When on olympiad duty, I normally allow myself to be drawn away from Euclidean geometry in favour of the other areas, which I feel are closer to home in terms of the type of structures and arguments I am required to deal with in research. For various reasons, I nonetheless ended up choosing to present the solution to the harder geometry on the first round of this year’s British Mathematical Olympiad a couple of weeks ago. The paper was taken a week ago, so I’m now allowed to write about it, and Oxford term finished yesterday so I now have time to write up the notes I made about it during a quick trip to Spain. Here’s three gratuitous photos to remind us all what a blue sky looks like:
And here’s the statement of the problem:
and you can find the video of the solution I presented here (at least for now). Thanks to the AV unit at the University of Bath, not just as a formality, but because they are excellent – I had no right to end up looking even remotely polished.
As so often with geometry problems, the key here is to find an entry point into the problem. There are a lot of points and a lot of information (and we could add extra points if we wanted to), but we don’t expect that we’ll need to use absolutely all the information simultaneously. The main reason I’m going to the trouble to write this blog post is that I found an unusually large number of such entry points for this problem. I think finding the entry points is what students usually find hardest, and while I don’t have a definitive way to teach people how to find these, perhaps seeing a few, with a bit of reverse reconstruction of my thought process might be helpful or interesting?
If you haven’t looked at the problem before, you will lose this chance if you read what follows. Nonetheless, some of you might want to anyway, and some of you might have looked at the problem but forgotten it, or not have a diagram to hand, so here’s my whiteboard diagram:
Splitting into stages
A natural first question is: “how am supposed to show that four points are collinear?” Typically it’s interesting enough to show that three points are collinear. So maybe our strategy will be to pick three of the points, show they are collinear, then show some other three points are collinear then patch together. In my ‘official solution’ I made the visual observation that it looks like the four points P,Q,R,S are not just collinear, but lie on a line parallel to FE. This is good, because it suggests an alternative, namely split the points P,Q,R,S into three segments, and show each of them is parallel to FE. We can reduce our argument by 1/3 since PQ and RS are symmetric in terms of the statement.
So in our reduced diagram for RS, we need an entry point. It doesn’t look like A is important at all. What can we say about the remaining seven points. Well it looks like we’ve got a pencil of three lines through C, and two triangles each constructed by taking one point on each of these lines. Furthermore, two pairs of sides of the triangles are parallel. Is this enough to prove that the third side is parallel?
Well, yes it is. I claim that this is the natural way to think about this section of the diagram. The reason I avoided it in the solution is that it requires a few more lines of written deduction than we might have expected. The key point is that saying BF parallel to DR is the same as saying BFC and DRC are similar. And the same applies to BE parallel to DS being the same as saying BEC similar to DSC.
We now have control of a lot of angles in the diagram, and by being careful we could do an angle chase to show that <FEB = <RSD or similar, but this is annoying to write down on a whiteboard. We also know that similarity gives rise to constant ratios of lengths. And this is (at least in terms of total equation length) probably the easiest way to proceed. FC/RC = BC/DC by the first similarity relation, and EC/SC=BC/DC by the second similarity relation, so FC/RC = EC/SC and we can reverse the argument to conclude FE || RS.
So, while I’m happy with the cyclic quadrilaterals argument in the video (and it works in an almost identical fashion for the middle section QR too), spotting this pencil of lines configuration was key. Why did I spot it? I mean, once A is eliminated, there were only the seven points in the pencil left, but we had to (actively) make the observation that it was a pencil. Well, this is where it becomes hard to say. Perhaps it was the fact that I was working out of a tiny notebook so felt inclined to think about it abstractly before writing down any angle relations (obviously there are lots)? Perhaps it was because I just knew that pencils of lines and sets of parallel lines go together nicely?
While I have said I am not a geometry expert, I am aware of Desargues’ Theorem, of which this analysis is a special case, or at least of the ingredients. This is not an exercise in showing off that I know heavy projective machinery to throw at non-technical problems, but rather that knowing the ingredients of a theorem is enough to remind you that there are relations to be found, which is certainly a meta-analytic property that exists much more widely in mathematics and beyond.
If I’d drawn my board diagram even more carefully, it might have looked like FE was in fact the enlargement of the line P,Q,R,S from D by a factor of 2. This is the sort of thing that might have been just an accidental consequence of the diagram, but it’s still worth a try. In particular, we only really need four points in our reduced diagram here, eg D,E,F,R, though we keep in mind that we may need to recall some property of the line FR, which is really the line FC.
Let’s define R’ to be the enlargement of R from D by a factor 2. That is, we look along the ray DR, and place the point R’ twice as far from D as R. We want to show that R’ lies on FE. This would mean that FR is the perpendicular bisector of DR’ in the triangle FDR’, and would further require that FR is the angle bisector of <DFR’, which we note is <DFE. At this stage our diagram is small enough that I can literally draw it convincingly on a post-it note, even including P and P’ for good measure:
So all we have to do is check that FC (which is the same as FR) is actually the angle bisector of DFE, and for this we should go back to a more classical diagram (maybe without P,Q,R,S) and argue by angle-chasing. Then, we can reverse the argument described in the previous paragraph. Q also fits this analysis, but P and S are a little different, since these lie on the external angle bisectors. This isn’t qualitatively harder to deal with, but it’s worth emphasising that this might be harder to see!
I’ve described coming at this approach from the observation of the enlargement with a factor of 2. But it’s plausible that one might have seen the original diagram and said “R is the foot of the perpendicular from D onto the angle bisector of DFE”, and then come up with everything useful from there. I’m not claiming that this observation is either especially natural nor especially difficult, but it’s the right way to think about point R for this argument.
The result about the Simson Line says that whenever P is a point on the circumcircle of a triangle ABC, the feet of the perpendiculars from P to the sides of the triangle (some of which will need to be extended) are collinear. This line is called the Simson line. The converse is also true, and it is little extra effort to show that the reflections of P in the sides are collinear (ie the Simson line enlarged from P by factor 2) and pass through the orthocentre H of ABC.
It turns out that this can be used to solve the problem quite easily. I don’t want to emphasise how to do this. I want to emphasise again that the similarity of the statement of the theorem to the statement of this particular problem is the important bit. Both involve dropping perpendiculars from a single point onto other lines. So even if it hadn’t worked easily in this case, it would still have been a sensible thing to try if one knew (and, crucially, remembered) the Simson line result.
I was working on this script during an evening in Barcelona, and tapas culture lends itself very well to brief solutions. Whether it was exactly between the arrival of cerveza and the arrival of morcilla or otherwise, this was the extent of my notes on this approach to the problem:
And this makes sense. No computation or technical wizardry is required. Once you’ve identified the relevant reference triangle (here HEC), and have an argument to check that the point playing the role of P (here D) is indeed on the circumcircle (it’s very clear here), you are done. But it’s worth ending by reinforcing the point I was trying to make, that considering the Simson line is an excellent entry point to this problem because of the qualitative similarities in the statements. Dealing with the details is sometimes hard and sometimes not, and in this case it wasn’t, but that isn’t normally the main challenge.