It is well-known that an altitude splits an equilateral triangle into two 30-60-90 triangles, and that a diagonal splits a square into two 45-45-90 triangles. The properties of these “special right triangles,” as they are often called, are well-understood, and shall not be described here.

What happens if other polygons are split by diagonals, altitudes, or pieces thereof? Can more triangles be found which can allow, for example, exact determination of certain trigonometric ratios?

Yes, and the logical place to start looking is in the regular pentagon.

In this diagram, the yellow triangle is the 18-72-90 triangle. Its hypotenuse is a diagonal of the pentagon, and its short leg is a half-side of the pentagon. Since sides and diagonals of regular pentagons are in the Golden Ratio, (1 + √5)/2, these two sides must be in twice that ratio. Let their lengths, then, be 1 (short leg) and 1 + √5 (hypotenuse), for those are simple, and in the specified ratio. The Pythagorean Theorem may then be applied to find the length of the long leg; the result is sqrt((2√5) + 5). Yes, nested radicals appear at this point, and they resist efforts to make them go away. No one promised this would be simple!

The blue triangle is the 36-54-90 triangle. Its long leg is a half-diagonal of the pentagon, while its hypotenuse is a full side of the pentagon. These triangle sides must, therefore, be in half the Golden Ratio, so the simplest lengths for those sides (which work) are 1 + √5 for the long leg, and 4 for the hypotenuse. Applying the Pythagorean Theorem to find the length of the short leg, nested radicals appear again in the solution: sqrt(10 – 2√5).

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