The title of this post is a nod to Terry Tao’s four mini-polymath discussions, in which IMO questions were solved collaboratively online. As the beginning of what I hope will be a long exercise in gathering data about how humans solve these kinds of problems, I decided to have a go at one of this year’s IMO problems, with the idea of writing down my thoughts as I went along. Because I was doing that (and doing it directly into a LaTeX file rather than using paper and pen), I took quite a long time to solve the problem: it was the first question, and therefore intended to be one of the easier ones, so in a competition one would hope to solve it quickly and move on to the more challenging questions 2 and 3 (particularly 3). You get an average of an hour and a half per question, and I think I took at least that, though I didn’t actually time myself.
What I wrote gives some kind of illustration of the twists and turns, many of them fruitless, that people typically take when solving a problem. If I were to draw a moral from it, it would be this: when trying to solve a problem, it is a mistake to expect to take a direct route to the solution. Instead, one formulates subquestions and gradually builds up a useful bank of observations until the direct route becomes clear. Given that we’ve just had the football world cup, I’ll draw an analogy that I find not too bad (though not perfect either): a team plays better if it patiently builds up to an attack on goal than if it hoofs the ball up the pitch or takes shots from a distance. Germany gave an extraordinary illustration of this in their 7-1 defeat of Brazil.
I imagine that the rest of this post will be much more interesting if you yourself solve the problem before reading what I did. I in turn would be interested in hearing about other people’s experiences with the problem: were they similar to mine, or quite different? I would very much like to get a feel for how varied people’s experiences are. If you’re a competitor who solved the problem, feel free to join the discussion!
If I find myself with some spare time, I might have a go at doing the same with some of the other questions.
What follows is exactly what I wrote (or rather typed), with no editing at all, apart from changing the LaTeX so that it compiles in WordPress and adding two comments that are clearly marked in red.
Problem Let be an infinite sequence of positive integers. Prove that there exists a unique integer such that