I am trying to calculate the length of an opposite side of a triangle (the blue line in the picture below)

enter image description here

I know that $\theta = 60\deg$ and the green line is $y=3$ so to calculate the blue line, i.e. $x$:

$tan(\frac {\theta} {2}) = \frac {1} {2}x / y$


$y \cdot tan(\frac {\theta} {2}) = \frac 1 {2}x$ so $x = 2 \cdot y \cdot tan(\frac {\theta} {2})$

So $x = 2 \cdot 3 \cdot tan(30)$

So $ x = 2 \cdot 3 \cdot 0.57735056839 =$ 3.46410341035

Now, let's say I wanted to do the same thing with cutting the pyramid into fourths. I think I should get the same answer, but my results are different.

enter image description here

Here I would think we would use:

$tan(\frac {\theta} {4}) = \frac {1} {4}x / y$

because instead of just halving $\theta$ and $x$ we cut them in fourths so:

So $x = 4 \cdot 3 \cdot tan(15)$

So $ x = 4 \cdot 3 \cdot 0.26794877678 =$ 3.21538532136

Why are these results slightly different? Please explain. Thank you

  • $\begingroup$ If you divide the red angle into four equal parts then the corresponding segments on the blue line do not have all the same length. $\endgroup$ – Martin R May 30 at 7:25
  • $\begingroup$ @MartinR how would I make them all have equal lengths? $\endgroup$ – Startec May 30 at 7:26
  • $\begingroup$ You can't have both: four equal angles and four equal length. The simple reason is that the tangent is not a linear function. $\endgroup$ – Martin R May 30 at 7:27
  • $\begingroup$ Your second figure does not divide the blue triangle into right triangles, and $\tan \theta = \frac {\text{opposite}}{\text{adjacent}}$ only applies to right triangles. $\endgroup$ – Doug M May 30 at 7:50
  • $\begingroup$ @DougM the middle two triangles would still be right triangles. $\endgroup$ – Startec May 30 at 8:12

As Martin R points out in the comments, tangent is not a linear function. Essentially (after adjustment by a factor of $4$), you are asking why

$$ \tan 2x \not= 2\tan x $$

enter image description here

In the diagram above, the red line segment represents the tangent of the red angle, and the combined red and blue segments represent the tangent of the combined red and blue angles. You can see that the blue angle contributes much more to the tangent, because it is "higher up" on the circle.


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