Let $x$ be a real number and let $n$ be a positive integer. It is known that both $x^n$ and $(x+1)^n$ are rational. Prove that $x$ is rational.

What I have tried:

Denote $x^n=r$ and $(x+1)^n=s$ with $r$, $s$ rationals. For each $k=0,1,\ldots, n−2$ expand $x^k\cdot(x+1)^n$ and replace $x^n$ by $r$. One thus obtains a linear system with $n−1$ equations with variables $x$, $x^2$, $x^3,\ldots x^{n−1}$. The matrix associated to this system has rational entries, and therefore if the solution is unique it must be rational (via Cramer's rule). This approach works fine if $n$ is small. The difficulty is to figure out what exactly happens in general.

Bart Michels
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Dan Ismailescu
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    Hi. Do you have any idea whether this is actually true? – Rolighed Dec 15 '14 at 23:27
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    If this is true, the fact that $x$ is real must be crucial. Note that if $x$ is a primitive cube root of unity, then $x^6=(x+1)^6=1$. This makes me skeptical that there's any simple algebraic proof... – Micah Dec 15 '14 at 23:40
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    It is very strange that someone wants to close a question with 16 upvotes and 7 stars. – Przemysław Scherwentke Dec 16 '14 at 00:02
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    @RobertLewis, "PSQ" stands for "Problem Statement Question," which is generally discouraged at MSE (and probably explains the votes to close). The OP, however, has edited the question to show that he's given the problem some thought. – Barry Cipra Dec 16 '14 at 00:18
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    What is the source and context of this problem? Number theory textbook? Algebra textbook? Contest math? – mrf Dec 16 '14 at 08:32

4 Answers4


Here is a proof which does not require Galois theory.

Write $$f(z)=z^n-x^n\quad\hbox{and}\quad g(z)=(z+1)^n-(x+1)^n\ .$$ It is clear that these polynomials have rational coefficients and that $x$ is a root of each; therefore each is a multiple of the minimal polynomial of $x$, and every algebraic conjugate of $x$ is a root of both $f$ and $g$. However, if $f(z)=g(z)=0$ then we have $$|z|=|x|\quad\hbox{and}\quad |z+1|=|x+1|\ ;$$ this can be written as $$\def\c{\overline} z\c z=x\c x\ ,\quad z\c z+z+\c z+1=x\c x+x+\c x+1$$ which implies that $${\rm Re}(z)={\rm Re}(x)\ ,\quad {\rm Im}(z)=\pm{\rm Im}(x)=0\tag{$*$}$$ and so $z=x$. In other words, $f$ and $g$ have no common root except for $x$; so $x$ has no conjugates except for itself, and $x$ must be rational.

As an alternative, the last part of the argument can be seen visually: the roots of $f$ lie on the circle with centre $0$ and radius $|x|$; the roots of $g$ lie on the circle with centre $-1$ and radius $|x+1|$; and from a diagram, these circles intersect only at $x$. Thus, again, $f$ and $g$ have no common root except for $x$.

Observe that the deduction in $(*)$ relies on the fact that $x$ is real: as mentioned in Micah's comment on the original question, the result need not be true if $x$ is not real.

Comment. A virtually identical argument proves the following: if $n$ is a positive integer, if $a$ is a non-zero rational and if $x^n$ and $(x+a)^n$ are both rational, then $x$ is rational.

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Let $x$ be a real number such that $x^n$ and $(x+1)^n$ are rational. Without loss of generality, I assume that $x \neq 0$ and $n>1$.

Let $F = \mathbb Q(x, \zeta)$ be the subfield of $\mathbb C$ generated by $x$ and a primitive $n$-th root of unity $\zeta$.

It is not difficult to see that $F/\mathbb Q$ is Galois; indeed, $F$ is the splitting field of the polynomial $$X^n - x^n \in \mathbb Q[X].$$ The conjugates of $x$ in $F$ are all of the form $\zeta^a x$ for some powers $\zeta^a$ of $\zeta$. Indeed, if $x'$ is another root of $X^n - x^n,$ in $F$, then

$$(x/x')^n = x^n/x^n = 1$$

so that $x/x'$ is an $n$-th root of unity, which is necessarily of the form $\zeta^a$ for some $a \in \mathbb Z/n\mathbb Z$.

Assume now that $x$ is not rational. Then, since $F$ is Galois, there exists an automorphism $\sigma$ of $F$ such that $x^\sigma \neq x$. Choose any such automorphism. By the above remark, we can write $x^\sigma = \zeta^a x$, for some $a \not \equiv 0 \pmod n$.

Since also $(1+x)^\sigma = 1+ x^\sigma \neq 1 + x$, and since $(1+x)^n$ is also rational, the same argument applied to $1+x$ shows that $(1+x)^\sigma = \zeta^b (1+x)$ for some $b \not \equiv 0 \pmod n$. And since $\sigma$ is a field automorphism it follows that

$$\zeta^b (1+x) = (1+x)^\sigma = 1 + x^\sigma = 1 + \zeta^a x$$

and therefore

$$x(\zeta^b - \zeta^a) = 1 - \zeta^b.$$

But $\zeta^b \neq 1$ because $b \not \equiv 0\pmod n$, so we may divide by $1-\zeta^b$ to get

$$x^{-1} = \frac{\zeta^b - \zeta^a}{1-\zeta^b}.$$

Now, since $x$ is real, this complex number is invariant under complex conjugation, hence

$$x^{-1} = \frac{\zeta^b - \zeta^a}{1-\zeta^b} = \frac{\zeta^{-b} - \zeta^{-a}}{1-\zeta^{-b}} = \frac{1 - \zeta^{b-a}}{\zeta^b-1} = \zeta^{-a}\frac{\zeta^a - \zeta^b}{\zeta^b-1} = \zeta^{-a} x^{-1}.$$

But this implies that $\zeta^a = 1$, which contradicts that $x^\sigma \neq x$. So we are done. $\qquad \blacksquare$

The following stronger statement actually follows from the proof:

For each $n$, there are finitely many non-rational complex numbers $x$ such that $x^n$ and $(x+1)^n$ are rational. These complex numbers belong to the cyclotomic field $\mathbb Q(\zeta_n)$, and none of them are real.

Indeed, there are finitely many choices for $a$ and $b$.

In this related answer, Tenuous Puffin proves that there exist only $26$ real numbers having this property, allowing for any value of $n$.

Bruno Joyal
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    Fantastic proof. This is just a basic statement about real and rational numbers, and it can be solved with Galois theory. On the other hand, I am pretty confident that we can do essentially the same argument in more elementary language, without using any abstract algebra. We "just" have to show that every complex number $x$ such that $(x+1)^n$ and $x^n$ are real numbers already is also such a fraction containing roots of unity. – Martin Brandenburg Dec 16 '14 at 10:45
  • Thanks @Martin! I, too, would love to see a proof using only high-school mathematics. I'm sure there is one, but I don't see it at the moment. – Bruno Joyal Dec 16 '14 at 10:48
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    Lovely.${{{}}}$ – Cheerful Parsnip Dec 16 '14 at 21:48
  • @BrunoJoyal For a proof using not much more than high-school mathematics, see my answer. – David Dec 17 '14 at 00:41
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    I love it. This post should go to your list "Some fun answers of mine" in your profile page :) – Prism Dec 17 '14 at 00:54

It seems the following.

We can prove that $x$ is rational provided $n$ is a power of an odd prime $p$. Denote $x^n=r$ and $(x+1)^n=s$ with $r$, $s$ rationals. If both $r$ and $s$ are $p$-th powers of rational numbers, then we descent from $n$ to its $p$-th root. So without loss of generality we can assume that one of the numbers $r$ and $s$ (for instance, $r$) is not a $p$-th power of a rational number. This answer implies that in this case a polynomial $x^n-r$ is irreducible over a field $\mathbb Q$. But the polynomial $x^n-r$ has a common root $x$ with a polynomial $(x+1)^n-s$, so $0<\deg GCD(x^n-r, (x+1)^n-s) <n$, a contradiction.

Concerning the general case, we have $\sqrt[n]s-\sqrt[n]r -1=0$. So the positive answer immediately follows from a general

Conjecture. Let $m,n>1$ be integers and $a_1,\dots,a_m>1$ be mutually different integers such that no $a_i$ is divisible by an $n$-th power. Then the numbers $1, \sqrt[n]{a_1},\dots, \sqrt[n]{a_m}$ are linearly independent over $\mathbb Q$.

Some years ago I proved a similar conjecture for $n=2$ by means of Galois theory. A general conjecture may be a separate question for MSE or MO.

Alex Ravsky
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Here's a hybrid approach which don't require much insight (possibly exact same as the first solution ?).

Assume $x \not \in \mathbb{Q}$, and let $F = \mathbb{Q}(x, \zeta_n)$. Then $F$ is a galois extension of $\mathbb{Q}$ (because it's the splitting field of $y^n - x^n$), and $F$ is a nontrivial group. As $x \not \in \mathbb{Q}$, there exists a nontrivial permutation $\sigma \in \operatorname{Gal}(F/\mathbb{Q})$, such that $\sigma(x) \neq x$. As $\sigma$ permutes the roots of $y^n - x^n$, $\sigma(x)$ must be of the form $\zeta_n^a x$ for some constant $a$. Let $\tau = \zeta_n^a \neq 1$.

Since $(x+1)^n$ is also rational, it's invariant under $\sigma$, so we get \begin{align} (x+1)^n &= \sigma((x+1)^n) = (\sigma(x)+1)^n = (\tau x +1)^n \\ \Rightarrow (x+1)^2 =||x+1||^2 &= || \tau x + 1 ||^2 = (\tau x + 1) \overline{(\tau x + 1)} = (\tau x + 1)(1 + \frac{x}{\tau}) \\ \Rightarrow x^2+2x+1 &= x^2+1+x(\tau+\frac{1}{\tau}) \\ \Rightarrow \tau^2 - 2 \tau + 1 &= 0 \Rightarrow \tau = 1 \end{align}.

A contradiction ! So $x \in \mathbb{Q}$.

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