BMO2 2019

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

I know that lots of students view BMO2 as something actively worth preparing for. As with everything, this is a good attitude in moderation. Part of the goal in writing about the questions at such length is because I think at this level it’s particularly easy to devote more time than needed to preparation, and use it poorly. This year time is tight at the end of semester, and so what follows is closer to a set of complete solutions than usual, for which apologies, although I hope it is still possible to get a sense of how one might have come across the solutions yourself. Of course, this means that what follows will certainly spoil the problems for anyone who hasn’t tried them by themselves already.

The copyright for the problems is held by BMOS, and reproduced here with permission.

Question 1

As if often the case in geometry questions, what you’ve been asked to prove here isn’t the most natural property of the configuration. A good first step would be to see if there are stronger statements which are true.You are asked to show that triangle BPE is isosceles, but you aren’t told which of the three vertices is the apex. In fact, the task is to show that BP=EP or, alternatively, \angle BEP=\angle PBE. It’s not in general true that BE is equal to BP=EP. Unless you’re very unlucky, you can establish this from one diagram.

Now, you don’t immediately know whether it’s going to be easier to show that two lengths are equal, or that two angles are equal. However, you know that P lies on the perpendicular bisector of BC, hence BP=CP, which is a big clue. In particular, this means that P would be the centre of the circle through BCE. This clearly implies the given result, so deciding to prove this instead is a good strategy.

There are now a number of ways to prove this. Note that D lies on the altitude from A, and the feet of the perpendiculars from D to sides AB and AC are both present in the configuration so (just as for the orthocentre diagram) we can calculate most of the angles involving {A,B,C,D,E}.

For example, ABDE is cyclic, so \angle BED=\angle BAD = 90-\hat{B}, hence \angle AEB=\hat{B},\,\angle EBA=\hat{C}. This shows that AB is tangent to the circumcircle of BCE. But then the line L is a radius of this circle, and so its centre must be P, the unique point on L which is equidistant from B and C.

Alternatively, we could directly calculate \angle BEC=180-\hat{B} and \angle CBP=90-\hat{B}. But BPC is isosceles so \angle BPC=2\hat{B}. In general, the converse of ‘angle at centre is twice angle at circumference’ does not hold, but when we know P is equidistant from B and C this does hold, and so the angle relations precisely confirm that P is the centre of the circle through BPE.

My intention had been that the triangle would be acute-angled, to reduce the number of diagram options based on the magnitude of \hat{B}. If pursuing this second approach, one would need to be careful to account for whether P is on the same side or the opposite side of BC to E. That said, unless you do something very exotic, it should be exactly the same argument or calculation, and such a case distinction probably isn’t very important.

Question 2

First, a short remark. As stated, if n=5, a piece could move 3 squares to the left then 4 squares up, by Pythagoras. Handling all such options is likely to be quite annoying, since some values of n can be written in this Pythagorean form, and others cannot. This brings us to some good general principles for olympiad problems which look like this one:

  • A construction, when one exists, will probably be possible using simple versions of the allowed moves / structures.
  • An argument why a construction is impossible should probably be based on ideas which treat the simple moves similarly to the more complicated moves.

The setup of the problem encourages you to think about dividing the board into n^2 sub-boards, each with dimensions n\times n. Continue reading

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Harmonic ranges and Balkan MO 2018 Q1

A discussion of the non-geometry questions {Q2,Q3,Q4} on the Balkan MO 2018, held in Serbia, may be found here.

A blog post about the UK team’s experience is here, and a more formal pdf report is here.

Balkan MO 2018 Problem One

A quadrilateral ABCD is inscribed in a circle \Gamma, where AB>CD, and AB is not parallel to CD. Point M is the intersection of the diagonals AC and BD and the perpendicular from M to AB intersects the segment AB at the point E. If EM bisects the angle CED, prove that AB is a diameter of \Gamma.

I do not think that this was the hardest question on the paper, but I have the most to say about it, so it gets its own post. The section entitled ‘Step One’ contains (including the exercise at the end) a complete solution which only uses familiar material. The remaining sections have to quote some more obscure material, and may be of less interest to inexperienced readers, for whom many other Balkan and IMO geometry problems might be more appropriate.

Although I’ve been working hard to improve my geometry over the past couple of years, my attitude to the subject remains recreational. I prefer problems with a puzzle-like quality rather than this sort of question, whose statement is, after a little thought, not so surprising, even if most proof methods are either complicated (but elementary) or exotic. I feel most approaches to this problem require three steps: it’s easy to read a solution and forget that the first step really is a step!

I’m fairly vigorously opposed to software diagrams, as at least for me they discourage exactly the sort of insights one is generally hoping for. If you are reading this section carefully, almost certainly the most useful approach is to draw your own diagram, moderately accurate. There are only five points, though you might like to peek at Step Zero to inform drawing an accurate enough diagram without needing to apply the condition by eye.

Step Zero: Introduce X, the intersection of AD and BC.

To follow through any synthetic approach, it’s essential to have a good perspective on what the diagram means, and you will almost certainly need to introduce X to get such a perspective. Here are a couple of reasons why you might think to introduce X:

  • If the conclusion is true, then \angle ADB=\angle ACB=\pi/2, and so M lies on two altitudes, and thus is the orthocentre of some triangle. Which triangle? It’s triangle AXB.
  • Alternatively, the corresponding altitude is an angle bisector of the pedal triangle, and so the given diagram might remind you very strongly of this. Which triangle has pedal triangle CED? It’s AXB again.
  • If your diagram was accurate enough (and since part of the statement is a ‘given…’ this is not so easy) you might have noticed that AD, ME and BC were concurrent. Where? At X:= AD n BC, obviously.
  • In a similar vein, if the conclusion is true, then ADME and BEMC are both cyclic, and we are given ABCD cyclic. The radical axes of these three circles are AD, ME, and BC, so it is reasonable to guess that X, the (hypothesised) point of concurrence is relevant. See later.
  • You are given part of a complete quadrilateral (since M is one of the intersection points of quadrilateral ABCD$ – it might well be useful to complete it!
  • Random luck. It’s not unreasonable to consider arbitrary intersections, though this can be a low-reward strategy in general. If you did introduce X for no reason, you then had to guess, observe or realise that X, M and E should be collinear.

Step One: Proving X, M, and E are collinear.

This is harder than Step Two I think, so is postponed.

Step Two: showing the result, given X,M,E collinear

The official solution proposes introducing the reflection of A in E, which is certainly a good way to get lots of equal angles into useful places rather than not-quite-useful places. However, probably one didn’t spot this. Whether or not this was your motivation in the first place, once X is present, it’s natural to look for an argument based on the radical axis configuration. Our conclusion is equivalent to showing that ADME or BEMC are cyclic, and obviously ABCD is given as cyclic.

However, motivated by the radical axis configuration (Which you can look up – but I recommend not getting distracted by what radical axis means at this stage. It’s a theorem concerning when three pairs of points form three cyclic quadrilaterals, and it has a valid converse! I also recommend not drawing any circles when thinking about the diagram.) let E’ be second intersection of circles ADM and BMC. We know that E’ lies on line XM, and so it suffices to show that E’=E. But by chasing angles in the cyclic quadrilaterals involving E’, we find that if E\ne E', then \angle EE'A=\angle BE'E, and so \triangle AEE'\equiv \triangle BEE', which after a bit of thought implies triangle AXB is isosceles, which contradicts the given assumptions.

Step One: Proving X, M, and E are collinear

By introducing enough extra notation and additional structure, one can prove this part by similar triangles. I think a natural approach in a question with significant symmetry is to use the sine rule repeatedly. This has pros and cons:

  • Disadvantage: it’s easy to get into an endless sequence of mindless calculations, which don’t go anywhere and leads more towards frustration than towards insight.
  • Advantage: one can plan out the calculation without actually doing it. Imagine, to give a completely hypothetical example, trying to plan such an approach in a lurching Serbian minibus with only one diagram. You establish which ratios can be calculated in terms of other ratios, and wait until you’re back in a quiet room actually to do it.

You might try to show that \angle ADB=\angle ACD=\pi/2 directly by such a method, but I couldn’t make it work. I could plan out the following though:

  • Start with some labelling. I write \alpha,\beta for \angle XMD, \angle CMX, and a,b for \angle DME,\angle EMC. The goal is to prove that (a,\alpha) and (b,\beta) are complementary by showing that \frac{\sin \alpha}{\sin \beta}=\frac{\sin a}{\sin b}. Will also refer to \hat{A} for \angle BAD when necessary.
  • The first ratio of sines is the easier one. Using the equal length MX in triangle DXM, triangle CMX, and then the sine rule in triangle DXC, obtain \frac{\sin\alpha}{\sin\beta}=\frac{DX}{CX} = \frac{\sin \hat{A}}{\sin \hat{B}}.
  • We can obtain \frac{\sin a}{\sin b}=\frac{DE/DM}{CE/CM}, but this could get complicated. However, by exploiting the equal angles \angle DEA=\angle BEC, we can derive \frac{DE}{CE}=\frac{AD}{BC}\frac{\sin \hat{A}}{\sin\hat{B}}. But of course, ABCD$is cyclic, and so there are relevant similar triangles, from which \frac{AD}{BC}=\frac{DM}{CM}. So in fact we have shown \frac{\sin a}{\sin b}=\frac{\sin \hat{A}}{\sin \hat{B}}, as we wanted since now we know:

\frac{\sin \alpha}{\sin \beta}=\frac{\sin a}{\sin b}. (1)

  • We need to be careful as this doesn’t immediately imply \alpha=\pi-a and \beta=\pi-b. (For example, we need to exclude \alpha=a! It’s useful to exploit the fact that both a and b are obtuse here. For this type of thing, it’s more useful to focus on showing uniqueness (we definitely know one solution!) rather than finding all solutions. We are essentially asked to show uniqueness of a solution to an equation like

\frac{\sin(\theta-x)}{\sin x}=z, (2)

  • where \theta<\pi. After suitable rearranging, (2) determines \tan x, and so certainly has at most one solution in any interval of width less than \pi. This is a standard issue when using this type of argument and it’s important to know how roughly how to resolve such issues, as you wouldn’t want to waste significant competition time on such technicalities.

As an exercise, you can try to prove Step Two using this method. A hint: suppose M is not the orthocentre of triangle AXB. Introduce points C’,D’ such that \angle AD'B=\angle AC'B=\pi/2. Now AE bisects \angle DEC but also \angle D'EC'. Can you use this to find two congruent triangles which can’t possibly actually be congruent?

An alternative synthetic approach

UK student Alex started with the following observation. Simple angle-chasing in cyclic quadrilateral ABCD reveals that

\pi/2-\angle AME = \angle EAM=\angle MDC,\quad \pi/2 - \angle EMB=\angle MBE=\angle DCM. (3)

But we are given that M lies on the angle bisector of $\angle CED$. So we make the following claim.

Claim: the only point M which lies on the angle bisector and satisfies (3) is the incentre of triangle CED.

Remark: This claim is false. However, it is true that such a point can only be the incentre or E-excentre of triangle CED. One could salvage the original by restricting M to lie inside the triangle.

Remark: As was heavily discussed, this claim is certainly not well-known. It is very believable, but it is also not obvious either. An approach by ratios of sines, for example, as in the solution given above, seems rather tricky. Aron’s argument below is lovely, but again brief is not equal to easy’!

Proof of claim (Aron): Write \theta:= \angle MDC and \varphi:=\angle DCM. Consider the altitude MX in triangle MDC. This is isogonal in this triangle to line ME, because the angles \pi/2-\theta and \pi/2-\varphi are interchanged at M. This means that the circumcentre of triangle MDC lies on ME. (Perhaps you are more familiar with the stronger statement that the orthocentre and circumcentre – eg of triangle MDC – are isogonal conjugates.) But the circumcircle of triangle MDC also lies on the perpendicular bisector of CD, and this meets the angle bisector on the circumcircle of triangle CED. Indeed, this intersection point is the arc midpoint of CD, and this really is well-known to be the circumcentre of \odot ICI_ED, the circle which includes the incentre and the E-excentre, and so this characterises the two possibilities for M, as required.

Harmonic ranges

In the end, the most straightforward approach to this question was to use harmonic ranges. Personally, I would use this to complete what I referred to as Step One, namely showing X,M,E collinear. I feel the radical axis argument given above is a more natural way to handle the second step, though one can also deploy projective theory for this too in relatively few steps.

This is not the place for an in-depth introduction to harmonic ranges. However, I think less experienced students are often confused about when they should consider looking for them, so I’ll try to focus on this.

What is it? Study four points A,B,C,D on a line \ell, grouped into two pairs (A,B),(C,D)$ Then define the cross-ratio to be

(A,B ; C,D ) := \frac{\overrightarrow{CA}}{\overrightarrow{CB}}\,\div \,\frac{\overrightarrow{DA}}{\overrightarrow{DB}}. (4)

We say that (A,B;C,D) form a harmonic range (or harmonic bundle, harmonic system etc etc.) if their cross-ratio is -1. This certainly implies that one of (C,D) lies between A and B, and the other lies outside. Note that this is a property of two pairs of points, not of four points! (A,B;C,D) harmonic does not imply (A,C; B,D) harmonic and so on. Crucially, there is an analogous definition for two pairs of points lying on a given circle.

What can you do with harmonic ranges? There are two reasons why they are useful in solving geometry problems:

  • They often appear in standard configurations and given configurations!
  • Given one harmonic range, there are natural ways to generate other harmonic ranges.

We’ll discuss both of these in a second, but a rough outline of a typical proof using harmonic ranges is as follows. First, identify a harmonic range in the configuration, perhaps using a standard sub-configuration; then, project this first harmonic range around to find some new, perhaps less obvious, harmonic ranges; finally, use some converse result to recover a property about the diagram from your final harmonic range.

We need to discuss the two useful reasons given above in more detail:

  • Take a triangle ABC, and consider the intersection points D,E of the internal and external A-angle bisectors with the opposite side BC. Can you prove (for example using a theorem about lengths in the angle bisector configuration…) that (B,C; D,E) is harmonic?

A related example occurs when you have both Ceva’s configuration and Menelaus’s transversal present in a given triangle, as you then have a harmonic range too. (See the suggested notes.)

One of the points may be the point at infinity on \ell. Without getting into philosophy, can you see how to choose C so that (A,B; C,\infty) is harmonic? This is a very very useful example.

There are plenty of good examples for cyclic ranges too, which you can explore yourself.

  • Harmonic ranges live in the world known as projective geometry. What this means in general is not relevant here, but it’s a good mnemonic for remembering that one can project one harmonic range to acquire another. The most simple example is this.

Given A,B,C,D on a line \ell, let P be some point not on \ell. The set of lines (PA,PB,PC,PD) is often referred to as a pencil. Now, consider intersecting this pencil with a different line \ell' (again not through P) to obtain a new set of points (A’,B’,C’,D’). The key fact is that if (A,B; C,D) is harmonic, then (A’,B’; C’,D’) is also harmonic!

Not only does this give a new harmonic range, it establishes that the harmonic property really depends on the pencil of lines, rather than the choice of \ell. Letting \ell vary, we get an infinite collection of harmonic ranges. So if your diagram has a suggestive pencil of four lines, this is a promising sign that harmonic ranges may have value.

One can also project between lines and circles and from circles to circles, and typically you will need to do this.

How do you prove the results? If you proved the first example above using the angle bisector theorems, you might ask `how do you prove the angle bisector theorem’? Well, there are elegant synthetic methods, but the sine rule is a fail-safe mode of attack too. Essentially, almost all results about harmonic ranges can be proved using the sine rule, perhaps with a bit of help from other standard length-comparison results, in particular Menelaus, Ceva, and trigonometric Ceva.

As we’ve seen in the first attempt at Step One, sine rule calculations can be arduous. Projecting harmonic ranges can be a shortcut through such calculations, provided you know enough examples.

How do I know when to use them? This is really just a reiteration:

  • If you are given a configuration and you recognise part of the diagram as a harmonic range, it might well be worth pursuing this. If you can’t project it into any useful other harmonic range (even after, for example, introducing one extra intersection point), this might lead nowhere, but you’ll probably find something.
  • If you see that part of the diagram is well-suited for projecting harmonic ranges into other harmonic ranges, this is relevant. For example, if there are several lines through one point, particularly if that point also lies on a relevant circle.
  • Similarly, if you require some sort of symmetric result like ‘points \mathcal{A} have some tangency condition iff points \mathcal{B} have the same tangency condition’, then consider whether the condition has a harmonic range interpretation, and whether \mathcal{A} can be projected onto \mathcal{B}.
  • If it feels like the problem could be solved by a giant sine rule calculation comparing various ratios, it might be amenable to harmonic range analysis, so long as you find a first example!

Where can I find actual details? Because this is a report on a contest, rather than a set of lecture notes, the level of detail given here is intentionally very low. Though I hope it gives a useful overview of why such approaches might be useful, perhaps especially for those students who have a passing familiarity with harmonic ranges, but are not yet fluent at successfully applying the methods in actual problems.

The detail is important though, and I recommend these resources, among many articles on the internet:

  • Alexander Remorov’s sheet on Projective Geometry, which also includes a discussion of polars. My own knowledge of the subject is particularly indebted to this source. I like Question 4.
  • Sections 9.2–9.4 of Evan Chen’s recent book Euclidean Geometry in Mathematical Olympiads includes an ideally compact repository of useful statements. Problems, some of which veer into more challenging territory, are at the end of the section.

EGMO 2017 – Paper One – Geometric subconfigurations

I’ve recently been in Cambridge, running the UK’s annual training and selection camp for the International Mathematical Olympiad. My memories of living and studying in Cambridge are very pleasant, and it’s always nice to be back.

Within olympiad mathematics, the UK has traditionally experienced a weakness at geometry. By contrast to comparable nations, for example those from Eastern Europe, our high school curriculum does not feature much Euclidean geometry, except for the most basic of circle theorems and angle equalities, which normally end up as calculation exercises, rather than anything more substantial. So to arrive at the level required to be in with a chance of solving even the easier such questions at international competitions, our students have to do quite a lot of work for themselves.

I’ve spent a bit of time in the past couple of years thinking about this, and how best to help our students achieve this. The advice “go away and do as many problems as you can, building up to IMO G1, then a bit further” is probably good advice, but we have lots of camps and correspondence training, and I want to offer a bit more.

At a personal level, I’m coming from a pragmatic point of view. I don’t think Euclidean geometry is particularly interesting, even though it occasionally has elegant arguments. My main concern is taming it, and finding strategies for British students (or anyone else) to tame it too [1].

Anyway, I’m going to explain my strategy and thesis as outlined at the camp, then talk about Question 1 from EGMO 2017, a competition held in Zurich this year, the first paper of which was sat earlier today (at time of writing). The UK sent a strong team of four girls, and I’m looking forward to hearing all about their solutions and their adventures, but later. I had intended to talk about the other two questions too, but I can’t think of that much to say, so have put this at the end.

My proposed strategy

Before explaining my proposed strategy, let me discuss a couple of standard approaches that sometimes, but rarely, work at this level:

  • Angle chase (or length chase) forwards directly from the configuration. Consider lots of intersection points of lines. Consider angles and lengths as variables, and try to find relations.
  • Exactly as above, but working back from the conclusion.
  • Doing both, and attempting to meet in the middle.

The reason why this doesn’t work is that by definition competitions are competitive, and all participants could probably do this. For similar reasons competition combinatorics problems tend not to reduce instantly to an exhaustive search.

It’s also not very interesting. I’m certainly unlikely to set a problem if it’s known to yield to such an approach. When students do try this approach, common symptoms and side-effects involve a lot of chasing round conditions that are trivially equivalent to conditions given in the statement. For example, if you’re given a cyclic quadrilateral, and you mark on opposing complementary angles, then chase heavily, you’ll probably waste a lot of time deducing other circle theorems which you already knew.

So actually less is more. You should trust that if you end up proving something equivalent to the required conclusion, you’ll notice. And if you are given a cyclic quadrilateral, you should think about what’s the best way to use it, rather than what are all the ways to use it.

On our selection test, we used a problem which essentially had two stages. In the first stage, you proved that a particular quadrilateral within the configuration was cyclic; and in the second stage, you used this to show the result. Each of these stages by themselves would have been an easy problem, suitable for a junior competition. What made this an international-level problem was that you weren’t told that these were the two stages. This is where a good diagram is useful. You might well guess from an accurate figure that TKAD was cyclic, even if you hadn’t constructed it super-accurately with ruler and compasses.

So my actual strategy is to think about the configuration and the conclusion separately, and try and conjecture intermediate results which might be true. Possibly such an intermediate result might involve an extra point or line. This is a standard way to compose problems. Take a detailed configuration, with some interesting properties within it, then delete as much as possible while keeping the properties. Knowing some standard configurations will be useful for this. Indeed, recognising parts of the original diagram which resemble known configurations (possibly plus or minus a point or line) is a very important first step in many settings.

Cyclic quadrilaterals and isosceles triangles are probably the simplest examples of such configurations. Think about how you often use properties of cyclic quadrilaterals without drawing in either the circle or its centre. The moral is that you don’t need every single thing that’s true about the configuration to be present on the diagram to use it usefully. If you know lots of configurations, you can do this sort of thing in other settings too. Some configurations I can think up off the top of my head include: [2]

  • Parallelograms. Can be defined by corresponding angles, or by equal opposite lengths, or by midpoint properties of the centre. Generally if you have one of these definitions, you should strongly consider applying one of the other definitions!
  • The angle bisector meets the opposite perpendicular bisector on the circumcircle.
  • Simson’s line: the feet of the three perpendiculars from a point to the sides (extended if necessary) of a triangle are collinear precisely when the point is on the circumcircle.
  • The incircle touch point and the excircle touch point are reflections of each other in the corresponding midpoint. Indeed, all the lengths in this diagram can be described easily.
  • The spiral similarity diagram.
  • Pairs of isogonal conjugates, especially altitudes and radii; and medians and symmedians.

Note, all of these can be investigated by straightforward angle/length-chasing. We will see how one configuration turned out to be very useful in EGMO. In particular, the configuration is simple, and its use in the problem is simple, but it’s the idea to focus on the configuration as often as possible that is key. It’s possible but unlikely you’d go for the right approach just by angle-analysis alone.

EGMO 2017 Question 1

Let ABCD be a convex quadilateral with <DAB=<BCD=90, and <ABC > <CDA. Let Q and R be points on segments BC and CD, respectively, such that line QR intersects lines AB and AB at points P and S, respectively. It is given that PQ=RS. Let the midpoint of BD be M, and the midpoint of QR be N. Prove that the points M, N, A and C lie on a circle.

First point: as discussed earlier, we understand cyclic quadrilaterals well, so hopefully it will be obvious once we know enough to show these four points are concyclic. There’s no point guessing at this stage whether we’ll do it by eg opposite angles, or by power of a point, or by explicitly finding the centre.

But let’s engage with the configuration. Here are some straightforward deductions.

  • ABCD is cyclic.
  • M is the centre.

We could at this stage draw in dozens of equal lengths and matching angles, but let’s not do that. We don’t know yet which ones we’ll need, so we again have to trust that we’ll use the right ones when the time comes.

What about N? If we were aiming to prove <AMC = <ANC, this might seem tricky, because we don’t know very much about this second angle. Since R and Q are defined (with one degree of freedom) by the equal length condition, it’s hard to pin down N in terms of C. However, we do know that N is the midpoint opposite C in triangle QCR, which has a right angle at C. Is this useful? Well, maybe it is, but certainly it’s reminiscent of the other side of the diagram. We have four points making up a right-angled triangle, and the midpoint of the hypotenuse here, but also at (A,B,D,M). Indeed, also at (C,B,D,M). And now also at (C,Q,R,N). This must be a useful subconfiguration right?

If you draw this subdiagram separately, you have three equal lengths (from the midpoint to every other point), and thus two pairs of equal angles. This is therefore a very rich subconfiguration. Again, let’s not mark on everything just yet – we trust we’ll work out how best to use it later.

Should we start angle-chasing? I think we shouldn’t. Even though we have now identified lots of potential extra pairs of equal angles, we haven’t yet dealt with the condition PQ=RS at all.

Hopefully as part of our trivial equivalences phase, we said that PQ=RS is trivially equivalent to PR=QS. Perhaps we also wrote down RN=NQ, and so it’s also trivially equivalent to PN=NS. Let’s spell this out: N is the midpoint of PS. Note that this isn’t how N was defined. Maybe this is more useful than the actual definition? (Or maybe it isn’t. This is the whole point of doing the trivial equivalences early.)

Well, we’ve already useful the original definition of N in the subconfiguration (C,Q,R,N), but we can actually also use the subconfiguration (A,P,S,N) too. This is very wordy and makes it sound complicated. I’ve coloured my diagram to try and make this less scary. In summary, the hypotenuse midpoint configuration appears four times, and this one is the least obvious. If you found it, great; if not, I hope this gave quite a lot of motivation. Ultimately, even with all the motivation, you still had to spot it.

Why is this useful? Because a few paragraphs earlier, I said “we don’t know very much about this second angle <ANC”. But actually, thanks to this observation about the subconfiguration, we can decompose <ANC into two angle, namely <ANP+<QNC which are the apex angle in two isosceles triangles. Now we can truly abandon ourselves to angle-chasing, and the conclusion follows after a bit of work.

I’m aware I’ve said it twice in the prelude, and once in this solution, but why not labour my point? The key here was that spotting that a subconfiguration appeared twice led you to spot that it appeared a further two times, one of which wasn’t useful, and one of which was very useful. The subconfiguration itself was not complicated. To emphasise its simplicity, I can even draw it in the snow:

Angle-chasing within the configuration is easy, even with hiking poles instead of a pen, but noticing it could be applied to point N was invaluable.

Other questions

Question 2 – My instinct suggested the answer was three. I find it hard to explain why. I was fairly sure they wouldn’t have asked if it was two. Then I couldn’t see any reason why k would be greater than 3, but still finite. I mean, is it likely that k=14 is possible, but k=13 is not.

In any case, coming up with a construction for k=3 is a nice exercise, and presumably carried a couple of marks in the competition. My argument to show k=2 was not possible, and most arguments I discussed with others were not overwhelmingly difficult, but didn’t really have any key steps or insight, so aren’t very friendly in a blog context, and I’ll probably say nothing more.

Question 3 – Again, I find it hard to say anything very useful, because the first real thing I tried worked, and it’s hard to motivate why. I was confused how the alternating turn-left / turn-right condition might play a role, so I ignored it initially. I was also initially unconvinced that it was possible to return to any edge in any direction (ie it must escape off to infinity down some ray), but I was aware that both of these were too strong a loosening of the problem to be useful, in all likelihood.

Showing that you can go down an edge in one direction but not another feels like you’re looking for some binary invariant, or perhaps a two-colouring of the directed edges. I couldn’t see any way to colour the directed edges, so I tried two-colouring the faces, and there’s only one way to do this. Indeed, on the rare occasions (ahem) I procrastinate, drawing some lines then filling in the regions they form in this form is my preferred doodle. Here’s what it looks like:

and it’s clear that if the path starts with a shaded region on its right, it must always have a shaded region on its right. As I say, this just works, and I find it hard to motivate further.

A side remark is that it turns out that my first loosening is actually valid. The statement remains true with arbitrary changes of direction, rather than alternating changes. The second loosening is not true. There are examples where the trajectory is periodic. I don’t think they’re hugely interesting though, so won’t digress.

Footnotes

[1] – “To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world,” said the Fox to the Little Prince. My feelings on taming Euclidean geometry are not this strong yet.

[2] – Caveat. I’m not proposing learning a big list of standard configurations. If you do a handful of questions, you’ll meet all the things mentioned in this list several times, and a few other things too. At this point, your geometric intuition for what resembles what is much more useful than exhaustive lists. And if you’re anxious about this from a pedagogical point of view, it doesn’t seem to me to be a terribly different heuristic from lots of non-geometry problems, including in my own research. “What does this new problem remind me of?” is not unique to this area at all!