I came across this problem more than 2 years ago when Pranave, a colleague at RSA, posted this in the internal mathematics forum.

Given a list of first n natural numbers with each natural number occurring exactly twice in the list, we need to arrange the list in a manner such that there are exactly k numbers between two k's for each k in the sequence.

For a small list, say, (1, 1, 2, 2, 3, 3, 4, 4), the answer can be obtained by trial and error: (4, 1, 3, 1, 2, 4, 3, 2).

But what if the list is very long? There is another important question: Is there a solution for every possible such list? The answer turns out to be: No. One can easily see that there is no valid arrangements for (1, 1) or (1, 1, 2, 2) that satisfy the condition specified in the problem statement.

So, we have two things to solve now.

  1. For what values of n is the problem solvable?
  2. If the problem is solvable for some value of n, how do we solve it?

In this blog post, I'll show how I solved it. I took some help from the computer by writing a Python program to see if I could notice any patterns. Here is the output.

n =  1 :          0 solutions (     0 s)
n =  2 :          0 solutions (     0 s)
n =  3 :          2 solutions (     0 s)
n =  4 :          2 solutions (     0 s)
n =  5 :          0 solutions (     0 s)
n =  6 :          0 solutions (     0 s)
n =  7 :         52 solutions (     0 s)
n =  8 :        300 solutions (     0 s)
n =  9 :          0 solutions (     1 s)
n = 10 :          0 solutions (     6 s)
n = 11 :      35584 solutions (    45 s)
n = 12 :     216288 solutions (   390 s)

From the output, I could form a conjecture:

There exists a permutation of (1, 1, 2, 2, …, n, n) such that for each k in the sequence (1 ≤ k ≤ n) there are k numbers between the two k's if and only if n ≡ 3 (mod 4) or n ≡ 0 (mod 4).

Let me show how I proved this conjecture.

Proof of the necessity of the condition n ≡ 3 (mod 4) or n ≡ 0 (mod 4)

Let (1, 1, 2, 2, …, n, n) be a sequence which can be rearranged such that there are k numbers between the two k's for each k in the sequence. Let us number the position of each number in this permutation as 1, 2, …, 2n.

Partition the numbers in this partition into two halves:

  • Partition 1: All numbers in odd numbered positions.
  • Partition 2: All numbers in even numbered positions.

The length of each partition is n.

Note that if k (1 ≤ k ≤ n) is even, one of the two k's is located on an odd numbered position and the other one on even numbered position.

If k is odd the two k's are both located on odd numbered positions or both located on even numbered positions. The two k's will never be split in two different partitions. It will be together in one partition.

From the above discussion it is obvious that the number of even numbers in each partition is equal. Let the number of even numbers in each partition be m. Let us assume there are p pairs of odd numbers in partition 1 and q pairs of odd numbers in partition 2. Thus, there are 2p odd numbers in partition 1 and 2q odd numbers in partition 2.

Since, the length of each partition is n, n = m + 2p = m + 2q. Hence, p = q. This implies that there must be p + q = 2p pairs of odd numbers in the two partitions, i.e. the number of positive odd numbers less than or equal to n is 2p.

In other words, the number of positive odd numbers less than or equal to n must be even. … (1)

We know that, for a positive integer n, the number of positive odd numbers less than or equal to n is ⌈n/2⌉. Let q be the quotient and r be the remainder obtained after dividing n by 4. We have four possible cases.

  1. If n = 4q + 1, number of positive odd numbers less than or equal to n is, ⌈(4q + 1)/2⌉ = 2q + 1.
  2. If n = 4q + 2, number of positive odd numbers less than or equal to n is, ⌈(4q + 2)/2⌉ = 2q + 1.
  3. If n = 4q + 3, number of positive odd numbers less than or equal to n is, ⌈(4q + 3)/2⌉ = 2q + 2.
  4. If n = 4q + 4, number of positive odd numbers less than or equal to n is, ⌈(4q + 4)/2⌉ = 2q + 2.
We can see that the number of odd numbers less than or equal to n is even if and only if n ≡ 3 (mod 4) or n ≡ 0 (mod 4). … (2)

From (1) and (2), the necessity of the condition n ≡ 3 (mod 4) or n ≡ 0 (mod 4) is proven.

Proof of the sufficiency of the condition n ≡ 3 (mod 4) or n ≡ 0 (mod 4):

If we can show that we can construct a permutation that satisfies the condition in the question for every positive integer n such that n ≡ 3 (mod 4) or n ≡ 0 (mod 4), then the proof would be complete. We have two cases to deal with:

  1. n ≡ 3 (mod 4)
  2. n ≡ 0 (mod 4)

When, n ≡ 3 (mod 4), let x = (n + 1) / 4. Partition the first n natural numbers in 4 sequences, p1, p2, p3 and p4 such that each sequence contains x − 1 numbers and 3 single numbers a, b and c according to the following rules. This is possible since, 4(x − 1) + 3 = 4x − 1 = n + 1 − 1 = n. The partitioning rules are as follows.

  1. a = 2x − 1
  2. b = 4x − 2
  3. c = 4x − 1
  4. p1 = Odd numbers between 1 and a in ascending order. (1, …, 2x − 3).
  5. p2 = Even numbers between 1 and a in ascending order. (2, …, 2x − 2).
  6. p3 = Odd numbers between a and b in ascending order. (2x + 1, …, 4x − 3).
  7. p4 = Even numbers between a and b in ascending order. (2x, …, 4x − 4).

It can be verified that the above partitioning rules imply that the length of each partition pi is x − 1 where 1 ≤ i ≤ 4. Also, all natural numbers less than or equal to n are present in the 4 partitions and 3 single numbers above.

Let us consider an array A of size 2n. The first index of array is 1. Now, a valid permutation can be formed with the following placement rules.

  1. A[1] to A[x − 1] contains reversed p4.
  2. A[x] to A[2x − 2] contains reversed p1.
  3. A[2x − 1] contains b.
  4. A[2x] to A[3x − 2] contains p1.
  5. A[3x − 1] contains c.
  6. A[3x] to A[4x − 2] contains p4.
  7. A[4x − 1] contains a.
  8. A[4x] to A[5x − 2] contains reversed p3.
  9. A[5x − 1] to A[6x − 3] contains reversed p2.
  10. A[6x − 2] contains b.
  11. A[6x − 1] contains a.
  12. A[6x] to A[7x − 2] contains p2.
  13. A[7x − 1] contains c.
  14. A[7x] to A[8x − 2] contains p3.

Note that 8x − 2 = 2n. So, the last rule can be rewritten as "A[7x] to A[2n] contains p3".

When n ≡ 0 (mod 4), let x = n / 4. Partition the first natural numbers in 4 sequences, p1, p2, p3 and p4 such that each sequence contains x − 1 numbers and 4 single numbers a, b, c and d. The partition rules contain the 7 rules discussed above and one more rule. The additional rule is: d = 4x.

The placement are same for all cells in the array with one exception and two additional rules for the two new cells.

  1. A[4x − 1] = d. (Exception. Modifies rule 7.)
  2. A[8x − 1] = a.
  3. A[8x] = d.

With these rules it can be shown that two k's have k elements in between. In other words, the difference in the array indices of the cells where two k's are present is k + 1.

a = 2x − 1. The two a's are located at A[4x − 1] and A[6x − 1]. The difference in array indices is 2x. Hence, two a's have 2x − 1 = a numbers in between. Similarly, this can be verified for b, c and d.

The two 1's are located at A[2x − 2] and A[2x]. The difference in array indices is 2. Hence, the two 1's have 1 number in between. From this it can be shown that for each k in p1, there are k numbers in between. Take an arbitrary element m in p1. From the construction rules, we see that, the two m's are located in A[2x − 2 − (m − 1)/2] and A[2x + (m − 1)/2]. The difference in the indices is: 2x + (m − 1)/2 − 2x + 2 + (m − 1)/2 = m + 1. Similarly, it can be shown that for any k in any parition pi (1 ≤ i ≤ 4), there are k numbers between the two k's.

Here is an example.

n = 11
x = (11 + 1) / 4 = 3
a = 5
b = 10
c = 11
p1 = (1, 3)
p2 = (2, 4)
p3 = (7, 9)
p4 = (6, 8)

(a) +------------+ (c) | | +-----|------------|------+ (b) | | | | +------|-----|----------+ | | | | | | | | 8 6 3 1 10 1 3 11 6 8 5 9 7 4 2 10 5 2 4 11 7 9 === === === === === === === === | | | | | | | | | +------+ (p1) | | +--------+ (p2) | +-----------------+ +-------------------+ (p4) (p3)

Notes

  1. There is an entry for this problem in OEIS: http://oeis.org/A014552.
  2. The internal symmetries in the permutation are not very obvious from the proof but the permutation simply requires us to place a, b, c, p1, p2 and p3 in this order: (p4' p1' b p1 c p4 a p3' p2' b a p2 c p3) when n ≡ 3 (mod 4), where pi' is reversed pi (1 ≤ i ≤ 4).
  3. For n = 3, we get x = 1. So, length of the partitions p1, p2, p3 and p4 is x − 1 = 0 each. So, rules that involve the partitions do not apply in case of n = 3.
  4. In this proof, I have shown one set of rules to construct a valid permutation for a given n such that n ≡ 3 (mod 4) or n ≡ 0 (mod 4). But actually, I found 2 such sets of rules. The variables a, b, c and d remain same in the other rule. Only the rules for  p1, p2, p3, p4 and placement rules differ.
  5. The above two points imply that, except for n = 3, using construction rules, we can construct at least two different permutations for a given value of n such that n ≡ 3 (mod 4) or n ≡ 0 (mod 4).
  6. It seemed like for values of n > 20, there might be over a quadrillion possible solutions. It wasn't feasible to verify this on my laptop with the program I wrote. When I discussed this with a person who was interested in this problem, he asked, "What? Don't you have a quad(rillion)-core processor?"
  7. I worked through a Saturday night till 3:30 AM of the following Sunday morning and I could prove only the necessity of the condition n ≡ 3 (mod 4) or n ≡ 0 (mod 4). When a friend asked me about the progress, I could manage to say this, "Half of it. Need to prove a 'necessary and sufficient' condition. Proved the necessary part only but this much is sufficient for me today. The sufficient part is necessary for the proof to be complete but i think, now it has become necessary to do the sufficient part tomorrow as it is too late already."
  8. The above point reminds me of a famous quote by George Pólya, "Mathematics consists in proving the most obvious thing in the least obvious way".
  9. The above point reminds me of http://humor.beecy.net/misc/principia/.

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