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


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.


[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.

RMM 2017 – Problems 1, 4 and 5

I’ve recently taken a UK team to the 2017 edition of the Romanian Master of Mathematics competition in Bucharest. The British students did extremely well and we all enjoyed ourselves mathematically and generally. The customary diary may appear shortly, but this time I want to focus mainly on the questions, since that is after all the main point of these competitions! I hope that what follows is interesting, and at slightly education to potential future students.

I’ve split this into two posts based on my opinion on difficulty, which is subjective but probably correlates fairly positively with most people’s. The account of Q1 is guest-written by two British students, based on their solutions during the competition.

Problem 1

a) Prove that every positive integer n can be written uniquely in the form

n = \sum_{j=1}^{2k+1} (-1)^{j-1} 2^{m_j},

where k\geq 0 and 0 \leq m_1 < m_2 < \cdots < m_{2k+1} are integers. This number k is called the weight of n.

b) Find (in closed form) the difference between the number of positive integers at most 2^{2017} with even weight and the number of positive integers at most 2^{2017} with odd weight.

Rosie Cates and Neel Nanda:

a) We are trying to express n in terms of powers of 2, so it seems sensible to write in binary. As 2^{m_1} is the smallest power of 2, this term is responsible for the last 1 in the binary representation of n. Let $letx x = n – 2^{m_1}$ (ie n with the last 1 removed from its binary expansion). Now if we pair up terms in the sum to get

x = (2^{m_{2k}+1} - 2^{m_{2k}}) + \ldots + (2^{m_3} - 2^{m_2}),

we can see that each bracket looks like 11…100…0 when written in binary. Also, the condition that m_i < m_{i+1} is equivalent to ensuring that we do not break any strings of consecutive 1s that were in the binary expansion of x (so for example 111110 = 110000 +1110 is not allowed). So writing x in the desired form is the same as writing it as the sum of numbers of the form 11…100\ldots 0 without breaking any strings of 1s. For example

1110100110 = 1110000000 + 100000 + 110.

Clearly there is exactly one way of doing this for every x, so (as each n has exactly one x) there is exactly one way to do it for each n as well.

This approach allows k to be understood differently. Write n in binary and remove the last 1; now count the number of groups of consecutive 1s. This is equal to k.

b) The second half of the problem becomes a lot simpler with the observation that n\leq 2^{m_{2k+1}}, as


and the sequence m_n is increasing, so each bracket is positive. As each sequence of (m_n)s corresponds uniquely to an integer, this means we just want to count sequences of (m_n)s with greatest term at most 2017. The sequence is increasing, so each sequence corresponds to a subset of {0, 1, …, 2017} of size (2k+1). There are \binom{2018}{2k+1} subsets of size (2k+1), so the question reduces to finding a closed form for \sum_{k=0}^{1008} (-1)^k {{2018}\choose{2k+1}}.

This is reminiscent of a classic problem in combinatorics: using the binomial theorem to evaluate sums of binomial coefficients weighted by powers. The best example is

\sum_{k=0}^n (-1)^k \binom{n}{k} =(1-1)^n=0,

but here rather than (-1) we want something whose square is $(-1)$, so we consider the complex number i. Using the same ideas, we get that

\sum_{r=0}^{2018} i^r \binom{2018}{r}=(1+i)^{2018},

which contains what we want, but also binomial coefficients with even r. But if r is even, i^r is real, and if r is odd, i^r is imaginary. So the sum we want appears as the imaginary part, that is

\mathrm{Im}\left((1+i)^{2018}\right)=\mathrm{Im}\left((\sqrt{2} \cdot e^{\frac{i\pi}{4}})^{2018}\right)=2^{1009}.

Dominic: note that in both parts, the respective authors find slightly more than what they were required to. That is, respectively, the interpretation of k, and a bound on m_{2k+1}. The latter is an excellent example of the general notion that sometimes it is better to use a stronger statement than what you actually require in an induction argument (here for existence). The stronger statement (which you guess from playing with examples) makes the inductive step easier, as it’s then clear that the new term you get is distinct from the terms you already have.

Problem 4

In the Cartesian plane, let \mathcal G_1, \mathcal G_2 be the graphs of the quadratic functions f_1(x) = p_1x^2 + q_1x + r_1, f_2(x) = p_2x^2 + q_2x + r_2, where p_1 > 0 > p_2. The graphs \mathcal G_1, \mathcal G_2 cross at distinct points A and B. The four tangents to \mathcal G_1, \mathcal G_2 at~A and B form a convex quadrilateral which has an inscribed circle. Prove that the graphs \mathcal{G}_1 and \mathcal{G}_2 have the same axis of symmetry.

This question is quite unusual for an olympiad of this kind, and I was initially skeptical, but then it grew on me. Ultimately, I was unsurprised that many contestants attacked entirely with coordinate calculations. If you use this strategy, you will definitely get there in the end, but you have to accept that you aren’t allowed to make any mistakes. And because of the amount of symmetry in the configuration, even if you make a mistake, you might still get the required answer, and so not notice that you’ve made a mistake. But I decided I liked it because various levels of geometric insight either reduced or removed the nastier calculations.

Typically, one could gain geometric insight by carefully observing an accurate diagram, but an accurate parabola is hard to draw. However, even from a vague diagram, we might guess the key intermediate property of the configuration, which is that the line joining the other two points in the quadrilateral is parallel to the y-axis. This means that they have the same x-coordinate, and indeed this x-coordinate must in fact be the same for any parabola through A and B, so it is reasonable to guess that it is \frac{x_A+x_B}{2}, the mean of the x-coordinates of A and B.

Since you know this is the goal, it’s not too bad to calculate the equations of the tangent lines directly, and demonstrate this algebraically. But I was determined to use the focus-directrix definition of a parabola. Either recall, or digest the interesting new fact that a parabola may be defined as the locus of points which are the same distance from a fixed point P (the focus), and a fixed line \ell (the directrix). Naturally, the distance to the line is perpendicular distance.

To ensure the form given in the statement where y is a quadratic function of x, in this setting the directrix should be parallel to the x-axis. To define the tangent to the parabola at A, let A’ be the foot of the perpendicular from A onto \ell, so AA’=PA. I claim that the tangent at A is given by the perpendicular bisector of A’P. Certainly this passes through A, and it is easy to convince yourself that it can’t pass through any other point B on the parabola, since BA’> PB, as A’ is on \ell but is not the foot of the perpendicular form B to \ell. This final observation is truly a lot more obvious if you’re looking at a diagram.

We now want to finish geometrically too. In our quadrilateral, one diagonal is parallel to the y-axis, and it will suffice to show that the existence of an incircle implies that A and B must have the same y-coordinate. We have just shown A and B are the same (horizontal) distance from the other diagonal. So certainly if they have the same y-coordinate, then the quadrilateral is a kite, and the sums of opposite sides are equal, which is equivalent to the existence of an incircle. One could then finish by arguing that this ceases to be true if you move one of A and B in either direction, or by some short explicit calculation if such a perturbation argument leaves you ill at ease.

Question 5

Fix an integer n \geq 2. An n x n  sieve is an n x n array with n cells removed so that exactly one cell is removed from every row and every column. A stick is a 1 x k or k x 1 array for any positive integer k. For any sieve A, let m(A) be the minimal number of sticks required to partition A. Find all possible values of m(A), as A varies over all possible n x n sieves.

This is a fairly classic competition problem, and while in my opinion the statement isn’t particularly fascinating, it’s interesting that it admits such a wide range of approaches.

As ever, you need to start by playing around with the setup, and guessing that the answer is 2n-2, and not thinking `it can’t possibly be the same answer as Q3??’ Then think about reasons why you couldn’t do better than 2n-2. My very vague reason was that if you only use horizontal sticks, the answer is clearly 2n-2, and the same if you only use vertical sticks. But it feels like you can only make life harder for yourself if you try to use both directions of sticks in lots of places. Note that some sort of argument involving averaging over stick lengths is definitely doomed to fail unless it takes into account the Latin square nature of the location of holes! For example, if you were allowed to put all the holes in the first row, m(A) would be n-1.

Induction is tempting. That is, you remove some number of sticks, probably those corresponding to a given hole, to reduce the board to an (n-1)x(n-1) configuration. If you do this, you need to be clear about why you can remove what you want to remove (in particular, the number of sticks you want to remove), and whether it’s qualitatively different if the hole in question lies on the border of the board. In all of these settings, you want to be careful about 1×1 sticks, which it’s easy inadvertently to count as both horizontal and vertical. This is unlikely to affect the validity of any argument (just picking either an arbitrary or a canonical direction if it’s 1×1 should be fine) but does make it much harder to check the validity.

Joe exhibited directly a construction of 2n-2 cells which must be covered by different sticks. This approach lives or dies by the quality of the written argument. It must look general, even though any diagram you draw must, almost by definition, correspond to some particular case. Alternatively, since the problem is set on a grid, the cells correspond naturally to edges of a bipartite graph, where classes correspond to rows and columns. The holes form a perfect matching on this bipartite graph. But, as Harvey observed, if you split the rows and columns in two, on either side of the relevant hole (or not in the 2+2 cases where the hole is at the border), you have a (2n-2)+(2n-2) bipartite graph, and a perfect matching here corresponds to a set of cells which must be covered by different sticks. This is an ingenious idea, and if you’ve recently met Hall’s Marriage Theorem, which gives a verifiable criterion for the existence of such a perfect matching, there are few better uses of your next ten minutes than to check whether Hall’s condition a) should hold; b) can be proven to hold in this setting.

Antichains in the grid

In the previous post on this topic, we discussed Dilworth’s theorem on chains and antichains in a general partially ordered set. In particular, whatever the size of the largest antichain in a poset, it is possible to partition the poset into exactly that many chains. So for various specific posets, or the directed acyclic graphs associated to them, we are interested in the size of this largest antichain.

The following example turned out to be more interesting than I’d expected. At a conventional modern maths olympiad, there are typically three questions on each paper, and for reasons lost in the mists of time, each student receives an integer score between 0 and 7 per question. A natural question to ask is “how many students need to sit a paper before it’s guaranteed that one will scores at least as highly as another on every question?” (I’m posing this as a straight combinatorial problem – the correlation between scores on different questions will be non-zero and presumably positive, but that is not relevant here.)

The set of outcomes is clearly \{0,1,\ldots,7\}^3, with the usual weak domination partial order inherited from \mathbb{R}^3. Then an antichain corresponds to a set of triples of scores such that no triple dominates another triple. So the answer to the question posed is: “the size of the largest antichain in this poset, plus one.”

In general, we might ask about \{1,2,\ldots,n\}^d, again with the weak domination ordering. This directed graph, which generalises the hypercube as well as our example, is called the grid.

Heuristics for the largest antichain

Retaining the language of test scores on multiple questions is helpful. In the previous post, we constructed a partition of the poset into antichains, indexed by the elements of some maximal chain, by starting with the sources, then looking at everything descended only from sources, and so on. (Recall that the statement that this is possible was referred to as the dual of Dilworth’s theorem.) In the grid, there’s a lot of symmetry (in particular under the mapping x\mapsto n+1-x in every coordinate), and so you end up with the same family of antichains whether you work upwards from the sources or downwards from the sinks. (Or vice versa depending on how you’ve oriented your diagram…) The layers of antichains also have a natural interpretation – each layer corresponds to a given total score. It’s clear a priori why each of these is an antichain. If A scores the same as B overall, but strictly more on the first question, this must be counterbalanced by a strictly lower score on another question.

So a natural guess for the largest antichain is the largest antichain corresponding to some fixed total score. Which total score should this be? It ought to be the middle layer, that is total score \frac{(n+1)d}{2}, or the two values directly on either side if this isn’t an integer. My intuition was probabilistic. The uniform distribution on the grid is achieved by IID uniform distributions in each coordinate, which you can think of as a random walk, especially if you subtract off the mean first. It feels that any symmetric random walk should have mode zero or next-to-zero. Certainly this works asymptotically in a rescaled sense by CLT, and in a slightly stronger sense by local CLT, but we don’t really want asymptotics here.

When I started writing the previous paragraph, I assumed there would be a simple justification for the claim that the middle layer(s) was largest, whether by straight enumeration, or some combinatorial argument, or even generating functions. Perhaps there is, and I didn’t spot it. Induction on d definitely works though, with a slightly stronger hypothesis that the layer sizes are symmetric around the median, and monotone on either side of the median. The details are simple and not especially interesting, so I won’t go into them.

From now on, the hypothesis is that this middle layer of the grid is the largest antichain. Why shouldn’t it, for example, be some mixture of middle-ish layers? (*) Well, heuristically, any score sequence in one layer removes several possibilities from a directly adjacent layer, and it seems unlikely that this effect is going to cancel out if you take some intermediate number of score sequences in the first layer. Also, the layers get smaller as you go away from the middle, so because of the large amount of symmetry (coordinates are exchangeable etc), it feels reasonable that there should be surjections between layers in the outward direction from the middle. The union of all these surjections gives a decomposition into chains.

This result is in fact true, and its proof by Bollobas and Leader, using shadows and compression can be found in the very readable Sections 0 and 1 of [1].

Most of the key ideas to a compression argument are present in the case n=2, for which some notes by Leader can be found here, starting with Proof 1 of Theorem 3, the approach of which is developed over subsequent sections. We treat the case n=2, but focusing on a particularly slick approach that does not generalise as successfully. We also return to the original case d=3 without using anything especially exotic.

Largest antichain in the hypercube – Sperner’s Theorem

The hypercube \{0,1\}^d is the classical example. There is a natural correspondence between the vertices of the hypercube, and subsets of [d]. The ordering on the hypercube corresponds to the ordering given by containment on \mathcal{P}([d]). Almost by definition, the k-th layer corresponds to subsets of size k, and thus includes \binom{d}{k} subsets. The claim is that the size of the largest antichain is \binom{d}{\lfloor d/2 \rfloor}, corresponding to the middle layer if d is even, and one of the two middle layers if d is odd. This result is true, and is called Sperner’s theorem.

I know a few proofs of this from the Combinatorics course I attended in my final year at Cambridge. As explained, I’m mostly going to ignore the arguments using compression and shadows, even though these generalise better.

As in the previous post, one approach is to exhibit a covering family of exactly this number of disjoint chains. Indeed, this can be done layer by layer, working outwards from the middle layer(s). The tool here is Hall’s Marriage Theorem, and we verify the relevant condition by double-counting. Probably the hardest case is demonstrating the existence of a matching between the middle pair of layers when d is odd.

Take d odd, and let d':= \lfloor d/2\rfloor. Now consider any subset S of the d’-th layer \binom{[d]}{d'}. We now let the upper shadow of S be

\partial^+(S):= \{A\in \binom{[d]}{d'+1}\,:\, \exists B\in S, B\subset A\},

the sets in the (d’+1)-th layer which lie above some set in S. To apply Hall’s Marriage theorem, we have to show that |\partial^+(S)|\ge |S| for all choice of S.

We double-count the number of edges in the hypercube from S to \partial^+(S). Firstly, for every element B\in S, there are exactly d’ relevant edges. Secondly, for every element A\in\partial^+(S), there are exactly d’ edges to some element of \binom{[d]}{d'}, and so in particular there are at most d’ edges to elements of S. Thus

d' |S|=|\text{edges }S\leftrightarrow\partial^+(S)| \le d' |\partial^+(S)|,

which is exactly what we require for Hall’s MT. The argument for the matching between other layers is the same, with a bit more notation, but also more flexibility, since it isn’t a perfect matching.

The second proof looks at maximal chains. Recall, in this context, a maximal chain is a sequence \mathcal{C}=B_0\subset B_1\subset\ldots\subset B_d where each B_k:= \binom{[d]}{k}. We now consider some largest-possible antichain \mathcal{A}, and count how many maximal chains include an element A\in\mathcal{A}. If |A|=k, it’s easy to convince yourself that there are \binom{d}{r} such maximal chains. However, given A\ne A'\in\mathcal{A}, the set of maximal chains containing A and the set of maximal chains containing A’ are disjoint, since \mathcal{A} is an antichain. From this, we obtain

\sum_{A\in\mathcal{A}} \binom{d}{|A|} \le d!. (**)

Normally after a change of notation, so that we are counting the size of the intersection of the antichain with each layer, this is called the LYM inequality after Lubell, Yamamoto and Meshalkin. The heuristic is that the sum of the proportions of layers taken up by the antichain is at most one. This is essentially the same as earlier at (*). This argument can also be phrased probabilistically, by choosing a *random* maximal chain, and considering the probability that it intersects the proposed largest antichain, which is, naturally, at most one. Of course, the content is the same as this deterministic combinatorial argument.

Either way, from (**), the statement of Sperner’s theorem follows rapidly, since we know that \binom{d}{|A|}\le \binom{d}{\lfloor d/2\rfloor} for all A.

Largest antichain in the general grid

Instead of attempting a proof or even a digest of the argument in the general case, I’ll give a brief outline of why the previous arguments don’t transfer immediately. It’s pretty much the same reason for both approaches. In the hypercube, there is a lot of symmetry within each layer. Indeed, almost by definition, any vertex in the k-th layer can be obtained from any other vertex in the k-th layer just by permuting the labels (or permuting the coordinates if thinking as a vector).

The hypercube ‘looks the same’ from every vertex, but that is not true of the grid. Consider for clarity the n=8, d=3 case we discussed right at the beginning, and compare the scores (7,0,0) and (2,2,3). The number of maximal chains through (7,0,0) is \binom{14}{7}, while the number of maximal chains through (2,2,3) is \binom{7}{2, 2,3}\binom{14}{4,5,5}, and the latter is a lot larger, which means any attempt to use the second argument is going to be tricky, or at least require an extra layer of detail. Indeed, exactly the same problem arises when we try and use Hall’s condition to construct the optimal chain covering directly. In the double-counting section, it’s a lot more complicated than just multiplying by d’, as was the case in the middle of the hypercube.

Largest antichain in the d=3 grid

We can, however, do the d=3 case. As we will see, the main reason we can do the d=3 case is that the d=2 case is very tractable, and we have lots of choices for the chain coverings, and can choose one which is well-suited to the move to d=3. Indeed, when I set this problem to some students, an explicit listing of a maximal chain covering was the approach some of them went for, and the construction wasn’t too horrible to state.

[Another factor is that it computationally feasible to calculate the size of the middle layer, which is much more annoying in d>3.]

[I’m redefining the grid here as \{0,1,\ldots,n-1\}^d rather than \{1,2,\ldots,n\}^d.]

The case distinction between n even and n odd is going to make both the calculation and the argument annoying, so I’m only going to treat the even case, since n=8 was the original problem posed. I should be honest and confess that I haven’t checked the n odd case, but I assume it’s similar.

So when n is even, there are two middle layers namely \frac{3n}{2}-2, \frac{3n}{2}-1 (corresponding to total score 10 and total score eleven in the original problem). I calculated the number of element in the \frac{3n}{2}-1 layer by splitting based on the value of the first coordinate. I found it helpful to decompose the resulting sum as

\sum_{k=0}^{n-1} = \sum_{k=0}^{\frac{n}{2}-1} + \sum_{k=\frac{n}{2}}^{n-1},

based on whether there is an upper bound, or a lower bound on the value taken by the second coordinate. This is not very interesting, and I obtained the answer \frac{3n^2}{4}, and of course this is an integer, since n is even.

Now to show that any antichain has size at most \frac{3n^2}{4}. Here we use our good control on the chain coverings in the case d=2. We note that there is a chain covering of the (n,d=2) grid where the chains have 2n-1, 2n-3,…, 3, 1 elements (%). We get this by starting with a maximal chain, then taking a maximal chain on what remains etc. It’s pretty much the first thing you’re likely to try.

Consider an antichain with size A in the (n,d=3) grid, and project into the second and third coordinates. The image sets are distinct, because otherwise a non-trivial pre-image would be a chain. So we have A sets in the (n,d=2) grid. How many can be in each chain in the decomposition (%). Well, if there are more than n in any chain in (%), then two must have been mapped from elements of the (n,d=3) grid with the same first coordinate, and so satisfy a containment relation. So in fact there are at most n image points in any of the chains of (%). So we now have a bound of n^2. But of course, some of the chains in (%) have length less than n, so we are throwing away information. Indeed, the number of images points in a given chain is at most

\max(n,\text{length of chain}),

and so the number of image points in total is bounded by

n+\ldots+n+ (n-1)+(n-3)+\ldots+1,

where there are n/2 copies of n in the first half of the sum. Evaluating this sum gives \frac{3n^2}{4}, exactly as we wanted.


[1] – Bollobas, Leader (1991) – Compressions and Isoperimetric Inequalities. Available open-access here.

The Envelope ‘Paradox’

At the recent IMO in Hong Kong, there were several moments where the deputy leaders had to hang around, and I spent some of these moments discussing the following problem with Stephen Mackereth, my counterpart from New Zealand. He’s a mathematically-trained philosopher, so has a similar level of skepticism to me, but for different reasons, regarding supposed paradoxes in probability. Because, as we will see shortly, I don’t think this is a paradox in even the slightest fashion, I think there’s probably too much written about this on the internet already. So I’m aware that contributing further to this oeuvre is hypocritical, but we did the thinking in HKUST’s apparently famous Einstein Cafe, so it makes sense to write down the thoughts.

[And then forget about it for eight weeks. Oops.]

The ‘Paradox’

Here’s the situation. A cryptic friend gives you an envelope containing some sum of money, and shows you a second envelope. They then inform you that one of the envelopes contains twice as much money as the other. It’s implicit in this that the choice of which is which is uniform. You have the option to switch envelopes. Should you?

The supposed paradox arises by considering the amount in your envelope, say X. In the absence of further information, it is equally likely that the other envelope contains X/2 as 2X. Therefore, the average value of the other envelope is

\frac12 \left(\frac{X}{2}+2X \right)= \frac54 X > X.

So you should switch, since on average you gain money. But this is paradoxical, since the assignment of larger and smaller sums was uniform, so switching envelope should make no difference.

Probabilistic setup

This is not supposed to be a problem on a first-year probability exercise sheet. It’s supposed to be conducive to light discussion. So saying “I won’t engage with this problem until you tell me what the probability space is” doesn’t go down terribly well. But it is important to work out what is random, and what isn’t.

There are two sources of randomness, or at least ignorance. Firstly, there is the pair of values contained in the envelopes. Secondly, there is the assignment of this pair of values to the two envelopes. The second is a source of randomness, and this problem is founded on the premise that this second stage is ‘symmetric enough’ to smooth over any complications in the first stage. If we think that probability isn’t broken (and that’s what I think), then the answer is probably that the second stage isn’t symmetric enough.

Or, that the first stage isn’t very well-defined. In what follows, I’m going to make the second stage very symmetric, at the expense of setting up the first stage in what seems to me a reasonable way using the conventional language of probability theory to record our ignorance about the values in play.

So what’s the first stage? We must have a set of possible pairs of values taken by the envelopes. Let’s call this A, so

A\subset \mathbb{A}:=\{(x,2x)\,:\, x\in (0,\infty)\}.

Maybe we know what A is, but maybe we don’t, in which we should take A=\mathbb{A}, on the grounds that any pair is possible. Suppose that your friend has chosen the pair of values according to some distribution on \mathbb{A}, which we’ll assume has a density f, which is known by you. Maybe this isn’t the actual density, but it serves perfectly well if you treat it as *your* opinion on the likelihood. Then this actually does reduce to a problem along the lines of first-year probability, whether or not you get to see the amount in your envelope.

Suppose first that you do get to see the amount, and that it is x. Then the conditional probabilities that the pair is (x/2,x) or (x,2x) are, respectively

\frac{f(x/2,x)}{f(x/2,x)+f(x,2x)},\quad \frac{f(x,2x)}{f(x/2,x)+f(x,2x)}.

So you can work out your expected gain by switching, and decide accordingly. If you don’t know the value in your envelope, you can still work out the probability that it is better (in expectation) to switch, but this isn’t really a hugely meaningful measure, unless it is zero or one.

It’s worth noting that if you can view inside your envelope, and you know A has a particular form, then the game becomes determined. For example, if

A\subset \{(n,2n), n\text{ an odd integer}\},

then life is very easy. If you open your envelope and see an odd integer, you should switch, and if you see an even integer you shouldn’t.

We’ll return at the end to discuss a case where it is always better to switch, and why this isn’t actually a paradox.

Improper prior and paradox of resampling when \mathbb{E}=\infty

For now though, let’s assume that we don’t know anything about the amounts of money in the envelopes. Earlier, we said that “in the absence of further information, it is equally likely that the other envelope contains X/2 as 2X”. In the language of a distribution on \mathbb{A}, we are taking the uniform measure. Of course this not a distribution, in the same way that there isn’t a uniform distribution on the positive reals.

However, if this is your belief about the values in the pair of envelopes, what do you think is the mean value of the content of your envelope? Well, you think all values are equally likely. So, even though this isn’t a distribution, you pretty much think the value of your envelope has infinite expectation.

[This is where the philosophy comes in I guess. Is (expressing uniform ignorance about the content of the other envelope given knowledge of your own) the same as (expressing uniform ignorance of both envelopes at the beginning)? I think it is, even though it has a different consequence here, since the former can be turned into a proper distribution, whereas the latter cannot.]

Let’s briefly consider an alternative example. It’s fairly easy to conjure up distributions which are almost surely finite but which have infinite expectation. For example \mathbb{P}(X=2^k)=2^{-k} for k=1,2,…, which is the content of the *St. Petersburg paradox*, another supposed paradox in probability, but one whose resolution is a bit more clear.

Anyway, let X and Y be independent copies of such a distribution. Now suppose your friend offers you an envelope containing amount X. You look at the value, and then you are offered the opportunity to switch to an envelope containing amount Y. Should you?

Well, if expectation is what you care about, then you definitely should. Because with probability one, you are staring at a finite value in your envelope, whereas the other unknown envelope promises infinite expectation, which is certainly larger than the value that you’re looking at.

Is this also a paradox? I definitely don’t think it is. The expectation of the content of your envelope is infinite, the expected gain is infinite with probability one, which is consistent with the expected content of the other envelope being infinite. [Note that you don’t want to be claiming that the expectation of X-Y is zero.]

An example density function

As an exercise that isn’t necessarily hugely interesting, let’s assume that f, the distribution of the smaller of the pair, is \mathrm{Exp}(\lambda). So the mean of this smaller number is 1/\lambda. Then, conditional on seeing x in my envelope, the expected value of the number in the other envelope is

\frac{\frac{x}{2} e^{-\lambda x/2} + 2x e^{-\lambda x}}{e^{-\lambda x/2}+ e^{-\lambda x}}. (*)

Some straightforward manipulation shows that this quantity is at least x (implying it’s advantageous to switch) precisely when

e^{-\lambda x/2}\ge \frac12.

That is, when x\le \frac{2\log 2}{\lambda}. The shape of this interval should fit our intuition, namely that the optimal strategy should be to switch if the value in your envelope is small enough.

The point of doing this calculation is to emphasise that it ceases to be an interesting problem, and certainly ceases to be a paradox of any kind, once we specify f concretely. It doesn’t matter whether this is some true distribution (ie the friend is genuinely sampling the values somehow at random), or rather a perceived likelihood (that happens to be normalisable).

What if you should always switch?

The statement of the paradox only really has any bite if the suggestion is that we should always switch. Earlier, we discussed potential objections to considering the uniform prior in this setting, but what about other possible distributions f which might lead to this conclusion?

As at (*), we can conclude that when f(x)+f(x/2)>0, we should switch on seeing x precisely if

f(x)\ge 2f\left(\frac{x}{2}\right).

Therefore, partitioning the support of f into a collection of geometric sequences with exponent 2, it is clear that the mean of f is infinite if everything is integer-valued. If f is real-valued, there are some complications, but so long as everything is measurable, the same conclusion will hold.

So the you-should-switch-given-x strategy can only hold for all values of x if f has infinite mean. This pretty much wraps up my feelings. If the mean isn’t infinite, the statement of the paradox no longer holds, and if it is infinite, then the paradox dissolves into a statement about trying to order various expectations, all of which are infinite.


Mathematical summary: it’s Bayes. Things may be exchangeable initially, but not once you condition on the value of one of them! Well, not unless you have a very specific prior.

Philosophical summary: everything in my argument depends on the premise that one can always describe the protagonist’s prior opinion on the contents of the pair of envelopes with a (possibly degenerate) distribution. I feel this is reasonable. As soon as you write down \frac12 \cdot\frac{x}{2} + \frac12 \cdot2x, you are doing a conditional expectation, and it’s got to be conditional with respect to something. Here it’s the uniform prior, or at least the uniform prior restricted to the set of values that are now possible given the revelation of your number.

Second mathematical summary: once you are working with the uniform prior, or any measure with infinite mean, there’s no reason why


with probability one (in terms of Y) should be surprising, since the LHS is (almost-surely) infinite while the RHS is almost surely finite, despite having infinite mean itself.

IMO 2016 Diary – Part Four

A pdf of this report is also available here.

Thursday 14th July

I have now spent a while thinking about square-free n in Q3 after rescaling, and I still don’t know what the markscheme should award it. I therefore request that Joe and Warren receive the same score as each other, and any other contestant who has treated this case. In my opinion this score should be at most one, mainly as a consolation, but potentially zero. However, we are offered two, and after they assure me this is consistent, I accept.

There is brief but high drama (by the standards of maths competitions) when we meet Angelo the Australian leader, who confirms that he has just accepted one mark for almost the same thing by his student Johnny. A Polish contestant in a similar situation remains pending, so we all return for a further meeting. I’m unconvinced that many of the coordinators have read all the scripts in question, but they settle on two for everyone, which is consistent if generous. The only drama on Q5 is the ferocious storm that sets in while I’m making final notes in the plaza. Again though, coordinator Gabriele has exactly the same opinion on our work as Geoff and I, apart from offering an additional mark for Lawrence’s now slightly damp partial solution.

And so we are finished well before lunch, with a total UK score of 165 looking very promising indeed. I’m particularly pleased with the attention to detail – Jacob’s 6 on Q4 is the only mark ‘dropped’, which is brilliant, especially since it hasn’t come at the expense of the students’ usual styles. We’ll have to wait until later to see just how well we have done.

It would be nice to meet the students to congratulate them in person, but they are with Jill on the somewhat inaccessible Victoria Peak, so instead I take a brief hike along the trail down the centre of HK Island, ending up at the zoo. This turned out to be free and excellent, though I couldn’t find the promised jaguar. There was, however, a fantastic aviary, especially the striking flock of scarlet ibis. A noisy group of schoolchildren are surrounding the primates, and one lemur with an evil glint in his eye swings over and languidly starts an activity which elicits a yelp from the rather harried teacher, who now has some considerable explaining to do.

With 1000 people all returning to UST at roughly 6.30, dinner is not dissimilar to feeding time at the zoo, and afterwards various leaders lock horns during the final jury meeting. Two countries have brought an unresolved coordination dispute to the final meeting, and for the first time since I became deputy leader, one of them is successful. Congratulations to the Koreans, who now have a third student with a highly impressive perfect score. Andy Loo and Geoff chair the meeting stylishly and tightly, and although there are many technical things to discuss, it doesn’t drag for too long. Eventually it’s time to decide the medal boundaries, and the snazzy electronic voting system makes this work very smoothly. I feel the gold and bronze cutoffs at 29 and 16 are objectively correct, and the 50-50 flexibility at silver swings towards generosity at 22. We can now confirm the UK scores as:

UKscoresThis is pretty much the best UK result in the modern era, placing 7th and with a medal tally tying with the famous food-poisoning-and-impossible-geometry IMO 1996 in India. But obviously this is a human story rather than just a 6×6 matrix with some summary statistics, and Harvey in particular is probably looking at the world and thinking it isn’t fair, while Warren’s gold is the ideal end to his four years at the IMO, two of which have ended one mark short. The American team are pretty keen to let everyone know that they’ve placed first for the second year in succession, and their remarkable six golds will hopefully allow scope for some good headlines. There is much to talk about, celebrate and commiserate, and this continues late into the night.

Friday 15th July

Our morning copy of the IMO Newsletter includes an interview with Joe, with the headline ‘Meh’. Frank Morgan has rather more to say, which is good news, since he’s delivering the IMO lecture on Pentagonal Tilings. He discusses the motivation of regular tilings where the ratio Perimeter/Area is minimised, starting from questions about honeycombs raised by the Roman author Varro! We move onto more mathematical avenues, including the interesting result of L’Huilier that given a valid set of angles, the associated polygon with minimal Perimeter/Area has an incircle, and the corresponding result for in-n-spheres in higher dimension. A brief diversion to the beach on the way home is punctuated with attempts to project the hyperbolic plane onto the sand.

The day’s main event is the closing ceremony, held at the striking Hong Kong Convention Centre. As usual, the adults and our students have been vigorously separated for the journey. As I arrive, it seems the UK boys have been directing a massed gathering behind the EU flag on stage, while the non-European teams are divided into two sides in a giant paper aeroplane dogfight. All attempts by the organisers to quash this jocularity are being ignored, and after bringing everyone here two hours early, I have minimal sympathy. Geoff sits on a secluded bench, and agrees to the many selfie requests from various teams with regal if resigned tolerance.

The ceremony is started by a fantastically charismatic school brass band, and proceeds with some brief speeches, and more astonishing drumming. Then it’s time to award the medals. Lawrence and Jacob get to go up together among the clump of 24-scorers, while Kevin from Australia does an excellent job of untangling his flag and medal while keeping hold of the ubiquitous cuddly koala. Neel has been threatened with death if he appears on stage again with an untucked shirt, but no direction is required for his and Warren’s smiles as they receive the gold medallists’ applause.

P1010513 (3)Afterwards, there is a closing banquet. We get to join British coordinators James and Joseph for a climate-defying carrot soup, followed by a rare diversion onto Western carbohydrates accompanying what is, for many of us, a first taste of caviar. Both Geoff and the American team are forced to make speeches at no notice. It is all generally rather formal, and fewer photographs are taken than usual. An attempt to capture Joe and Harvey looking miserable results in one the biggest grins of the evening. The UK and Australian teams have a thousand stickers and micro-koalas to give out as gifts, and some of the attempts at this descend into silliness. All clothing and body parts are fair game, and Jacob makes sure that Geoff is fully included. The UK and Australian leaders, variously coated, retreat from the carnage to the relative safety of our top-floor balcony as the IMO drifts to an end, until midnight, when it seems sensible to find out what the students are up to.

Saturday 16th July

This is what the students are up to. When we arrived at UST last week, everyone was given food vouchers to redeem at the campus’s various restaurants. Very very many of these are left over, and, despite the haute cuisine on offer earlier, people are hungry. They have therefore bought McDonalds. And I mean this literally. Animated by Jacob and American Michael, they have bought the entire stock of the nearest branch. If you want to know what 240 chicken nuggets looks like, come to common room IX.1, because now is your chance. Fortunately our team have made many friends and so after the Herculean task (I make no comment on which Herculean labour I feel this most resembles) of getting it to their common room, pretty much the entire IMO descends to help. Someone sets up a stopmotion of the slow erosion of the mountain of fries, while the usual card games start, and a group around a whiteboard tries to come up with the least natural valid construction for n=9 on Q2. Around 3.30am everything is gone, even the 30 Hello Kitties that came with the Happy Meals, and we’re pre-emptively well on the way to beating jetlag.

I wake up in time to wave Geoff off, but he’s been bumped to an earlier bus, so the only thing I see is Lawrence and colleagues returning from a suicidal 1500m round the seaside athletics track. Our own departure is mid-morning, and on the coach the contestants are discussing some problems they’ve composed during the trip. They’ll soon be able to submit these, and by the sounds of it, anyone taking BMO and beyond in 2018 has plenty to look forward to. Jacob has already mislaid his room key and phone, and at the airport he’s completed the hat-trick by losing one of the two essential passport insert pages. Fortunately, it turns out that he’s lost the less essential one, so we can clear security and turn thoughts towards lunch.

Jill has given me free licence to choose our dim sum, so the trip ends with pork knuckle and chicken feet. Our aim is to stay awake for the whole flight, and Neel helps by offering round copies of a Romanian contest from 2010, while I start proof-reading. By the time they finish their paper, many rogue commas have been mercilessly expunged. It should be daylight outside, but the windows are all shut, and by the ninth hour time starts to hang drowsily in a way that combinatorial geometry cannot fix, and so the mutual-waking-up pact kicks in, aided by Cathay Pacific’s unlimited Toblerone. Winding through Heathrow immigration, Joe unveils his latest airport trick of sleeping against vertical surfaces. We diverge into the non-humid night.


IMG_0468 original (2)There’s a great deal more to life and mathematics than problem-solving competitions, but our contestants and many other people have worked hard to prepare for IMO 2016 over the past months (and years). So I hope I’m allowed to say that I’m really pleased for and proud of our UK team for doing so well! The last three days of an IMO are very busy and I haven’t had as much time as I’d have liked to talk in detail about the problems. But I personally really liked them, and thought the team showed great taste in choosing this as the British annus mirabilis in which to produce lots of beautiful solutions.

But overall, this is really just the icing on the cake of a training progamme that’s introduced lots of smart young people to each other, and to the pleasures of problem-solving, as well as plenty of interesting general mathematics. I have my own questions to address, and (unless I’m dramatically missing something) these can’t be completed in 4.5 hours, but as ever I’ve found the atmosphere of problem discussion totally infectious, so I hope we are doing something right.

Lawrence and Warren are now off to university. I’m sure they’ll thrive in every way at this next stage, and hopefully might enjoy the chance to contribute their energy and expertise to future generations of olympiad students. The other four remain eligible for IMO 2017 in Brazil, and while they will doubtless have high personal ambitions, I’m sure they’ll also relish the position as ideal role models for their younger colleagues over the year ahead. My own life will be rather different for the next two years, but our camp for new students is held in my no-longer-home-town Oxford in a few weeks’ time, and I’m certainly feeling excited about finding some new problems and doing as much as possible of the cycle all over again!

IMO 2016 Diary – Part Three

Sunday 10th July

I’m awake at 6am and there’s nothing to do, so take a short run along the edge of the bay. I meet an old lady singing along to a walkman (yes, really) while doing taichi. She encourages me to join and it seems rude to refuse. Suffice it to say I’m as grateful no video evidence exists as she should be that no audio recording was made. Six-hundred mathematicians queueing for powdered eggs seems like an unwelcome start to the day, so we are self-catering. The guides have been commanded to show every student how to find their place in the exam hall, and I approve of Allison’s contempt for the triviality of this task.

The main event of the day is the opening ceremony, held at the Queen Elizabeth stadium in the centre of Hong Kong Island. To no-one’s surprise, this involves a lot of time waiting around in the stifling UST plaza, which the students use to take a large number of photographs. The UK and Australian boys are smartly turned out as usual, but the polyester blazers are rather ill-suited to this tropical conditions, so we invoke Red Sea rig until air conditioning becomes available. The Iceland team are particularly keen to seek out the English members for reasons connected to a football match of which Neel proudly claims total ignorance. I picked up an EU flag for next-to-nothing last Friday, and now Jacob and Warren prove very popular as they circulate inviting our (for now) European colleagues to join us behind the stars.

The deputies are segregated in an upper tier and obliged to watch a rehearsal of the parade. Some of the organisers have a confused interpretation of the IMO roles. I still have some of the uniform with me, but an official says it is literally impossible for me to give it to the team. She is small and Joe Benton can catch flying ties as well as colds, so it turns out to be literally entirely possible, but for my trouble I get called ‘a very bad boy’.

Many hours after we left our rooms, the ceremony starts, and is actually very good, with a handful of well-chosen speeches, a mercifully quickfire parade of teams, and musical interludes from a full symphony orchestra, with various traditional and non-traditional percussion. The new IMO song Every day in love we are one involves a B section accompanied by a melange of watercooler bottles, but despite its catchy conclusion about maths, friendship and beyond, I suspect it may not trouble the top of the charts.

Monday 11th July

It’s the morning of the first IMO paper, and you can feel both the excitement and the humidity in the air. Some of our boys are looking a bit under the weather, but we know from past experience that the adrenaline from settling down in a room of 600 young contestants who’ve been preparing for exactly this can carry them through anything. I skip an excursion in order to receive a copy of the contest paper. Security is tight, and the deputies who have chosen this option are locked in a lecture theatre for two hours, and our bathroom visits monitored with commendable attention to detail. I guess that the combinatorial second problem is most likely to provoke immediate discussion, so I spend my time working through the details of the argument, just in time to meet our contestants when their 4.5 hours are up.

Q3 has been found hard by everyone, and Q2 has been found hard by other countries. Harvey’s kicking himself for drawing the wrong diagram for the geometry, an error that is unlikely to improve Geoff’s mood when he receives the scripts later today. Apart from that, we have a solid clutch of five solutions to each of the first two problems, and various nuggets of progress on the final problem, which is an excellent start. Several of the team are itching to keep trying to finish Q3, but the campus is likely to be annoying hotbed of spurious gossip all day, so Allison and I take them out. The very convenient MTR takes us under the harbour while the students and I debate the usefulness of the square-free case, and how well it is preserved under rescaling so that the circumcentre is a lattice point.

As we emerge above ground, Jacob is entranced by the live-action Finding Dory playground at Causeway Bay, and we toy with buying a pig’s trotter from a nearby market, but not even Lawrence is feeling adventurous enough with another exam tomorrow. We travel over to Kowloon via double-decker tram and ferry, and fortified by ice cream, take lots of photographs of the unique HK skyline, where even the giant waterfront office towers are dwarfed by Victoria Peak, which the contestants will visit while I’m marking. On our return journey, some of the team are impressed by the HK rush hour, indicating that they’ve clearly never tried to change line at Leicester Square around 6pm on a Friday…

Tuesday 12th July

Another morning, another trek uphill to a 4.5 hour exam. Time passes rapidly, especially now I’ve worked out how to order coffee without the ubiquitous condensed milk. The security arrangements concerning the deputies’ copies of the paper have been increased even further, but the IMO photographers have outdone themselves, and published on Instagram some pictures of the exam room with a level of crispness such that it’s clear the paper includes no geometry, and after finally getting hold of a proper hard copy, it looks like a paper which the UK team should really enjoy.

As so often after IMO papers, there is a range of reactions. Lawrence is unsure whether he presented his exemplar polynomial in a form that actually works. Joe knows and I know that he could easily have got at least 35 on these papers, but after over-meta-thinking himself on Q5, this isn’t his year. Like Aeneas gazing on the ruins of Troy, sunt lacrimae rerum, but also plans for new foundations. By contrast, Harvey has atoned for yesterday’s geometric lapse with what sounds like a perfect score today. Warren and Neel seem to be flying overall, and are doing a good job of keeping their excitement under control while the others muse. There’s plenty to think about, and Geoff has now arrived bearing yesterday’s scripts and several novels’ worth of anecdotes from the leaders’ site.

Before getting down to business, it feels sensible to walk off the Weltschmerz, and provide an outlet for joy in the nearby Clearwater Bay country park. There’s a long trail all over the New Territories, and we join it for a brief but purposeful stroll up through the light jungle and along the ridge. We’re confident we didn’t find the global maximum, but we find a couple of local maxima with great views out around the coastline, which seems to have Hausdorff dimension slightly greater than 1. We see some enormous spiders (though the Australians are substantially less impressed) before ending up an uncontroversial minimum where Jill has bedded in with merciful bottles of water on the beach. To say we are sticky doesn’t even begin to cover it but, crucially, we are no longer consumed by the morning’s events.

The UK boys are now masters of the complicated UST food court ordering process, and Warren endears himself to Geoff by producing a steaming bowl of spicy ramen as if by magic. The contestants have a ‘cultural night’, which apparently includes a greater number of hedge fund representatives than one might have expected. For me, it’s a night in with Geoff, green tea and the scripts for Q2. Joe and Neel have filled fourteen pages between them checking a construction in glorious detail, a step which Harvey has described in its entirety with the words ‘glue them together’. Overall, they are complicated but precise, and I have few concerns, so it’s only necessary to burn the candle at one end.

Wednesday 13th July

It’s time for coordination, where Geoff and I agree the UK marks with a team of local and international experts. The scheduling has assigned us the Q1 geometry early in the morning, which is a clear case of five perfect solutions, so we move to Q2. Coordinator Stephan seems very well-prepared for the UK scripts, so again we are finished in a matter of minutes. This allows us to bring forward our discussion of Q4. Jacob has made several small errors, all of which could be fixed by attacking his script with a pair of scissors and some glue. I believe the mark scheme should award this 4+2, and coordinator Juan thinks it should be 5+1. We are both open to each other’s interpretations, and have at least basic proficiency in addition, so again there is little need for debate.

The early evening brings the main challenge of the day, Q6, at which the UK has excelled. Our frogmaster Geoff has listed marks for five of our attempts, but the final script belonging to Joe has generated only the comment ‘magical mystery tour’. His solution to part a) diverges substantially from the most natural argument, and indeed involves wandering round the configuration, iteratively redirecting lines [1]. I am eventually convinced by the skeleton of the argument, though unconvinced I could complete the details in the finite time available.

We discuss the script with Lisa Sauermann, who explains some of the main challenges [2]. After a short pause for thought, we’re convinced by Lisa’s suggestion of equivalence with a point on the conventional markscheme. It would have been nice to have had more time to think about the subtleties myself, but this was some really interesting maths and we pack up for the day feeling very impressed with the quality of coordination here so far.

We and the coordinators are also very impressed with the quality of Harvey’s art. As a result, we now have an answer to the question ‘What should you do if you finish the IMO two hours early?’ Harvey’s answer at least is to draw a diagram of the Q6 configuration in the case n=3, where at each of the intersection points with the outer boundary stands a member of the current UK team. Precisely UNKs 1, 3 and 5 are wearing a frog. The real life sextet have been taken by Allison to Disneyland today, so some are potentially now wearing a princess. But while the contestants can let it go now, it’s off to work I go, as there’s still two sets of scripts left to ponder.

Harvey Q6[1] The mechanism for this redirection is neither canonical nor explained, and even in the best setup I can come up with in an hour or so of trying a huge class of diagrams, exactly half of the indices in the resulting calculation are off by \pm 1. The pressure of IMO Day Two can indeed derail even the most well-prepared contestants.

[2] There is a non-trivial difficulty when the area enclosed by our path is concave, as then some intersection points on the path arise from lines which are also part of the path. Handling the parity of such points looks easy once you’ve been shown it, but is definitely not obvious.