Real Life Uses of the Pythagorean Theorem

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The Pythagorean Theorem is a statement in geometry that shows the relationship between the lengths of the sides of a right triangle -- a triangle with one 90-degree angle. The right triangle equation is a^2 + b^2 = c^2. Being able to find the length of a side, given the lengths of the two other sides makes the Pythagorean Theorem a useful technique for construction and navigation.

Pythagorean Theorem written on a chalkboard
(stevanovicigor/iStock/Getty Images)

Given two straight lines, the Pythagorean Theorem allows you to calculate the length of the diagonal connecting them. This application is frequently used in architecture, woodworking, or other physical construction projects. For instance, say you are building a sloped roof. If you know the height of the roof and the length for it to cover, you can use the Pythagorean Theorem to find the diagonal length of the roof's slope. You can use this information to cut properly sized beams to support the roof, or calculate the area of the roof that you would need to shingle.

The Pythagorean Theorem is also used in construction to make sure buildings are square. A triangle whose side lengths correspond with the Pythagorean Theorem -- such as a 3 foot by 4 foot by 5 foot triangle -- will always be a right triangle. When laying out a foundation, or constructing a square corner between two walls, construction workers will set out a triangle from three strings that correspond with these lengths. If the string lengths were measured correctly, the corner opposite the triangle's hypotenuse will be a right angle, so the builders will know they are constructing their walls or foundations on the right lines.

The Pythagorean Theorem is useful for two-dimensional navigation. You can use it and two lengths to find the shortest distance. For instance, if you are at sea and navigating to a point that is 300 miles north and 400 miles west, you can use the theorem to find the distance from your ship to that point and calculate how many degrees to the west of north you would need to follow to reach that point. The distances north and west will be the two legs of the triangle, and the shortest line connecting them will be the diagonal. The same principles can be used for air navigation. For instance, a plane can use its height above the ground and its distance from the destination airport to find the correct place to begin a descent to that airport.

Surveying is the process by which cartographers calculate the numerical distances and heights between different points before creating a map. Because terrain is often uneven, surveyors must find ways to take measurements of distance in a systematic way. The Pythagorean Theorem is used to calculate the steepness of slopes of hills or mountains. A surveyor looks through a telescope toward a measuring stick a fixed distance away, so that the telescope's line of sight and the measuring stick form a right angle. Since the surveyor knows both the height of the measuring stick and the horizontal distance of the stick from the telescope, he can then use the theorem to find the length of the slope that covers that distance, and from that length, determine how steep it is.

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