Finding Cos(72)

My older son is learning trig out of Art of Problem Solving’s Precalculus book this year. Yesterday he was working on the “sum to product” section, which derives rules for expressions like Cos(x) + Cos(y). It reminded me of one of my all time favorite math contest problems:

Today I thought I would show him my solution to that problem. What we go through probably isn’t the best or easiest solution, but I think it is an instructive solution for someone learning trig.

We started by talking about the problem and how some of the ideas he was currently learning could help solve it:

At the end of the last video we’d found a nice equation that we derived from the original problem:

\cos(36^o) - \cos(72^o) = 2 \cos(36^o) * \cos(72^o)

Now we used the double angle formula to simplify even more and find a cubic equation satisfied by Cos(36):

Now we tried to find the solutions to the cubic equation we found in the last video. This part gave my son a bit of trouble, but he eventually got there.

Now we were almost home! We just had to compute the value of Cos(72) and we’d be able to solve the problem. That involved one last application of the double angle formula:

I think solving this problem from scratch would be far too difficult for just about any kid just learning trig. But, the fun thing about this problem is that the ideas needed to solve the problem are all within reach using elementary trig identities. So, I think that working through the solution to this problem is a nice exercise for kids.

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