On Euler’s Phi Function

In which we find that Euler’s phi function was neither phi nor a function.

First of all, a shout-out to all of my math(s) friends who are at (or traveling to) the Joint Mathematics Meetings in Baltimore! Now on to some math.

In my research for the “Evolution of…” series of posts, I came across the word totient in Steven Schwartzman’s The Words of Mathematics, which got me thinking about how Euler’s φ (phi) function—also called the “totient function”—came about. The word itself isn’t that mysterious: totient comes from the Latin word tot, meaning “so many.” In a way, it’s the answer to the question Quot? (“how many”?). Schwartzman notes that the Quo/To pairing is similar to the Wh/Th paring in English (Where? There. What? That. When? Then.). So much for the etymology.

It seems to me, though, that the more interesting questions are: who first defined it? how did the notation change over time? I did some digging, and here’s what I’ve discovered.

The first stop on my investigative tour was Leonard Dickson’s History of the Theory of Numbers (1952). At the beginning of Chapter V, titled “Euler’s Function, Generalizations; Farey Series”, Dickson has two things to say about Leonhard Euler:

“L. Euler… investigated the number φ(n) of positive integers which are relatively prime to n, without then using a functional notation for φ(n).”

“Euler later used πN to denote φ(N)…”

Each of these quotations contains a footnote, the first one to Euler’s paper “Demonstration of a new method in the theory of arithmetic” (written in 1758)  and the second to “Speculations about certain outstanding properties of numbers” (written in 1775). In the first paper, Euler is more interested in proving Fermat’s little theorem, which, true to form, he had already proven twice before. However, Euler does define the phi function (on p. 76, though as Dickson says, he doesn’t use function notation), and proves some basic facts about it, including the facts that φ(pm) = pm-1(p-1) [Theorem 3] and φ(AB) = φ(A)φ(B) when and B are relatively prime [Theorem 5]. This paper is in Latin, and while we do see the use of the words totidem and tot, they don’t seem to hold any special mathematical significance.

In the second paper, Euler returns to the phi function, having decided by this time to use π to represent it. Hard-core nerd that he is, Euler provides us with a table of values of πD for D up to 100, and replicates many of the facts he proved in the first paper. It’s interesting to note that, while Euler wrote this second paper in 1775, it wasn’t published until 1784, a year after his death.

It wasn’t until 1801, in Disquisiones Arithmeticae, that Carl Gauss introduced φN to indicate the value of the totient of N. So why did he pick φ rather than Euler’s π? Well, I checked the English translation by Arthur Clarke (no not, that Arthur Clarke), and I think it’s quite likely that he chose it for no discernible reason. In Clarke’s translation, Gauss introduces φ on page 20—and Gauss loved using Greek letters. In pages 5-19 (the beginning of Section II), he uses α, β, γ, κ, λ, μ, π, δ, ε, ξ, ν, ζ — and only after these does he use φ. As to the use of π, which was Euler’s notation, it’s possible that Gauss knew of Euler’s latter work and chose φ because he had already used π, but there’s no way to know for sure. (Also, π was already used for 3.14159… by this point, but if that was his reasoning, it’s odd that he used the symbol π at all.) Most likely, he just picked another Greek letter off the top of his head. It is important to remember that at no point did Gauss use function notation for the totient—it always appears as φN, never φ(N). (Also: Gauss goes on to use Γ and τ before getting tired of Greek and moving on to the fraktur letters 𝔄, 𝔅, and 𝖅.)

The next significant change came nearly a century later in J. J. Sylvester‘s article “On Certain Ternary Cubic-Form Equations,” published in the American Journal of Mathematics in 1879. On page 361, Sylvester examines the specific case npi, and says

pi-1(p-1) is what is commonly designated as the φ function of pi, the number of numbers less than pi and prime to it (the so-called φ function of any number I shall here and hereafter designate as its τ function and call its Totient).

While Sylvester’s usage of the word totient has become commonplace, mathematicians continue to use φ instead of τ. It just goes to show that a symbol can become entrenched in the mathematical community, even if a notational change would make more sense. Also of note is the fact that while Sylvester refers to the totient as a function, he doesn’t use the modern parenthesis notation, as in τ(n), but continues in Euler and Gauss’s footsteps by using τn.

And this is where our story ends. Sylvester’s use of the word totient, Gauss’s use of the letter φ, and Euler’s original definition all contributed to the modern construct that we call the phi/totient function. Even though Euler’s original definition came in a Latin paper, it wasn’t until Sylvester that the use of totient became commonplace.

However, Euler had proven many of the basic facts about it as early as 1758. So, while the original phi function was neither phi nor a function, it was undoubtedly Euler’s.

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2 thoughts on “On Euler’s Phi Function

  1. Schwartzman notes that the Quo/To pairing is similar to the Wh/Th paring in English (Where? There. What? This. When? Then.).
    ______________________________________

    Isn’t “that” the right word for pairing with “what”?

    • Hi there, sorry for the long delay; I left this blog dormant for a long while. You are, of course, correct. Must have had a mental lapse while I was typing it. It’s now fixed.

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