Is there a closed-form expression to compute the length of an arbitrary diagonal of a regular unit $n$-gon?


For the $k$th diagonal of a polygon that's inscribed in a unit circle, the length is $$ \sqrt{ (\cos(\frac{2\pi k }{n}) - 1)^2 + \sin(\frac{2\pi k }{n})^2 }. $$

You can sanity-check this by seeing that for $k = 0$, it gives the answer $0$, and for even $n$ and $k = n/2$, you get $2$, which is correct because that diagonal is a diameter of the circumcircle of the $n$-gon.

You can also slightly simplify; \begin{align} $$ L_k &=\sqrt{ (\cos(\frac{2\pi k }{n}) - 1)^2 + \sin(\frac{2\pi k }{n})^2 }\\ &=\sqrt{ \cos^2(\frac{2\pi k }{n}) - 2 \cos(\frac{2\pi k }{n}) + 1 + \sin(\frac{2\pi k }{n})^2}\\ &=\sqrt{ \cos^2(\frac{2\pi k }{n}) + \sin^2(\frac{2\pi k }{n}) - 2 \cos(\frac{2\pi k }{n}) + 1} \\ &=\sqrt{ 1 - 2 \cos(\frac{2\pi k }{n}) + 1} \\ &=\sqrt{ 2 - 2 \cos(\frac{2\pi k }{n})} \end{align}

The reason?

  1. A point at angle $u$ around the circle from $(1, 0)$ (measuring counterclockwise) has coordinates $(\cos u, \sin u)$, by basic trig.

  2. The points of an $n$-gon are at angles $0, \frac{2\pi}{n}, 2\frac{2\pi}{n}, \ldots, (n-1) \frac{2\pi}{n}$, because the $n$ vertices divide the $2\pi$ total angle of the circle into $n$ equal pieces, each of size $\frac{2\pi}{n}$.

  3. The $0$th point -- the start --- is at $(\cos 0, \sin 0) = (1, 0)$.

  4. The $k$th point is at $(\cos( k\frac{2\pi}{n}), \sin( k\frac{2\pi}{n}))$, using items 1 and 2.

  5. The distance between points $(a, b)$ and $(x, y)$ is $\sqrt{(a-x)^2 + (b-y)^2}$; that's the standard distance formula in the plane.

  6. Applying this to $(a, b) = (\cos( k\frac{2\pi}{n}), \sin( k\frac{2\pi}{n}))$ and $(x, y) = (1, 0)$ gives the formula I wrote down.

  • $\begingroup$ why is this? Can you give me a step by step proof? $\endgroup$ – William Grannis Feb 13 '18 at 15:34
  • $\begingroup$ See revised answer, which includes an explanation. $\endgroup$ – John Hughes Feb 13 '18 at 16:31

The length of the $k$-th diagonal is

$$d_k = 2\sin(k \pi/n) \quad \text{ for } k \le n/2.$$

You can check via trig identities that this does agree with the answer of G Cab and John Hughes.

First explanation for the formula: you want the length of a chord subtending a central angle of $2\pi k/n$. You can place the chord anywhere you want on the circle. So you might as well place it with endpoints at $(\cos k \pi/n, \sin k \pi/n)$ and $(\cos k \pi/n, -\sin k \pi/n)$, so the chord is vertical. Then the length of the chord is the difference in $y$-coordinates.

Second explanation for the formula:

Read the post of G Cab up the the point where one obtains $$ d_k = |e^{i k 2 \pi /n} - 1|, $$ where it suffices to consider $k \le n/2$ by symmetry of the n-gon. Now we are going to let the complex numbers take care of the trigonometry and distance formulas. I'll write the computation, and then give some details:

$$d_k = |e^{i k 2 \pi /n} - 1| = |e^{i k \pi /n} - e^{-i k \pi /n}| = 2 \sin(k \pi/n)$$ for $k \le n/2.$

In the first step, we use that for $t$ real, $|e^{-it}| = 1$. So $$|e^{i2t} -1| = |e^{-it}| |e^{i2t} -1| = |e^{-it}(e^{i2t} -1)| = |e^{it} - e^{-it}|. $$ Now $$ e^{it} - e^{-it} = (\cos t + i \sin t) - (\cos t - i \sin t) = 2i \sin t. $$ So $$ |e^{it} - e^{-it} | = |2i \sin t| = |2 \sin t| = 2 \sin t, $$ if $0 \le t \le \pi/2$.

  • $\begingroup$ lean (+1): can be easily derived from other formula by applying angle-duplication $\endgroup$ – G Cab Feb 14 '18 at 16:57

The vertices of a regular n_agon, inscribed in a circle of radius $1$, represented in the complex plane will be $$ e^{\,i\,{{2k\pi } \over n}} \quad \left| {\;0 \le k \le n - 1} \right. $$

If we take the difference with the point at $(1+i0)$, i.e. the one with $k=0$, we get all possible diagonals $$ d_{\,k} = e^{\,i\,{{2k\pi } \over n}} - 1\quad \left| {\;1 \le k \le n - 1} \right. $$

Concerning their length, then $$ \eqalign{ & \left| {d_{\,k} } \right| = \left| {e^{\,i\,{{2k\pi } \over n}} - 1} \right| = \sqrt {\left( {1 - \cos \left( {{{2k\pi } \over n}} \right)} \right)^2 + \sin ^2 \left( {{{2k\pi } \over n}} \right)} = \cr & = \sqrt {2\left( {1 - \cos \left( {{{2k\pi } \over n}} \right)} \right)} \cr} $$ which is of course symmetric around $k=n/2$.


You can do it incrementally by drawing all diagonals from a fixed vertex and using the law of cosines starting at the outer triangle and moving to the inner ones.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm looking for a solution in closed form. I've found expressions for 1st and 2nd diagonal, but that is not as useful to me as a closed expression. $\endgroup$ – William Grannis Feb 2 '18 at 1:16

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