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The probability of choosing an acute triangle

Diana Davis and Richard Parris


June 14, 2013
Abstract
We discuss twelve methods for randomly choosing a triangle, and compute the probability of
the triangles being acute for each method.
A popular riddle, known as the Bertrand paradox [3], asks: If you draw a random chord in a
circle, what is the probability that it is longer than one edge of an equilateral triangle inscribed in
the circle? (See Figure 1.) Its a trick question, but one with an elegant answer, which explains its
popularity among mathematicians.
Figure 1: An equilateral triangle inscribed in a circle, and several chords
This is a trick question because the answer depends on how the random chord is chosen (see
Figure 2):
Method 1: Fix one endpoint of the chord, say at a vertex of the equilateral triangle. Randomly
choose a point on the circle for the other endpoint. The triangle divides the circle into three equal
parts; only points on the far side will yield chords longer than an edge of the triangle, so the
probability is 1/3.
Method 2: Consider a radius of the circle, say one that is perpendicular to one of the triangles
edges. Randomly choose a point on this radius, and construct the chord through that point that is
perpendicular to the radius. The triangles edge bisects the radius, so the probability that the chord
is longer than an edge of the triangle is 1/2.
Method 3: Randomly choose a point on the interior of the circle, and construct the chord that has
this point as its midpoint. The chord will be longer than an edge of the triangle if the point lies
inside a circle of half the radius of the larger circle, which occurs with probability 1/4.
1
.
Figure 2: Three methods for choosing a chord in a circle
In this paper, we consider a similarly poorly-dened, yet interesting, question: If you randomly
choose a triangle, what is the probability that it is acute?
Remark. This paper grew out of conversations between the two authors in 2008: Diana Davis was
convinced that the method illustrated in Figure 3 gave the correct answer to the question, and Rick
Parris countered with numerous other methods. Following Parriss untimely death in 2012, Davis
compiled all the methods they had found, and added proofs.
Method 1 (Simple): The largest angle of a triangle ranges from 60

to 180

. Only 1/4 of that range


produces an acute triangle, so the probability of an acute triangle is 25%.
Despite its simplicity, this answer is not very satisfying, because no triangles were actually
selected. To justify this 25% probability (or any other answer), a suitable triangle-selection process
must be described, in which every possible triangle shape has a chance of appearing. We give
numerous different methods for this selection, each of which essentially puts coordinates on the
space of triangles, and then computes the measure of the set of acute triangles with respect to the
area form associated to those coordinates.
Method 2 (Angle dart board): The shape of a triangle is determined by its angles, so each shape is
represented by a triple (, , ) of positive numbers that satises the condition + + = and
, , > 0. The conguration of all such triples is an equilateral triangle in 3-space, whose vertices
are (, 0, 0), (0, , 0), and (0, 0, ) (see Figure 3). Randomly selecting a triangular shape can be
accomplished by simply throwing a dart at this triangular dart board (without aiming). The acute
case is dened by the three conditions , , < /2. These triples lie within the triangular region
whose vertices are the midpoints (/2, /2, 0), (/2, 0, /2), and (0, /2, /2). It is easily seen that
this region encloses 1/4 of the area of the whole dart board.
(0,,0)
(/2,/2,0)
(,0,0)
(0,/2,/2)
(/2,0,/2)
(0,0,)
Figure 3: A tilted triangular dart board
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Method 3 (Circumcircle): Randomly select three points on a circle; these are the vertices of a
triangle. Because every triangle has a circumcircle, every possible triangular shape has a chance
of being selected in this way. It is no loss of generality to mark a xed point A on the circle at
angle 0, and form a triangle APQ by selecting P and Q randomly on the circle at angles and
(see Figure 4). Let A

be the point that is diametrically opposite A, and let P

be diametrically
opposite P. The positions for Q that produce acute triangles APQ are on the minor arc from A

to
P

. The shaded region in the graph on the right side of Figure 4 corresponds to 0 2,
which represents all possible triangles. The darker shaded region corresponds to the acute triangle
constraints < , < +, > , and covers 1/4 of the shaded region, so the probability that
APQ is acute is 1/4.
Q

A
P
P
A

2
2

Figure 4: The probability that three randomly chosen points on a circle form an acute
triangle is the proportion of the shaded region in the graph that is dark, which is 1/4
Method 4 (Discrete circumcircle): Let A = A
0
be one of the vertices of regular (2n + 1)-gon
A
0
A
1
A
2
A
2n
inscribed in a circle, and let A

be diametrically opposite A. A random triangle


inscribed in this circle is approximated by selecting two vertices P = A
i
and Q = A
j
. There are

2n
2

= n(2n1) ways to make this selection. In an acute triangle, P is be on one side of AA

and Q
is on the other (see Figure 5). There are n choices for the position of P, and 1+2+ +n =
1
2
n(n+1)
choices for Q that make the triangle acute. Thus the probability of obtaining an acute triangle is
(n + 1)/(4n
2
2), which approaches 1/4 as n approaches .
A
A
P
Q
P
A
P
A
P
Q
Figure 5: For a triangle with A and P as vertices, Q must be one of the gray points in
order for APQ to be acute
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Method 5 (Incircle): Randomly select three points on a xed circle and draw the three lines that are
tangent to the circle at these points. Because every triangle has an incircle, every possible triangular
shape has a chance of being selected in this way. It is no loss of generality to mark a xed point A
on a unit circle and select P and Q randomly on the circle at angles and , measured in opposite
directions from A (see Figure 6). For the shape whose incircle has points of tangency A, P, Q to be
a triangle, and must satisfy < , < , < , the shaded region in the graph in Figure
6. For the triangle to be acute, they must satisfy > /2, > /2, < 3/2 . This is the dark
shaded region, which is 1/4 of the entire region, so the probability that APQ is acute is 1/4.
A
P
Q

/2
/2
Figure 6: The probability that three randomly chosen points on an incircle determine an
acute triangle is the proportion of the shaded region that is dark, which is 1/4
Method 6 (Broken stick): Given a stick of unit length, independently choose two break points.
The probability that these three pieces form a triangle is the proportion of Figure 7 that is shaded,
which is 1/4. Let x and y be the positions of the breaks on the stick, with 0 < x < y < 1, which
restricts us to one of the triangles in the gure. The lengths of the three pieces are then x, y x and
1 y, so the restriction to acute triangles is x
2
+ (y x)
2
> (1 y)
2
, x
2
+ (1 y)
2
> (y x)
2
, and
(y x)
2
+ (1 y)
2
> x
2
, which is the dark region in Figure 7. The proportion of the triangle that is
dark is the probability that the triangle is acute, which is 12 ln 2 8 0.318.
first break
is here
second break
can be
anywhere here
first break
1/2 1
1
1/2
x
y
s
e
c
o
n
d

b
r
e
a
k
Figure 7: The probability that the three pieces of a broken stick form a triangle is the
proportion of the square that is shaded, which is 1/4. The acute triangles lie in the dark
region (triangle enlarged to show detail), which is about 31.8% of the shaded area
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Method 7 (Unit cube): Select a randompoint (a, b, c) fromthe unit cube, whose coordinates represent
the triangles edge lengths. Of these, half represent triangles: The intersection of the region satisfying
z < x +y, y < x +z, x < y +z with the cube occupies half the volume of the cube. Within the
region representing triangles, the region representing acute triangles consists of the points that
satisfy z
2
< x
2
+y
2
, y
2
< x
2
+z
2
, x
2
< y
2
+z
2
. By symmetry, this volume is
1
2
3

x=1
x=0

y=1
yx

y
2
x
2
(y x)

dy dx = 1

4
0.2146.
The proportion of points that represent acute triangles, out of all those that represent triangles, is
thus this number divided by 1/2, which is 2

2
0.429.
Method 8 (Square dart board): Without aiming, throw three darts at a square dart board. In
other words, generate three independent random points with uniform distribution in the unit
square. Langford [2] showed that the probability that the three points form an acute triangle is
53/150 /40 0.275. (For a 1 2 rectangle, the probability is only 1/1200 13/128 +
3
4
ln 2
0.202, and the probability unsurprisingly decreases to 0 as the width increases.)
Method 9 (Circular dart board): Without aiming, throw three darts at a circular dart board. In other
words, generate three independent random points with uniform distribution in the unit disk. Hall
[1] showed that the probability that the three points form an acute triangle is 4/
2

1
8
0.28.
Method 10 (Longest side): Every triangle has a longest side call it AB, and suppose that AB = 2.
Let ABC be equilateral, and replace the edges CA and CB by 60-degree arcs drawn with A and B
as centers (see Figure 8). If the third point is randomly selected inside this curvilinear triangle
ABC, then AB will be the longest side of triangle ABP, and every possible triangular shape is
obtainable by this process. Obtuse triangles occur when P lands inside the semicircular region that
has AB as diameter. The probability that ABP is acute is the area of region R in Figure 8 divided
by the area of the union of regions Q and R, which is
5
6

3
4
3

3
=
5 6

3
8 6

3
0.36062.
B
longest, acute
A
acute
inter.,
acute
inter.,
shortest side,
acute triangle
shortest side, shortest side,
R
C
intermediate side,
obtuse triangle
obtuse triangle
obtuse triangle
obtuse triangle
intermediate side,
S
P
T
longest, obtuse
Q
Figure 8: The relative size of side AB, and the acute/obtuse status of triangle ABP,
depending on the position of P. The shaded regions extend to the upper halfplane
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Method 11 (Intermediate side): Every triangle has an intermediate side call it AB, and suppose
that AB = 2. Let ABC be equilateral, and replace the edge CB by a 60-degree arc drawn with A
as the center (see Figure 8). If P is randomly selected outside this curvilinear triangle ABC, but
inside a circle with radius AB centered at A or B, then AB will be the intermediate side of triangle
ABP. By symmetry, we can restrict to a quarter of this area, which is the union of regions S and T
in Figure 8. Every possible triangular shape appears as some triangle ABP with P in region S or
T. The only angle that can be obtuse is B, so the probability that ABP is acute is the area of region
S in Figure 8 divided by the area of the union of regions S and T, which is

3

3

3 +
2
3
=
3

3
3

3 + 2
0.17898.
Method 12 (Upper halfplane): In triangle ABP, assume that A is the origin, B is the point (1, 0),
and the third vertex P is selected in the upper halfplane. The angles at A and B are acute if P falls
in the vertical strip 0 < x < 1. The angle at P is acute of P falls outside the circle whose diameter is
AB. Triangle ABP is acute when P falls in the dark shaded region in Figure 8, and is obtuse when
P is anywhere else in the upper halfplane, so the probability that ABP is acute is 0.
References
[1] Glen Richard Hall, Acute triangles in the n-ball. Journal of Applied Probability. 19 (1982), no. 3,
712 715.
[2] Eric Langford, A problem in geometrical probability. Mathematics Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 1970:
237 244.
[3] P.E. Tissler, Bertrands Paradox. The Mathematical Gazette, 68 (443), March 1984: 15 19.
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