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The purpose of this post is to isolate a combinatorial optimisation problem regarding subset sums; any improvement upon the current known bounds for this problem would lead to numerical improvements for the quantities pursued in the Polymath8 project. (UPDATE: Unfortunately no purely combinatorial improvement is possible, see comments.) We will also record the number-theoretic details of how this combinatorial problem is used in Zhang’s argument establishing bounded prime gaps.

First, some (rough) motivational background, omitting all the number-theoretic details and focusing on the combinatorics. (But readers who just want to see the combinatorial problem can skip the motivation and jump ahead to Lemma 5.) As part of the Polymath8 project we are trying to establish a certain estimate called for as wide a range of as possible. Currently the best result we have is:

Theorem 1 (Zhang’s theorem, numerically optimised)holds whenever .

Enlarging this region would lead to a better value of certain parameters , which in turn control the best bound on asymptotic gaps between consecutive primes. See this previous post for more discussion of this. At present, the best value of is applied by taking sufficiently close to , so improving Theorem 1 in the neighbourhood of this value is particularly desirable.

I’ll state exactly what is below the fold. For now, suffice to say that it involves a certain number-theoretic function, the von Mangoldt function . To prove the theorem, the first step is to use a certain identity (the Heath-Brown identity) to decompose into a lot of pieces, which take the form

for some bounded (in Zhang’s paper never exceeds ) and various weights supported at various scales that multiply up to approximately :

We can write , thus ignoring negligible errors, are non-negative real numbers that add up to :

A key technical feature of the Heath-Brown identity is that the weight associated to sufficiently large values of (e.g. ) are “smooth” in a certain sense; this will be detailed below the fold.

The operation is Dirichlet convolution, which is commutative and associative. We can thus regroup the convolution (1) in a number of ways. For instance, given any partition into disjoint sets , we can rewrite (1) as

where is the convolution of those with , and similarly for .

Zhang’s argument splits into two major pieces, in which certain classes of (1) are established. Cheating a little bit, the following three results are established:

Theorem 2 (Type 0 estimate, informal version)The term (1) gives an acceptable contribution to wheneverfor some .

Theorem 3 (Type I/II estimate, informal version)The term (1) gives an acceptable contribution to whenever one can find a partition such thatwhere is a quantity such that

Theorem 4 (Type III estimate, informal version)The term (1) gives an acceptable contribution to whenever one can find with distinct withand

The above assertions are oversimplifications; there are some additional minor smallness hypotheses on that are needed but at the current (small) values of under consideration they are not relevant and so will be omitted.

The deduction of Theorem 1 from Theorems 2, 3, 4 is then accomplished from the following, purely combinatorial, lemma:

Lemma 5 (Subset sum lemma)Let be such thatLet be non-negative reals such that

Then at least one of the following statements hold:

- (Type 0) There is such that .
- (Type I/II) There is a partition such that
where is a quantity such that

- (Type III) One can find distinct with
and

The purely combinatorial question is whether the hypothesis (2) can be relaxed here to a weaker condition. This would allow us to improve the ranges for Theorem 1 (and hence for the values of and alluded to earlier) without needing further improvement on Theorems 2, 3, 4 (although such improvement is also going to be a focus of Polymath8 investigations in the future).

Let us review how this lemma is currently proven. The key sublemma is the following:

Lemma 6Let , and let be non-negative numbers summing to . Then one of the following three statements hold:

- (Type 0) There is a with .
- (Type I/II) There is a partition such that
- (Type III) There exist distinct with and .

*Proof:* Suppose Type I/II never occurs, then every partial sum is either “small” in the sense that it is less than or equal to , or “large” in the sense that it is greater than or equal to , since otherwise we would be in the Type I/II case either with as is and the complement of , or vice versa.

Call a summand “powerless” if it cannot be used to turn a small partial sum into a large partial sum, thus there are no such that is small and is large. We then split where are the powerless elements and are the powerful elements.

By induction we see that if and is small, then is also small. Thus every sum of powerful summand is either less than or larger than . Since a powerful element must be able to convert a small sum to a large sum (in fact it must be able to convert a small sum of powerful summands to a large sum, by stripping out the powerless summands), we conclude that every powerful element has size greater than . We may assume we are not in Type 0, then every powerful summand is at least and at most . In particular, there have to be at least three powerful summands, otherwise cannot be as large as . As , we have , and we conclude that the sum of any two powerful summands is large (which, incidentally, shows that there are *exactly* three powerful summands). Taking to be three powerful summands in increasing order we land in Type III.

Now we see how Lemma 6 implies Lemma 5. Let be as in Lemma 5. We take almost as large as we can for the Type I/II case, thus we set

for some sufficiently small . We observe from (2) that we certainly have

and

with plenty of room to spare. We then apply Lemma 6. The Type 0 case of that lemma then implies the Type 0 case of Lemma 5, while the Type I/II case of Lemma 6 also implies the Type I/II case of Lemma 5. Finally, suppose that we are in the Type III case of Lemma 6. Since

we thus have

and so we will be done if

Inserting (3) and taking small enough, it suffices to verify that

but after some computation this is equivalent to (2).

It seems that there is some slack in this computation; some of the conclusions of the Type III case of Lemma 5, in particular, ended up being “wasted”, and it is possible that one did not fully exploit all the partial sums that could be used to create a Type I/II situation. So there may be a way to make improvements through purely combinatorial arguments. (UPDATE: As it turns out, this is sadly not the case: consderation of the case when , , and shows that one cannot obtain any further improvement without actually improving the Type I/II and Type III analysis.)

A technical remark: for the application to Theorem 1, it is possible to enforce a bound on the number of summands in Lemma 5. More precisely, we may assume that is an even number of size at most for any natural number we please, at the cost of adding the additioal constraint to the Type III conclusion. Since is already at least , which is at least , one can safely take , so can be taken to be an even number of size at most , which in principle makes the problem of optimising Lemma 5 a fixed linear programming problem. (Zhang takes , but this appears to be overkill. On the other hand, does not appear to be a parameter that overly influences the final numerical bounds.)

Below the fold I give the number-theoretic details of the combinatorial aspects of Zhang’s argument that correspond to the combinatorial problem described above.

One of the basic objects of study in combinatorics are finite strings or infinite strings of symbols from some given alphabet , which could be either finite or infinite (but which we shall usually take to be compact). For instance, a set of natural numbers can be identified with the infinite string of s and s formed by the indicator of , e.g. the even numbers can be identified with the string from the alphabet , the multiples of three can be identified with the string , and so forth. One can also consider doubly infinite strings , which among other things can be used to describe arbitrary subsets of integers.

On the other hand, the basic object of study in dynamics (and in related fields, such as ergodic theory) is that of a dynamical system , that is to say a space together with a shift map (which is often assumed to be invertible, although one can certainly study non-invertible dynamical systems as well). One often adds additional structure to this dynamical system, such as topological structure (giving rise topological dynamics), measure-theoretic structure (giving rise to ergodic theory), complex structure (giving rise to complex dynamics), and so forth. A dynamical system gives rise to an action of the natural numbers on the space by using the iterates of for ; if is invertible, we can extend this action to an action of the integers on the same space. One can certainly also consider dynamical systems whose underlying group (or semi-group) is something other than or (e.g. one can consider continuous dynamical systems in which the evolution group is ), but we will restrict attention to the classical situation of or actions here.

There is a fundamental *correspondence principle* connecting the study of strings (or subsets of natural numbers or integers) with the study of dynamical systems. In one direction, given a dynamical system , an *observable* taking values in some alphabet , and some initial datum , we can first form the forward orbit of , and then observe this orbit using to obtain an infinite string . If the shift in this system is invertible, one can extend this infinite string into a doubly infinite string . Thus we see that every quadruplet consisting of a dynamical system , an observable , and an initial datum creates an infinite string.

Example 1If is the three-element set with the shift map , is the observable that takes the value at the residue class and zero at the other two classes, and one starts with the initial datum , then the observed string becomes the indicator of the multiples of three.

In the converse direction, every infinite string in some alphabet arises (in a decidedly *non*-unique fashion) from a quadruple in the above fashion. This can be easily seen by the following “universal” construction: take to be the set of infinite strings in the alphabet , let be the shift map

let be the observable

and let be the initial point

Then one easily sees that the observed string is nothing more than the original string . Note also that this construction can easily be adapted to doubly infinite strings by using instead of , at which point the shift map now becomes invertible. An important variant of this construction also attaches an invariant probability measure to that is associated to the limiting density of various sets associated to the string , and leads to the *Furstenberg correspondence principle*, discussed for instance in these previous blog posts. Such principles allow one to rigorously pass back and forth between the combinatorics of strings and the dynamics of systems; for instance, Furstenberg famously used his correspondence principle to demonstrate the equivalence of Szemerédi’s theorem on arithmetic progressions with what is now known as the Furstenberg multiple recurrence theorem in ergodic theory.

In the case when the alphabet is the binary alphabet , and (for technical reasons related to the infamous non-injectivity of the decimal representation system) the string does not end with an infinite string of s, then one can reformulate the above universal construction by taking to be the interval , to be the doubling map , to be the observable that takes the value on and on (that is, is the first binary digit of ), and is the real number (that is, in binary).

The above universal construction is very easy to describe, and is well suited for “generic” strings that have no further obvious structure to them, but it often leads to dynamical systems that are much larger and more complicated than is actually needed to produce the desired string , and also often obscures some of the key dynamical features associated to that sequence. For instance, to generate the indicator of the multiples of three that were mentioned previously, the above universal construction requires an uncountable space and a dynamics which does not obviously reflect the key features of the sequence such as its periodicity. (Using the unit interval model, the dynamics arise from the orbit of under the doubling map, which is a rather artificial way to describe the indicator function of the multiples of three.)

A related aesthetic objection to the universal construction is that of the four components of the quadruplet used to generate the sequence , three of the components are completely universal (in that they do not depend at all on the sequence ), leaving only the initial datum to carry all the distinctive features of the original sequence. While there is nothing wrong with this mathematically, from a conceptual point of view it would make sense to make all four components of the quadruplet to be adapted to the sequence, in order to take advantage of the accumulated intuition about various special dynamical systems (and special observables), not just special initial data.

One step in this direction can be made by restricting to the orbit of the initial datum (actually for technical reasons it is better to restrict to the topological closure of this orbit, in order to keep compact). For instance, starting with the sequence , the orbit now consists of just three points , , , bringing the system more in line with the example in Example 1. Technically, this is the “optimal” representation of the sequence by a quadruplet , because any other such representation is a factor of this representation (in the sense that there is a unique map with , , and ). However, from a conceptual point of view this representation is still somewhat unsatisfactory, given that the elements of the system are interpreted as infinite strings rather than elements of a more geometrically or algebraically rich object (e.g. points in a circle, torus, or other homogeneous space).

For general sequences , locating relevant geometric or algebraic structure in a dynamical system generating that sequence is an important but very difficult task (see e.g. this paper of Host and Kra, which is more or less devoted to precisely this task in the context of working out what component of a dynamical system controls the multiple recurrence behaviour of that system). However, for specific examples of sequences , one can use an informal procedure of educated guesswork in order to produce a more natural-looking quadruple that generates that sequence. This is not a particularly difficult or deep operation, but I found it very helpful in internalising the intuition behind the correspondence principle. Being non-rigorous, this procedure does not seem to be emphasised in most presentations of the correspondence principle, so I thought I would describe it here.

The *rectification principle* in arithmetic combinatorics asserts, roughly speaking, that very small subsets (or, alternatively, small structured subsets) of an additive group or a field of large characteristic can be modeled (for the purposes of arithmetic combinatorics) by subsets of a group or field of zero characteristic, such as the integers or the complex numbers . The additive form of this principle is known as the *Freiman rectification principle*; it has several formulations, going back of course to the original work of Freiman. Here is one formulation as given by Bilu, Lev, and Ruzsa:

Proposition 1 (Additive rectification)Let be a subset of the additive group for some prime , and let be an integer. Suppose that . Then there exists a map into a subset of the integers which is a Freiman isomorphism of order in the sense that for any , one hasif and only if

Furthermore is a right-inverse of the obvious projection homomorphism from to .

The original version of the rectification principle allowed the sets involved to be substantially larger in size (cardinality up to a small constant multiple of ), but with the additional hypothesis of bounded doubling involved; see the above-mentioned papers, as well as this later paper of Green and Ruzsa, for further discussion.

The proof of Proposition 1 is quite short (see Theorem 3.1 of Bilu-Lev-Ruzsa); the main idea is to use Minkowski’s theorem to find a non-trivial dilate of that is contained in a small neighbourhood of the origin in , at which point the rectification map can be constructed by hand.

Very recently, Codrut Grosu obtained an arithmetic analogue of the above theorem, in which the rectification map preserves both additive and multiplicative structure:

Theorem 2 (Arithmetic rectification)Let be a subset of the finite field for some prime , and let be an integer. Suppose that . Then there exists a map into a subset of the complex numbers which is aFreiman field isomorphism of orderin the sense that for any and any polynomial of degree at most and integer coefficients of magnitude summing to at most , one hasif and only if

Note that it is necessary to use an algebraically closed field such as for this theorem, in contrast to the integers used in Proposition 1, as can contain objects such as square roots of which can only map to in the complex numbers (once is at least ).

Using Theorem 2, one can transfer results in arithmetic combinatorics (e.g. sum-product or Szemerédi-Trotter type theorems) regarding finite subsets of to analogous results regarding sufficiently small subsets of ; see the paper of Grosu for several examples of this. This should be compared with the paper of Vu, Wood, and Wood, which introduces a converse principle that embeds finite subsets of (or more generally, a characteristic zero integral domain) in a Freiman field-isomorphic fashion into finite subsets of for arbitrarily large primes , allowing one to transfer arithmetic combinatorical facts from the latter setting to the former.

Grosu’s argument uses some quantitative elimination theory, and in particular a quantitative variant of a lemma of Chang that was discussed previously on this blog. In that previous blog post, it was observed that (an ineffective version of) Chang’s theorem could be obtained using only qualitative algebraic geometry (as opposed to quantitative algebraic geometry tools such as elimination theory results with explicit bounds) by means of nonstandard analysis (or, in what amounts to essentially the same thing in this context, the use of ultraproducts). One can then ask whether one can similarly establish an ineffective version of Grosu’s result by nonstandard means. The purpose of this post is to record that this can indeed be done without much difficulty, though the result obtained, being ineffective, is somewhat weaker than that in Theorem 2. More precisely, we obtain

Theorem 3 (Ineffective arithmetic rectification)Let . Then if is a field of characteristic at least for some depending on , and is a subset of of cardinality , then there exists a map into a subset of the complex numbers which is a Freiman field isomorphism of order .

Our arguments will not provide any effective bound on the quantity (though one could in principle eventually extract such a bound by deconstructing the proof of Proposition 4 below), making this result weaker than Theorem 2 (save for the minor generalisation that it can handle fields of prime power order as well as fields of prime order as long as the characteristic remains large).

Following the principle that ultraproducts can be used as a bridge to connect quantitative and qualitative results (as discussed in these previous blog posts), we will deduce Theorem 3 from the following (well-known) qualitative version:

Proposition 4 (Baby Lefschetz principle)Let be a field of characteristic zero that is finitely generated over the rationals. Then there is an isomorphism from to a subfield of .

This principle (first laid out in an appendix of Lefschetz’s book), among other things, often allows one to use the methods of complex analysis (e.g. Riemann surface theory) to study many other fields of characteristic zero. There are many variants and extensions of this principle; see for instance this MathOverflow post for some discussion of these. I used this baby version of the Lefschetz principle recently in a paper on expanding polynomial maps.

*Proof:* We give two proofs of this fact, one using transcendence bases and the other using Hilbert’s nullstellensatz.

We begin with the former proof. As is finitely generated over , it has finite transcendence degree, thus one can find algebraically independent elements of over such that is a finite extension of , and in particular by the primitive element theorem is generated by and an element which is algebraic over . (Here we use the fact that characteristic zero fields are separable.) If we then define by first mapping to generic (and thus algebraically independent) complex numbers , and then setting to be a complex root of of the minimal polynomial for over after replacing each with the complex number , we obtain a field isomorphism with the required properties.

Now we give the latter proof. Let be elements of that generate that field over , but which are not necessarily algebraically independent. Our task is then equivalent to that of finding complex numbers with the property that, for any polynomial with rational coefficients, one has

if and only if

Let be the collection of all polynomials with rational coefficients with , and be the collection of all polynomials with rational coefficients with . The set

is the intersection of countably many algebraic sets and is thus also an algebraic set (by the Hilbert basis theorem or the Noetherian property of algebraic sets). If the desired claim failed, then could be covered by the algebraic sets for . By decomposing into irreducible varieties and observing (e.g. from the Baire category theorem) that a variety of a given dimension over cannot be covered by countably many varieties of smaller dimension, we conclude that must in fact be covered by a finite number of such sets, thus

for some . By the nullstellensatz, we thus have an identity of the form

for some natural numbers , polynomials , and polynomials with coefficients in . In particular, this identity also holds in the algebraic closure of . Evaluating this identity at we see that the right-hand side is zero but the left-hand side is non-zero, a contradiction, and the claim follows.

From Proposition 4 one can now deduce Theorem 3 by a routine ultraproduct argument (the same one used in these previous blog posts). Suppose for contradiction that Theorem 3 fails. Then there exists natural numbers , a sequence of finite fields of characteristic at least , and subsets of of cardinality such that for each , there does not exist a Freiman field isomorphism of order from to the complex numbers. Now we select a non-principal ultrafilter , and construct the ultraproduct of the finite fields . This is again a field (and is a basic example of what is known as a pseudo-finite field); because the characteristic of goes to infinity as , it is easy to see (using Los’s theorem) that has characteristic zero and can thus be viewed as an extension of the rationals .

Now let be the ultralimit of the , so that is the ultraproduct of the , then is a subset of of cardinality . In particular, if is the field generated by and , then is a finitely generated extension of the rationals and thus, by Proposition 4 there is an isomorphism from to a subfield of the complex numbers. In particular, are complex numbers, and for any polynomial with integer coefficients, one has

if and only if

By Los’s theorem, we then conclude that for all sufficiently close to , one has for all polynomials of degree at most and whose coefficients are integers whose magnitude sums up to , one has

if and only if

But this gives a Freiman field isomorphism of order between and , contradicting the construction of , and Theorem 3 follows.

The following result is due independently to Furstenberg and to Sarkozy:

Theorem 1 (Furstenberg-Sarkozy theorem)Let , and suppose that is sufficiently large depending on . Then every subset of of density at least contains a pair for some natural numbers with .

This theorem is of course similar in spirit to results such as Roth’s theorem or Szemerédi’s theorem, in which the pattern is replaced by or for some fixed respectively. There are by now many proofs of this theorem (see this recent paper of Lyall for a survey), but most proofs involve some form of Fourier analysis (or spectral theory). This may be compared with the standard proof of Roth’s theorem, which combines some Fourier analysis with what is now known as the density increment argument.

A few years ago, Ben Green, Tamar Ziegler, and myself observed that it is possible to prove the Furstenberg-Sarkozy theorem by just using the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality (or van der Corput lemma) and the density increment argument, removing all invocations of Fourier analysis, and instead relying on Cauchy-Schwarz to linearise the quadratic shift . As such, this theorem can be considered as even more elementary than Roth’s theorem (and its proof can be viewed as a toy model for the proof of Roth’s theorem). We ended up not doing too much with this observation, so decided to share it here.

The first step is to use the density increment argument that goes back to Roth. For any , let denote the assertion that for sufficiently large, all sets of density at least contain a pair with non-zero. Note that is vacuously true for . We will show that for any , one has the implication

for some absolute constant . This implies that is true for any (as can be seen by considering the infimum of all for which holds), which gives Theorem 1.

It remains to establish the implication (1). Suppose for sake of contradiction that we can find for which holds (for some sufficiently small absolute constant ), but fails. Thus, we can find arbitrarily large , and subsets of of density at least , such that contains no patterns of the form with non-zero. In particular, we have

(The exact ranges of and are not too important here, and could be replaced by various other small powers of if desired.)

Let be the density of , so that . Observe that

and

If we thus set , then

In particular, for large enough,

On the other hand, one easily sees that

and hence by the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality

which we can rearrange as

Shifting by we obtain (again for large enough)

In particular, by the pigeonhole principle (and deleting the diagonal case , which we can do for large enough) we can find distinct such that

so in particular

If we set and shift by , we can simplify this (again for large enough) as

we have

for any , and thus

Averaging this with (2) we conclude that

In particular, by the pigeonhole principle we can find such that

or equivalently has density at least on the arithmetic progression , which has length and spacing , for some absolute constant . By partitioning this progression into subprogressions of spacing and length (plus an error set of size , we see from the pigeonhole principle that we can find a progression of length and spacing on which has density at least (and hence at least ) for some absolute constant . If we then apply the induction hypothesis to the set

we conclude (for large enough) that contains a pair for some natural numbers with non-zero. This implies that lie in , a contradiction, establishing the implication (1).

A more careful analysis of the above argument reveals a more quantitative version of Theorem 1: for (say), any subset of of density at least for some sufficiently large absolute constant contains a pair with non-zero. This is not the best bound known; a (difficult) result of Pintz, Steiger, and Szemeredi allows the density to be as low as . On the other hand, this already improves on the (simpler) Fourier-analytic argument of Green that works for densities at least (although the original argument of Sarkozy, which is a little more intricate, works up to ). In the other direction, a construction of Rusza gives a set of density without any pairs .

Remark 1A similar argument also applies with replaced by for fixed , because this sort of pattern is preserved by affine dilations into arithmetic progressions whose spacing is a power. By re-introducing Fourier analysis, one can also perform an argument of this type for where is the sum of two squares; see the above-mentioned paper of Green for details. However there seems to be some technical difficulty in extending it to patterns of the form for polynomials that consist of more than a single monomial (and with the normalisation , to avoid local obstructions), because one no longer has this preservation property.

Emmanuel Breuillard, Ben Green, and I have just uploaded to the arXiv our survey “Small doubling in groups“, for the proceedings of the upcoming Erdos Centennial. This is a short survey of the known results on classifying finite subsets of an (abelian) additive group or a (not necessarily abelian) multiplicative group that have small doubling in the sense that the sum set or product set is small. Such sets behave approximately like finite subgroups of (and there is a closely related notion of an *approximate group* in which the analogy is even tighter) , and so this subject can be viewed as a sort of approximate version of finite group theory. (Unfortunately, thus far the theory does not have much new to say about the classification of actual finite groups; progress has been largely made instead on classifying the (highly restricted) number of ways in which approximate groups can *differ* from a genuine group.)

In the classical case when is the integers , these sets were classified (in a qualitative sense, at least) by a celebrated theorem of Freiman, which roughly speaking says that such sets are necessarily “commensurate” in some sense with a (generalised) arithmetic progression of bounded rank. There are a number of essentially equivalent ways to define what “commensurate” means here; for instance, in the original formulation of the theorem, one asks that be a dense subset of , but in modern formulations it is often more convenient to require instead that be of comparable size to and be covered by a bounded number of translates of , or that and have an intersection that is of comparable size to both and (cf. the notion of commensurability in group theory).

Freiman’s original theorem was extended to more general abelian groups in a sequence of papers culminating in the paper of Green and Ruzsa that handled arbitrary abelian groups. As such groups now contain non-trivial finite subgroups, the conclusion of the theorem must be modified by allowing for “coset progressions” , which can be viewed as “extensions” of generalized arithmetic progressions by genuine finite groups .

The proof methods in these abelian results were Fourier-analytic in nature (except in the cases of sets of very small doubling, in which more combinatorial approaches can be applied, and there were also some geometric or combinatorial methods that gave some weaker structural results). As such, it was a challenge to extend these results to nonabelian groups, although for various important special types of ambient group (such as an linear group over a finite or infinite field) it turns out that one can use tools exploiting the special structure of those groups (e.g. for linear groups one would use tools from Lie theory and algebraic geometry) to obtain quite satisfactory results; see e.g. this survey of Pyber and Szabo for the linear case. When the ambient group is completely arbitrary, it turns out the problem is closely related to the classical Hilbert’s fifth problem of determining the minimal requirements of a topological group in order for such groups to have Lie structure; this connection was first observed and exploited by Hrushovski, and then used by Breuillard, Green, and myself to obtain the analogue of Freiman’s theorem for an arbitrary nonabelian group.

This survey is too short to discuss in much detail the proof techniques used in these results (although the abelian case is discussed in this book of mine with Vu, and the nonabelian case discussed in this more recent book of mine), but instead focuses on the statements of the various known results, as well as some remaining open questions in the subject (in particular, there is substantial work left to be done in making the estimates more quantitative, particularly in the nonabelian setting).

Perhaps the most important structural result about general large dense graphs is the Szemerédi regularity lemma. Here is a standard formulation of that lemma:

Lemma 1 (Szemerédi regularity lemma)Let be a graph on vertices, and let . Then there exists a partition for some with the property that for all but at most of the pairs , the pair is-regularin the sense thatwhenever are such that and , and is the edge density between and . Furthermore, the partition is

equitablein the sense that for all .

There are many proofs of this lemma, which is actually not that difficult to establish; see for instance these previous blog posts for some examples. In this post I would like to record one further proof, based on the spectral decomposition of the adjacency matrix of , which is essentially due to Frieze and Kannan. (Strictly speaking, Frieze and Kannan used a variant of this argument to establish a weaker form of the regularity lemma, but it is not difficult to modify the Frieze-Kannan argument to obtain the usual form of the regularity lemma instead. Some closely related spectral regularity lemmas were also developed by Szegedy.) I found recently (while speaking at the Abel conference in honour of this year’s laureate, Endre Szemerédi) that this particular argument is not as widely known among graph theory experts as I had thought, so I thought I would record it here.

For reasons of exposition, it is convenient to first establish a slightly weaker form of the lemma, in which one drops the hypothesis of equitability (but then has to weight the cells by their magnitude when counting bad pairs):

Lemma 2 (Szemerédi regularity lemma, weakened variant). Let be a graph on vertices, and let . Then there exists a partition for some with the property that for all pairs outside of an exceptional set , one haswhenever , for some real number , where is the number of edges between and . Furthermore, we have

Let us now prove Lemma 2. We enumerate (after relabeling) as . The adjacency matrix of the graph is then a self-adjoint matrix, and thus admits an eigenvalue decomposition

for some orthonormal basis of and some eigenvalues , which we arrange in decreasing order of magnitude:

We can compute the trace of as

Among other things, this implies that

Let be a function (depending on ) to be chosen later, with for all . Applying (3) and the pigeonhole principle (or the finite convergence principle, see this blog post), we can find such that

(Indeed, the bound on is basically iterated times.) We can now split

where is the “structured” component

and is the “pseudorandom” component

We now design a vertex partition to make approximately constant on most cells. For each , we partition into cells on which (viewed as a function from to ) only fluctuates by , plus an exceptional cell of size coming from the values where is excessively large (larger than ). Combining all these partitions together, we can write for some , where has cardinality at most , and for all , the eigenfunctions all fluctuate by at most . In particular, if , then (by (4) and (6)) the entries of fluctuate by at most on each block . If we let be the mean value of these entries on , we thus have

for any and , where we view the indicator functions as column vectors of dimension .

Next, we observe from (3) and (7) that . If we let be the coefficients of , we thus have

and hence by Markov’s inequality we have

for all pairs outside of an exceptional set with

for any , by (10) and the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality.

Finally, to control we see from (4) and (8) that has an operator norm of at most . In particular, we have from the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality that

Let be the set of all pairs where either , , , or

One easily verifies that (2) holds. If is not in , then by summing (9), (11), (12) and using (5), we see that

for all . The left-hand side is just . As , we have

and so (since )

If we let be a sufficiently rapidly growing function of that depends on , the second error term in (13) can be absorbed in the first, and (1) follows. This concludes the proof of Lemma 2.

To prove Lemma 1, one argues similarly (after modifying as necessary), except that the initial partition of constructed above needs to be subdivided further into equitable components (of size ), plus some remainder sets which can be aggregated into an exceptional component of size (and which can then be redistributed amongst the other components to arrive at a truly equitable partition). We omit the details.

Remark 1It is easy to verify that needs to be growing exponentially in in order for the above argument to work, which leads to tower-exponential bounds in the number of cells in the partition. It was shown by Gowers that a tower-exponential bound is actually necessary here. By varying , one basically obtains thestrong regularity lemmafirst established by Alon, Fischer, Krivelevich, and Szegedy; in the opposite direction, setting essentially gives theweak regularity lemmaof Frieze and Kannan.

Remark 2If we specialise to a Cayley graph, in which is a finite abelian group and for some (symmetric) subset of , then the eigenvectors are characters, and one essentially recovers thearithmetic regularity lemmaof Green, in which the vertex partition classes are given by Bohr sets (and one can then place additional regularity properties on these Bohr sets with some additional arguments). The components of , representing high, medium, and low eigenvalues of , then become a decomposition associated to high, medium, and low Fourier coefficients of .

Remark 3The use of spectral theory here is parallel to the use of Fourier analysis to establish results such as Roth’s theorem on arithmetic progressions of length three. In analogy with this, one could view hypergraph regularity as being a sort of “higher order spectral theory”, although this spectral perspective is not as convenient as it is in the graph case.

I’ve just uploaded to the arXiv my joint paper with Vitaly Bergelson, “Multiple recurrence in quasirandom groups“, which is submitted to Geom. Func. Anal.. This paper builds upon a paper of Gowers in which he introduced the concept of a quasirandom group, and established some mixing (or recurrence) properties of such groups. A -quasirandom group is a finite group with no non-trivial unitary representations of dimension at most . We will informally refer to a “quasirandom group” as a -quasirandom group with the quasirandomness parameter large (more formally, one can work with a *sequence* of -quasirandom groups with going to infinity). A typical example of a quasirandom group is where is a large prime. Quasirandom groups are discussed in depth in this blog post. One of the key properties of quasirandom groups established in Gowers’ paper is the following “weak mixing” property: if are subsets of , then for “almost all” , one has

where denotes the density of in . Here, we use to informally represent an estimate of the form (where is a quantity that goes to zero when the quasirandomness parameter goes to infinity), and “almost all ” denotes “for all in a subset of of density “. As a corollary, if have positive density in (by which we mean that is bounded away from zero, uniformly in the quasirandomness parameter , and similarly for ), then (if the quasirandomness parameter is sufficiently large) we can find elements such that , , . In fact we can find approximately such pairs . To put it another way: if we choose uniformly and independently at random from , then the events , , are approximately independent (thus the random variable resembles a uniformly distributed random variable on in some weak sense). One can also express this mixing property in integral form as

for any bounded functions . (Of course, with being finite, one could replace the integrals here by finite averages if desired.) Or in probabilistic language, we have

where are drawn uniformly and independently at random from .

As observed in Gowers’ paper, one can iterate this observation to find “parallelopipeds” of any given dimension in dense subsets of . For instance, applying (1) with replaced by , , and one can assert (after some relabeling) that for chosen uniformly and independently at random from , the events , , , , , , are approximately independent whenever are dense subsets of ; thus the tuple resebles a uniformly distributed random variable in in some weak sense.

However, there are other tuples for which the above iteration argument does not seem to apply. One of the simplest tuples in this vein is the tuple in , when are drawn uniformly at random from a quasirandom group . Here, one does *not* expect the tuple to behave as if it were uniformly distributed in , because there is an obvious constraint connecting the last two components of this tuple: they must lie in the same conjugacy class! In particular, if is a subset of that is the union of conjugacy classes, then the events , are perfectly correlated, so that is equal to rather than . Our main result, though, is that in a quasirandom group, this is (approximately) the *only* constraint on the tuple. More precisely, we have

Theorem 1Let be a -quasirandom group, and let be drawn uniformly at random from . Then for any , we havewhere goes to zero as , are drawn uniformly and independently at random from , and is drawn uniformly at random from the conjugates of for each fixed choice of .

This is the probabilistic formulation of the above theorem; one can also phrase the theorem in other formulations (such as an integral formulation), and this is detailed in the paper. This theorem leads to a number of recurrence results; for instance, as a corollary of this result, we have

for almost all , and any dense subsets of ; the lower and upper bounds are sharp, with the lower bound being attained when is randomly distributed, and the upper bound when is conjugation-invariant.

To me, the more interesting thing here is not the result itself, but how it is proven. Vitaly and I were not able to find a purely finitary way to establish this mixing theorem. Instead, we had to first use the machinery of ultraproducts (as discussed in this previous post) to convert the finitary statement about a quasirandom group to an infinitary statement about a type of infinite group which we call an *ultra quasirandom group* (basically, an ultraproduct of increasingly quasirandom finite groups). This is analogous to how the Furstenberg correspondence principle is used to convert a finitary combinatorial problem into an infinitary ergodic theory problem.

Ultra quasirandom groups come equipped with a finite, countably additive measure known as *Loeb measure* , which is very analogous to the Haar measure of a compact group, except that in the case of ultra quasirandom groups one does not quite have a topological structure that would give compactness. Instead, one has a slightly weaker structure known as a *-topology*, which is like a topology except that open sets are only closed under countable unions rather than arbitrary ones. There are some interesting measure-theoretic and topological issues regarding the distinction between topologies and -topologies (and between Haar measure and Loeb measure), but for this post it is perhaps best to gloss over these issues and pretend that ultra quasirandom groups come with a Haar measure. One can then recast Theorem 1 as a mixing theorem for the left and right actions of the ultra approximate group on itself, which roughly speaking is the assertion that

for “almost all” , if are bounded measurable functions on , with having zero mean on all conjugacy classes of , where are the left and right translation operators

To establish this mixing theorem, we use the machinery of *idempotent ultrafilters*, which is a particularly useful tool for understanding the ergodic theory of actions of countable groups that need not be amenable; in the non-amenable setting the classical ergodic averages do not make much sense, but ultrafilter-based averages are still available. To oversimplify substantially, the idempotent ultrafilter arguments let one establish mixing estimates of the form (2) for “many” elements of an infinite-dimensional parallelopiped known as an *IP system* (provided that the actions of this IP system obey some technical mixing hypotheses, but let’s ignore that for sake of this discussion). The claim then follows by using the quasirandomness hypothesis to show that if the estimate (2) failed for a large set of , then this large set would then contain an IP system, contradicting the previous claim.

Idempotent ultrafilters are an extremely infinitary type of mathematical object (one has to use Zorn’s lemma no fewer than *three* times just to construct one of these objects!). So it is quite remarkable that they can be used to establish a finitary theorem such as Theorem 1, though as is often the case with such infinitary arguments, one gets absolutely no quantitative control whatsoever on the error terms appearing in that theorem. (It is also mildly amusing to note that our arguments involve the use of ultrafilters in two completely different ways: firstly in order to set up the ultraproduct that converts the finitary mixing problem to an infinitary one, and secondly to solve the infinitary mixing problem. Despite some superficial similarities, there appear to be no substantial commonalities between these two usages of ultrafilters.) There is already a fair amount of literature on using idempotent ultrafilter methods in infinitary ergodic theory, and perhaps by further development of ultraproduct correspondence principles, one can use such methods to obtain further finitary consequences (although the state of the art for idempotent ultrafilter ergodic theory has not advanced much beyond the analysis of two commuting shifts currently, which is the main reason why our arguments only handle the pattern and not more sophisticated patterns).

We also have some miscellaneous other results in the paper. It turns out that by using the triangle removal lemma from graph theory, one can obtain a recurrence result that asserts that whenever is a dense subset of a finite group (not necessarily quasirandom), then there are pairs such that all lie in . Using a hypergraph generalisation of the triangle removal lemma known as the *hypergraph removal lemma*, one can obtain more complicated versions of this statement; for instance, if is a dense subset of , then one can find triples such that all lie in . But the method is tailored to the specific types of patterns given here, and we do not have a general method for obtaining recurrence or mixing properties for arbitrary patterns of words in some finite alphabet such as .

We also give some properties of a model example of an ultra quasirandom group, namely the ultraproduct of where is a sequence of primes going off to infinity. Thanks to the substantial recent progress (by Helfgott, Bourgain, Gamburd, Breuillard, and others) on understanding the expansion properties of the finite groups , we have a fair amount of knowledge on the ultraproduct as well; for instance any two elements of will almost surely generate a spectral gap. We don’t have any direct application of this particular ultra quasirandom group, but it might be interesting to study it further.

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