Descartes' theorem

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In geometry, Descartes' theorem states that for every four kissing, or mutually tangent, circles, the radii of the circles satisfy a certain quadratic equation. By solving this equation, one can construct a fourth circle tangent to three given, mutually tangent circles. The theorem is named after René Descartes, who stated it in 1643.

Geometry branch of mathematics that measures the shape, size and position of objects

Geometry is a branch of mathematics concerned with questions of shape, size, relative position of figures, and the properties of space. A mathematician who works in the field of geometry is called a geometer.

Tangent straight line touching a point in a curve

In geometry, the tangent line to a plane curve at a given point is the straight line that "just touches" the curve at that point. Leibniz defined it as the line through a pair of infinitely close points on the curve. More precisely, a straight line is said to be a tangent of a curve y = f (x) at a point x = c on the curve if the line passes through the point (c, f ) on the curve and has slope f'(c) where f' is the derivative of f. A similar definition applies to space curves and curves in n-dimensional Euclidean space.

Circle simple curve of Euclidean geometry

A circle is a simple closed shape. It is the set of all points in a plane that are at a given distance from a given point, the centre; equivalently it is the curve traced out by a point that moves so that its distance from a given point is constant. The distance between any of the points and the centre is called the radius. This article is about circles in Euclidean geometry, and, in particular, the Euclidean plane, except where otherwise noted.



Geometrical problems involving tangent circles have been pondered for millennia. In ancient Greece of the third century BC, Apollonius of Perga devoted an entire book to the topic.

Apollonius of Perga Ancient Greek geometer and astronomer noted for his writings on conic sections

Apollonius of Perga was a Greek geometer and astronomer known for his theories on the topic of conic sections. Beginning from the theories of Euclid and Archimedes on the topic, he brought them to the state they were in just before the invention of analytic geometry. His definitions of the terms ellipse, parabola, and hyperbola are the ones in use today.

René Descartes discussed the problem briefly in 1643, in a letter to Princess Elisabeth of the Palatinate. He came up with essentially the same solution as given in equation (1) below, and thus attached his name to the theorem.

René Descartes 17th-century French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist

René Descartes was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. A native of the Kingdom of France, he spent about 20 years (1629–1649) of his life in the Dutch Republic after serving for a while in the Dutch States Army of Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange and the Stadtholder of the United Provinces. He is generally considered one of the most notable intellectual figures of the Dutch Golden Age.

Elisabeth of the Palatinate German princess, philosopher, and Calvinist

Elisabeth of the Palatinate, also known as Elisabeth of Bohemia, Princess Elisabeth of the Palatinate, or Princess-Abbess of Herford Abbey, was the eldest daughter of Frederick V, Elector Palatine, and Elizabeth Stuart. Elisabeth of the Palatinate is a philosopher best known for her correspondence with René Descartes. She was critical of Descartes' dualistic metaphysics and her work anticipated the metaphysical concerns of later philosophers.

Frederick Soddy rediscovered the equation in 1936. The kissing circles in this problem are sometimes known as Soddy circles, perhaps because Soddy chose to publish his version of the theorem in the form of a poem titled The Kiss Precise, which was printed in Nature (June 20, 1936). Soddy also extended the theorem to spheres; Thorold Gosset extended the theorem to arbitrary dimensions.

Frederick Soddy chemist and physicist from England

Frederick Soddy FRS was an English radiochemist who explained, with Ernest Rutherford, that radioactivity is due to the transmutation of elements, now known to involve nuclear reactions. He also proved the existence of isotopes of certain radioactive elements.

<i>Nature</i> (journal) scientific journal

Nature is a British multidisciplinary scientific journal, first published on 4 November 1869. It is one of the most recognizable scientific journals in the world, and was ranked the world's most cited scientific journal by the Science Edition of the 2010 Journal Citation Reports and is ascribed an impact factor of 40.137, making it one of the world's top academic journals. It is one of the few remaining academic journals that publishes original research across a wide range of scientific fields.

John Herbert de Paz Thorold Gosset was an English lawyer and an amateur mathematician. In mathematics, he is noted for discovering and classifying the semiregular polytopes in dimensions four and higher.

Definition of curvature

Kissing circles. Given three mutually tangent circles (black), what radius can a fourth tangent circle have? There are in general two possible answers (red). Descartes Circles.svg
Kissing circles. Given three mutually tangent circles (black), what radius can a fourth tangent circle have? There are in general two possible answers (red).

Descartes' theorem is most easily stated in terms of the circles' curvatures. The curvature (or bend) of a circle is defined as k = ±1/r, where r is its radius. The larger a circle, the smaller is the magnitude of its curvature, and vice versa.

Curvature physical quantity

In mathematics, curvature is any of a number of loosely related concepts in different areas of geometry. Intuitively, curvature is the amount by which a geometric object such as a surface deviates from being a flat plane, or a curve from being straight as in the case of a line, but this is defined in different ways depending on the context. There is a key distinction between extrinsic curvature, which is defined for objects embedded in another space – in a way that relates to the radius of curvature of circles that touch the object – and intrinsic curvature, which is defined in terms of the lengths of curves within a Riemannian manifold.

In mathematics, magnitude is the size of a mathematical object, a property which determines whether the object is larger or smaller than other objects of the same kind. More formally, an object's magnitude is the displayed result of an ordering of the class of objects to which it belongs.

The plus sign in k = ±1/r applies to a circle that is externally tangent to the other circles, like the three black circles in the image. For an internally tangent circle like the big red circle, that circumscribes the other circles, the minus sign applies.

If a straight line is considered a degenerate circle with zero curvature (and thus infinite radius), Descartes' theorem also applies to a line and two circles that are all three mutually tangent, giving the radius of a third circle tangent to the other two circles and the line.

In mathematics, a degenerate case is a limiting case in which an element of a class of objects is qualitatively different from the rest of the class and hence belongs to another, usually simpler, class. Degeneracy is the condition of being a degenerate case.

If four circles are tangent to each other at six distinct points, and the circles have curvatures ki (for i = 1, ..., 4), Descartes' theorem says:






When trying to find the radius of a fourth circle tangent to three given kissing circles, the equation is best rewritten as:






The ± sign reflects the fact that there are in general two solutions. Ignoring the degenerate case of a straight line, one solution is positive and the other is either positive or negative; if negative, it represents a circle that circumscribes the first three (as shown in the diagram above).

Problem-specific criteria may favor one solution over the other in any given problem.

Special cases

One of the circles is replaced by a straight line of zero curvature. Descartes' theorem still applies. KissingCircles2.png
One of the circles is replaced by a straight line of zero curvature. Descartes' theorem still applies.
Here, as all three circles are tangent to each other at the same point, Descartes' theorem does not apply. Three "Kissing" Circles without Appolonian Circles PNG.png
Here, as all three circles are tangent to each other at the same point, Descartes' theorem does not apply.

If one of the three circles is replaced by a straight line, then one ki, say k3, is zero and drops out of equation (1) . Equation (2) then becomes much simpler:






If two circles are replaced by lines, the tangency between the two replaced circles becomes a parallelism between their two replacement lines. For all four curves to remain mutually tangent, the other two circles must be congruent. In this case, with k2 = k3 = 0, equation (2) is reduced to the trivial

It is not possible to replace three circles by lines, as it is not possible for three lines and one circle to be mutually tangent. Descartes' theorem does not apply when all four circles are tangent to each other at the same point.

Another special case is when the ki are squares,

Euler showed that this is equivalent to the simultaneous triplet of Pythagorean triples,

and can be given a parametric solution. When the minus sign of a curvature is chosen,

this can be solved [1] as,


parametric solutions of which are well-known.

Complex Descartes theorem

To determine a circle completely, not only its radius (or curvature), but also its center must be known. The relevant equation is expressed most clearly if the coordinates (x, y) are interpreted as a complex number z = x + iy. The equation then looks similar to Descartes' theorem and is therefore called the complex Descartes theorem.

Given four circles with curvatures ki and centers zi (for i = 1...4), the following equality holds in addition to equation (1) :






Once k4 has been found using equation (2) , one may proceed to calculate z4 by rewriting equation (4) to a form similar to equation (2) :

Again, in general, there are two solutions for z4, corresponding to the two solutions for k4. Note that the plus/minus sign in the above formula for z does not necessarily correspond to the plus/minus sign in the formula for k.


The generalization to n dimensions is sometimes referred to as the Soddy–Gosset theorem, even though it was shown by R. Lachlan in 1886. In n-dimensional Euclidean space, the maximum number of mutually tangent (n 1)-spheres is n + 2. For example, in 3-dimensional space, five spheres can be mutually tangent.The curvatures of the hyperspheres satisfy

with the case ki = 0 corresponding to a flat hyperplane, in exact analogy to the 2-dimensional version of the theorem.

Although there is no 3-dimensional analogue of the complex numbers, the relationship between the positions of the centers can be re-expressed as a matrix equation, which also generalizes to n dimensions. [2]

See also


  1. A Collection of Algebraic Identities: Sums of Three or More 4th Powers
  2. Jeffrey C. Lagarias; Colin L. Mallows; Allan R. Wilks (April 2002). "Beyond the Descartes Circle Theorem". The American Mathematical Monthly. 109 (4): 338–361. arXiv: math/0101066 . doi:10.2307/2695498. JSTOR   2695498.

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