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Ben Green, Tamar Ziegler and I have just uploaded to the arXiv our paper “An inverse theorem for the Gowers U^4 norm“.  This paper establishes the next case of the inverse conjecture for the Gowers norm for the integers (after the U^3 case, which was done by Ben and myself a few years ago).  This conjecture has a number of combinatorial and number-theoretic consequences, for instance by combining this new inverse theorem with previous results, one can now get the correct asymptotic for the number of arithmetic progressions of primes of length five in any large interval [N] = \{1,\ldots,N\}.

To state the inverse conjecture properly requires a certain amount of notation.  Given a function f: {\Bbb Z} \to {\Bbb C} and a shift h \in {\Bbb Z}, define the multiplicative derivative

\Delta_h f(x) := f(x+h) \overline{f(x)}

and then define the Gowers U^{s+1}[N] norm of a function f: [N] \to {\Bbb C} to (essentially) be the quantity

\| f\|_{U^{s+1}[N]} := ({\Bbb E}_{h_1,\ldots,h_{s+1} \in [-N,N]} {\Bbb E}_{x \in [N]} |\Delta_{h_1} \ldots \Delta_{h_{s+1}} f(x)|)^{1/2^{s+1}},

where we extend f by zero outside of [N].  (Actually, we use a slightly different normalisation to ensure that the function 1 has a U^{s+1} norm of 1, but never mind this for now.)

Informally, the Gowers norm \|f\|_{U^{s+1}[N]} measures the amount of bias present in the (s+1)^{st} multiplicative derivatives of f.  In particular, if f = e(P) := e^{2\pi i P} for some polynomial P: {\Bbb Z} \to {\Bbb C}, then the (s+1)^{th} derivative of f is identically 1, and so is the Gowers norm.

However, polynomial phases are not the only functions with large Gowers norm.  For instance, consider the function f(n) := e( \lfloor \sqrt{2} n \rfloor \sqrt{3} n ), which is what we call a quadratic bracket polynomial phase.  This function isn’t quite quadratic, but it is close enough to being quadratic (because one has the approximate linearity relationship \lfloor x+y \rfloor = \lfloor x \rfloor + \lfloor y \rfloor holding a good fraction of the time) that it turns out that third derivative is trivial fairly often, and the Gowers norm \|f\|_{U^3[N]} is comparable to 1.  This bracket polynomial phase can be modeled as a nilsequence n \mapsto F( g(n) \Gamma ), where n \mapsto g(n) \Gamma is a polynomial orbit on a nilmanifold G/\Gamma, which in this case has step 2.  (The function F is only piecewise smooth, due to the discontinuity in the floor function \lfloor \rfloor, so strictly speaking we would classify this as an almost nilsequence rather than a nilsequence, but let us ignore this technical issue here.)  In fact, there is a very close relationship between nilsequences and bracket polynomial phases, but I will detail this in a later post.

The inverse conjecture for the Gowers norm, GI(s), asserts that such nilsequences are the only obstruction to the Gowers norm being small.  Roughly speaking, it goes like this:

Inverse conjecture, GI(s). (Informal statement)  Suppose that f: [N] \to {\Bbb C} is bounded but has large U^{s+1}[N] norm.  Then there is an s-step nilsequence n \mapsto F( g(n) \Gamma ) of “bounded complexity” that correlates with f.

This conjecture is trivial for s=0, is a short consequence of Fourier analysis when s=1, and was proven for s=2 by Ben and myself.  In this paper we establish the s=3 case.  An equivalent formulation in this case is that any bounded function f of large U^4 norm must correlate with a “bracket cubic phase”, which is the product of a bounded number of phases from the following list

e( \alpha n^3 + \beta n^2 + \gamma n), e( \lfloor \alpha n \rfloor \beta n^2 ), e( \lfloor \alpha n \rfloor \lfloor \beta n \rfloor \gamma n ), e( \lfloor \alpha n \rfloor \beta n ) (*)

for various real numbers \alpha,\beta,\gamma.

It appears that our methods also work in higher step, though for technical reasons it is convenient to make a number of adjustments to our arguments to do so, most notably a switch from standard analysis to non-standard analysis, about which I hope to say more later.  But there are a number of simplifications available on the s=3 case which make the argument significantly shorter, and so we will be writing the higher s argument in a separate paper.

The arguments largely follow those for the s=2 case (which in turn are based on this paper of Gowers).  Two major new ingredients are a deployment of a normal form and equidistribution theory for bracket quadratic phases, and a combinatorial decomposition of frequency space which we call the sunflower decomposition.  I will sketch these ideas below the fold.

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