Recently I was giving a talk at a school in London and had cause to think about sums of kth powers, because I wanted to show people the difference between unenlightening proofs and enlightening ones. (My brief was to try to give them some idea of what proofs are and why they are worth bothering about.) On the train down, I realized that there is a very simple general argument that can be used to work out formulae for sums of kth powers. After a brief look online, I haven’t found precisely this method, though I’ve found plenty of methods in the vicinity of it. It’s bound to be in the literature somewhere, so perhaps somebody can point me towards a reference. But even so, it’s worth a short post.

I’ll start with the case . I want to phrase a familiar argument in a way that will make it easy to generalize in the way I want to generalize it. Let be the rectangle consisting of all integer points such that and . We can partition into those points for which and those points for which . The number of points of the first kind is , since for each we get possibilities for . The number of points of the second kind is , since for each we get possibilities for . Therefore, and we get the familiar formula. (more…)