Characterising fixed points in geometry problems

There’s a risk that this blog is going to become entirely devoted to Euclidean geometry, but for now I’ll take that risk. I saw the following question on a recent olympiad in Germany, and I enjoyed it as a problem, and set it on a training sheet for discussion with the ten British students currently in contention for our 2017 IMO team.

Given a triangle ABC for which AB\ne AC. Prove there exists a point D\ne A on the circumcircle satisfying the following property: for any points M,N outside the circumcircle on rays AB, AC respectively, satisfying BM=CN, the circumcircle of AMN passes through D.

Proving the existence of a fixed point/line/circle which has a common property with respect to some other variable points/lines/circles is a common style of problem. There are a couple of alternative approaches, but mostly what makes this style of problem enjoyable is the challenge of characterising what the fixed point should be. Sometimes an accurate diagram will give us everything we need, but sometimes we need to be clever, and I want to discuss a few general techniques through the context of this particular question. I don’t want to make another apologia for geometry as in the previous post, but if you’re looking for the ‘aha moment’, it’ll probably come from settling on the right characterisation.

At this point, if you want to enjoy the challenge of the question yourself, don’t read on!

Reverse reconstruction via likely proof method

At some point, once we’ve characterised D in terms of ABC, we’ll have to prove it lies on the circumcircle of any AMN. What properties do we need it to have? Well certainly we need the angle relation BDC = A, but because MDAN will be cyclic too, we also need the angle relation MDN = A. After subtracting, we require angles MDB = NDC.

Depending on your configuration knowledge, this is all quite suggestive. At the very least, when you have equal angles and equal lengths, you might speculate that the corresponding triangles are congruent. Here that would imply BD=CD, which characterises D as lying on the perpendicular bisector of BC. D is also on the circumcircle, so in fact it’s also on the angle bisector of BAC, here the external angle bisector. This is a very common configuration (normally using the internal bisector) in this level of problem, and if you see this coming up without prompting, it suggests you’re doing something right.

So that’s the conjecture for D. And we came up with the conjecture based on a likely proof strategy, so to prove it, we really just need to reverse the steps of the previous two paragraphs. We now know BD=CD. We also know angles ABD = ACD, so taking the complementary angles (ie the obtuse bit in the diagram) we have angles DBM = DCN, so we indeed have congruent triangles. So we can read off angles MDB = NDC just as in our motivation, and recover that MDAN is cyclic.

Whatever other methods there are to characterise point D (to follow), all methods will probably conclude with an argument like the one in this previous paragraph, to demonstrate that D does have the required property.

Limits

We have one degree of freedom in choosing M and N. Remember that initially we don’t know what the target point D is. If we can’t see it immediately from drawing a diagram corresponding to general M and N, it’s worth checking some special cases. What special cases might be most relevant depends entirely on the given problem. The two I’m going to mention here both correspond to some limiting configuration. The second of these is probably more straightforward, and was my route to determining D. The first was proposed by one of my students.

First, we conjecture that maybe the condition that M and N lie outside the circumcircle isn’t especially important, but has been added to prevent candidates worrying about diagram dependency. The conclusion might well hold without this extra stipulation. Remember at this stage we’re still just trying to characterise D, so even if we have to break the rules to find it, this won’t damage the solution, since we won’t be including our method for finding D in our written-up solution!

Anyway, WLOG AC < AB. If we take N very close to A, then the distances BM and MA are c and b-c respectively. The circumcircle of AMN is almost tangent to line AC. At this point we stop talking about ‘very close’ and ‘almost tangent’ and just assume that N=A and the so the circle AMN really is the circle through M, tangent to AC at A. We need to establish where this intersects the circumcircle for a second time.

To be clear, I found what follows moderately tricky, and this argument took a while to find and was not my first attempt at all. First we do some straightforward angle-chasing, writing A,B,C for the measures of the angles in triangle ABC. Then the angle BDC is also A and angle BDA is 180-C. We also have the tangency relation from which the alternate segment theorem gives angle MDA = A. Then BDM = BDA – MDA = 180 – C – A = B. So we know the lengths and angles in the configuration BDAM.

At this point, I had to use trigonometry. There were a couple of more complicated options, but the following works. In triangle BDM, a length b is subtended by angle B, as is the case for the original triangle ABC. By the extended sine rule, BDM then has the same circumradius as ABC. But now the length BD is subtended by angle DMB in one of these circumcircles, and by DAB in the other. Therefore these angles are either equal or complementary (in the sense that they sum to 180). Clearly it must be the latter, from which we obtain that angles DMA = MAD = 90 – A/2. In other words, D lies on the external angle bisector of A, which is the characterisation we want.

Again to clarify, I don’t think this was a particularly easy or particularly natural argument for this exact problem, but it definitely works, and the idea of getting a circle tangent to a line as a limit when the points of intersection converge is a useful one. As ever, when an argument uses the sine rule, you can turn it into a synthetic argument with enough extra points, but of the options I can currently think of, I think this trig is the cleanest.

My original construction was this. Let M and N be very very far down the rays. This means triangle AMN is large and approximately isosceles. This means that the line joining A to the circumcentre of AMN is almost the internal angle bisector of MAN, which is, of course, also the angle bisector of BAC. Also, because triangle AMN is very large, its circumcircle looks, locally, like a line, and has to be perpendicular to the circumradius at A. In other words, the circumcircle of AMN is, near A, approximately line perpendicular to the internal angle bisector of BAC, ie the external angle bisector of BAC. My ‘aha moment’ factor on this problem was therefore quite high.

Direct arguments

A direct argument for this problem might consider a pairs of points (M,N) and (M’,N’), and show directly that the circumcircles of ABC, AMN and AM’N’ concur at a second point, ie are coaxal. It seems unlikely to me that an argument along these lines wouldn’t find involve some characterisation of the point of concurrency along the way.

Do bear in mind, however, that such an approach runs the risk of cluttering the diagram. Points M and N really weren’t very important in anything that’s happened so far, so having two pairs doesn’t add extra insight in any of the previous methods. If this would have been your first reaction, ask yourself whether it would have been as straightforward or natural to find a description of D which led to a clean argument.

Another direct argument

Finally, a really neat observation, that enables you to solve the problem without characterising D. We saw that triangles DBM and DCN were congruent, and so we can obtain one from the other by rotating around D. We say D is the centre of the spiral similarity (here in fact with homothety factor 1 ie a spiral congruence) sending BM to CN. Note that in this sort of transformation, the direction of these segments matters. A different spiral similarity sends BM to NC.

But let’s take any M,N and view D as this spiral centre. The transformation therefore maps line AB to AC and preserves lengths. So in fact we’ve characterised D without reference to M and N ! Since everything we’ve said is reversible, this means as M and N vary, the point we seek, namely D, is constant.

This is only interesting as a proof variation if we can prove that D is the spiral centre without reference to one of the earlier arguments. But we can! In general a point D is the centre of spiral similarity mapping BM to CN iff it is also the centre of spiral similarity mapping BC to MN. And we can find the latter centre of spiral similarity using properties of the configuration. A is the intersection of MB and CN, so we know precisely that the spiral centre is the second intersection point of the two circumcircles, exactly as D is defined in the question.

(However, while this is cute, it’s somehow a shame not to characterise D as part of a solution…)

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