Revisiting the Mohr-Mascheroni Theorem


The Mohr-Mascheroni theorem (independently proved in 1672 and 1797) makes an astounding statement: that any point constructible with a compass and straightedge can be constructed with the compass alone. It treats the tools for classical geometric constructions as a system for computation: a geometric system of computation capable of placing points at desired locations.

There’s a long history of analyzing the power of numerical systems of computation. You might think that the fundamental determiner of the power of a numerical computer is the kinds of atomic numeric operations it can perform. It’s tempting to say that a computer with multiplication should be fundamentally more powerful than one with only addition.

However, differences in atomic numeric operations end up being far less important than differences in the kinds of control-flow afforded by the computational system. For example, a primitive recursive system that can increment integers is capable of computing sums, products, powers, and factorials, but it is incapable of computing the Ackermann function and this limitation cannot be overcome by adding any new atomic numeric operations to the system. Ultimately it is not differences in the availability of numeric operations like addition and multiplication that give rise to differences in numerical computational power: it is differences in control-flow constructs like if-statements and loops. Primitive recursion is not limited because it has no atomic operation for multiplication, but because it does not allow unbounded loops.

Returning to geometric systems of computation, the Mohr-Mascheroni theorem seems to be stacking two geometric systems against each other, and comparing their computational power.

System A System B
compass compass

However, this comparison is done without any regard for the kinds of control-flow constructs available in the two systems. The history of differences in control-flow constructs determining the computational power of numerical computers hints that this may be an oversight, and this post serves to correct that oversight.

The Primitives of Classical Geometry

We begin by asking what control-flow primitives a geometric system should have. This post explores a programming language, Construct, for classical geometry that allows for non-recursive functions that contain sequences of operations. Notably it does not included if-statements, and more importantly it includes no kind of loops. The justification for these choices is that classical geometric writing (e.g. Euclid) includes sequences of steps and functions (propositions like “given a triangle, construct the orthocenter”), but little branching and no examples of repeatedly doing the same thing (draw $ n $ segments). Construct also clarifies that doing geometry isn’t just about using a compass or straightedge to draw shapes, it’s about finding the intersection of those shapes as well, to fix the locations of new points.

This allows us to more clearly specify the two geometric computational systems whose powers we’ll be comparing:

System A System B
compass compass
intersection intersection
sequencing sequencing
functions functions

Functions serve to encode constructions themselves. A construction like “given a triangle construct its orthocenter” would be encoded as a function that takes a triangle (represented, perhaps, by it’s three corners) and returns its orthocenter (the point equidistant from the three corners).

If the two computational systems are equally powerful, then any function writable using system A should also be writable using system B. We claim that the systems are in fact not equally powerful, that there is a function (construction) writable with system A that is not writable with system B. Specifically, the construction that takes points $A$, $B$, $C$, and $D$ and returns the intersection of lines $AB$ and $CD$.

In system A, which provides a straightedge to draw lines directly, the construction is straightforward:

construction line_line_intersection
given points A, B, C, D
let line1 = line(A, B)
let line2 = line(C, D)
let P = intersection(line1, line2)
return P

However, writing such a construction without using the straightedge (i.e. without using line) will prove impossible.

Line-Line Intersections With Only Circles

Our analysis of whether the intersection of two lines can be computed in Construct using only circles & intersections will be based on one critical idea: the diameter of a construction, which we will define in a moment.

When a construction begins, some set of points are taken as givens into the construction. Perhaps that set is a pair of points, and you seek to find a point halfway between them. Perhaps that set is a triangle, and you seek to find the orthocenter.

As the construction progresses more points are added to the construction. Perhaps a circle is drawn, which adds uncountably many new points. Perhaps an intersection between circles is found, which adds no new points (but labels some).

Throughout this process, the diameter of the construction is the maximum distance between any pair of points in the construction. Since points may be added to a construction as it progresses, the diameter may grow over time; it may never shrink.

Importantly, the only operation that increases the diameter is drawing new circles, and because a circle must be drawn from its center and a point on its edge, doing so can increase the diameter of the construction by at most a factor of two (triangle inequality). Because constructions are sequences of instructions (e.g. draw circle) of finite length without loops or recursion, any given construction can only draw a finite number of circles, and thus the diameter of a given construction can only grow by at most a finite factor.

Now, we suppose (to obtain a contradiction) some construction con can take any points $A$, $B$, $C$, and $D$ and find the intersection of $AB$ and $CD$. That construction could increase the diameter by at most some factor of $N$. Thus if $m$ is the maximum of the distances between any pair from $ {A, B, C, D} $ then the construction con could construct no point further than $ Nm $ from point $ A $, and thus return no point further than $Nm$ from point $A$. Roughly speaking, this means no construction can return a point arbitrarily far away from its starting points.

Now consider the following points $ A = (0, 1), B = (1, 1), $ and $ C = (0, 0)$ Also consider the sequence of points $ D_n = \left(1, \frac{1}{n}\right) $. Notice that the intersection of $ AB $ and $ CD_n $ is $ (n, 1) $.

Thus when con correctly finds the intersection of $ AB $ and $ CD_n $ that intersection is at $ (n, 1) $, which is further than $n$ from $C$. Also notice that the maximum distance between any of $ {A, B, C, D_n}$ is always less than $ 2 $, so con can never find (or return) a point further than $2N$ from $ C $. But $ n $ can be any integer, in particular, $ 2N $, so then con would have to return a point further than $ 2N $ from the $ C $, a contradiction.

Our only assumption was that such a construction con existed, so in fact that assumption must have been wrong – there is no construction that computes the intersection of lines using only circles. Thus the line_line_intersection construction can be written in system A, but not system B, proving that A is more powerful.


We began by building a case for considering the control-flow constructs available to a geometric computational system. We then described a reasonable set of such constructs (sequencing and non-recursive functions) and then showed that given that set of control-flow constructs, a geometric computer with a compass does not allow for a generic function to be written which finds the intersection of any two lines, given as points $ A, B $ and $ C, D $. In particular, this shows that in a control-flow aware sense, a compass is not always as computationally powerful as a compass and straightedge together.

Credits and Future Work

Jackson Warley and I figured out this argument together one weekend after Shīyuè Lǐ pointed me towards an algebraic treatment of geometric constructions. Ironically, our final argument uses no algebraic machinery. Sometimes you have to hold the sledgehammer in your hands to realize the fly-swatter will do.

This argument considers the reduction in power produced by removing a straightedge from a geometric computational system when that system uses only sequencing and non-recursive functions as its control-flow structures. Geometric computational systems with other control-flow structures remain an open question: What happens if you give a finite state machine a compass?