Two of the most famous open problems in additive prime number theory are the twin prime conjecture and the binary Goldbach conjecture. They have quite similar forms:

  • Twin prime conjecture The equation {p_1 - p_2 = 2} has infinitely many solutions with {p_1,p_2} prime.
  • Binary Goldbach conjecture The equation {p_1 + p_2 = N} has at least one solution with {p_1,p_2} prime for any given even {N \geq 4}.

In view of this similarity, it is not surprising that the partial progress on these two conjectures have tracked each other fairly closely; the twin prime conjecture is generally considered slightly easier than the binary Goldbach conjecture, but broadly speaking any progress made on one of the conjectures has also led to a comparable amount of progress on the other. (For instance, Chen’s theorem has a version for the twin prime conjecture, and a version for the binary Goldbach conjecture.) Also, the notorious parity obstruction is present in both problems, preventing a solution to either conjecture by almost all known methods (see this previous blog post for more discussion).

In this post, I would like to note a divergence from this general principle, with regards to bounded error versions of these two conjectures:

  • Twin prime with bounded error The inequalities {0 < p_1 - p_2 < H} has infinitely many solutions with {p_1,p_2} prime for some absolute constant {H}.
  • Binary Goldbach with bounded error The inequalities {N \leq p_1+p_2 \leq N+H} has at least one solution with {p_1,p_2} prime for any sufficiently large {N} and some absolute constant {H}.

The first of these statements is now a well-known theorem of Zhang, and the Polymath8b project hosted on this blog has managed to lower {H} to {H=246} unconditionally, and to {H=6} assuming the generalised Elliott-Halberstam conjecture. However, the second statement remains open; the best result that the Polymath8b project could manage in this direction is that (assuming GEH) at least one of the binary Goldbach conjecture with bounded error, or the twin prime conjecture with no error, had to be true.

All the known proofs of Zhang’s theorem proceed through sieve-theoretic means. Basically, they take as input equidistribution results that control the size of discrepancies such as

\displaystyle  \Delta(f; a\ (q)) := \sum_{x \leq n \leq 2x; n=a\ (q)} f(n) - \frac{1}{\phi(q)} \sum_{x \leq n \leq 2x} f(n) \ \ \ \ \ (1)

for various congruence classes {a\ (q)} and various arithmetic functions {f}, e.g. {f(n) = \Lambda(n+h_i)} (or more generaly {f(n) = \alpha * \beta(n+h_i)} for various {\alpha,\beta}). After taking some carefully chosen linear combinations of these discrepancies, and using the trivial positivity lower bound

\displaystyle  a_n \geq 0 \hbox{ for all } n \implies \sum_n a_n \geq 0 \ \ \ \ \ (2)

one eventually obtains (for suitable {H}) a non-trivial lower bound of the form

\displaystyle  \sum_{x \leq n \leq 2x} \nu(n) 1_A(n) > 0

where {\nu} is some weight function, and {A} is the set of {n} such that there are at least two primes in the interval {[n,n+H]}. This implies at least one solution to the inequalities {0 < p_1 - p_2 < H} with {p_1,p_2 \sim x}, and Zhang’s theorem follows.

In a similar vein, one could hope to use bounds on discrepancies such as (1) (for {x} comparable to {N}), together with the trivial lower bound (2), to obtain (for sufficiently large {N}, and suitable {H}) a non-trivial lower bound of the form

\displaystyle  \sum_{n \leq N} \nu(n) 1_B(n) > 0 \ \ \ \ \ (3)

for some weight function {\nu}, where {B} is the set of {n} such that there is at least one prime in each of the intervals {[n,n+H]} and {[N-n-H,n]}. This would imply the binary Goldbach conjecture with bounded error.

However, the parity obstruction blocks such a strategy from working (for much the same reason that it blocks any bound of the form {H \leq 4} in Zhang’s theorem, as discussed in the Polymath8b paper.) The reason is as follows. The sieve-theoretic arguments are linear with respect to the {n} summation, and as such, any such sieve-theoretic argument would automatically also work in a weighted setting in which the {n} summation is weighted by some non-negative weight {\omega(n) \geq 0}. More precisely, if one could control the weighted discrepancies

\displaystyle  \Delta(f\omega; a\ (q)) = \sum_{x \leq n \leq 2x; n=a\ (q)} f(n) \omega(n) - \frac{1}{\phi(q)} \sum_{x \leq n \leq 2x} f(n) \omega(n)

to essentially the same accuracy as the unweighted discrepancies (1), then thanks to the trivial weighted version

\displaystyle  a_n \geq 0 \hbox{ for all } n \implies \sum_n a_n \omega(n) \geq 0

of (2), any sieve-theoretic argument that was capable of proving (3) would also be capable of proving the weighted estimate

\displaystyle  \sum_{n \leq N} \nu(n) 1_B(n) \omega(n) > 0. \ \ \ \ \ (4)

However, (4) may be defeated by a suitable choice of weight {\omega}, namely

\displaystyle  \omega(n) := \prod_{i=1}^H (1 + \lambda(n) \lambda(n+i)) \times \prod_{j=0}^H (1 - \lambda(n) \lambda(N-n-j))

where {n \mapsto \lambda(n)} is the Liouville function, which counts the parity of the number of prime factors of a given number {n}. Since {\lambda(n)^2 = 1}, one can expand out {\omega(n)} as the sum of {1} and a finite number of other terms, each of which consists of the product of two or more translates (or reflections) of {\lambda}. But from the Möbius randomness principle (or its analogue for the Liouville function), such products of {\lambda} are widely expected to be essentially orthogonal to any arithmetic function {f(n)} that is arising from a single multiplicative function such as {\Lambda}, even on very short arithmetic progressions. As such, replacing {1} by {\omega(n)} in (1) should have a negligible effect on the discrepancy. On the other hand, in order for {\omega(n)} to be non-zero, {\lambda(n+i)} has to have the same sign as {\lambda(n)} and hence the opposite sign to {\lambda(N-n-j)} cannot simultaneously be prime for any {0 \leq i,j \leq H}, and so {1_B(n) \omega(n)} vanishes identically, contradicting (4). This indirectly rules out any modification of the Goldston-Pintz-Yildirim/Zhang method for establishing the binary Goldbach conjecture with bounded error.

The above argument is not watertight, and one could envisage some ways around this problem. One of them is that the Möbius randomness principle could simply be false, in which case the parity obstruction vanishes. A good example of this is the result of Heath-Brown that shows that if there are infinitely many Siegel zeroes (which is a strong violation of the Möbius randomness principle), then the twin prime conjecture holds. Another way around the obstruction is to start controlling the discrepancy (1) for functions {f} that are combinations of more than one multiplicative function, e.g. {f(n) = \Lambda(n) \Lambda(n+2)}. However, controlling such functions looks to be at least as difficult as the twin prime conjecture (which is morally equivalent to obtaining non-trivial lower-bounds for {\sum_{x \leq n \leq 2x} \Lambda(n) \Lambda(n+2)}). A third option is not to use a sieve-theoretic argument, but to try a different method (e.g. the circle method). However, most other known methods also exhibit linearity in the “{n}” variable and I would suspect they would be vulnerable to a similar obstruction. (In any case, the circle method specifically has some other difficulties in tackling binary problems, as discussed in this previous post.)