Ross wants to build a special set $A$. He starts with $A=\{0, 42\}$. At any step, he can add an integer $x$ to the set $A$ if it is a root of a polynomial that uses the already existing integers in $A$ as coefficients. He keeps doing this, adding more and more numbers to $A$. What is the maximum number of distinct integers $A$ can have?

My thoughts

First of all, this is a contest problem and I am a bit confused with the problem statement. I am assuming that I can't use the zero polynomial to make the problem more clear.

I tried to solve the problem simply making polynomials and see what elements $A$ can have. For the first step, the polynomial is $P_1(x)=42$. So, after the first step, $A=\{0,42,42\}$. For the second step, the polynomial is $P_2(x)=42x+42$. So, after the second step, $A=\{-1,0,42\}$. For the third step, the polynomial is $P_3(x)=-x^2-x+42$ ( I am assuming that I can use some of the existing integers more than once as coefficients in a certain polynomial). So, after the third step, $A=\{-7,-1,0,6,42\}$. After this, the polynomials get harder to check.

From the first three steps, I see that divisors of $42$ (both positive and negative) can be an element in $A$. If this is true, how to prove this? And can the problem be solved in more elegant way ( not checking the polynomials)?

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    $\begingroup$ Mayve you can use Viete's formulas: proofwiki.org/wiki/Vi%C3%A8te%27s_Formulas in which you can see that roots of a polynomial are combinations of products and sums of the coefficients. Or is that how you are already attacking this problem? $\endgroup$ Jun 23, 2021 at 8:18
  • $\begingroup$ Note that the polynomial $P_1(x) = 42$ does not have $42$ as a root. $\endgroup$ Jun 23, 2021 at 8:22
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    $\begingroup$ @PrimeMover: Did you make a typo? Vieta's formulae show you how the coefficients are a combination of sum/products of the roots. Not the other way around, right? $\endgroup$ Jun 23, 2021 at 8:30
  • $\begingroup$ @AryamanMaithani No, I didn't make a typo, I made a stupid mistake. A typo is where you hit the wrong key by accident. A stupid mistake is when you hit the keys you were intending to hit, but the thing you wrote was wrong. $\endgroup$ Jun 23, 2021 at 10:08

1 Answer 1


The rational root theorem says that if you have a polynomial $a_n x^n + ... + a_0$ with integer coefficients, then all rational roots must be of the form $\pm\frac{p}{q}$, where $p$ divides $a_0$ and $q$ divides $a_n$.

In particular,

  • the roots can't be bigger in magnitude than $|a_0|$, so Ross can't get any elements into his set outside the range $[-42,42]$.
  • All integer roots will be factors of $a_0$. Since he starts with just factors of $42$, he'll only ever get factors of $42$.

Whatever set he ends up with, it will be a subset of $R=\{0, \pm1, \pm2, \pm3, \pm6, \pm7, \pm14, \pm21, \pm42\}$. So one approach is to build his set, and stop when you get to $R$.

You already got quite far. You can get $2$ and $-3$ via $-x^2-x+6$, and then you get $1$ via $-x^2+2x-1$.

Now you have $1$, then for each $p$ you have, use $x+p$ to get $-p$.

That leaves just $\pm14$ and $\pm21$, but you can use $ax-42$ to get those for various $a$.

"Is there an easier way?"

I don't think so. In particular, I don't think Ross would always be able to get all the factors of $n$ starting from $\{0,n\}$ (although it's still true that he can only get factors of $n$) He could always get $-1$, but the fact that 42 (and then 6) gave as much as they did came down to the fact that they can be factorised as $k(k+1)$.

  • $\begingroup$ Ross can get more than $R$ though. If he manages to get $1$ and $42$, then he can get $1/42$ as $42x - 1$. My guess was that he'll end up with the set $$\left\{\frac{a}{b} : a, b \mid 42,\ a, b \in \Bbb Z\right\} \cup \{0\}.$$ $\endgroup$ Jun 23, 2021 at 8:33
  • $\begingroup$ He can only add integers to the set. If he can add arbitrary rationals, he can get $\{\pm2^a 3^b 7^c|a,b,c\in Z\}\cup\{0\}$ $\endgroup$ Jun 23, 2021 at 8:34
  • $\begingroup$ Ahhh yes. Nice answer. $\endgroup$ Jun 23, 2021 at 8:36
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    $\begingroup$ Here's all the n under 1000 for which Ross can get $\{0\}\cup\{\pm f : f | n\}$ starting from $\{0,n\}$, using only polynomials of degree 2 or less: $\{1, 2, 4, 6, 9, 12, 16, 20, 25, 30, 36, 42, 49, 81, 90, 121, 144, 156, 169, 256, 272, 289, 361, 400, 420, 529, 625, 841,900, 930, 961\}$ Allowing any degree polynomial will add more elements to this list. For example, 3. The next numbers that work are $n=1296, 1332, 1369, 1681...$. $\endgroup$ Jun 23, 2021 at 9:31

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