I’ve recently been in Cambridge, running the UK’s annual training and selection camp for the International Mathematical Olympiad. My memories of living and studying in Cambridge are very pleasant, and it’s always nice to be back.
Within olympiad mathematics, the UK has traditionally experienced a weakness at geometry. By contrast to comparable nations, for example those from Eastern Europe, our high school curriculum does not feature much Euclidean geometry, except for the most basic of circle theorems and angle equalities, which normally end up as calculation exercises, rather than anything more substantial. So to arrive at the level required to be in with a chance of solving even the easier such questions at international competitions, our students have to do quite a lot of work for themselves.
I’ve spent a bit of time in the past couple of years thinking about this, and how best to help our students achieve this. The advice “go away and do as many problems as you can, building up to IMO G1, then a bit further” is probably good advice, but we have lots of camps and correspondence training, and I want to offer a bit more.
At a personal level, I’m coming from a pragmatic point of view. I don’t think Euclidean geometry is particularly interesting, even though it occasionally has elegant arguments. My main concern is taming it, and finding strategies for British students (or anyone else) to tame it too .
Anyway, I’m going to explain my strategy and thesis as outlined at the camp, then talk about Question 1 from EGMO 2017, a competition held in Zurich this year, the first paper of which was sat earlier today (at time of writing). The UK sent a strong team of four girls, and I’m looking forward to hearing all about their solutions and their adventures, but later. I had intended to talk about the other two questions too, but I can’t think of that much to say, so have put this at the end.
My proposed strategy
Before explaining my proposed strategy, let me discuss a couple of standard approaches that sometimes, but rarely, work at this level:
- Angle chase (or length chase) forwards directly from the configuration. Consider lots of intersection points of lines. Consider angles and lengths as variables, and try to find relations.
- Exactly as above, but working back from the conclusion.
- Doing both, and attempting to meet in the middle.
The reason why this doesn’t work is that by definition competitions are competitive, and all participants could probably do this. For similar reasons competition combinatorics problems tend not to reduce instantly to an exhaustive search.
It’s also not very interesting. I’m certainly unlikely to set a problem if it’s known to yield to such an approach. When students do try this approach, common symptoms and side-effects involve a lot of chasing round conditions that are trivially equivalent to conditions given in the statement. For example, if you’re given a cyclic quadrilateral, and you mark on opposing complementary angles, then chase heavily, you’ll probably waste a lot of time deducing other circle theorems which you already knew.
So actually less is more. You should trust that if you end up proving something equivalent to the required conclusion, you’ll notice. And if you are given a cyclic quadrilateral, you should think about what’s the best way to use it, rather than what are all the ways to use it.
On our selection test, we used a problem which essentially had two stages. In the first stage, you proved that a particular quadrilateral within the configuration was cyclic; and in the second stage, you used this to show the result. Each of these stages by themselves would have been an easy problem, suitable for a junior competition. What made this an international-level problem was that you weren’t told that these were the two stages. This is where a good diagram is useful. You might well guess from an accurate figure that TKAD was cyclic, even if you hadn’t constructed it super-accurately with ruler and compasses.
So my actual strategy is to think about the configuration and the conclusion separately, and try and conjecture intermediate results which might be true. Possibly such an intermediate result might involve an extra point or line. This is a standard way to compose problems. Take a detailed configuration, with some interesting properties within it, then delete as much as possible while keeping the properties. Knowing some standard configurations will be useful for this. Indeed, recognising parts of the original diagram which resemble known configurations (possibly plus or minus a point or line) is a very important first step in many settings.
Cyclic quadrilaterals and isosceles triangles are probably the simplest examples of such configurations. Think about how you often use properties of cyclic quadrilaterals without drawing in either the circle or its centre. The moral is that you don’t need every single thing that’s true about the configuration to be present on the diagram to use it usefully. If you know lots of configurations, you can do this sort of thing in other settings too. Some configurations I can think up off the top of my head include: 
- Parallelograms. Can be defined by corresponding angles, or by equal opposite lengths, or by midpoint properties of the centre. Generally if you have one of these definitions, you should strongly consider applying one of the other definitions!
- The angle bisector meets the opposite perpendicular bisector on the circumcircle.
- Simson’s line: the feet of the three perpendiculars from a point to the sides (extended if necessary) of a triangle are collinear precisely when the point is on the circumcircle.
- The incircle touch point and the excircle touch point are reflections of each other in the corresponding midpoint. Indeed, all the lengths in this diagram can be described easily.
- The spiral similarity diagram.
- Pairs of isogonal conjugates, especially altitudes and radii; and medians and symmedians.
Note, all of these can be investigated by straightforward angle/length-chasing. We will see how one configuration turned out to be very useful in EGMO. In particular, the configuration is simple, and its use in the problem is simple, but it’s the idea to focus on the configuration as often as possible that is key. It’s possible but unlikely you’d go for the right approach just by angle-analysis alone.
EGMO 2017 Question 1
Let ABCD be a convex quadilateral with <DAB=<BCD=90, and <ABC > <CDA. Let Q and R be points on segments BC and CD, respectively, such that line QR intersects lines AB and AB at points P and S, respectively. It is given that PQ=RS. Let the midpoint of BD be M, and the midpoint of QR be N. Prove that the points M, N, A and C lie on a circle.
First point: as discussed earlier, we understand cyclic quadrilaterals well, so hopefully it will be obvious once we know enough to show these four points are concyclic. There’s no point guessing at this stage whether we’ll do it by eg opposite angles, or by power of a point, or by explicitly finding the centre.
But let’s engage with the configuration. Here are some straightforward deductions.
- ABCD is cyclic.
- M is the centre.
We could at this stage draw in dozens of equal lengths and matching angles, but let’s not do that. We don’t know yet which ones we’ll need, so we again have to trust that we’ll use the right ones when the time comes.
What about N? If we were aiming to prove <AMC = <ANC, this might seem tricky, because we don’t know very much about this second angle. Since R and Q are defined (with one degree of freedom) by the equal length condition, it’s hard to pin down N in terms of C. However, we do know that N is the midpoint opposite C in triangle QCR, which has a right angle at C. Is this useful? Well, maybe it is, but certainly it’s reminiscent of the other side of the diagram. We have four points making up a right-angled triangle, and the midpoint of the hypotenuse here, but also at (A,B,D,M). Indeed, also at (C,B,D,M). And now also at (C,Q,R,N). This must be a useful subconfiguration right?
If you draw this subdiagram separately, you have three equal lengths (from the midpoint to every other point), and thus two pairs of equal angles. This is therefore a very rich subconfiguration. Again, let’s not mark on everything just yet – we trust we’ll work out how best to use it later.
Should we start angle-chasing? I think we shouldn’t. Even though we have now identified lots of potential extra pairs of equal angles, we haven’t yet dealt with the condition PQ=RS at all.
Hopefully as part of our trivial equivalences phase, we said that PQ=RS is trivially equivalent to PR=QS. Perhaps we also wrote down RN=NQ, and so it’s also trivially equivalent to PN=NS. Let’s spell this out: N is the midpoint of PS. Note that this isn’t how N was defined. Maybe this is more useful than the actual definition? (Or maybe it isn’t. This is the whole point of doing the trivial equivalences early.)
Well, we’ve already useful the original definition of N in the subconfiguration (C,Q,R,N), but we can actually also use the subconfiguration (A,P,S,N) too. This is very wordy and makes it sound complicated. I’ve coloured my diagram to try and make this less scary. In summary, the hypotenuse midpoint configuration appears four times, and this one is the least obvious. If you found it, great; if not, I hope this gave quite a lot of motivation. Ultimately, even with all the motivation, you still had to spot it.
Why is this useful? Because a few paragraphs earlier, I said “we don’t know very much about this second angle <ANC”. But actually, thanks to this observation about the subconfiguration, we can decompose <ANC into two angle, namely <ANP+<QNC which are the apex angle in two isosceles triangles. Now we can truly abandon ourselves to angle-chasing, and the conclusion follows after a bit of work.
I’m aware I’ve said it twice in the prelude, and once in this solution, but why not labour my point? The key here was that spotting that a subconfiguration appeared twice led you to spot that it appeared a further two times, one of which wasn’t useful, and one of which was very useful. The subconfiguration itself was not complicated. To emphasise its simplicity, I can even draw it in the snow:
Angle-chasing within the configuration is easy, even with hiking poles instead of a pen, but noticing it could be applied to point N was invaluable.
Question 2 – My instinct suggested the answer was three. I find it hard to explain why. I was fairly sure they wouldn’t have asked if it was two. Then I couldn’t see any reason why k would be greater than 3, but still finite. I mean, is it likely that is possible, but is not.
In any case, coming up with a construction for is a nice exercise, and presumably carried a couple of marks in the competition. My argument to show was not possible, and most arguments I discussed with others were not overwhelmingly difficult, but didn’t really have any key steps or insight, so aren’t very friendly in a blog context, and I’ll probably say nothing more.
Question 3 – Again, I find it hard to say anything very useful, because the first real thing I tried worked, and it’s hard to motivate why. I was confused how the alternating turn-left / turn-right condition might play a role, so I ignored it initially. I was also initially unconvinced that it was possible to return to any edge in any direction (ie it must escape off to infinity down some ray), but I was aware that both of these were too strong a loosening of the problem to be useful, in all likelihood.
Showing that you can go down an edge in one direction but not another feels like you’re looking for some binary invariant, or perhaps a two-colouring of the directed edges. I couldn’t see any way to colour the directed edges, so I tried two-colouring the faces, and there’s only one way to do this. Indeed, on the rare occasions (ahem) I procrastinate, drawing some lines then filling in the regions they form in this form is my preferred doodle. Here’s what it looks like:
and it’s clear that if the path starts with a shaded region on its right, it must always have a shaded region on its right. As I say, this just works, and I find it hard to motivate further.
A side remark is that it turns out that my first loosening is actually valid. The statement remains true with arbitrary changes of direction, rather than alternating changes. The second loosening is not true. There are examples where the trajectory is periodic. I don’t think they’re hugely interesting though, so won’t digress.
 – “To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world,” said the Fox to the Little Prince. My feelings on taming Euclidean geometry are not this strong yet.
 – Caveat. I’m not proposing learning a big list of standard configurations. If you do a handful of questions, you’ll meet all the things mentioned in this list several times, and a few other things too. At this point, your geometric intuition for what resembles what is much more useful than exhaustive lists. And if you’re anxious about this from a pedagogical point of view, it doesn’t seem to me to be a terribly different heuristic from lots of non-geometry problems, including in my own research. “What does this new problem remind me of?” is not unique to this area at all!
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