Using Mathematical Induction to Design Algorithms

Using Mathematical Induction to Design Algorithms

We are revisiting the 1980s, thanks to Gene Myers, and came across this elegant 1988 paper by Udi Manber that our readers may find helpful. Manber later wrote a book “Introduction to Algorithms - A Creative Approach”, where he expanded on the same ideas (more on that later).

This article presents a methodology, based on mathematical induction, for approaching the design and the teaching of combinatorial algorithms. While this methodology does not cover all possible ways of designing algorithms it does cover many known techniques. It also provides an elegant intuitive framework for explaining the design of algorithms in more depth. The heart of the methodology lies in an analogy between the intellectual process of proving mathematical theorems and that of designing combinatorial algorithms. We claim that although these two processes serve different purposes and achieve different types of results, they are more similar than it seems. This claim is established here by a series of examples of algorithms, each developed and explained by the use of the methodology. We believe that students can get more motivation, greater depth, and better understanding of algorithms by this methodology.

Mathematical induction is a very powerful proof technique. It usually works as follows. Let T be a theorem that we want to prove. Suppose that 7 includes a parameter n whose value can be any natural number. Instead of proving directly that T holds for all values of n we prove that (1) T holds for n = 1, and (2) T holds for any n > 1 provided that T holds for n - 1. The first part is usually very simple to prove. Proving the second part is easier in many cases than proving the theorem directly since we can use the assumption that T holds for n - 1. (In some sense we get this assumption for free.) In other words, it is enough to reduce the theorem to one with a smaller value of n, rather than proving it from scratch. We concentrate on this reduction. The same principle holds for algorithms. Induction allows one to concentrate on extending solutions of smaller subproblems to those of larger problems. One starts with an arbitrary instance of the problem at hand, and tries to solve it by using the assumption that the same problem but with smaller size has already been solved. For example, given a sequence of n > 1 numbers to sort (it is trivial to sort one number), we can assume that we already know how to sort n - 1 numbers. Then we can either sort the first n - 1 numbers and insert the nth number in its correct position (which leads to an algorithm called insertion sort), or start by putting the nth number in its final position and then sort the rest (which is called selection sort). We need only to address the operation on the nth number. (Of course, this is not the only way to sort, nor is it the only way to use induction for sorting.)

Speaking of Manber’s book, here is an useful review by a reader at Amazon. We emphasized the most important part.

This book is much more than a catalog of algorithms (e.g., CLR): its purpose is to train your intuition to recognize mathematical structure in abstract problems. What does it matter if you know Dijkstra’s algorithm? It’s much more valuable to have good intuitions and a inductive reasoning tool chest with which to smash apart all of the variations of the shortest path problem (for example.)

The reviewers who wrote that the book “assumes you are a math wiz” and that it provides “little or no guidance for solving an arbitrary problem of the same type” didn’t get it. This book is trying very hard to make you into a wiz by forcing you to really interact with mathematics, rather than working through a set of nearly identical problems (–what passes for “education” in North America.)

I was just going to leave my review at that, but since the reviews that people find “helpful” are so way off base, I think I should throw in a relevant story.

When my friend was in grade 11, he showed up to the Canadian Computing Competition finals, placing 14th. The guy who won told him, “if you want to win, read this book.” Two years later, he won the CCC against 2000 other students. This book is the best introduction you can give a budding mathematician.

Sure, you can cough up what you’ve memorized from CLR during your university algorithms course. But, do you want to learn to invent algorithms yourself?

Math is not something handed down generations in big, dry textbooks. Like all knowledge, math is organically discovered Truth, and you have learn to discover it for yourself.

Written by M. //