi

Related posts

Typesetting and computing continued fractions


The other day I ran across the following continued fraction for π.

\pi = 3 + \cfrac{1^2}{6+\cfrac{3^2}{6+\cfrac{5^2}{6+\cfrac{7^2}{6+\cdots}}}}

Source: L. J. Lange, An Elegant Continued Fraction for π, The American Mathematical Monthly, Vol. 106, No. 5 (May, 1999), pp. 456-458.

While the continued fraction itself is interesting, I thought I’d use this an example of how to typeset and compute continued fractions.


I imagine there are LaTeX packages that make typesetting continued fractions easier, but the following brute force code worked fine for me:

    \pi = 3 + \cfrac{1^2}{6+\cfrac{3^2}{6+\cfrac{5^3}{6+\cfrac{7^2}{6+\cdots}}}}

This relies on the amsmath package for the \cfrac command.


Continued fractions of the form

\pi = a_0 + \cfrac{b_1}{a_1+\cfrac{b_2}{a_2 +\cfrac{b_3}{a_3+\cfrac{b_4}{a_4+\cdots}}}}

can be computed via the following recurrence. Define A-1 = 1, A0 = a0, B-1 = 0, and B0 = 1. Then for k ≥ 1 define Ak+1 and Bk+1 by

A_{k+1} = a_{k+1}A_k + b_k A_{k-1} \\ B_{k+1} = a_{k+1}B_k + b_k B_{k-1}

Then the nth convergent the continued fraction is Cn = An / Bn.

The following Python code creates the a and b coefficients for the continued fraction for π above then uses a loop that could be used to evaluate any continued fraction.

    N = 20
    a = [3] + ([6]*N)
    b = [(2*k+1)**2 for k in range(0,N)]
    A = [0]*(N+1)
    B = [0]*(N+1)

    A[-1] = 1
    A[ 0] = a[0]
    B[-1] = 0
    B[ 0] = 1

    for n in range(1, N+1):
        A[n] = a[n]*A[n-1] + b[n-1]*A[n-2]
        B[n] = a[n]*B[n-1] + b[n-1]*B[n-2]
        print( n, A[n], B[n], A[n]/B[n] )

Python uses -1 as a shortcut to the last index of a list. I tack A-1 and B-1 on to the end of the A and B arrays to make the Python code match the math notation. This is either clever or a dirty hack, depending on your perspective.

Back to pi

You may notice that these approximations for π are not particularly good. It’s a trade-off for having a simple pattern to the coefficients. The continued fraction for π that has all b‘s equal to 1 has a complicated set of a‘s with no discernible pattern: 3, 7, 15, 1, 292, 1, 1, etc. However, that continued fraction produces very good approximations. If you replace the first three lines of the code above with that below, you’ll see that four iterations produces an approximation to π good to 10 decimal places.

    N = 4
    a = [3, 7, 15, 1, 292]
    b = [1]*N

Playing with continued fractions and Khinchin’s constant

Take a real number x and expand it as a continued fraction. Compute the geometric mean of the first n coefficients.

Aleksandr Khinchin proved that for almost all real numbers x, as n → ∞ the geometric means converge. Not only that, they converge to the same constant, known as Khinchin’s constant, 2.685452001…. (“Almost all” here mean in the sense of measure theory: the set of real numbers that are exceptions to Khinchin’s theorem has measure zero.)

To get an idea how fast this convergence is, let’s start by looking at the continued fraction expansion of π. In Sage, we can type


to get the continued fraction coefficient

[3, 7, 15, 1, 292, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 3, 1, 14, 2, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 2, 1, 84, 2, 1, 1, 15, 3]

for π to 100 decimal places. The geometric mean of these coefficients is 2.84777288486, which only matches Khinchin’s constant to 1 significant figure.

Let’s try choosing random numbers and working with more decimal places.

There may be a more direct way to find geometric means in Sage, but here’s a function I wrote. It leaves off any leading zeros that would cause the geometric mean to be zero.

from numpy import exp, mean, log
def geometric_mean(x):
    return exp( mean([log(k) for k in x if k > 0]) )

Now let’s find 10 random numbers to 1,000 decimal places.

for _ in range(10):
    r = RealField(1000).random_element(0,1)

This produced


Three of these agree with Khinchin’s constant to two significant figures but the rest agree only to one. Apparently the convergence is very slow.

If we go back to π, this time looking out 10,000 decimal places, we get a little closer:


produces 2.67104567579, which differs from Khinchin’s constant by about 0.5%.