I have a question. Please be nice; I come from the corporate world and my knowledge of computer theory is around a college freshman level.

My understanding from many popular-level sources (like Scott Aaronson’s P vs NP for dummies blog post, or this New Yorker article) is that the P vs NP question asks whether a problem that can be checked “quickly” can also be solved “quickly”. But to my knowledge there are well-known problems that can be checked quickly but are impossible to solve regardless of time or number of operations.

Take, for example, the (in)famous angle trisection with straightedge and compass. If asked to check that a provided angle really does trisect 60 degrees, you can very quickly verify that fact using a straightedge and compass. But if someone asks you to solve the problem of trisecting that 60 degree angle using the same straightedge and compass, you can’t do it. So the solution here really only goes “one way” (i.e. using classical tools, the 20 degree angle can be checked really quickly, but no finite amount of operations/time will ever solve the problem of constructing it).

How does this relate to P vs NP? My thought is that this would show that NOT every problem that can be checked quickly can be solved quickly. The specific case of the 60 degree angle trisection appears to be checked in P time and not solved in P time (or any time for that matter, because by using classical tools the problem of the 60 degree trisection cannot be solved at all).

I know I’m missing something, and I tried looking up the formal definition of P vs NP on the Clay Math website, and that was way over my level of understanding (I’m betting that the categories of P and NP don’t apply to my example for reasons I am just not aware of). I just went through the exercise and tried to intuit the question using some well-known math, and I’m having a tough time figuring out where my mistake is.

Any thoughtful feedback is very much appreciated 🙂