EGMO 2018

Last week the UK held its annual training and selection camp in Cambridge. This week, four of the students have been attending the European Girls’ Mathematical Olympiad. 2018 is the seventh edition of this prestigious competition, and is being held in Florence.

You can find very many details about the competition, and observe the UK’s excellent performance (with particular congratulations to Emily, who obtained a perfect score) at the competition website. A short article about the team in the TES can be found here.

In this post, I’m going to muse on some of the problems. You can find the two papers here and here.

Problem Two

Part a) would have been more immediate if the set A had been defined as

A:= \left\{\frac{k+1}{k} \,:\, k=1,2,3,\ldots\right\},

as this is instantly suggestive of a telescoping product such as

7 = \frac{7}{6}\cdot \frac{6}{5}\cdot\ldots \cdot \frac{2}{1}.

I found part b) to be one of the most difficult sections of the paper. It builds on the idea that given an expression for x as a product of elements of A, and an expression for y as a product of elements of A, we can combine these (ie take the product of the products!) to get an expression for xy as a product of elements of A. This yields f(xy)\le f(x)+f(y), and so the task is to show that sometimes this isn’t the most efficient way to proceed.

I tried a couple of things, like trying to bound f(p) below when p is a prime. This wasn’t ludicrous, as one would certainly need to use a term \frac{kp}{kp-1} somewhere in the product so that it is divisible by p. However, this didn’t go anywhere, and nor did investigating f(n!). Perhaps others had more success down these avenues.

But as a general rule, if an abstractly-defined function is typically hard to calculate, then classes where you can calculate it are likely to be extra valuable. Here, powers of two make life particularly easy. We have 2\in A, and so 2^n=2\times 2\times\ldots\times 2 is a valid product. And we can’t possibly achieve 2^n as a product of fewer terms than this, because 2 is the largest element of A. So f(2^n)=n. Note that this is already way better than the bound we would have achieved from our argument in part a), which yields f(m)\le m-1.

My next observation was that a similar argument and a natural construction gives f(2^n+1)=n+1. But this can be extended so that when 2^n+1\le m\le 2^{n+1}, we have f(m)\ge n+1 and in fact there is equality exactly for

m= 2^n+1, 2^n+2, 2^n+4,\ldots, 2^n+2^{n-1},2^{n+1}. (*)

In particular, note that all of these are even except 2^n+1. It may well be the case that we don’t need this extension, but before you’ve solved the problem you don’t know how much you’ll have to extend each idea!

I had a feeling that this meant f(2^n+1) was a strong candidate to satisfy the requirements, and that almost any factorisation would work. I suspect many students at this point did some refinement of choice of n, but I want to stay abstract, and use the extended observation (*). Since 2^n+1 is certainly not always prime, let’s focus on the infinitely many values n where it has a factorisation as 2^n+1 = ab, and consider whether a or b can achieve equality at (*). We’d better introduce the notation

2^\alpha<a<2^{\alpha+1},\quad 2^\beta<b<2^{\beta+1}.

So ab> 2^{ab}+2^a+2^b+1, and so \alpha+\beta>n. But similarly, ab< 2^{\alpha+1}2^{\beta+1}, so \alpha+\beta<n+2. We obtain

\alpha+\beta+1=n,

which is kind of what I’d been hoping for when I started this analysis. Now, we have

f(a)\ge \alpha+1,\quad f(b)\ge \beta+1,

\Rightarrow\quad f(a)+f(b)\ge \alpha+\beta+2 = n+1, (**)

with equality precisely if a,b both satisfy the equality conditions at (*). But a,b are odd, and so we have equality at (**) precisely if a=2^\alpha+1,b=2^\beta+1. So we have a resolution to the problem whenever 2^n+1 can be non-trivially factorised in any way other than 2^n+1=(2^\alpha+1)(2^\beta+1), so we have a rich (and certainly infinite) class of suitable (x,y).

Problem Three

An obvious remark. The jury will never choose contestant i if she has fewer than contestants in front of her unless they are forced to. They are only forced to if everyone has this property. So we ignore the second dashed bullet point, as it just tells us when the process ends. And with a little further thought, the process ends exactly when the contestants are in correct order.

I suspect part a) of this may end up featuring on future examples of our interactive write-up clinic, where students are challenged to produce technically-correct arguments for obvious but awkward mini-problems. The location of contestant C_n is probably a good starting point.

For part b), you have to find an optimal construction, and prove that it’s optimal. At national and junior olympiad level, students often forget that they have to supply both of these components. At international level, the challenge is to work out which one gives the entry into the problem. I would say that about two-thirds of the time, either the optimal construction is very obvious, or is best attacked after you’ve had some insight into the bound. For this question (and again it’s just my opinion), I felt it was all about the construction. I made absolutely no progress by aiming for bounds. Whereas the construction offers plenty of insight into how to prove the bounds, and so once I had it, I found it quick.

The usual rules apply. An optimal construction is going to have to be neat to describe. It’s very unlikely to have millions of cases. Intuitively, it seems reasonable that starting the contestants in reverse order gives the jury the greatest possible ‘elbow room’ to squeeze moves into the procedure. Perhaps you tried to prove this directly, by coupling a procedure starting from arbitrary order with a corresponding procedure starting from reverse order? Well, I found that very hard, and perhaps you did too.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong construction! The key question is, what to do about contestant C_n? Well, essentially nothing. This contestant can never be moved. So when do we start allowing other contestants to pass her? It seemed natural to let the other contestants C_1,\ldots,C_{n-1} do as much as possible among themselves first. That is

\mathbf{C_n},C_{n-1},\ldots,C_2,C_1 \quad \Rightarrow\Rightarrow\Rightarrow \quad \mathbf{C_n}, C_1,C_2,\ldots,C_{n-1},

where \Rightarrow\Rightarrow\Rightarrow denotes lots of moves. At this point, what to do next stood out for me, namely that one could use \mathbf{C_n} at the start to put all the others back into reverse order, while moving \mathbf{C_n} to the back. That is

\mathbf{C_n},C_1,C_2,\ldots,C_{n-1}\quad\Rightarrow \quad C_1,\mathbf{C_n},C_2,\ldots,C_{n-1} \quad\Rightarrow\quad C_2,C_1,\mathbf{C_n},C_3,\ldots,C_{n-1}

\Rightarrow\Rightarrow \quad C_{n-1},C_{n-2},\ldots,C_2,C_1,\mathbf{C_n}.

You might have tried other things first, but once you notice this, you just know it has to be right. It’s just too elegant a construction, and it looks like the sort of thing one prove will be optimal, because the overall process

\mathbf{C_n},C_{n-1},\ldots,C_n\quad \Rightarrow\Rightarrow\Rightarrow \quad \mathbf{C_n},C_1,C_2,\ldots,C_{n-1}

\Rightarrow\Rightarrow\quad C_{n-1},\ldots,C_2,C_1,\mathbf{C_n}\quad\Rightarrow\Rightarrow\Rightarrow\quad C_1,C_2,\ldots,C_{n-1},\mathbf{C_n},

incorporates the corresponding process for n-1 (twice, in fact) and so induction is very accessible both for calculating the total number of moves. We conjecture that this is indeed the optimal process, and under this assumption, with f(n) the number of moves, we would have f(n) = f(n-1) + (n-1) + f(n-1), from the three stages of the process, from which, after looking at small values,

f(n)=2^n - (n+1).

I started by saying that the construction was the hard part of this problem. Well, that doesn’t mean the bound is easy. But at least with a construction in hand, you can make observations that might inform a bounding argument:

  • observation 1: contestant C_n never jumps;
  • observation 2: in the optimal construction, by induction C_{n-1} doesn’t jump in the outer phases, so in fact jumps only once, ie during the middle phase;
  • observation 3: contestant C_{n-2} doesn’t jump very often, and in fact can only jump after at least one of C_{n-1} and C_n have ended up in front of her. Since we’ve established that C_{n-1},C_n don’t jump very often themselves, this gives a bound on the number of times C_{n-2}.

There is still work to do here, and errors with \pm 1 could easily creep in. But I still hold fast to my original claim that the construction was the hard part here. Or at least, the rough form of the construction. I guess it’s possible that one would have started making observations like the three above without a construction in mind, but I think it’s unlikely. Anyway, I leave for you the final details of the bounding argument, which involves formally transcribing observation 3, proving it, then generalising it to jumps of C_{n-3} and so on.

Problem Four

One of the exercises I have been setting to UK students recently is to produce short solution digests, which manifest any key ideas of the solution abstractly and briefly enough to resonate in the future. I’m a little tired of domino tiling problems, so I’ll do one of these here. This will be slightly longer than if I were not writing for a (small) audience.

Double-counting the total value by rows/columns and by dominos shows there are \frac{2kn}{3} dominos in a balanced configuration. When n=3, we can achieve k=1, and by tiling copies of this down the main diagonal, can extend to 3\,|\,n. For 3\not|\,n, we must have 3\,|\,k ie k\ge 3, but in fact k=3 is achievable, by tiling the main diagonal with copies of small boards for which k=3 can be constructed with a bit of trial-and-error.

The double-counting idea at the start is the nice part of the problem. The construction is a bit annoying, but saving ourselves work by building up large examples from copies of small examples is a useful motif to have in mind.

Problem Six

This question has lots of clues in the statement. It would, for example, be pretty surprising if the answer were ‘no’ to part b) given the setup in part a).

My confession is that I wasted lots of time on part a) not using the option m=0, which was foolish given that it’s clued from part b) that one needs to use the option m=0. My thought had been to consider some integer y, and ask which integers x were banned (if we were aiming for contradiction in part a)). For part a), it gets harder if t is smaller, so I found it helpful to think of t as \epsilon\ll 1. Anyway, if you struggled on part a), maybe worth reviewing whether you were definitely trying to solve part a), and not accidentally using the setup that really addressed part b)!

Some people have shown me solutions to part a) that carry an air of magic, by placing all the key steps (such as (*) to follow) in the language of the original setup. Let’s try to be cleaner. The key is to consider m=0. Since m=0 is included, we know that whenever x<y, we must have

\epsilon y \le x \le (1-\epsilon)y. (*)

Maybe you just have a gut feeling that this can’t be possible if you have enough xs and ys? But either way, choosing to focus on (*) is the key step, because once you know you have to prove the result based on this, it’s not too hard. I prefer addition to multiplication, so one might as well take logs (since does it really look like we’re going to use heavily the integer property now?) to obtain

\alpha\le |z_i - z_j|\le \beta,

for all z_i,z_j in some large finite collection, where 0<\alpha<\beta. You should now have a strong gut feeling that this is impossible. You have an arbitrarily large collection of real numbers which have to be close to each other pairwise, but never too close pairwise. How to finish the argument is a matter of taste.

For part b), assuming we’re aiming for the answer ‘yes’, we probably want to construct it one step at a time, and you want to think of t\approx \frac12 to make life as hard as possible.

Now, suppose you have x_1,x_2,\ldots,x_n so far. What next? Well if we could have

x_{n+1} \equiv \frac{x_i}{2}\,\mod x_i,

for all i=1,\ldots,n, that would be perfect. We can often solve sets of coupled residue equations like this using the Chinese Remainder Theorem. (Recall of course that the solutions themselves are rarely important – the fact that they exist is enough!) A couple of things go wrong with trying this crudely:

  • If x_i is odd, then \frac{x_i}{2} is not an integer…
  • If we correct this by asking for x_{n+1}\equiv \lfloor\frac{x_i}{2}\rfloor\,\mod x_i, then there’s a chance we might still be within the t-window around a multiple of x_i.
  • Unless we are going to make complicated demands on the residues, to use CRT it would be easier if all the x_is were coprime.

One option is to give up. But actually all these objections can be handled with fairly small alterations. Can you see how the second objection can be overcome by an appropriate choice of x_1? Remember that t is fixed right at the start, and cannot be equal to 1/2. Is the third objection actually an objection any more? If it is, can we fix it?

Anyway, I guess P6 was my favourite non-geometry question on the paper, though, that’s far from relevant. P5 was pretty neat too, but who knows whether a follow-up geometry post will materialise soon.

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BMO2 2018

The second round of the British Mathematical Olympiad was taken yesterday by the 100 or so top scoring eligible participants from the first round, as well as some open entries. Qualifying for BMO2 is worth celebrating in its own right. The goal of the setters is to find the sweet spot of difficult but stimulating for the eligible participants, which ultimately means it’s likely to be the most challenging exam many of the candidates sit while in high school, at least in mathematics.

I know that lots of students view BMO2 as something actively worth preparing for. As with everything, this is a good attitude in moderation. Part of the goal in writing about the questions at such length (and in particular not just presenting direct solutions) is because I think at this level it’s particularly easy to devote more time than needed to preparation, and use it poorly.

All these questions could be solved by able children. In fact, each could be solved by able children in less than an hour. You definitely count as an able child if you qualified or if your teacher allowed you to make an open entry! Others count too naturally. But most candidates won’t in fact solve all the questions, and many won’t solve any. And I think candidates often come up with the wrong reasons why they didn’t solve problems. “I didn’t know the right theorems” is very very rarely the reason. Olympiad problems have standard themes and recurring tropes, but the task is not to look at the problem and decide that it is an example of Olympiad technique #371. The task is actually to have as many ideas as possible, and eliminate the ones that don’t work as quickly as possible.

The best way to realise that an idea works is to solve the problem immediately. For the majority of occasions when we’re not lucky enough for that to happen, the second-best way to realise that an idea works is to see that it makes the problem look a bit more like something familiar. Conversely, the best way to realise that an idea doesn’t work is to observe that if it worked it would solve a stronger but false problem too. (Eg Fermat’s Last Theorem *does* have solutions over the reals…) The second-best way to realise that an idea doesn’t work is to have the confidence that you’ve tried it enough and you’ve only made the problem harder, or less familiar.

Both of these second-best ideas do require a bit of experience, but I will try to explain why none of the ideas I needed for various solutions this year required any knowledge beyond the school syllabus, some similarities to recent BMOs, and a small bit of creativity.

As usual, the caveat that these are not really solutions, and certainly not official solutions, but they are close enough to spoil the problems for anyone who hasn’t tried them by themselves already. Of course, the copyright for the problems is held by BMOS, and reproduced here with permission.

Question One

I wrote this question. Perhaps as a focal point of the renaissance of my interest in geometry, or at least my interest in teaching geometry, I have quite a lot to say about the problem, its solutions, its origin story, the use of directed angles, the non-use of coordinate methods and so on. In an ideal world I would write a book about this sort of thing, but for now, a long and separate post is the answer.

This will be available once I’ve successfully de-flooded my apartment.

Question Two

I also wrote this problem, though I feel it’s only fair to show the version I submitted to the BMO committee. All the credit for the magical statement that appears above lies with them. There is a less magical origin story as well, but hopefully with some interesting combinatorial probability, which is postponed until the end of this post.One quick observation is that in my version Joe / Hatter gets to keep going forever. As we shall see, all the business happens in the first N steps, but a priori one doesn’t know that, and in my version it forces you to strategise slightly differently for Neel / Alice. In the competition version, we know Alice is done as soon as she visits a place for a second time, but not in the original. So in the original we only have to consider ‘avoid one place’ rather than the multiple possibilities now of ‘avoid one place’ or ‘visit a place again’.

But I think the best idea is to get Alice to avoid one particular place c\not\equiv 0 whenever possible. At all times she has two possible options for where to go next, lets say b_k+a_k, b_k-a_k in the language of the original statement. We lose nothing by assuming -N/2 < a_k\le N/2, and certainly it would be ridiculous for Joe / Hatter ever to choose a_k=0. The only time Alice’s strategy doesn’t work is when both of these are congruent to c, which implies N\,|\, 2a_k, and thus we must have N= 2a_k. In other words, Alice’s strategy will always work if N is odd.

I think it’s really worth noticing that the previous argument is weak. We certainly did not show that N must be odd for Alice to win. We showed that Alice can avoid a congruence class modulo an odd integer. We didn’t really need that odd integer to be N for this to work. In particular, if N has an odd factor p (say a prime), then the same argument works to show that we can avoid visiting any site with label congruent to 1 modulo p.

It’s actually very slightly more complicated. In the original argument, we didn’t need to use any property of b_k. But obviously here, if b_k\equiv 1 modulo p and p\,|\,a_k, then certainly b_{k+1}\equiv 1 modulo p. So we have to prove instead that Alice can ensure she never ‘visits 1 modulo p for the first time’. Which is fine, by the same argument.

So, we’ve shown that Neel / Alice wins if N is odd, or has an odd factor. The only values that remain are powers of 2. I should confess that I was genuinely a little surprised that Joe / Hatter wins in the power of 2 case. You can find a construction fairly easily for N=2 and N=4, but I suspected that might be a facet of small numbers. Why? Because it still felt we could avoid a particular site. In order for Alice’s strategy to fail, we have to end up exactly opposite the particular site at exactly the time when the next a_k=N/2, and so maybe we could try to avoid that second site as well, and so on backwards?

But that turned out to be a good example of something that got very complicated quite quickly with little insight. And, as discussed at the beginning, that’s often a sign in a competition problem that your idea isn’t so good. (Obviously, when composing a problem, that’s no guarantee at all. Sometimes things are true but no good ideas work.) So we want other ideas. Note that for N=4, the sequence (2,1,2) works for Joe / Hatter, because that forces Alice / Neel to visit either (0,2,1,3) or (0,2,3,1). In particular, this strategy gave Alice no control on the first step nor the last step, and the consequence is that we force her to visit the evens first, then transfer to an odd, and then force her to visit the other odd.

We might play around with N=8, or we might proceed directly to a general extension. If we have a Joe / Hatter strategy for N, then by doubling all the a_ks, we have a strategy for 2N which visits all the even sites in the first N steps. But then we can move to an odd site eg by taking a_N=1. Just as in the N=4 case, it doesn’t matter which odd site we start from, since if we again double all the a_ks, we will visit all the other odd sites. This gives us an inductive construction of a strategy for powers of two. To check it’s understood, the sequence for N=8 is (4,2,4,1,4,2,4).

Although we don’t use it, note that this strategy takes Alice on a tour of sites described by decreasing order of largest power of two dividing the label of the site.

Question Three

I have a theory that the average marks on Q1, Q2 and Q3 on this year’s paper will be in ascending order rather than, as one might expect, descending order. I think my theory will fail because it’s an unavoidable fact of life that in any exam, candidates normally start at the beginning, and don’t move to the middle until making earlier progress. But I think that’s the only reason my theory will fail.

Like kitchen cleanliness or children’s character flaws, it’s hard to compare one’s own problem proposals with others’ rationally. But I felt that, allowing for general levels of geometry non-preference, Q3 was more approachable than Q2, especially to any candidate who’d prepared by looking at some past papers.

I’m in no way a number theorist, but I know three or four common themes when one is asked to prove that a certain sequence contains no squares, or almost no squares. [3a]

  • Number theoretic properties of the sequence of squares. Squares cannot be 3 modulo 4 for example. They also cannot be 2 modulo 4, and thus they also cannot be 2^{k-1} modulo 2^k for any even k. This first observation was essentially the body of most solutions to Q4 of BMO1 2016, among many others.
  • Soft properties of the sequence of squares. The sequence of squares grows quadratically. Sometimes we can show a quadratic sequence will have no overlap with some other sequence for basic reasons. This is especially common if the second sequence is also quadratic or similar. For example, the expression n^2+3n-4 is typically not a square because

(n+1)^2 = n^2+2n+1 < n^2 + 3n - 4 < n^2+4n+4 = (n+2)^2,

  • when n is large. In fact the right hand inequality is always true, and the left hand inequality is true for n\ge 6, which doesn’t leave too many cases to check (and n=5 does actually give a square). This type of argument has been quite common on BMO recently, directly on Q1 of BMO1 2011 and also Q3 of BMO1 2016. An example in a more abstract setting is Q3 of Balkan MO 2007, which I greatly enjoyed at the time…
  • Number theoretic properties of the definition of a square. A square is the product of an integer with itself, and so if we want the product of two or more integers to be a square, then this imposes conditions on the shared factors of the two integers. I’ll cite some examples shortly.
  • Huge theorems. Some old paper which I encountered as a child asked us to find all solutions to x^2-1=2^y. Or similar – I can’t find it now – but Q2 of BMO2 2006 is close enough to the sensible approach to the problem. I think it’s more helpful to think about this as proving that a particular sequence rarely includes powers of two than that a particular sequence rarely includes squares. But either way, one could in principle use the Catalan conjecture, which controls all non-trivial solutions to a^p - b^q=1. Fortunately, the Catalan conjecture was proved, by Mihailescu (readable blog about it), between the paper being set, and me attempting it a few years later. I’m being flippant. This is not a standard trope in solving these questions. For very obvious reasons. If it can be killed by direct reference to a known theorem, it won’t be set.

Anyway, those references (and more to follow) are to illuminate why I thought this question was not too hard. Indeed, I feel one can make substantial meta-progress in your head. The given information is interesting, but for the purpose of this question is just a black box. By subtracting the expression for m from the expression for 2m, we can derive an expression for the required sum. It’ll be a quartic in m, because the leading terms won’t cancel.

This leaves all three of the methods above very accessible. Unfortunately m=0 would be a square were it not excluded specifically, so a modular arithmetic approach is unlikely to work directly. Bounding between two quadratics is entirely plausible, as is factorising and comparing number theoretic properties of the factors. I thought the second one seemed more promising, but either way, having two potentially good ideas based only on recent BMO problems before even writing anything down is a good opening.

We do have to calculate the sum, and I make it \frac{1}{4}m^2(5m+3)(3m+1). Now I’m not so sure how to bound this between two quadratics, because the leading coefficient is 15/4, which is not the square of a rational. But the factor analysis approach is definitely on.

Let’s review this generally. Throughout, suppose m,n are positive integers.

Claim 1: if mn is a square, then m and n are squares too.

Claim 2: if mn is a square, then m=n.

Both of these claims are false. However, a version of Claim 1 is true.

Claim 1′: if mn is a square, and m,n are coprime, then each is a square.

Even though this isn’t a named theorem, it is true, and well-known and can be used without proof. One way to prove it is to write m,n as products of primes, and show that since the primes are disjoint, the exponents must all be even. Most other methods will be equivalent to this, maybe with less notation.

What is good about Claim 1′ is that more complicated versions are true for for essentially similar reasons. For example

Claim 3: if mn is 6k^2, and m,n are coprime, then either one is a square and the other is six times a square; or one is two times a square, and the other is three times a square.

Claim 4: if mn is a square, and the greatest common divisor (m,n) is either 5 or 1, then either each is a square, or each is five times a square.

I cited some examples of the other methods I proposed. Here are some examples of this sort of thing in recent BMOs:

  • Q4 of BMO2 2016. Even the statement is suggestive. There are more complicated routes, but showing that (2p-u-v)(2p+u+v) is a square is one way to proceed, and then Claim 4 directly applies after checking a gcd.
  • Q2 of BMO1 2014 is similar, but it is much more explicit that this is the correct approach. Expose p^2 then use a (correct) version of Claim 2.
  • Q1 of BMO2 2009. Show that a and b must each be a square times 41 for rationality reasons.
  • Q6 of BMO1 2006. After sensible focused substitutions, obtain 3n^2=q(q-1). Rather than try to ‘solve’ this, extract the key properties along the lines of Claim 3, eliminate one of the cases by modular arithmetic, and return to the required statement.
  • Q3 of BMO2 2010 requires the student to reproduce the essentials of the arguments above in the case of a particular degree six polynomial with a tractable factorisation, along with some mild square-sandwiching or bounding arguments as discussed earlier.

In conclusion, I’m trying to say that if I claim I am confident I can find all integers m such that \frac14 m^2(5m+3)(3m+1) is a square, this is not based on complicated adult experience, but rather on recent problems at a similar sensible level. And I still don’t think it counts as Olympiad technique #371 – thinking about divisibility of factors is a good thing to do when talking about integers, and so it’s just a natural entry point into problems about squares. Plenty of problems might have this sort of thing as a starting point or an ending point.

For this problem we need a different ending point. To be brief, the factors (5m+3) and (3m+1) cannot both be squares because 5m+3 is never a square. So since the gcd of these factors is 1, 2 or 4, the only other option is that they are both squares times 2. And because -1 is not a square modulo 3, so 1 is not a (square times 2) modulo 3, and we are done. Note that this was a literal example of the first technique for proving something is not a square, proposed all the way back at the start of this section.

Footnotes

[3a] – some common themes for proving that sequences do include squares might be comparison with Pell’s Equations, or comparison with the explicit construction of solutions to Pythagoras’s equation.

Question Four

An example of an absorbing function is f(x)=\lfloor x\rfloor. One challenge is thinking of many other examples. This one is fine, but it’s true under replacing 2018 by 1 in the statement, and so it doesn’t really capture the richness of the situation.

Notation: the pre-image of a function is the language used to describe the inverse of a function which doesn’t have a uniquely-defined inverse. That is, if f is not injective, and multiple arguments have the output. We write f^{-1}(y)=\{x: f(x)=y\}. In particular, this is a set of values, not necessarily a single value. We also use \mathbb{Z} to denote the integers. We can apply pre-images to sets as well. So for example f^{-1}(\mathbb{Z})=\{x : f(x)\in \mathbb{Z}\}.

This question is tricky, and I will be surprised to see many full solutions from the eligible candidates. It rewards the sort of organisation and clear-thinking that is easier said than done in a time-pressured contest environment. There are also many many possible things to consider, and so is particularly challenging in the short timeframe of BMO2 as opposed to, for example, appearing as the middle question on a 4.5 hour international-level paper.

At a meta-level we are being asked to confirm or deny the existence of absorbing functions where f^{-1}(\mathbb{Z}) is small in some sense, firstly when actually having finite size, secondly when, although infinite, being a small sort of infinite, namely spread out in a sparse, well-ordered way (you might say countable if familiar with that language). The general idea is presumably that it’s hard to be absorbing if the pre-image of the integers is small, and so it’s reasonable to assume that it’s too hard if this is finite; but perhaps not quite too hard if it’s merely countable. So (no, yes) is a sensible guess at the answer to the question, though (no, no) might also fit, maybe with a harder argument for the second no.

Ok, instead of trying a) or b), just play with the configuration. Let A=f^{-1}(\mathbb{Z}). We will use this frequently. In the picture below, f maps the real line on top to the real line below. If two reals get mapped to the same image, then whether or not the image is an integer, the whole (closed) interval bounded by the two reals also gets mapped to the same image. This is because f is weakly increasing.

This means that A consists of various intervals (which include single points). But in both a) and b) we know that A is ‘small’, and so it cannot contain any intervals of positive length. So in fact A is a set of separated real values. In the case of a) it’s a finite set.

Do we want to try and iterate this, and look at f^{-1}(A)? Well maybe, but we don’t know much about about pre-images of A, only about pre-images of \mathbb{Z}.

But note that the pre-image of the pre-image of the … of the pre-image [2017 times] of A must be the whole real line, so at some point, some value has a pre-image that is an interval. So if we’re guessing that the answer to b) is yes, then we need to give a construction.

\mathbb{R} \stackrel{f}\longrightarrow ?? \stackrel{f}\longrightarrow\quad\ldots\quad \stackrel{f}\longrightarrow ??\stackrel{f}\longrightarrow A \stackrel{f}\longrightarrow f(A)\subset \mathbb{Z}.

If you play around for a bit, it seems very unlikely to be absorbing if the integers don’t get mapped to the integers. You can try to prove this, but at the moment we’re just aiming for a construction, so let’s assume f(\mathbb{Z})\subset \mathbb{Z}. It would be convenient if f(n)=n for all n\in \mathbb{Z}, but we already know that this won’t work because then the pre-image of the pre-image of the… of \mathbb{Z} is always \mathbb{Z}, but we need it to be \mathbb{R}.

The ideal situation would be if A= \mathbb{Z}\cup \{\ldots, a'_{-1},a'_0,a'_1,\ldots\}, where the pre-image of \{\ldots, a'_{-1},a_0,a'_1,\ldots\} is pretty much everything.

Informally, we are specifically banned from mapping intervals directly onto an integer. So have an intermediate set, and try to map almost everything (except the integers and the set itself) onto that set, so and map that set into the integers.

At this point, you really just have to have the right idea and finish it. Many things will work, but this seems the easiest to me. Let the set A consist of the integers and the (integers plus 1/2). And for x\in A, f(x)=2x. This is what f looks like so far.

Here the black crosses are integers, and the purple crosses are (integers plus 1/2). But now we need to make as many reals as possible in the top row map to a purple cross (which is allowed, because purple crosses aren’t integers), but we need also to preserve the weakly increasing property. Fortunately, we can exactly do that. Each cross of either colour in the top row maps to a black cross in the middle row (ie an integer), so we can map the open interval between crosses in the top row to a purple cross in the middle row. As shown in red:

Note that this is consistent. The fact that I haven’t drawn in the red cones into the bottom row is only because I didn’t use the bottom row to motivate doing this. I’ve shown a consistent definition of f that maps all the reals onto the integers in two steps. If it’s an integer to begin with, that was great; if it was an (integer plus 1/2) to begin with then it becomes an integer in one step and stays an integer; and otherwise it first maps to an (integer plus 1/2), and then to an integer in the second step.

To check you’ve understood, try to write down a standalone definition of this function.

I’ve therefore solved part b) with the alternative condition \ldots a_{-1}<a_0<a_1<a_2<\ldots which isn’t exactly as required. It requires one small and simple idea to convert to a solution to the actual statement. See if you can find it yourself!

I think part a) is harder, not because the solution will look more complicated, but because there are so many potential partial results you could try to prove, because there are so many sets you could consider. To name a few: the image of f, the image of f intersected with \mathbb{Z}, the image of \mathbb{Z}, the 2018-composition image f^{2018}(\mathbb{R}), the 2018-composition image f^{2018}(\mathbb{Z}) and so on and so forth. You might have good insight into the wrong things.

For me, the crucial observation (which you can see from the figure in the b) construction) is that when composing an increasing function with itself, the ‘trajectories’ are either increasing or decreasing. That is, if x\le f(x) (respectively, x\ge f(x)), then x\le f(x)\le f^2(x)\le f^3(x)\le\ldots (respectively x\ge f(x)\ge f^2(x)\ge \ldots). Again, you can think of this as Olympiad technique #371 if you insist, but I don’t think that’s helpful. There are lots of things one could try to say here, and this turns out to be natural, true and useful, but you can’t know it’s useful until you play with it.

Anyway, we’re playing with part a), and we know that f^k(x) is an integer for all large enough k, and that f^{k+1}(x) is also an integer, so f^k(x) is one of a finite set of integers because of the condition on A. But we’ve seen the sequence x,f(x),f^2(x),\ldots is weakly increasing or weakly decreasing, and so if we also know it’s eventually bounded (because eventually it’s in this finite set) then it must eventually be constant. And this constant is one of the integers, say n. But unless we started from n, this means that f(n)=n, but also f(x)=n for some other real value x. And so exactly as at the very very beginning, that’s bad, because then the whole interval [x,n] gets mapped to n, which is a contradiction.

Question Two – Origin story

The origin story for Q2 started in a talk I heard by Renan Gross at Weizmann, who referenced some of the history of Scenery Reconstruction. Roughly speaking, we colour the integers (say with two colours), and then let loose a random walker, who tells us the sequence of colours she observes during her walk, but no other information about the walk itself.

How much information can we recover about the colouring? Obviously, the best we can hope for is to recover the colouring, up to translations and reflection, since for every possible random walk trajectory, the exact reflection is equally probable, and we are given no information about the starting point.

Since lots of the transitions between recoverable and unrecoverable depend on the periodicity of the colouring, a reasonable toy model is to do it on a cycle. Note that the Strong Law of Large Numbers tells us that we almost surely recover the number of black sites and white sites from an the infinite trajectory of the random walk. Of course it’s possible that there are only two black vertices, and they are adjacent, and the walker oscillates between them, thus seeing BBBBBB… But this is extremely unlikely. You could think of this in Bayesian terms as strongly increasing the prior on the whole cycle being black, but I think initially it’s best to do this as an infinite-time, SLLN problem not as finite time WLLN/CLT reweightings of anything.

But what more? It’s clear that the lengths of all black substrings should follow some mixed geometric-ish distribution, and this distribution will almost surely wash out as the empirical distribution in an SLLN sense. But it’s tricky to justify why such a mixed geometric-ish distribution should be uniquely determined by the lengths of black arcs in the cycle. But it does definitely feel like we should have enough information to reconstruct the colouring up to reflection/rotation with probability one. For example, analogously to the number of black vertices and the number of white vertices, we should be able to recover the number of adjacent black vertices, the number of adjacent white vertices, and the number of black-white adjacent vertices, and so on.

Anyway, this can be done, and it follows as a consequence of various authors’ work answering some more general conjectures of Benjamini and, separately, of den Hollander and Keane. Douglas Howard [DH] shows a handful of generalisations of this, as do Benjamini and Kesten [BK]. Most of this work is focused on sceneries on \mathbb{Z}, but periodic sceneries are often used as a basis, and of course, the only difference between periodic sceneries on \mathbb{Z} and sceneries on the N-cycle are whether you know the period in advance. [BK] show that ‘almost all’ sceneries are distinguishable in a particular sense, in response to which Lindenstrauss [L99] exhibits a large family of sceneries which are not distinguishable. A readable but technical review is [ML].

So Renan’s talk was about the similar problem (and generalisations) on the hypercube [GG]. Rather than paraphrase the main differences badly, you can read his own excellent blog post about the work.

On the train back to Haifa from Rehovot, I was thinking a bit about the cycle case, and what happens if you generalise the random walk with varying jump lengths, or indeed introduce a demon walker, whose goal is to make it as hard as possible for the reviewer to deduce the colouring. One way this can certainly happen is if the walker can avoid visiting some particular site, as then how could one possibly deduce the colour of the never-visited site? And so we get to the statement posed.

References

[BK] – Benjamini, Kesten, 1996 – Distinguishing sceneries by observing the scenery along a random walk path

[dH] – den Hollander, 1988 – Mixing properties for random walk in random scenery

[DH] – Douglas Howard, 1996 – Detecting defects in periodic scenery by random walks on Z

[GG] – Grupel, Gross, 2017 – Indistinguishable sceneries on the Boolean hypercube

[L99] – Lindenstrauss, 1999 – Indistinguishable sceneries

[ML] – Matzinger, Lember, 2003 – Scenery reconstruction: an overview [link]

 

BMO1 2017 – Questions 5 and 6

The first round of the British Mathematical Olympiad was sat yesterday. The questions can be found here and video solutions here. My comments on the first four questions are in the previous post.

Overall, I didn’t think any of the questions on this paper were unusually difficult by the standard of BMO1, but I found everything slightly more time-consuming than typical. I thought Question 5 was a great problem, and I tried lots of things unsuccessfully, first, and so wanted to discuss it in slightly more technical language. For Question 6 I made a decisive mistake, which I’ll explain, and which cost a lot of time. But in general, my point is that the back end of the paper was a little fiddlier than normal, and required longer written solutions, and perhaps many students might have had less time than expected to attack them anyway after details earlier in the paper.

Question Five

As I said before, I thought this question was quite challenging. Not because the solution is particularly exotic or complicated, but because there were so many possible things that might have worked. In my opinion it would not have been out of place at the start of an IMO paper, because it’s perfectly possible to have enough good ideas that eliminating the ones that don’t work takes an hour, or hours. Even though it slightly spoils the flow of the solution, I’m particularly trying to emphasise the tangents that didn’t work, mostly for reassurance to anyone who spent a long time struggling.

I was thinking about this question in terms of a 2Nx2N board, where N is even, and for the given question equal to 100. I spent a while thinking that the bound was 8N-4, corresponding to taking the middle two rows and the middle two columns, but not the 2×2 square which is their intersection. If you think of a comb as a ‘handle’ of 1xN cells, with an extra N/2 alternating cells (say, ‘teeth’) bolted on, then it’s clear this construction works because there’s never space to fit in a handle, let alone the teeth.

I couldn’t prove that this was optimal though. A standard way to prove a given bound K was optimal would be to produce a tiling on the board with K combs, where every cell is included in exactly one comb. But this is clearly not possible in this situation, since the number of cells in a comb (which is 150) does not divide the total number of cells on the board.

Indeed, the general observation that if you take a comb and a copy of the comb rotated by 180, the teeth of the second comb can mesh perfectly with the teeth of the first comb to generate a 3xN unit. I wasted a moderate amount of time pursuing this route.

[Note, it will be obvious in a minute why I’m writing ‘shaded’ instead of ‘coloured’.]

But in motivating the construction, I was merely trying to shade cells so that they intersected every possible 1xN handle, and maybe I could prove that it was optimal for this. In fact, I can’t prove it’s optimal because it isn’t optimal – indeed it’s clear that a handle through one of the middle rows intersects plenty of shaded cells, not just one. However, with this smaller problem in mind, it didn’t take long to come up with an alternative proposal, namely splitting the board into equal quarters, and shading the diagonals of each quarter, as shown.

It seems clear that you can’t fit in a 1xN handle, and any sensible tiling with 1xN handles contains exactly one shaded cell, so this shading (with 4N shaded cells) is optimal. But is it optimal for a comb itself?

Consider a shading which works, so that all combs include a shaded cell. It’s clear that a comb is contained within a 2xN block, and in such a 2xN block, there are four possible combs, as shown.

You need to cover all these combs with some shading somewhere. But if you put the shaded cell on a tooth of comb A, then you haven’t covered comb B. And if you put the shaded cell on the handle of comb A, then you haven’t covered one of comb C and comb D. You can phrase this via a colouring argument too. If you use four colours with period 2×2, as shown

then any comb involves exactly three colours, and so one of them misses out the colour of the shaded cell. (I hope it’s clear what I mean, even with the confusing distinction between ‘shaded’ and ‘coloured’ cells.)

Certainly we have shown that any 2xN block must include at least two shaded cells. And that’s pretty much it. We have a tiling with 2N copies of a 2xN block, and with at least two shaded cells in each, that adds to at least 4N shaded cells overall.

Looking back on the method, we can identify another way to waste time. Tiling a board, eg a chessboard with dominos is a classic motif, which often relies on clever colouring. So it’s perhaps lucky that I didn’t spot this colouring observation earlier. Because the argument described really does use the local properties of how the combs denoted A-D overlap. An attempt at a global argument might start as follows: we can identify 2N combs which don’t use colour 1, and tile this subset of the grid with them, so we need to shade at least 2N cells from colours {2,3,4}. Similarly for sets of colours {1,3,4}, {1,2,4}, and {1,2,3}. But if we reduce the problem to this, then using roughly 2N/3 of each colour fits this global requirement, leading to a bound of 8N/3, which isn’t strong enough. [1]

Question Six

A word of warning. Sometimes it’s useful to generalise in problems. In Q5, I was thinking in terms of N, and the only property of N I used was that it’s even. In Q4, we ignored 2017 and came back to it at the end, using only the fact that it’s odd. By contrast, in Q2, the values did turn out to be important for matching the proof bounds with a construction.

You have to guess whether 300 is important or not here. Let’s see.

I have a natural first question to ask myself about the setup, but some notation is useful. Let a_1,a_2,\ldots,a_{300} be the ordering of the cards. We require that \frac{a_1+\ldots+a_n}{n} is an integer for every 1\le n\le 300. Maybe the values of these integers will be important, so hold that thought, but for now, replace with the divisibility statement that n | a_1+\ldots+a_n.

I don’t think it’s worth playing with small examples until I have a better idea whether the answer is 5 or 295. So the natural first question is: “what does it mean to have (a_1,\ldots,a_{n-1}) such that you can’t pick a suitable a_n?”

It means that there is no integer k in \{1,\ldots,300\}\backslash\{a_1,\ldots,a_{n-1}\} such that n\,\big|\,(a_1+\ldots+a_{n-1})+k, which for now we write as

k\equiv -(a_1+\ldots+a_{n-1})\,\mod n.

Consider the congruence class of -(a_1+\ldots+a_{n-1}) modulo n. There are either \lfloor \frac{300}{n}\rfloor or \lceil \frac{300}{n}\rceil integers under consideration in this congruence class. If no such k exists, then all of the relevant integers in this congruence class must appear amongst \{a_1,\ldots,a_{n-1}\}. At this stage, we’re trying to get a feel for when this could happen, so lower bounds on n are most relevant. Therefore, if we get stuck when trying to find a_n, we have

\lfloor \frac{300}{n} \rfloor\text{ or }\lceil \frac{300}{n}\rceil \le n-1, (*)

which is summarised more succinctly as

\lfloor \frac{300}{n} \rfloor \le n-1. (**)

[Note, with this sort of bounding argument, I find it helpful to add intermediate steps like (*) in rough. The chance of getting the wrong direction, or the wrong choice of \pm 1 is quite high here. Of course, you don’t need to include the middle step in a final write-up.]

We can check that (**) is false when n\le 17 and true when n\ge 18. Indeed, both versions of (*) are true when n\ge 18.

So we know the minimum failure length is at least 17. But is there a failing sequence of length 17? At a meta-level, it feels like there should be. That was a very natural bounding argument for 17 (which recall corresponds to n=18), and it’s easy to believe that might be part of an official solution. If we achieve equality throughout the argument, that’s most of the way to a construction as well. It won’t be so easy to turn this argument into a construction for n\ge 19 because there won’t be equality anywhere.

We have to hope there is a construction for n=18. What follows is a description of a process to derive (or fail to derive) such a construction. In a solution, one would not need to give this backstory.

Anyway, in such a construction, let \alpha\in\{1,2,\ldots,18\} describe the congruence class modulo 18 which is exhausted by \{a_1,\ldots,a_{17}\}. I’m going to hope that \alpha=18 because then the calculations will be easier since everything’s a multiple of 18. We haven’t yet used the fact that for a problem, we need \alpha\equiv-(a_1+\ldots+a_{n-1}). We definitely have to use that. There are 16 multiples of 18 (ie relevant integers in the congruence class), so exactly one of the terms so far, say a_j, is not a multiple of 18. But then

0 \equiv 0+\ldots+0+a_j+0+\ldots+0,

which can’t happen. With a bit of experimentation, we find a similar problem making a construction using the other congruence classes with 16 elements, namely \alpha\in \{13,14,\ldots,18\}.

So we have to tackle a different class. If \alpha\le 12 then our sequence must be

\alpha,18+\alpha,2\times 18 +\alpha, \ldots, 16\times 18 + \alpha,

in some order. In fact, let’s add extra notation, so our sequence is

(a_1,\ldots,a_{17}) = (18\lambda_1+ \alpha,\ldots,18\lambda_{17}+\alpha),

where (\lambda_1,\ldots,\lambda_{17}) is a permutation of {0,…,16}. And so we require

k \,\big|\, 18(\lambda_1+\ldots+\lambda_k) + k\alpha, (%)

for 1\le k\le 17. But clearly we can lop off that k\alpha, and could ignore the 18. Can we find a permutation \lambda such that

k \,\big|\, \lambda_1+\ldots+\lambda_k.

This was where I wasted a long time. I played around with lots of examples and kept getting stuck. Building it up one term at a time, I would typically get stuck around k=9,10. And I had some observations that in all the attempted constructions, the values of \frac{\lambda_1+\ldots+\lambda_k}{k} were around 8 and 9 too when I got stuck.

I became convinced this subproblem wasn’t possible, and decided that would be enough to show that n=18 wasn’t a possible failure length. I was trying to show the subproblem via a parity argument (how must the a_is alternate odd/even to ensure all the even partial sums are even) but this wasn’t a problem. Then I came up with a valid argument. We must have

\lambda_1+\ldots+\lambda_{17}=136= 16\times 8 + 8\quad\text{and}\quad 16\,\big|\,\lambda_1+\ldots+\lambda_{16},

which means \lambda_1+\ldots+\lambda_{16} must be 128 = 15×8 + 8, ie \lambda_{17}=8. But then we also have 15\,\big|\, \lambda_1+\ldots+\lambda_{15}, which forces $latex\lambda_{16}=8$ also. Which isn’t possible.

If this then hadn’t wasted enough time, I then tried to come up with a construction for n=19, for which there are lots more variables, and took a lot more time, and seemed to be suffering from similar problems, just in a more complicated way. So I became convinced I must have made a mistake, because I was forced down routes that were way too complicated for a 3.5 hour exam. Then I found it…

What did I do wrong? I’ll just say directly. I threw away the 18 after (%). This made the statement stronger. (And in fact false.) Suppose instead I’d thrown away a factor of 9 (or no factors at all, but it’s the residual 2 that’s important). Then I would be trying to solve

k\,\big|\,2(\lambda_1+\ldots+\lambda_k).

And now if you experiment, you will notice that taking \lambda_1=0,\lambda_2=1,\lambda_3=2,\ldots seems to work fine. And of course, we can confirm this, using the triangle number formula for the second time in the paper!

This had wasted a lot of time, but once that thought is present, we’re done, because we can go straight back and exhibit the sequence

(a_1,\ldots,a_{17}) = (1, 18+1,2\times 18 +1,\ldots, 16\times 18 +1).

Then the sum so far is congruent to -1 modulo 18, but we have exhausted all the available integers which would allow the sum of the first 18 terms to be a multiple of 18. This confirms that the answer to the question as stated is 17.

At the start, I said that we should be cautious about generalising. In the end, this was wise advice. We definitely used the fact that 18 was even in the stage I over-reduced the first time. We also used the fact that there was at least one value of \alpha with an ‘extra’ member of the congruence class. So I’m pretty sure this proof wouldn’t have worked with 288 = 16×18 cards.

Footnotes

[1] – If shading were a weighted (or continuous or whatever you prefer) property, ie that each cell has a quantity of shading given by a non-negative real number, and we merely demand that the total shading per comb is at least one, then the bound 8N/3 is in fact correct for the total shading. We could look at a 2xN block, and give 1/3 shading to one cell of each colour in the block. Alternatively, we could be very straightforward and apply 2/3N shading to every cell in the grid. The fact that shading has to be (in this language) zero or one, imposes meaningful extra constraints which involve the shape of the comb.

BMO1 2017 – Questions 1-4

The first round of the British Mathematical Olympiad was sat yesterday. The questions can be found here. I recorded some thoughts on the questions while I was in Cyprus, hence the nice Mediterranean sunset above. I hope this might be useful to current or future contestants, as a supplement to the concise official solutions available. It goes without saying that while these commentaries may be interesting at a general level, they will be much more educational to students who have at least digested and played around with the questions, so consider trying the paper first. Video solutions are available here. These have more in common with this blog post than the official solutions, though inevitably some of the methods are slightly different, and the written word has some merits and demerits over the spoken word for clarity and brevity.

The copyright for these questions lies with BMOS, and are reproduced here with permission. Any errors or omissions are obviously my own.

I found the paper overall quite a bit harder than in recent years, or at least harder to finish quickly. I’ve therefore postponed discussion of the final two problems to a second post, to follow shortly.

Question One

A recurring theme of Q1 from BMO1 in recent years has been: “it’s possible to do this problem by a long, and extremely careful direct calculation, but additional insight into the setup makes life substantially easier.”

This is the best example yet. It really is possible to evaluate Helen’s sum and Phil’s sum, and compare them directly. But it’s easy to make a mistake in recording all the remainders when the divisor is small, and it’s easy to make a mistake in summation when the divisor is large, and so it really is better to have a think for alternative approaches. Making a mistake in a very calculation-heavy approach is generally penalised heavily. And this makes sense intellectually, since the only way for someone to fix an erroneous calculation is to repeat it themselves, whereas small conceptual or calculation errors in a less onerous solution are more easily isolated and fixed by a reader. Of course, it also makes sense to discourage such attempts, which aren’t really related to enriching mathematics, which is the whole point of the exercise!

Considering small divisors (or even smaller versions of 365 and 366) is sometimes helpful, but here I think a ‘typical’ divisor is more useful. But first, some notation will make any informal observation much easier to turn into a formal statement. Corresponding to Helen and Phil, let h(n) be the remainder when n is divided by 365, and p(n) the remainder when n is divided by 366. I would urge students to avoid the use of ‘mod’ in this question, partly because working modulo many different bases is annoying notationally, partly because the sum is not taken modulo anything, and partly because the temptation to use mod incorrectly as an operator is huge here [1].

Anyway, a typical value might be n=68, and we observe that 68 x 5 + 25 = 365, and so h(68)=25 and p(68)=26. Indeed, for most values of n, we will have p(n)=h(n)+1. This is useful because

p(1)+p(2)+\ldots+p(366) - \left(h(1)+h(2)+\ldots+h(365)\right)

= \left(p(1)-h(1)\right) + \ldots+\left(p(365)-h(365)\right) + p(366),

and now we know that most of the bracketed terms are equal to one. We just need to handle the rest. The only time it doesn’t hold that p(n)=h(n)+1 is when 366 is actually a multiple of n. In this case, p(n)=0 and h(n)=n-1. We know that 366 = 2 x 3 x 61, and so its divisors are 1, 2, 3, 6, 61, 122, 183.

Then, in the big expression above, seven of the 365 bracketed terms are not equal to 1. So 358 of them are equal to one. The remaining ones are equal to 0, -1, -2, -5, -60, -121, -182 respectively. There are shortcuts to calculate the sum of these, but it’s probably safer to do it by hand, obtaining -371. Overall, since p(366)=0, we have

p(1)+p(2)+\ldots+p(366) - \left(h(1)+h(2)+\ldots+h(365)\right)

= -371 + 358 + 0 = -13.

So, possibly counter-intuitively, Helen has the larger sum, with difference 13, and we didn’t have to do a giant calculation…

Question Two

Suppose each person chooses which days to go swimming ‘at random’, without worrying about how to define this. Is this likely to generate a maximum or minimum value of n? I hope it’s intuitively clear that this probably won’t generate an extreme value. By picking at random we are throwing away lots of opportunity to force valuable overlaps or non-overlaps. In other words, we should start thinking about ways to set up the swimming itinerary with lots of symmetry and structure, and probably we’ll eventually get a maximum or a minimum. At a more general level, with a problem like this, one can start playing around with proof methods immediately, or one can start by constructing lots of symmetric and extreme-looking examples, and see what happens. I favour the latter approach, at least initially. You have to trust that at least one of the extreme examples will be guess-able.

The most obvious extreme example is that everyone swims on the first 75 days, and no-one swims on the final 25 days. This leads to n=75. But we’re clearly ‘wasting’ opportunities in both directions, because there are never exactly five people swimming. I tried a few more things, and found myself simultaneously attacking maximum and minimum, which is clearly bad, so focused on minimum. Just as a starting point, let’s aim for something small, say n=4. The obstacle is that if you demand at most four swimmers on 96 days, then even with six swimmers on the remaining four days, you don’t end up with enough swimming having taken place!

Maybe you move straight from this observation to a proof, or maybe you move straight to a construction. Either way, I think it’s worth saying that the proof and the construction come together. My construction is that everyone swims on the first 25 days, then on days 26-50 everyone except A and B swim, on days 51-75 everyone except C and D swim, and on days 76-100 everyone except E and F swim. This exactly adds up. And if you went for the proof first, you might have argued that the total number of swim days is 6×75 = 450, but is at most 4n + 6(100-n). This leads immediately to n\ge 25, and I just gave the construction. Note that if you came from this proof first, you can find the construction because your proof shows that to be exact you need 25 days with six swimmers, and 75 days with four swimmers, and it’s natural to try to make this split evenly. Anyway, this clears up the minimum.

[Less experienced contestants might wonder why I was worried about generating a construction despite having a proof. Remember we are trying to find the minimum. I could equally have a proof for n\ge 10 which would be totally totally valid. But this wouldn’t show that the minimum was n=10, because that isn’t in fact possible (as we’ve seen), hence it’s the construction that confirms that n=25 is the true minimum.]

It’s tempting to go back to the drawing board for the maximum, but it’s always worth checking whether you can directly adjust the proof you’ve already given. And here you can! We argued that

450\le 4n + 6(100-n)

to prove the minimum. But equally, we know that on the n days we have at least five swimmers, and on the remaining days, we have between zero and four swimmers, so

450 \ge 5n + 0\times (100-n), (*)

which gives n\le 90. If we have a construction that attains this bound then we are done. Why have I phrased (*) with the slightly childish multiple of zero? Because it’s a reminder that for a construction to attain this bound, we really do need the 90 days to have exactly five swimmers, and the remaining ten days to have no swimmers. So it’s clear what to do. Split the first 90 days into five groups of 15 days. One swimmer skips each group. No-one swims in the final ten days, perhaps because of a jellyfish infestation. So we’re done, and 25\le n\le 90.

At a general level, it’s worth noting that in the story presented, we found an example for the minimum which we turned into a proof, and then a proof for the maximum, which we then analysed to produce a construction.

Note that similar bounding arguments would apply if we fiddled with the numbers 5, 75 and 100. But constructions matching the bounds might not then be possible because the splits wouldn’t work so nicely. This would make everything more complicated, but probably not more interesting.

Question Three

It’s understandable that lots of students attempting this paper might feel ill-at-ease with conventional Euclidean geometry problems. A good first rule of thumb here, as in many settings, is “don’t panic!”, and a more specific second rule of thumb is “even if you think you can calculate, try to find geometric insight first.”

Here, it really does look like you can calculate. A configuration based on a given isosceles triangle and a length condition and a perpendicular line is open to several coordinate approaches, and certainly some sensible trigonometry. It’s also very open to organised labelling of the diagram. You have three equal lengths, and a right-angle, as shown.

The key step is this. Drop the perpendicular from A to BC, and call its foot D. That alone really is the key step, as it reduces both parts of the question to an easy comparison. It’s clear that the line AD splits the triangle into two congruent parts, and thus equal areas and perimeters. So it is enough to show that triangle BMN has the same area as triangle ABD, and that their outer-perimeters (ie the part of its perimeter which is also the perimeter of ABC) are the same.

But they’re congruent, so both of these statements are true, and the problem is solved.

My solution could be as short as two or three lines, so for the purposes of this post all that remains is to justify why you might think of the key step. Here are a few possible entry routes:

  • You might notice that line AD induces the required property for triangle ABD.
  • You might try to find a triangle congruent to AMN, and come up with D that way.
  • There’s already a perpendicular in the question so experimenting with another one is natural, especially since the perpendicular from A has straightforward properties.
  • AMN is a right angle, and so constructing D gives a cyclic quadrilateral. We didn’t use that directly in the proof above, but constructing cyclic quadrilaterals is usually a good idea.
  • If you were trying a calculation approach, you probably introduced the length AD, or at least the midpoint D as an intermediate step.

On the video, Mary Teresa proposes a number of elegant synthetic solutions with a few more steps. You might find it a useful exercise to try to come up with some motivating reasons like the bullet points above to justify her suggestion to reflect A in M as a first step.

Question Four

BMO1 2017Q4

I wasn’t paying enough attention initially, and I calculated a_2=0\text{ or }2. This made life much much more complicated. As with IMO 2017 Q1, if trying to deduce general behaviour from small examples, it’s essential to calculate the small examples correctly!

Once you engage your brain properly, you find that a_2=0 \text{ or }3, and of course a_2=0 is not allowed, since it must be positive. So a_2=3, and a similar calculation suggests a_3=1\text{ or }6. It’s clear that the set of values for a_{k+1} depends only on a_k, so if you take a_3=1, then you’re back to the situation you started with at the beginning. If you choose to continue the exploration with a_3=6, you will find a_4=2\text{ or }10, at which point you must be triggered by the possibility that triangle numbers play a role here.

As so often with a play-around with small values, you need to turn a useful observation into a concrete statement, which could then be applied to the problem statement. It looks like in any legal sequence, every term will be a triangle number, so we only need to clarify which triangle number. An example of a suitable statement might be:

Claim: If a_n=T_k=\frac{k(k+1)}{2}, the k-th triangle number, then a_{n+1}=T_{k-1}\text{ or }T_{k+1}.

There are three stages. 1) Checking the claim is true; 2) checking the claim is maximally relevant; 3) proving it. In this case, proving it is the easiest bit. It’s a quick exercise, and I’m omitting it. Of course, we can’t prove any statement which isn’t true, and here we need to make some quick adjustment to account for the case k=1, for which we are forced to take a_{n+1}=T_{k+1}.

The second stage really concerns the question “but what if a_n\ne T_k?” While there are deductions one could make, the key is that if a_1 is a triangle number, the claim we’ve just made shows that a_n is always a triangle number, so this question is irrelevant. Indeed the claim further shows that a_{2017}\le T_{2017}, and also that a_{2017}=T_k for some odd value of k. To be fully rigorous you should probably describe a sequence which attains each odd value of k, but this is really an exercise in notation [2], and it’s very obvious they are all attainable.

In any case, the set of possible values is \{T_1,T_3,\ldots,T_{2017}\}, which has size 1009.

Final two questions

These are discussed in a subsequent post.

Footnotes

[1] – mod n is not an operator, meaning you shouldn’t think of it as ‘sending integers to other integers’, or ‘taking any integer, to an integer in {0,1,…,n-1}’. Statements like 19 mod 5 = 4 are useful at the very start of an introduction to modular arithmetic, but why choose 4? Sometimes it’s more useful to consider -1 instead, and we want statements like a^p\equiv a modulo p to make sense even when a\ge p. 19 = 4 modulo 5 doesn’t place any greater emphasis on the 4 than the 19. This makes it more like a conventional equals sign, which is of course appropriate.

[2] – Taking a_n=T_n for $1\le n\le k$, and thereafter a_n=T_k if k is odd, and $a_n=T_{k+1}$ if k is even will certainly work, as will many other examples, some perhaps easier to describe than this one, though make sure you don’t accidentally try to use T_0!

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…)

Symmedians and Balkan MO 2017 Q2

While I was away, I wrote about my latest approach to teaching geometry at olympiad camps. This post will end up being about Q2 from the Balkan MO which took place yesterday in Macedonia, but first there is quite a long prelude. My solution, and probably many solutions, to this problem made use of a standard configuration in triangle geometry, namely the symmedian. I want to introduce the configuration, give some simpler examples in practice, and along the way talk about my slightly patched-together philosophy about the merits of practising Euclidean geometry.

The symmedian

Draw a triangle ABC, with A at the top of the page, and extend the rays AB and AC. The median is the line from A through M, the midpoint of BC. Now take points D and E on AB and AC respectively. The following properties are equivalent:

  • DE is parallel to BC;
  • triangle ADE is similar to triangle ABC;
  • the median of ABC passes through the midpoint of DE, and thus is also the median of ADE.

I think it’s a little awkward to prove either of the first two from the third – ratios of areas works – but the rest of the equivalences are straightforward. Later I’m going to talk about the difference between an exercise and a problem. These are all, at best, exercises.

Now take B’ on the ray AC, and C’ on the ray AB such that triangle AB’C’ is similar to triangle ABC. One way to achieve this is to take B’ and C’ to be the reflections in the angle bisector of A of B and C respectively (so then AB’=AB and AC’=AC). We say the line B’C’ is antiparallel to BC, as is any other line DE parallel to B’C’. (Probably this should say ‘with respect to triangle ABC’ or similar, but the context here is very clear, and I want this to seem natural rather than opaque.) Note that DE is an antiparallel line iff BCED is a cyclic quadrilateral. We should remember that, as cyclic quadrilaterals are the signposts for progress in both exercises and problems.

The median of triangle AB’C’ obeys the same equivalences as described above, and so bisects any antiparallel segment. We call the median of triangle AB’C’ the symmedian of triangle ABC. Using the first set of equivalences, the symmedian of triangle ABC bisects any line antiparallel to BC. Furthermore, by construction, the symmedian is the image of the median of ABC under reflection in the bisector of the angle at A. We sometimes say that the symmedian is the isogonal conjugate of the median.

That’s my definition. Note that there was essentially one definition then a couple of easy equivalent definitions. At no point again will I discuss the equivalence of these definitions – we have to take that for granted if we want to get on to more interesting things.

Intersection of tangents + concurrency

Now, in triangle ABC, draw the tangents to the circumcircle at B and C. These meet at P. It turns out that AP is the symmedian. This could have been our definition of a symmedian, but it wasn’t, so let’s quickly prove this.

Trigonometric arguments are very accessible, but I’ll give a Euclidean argument. Draw the antiparallel DE through P, as shown. Our task is to show that EP=PD. At this point, I would again say that this is an exercise.

We colour the angle ABC in green. Two angles around point C share this measure by the alternate segment theorem. The angle at E shares this measure because DE is antiparallel. Therefore CPE is isosceles, and so EP=CP. But CP=BP, so by applying the same argument for the orange angles, we get EP=CP=BP=DP as required.

Pause to regroup. Proving this wasn’t hard, but it was perhaps surprising. If this was all new to you, and I told you to consider the reflection of the median in the angle bisector, you probably wouldn’t instantly exclaim “it goes through the tangent intersection!” So this is a useful piece of knowledge to have gained, in case we ever have to work with the intersection of two tangents like this. Maybe it won’t be useful, but maybe it will. Maybe the statement itself won’t but some extra insights from the proof will be useful, like the fact that we actually showed P is the centre of the circle BCED, and thus angles ECD=EBD=90.

A second property is that in a triangle ABC, the symmedian from A, the symmedian from B and the symmedian from C intersection at, naturally, the symmedian point, which is usually denoted K. This comes from the fact that each symmedian is the isogonal conjugate of the respective median, and the medians are known to concur at the centroid. I’m not going to get into this now.

Configurations – an example

Here’s a problem. Take an isosceles trapezium ABCD as shown (ie throughout I don’t want to worry about alternative diagrams).

Let M be the midpoint of AD, and let E be the point on CM such that angle DBM = EBA. Prove that ABCDE is cyclic.

Well, certainly ABCD is cyclic. So we just need to show E also lies on that circle. And we have two equal angles, but they aren’t in the right place to conclude this immediately. However, we have angle MCA = DBM = EBA, so ABCE is cyclic, and the result follows.

Why is angle MCA = DBM? Well, the isosceles trapezium has an axis of (reflective) symmetry, and MCA is the is image of DBM under that reflection. Simple. If we wanted to do it with congruent triangles, this would all be a bit more laborious. First have to show BD=AC using one set of congruent triangles, then CM=BM using another, finally finishing using DM=MA. This is much less interesting. The symmetry of the configuration is a higher-level observation which could be proved from the axioms of geometry if necessary, but gives us more information more quickly. When we use a configuration like the symmedian configuration, we are really doing a higher-again-level version of this.

Anyway, that problem is fine, but it’s not especially difficult.

Consider instead the following problem. (I saw this online, possibly with slightly different notation, a few days ago and can no longer find the link. If anyone can help, I will add the link.)

Let AB be a chord of a circle, with midpoint M, and let the tangents at A and B meet at P. Consider a line through P which meets the circle at C and D in that order. Extend CM to meet the circle again at E. Show DME is isosceles.

Here’s a diagram, though it includes some clues.

I thought this was a fun problem, and for a while I couldn’t do it because despite lots of equal angles and equal lengths, I couldn’t conjure any congruent triangles in the right places, and I didn’t care enough about solving it to get involved in trigonometry. Then came the moment of insight. We have a midpoint, and also the intersection of the tangents. So DP is the symmedian of triangle DAB, and DM is the median. This gives us the two equal orange angles. Cyclicity gives us an extra equal angle at E as well.

Note now that the situation is very very similar to the previous question (after changing some of the labels), only this time we know ACBDE is cyclic, but don’t know that ABDE is an isosceles trapezium. If ABDE is an isosceles trapezium, we are clearly finished, as then by the same symmetry argument, EM=DM. This direction is probably harder to prove than the direction of the previous problem. Again there are a couple of ways to proceed, but one way is to consider the point E’ such that ABDE’ is an isosceles trapezium, and arguing that E’ lies on the given circle, and the circle through BME, and thus must coincide with E, in a reverse reconstruction argument.

Anyway, this is all slightly a matter of taste, but I would say the second problem is much much more fun than the first problem, even though the second part of the solution is basically the first problem but in a more awkward direction. If you’re going to do Euclidean geometry at all (very much another question), I think you should do questions like the second question wherever possible. And the enjoyable ‘aha moment’ came from knowing about the symmedian configuration. Is it really plausible that you’d look at the original diagram (without the dashed orange lines) and think of the antiparallel to AB in triangle DAB through point P? Probably not. So knowing about the configuration gave access to the good bit of a nice problem.

‘Philosophy of this sort of thing’

If the goal was to solve the second problem in a competition, knowing about the symmedian configuration would be a big advantage. I’ve tried to justify a related alternative view that knowing about the configuration gave access to an enjoyable problem. The question is how many configurations to study, and how hard to study them?

We tend not to think of cyclic quadrilaterals as a special configuration, but that is what they are. We derived circle theorems from the definition of a circle so that we don’t always have to mark on the centre, every single time we have a cyclic quadrilateral. So becoming familiar with a few more is not unreasonable. In particular, there are times when proofs are more important than statements. In research (certainly mine), understanding how various proofs work is the most important aspect, for when you try to extend them or specialise. And in lots of competition problems, the interesting bit is normally finding the argument rather than basking in wonder at the statement (though sometimes the latter is true too!).

To digress briefly. In bridge, I don’t know enough non-obvious motifs in bidding or gameplay to play interesting hands well. I trust that if I thought about some of it very very carefully, I could come up with some of them, especially in gameplay, but not in real time. And it is supposed to be fun right?! Concentrating very very hard to achieve a basic level of competence is not so enjoyable, especially if it’s supposed to be a break from regular work. The end result of this is that I don’t play bridge, which is a shame, because I think the hurdles between where I am currently and a state where I enjoy playing bridge are quite low. If I knew I was going to play bridge regularly, a bit of time reading about conventions would be time well spent. And obviously this applies equally in pursuits which aren’t directly intellectual. Occasionally practising specific skills in isolation broadens overall enjoyment in sport, music, and probably everything. As anyone who’s played in an orchestra knows, there are standard patterns that come up all the time. If you practise these occasionally, you get to a stage where you don’t really need to concentrate that hard in the final movement of Beethoven 5, and instead can listen to the horns, make funny faces at the first violins, and save your mental energy for the handful of non-standard tricky bits. And of course, then move on to more demanding repertoire, where maybe the violas actually get a tune.

This is highly subjective, but my view is that in all these examples are broadly similar to configurations in geometry, and in all of them a little goes a long way.

How? In lots of the geometry configurations you might meet in, for example, a short session at a training camp, most of the conclusions about the configurations have proofs which, like in our symmedian case, are simple exercises. Once you’ve got over some low initial experience hurdles, you have to trust that you can normally solve any simple exercise if required. If you can’t, moving on and returning later, or asking for help is a good policy. The proof shown above that symmedians pass through tangent meet points (and especially a trigonometric alternative) really isn’t interesting enough to spend hours trying to find it. The statements themselves are more useful and interesting here. And it can often be summarised quite quickly: “symmedians are the isogonal conjugates of the medians, so they bisect antiparallels, meet at K, and pass through the alternate tangent meeting points.” Probably having a picture in your mind is even simpler.

There’s a separate question of whether this is worthwhile. I think solving geometry problems occasionally is quite fun, so I guess yes I do think it is worthwhile, but I understand others might not. And if you want to win maths competitions, in the current framework you have to solve geometry problems under time pressure. But from an educational point of view, even though the statements themselves have no real modern research value, I think a) that’s quite a high bar to set, and there’s no a priori reason why they should – >99.9% of things anyone encounters before university have no value to modern research maths; b) in terms of knowledge acquisition, it’s similar in spirit to lots of things that are relevant to later study. I don’t have to solve PDEs very often, but when I do, I hope they are equivalent or similar to one of the small collection of PDEs I do know how to solve. If I worked more with PDEs, the size of this collection would grow naturally, after some initial struggles, and might eventually match my collection of techniques for showing scaling limits of random processes, which is something I need to use often, so the collection is much larger. Maybe that similarity isn’t enough justification by itself, but I think it does mean it can’t be written off as educationally valueless.

Balkan MO 2017 Question Two

An acute angled triangle ABC is given, with AB<AC, and \omega is its circumcircle. The tangents t_B,t_C at B,C respectively meet at L. The line through B parallel to AC meets t_C at D. The line through C parallel to AB meets t_B at E. The circumcircle of triangle BCD meets AC internally at T. The circumcircle of triangle BCE meets AB extended at S. Prove that ST, BC and AL are concurrent.

Ok, so why have I already written 1500 words about symmedians as a prelude to this problem? Because AL is a symmedian. This was my first observation. This observation is then a route into non-Euclidean solutions. It means, for example, that you can describe the point of concurrency fairly explicitly with reference to triangle ABC. If you wish, you can then proceed using areal coordinates. One member of the UK team, whom I know is perfectly capable of finding a synthetic solution, did this. And why not? It’s a competition, and if you can see a method that will definitely work, and definitely take 45 minutes (or whatever) then that’s good.

I was taking a break from work in my office, and had no interest in spending the time evaluating determinants because that isn’t enjoyable at any level, so I focused on the geometry.

I think there’s a good moral from the diagram above, which is the first moderately correct one I drew. I often emphasise that drawing an accurate diagram is important, as it increases the chance that you’ll spot key properties. In this case though, where you’re trying to examine a known configuration, I think it’s more important what you choose to include on your diagram, than how accurately you draw it. (In a moment, we’ll see why it definitely wasn’t very accurate.)

In particular, what’s not on the diagram? E is not on the diagram, and S got added later (as did the equal length signs in TB and CS, which rather spoil what’s about to happen). My first diagram was wildly incorrect, but it also suggested to me that the line ST was hard to characterise, and that I should start by deducing as much as possible about S and T by themselves. So by symmetry, probably it was enough just to deduce as much as possible about T.

Label the angles of triangle ABC as <A, <B, And therefore TB is an antiparallel in triangle ABC. (Note this doesn’t look antiparallel on my diagram at all, but as I said, this didn’t really matter.) Obviously you then guess that CS is also an antiparallel, and on a different diagram I checked this, for essentially the same reasons.

We haven’t yet made any use of the symmedian, but this is clearly where it’ll be useful. Note that if we didn’t know about everything in the prelude, we might well have deduced all of this, but we might not have thought to prove that AL bisects TB unless we’d drawn a very accurate diagram.

At this point, we have to trust that we have enough information to delete most of the diagram, leaving just {A,B,C,S,T} and the line AL. There are a few ways to finish, including similar triangles if you try very hard or trigonometry if you do it right, but again knowledge of some standard configurations is useful. Probably the quickest way is to use Ceva’s theorem in triangle ACS. You can also use Menelaus’ theorem in ABC, so long as you know a little bit about where the symmedian meets the opposite side.

An alternative is the following. We have a complete quadrilateral here, namely BTCS, and the intersection of all its diagonals. One is A, one is the proposed point of concurrency, and one is the point at infinity, since TB || CS. You can chase that, but I found it more clear to let P be the intersection of ST and BC (which we want to prove lies on AL), then look at the complete quadrilateral ATPB. Then AT and BP meet at C, and AB and TP meet at S. So if we look at where the diagonals of ATPB meet the line CS, we have a harmonic range.

If I’d wanted, I could instead have written the prelude about harmonic ranges, but I had fewer ideas how to set these up in a slick Euclidean way. Also, it feels better to talk about the start, rather than the end of a proof, especially when there were alternative endings. Anyway, a harmonic range is a collection of two pairs of points on a line (A, B; C, D), satisfying the following ratio of directed lengths:

\frac{AC}{BC} = -\frac{AD}{BD}.

A classic example is when D is the point at infinity, the RHS is -1, and so C is the midpoint of AB. Being happy about using the point at infinity is a property of projective geometry, of which this is a good first example. Anyway, returning to the problem, we are looking at where the diagonals of ATPB meet line CS, and this pair of points forms a harmonic range with (C,S). TB meets CS at the point at infinity, and so AP meets CS at the midpoint of CS. But from the symmedian configuration, AL bisects CS, so AP and AL are in fact the same line, and so P lies on AL as required.

I think was a brilliant example of when knowing a bit of theory is enjoyable. It wasn’t at all obvious initially how to use the symmedian property, but then the observation that TB is antiparallel felt like a satisfying breakthrough, but didn’t immediately kill the problem.

Balkan MO 2017 – Qs 1, 3 and 4

The UK is normally invited to participate as a guest team at the Balkan Mathematical Olympiad, an annual competition between eleven countries from South-Eastern Europe. I got to take part in Rhodes almost exactly ten years ago, and this year the competition was held in Ohrid, in Macedonia. There’s one paper, comprising four questions, normally one from each of the agreed olympiad topic areas, with 4.5 hours for students to address them. The contest was sat this morning, and I’m going to say quite a bit about the geometric Q2, and a little bit about Qs 1 and 3 also. In all cases, this discussion will include most of a solution, with some commentary, so don’t read these if you are planning to try the problems yourself.

I’m not saying anything about Q4, because I haven’t solved it. (Edit: I have solved it now, so will postpone Q2 until later today.)

Question One

Find all ordered pairs of positive integers (x,y) such that

x^3+y^3=x^2+42xy+y^2.

The first thought is that if either of x or y is ‘large’, then the LHS is bigger than the RHS, and so equality can’t hold. That is, there are only finitely many solutions. The smallest possible value of y is, naturally, 1, and substituting y=1 is convenient as then y^2=y^3, and it’s straightforward to derive x=7 as a solution.

Regarding the non-existence of large solutions, you can make this precise by factorising the LHS as

(x+y)(x^2-xy+y^2) = x^2+42xy+y^2.

There are 44 terms of degree two on the RHS, and one term of degree in the second bracket on the LHS. With a bit of AM-GM, you can see then that if x+y>44, you get a contradiction, as the LHS will be greater than the RHS. But that’s still a lot of possibilities to check.

It struck me that I could find ways to reduce the burden by reducing modulo various primes. 2, 3 and 7 all divide 42, and furthermore cubes are nice modulo 7 and squares are nice modulo 3, so maybe that would bring the number of possibilities down. But my instinct was that this wasn’t the right way to use the fact that we were solving over positive integers.

The second bracket in the factorisation looks enough like the RHS, that it’s worth exploring. If we move x^2-xy+y^2 from the right to the left, we get

(x+y-1)(x^2-xy+y^2) = 43xy. (1.1)

Now it suddenly does look useful that we are solving over positive integers, because 43 is a prime, so has to appear as a factor somewhere on the LHS. But it’s generally quite restrictive that x^2-xy+y^2 | 43xy. This definitely looks like something that won’t hold often. If x and y are coprime, then certainly x^2-xy+y^2 and y are coprime also. But actually if x and y have a non-trivial common factor d, we can divide both sides by d^2, and it still holds. Let’s write

x=dm,\quad y=dn,\quad\text{where }d=\mathrm{gcd}(x,y).

Then m^2 -mn+n^2 really does divide 43, since it is coprime to both m and n. This is now very restrictive indeed, since it requires that m^2-mn+n^2 be equal to 1 or 43. A square-sandwiching argument gives m^2-mn+n^2=1 iff m=n=1. 43 requires a little bit more work, with (at least as I did it) a few cases to check by hand, but again only has one solution, namely m=7, n=1 and vice versa.

We now need to add the common divisor d back into the mix. In the first case, (1.1) reduces to (2d-1)=43, which gives (x,y)=(22,22). In the second case, after cancelling a couple of factors, (1.1) reduces to (8d-1)=7, from which (x,y)=(7,1),(1,7) emerges, and these must be all the solutions.

The moral here seemed to be that divisibility was a stronger tool than case-reduction. But that was just this question. There are other examples where case-reduction is probably more useful than chasing divisibility.

Question Three

Find all functions f:\mathbb{N}\rightarrow\mathbb{N} such that

n+f(m) \,\big|\, f(n)+nf(m)

for all m,n\in\mathbb{N}.

What would be useful here? There are two variables, and a function. It would be useful if we could reduce the number of variables, or the number of occurences of f. We can reduce the number of variables by taking m=n, to get

n+f(n) \,\big|\, f(n) [1+n]. (3.1)

From this, we might observe that f(n)\equiv 1 is a solution. Of course we could analyse this much more, but this doesn’t look like a 10/10 insight, so I tried other things first.

In general, the statement that a\,|\,b also tells us that a\,|\, b-ka. That is, we can subtract arbitrary multiples of the divisor, and the result is still true. A recurring trope is that the original b is elegant, but an adjusted b-ka is useful. I don’t think we can do the latter, but by subtracting n^2 +nf(m) from the problem statement, we get

n+f(m) \,\big|\, n^2-f(n). (3.2)

There’s now no m on the RHS, but this relation has to hold for all m. One option is that f(n)=n^2 everywhere, then what we’ve deduced always holds since the RHS is zero. But if there’s a value of n for which f(n)\ne n^2, then (3.2) is a very useful statement. From now on, we assume this. Because then as we fix n and vary m, we need n+f(m) to remain a divisor of the RHS, which is fixed, and so has finitely many divisors. So f(m) takes only finitely many values, and in particular is bounded.

This ties to the observation that f\equiv 1 is a solution, which we made around (3.1), so let’s revisit that: (Note, there might be more elegant ways to finish from here, but this is what I did. Also note, n is no longer fixed as in previous paragraph.)

n+f(n) \,\big|\, f(n) [1+n]. (3.1)

Just to avoid confusion between the function itself, and one of the finite collection of values it might take, let’s say b is a value taken by f. So there are values of n for which

n+b \,\big|\, b(1+n).

By thinking about linear equations, you might be able to convince yourself that there are only finitely many solutions (in n) to this relation. There are certainly only finitely many solutions where LHS=RHS (well, at most one solution), and only finitely many where 2xLHS=RHS etc etc. But why do something complicated, when we can actually repeat the trick from the beginning, and subtract b(n+b), to obtain

n+b \,\big|\, b^2-b.

For similar reasons to before, this is a great deduction, because it means if b\ne 1, then the RHS is positive, which means only finitely many n can satisfy this relation. Remember we’re trying to show that no n can satisfy this relation if b\ne 1, so this is definitely massive progress!

If any of what’s already happened looked like magic, I hope we can buy into the idea that subtracting multiples of the divisor from the RHS is the only tool we used, and that making the RHS fixed gives a lot of information about the LHS as the free variable varies. The final step is not magic either. We know that f is eventually 1. If you prefer “for large enough n, f(n)=1,” since all other values appear only finitely often. I could write this with quantifiers, but I don’t want to, because that makes it seem more complicated than it is. We genuinely don’t care when the last non-1 value appears.

Anyway, since we’ve deduced this, we absolutely have to substitute this into something we already have. Why not the original problem statement? Fix m, then for all large enough n

n+f(m) \,\big|\, 1+nf(m). (3.3)

To emphasise, (3.3) has to hold for all large enough n. Is it possible that f(m)=2? Again, it’s easy to convince yourself not. But, yet again, why not use the approach we’ve used so profitably before to clear the RHS? In fact, we already did this, and called it (3.2), and we can make that work [3.4], but in this setting, because f(m) is fixed and we’re working with variable large n, it’s better to eliminate n, to get

n+f(m)\,\big|\, f(m)^2-1,

again for all large enough n. By the same size argument as before, this is totally impossible unless f(m)=1. Which means that in fact f(m)=1 for all m. Remember ages ago we assumed that f(n) was not n^2 everywhere, so this gives our two solutions: f(n)=1,\, f(n)=n^2.

Moral: choosing carefully which expression to work with can make life much more interesting later. Eliminating as many variables or difficult things from one side is a good choice. Playing with small values can help you understand the problem, but here you need to think about soft properties of the expression, in particular what happens when you take one variable large while holding another fixed.

[3.4] – if you do use the original approach, you get n^2-1 on the RHS. There’s then the temptation to kill the divisibility by taking n to be the integer in the middle of a large twin prime pair. Unfortunately, the existence of such an n is still just a conjecture

Question Four

(Statement copied from Art of Problem Solving. I’m unsure whether this is the exact wording given to the students in the contest.)

On a circular table sit n>2 students. First, each student has just one candy. At each step, each student chooses one of the following actions:

(A) Gives a candy to the student sitting on his left or to the student sitting on his right.

(B) Separates all its candies in two, possibly empty, sets and gives one set to the student sitting on his left and the other to the student sitting on his right.

At each step, students perform the actions they have chosen at the same time. A distribution of candy is called legitimate if it can occur after a finite number of steps.
Find the number of legitimate distributions.

My moral for this question is this: I’m glad I thought about this on the bus first. What I found hardest here was getting the right answer. My initial thoughts:

  • Do I know how to calculate the total number of possibilities, irrespective of the algorithm? Fortunately yes I do. Marbles-in-urns = barriers between marbles on a line (maybe add one extra marble per urn first). [4.1]
  • What happens if you just use technique a)? Well first you can get into trouble because what happens if you have zero sweets? But fine, let’s temporarily say you can have a negative number of sweets. If n is even, then there’s a clear parity situation developing, as if you colour the children red and blue alternately, at every stage you have n/2 sweets moving from red children to blue and vice versa, so actually the total number of sweets among the red children is constant through the process.
  • What happens if you just use technique b)? This felt much more promising.
  • Can you get all the sweets to one child? I considered looking at the child directly opposite (or almost-directly opposite) and ‘sweeping’ all the sweets away from them. It felt like this would work, except if for some parity reason we couldn’t prevent the final child having one (or more, but probably exactly one) sweets at the crucial moment when all the other sweets got passed to him.

Then I got home, and with some paper, I felt I could do all possibilities with n=5, and all but a few when n=6. My conjecture was that all are possible with n odd, and all are possible with n even, except those when none of the red kids or none of the kids get a sweet. I tried n=8, and there were a few more that I couldn’t construct, but this felt like my failure to be a computer rather than a big problem. Again there’s a trade-off between confirming your answer, and trying to prove it.

Claim: If n is even, you can’t achieve the configurations where either the red children or the blue children have no sweets.

Proof: Suppose you can. That means there’s a first time that all the sweets were on one colour. Call this time T. Without loss of generality, all the sweets are on red at T. Where could the sweets have been at time T-1? I claim they must all have been on blue, which contradicts minimality. Why? Because if at least one red child had at least one sweet, they must have passed at least one sweet to a blue neighbour.

Now it remains to give a construction for all other cases. In the end, my proof has two stages:

Step One: Given a configuration, in two steps, you can move a candy two places to the right, leaving everything else unchanged.

This is enough to settle the n odd case. For the even case, we need an extra step, which really corresponds to an initial phase of the construction.

Step Two: We can make some version of the ‘sweeping’ move precise, to end up in some configuration where the red number of children have any number of sweets except 0 or n.

Step one is not so hard. Realising that step one would be a useful tool to have was probably the one moment where I shifted from feeling like I hadn’t got into the problem to feeling that I’d mostly finished it. As ever in constructions, working out how to do a small local adjustment, which you plan to do lots of times to get a global effect, is great. (Think of how you solve a Rubik’s cube for example.)

Step two is notationally fiddly, and I would think very carefully before writing it up. In the end I didn’t use the sweeping move. Instead, with the observation that you can take an adjacent pair and continually swap their sweets it’s possible to set up an induction.

Actual morals: Observing the possibility to make a small change in a couple of moves (Step one above) was crucial. My original moral does still hold slightly. Writing lots of things down didn’t make life easier, and in the end the ideas on the bus were pretty much everything I needed.

[4.1] – one session to a group of 15 year olds is enough to teach you that the canon is always ‘marbles in urns’ never ‘balls’ nor ‘bags’, let alone both.

EGMO 2017 – Paper One – Geometric subconfigurations

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 [1].

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: [2]

  • 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.

Other questions

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 k=14 is possible, but k=13 is not.

In any case, coming up with a construction for k=3 is a nice exercise, and presumably carried a couple of marks in the competition. My argument to show k=2 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.

Footnotes

[1] – “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.

[2] – 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!

RMM 2017 – UK Team Blog

This is the customary and slightly frivolous account of a trip to Bucharest for the ninth edition of the Romanian Master of Mathematics, an annual competition for school students, widely recognised as the hardest of its kind.

I discuss the problems in two previous posts (here and here), and there is also a pdf with fewer pictures, which includes both the discussion and this diary, as well as some more formal comments about the competition itself, the results, and thanks.

Wednesday 22 February

Did you know that trains in Moldova use different width tracks to trains in Romania? Well, I didn’t know either, but I found out at 1am today, as my wagon lit from Chisinau was painstakingly jacked up to allow the transfer from ex-Soviet gauge to Western gauge. Outside, a man in a smart uniform and epaulettes shouted loudly and continuously at a group of men in smart uniforms without epaulattes. When their task was done, four sets of border and custom checks remained before the opportunity for another visit to the samovar, and finally a chance to sleep.

All of which is to say that I have arrived at maths competitions in better mental shape than 6am today at Gara de Nord. The UK students have a more conventional itinerary, but their flight from Luton doesn’t arrive until mid-afternoon. After my first Haifa ‘winter’, I’m craving pork and snow, and find both in the mountain town of Sinaia, an hour away by train in Transylvania. I also find a bear. The bear seems very scared.

I return in time to meet the UK students as well as James and MT. Some of our contestants are now into their fourth year of attending international competitions, and the labour of finding them fresh material resembles Hercules against the hydra, but some problems on combinatorial geometry with convexity seem to have kept everyone entertained on the flight. Dinner is at the Moxa campus of the University of Economics, and features chicken with one of two possible carbohydrates, as in fact do the next six meals. However, today is Thomas’s 18th birthday, and so his parents have arranged a delicious cake, which elicits considerably more enthusiasm. On the short walk back to our meeting, we notice it is possible both to buy fireworks and get a tattoo among other options, so Thomas is spoiled for choice about how to take advantage of his majority.

The team’s activities remain a mystery to James and me though, as we have to join the other leaders for the first meeting, to receive the proposed problems. We spend some time thinking about them separately then together, and our initial impression is that it’s a very suitable paper, that hopefully our team will enjoy.

Thursday 23 February

The leaders meet to finalise the choice and statement of the problems. With a bit more time this morning, I’ve solved Q1, Q2, Q5, and proved Q3 once I’d looked up the correct bound. James eats conics for breakfast and shows me a glorious range of interpretations of Q4. We feel happy that our students will have a chance at all of these, while Q6 may prove more restricting. Either way, it’s clearly an appropriate set for this competition, and is approved quickly. So it’s time to finalise the English version of the paper, or finalize the American version. Many alternatives to the word sieve are proposed. Andrea from Italy is clearly already craving home comforts, but his suggestion of cheese grater is not taken up. This time I’m sorting the LaTeX, so get to settle the commas, but also take the blame for inconsistently spacing the rubric between the two papers. I’m sure everyone noticed.

While all this has been happening, the students have been at a lecture by Sergiu Moroianu at the Institute of Mathematics. Joe Benton gives an account of what they learned in the longer pdf version of this report.

For all the charms of Chipping Norton, I sense MT is enjoying the grittier nature of Bucharest Sector 1, and has been shepherding the students round various sites in between attempts at practice problems. I join them for a brief visit to a geology museum. I am very cynical, but it slightly exceeds my expectations, and is infinitely better than the nearby Museum of the Romanian Peasant, which currently ties with the Hanoi Ethnology Museum as my least favourite olympiad excursion of all time.

The opening ceremony is held in the grand hall of the university, and includes several welcoming and thoughtful speeches from the Mayor of Bucharest and the headteacher of Tudor Vianu, the school which hosts this competition every year. Each team briefly presents themselves on stage. Joe and Neel have accumulated a large collection of UK flags from previous competitions, and should hereby consider themselves publicly shamed for forgetting their promise to bring them. It is over soon, and while the students enjoy a quiet evening and an early night, the leaders have to finalise markschemes for all the problems. The walk back takes us through Victory Square, and past the protesters whose fires and slogans have been on front pages around the world in the past months. It’s an interesting time, and the atmosphere of this city feels very different from my first visit, for the inaugural edition of this competition in 2008.

Friday 24 February

The first day of the contest starts at 9am. The British students seem fairly relaxed, and hopefully are aiming high. Contestants may ask questions of clarification during the first 30 minutes. Rosie does this, and I send my reply to her two queries back via the courier. Five minutes later it is returned to me with the explanation that the student does not understand the answer. Even under competition pressure this seems unlikely, given that my answers are, respectively ‘yes’, and putting a ring around one of three options she has listed. It turns out that actually the student courier did not understand what to do with the answer, and the situation is quickly corrected.

We approve more markschemes. The US deputy leader Po-Shen and I share our views on the challenge of correctly finding the bound in Q3, and our suggestion that this instead be worth 2 points is upheld. Various further discussions fill the morning, and we return just in time to meet the students at the end of the exam. Harvey claims all three problems with a relaxed grin, while Joe claims all three problems with the haunted look of a man whose twelfth espresso of the day has just worn off. Alexander and Thomas say that they spent most of the time making sure their solutions to Q1 were totally watertight, which, given the intricacy of the arguments, was clearly a very sensible strategy.

To provide a distraction, if not actually a break from time-pressured problem-solving, I’ve booked a pair of escape rooms for the UK students later in the afternoon. Bucharest is the home of these games, where the aim is to solve themed puzzles as part of a story in time to escape a locked room. I join one of the rooms, where there are some theatrical reveals involving wrenches, and clues hidden in combination-locked cabinets, where ability to add three-digit numbers proves useful. Someone’s carrying voice means we get to enjoy some of the drama and twists of the other room too. Anyway, this proved an ideal way to avoid useless post-mortems, and I highly recommend Vlad and his pair of rooms.

Later, James and I get to look at the students’ work from this morning. Their assessments are pretty accurate. Harvey’s solutions to everything are beautiful, while Neel’s bounding argument in Q2 is certainly the most vulgar (and, in fact, unnecessary) calculation of the year so far. Joe’s solution to Q3 bears such obvious resemblence to an official solution that his uncharacteristic abundance of small errors probably won’t matter, including the memorable set A_i\backslash\{i\}, where the two is mean different things. Some of the team might reflect that a moment of casualness in checking the n=2 case on Q2 is a frustrating way to lose a potential mark, but when I compare notes with James, it sounds like the slow and steady approach to Q1 has indeed paid off for everyone, so hopefully it will not be too painful to agree the scores tomorrow.

Saturday 25 February

It’s the second day of the competition, and the UK team look bright-eyed and positive at breakfast. They aren’t the only ones under pressure this morning, as James and I must settle the scores from yesterday’s questions with local markers, known as coordinators. It’s hard to guess in how much detail one will have to explain your contestants’ scripts, so it is safer to prepare almost line-by-line. On this occasion though, perhaps we have over-prepared, as every meeting ends quickly with offers of 7/7 exactly where we were hoping, and indeed in a couple of places where we were not hoping. The markschemes are very clear about certain omissions which carry a point deduction, so to ensure fairness and consistency, we insist that two scores are moved down. I’m confident that any British student would prefer an honourable 41/42 than an accidental 42/42.

No-one’s going to be scoring 41 nor 42 unless they solve the extremely challenging geometry Q6, and as we meet our students afterwards, it turns out they have not managed any progress there. However, they claim an almost full set of solutions to Questions 4 and 5, which, if accurate, is a very good return. Everyone is in a good mood, and after I explain a couple of approaches to Q6, no-one seems too disappointed that they didn’t spot these.

There are various schedules floating around, listing multiple locations and times for lunch, but our space-time trajectory intersects none of them, so we follow the Chinese team to a recommended cheap Szechuan restaurant round the corner. Various circle theorems are explored via the Lazy Susan, and there is a grand reveal of the marks we’ve recently confirmed. There’s time for another pair of escape rooms while the second day scripts arrive. As Rosie remarks, two in two days can lead to excessive outside-the-box thinking. Sometimes a radiator really isn’t a sinister prop, a device for encoding five-digit numbers, or a clue to a Templar tunnel; it’s just a radiator. Otherwise we’d be cold.

When the scripts arrive, as expected the cupboard is pretty bare on Q6. If there were marks for quantity, Neel might get some, and if there were marks for most uses of esoteric theory in a single page, Alexander might get one. No set of scripts for an international-level medium combinatorics problem will ever be perfect, but our Q5s come close. It’s therefore not a long evening, and we can join the students for dinner with the American team. For most of them it’s their first visit to Europe, and there’s much comparing of culture and maths training programmes. There’s also a long discussion of whether it’s sensible to teach maths in primary school. Those present who have small children or younger siblings weigh in on the mysteries of the ‘grid method’, and whether toddlers implicitly understand commutativity, even if they can’t spell it.

Sunday 26 February

The UK leaders gather early in the ‘philosophical anti-cafe’ opposite Vianu school, to ponder the final scripts with a coffee and a view of an artfully-arranged folio of Spinoza. James has a loyalty card here. Unfortunately two of our students have clear algebraic errors in Q4, but apart from that everything is very straightforward. Though following last night’s conversation, we note that maybe a revision clinic on mathematical spelling might prove useful. Anonymous student X thinks there’s one L in ‘ellipse’, counterbalanced by anonymous student Y who thinks there are two in ‘column’. The word ‘parallel’ comes in many disguises.

Of course, the coordinators couldn’t care less about that, and they don’t even mind Neel’s two-cases-at-once inductive step, so again we get what we ask for on Q5 immediately, and on Q4 in the time it takes James to draw a lozenge tiling representing Thomas’s shearing argument. For Q6, it turns out there clearly is a mark for most uses of esoteric theory in a single page, so Alexander gets it. They show us a diagram with over a hundred lines which suggests that the exotic equivalence he claims is actually true. There we go. Overall, the quality of our written solutions has been extremely high. It feels like I say this every time now, but it isn’t idle propaganda. We remember the horrors that used to emerge occasionally, and the effort to make this improvement permanent feels well worth it.

Meanwhile, to fill the day, the students have gone to Sinaia. Two of their guides went with them to help with tickets at the station, apparently under the impression that never having taken a train before wouldn’t be an obstacle to this role. Either way, they made it, and following my request for material for this report, I receive a trickle of presentable photos, though there is talk afterwards of some rather more informal versions which are apparently not suitable. The Transylvanian winter is thawing, but slowly and messily, and Harvey reports that several of the group spent more time horizontal than vertical. Irrespective of their preferred axis, there’s no comment on whether they saw my bear, or any other bear. But since my bear was scared of me, one wonders what it would make of MT’s telling-off face? (Last seen by me during the notorious ‘balcony incident’ at a summer school in 2005, but hardly forgotten.)

The students return in time for confirmation of the results and their medals. As so often, there is pleasure that we have done so well collectively, mixed with mild disappointment for those who ended up just short of a boundary, and that the UK was so close to placing first. Because of the strength of the invited countries, earning a medal of any colour is a very worthwhile achievement, and so Rosie is impressively sanguine about missing out so narrowly in such an unfortunate manner. Alexander was closer than it appears, and could have two more opportunities to take part.

The closing ceremony at Vianu school proceeds rapidly. There is the usual challenge of photographing the students receiving their prizes, but this time is easy. Thomas is about a foot taller than everyone else on the stage, while Neel is flanked by almost the entire Russian team, but his chutzpah trumps their numerical advantage, with laughter all round. Joe claims this year’s gold medal is substantially weightier. He hasn’t brought his previous pair, so the chance to verify this and recreate a Mark Spitz moment goes begging.

It’s 7pm, and UK student enthusiasm for the closing disco (not my words) is about as high as MT’s enthusiasm to chaperone the closing disco. Instead we find a Middle Eastern restaurant, and it’s refreshing to eat hummus in a place which doesn’t claim to be the ‘best in Israel’ though I don’t think Abu Said in Akko will be rushing to steal the recipe. Po-Shen outlines his vision of a year-long maths camp. I think present company are tired enough after five days here. Some are interested to view, if not actually participate in, the protests in Victory Square, but it seems tonight is a quiet one and nothing is being burned, so late-night cards and a perusal of each others’ scripts will have to do.

Monday 27th February

The rest of the group have a flight back to London later today which apparently cost 99p per person before tax. I don’t know how much less the 5am option was, but I think it’s probably worth it. My own flight is truly at 5am tomorrow and I plan to stay up all night. The students return to school tomorrow, doubtless to receive a glorious mix of adulation and apathy. Harvey requests whether next year this trip can be timed differently so that he can miss the whole of his local Eisteddfod, rather than just one day. I promise to ask the organisers, say goodbye, then head for the hills on a train journey long enough to write the entirety of this report.

3am at Bucharest airport, and thoughts can now turn to the future. Many of us will meet in five weeks’ for another round of mathematics in the more tranquil setting of Cambridge. Meanwhile, I certainly enjoyed, admittedly through red eyes, the entertainment of a flight to Israel where baggage size regulations are actually enforced at the boarding gate, and apparently everyone else made it back safely too.

RMM 2017 – Problems 2, 3 and 6

In the previous post, I discussed Problems 1, 4 and 5 from this year’s Romanian Master of Mathematics competition. In this post, I discuss the harder problems (modulo my subjective appreciation of difficulty).

Problem 2

Determine all positive integers n satisfying the following condition: for every monic polynomial P of degree at most n with integer coefficients, there exists a positive integer k \leq n, and (k+1) distinct integers x_1,\ldots,x_{k+1} such that

P(x_1) + P(x_2) + \cdots + P(x_k) = P(x_{k+1}).

Parsing this question deserve at least a moment. Straight after a first reading, I find it worth writing down any key quantifiers which I might forget later. Here, it’s the words at most. If you want to show the statement holds for n=2, you need to investigate monic polynomials with degree zero, one and two. You should also make sure that any instances of x_i really are always distinct.

This matters in competitions! Two of our contestants failed to get the mark for showing n=2 works, precisely because of not checking the linear case, and a third could have lost it for using examples which are sometimes not distinct. On hard papers, one mark actually is the difference between triumph and frustration. And of course it matters outside competitions too, since small cases are exactly what your reader might examine first, to check they understand the problem posed, so it’s not a good place for awkward errors.

I started by trying to show that it couldn’t possibly happen that every polynomial with degree at most n had this property, for some combinatorial reason. For example, that if every set of distinct integers could only be a solution set for a small number of polynomials, then we would end up with not enough polynomials. But I couldn’t make this work at all; every bound ended up heavily in the wrong direction.

The next natural question is, does a typical polynomial of degree at most n have this property? But choosing a typical polynomial is hard, so in fact I asked, do the simplest polynomials of degree at most n have this property? I think the simplest polynomials of degree at most n are \{1,x,x^2,\ldots,x^n\}. Under what circumstances does

x_1^m + \ldots x_k^m = x_{k+1}^m, (1)

have solutions in distinct integers? Famously, when k=2 and m\ge 3 this is a very very hard problem indeed. So the first point is that it though it might be useful to use Fermat’s Last Theorem, it would be foolish to pursue a strategy which, if successful, would have a proof of FLT as a sub-problem. At least, it would be foolish if the aim was to finish this strategy within a few hours.

So my main comment on this question is meta-mathematical. If lots of attempts at general arguments don’t work, there must be some special example that does it. And what properties do I want this special example to have? Maybe one might have thought of this from scratch, but my motivation came from (1) in the case m=p-1. Then, by Fermat’s Little Theorem, all the summands are equal to 1 or 0 modulo p. If k>p, then after discounting any uniform factors of p, we obtain a congruence equation which is, in informal terms,

\left(0\text{ or }1\right)+\ldots+\left(0\text{ or }1\right) \equiv \left(0\text{ or }1\right).

This looks really promising because it’s quite restrictive, but it’s still just a bit annoying: there are quite a few solutions. But it does give us the right idea, which is to find a polynomial P for which P(x)\equiv 1 modulo n. The equation 1+\ldots+1\equiv 1 modulo n has solutions only if the number of summands on the LHS is 1 modulo n. So in this context, this reduces to showing that P is, additionally, injective on the integers, ie that P(x)=P(y) only when x=y.

It’s a nice exercise to show the existence of polynomials which are constant modulo n, and a good problem to work out how to force injectivity. If a polynomial is increasing everywhere, then it is certainly injective, and so the problem ends up being slightly easier in the case where the degree is odd than when the degree is even, but this is a nice conclusion to a nice problem, so I’ll save it for any interested readers to finish themselves.

Problem 3

Let n be an integer greater than 1 and let X be an n-element set. A non-empty collection of subsets A_1,\ldots, A_k of X is tight if the union A_1 \cup \dots \cup A_k is a proper subset of X and no element of X lies in exactly one of the A_is. Find the largest cardinality of a collection of proper non-empty subsets of X, no non-empty subcollection of which is tight.

Note. A subset A of X is proper if A\neq X. The sets in a collection are assumed to be distinct. The whole collection is assumed to be a subcollection.

By Neel Nanda:

If |X|=n, there are 2^n possible subsets, so at first glance the answer could be a variety of things, from a linear to an exponential function of n, each of which would suggest a different approach. So the first step is to conjecture an answer, and by examining small cases it seems impossible to do better than 2n-2. There are several natural constructions for this bound, such as n subsets of size (n-1) and (n-2) subsets of size 1, so we guess this to be our answer (which later turn out to be right!).

From here, a solution is deceptively simple, though empirically the five full solutions in the contest show that it was by no means easy to find. We proceed by induction on the size of X, and want to show that any collection of subsets S has size at least (2n-2). By assumption all subcollections are not tight, so if the union of a subcollection is not the whole set X, then there is an element which appears in exactly one subset. This is a useful result, so we’d like to force a subcollection whose union is not the whole set X.

One way to guarantee that the union of a subcollection is not X is by taking the subcollection of all subsets not containing some element b. So there is some element c which appears in only one subset not containing b. If we choose b so that it’s the element contained in the fewest subsets of S, c is in at least as many subsets of S, but in only one subset not containing b. This means that at most one subset containing b doesn’t contain c. This is useful, because after removing at most 2 subsets (the coefficient of n in 2n-2, importantly!), we now have that every subset in S either contains both b and c or neither. This means that we can replace the pair (b,c) with a new element d, to get a new collection of subsets S’ of a set X’, of size n-1, so by induction |S| \le |S'|+2\le 2n-2.

There is also the case where all subsets contain b, but we can create an equivalent collection of subsets of X \ {b} by removing b from all subsets. So again by induction we are done.

Problem 6

Let ABCD be any convex quadrilateral and let P, Q, R, S be points on the segments AB, BC, CD, and DA, respectively. It is given that the segments PR and QS dissect ABCD into four quadrilaterals, each of which has perpendicular diagonals. Show that the points P, Q, R, S are concyclic.

I thought this problem was extremely hard. The official solution starts with a ‘magic lemma’, that isn’t quite so magic if you then read how it’s used. The overall claim is that PQ, RS and AC are concurrent (or parallel), and this is proved using the fact that the radical axis of the two circles with diameters PQ and RS also passes through this point of concurrency. Hunting for key properties of subsets of points in the diagram is an important skill in hard olympiad geometry, since it exactly reflects how problem-setters produce the problems. All the more so when there is lots of symmetry in the construction. But this is a hard example – there are a lot of potentially relevant subsets of the configuration.

When you’re really stuck with how to get involved in a synthetic configuration, you might consider using coordinates. Some of the UK students have been reading some chapters of a book (Euclidean Geometry in Mathematical Olympiads by Evan Chen. I’ve only had my own copy for a couple of days, but my initial impression is very positive – it fills a gap in the literature in a style that’s both comprehensive and readable.) focusing on various analytic approaches, so James and I felt it was safer to make sure we knew what the best settings were, and how far we could take them.

You almost certainly want the intersection of PR and QS to be your origin. I wanted to set up the configuration using the language of vectors, referenced by (P,Q,R,S). This was because PQ\perp BO and so on, hence \mathbf{b}\cdot (\mathbf{q}-\mathbf{p})=0 and so on. An alternative is to use complex numbers, which makes this condition a bit more awkward, but is more promising for the conclusion. Concyclity is not a natural property in vectors unless you can characterise the centre of the circle, but can be treated via cross-ratios in \mathbb{C}. You also have to decide whether to describe the collinearity of A, B and P by expressing \mathbf{p}=\lambda_{\mathbf{p}} \mathbf{a}+(1-\lambda_{\mathbf{p}})\mathbf{b}, or via something more implicit. There definitely are not four degrees of freedom here, since specifying A certainly defines at most one valid set of (B,C,D), so one is mindful we’ll have to eliminate many variables later. We also have to account for fact that \mathbf{r} is a negative scalar multiple of \mathbf{p}, and it’s not clear whether it’s better to break symmetry immediately, or use this towards the end of a calculation.

The point of writing this was that if your initial thought was ‘this looks promising via coordinate methods’, then I guess I agree. But there’s a difference between looking promising, and actually working, and there are lots of parameterisation options. It’s certainly worth thinking very carefully about which to choose, and in this case, challenging though they were, the synthetic or synthetic-trigonometric methods probably were better.