The Little Polya

A Small Compilation of George Polya’s Heuristic Techniques

Compiled and Rewritten by A. L. Bruce



Preface…………………………………………………………………………...4 Introduction………….…………………………………………………………6 The Heuristic Method of Polya’s How to Solve It…………………………7

I. Understanding the Problem……………………………………………….10 1. Condition………………………………………………………………….11 2. Can You Derive Something Useful From the Data?.......................11 3. Definitions………………………………………………………………..12 4. Did You Use All the Data?...............................................................13 5. Is it Possible to Satisfy the Condition?............................................13 6. Separating the Condition and Setting up Equations……….……..14 7. Symmetry…………………………………………………………………16 8. Notation…………………………………………………………………..16 II. Devising a Plan……………………………………………………………..18 1. Analogy…………………………………………………………………...19 2. Auxiliary Problems and Auxiliary Elements……………………….19 3. Decomposing and Recombining……………………………………….21 4. Figures……………………………………………………………………22 5. Look at the Unknown…………………………………………………..23 6. Working Backwards…………………………………………………….24


III. Carrying Out the Plan…………………………………………………...26 1. Carrying Out…………………………………………………………….27 2. Generalization…………………………………………………………..27 3. Specialization……………………………………………………………28 4. Induction and Mathematical Induction………………….………….28 5. Test by Dimension……………………………………………………...29 IV. Looking Back………………………………………………………………31 1. Can You Check the Result?.............................................................32 2. Can You Derive the Result differently?..........................................32 3. Can You Use the Result?.................................................................33 V. Other Techniques…………………………………….…………………….35 1. Practical Problems……………………………………………………..36 2. Problems to Find and Problems to Prove…………………………..37 3. Progress and Achievement…………………………………………...37


Preface In the process of composing this companion book to Polya’s How to Solve It, I have become aware of many nuances, both in Polya’s heuristic itself, and in the use of a book such as this. First and foremost I want to tell the reader that this is by no means a self-contained and self-explanatory work. I have subtitled it “a small compilation of George Polya’s heuristic techniques,” yes, but it is not a complete compilation. In fact, I was highly selective in the material I chose to include. Polya’s “short dictionary of heuristic,” from which all of these techniques are taken, is some 72 articles long; certainly to merely rewrite the entire dictionary would be pointless –why not just read Polya’s original work? Instead I have only included the material that I think are rigorous and algorithmic techniques, or (in most of the cases) heuristic knowledge that is absolutely essential. Much more on this is said in the introduction, to which I now refer the reader who is curious about my selection of the articles. On that topic, as evidenced by my statement that this is not a self contained work, is the fact that one cannot possible hope to find this of any use unless it is used in conjunction with How to Solve It. This I cannot stress enough. Most of my readers would probably not be drawn to this work if they had no knowledge of Polya’s heuristic, but to those who do not, I recommend reading the whole of How to Solve It as prerequisite to this. For those readers who have knowledge of Polya’s heuristic but either do not have a copy of How to Solve It or haven’t read the whole of it, consider the purchase of a copy and reading the whole of it a good decision. In my opinion, anyone who considers themself learned in the mathematical art should have at least a good, and desirably a masterful knowledge of Polya. At this point I would like to discuss what the purpose of this book is. In short, it is nothing other than a reference for those who are practitioners of Polya’s ideas. I have found that there is a true need to be able to reference a given technique at some point in one’s studies, or the even greater need for some easy to find and useful advice on how one might go about solving a problem which proves to be exceedingly difficult. How to Solve It itself is in my opinion not quite as effective for this on-the-spot type of scenario. The sections of his book are divided into many parts, all of which are extremely valuable to the student first encountering Polya’s ideas, but which become unwieldy in the face of a quick way to find and use them “in the heat of battle” so to speak. The closest any section comes to being sufficiently helpful in this respect is the afore mentioned “short dictionary of heuristic,” but even that is burdened down with sections which are nothing more that general thoughts on

heuristic and the psychology of problem solving. Once again, these are brilliant and truly invaluable to the student first studying heuristic, but they make the whole much more difficult to navigate on-the-go. The relevant entries are many times mixed with analogies, metaphors and involved examples, meant to aid in the novice’s understanding, but which make the solid information about the technique hard to find. Let there be no misunderstanding, I quite frequently have used examples in this book, many of which are taken from Polya himself (as I will cite most of the time), but the ones I have included are meant to show simply what it would be extremely difficult to explain in the abstract. The main point of this book was to boil the dictionary down, and in doing so to establish a reference for the entire book, since the dictionary constituted the main part of his thought, as well as 195 of the 253 pages. I have also included a short piece in on the general heuristic process developed in the first and second parts of the book to make sure all the main aspects were covered. I think that the work itself is pretty well suited to the job of on-the-spot reference where How to Solve It may prove to too cumbersome, but it is in no way a substitute. If one is interested in any particular technique one should refer to the article’s counterpart in How to Solve It as every entry here does have one (the names are usually the same in both). Lastly there may be some articles in How to Solve It which may be of use in here which are not included. I understand that no matter how impartial I try to be in their section, discretion is subjective. I plan to put out further editions of this work which will likely contain additions to these. This is by no means a work which is incapable of changing with time.

Adam L. Bruce, Eureka, August 2009



Most esteemed friends and colleagues: If you are reading this little book, it’s probably because I have given it to you in the hope that you may benefit by it greatly. It contains what I believe to be the core of George Polya’s heuristic techniques as they are applied to various mathematical and scientific problems, which are arranged in logical sections for the reader. I hope it will serve as a good reference. I have divided it into five main sections each representing a step in Polya’s heuristic process. For example, you’ll find that the techniques under the supersection of “Devising a Plan” have to do with creating a strategy to solving the problem and the techniques under “Looking Back” have to do with learning from the problem. The fifth section is devoted to the techniques that aren’t specific to any one step in the process, but which are still valuable on the whole. Many of those in the fifth section may not be algorithmic techniques, but general ideas about various heuristic topics All of these are my reworking of selected articles from the “Short Dictionary of Heuristic” found in How to Solve It. Their selection I have based on the following criteria: 1. Is it a self contained technique? 2. Is it applicable to an interdisciplinary set of problems? 3. Is it helpful as a specific tool in heuristic thinking? Just as the author of a book on the Calculus would include a section on logarithmic differentiation but may or may not include a biography of Gauss, I have chosen to include only those essential techniques which have a specific heuristic function and in so doing feel that I have made it a lot more useful. In bringing all of these elements together I hope to have created a small reference of heuristics for anyone who like myself can consider themself a “disciple” of Polya –at least in his approach to problem solving. I think this will be very handy for that purpose and will fill the need for a readily available place that one can find various heuristic techniques. I will not lie that I have mostly done this for myself, but I feel that others who are also familiar with the Polyan heuristic process will undoubtedly find this useful.


The Heuristic Method of How to Solve It

I have decided to include a short piece on the basic heuristic process set forth by Polya. It consists of four steps, each one designed to carry the practitioner to the next, and ultimately through the whole of the problem. 1. Understanding the Problem: It’s almost useless to attempt to solve a problem if you don’t fist understand what it is asking you to accomplish, and therefore understanding the problem is the first step of the process. One asks themselves such questions as “what is/are the unknown(s)?”, “what are the data?”, and “what is/are the condition(s)?”. These questions help to create a thorough understanding of the problem. Other techniques such as drawing a figure to act as a visual representation can also aid in the understanding of the problem; also, the introduction of suitable notation for the next step is crucial, and will be discussed at length in 1.8. Once this has been done we proceed to the next step. 2. Devising a Plan: The second step is to devise a plan that will find the unknown. One knows they have a plan when they either know completely, or know a rough outline, of the steps they must take in order to obtain the solution. In a problem to prove, which is Polya’s name for a problem involving a mathematical proof, this may not be an exact unknown variable, but rather the main ideas of the proof. The step of devising the plan is, in my opinion, the most overlooked by novice students. I find that they tend to form a general understanding of what the problem is asking them to accomplish, and from there do no more thinking on it but to rigidly apply a given technique and proceed to the third step, which is carrying out the plan (or in their case technique). This type of approach might work for some elementary problems, but is utterly useless in any complex one. Instead when one confronts a complex problem, the solution to which is eluding them, they should do things such as looking for a problem “related to [their]’s and solved before” in Polya’s words, or look at the problem from a number of different perspectives taking note of the subtleties exposed by each. This will not solve all problems (for indeed not all problems can be solved), but it will certainly bring much more clarity and method to the way one goes about attempting to solve them.


3. Carrying Out the Plan: In all respects the issue of carrying out the plan is the most important of all. Why? Because one can have as thorough an understanding of a problem as possible and one can also have devised the perfect plan to solve it as well, but if one is incapable of putting that plan into action all else is meaningless. The problem cannot be solved. This being said, in mathematics, carrying out the plan is often the simplest step of the process. Once one knows all the background information about the problem to be solved (step 1), and the procedure, or at least an outline of the procedure to be taken in solving it (step 2). One must implement the procedure. The only true danger is that one might forget or become lost in trying to carry out their plan. This is either because the plan is faulty or because one doesn’t completely understand how to use it. A remedy is to look back on every step of the plan and consider its validity. This can show either a flaw in the plan or a flaw in one’s understanding of the plan at the same time as checking on minor errors that one might have made in the process (computational errors, etc). During this phase, ask questions such as “can you see clearly that each step is correct?”, “can you prove that each step is correct?” 4. Looking Back: Looking back affords one the opportunity of learning from the problem and of consolidating their understanding of the solution. No problem is ever exhausted if one is willing to look back and consider the process they took in solving it. Even though one has looked at their plan step by step, and hopefully examined their mundane computational work for errors, this gives the opportunity to reexamine the work. Questions such as “can you check the result?”, “can you check the argument?” are employed, expanding on the more particular questions in step 3 to include the entire solution. These are not so much as to insure the plan itself is correct, but more to make sure that the solution one has found is sufficient to satisfy the problem. Thus, if one can check the result, they check both the plan and the solution. Other questions such as “can you derive the result differently” serve to help one consolidate their knowledge of the topic. In almost any sufficiently complex problem there are multiple ways of obtaining identical (and hopefully correct) solutions. In asking oneself this question and more importantly in finding different ways of obtaining the same result, one achieves a thorough understanding not only of the single problem, but of the subtleties of the topic in general. This leads to an enhanced understanding of another problem which belongs to that topic, and

ultimately supplies one with a problem “related to yours and solved before” when one does encounter another similar problem. The essence of Polya’s method is understanding; understanding of the problem, understanding of methods employed in solving the problem, understanding of how to apply those general methods to the problem at hand, and finally understanding why such a method was employed in the first place. All of these general steps have specific heuristic techniques which are associated with them and which aid in their use. It is the most useful of these which I now present to you in the forthcoming part of this little book.


Understanding the Problem


1.1 Condition: “The principle part of a problem to find” (my italics). In sum, the information given by the problem constitutes the condition insofar as that information modifies the process taken in solving it (if not it is data). By this logic it should seem that any problem is merely a set of conditions, all of which are satisfied through a given method, but there is a distinction between the main unknown of the problem and its subsequent conditions. Thus the problem “find two numbers whose sum is 60 and whose quotient is 4” is made up of an unknown and two conditions. 1. Find two number numbers (unknown) 2. Their sum is 60 (condition1) 3. Their quotient is 4 (condition 2) This is solved easily with a simple translation into algebraic notion (see 1.7), 60=x+y, x/y=4; so x=48, y=12. A condition is redundant when there is more information than required. So to add the third condition of “their product is 80” to the equation above would create a linear system comprised of more equations than variables; therefore it would be redundant and may not have a solution. A condition is insufficient where there is less information than required. To delete one of the conditions would render the problem above too vague, and therefore incapable of a solution. A condition is contradictory when two or more elements are mutually opposed. To add a third condition of “their sum is 43” to the problem above would be to render it contradictory, because two numbers cannot have a sum of 60 and 43 simultaneously.

1.2 Can You Derive Something Useful from the Data? In any problem there are two places to start. The first and most prevalent is from the unknown, but another place is from the data. Polya uses the analogy that these two are a separated by a gap for which a bridge must be built –where one can start from either side. The main question of this technique is “Can you derive something useful from the data?” A. Beginning the Inquiry The inquiry begins with the usual set of questions: 1. What are the data? 2. What is the unknown?

3. What is/are the condition(s)? The usual procedure would be to start from the unknown, i. e. set up something like an x = y, where x is the unknown and y is the data and condition. At that point one usually can obtain a solution, if it is still elusive, than one should consider that data more. B. Considering the Data In considering the data one thinks of the problem in terms of y=x or at least y implies x. It is a deductive process, where x must be equivalent to one’s solution because of the data, that is, x supports the data and not vice-versa. Use the data in isolation when possible, so that the relationship between various parts of it may be observed. The example of the line through three points is how Polya shows working from the data in How to solve it, see the section in the heuristic dictionary which bears the same title as this section for the problem itself.

1.3 Definitions: “The definition of a term is a statement of its meaning in other terms which are supposed to be well known”. Thus says Polya. A. General Information There are two types of definitions, or technical terms. Primitive terms, or terms which are not defined, are the first. These are those such as “point” and “line” in Euclidian geometry, and “number” and “variable” in many algebraic systems. These terms cannot be defined because there is nothing to define them with. Derived terms are terms which can be defined using primitive terms. Therefore, a circle can be defined as “the locus of points equidistant from a single point in Cartesian two-space”. B. Going Back to Definitions The main application of primitive terms vs. derived terms is in restating a problem using primitive terms for derived terms, which Polya calls going back to definitions. The point of this is to make the problem easier to understand. One starts with a problem which uses many unfamiliar derived terms, and slowly works it so that the derived terms are restated in primitive terms, this may not be

accomplished at once, but over the interval where other heuristic techniques are coming into play as well. Drawing a figure, for example, may help one to restate the derived terms of the problem in the primitive terms of the figure. The heuristic question is “Can you restate the problem?” The restatement is the deflated problem, where one has “deflated” the unfamiliar derived terms.

1.4 Did You Use All the Data? Essential to the understanding of a problem as a whole is the understanding of its data. When one is finding themself unable to solve a problem, it may be because one has not taken all the data into account. One must ask themselves “did you use all the data?”, or “did you use all of the conditions/the whole hypothesis?”, with the divide in the latter for a problem to solve and problem to prove respectively. It is a check and nothing more. Any strategy for solving the problem that does not take into account all of the data is likely flawed, excepting those circumstances where some part of the data is extraneous. One might have a flawed or incomplete notion of the problem if one does not take all the data into account, or does not consider in the right way some part of it. Therefore one must also ask “have you taken into account all of the essential notions involved in the problem?” This cannot be directly accomplished if one does not know what the essential notions of the problem are, of course, but rather can be accomplished through considering the different ways all of the data function, both individually and as a whole.

1.5 Is it Possible to Satisfy the Condition? Since it is pointless to work toward an end which one cannot achieve, one must appraise the condition of the problem as to whether or not it can be satisfied. Thus one asks themself “Is the condition sufficient to determine the unknown, or is it insufficient, redundant, or contradictory?” In any reasonable problem, the condition can be satisfied. This is most useful at the beginning of considering the problem, and because of that should only be a plausible guess which gives a provisional answer.


1.6 Separating the Condition and Setting up Equations: “To set up equations means to express in mathematical symbols a condition that is stated in words; it is translation from ordinary language into the language of mathematical formulas.” He later compares it to a translation between two languages. The problem can either be a simple translation or a complex one. The process itself is ultimately an algorithmic one, which precious few of Polya’s techniques are. Primarily this technique is used for word problems. A. Separating the Condition In easy cases, the word problem will split into successive parts which can then be translated into an equation. In difficult cases, there is often some nuance that cannot be directly translated into mathematical symbols. First one may have to rearrange or separate the condition; to do this one must completely understand the condition, which may require one to deflate the problem (see 1.3). One then separates the various parts of the condition, the question being “Can you write [the independent parts of the condition] down?” B. Setting Up Equations At this point one makes the translation into the mathematical notation, if it is still not clear as to the form the translation will take, it is likely that one has not made the appropriate divisions. One can use a vertical line down the page to separate the statement in words from its equivalent mathematical representation such as: | (Statement in words) | | | At this point one can proceed to solve the problem. C. Example This is an example taken from Polya (see pages 175-176 of How to Solve It). Find the breadth and height of a right prism with a square base, given it has a volume of 63 in3, and a surface area of 102in2. (Statement in Mathematics)


What are the unknowns? The breadth and the height. What are the Data? Same as the condition. What is the Condition? The volume of the prism is 63 cubic inches and the surface area is 102 square inches. First: Draw a figure (see 2.4). Second: Reduce the terms to primitives; one can deflate the unfamiliar terms breadth and height (see 1.3). The breadth of a right prism is defined as a side of the base, one can call it x. The height is defined as the altitude, say y. Therefore we restate the problem: Given a parallelogram with a square base that has a volume of 63 in3, and a surface area of 102in2. Find the length of the side of the base and the altitude of the prism Third: The problem now needs better organization, particularly of the condition. Therefore, separate the various parts of the condition. There are two parts: first the volume, then the surface area, both of which one needs knowledge of Euclidian geometry to fully understand, but no more. Thus one has successfully separated the condition so to facilitate a greater understanding of the problem at hand. Fourth: Make the transition from words to mathematical symbols: Find the length of the side of the base Find the altitude The volume is 63 in3 The surface area is 102 in2 | | | | x y x2y = 63 2x2 + 4xy = 102

From this one can easily solve the linear system and obtain a solution to the problem. Notice that the equations are in terms of the main variables rather than their Euclidian definitions; it would be helpful in any circumstance, and even necessary in others to define say x2 as equaling the base of the parallelogram etc. These can also be included in the “translation” with the dividing line in the middle.


1.7 Symmetry: Symmetry, in a general sense, is the idea that certain parts of a problem are interchangeable with others, thus given the sum xy +xz +yz one can interchange any two variables without changing the meaning of the expression. Any symmetry one encounters should be noted, and one should be careful not to destroy any natural symmetry without cause, since it can help one to understand the problem.

1.8 Notation: Notation is one of the most important aspects of problem solving. Essential to the process of understanding the problem is to “introduce suitable notation”, using this one can better formulate a way of dealing with the problem. Most of all a notation cannot be redundant or ambiguous –one can easily hamper themselves in their ability to work the problem if they are using a poor notation, and it makes it near impossible to go back and check one’s work. This is all summed up by Polya when he says: “A good notation should be unambiguous, pregnant, easy to remember; it should avoid harmful second meanings and take advantage of useful second meanings; the order and connection of signs should suggest the order and connection of things.” A. General Principles The general principles of devising a notation follow Polya’s quote. First, none of the elements of the notation can be ambiguous: One symbol cannot denote two or more objects. Two or more symbols can denote one object. Multiplication, for instance, can be written × , ∙ , or simply . In some cases this is advantageous, but it should never be done without cause. Second, the notation should be easy to remember. It should remind one of the quantity it denotes when that is appropriate. A simple devise is to use the initial of the quantity, V for volume, a for acceleration, etc. This doesn’t work when one works with two quantities which have the same initial, rate and radius for example, but for this there are other methods.

Third, the order and connection of the signs should suggest the order and connection of the objects. These are shown many times through the alphabet used. Letters near the beginning of the alphabet, a, b, c, usually denote constants or other given quantities, while letters near the end, x, y, z, usually denote variables. Thus if in a problem one is given length, width, and height, it may be more useful to write them as a, b, c, rather than l, w, h, to show that they are given constants and not variables. Objects belonging to the same class are usually written within the same alphabet, thus in Euclidian geometry: A, B, C, are all points; a, b, c, are all lines; , , , are all angles. These are the foremost and most necessary principles of formulating a notation. There are others, but they mostly consist of nuances and so will not be included here (see How to Solve It 138-141).


Devising a Plan


2.1 Analogy: Analogy is a very important aspect of problem solving; it allows one to make inferences about the problem at hand through problems which are related to it. Much of the time, a good analogy makes use of an auxiliary problem (2.2) and vice-versa. One, when desiring to make use of a problem analogous to the present one, should ask themself if there is a “simpler problem related to the present one”. To state the obvious, simpler problems are easier to solve, and therefore one can possibly derive some useful insight or information from them, without burdening oneself with yet another difficult problem and “losing sight of the goal”. Therefore, given the choice between a simple problem which is somewhat analogous to the present one, and a another problem, just as difficult as the first, which is much more related, one should choose the simpler one because one cannot solve the difficult one; If the solution to the difficult one was obtainable than why was the solution to the present problem evasive? There are instances where this is not true (2.2 (D)) but for the most part this is a good general rule. Polya devotes pages to the subject, including numerous examples and anecdotes, but this is the heart of his argument (see How to Solve It 137-146).

2.2 Auxiliary Problems and Auxiliary Elements: Both auxiliary problems and auxiliary elements are used as an analogy (2.1) to the present problem, usually in the format of a problem related to the present one and solved before, but in some cases merely as a simpler problem which one can solve easier. 1. Auxiliary Elements An auxiliary element is defined by Polya as “an element we introduce in the hope that it will further the solution”. There are various types of auxiliary elements, in Euclidian geometry elements such as auxiliary lines and auxiliary polygons, in algebra auxiliary unknowns and auxiliary theorems, etc. There are also various reasons for introducing auxiliary elements, such as using them to make the present problem similar to another problem, otherwise related and solved before. Thus, given a related problem whose solution has to do with triangles, yet having no triangles in one’s figure, one can introduce a triangle as an auxiliary element to take full advantage of the related problem. And when going back to definitions (1.3), if one finds that the primitive term contains some

auxiliary element, one should not hesitate to introduce it to the problem. As well as many more reasons. 2. Auxiliary Problems One takes up an auxiliary problem to illuminate the solution to the present problem. A. Profiting from the Problem There are two ways to profit from the problem. When one profits from the result they use a solution obtained in the auxiliary to make clear the solution to the present problem. Such as, given x4+x2+32=0, if one lets y=x2, the solution becomes clear, and once one solves y2+y+32=0 one also obtains x by . When one profits from the method however, one takes a notion involved in the auxiliary problem and applied it to the present problem. Thus one observes the condition (1.1). Polya’s example of this is the problem: find length of the diagonal of a rectangular parallelepiped being given the lengths of the three edges drawn from the same corner. The appropriate auxiliary problem is that of finding the diagonal of a parallelogram, which introduces the same notion that the Pythagorean Theorem is to be used. B. Equivalence and Bilateral Reduction Many auxiliary problems are equivalent, defined by Polya by saying “the solution of each requires the solution of the other”. In essence, two equivalent problems involve the same or extremely similar mathematical notions in their solutions. Thus the two problems 1. x2+x=0 2. 3x2+3x=0 are equivalent. They are not identical, but the same notions are involved with each. Thus if one can realize the answer to (1) is zero, one knows the answer to (2) must be zero, and furthermore the answer to any problem of the form ax2+ax=0 must be zero. The process of proceeding from (1) to (2) is termed bilateral reduction.


C. Chains of Equivalent Problems Using the idea of bilateral reduction, it is possible to set up a large chain of equivalent problems which stretches to a problem which is either already solved, or one to which to solution is easily obtained. Since each problem is equivalent to the one before it, each and every problem is equivalent to the first. Thus, all algebraic manipulation can even be termed bilateral reduction. D. Unilateral Reduction Given two problems, both unsolved, where the solution of the first would solidify the solution of the second, but not vice-versa, thus we should solve the first problem first then the second. If the first problem is “more ambitious” than the second, there are however two ways to proceed. When one proceeds from a given problem to a “more ambitious” one or a “less ambitious” one, the process is termed unilateral reduction. Of the two ways, the first is to deal with the “less ambitious” then the “more ambitious.” Even though in the scenario above this would be less advantageous, there are many circumstances where this is helpful (the second example in (A) for instance). This is by far the easiest and most common. The second is to proceed from the “less ambitious” to the “more ambitious.” This was almost forbid in the analogy section (2.1), but in some special instances this can be helpful. The ability to solve a difficult problem before a simple one is called by Polya the inventor’s paradox (see How to Solve it 121-122).

2.3 Decomposing and Recombining: Decomposing is the process by which one examines the problem by looking at each of its elements individually. After this is accomplished, reconstructing them, called recombining, can give one a better idea of the problem. One primarily looks at the three principle parts of the problem, namely what is the unknown? what are the data? And what is the condition? Once each of these has been examined individually, they can be further decomposed by going back to the definitions (1.3), etc. The main point of decomposing a problem however, is to construct an auxiliary problem which will be able to aid in obtaining a solution to the first. There are three primary ways of doing this: 1. Keeping the unknown and changing the data and condition, 2. Keeping the data and changing the unknown and the condition, and 3. Changing both the unknown and the data.

A. Keeping the Unknown and Changing the Rest: The problem has the same unknown as the original, but other things are slightly changed. One considers “what data is appropriate to determine the unknown.” One could also keep part of the data and part of the condition, changing as little as possible, but dropping some part of either and consider the problem then. B. Keeping the Data and Changing the Rest: The data is retained and a new condition and unknown are created. The unknown should be useful and accessible, acting as a median point between the data and the original unknown. Since it is hard however, to conceive of an unknown which is both useful and accessible, one can introduce a new unknown which is related to the original, but that may not be as accessible, in the hope that it will yield to a solution more easily than the original and vice-versa. C. Changing Both the Data and Unknown: This type is a more radical change than those which preceded it. The new problem however, might have a good chance of success, and thus one considers if they can “…change the data or unknown, or both if necessary, so that the new data and unknown are closer to each other.” This is done through considering the principles for changing the unknown and data found in (A) and (B).

2.4 Figures: The drawing of figures is essential to one’s ability to solve the problem. Many, if not all, geometric problems have a figure which is associated with the problem, but in other problems, it is very useful to introduce a figure which then acts as a visual aid in one’s heuristic process. A. Drawing Figures Exactly Exact figures are not absolutely necessary, but one should draw them as exactly as possible. A good freehand sketch of a figure should be enough for most problems. A badly drawn figure will suggest a false conclusion, and therefore hurt more than it will help. It is important to consider the problem; does the figure fit the problem?


B. Order of Construction The various elements of a figure must be constructed in the correct relations and measurements, or at least close to the correct ones. The order of their construction however, is up to the problem itself. Therefore, given two angles a and b to be constructed so that a=3b, it is not possible to construct first a and then b, one must rather construct b first and obtain a from the first. The figure in either will illustrate the same concept. In many other problems, the order of construction will not have an effect on the figure, in which case it is optional. C. Erroneous Conclusions The construction of a figure should not introduce any symmetry or relation that is not shown in the problem. Lines and angles which are not equal should not appear so; otherwise this may lead to false conclusions. Note: the best triangle to construct for a general triangle is one with the angles 45, 60, 75. This is the most remote from both an isosceles and a right triangle D. Shading Shading is a very important part of drawing a figure. One can shade a line or area which has a special significance to the problem. Creating darker lines bring out a certain area, while dotted lines hint that there is some relation between two other things in the figure.

2.5 Look At the Unknown: It is advantageous in any problem to consider the final goal of the problem. Without this in mind one can easily be sidetracked, thus the Latin saying “respice finem,” or Polya’s more understandable “look at the unknown” are used to describe the consideration of one’s goal. A. The Unknown as an Auxiliary Problem It is very helpful to consider an auxiliary problem (2.2) which has the same unknown as the present one. Thus if the unknown to the present problem is the length of a line, the unknown to the auxiliary problem should also be the length of a line. By doing this one might very well be able to profit from both the method and the solution to the auxiliary problem.


First one looks at a schematic of the problem, where all other parts of it except the unknown are omitted. The example Polya gives is: “Given……….Find the length of the line” This focuses our attention to the nature of the unknown, which in this case is a line Second one can consider all of the other problems which have unknowns related to theirs; there is “an economy of choice”, as Polya puts it, where one considers the simplest and most familiar first. In the example one sees that the length of the line could easily be obtained if it were a side of a triangle. Thus we must introduce the auxiliary element (2.2) of a triangle into our figure, etc… B. General Unknowns in Auxiliary Problems For any problem the process in (A) can be of use. One must consider the typical types of problems which involve a certain unknown, thus for the unknowns: 1. “Given……….Find the angle” 2. “Given……….Find the area of the cube” 3. “Given……….Construct the point” We can think of the problems for 1. To be concerned with some triangle 2. To be concerned with some side or given distance 3. To be concerned with some locus of points Thus the heuristic question is “given a problem, can you think of an auxiliary problem having the same or a similar unknown?”

2.6 Working Backwards: When one is confronted with a problem which is extremely perplexing, one should consider it from a variety of perspectives. An important one of these is called “working backwards” by Polya, where one considers the solution and from the solution derives the problem. This may seem strange, but is a good and useful skill nonetheless, thus the saying of Pappus, “let us assume what is sought as already found.” Many times the actual work is through a series of auxiliary problems (2.2) each derived from first the solution and then each other. This is illustrated best in the following example. A. Example

Polya’s example for this technique is so poignant and well conceived that I would be a fool to not include it at present. Thus it is this example I set forth. How can you bring up from a river exactly six quarts of water having only two containers to hold it, a four quart pail and a nine quart pail? What are the unknowns? Six quarts of water, or more correctly the method for obtaining six quarts of water. What are the Data? Same as the conditions What are the conditions? You only have a four quart pail and a nine quart pail. First: Draw a figure(s). I shall not include any in my explanation as I currently have no practical way to do this at my disposal. Refer to Polya (How to solve It pg 226-229) for the figures or draw your own (it’s not that difficult). Second: The problem is much more difficult than it appears at first, and there seems no way to obtain the solution from the problem, therefore we work backwards. Working backwards one has 6 qts in the 9 qt container (the 4 qt container cannot hold enough water). How could one have come by this? If one had 1qt in the 4 qt container and had filled the 9 qt, then one could have poured 3 qts on top of the 1 qt in the 4 qt container (until it was full) and then poured all of the contents of the 4 qt into the river, leaving them with 6 qts. How could one get the 1 qt in the 4 qt container? If the 4 qt was empty and one had 1 qt in the 9 qt container one could have transferred the 1 qt from the 9 qt container into the 4 qt container. How could one have 1 qt in the 9 qt container? Then the solution is realized. If one had filled the 9 qt container, and then poured its contents into the 4 qt container, emptied the 4 qt container into the river, and repeated that process one could obtain the one qt. The solution consists mostly of simple arithmetic, 9 – 4(2) = 1. Thus one has obtained the correct solution, which might never have occurred to them if they hadn’t thought of “working backwards.”

Carrying Out the Plan


3.1 Carrying Out: The step of carrying out the plan is different from merely devising it. One can notice nuances to the problem and sees things about it that one was not aware of when the plan was first devised. Devising the plan, one makes use of many plausible guesses and intuition. Once the plan is to be carried out however, these must be replaced by a more rigorous set of standards. One should pay special attention to the order which one carries out the steps in their plan. The major aspects to the argument should be checked before one starts to go into its details. There should be no detail which is omitted, and the relationship between various details should be noted. One must also verify their argument at every step of the plan if one is going to be sure if its validity. There are two ways to do this. The first is by a direct rigorous proof that the step is correct, and the second is by an intuitive notion that one “sees” how the step is correct. Both of these must be verified when carrying out the plan, since the plan cannot possible true if one cannot prove a step, and cannot possible be practical if one cannot see in intuitively. Thus one asks themself the questions “can you prove that [the step] is correct” and “can you see clearly that [the step] is correct.”

3.2 Generalization: Generalization is, in sum, the technique of realizing that the problem at hand is a member of a greater set of problems, all of which have similar solutions, and then using the general solution for that set to solve the problem at hand. Polya defines it as “passing form the consideration of a certain object to the consideration of a set that contains that object.” When one is confronted with a problem which is burdened with data, one can generalize the data so as to give a clear indication as to the solution. For given lengths one can create letters, for specific objects, one can substitute a general class of object. Thus the problem is likely to resemble some abstract idea which one is familiar with. Then the solution becomes apparent and the problem can be solved.


3.3 Specialization: Just as generalization (3.2) moves from the consideration of a specific object to a set of objects, specialization moves from the consideration of a set of objects to a specific object or from one member of the set to another in the set which is closely related to it. Polya outlines a specific method by which one should create an auxiliary problem (2.2) through a specialization. A. Specialization Though Auxiliary Problems Given an original problem which is too difficult because of a given condition or set of conditions, one can specialize the problem. Invent an auxiliary problem which ignores one or more of the conditions so that it can be solved easily. What is to be learned from this problem? How does it relate to the original problem? Once this connection has been made, one can many times go on to solve the original problem without much trouble. Since one part of the problem is solved, solving the others, i. e. the conditions which were previously ignored, is more manageable. Thus, the specialized problem serves as a stepping stone to the original.

3.4 Induction and Mathematical Induction: There are two types of induction in mathematics, the first is the style of formal proof using the n + 1 model, and the other is an informal way of creating and supporting plausible guesses. In How to Solve It Polya discusses both types, especially the formal one in great detail, but since the formal type is common knowledge, and not truly of any heuristic value, I will not include it here, only the informal. A. The Informal Type of Induction In solving a problem one may chance upon some discovery without being sure of its validity. A common way to form a plausible guess as to its validity is to test it in other scenarios, if a formula is good for one configuration of numbers, is it good for another? How many others? If there are a substantial amount of other cases where the formula holds true, then it is most likely true (one proves nothing however, until one has devised a rigorous argument, and it is only a plausible guess until that occurs). It is a step toward a generalization (3.2), and supplying other cases of a given idea’s validity is a specialization (3.3). The best use of this is as one is carrying out a plan, if one makes some discovery, to verify the validity of it

for any plausible purpose, so that one may use it in the future, or even in the problem at hand.

3.5 Test by Dimension: The test by dimension is one of the most useful ways to check a physical or geometrical formula. Any physical concept has its own dimension associated with it, thus for area it is cm2, m2 etc… If one is given a formula, but there is some reason to question its validity, one can test it by testing the dimension, that is, by finding an equivalence between the units on each side. There are two main uses of the test by dimension, the first is to check the accuracy of a formula which is already given, and the second is to help find a formula which one doesn’t completely know. Both of these are illustrated by examples. A. Checking the Validity of a Given Formula Suppose one is given the question “find the volume of a sphere being given its radius as 4cm.” This is an extraordinarily simple problem of plane geometry; there is a formula, but also suppose one cannot quite recall the formula. Is it or ? If one is trying to find volume, then one finds a measurement in cm3. Since the measure of r is in cm, then it follows that r2 will yield a measurement of cm2, but that r3 will yield a measurement of cm3. Thus one can be sure the second one is correct, we have established an equivalence between the dimensions. B. Finding a Formula Which One Doesn’t Completely Know Suppose one has a simple pendulum. One must find a formula which expresses the period, T, of the pendulum in terms of l, the length of the string and the gravitational force exerted upon it, g. From a physics class, one can remember that the period involves the product of a constant and both of the other variables raised to some power, but not the exact power, that is: =

One knows however, the dimensions of each measurement, thus T= sec, l=cm, and g=cm(sec-2). Thus one can produce the equation,

sec = cmmcm(sec-2)n Distributing we get: sec = cmm+nsec-2n To eliminate the cm terms one sets them to 0, such as: m+n=0 And then to complete the system, one writes the remaining equivalence: 1 = -2n Thus we obtain n = -½ and m = ½. The formula is now: = One has now ascertained much more about this formula than was previously known, without actually memorizing it. True, there is no way to find the constant c, but it is still better that the previous form of it.


Looking Back


4.1 Can You Check the Result? Checking the result is a very important aspect of any problem. If one cannot check the validity of their result, the result itself is most likely invalid. There are a number of facets to this technique. A. Checking An Unknown In problems to solve (5.2), where the unknown is a number, one should consider if the answer is reasonable. Therefore finding the age of a man who you know is a grandfather to be 9.3 years is incorrect, without considering the problem or solution itself we know it is incorrect, because the answer is unreasonable. This does not always work, but it should give one reason to consider their work. One can also check the validity of a “problem in letters,” a formula or algebraic manipulation. This can be done by specialization (3.3) of the formula. Is there a specialized case where the formula reduces down to another; where another formula becomes the first? Can one let one variable equal another so as to reduce the expression to a known equation? B. Checking the Argument When one checks the argument it should not be mere repetition of the checks while carrying out (3.1). Instead one should focus on specific parts of their argument, what are the weaker portions? Why? How can one make them stronger? Thus, in answering these questions, one does not stumble over any part of the problem, and one’s argument is consistent and provable.

4.2 Can You Derive the Result Differently? In most problems, there are multiple methods for obtaining the correct answer to the problem. In any problem where the solution is long and involved, one naturally looks for a solution which is simpler, easier to follow and clearer. Thus the questions “can you derive the result differently?” and “can you see it at a glance?” are asked by the good mathematician. One may not be satisfied with merely one method by which the solution is obtained, and will look for another to obtain that same solution so to build the credibility of the solution itself, thus it is said by Polya “two proofs are better than one.” In considering a different derivation of the result one may see the result in a new light, certain relationships and attributes of it may become obvious, whereas before they were not known. In examining the various parts of the problem, and

reassembling them one is likely to get a better understanding of the problem as a whole, thus allowing one to see clearly the solution and be sure of its validity.

4.3 Can You Use the Result? “To find the solution to a problem by your own means is a discovery.” So the intelligent mathematician considers what use to make of this discovery; one asks is what other problems can the solution to the present one aid? This many times calls for one to invent new problems, analogous to the first one. There are two main processes for achieving this: Retaining the unknown and changing the conditions, and changing the unknown and retaining the conditions and equivalence. A. Retaining the Unknown and Changing/Adding Conditions The process itself is exactly what the name implies. Given a solved problem, one retains the unknown and changes, or adds some conditions. Polya’s example of this is: given the length, width, and height of a rectangular parallelepiped, find the diagonal. In this case the diagonal of the parallelepiped is the unknown. Once this is solved, one then can be sure that the following questions are all partially if not completely solved: 1. Given the length, width, and height of a rectangular parallelepiped, find the radius of the circumscribed sphere. 2. Given the altitude of a pyramid and the sides of its base, find the lateral edges. 3. Given the rectangular coordinates (x1, y1, z1) and(x2, y2, z2) of two points in space, find the distance between the two points Thus one has used the solution from the first problem to find the solutions for many other problems. B. Changing the Unknown and Retaining the Conditions/Equivalence In the fore mentioned problem, once one has obtained a value for the unknown one has also established an equivalence among the four parts, thus given any three of the parts, one can always find the fourth. Thus from the solution to the first problem one also obtains the solutions to the problems given the length, width

and diagonal of a rectangular parallelepiped, find the height etc… for all of the other quantities. These new problems retain all of the conditions in the first one, and most of all the equivalence established between the various parts of the first problem, but changes the unknown, substituting one part for another.


Other Techniques


5.1 Practical Problems: Outside of mathematics there are many other sciences which make use of mathematical problem solving with relation a physical system. Many times the information in a practical problem can be staggering, with hundreds of unknowns, conditions, and thousands of data. This is because a practical problem is usually not as clear as purely mathematical problems. The complexity of the unknowns, the data, and the conditions differentiate a practical problem from a purely mathematical one the most sharply. It is usually thought that practical problems need much more experience to tackle than purely mathematical problems, but this is usually in the knowledge needed that the actual heuristic approach to the problem. In either type, one applies their knowledge of related problems, thus the questions “have you seen the same problem in a slightly different form?” and “do you know a related problem?” should be asked in any case. Another sharp difference is in the ability to completely understand all of the notions related to the problem. In a mathematical problem, these are clear, and one can fairly easily gain an understanding of them. In practical problems however, these are usually very “hazy” as Polya puts it, and the clarification of them is essential, thus the questions “have you take into account all essential notions involved in the problem?” In pure mathematical problems one must include all data and all conditions, but not so in a practical problem. Think of the engineer in charge of building a power plant. They must take into account things such as cost, environmental impact, and efficiency, but not the petty grievances of the local residents. Thus one asks themself “did you include all the data/conditions which could influence appreciably the solution?” rather than just the first part of the question. The last consideration is “can you make the problem simpler by using a reasonable approximation rather than completely accurate data.” A burdensome amount of detail in calculations may make the problem more difficult and involved than it should be.

5.2 Problems to Find Problems to Prove: There are two principle types of mathematical problems. The first, problems which revolve around some unknown bit of information, are called “problems to find” by Polya, and the second, problems which revolve around proving or

disproving a given proposition, are called “problems to prove.” This entry shall take up both separately. A. Problems to Find The unknown of a problem to find could be anything. In geometry, a shape or measurement, in algebra a number, in the calculus an antiderivitive to a given function, in a crossword puzzle a word of a given amount of characters, etc. One must know and be able to decompose (2.3) the three main parts of a problem to find, the unknown, the data, and the condition. In simple problems there may be only one or two of each, but in more complex problems one might have many sets of data and conditions. Either way, in solving a problem to find one asks themselves “what is/are the unknown(s)/data/condition(s)?”, “can you separate the various parts of the condition?” (1.6), “can you establish a link between the data and the unknown?” etc (there is a complete list in How to Solve it pg 155-156). B. Problems to Prove Unlike the unknown of a problem to find, the unknown of a problem to prove is “to show conclusively that a certain clearly stated assertion is true, or else to show that it is false.” Thus problems to prove depend much more on the content of the problem for their variation rather than the nature of what is sought. Usual problems to prove can be separated into two parts, the hypothesis and the conclusion. This is not true for all problems to prove however, note the problem “prove there is infinitely many prime numbers.” In solving a problem to prove, understanding these parts is very important, and furthermore, recognizing the nature of the notions involved is essential. Thus one asks questions like “did you use the whole hypothesis?” and “is there another problem with a similar conclusion?” etc (once again, there is a complete list of these questions in How to Solve it pg 156).

5.3 Progress and Achievement: There are certain steps one takes as they progress toward the solution of a problem. There are three very important ones called mobilization, organization, and changes in the mode of conception. Each of these has a given heuristic value, and shall be discussed separately.


A. Mobilization When first confronted with a problem one must assemble the necessary knowledge in order to correctly form a plan to solve it. This requires either recalling knowledge that one already has or gaining knowledge which one does not have, but is conducive to the solution. This process of gathering knowledge is termed mobilization by Polya. It is a process of extraction B. Organization Once one has mobilized their knowledge of the problem, the knowledge must be ordered correctly so as to find a solution. One must take the isolated facts which are the products of the mobilization and combine them in a suitable way so as to create a path to the solution. This process is called organization by Polya, and is used to “…construct and argument containing the materials recollected to t\a well adapted whole.” C. Changes in the Mode of Conception Once one has mobilized and organized their knowledge, one sets off carrying out the steps to find a solution. Throughout this process one becomes aware of things which were not known before, realizes connections which one was previously unaware of, and recalls helpful ideas which previously didn’t occur to them. Thus, in the process of solving a problem, one’s idea of the problem and the contents of thee problem changes from the outset. These changes are called changes in the mode of conception by Polya. With several changes in the mode of conception, one becomes aware of various standpoints of the problem, thus helping to smooth the solution to the problem by recognizing all of its parts.


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