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Last week while in Tel Aviv I had an interesting conversation over lunch with Leonid Polterovich and Yaron Ostrover. I happened to mention the following gem from the remarkable book A=B by Wilf-Zeilberger. The book contains the following Theorem and “proof”:
Theorem 1.4.2. For every triangle ABC, the angle bisectors intersect at one point
Proof. Verify this for the 64 triangles for which the angle at A and B are one of 10, 20, 30, , 80. Since the theorem is true in these cases it is always true.
We are asked the provocative question: is this proof acceptable? The philosophy of the W-Z method is illustrated by pointing out that this proof is acceptable if one adds for clarity the remark that the coordinates of the intersections of the pairs of angle bisectors are rational functions of degree at most 7 in the tangents of A/2 and B/2; hence if they agree at 64 points they agree everywhere.
Leonid countered with a personal anecdote. Recall that an altitude in a triangle is a line through one vertex which is perpendicular to the opposite edge. Leonid related that one day his geometry class (I forget the precise context) were given the problem of showing that the altitudes in a hyperbolic triangle (i.e. a triangle in the hyperbolic plane) meet at a single point — the orthocenter of the triangle. After the class had struggled with this for some time, the professor laconically informed them that the result obviously followed immediately from the corresponding fact for Euclidean triangles “by analytic continuation”. Philosophically speaking, this is not too far from the W-Z example, although the details are slightly more shaky — in particular, the class of Euclidean triangles are not Zariski dense in the class of triangles in constant curvature spaces, so a little more remains to be done.
Actually, one might even go back and rethink the W-Z example — how exactly are we to verify that the angular bisectors intersect at a point for the triangles in question without doing a calculation no less complicated that the general case? Let’s raise the stakes further. After some thought, we see that not only will the intersections of pairs of angle bisectors be given by rational functions of the tangents of A/2 and B/2, but the (algebraic) heights of the coefficients of these rational functions can be easily estimated, and one can therefore compute an effective lower bound on how far apart the intersections of the angle bisectors would be if they were not equal. We can then literally draw the triangles on a piece of physical paper using a protractor, and verify by eyesight that the angle bisectors appear to coincide to within the necessary accuracy. After rigorously estimating the experimental errors, we can write qed.