Very fractional geometric progressions with an integer ratio

The geometric progression 1/3, 2/3, 4/3, 8/3, 16/3,… is notable for being dyadic (ratio 2) and staying away from integers as much as possible (distance 1/3 between this progression and the set of integers; no other dyadic progression stays further away from integers). This property is occasionally useful: by taking the union of the dyadic partition of an interval with its shift by 1/3, one gets a system of intervals that comfortably covers every point: for every point x and every (small) radius r there is an interval of size r, in which x is near the middle.

Endpoints of the intervals in one group are away from the endpoints of the other

It’s easy to see that for any real number x, the distance between the progression {x, 2x, 4x, 8x, …} and the set of integers cannot be greater than 1/3. Indeed, since the integer part of x does not matter, it suffices to consider x between 0 and 1. The values between 0 and 1/3 lose immediately; the values between 1/3 and 1/2 lose after being multiplied by 2. And since x and 1-x yield the same distance, we are done.

Let’s find the most fractional progressions with other integer ratios r. When r is odd, the solution is obvious: starting with 1/2 keeps all the terms at half-integers, so the distance 1/2 is achieved. When r is even, say r = 2k, the best starting value is x = k/(2k+1), which achieves the distance x since rx = k-x. The values between 0 and k/(2k+1) are obviously worse, and those between k/(2k+1) and 1/2 become worse after being multiplied by r: they are mapped to the interval between k-x and k.

The problem is solved! But what if… x is irrational?

Returning to ratio r=2, it is clear that 1/3 is no longer attainable. The base-2 expansion of x cannot be 010101… as that would be periodic. So it must contain either 00 or 11 somewhere. Either of those will bring a dyadic multiple of x within distance less than 0.001111… (base 2) of an integer, that is distance 1/4.

The goal is to construct x so that its binary expansion is as balanced between 0 and 1 as possible, but without being periodic. The Thue-Morse constant does exactly this. It’s constructed by starting with 0 and then adding the complement of the sequence constructed so far: x = .0 1 10 1001 10010110 … which is approximately 0.412. The closest the dyadic geometric progression starting with x comes to an integer is 2x, which has distance about 0.175. The Wikipedia article links to the survey The ubiquitous Prouhet-Thue-Morse sequence by Allouche and Shallit, in which Corollary 2 implies that no other irrational number has a dyadic progression with a greater distance from integers, provided that this distance is attained. I have not been able to sort out the case in which the distance from a progression to the integers is not attained, but it seems very likely that Thue-Morse remains on top.

What about other ratios? When the ratio r is even, the situation is essentially the same as for r=2, for the following reason. In base r there are two digits nearest (r-1)/2, for example 4 and 5 in base 10. Using these digits in the Thue-Morse sequence, we get a strong candidate for the most fractional progression with ratio r: for example, 0.455454455445… in base 10, with the distance of about 0.445. Using any other digit loses the game at once: for example, having 3 in the decimal expansion implies that some multiple of 10 is within less than 0.39999… =  0.4 of an integer.

When the ratio is odd, there are three digits that could conceivably be used in the extremal x: namely, (r-1)/2 and its two neighbors. If the central digit (r-1)/2 is never used, we are back to the Thue-Morse pattern, such as  x = 0.0220200220020220… in base 3 (an element of the standard Cantor set, by the way). But this is an unspectacular achievement, with the distance of about 0.0852. One can do better by starting with 1/2 = 0.1111111… and sprinkling this ternary expansions with 0s or 2s in some aperiodic way, doing so very infrequently. By making the runs of 1s extremely long, we get the distance arbitrarily close to 1 – 0.2111111… base 3, which is simply 1/2 – 1/3 = 1/6.

So it seems that for irrational geometric progressions with an odd ratio r, the distance to integers can be arbitrarily close to the number 1/2 – 1/r, but there is no progression achieving this value.

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