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Suppose one is given a -tuple of distinct integers for some , arranged in increasing order. When is it possible to find infinitely many translates of which consists entirely of primes? The case is just Euclid’s theorem on the infinitude of primes, but the case is already open in general, with the case being the notorious twin prime conjecture.

On the other hand, there are some tuples for which one can easily answer the above question in the negative. For instance, the only translate of that consists entirely of primes is , basically because each translate of must contain an even number, and the only even prime is . More generally, if there is a prime such that meets each of the residue classes , then every translate of contains at least one multiple of ; since is the only multiple of that is prime, this shows that there are only finitely many translates of that consist entirely of primes.

To avoid this obstruction, let us call a -tuple *admissible* if it avoids at least one residue class for each prime . It is easy to check for admissibility in practice, since a -tuple is automatically admissible in every prime larger than , so one only needs to check a finite number of primes in order to decide on the admissibility of a given tuple. For instance, or are admissible, but is not (because it covers all the residue classes modulo ). We then have the famous Hardy-Littlewood prime tuples conjecture:

Conjecture 1 (Prime tuples conjecture, qualitative form)If is an admissible -tuple, then there exists infinitely many translates of that consist entirely of primes.

This conjecture is extremely difficult (containing the twin prime conjecture, for instance, as a special case), and in fact there is *no* explicitly known example of an admissible -tuple with for which we can verify this conjecture (although, thanks to the recent work of Zhang, we know that satisfies the conclusion of the prime tuples conjecture for some , even if we can’t yet say what the precise value of is).

Actually, Hardy and Littlewood conjectured a more precise version of Conjecture 1. Given an admissible -tuple , and for each prime , let denote the number of residue classes modulo that meets; thus we have for all by admissibility, and also for all . We then define the *singular series* associated to by the formula

where is the set of primes; by the previous discussion we see that the infinite product in converges to a finite non-zero number.

We will also need some asymptotic notation (in the spirit of “cheap nonstandard analysis“). We will need a parameter that one should think of going to infinity. Some mathematical objects (such as and ) will be independent of and referred to as *fixed*; but unless otherwise specified we allow all mathematical objects under consideration to depend on . If and are two such quantities, we say that if one has for some fixed , and if one has for some function of (and of any fixed parameters present) that goes to zero as (for each choice of fixed parameters).

Conjecture 2 (Prime tuples conjecture, quantitative form)Let be a fixed natural number, and let be a fixed admissible -tuple. Then the number of natural numbers such that consists entirely of primes is .

Thus, for instance, if Conjecture 2 holds, then the number of twin primes less than should equal , where is the twin prime constant

As this conjecture is stronger than Conjecture 1, it is of course open. However there are a number of partial results on this conjecture. For instance, this conjecture is known to be true if one introduces some additional averaging in ; see for instance this previous post. From the methods of sieve theory, one can obtain an *upper bound* of for the number of with all prime, where depends only on . Sieve theory can also give analogues of Conjecture 2 if the primes are replaced by a suitable notion of almost prime (or more precisely, by a weight function concentrated on almost primes).

Another type of partial result towards Conjectures 1, 2 come from the results of Goldston-Pintz-Yildirim, Motohashi-Pintz, and of Zhang. Following the notation of this recent paper of Pintz, for each , let denote the following assertion (DHL stands for “Dickson-Hardy-Littlewood”):

Conjecture 3() Let be a fixed admissible -tuple. Then there are infinitely many translates of which containat least twoprimes.

This conjecture gets harder as gets smaller. Note for instance that would imply all the cases of Conjecture 1, including the twin prime conjecture. More generally, if one knew for some , then one would immediately conclude that there are an infinite number of pairs of consecutive primes of separation at most , where is the minimal diameter amongst all admissible -tuples . Values of for small can be found at this link (with denoted in that page). For large , the best upper bounds on have been found by using admissible -tuples of the form

where denotes the prime and is a parameter to be optimised over (in practice it is an order of magnitude or two smaller than ); see this blog post for details. The upshot is that one can bound for large by a quantity slightly smaller than (and the large sieve inequality shows that this is sharp up to a factor of two, see e.g. this previous post for more discussion).

In a key breakthrough, Goldston, Pintz, and Yildirim were able to establish the following conditional result a few years ago:

Theorem 4 (Goldston-Pintz-Yildirim)Suppose that the Elliott-Halberstam conjecture is true for some . Then is true for some finite . In particular, this establishes an infinite number of pairs of consecutive primes of separation .

The dependence of constants between and given by the Goldston-Pintz-Yildirim argument is basically of the form . (UPDATE: as recently observed by Farkas, Pintz, and Revesz, this relationship can be improved to .)

Unfortunately, the Elliott-Halberstam conjecture (which we will state properly below) is only known for , an important result known as the Bombieri-Vinogradov theorem. If one uses the Bombieri-Vinogradov theorem instead of the Elliott-Halberstam conjecture, Goldston, Pintz, and Yildirim were still able to show the highly non-trivial result that there were infinitely many pairs of consecutive primes with (actually they showed more than this; see e.g. this survey of Soundararajan for details).

Actually, the full strength of the Elliott-Halberstam conjecture is not needed for these results. There is a technical specialisation of the Elliott-Halberstam conjecture which does not presently have a commonly accepted name; I will call it the *Motohashi-Pintz-Zhang conjecture* in this post, where is a parameter. We will define this conjecture more precisely later, but let us remark for now that is a consequence of .

We then have the following two theorems. Firstly, we have the following strengthening of Theorem 4:

Theorem 5 (Motohashi-Pintz-Zhang)Suppose that is true for some . Then is true for some .

A version of this result (with a slightly different formulation of ) appears in this paper of Motohashi and Pintz, and in the paper of Zhang, Theorem 5 is proven for the concrete values and . We will supply a self-contained proof of Theorem 5 below the fold, the constants upon those in Zhang’s paper (in particular, for , we can take as low as , with further improvements on the way). As with Theorem 4, we have an inverse quadratic relationship .

In his paper, Zhang obtained for the first time an unconditional advance on :

This is a deep result, building upon the work of Fouvry-Iwaniec, Friedlander-Iwaniec and Bombieri-Friedlander-Iwaniec which established results of a similar nature to but simpler in some key respects. We will not discuss this result further here, except to say that they rely on the (higher-dimensional case of the) Weil conjectures, which were famously proven by Deligne using methods from l-adic cohomology. Also, it was believed among at least some experts that the methods of Bombieri, Fouvry, Friedlander, and Iwaniec were not quite strong enough to obtain results of the form , making Theorem 6 a particularly impressive achievement.

Combining Theorem 6 with Theorem 5 we obtain for some finite ; Zhang obtains this for but as detailed below, this can be lowered to . This in turn gives infinitely many pairs of consecutive primes of separation at most . Zhang gives a simple argument that bounds by , giving his famous result that there are infinitely many pairs of primes of separation at most ; by being a bit more careful (as discussed in this post) one can lower the upper bound on to , and if one instead uses the newer value for one can instead use the bound . (Many thanks to Scott Morrison for these numerics.) UPDATE: These values are now obsolete; see this web page for the latest bounds.

In this post we would like to give a self-contained proof of both Theorem 4 and Theorem 5, which are both sieve-theoretic results that are mainly elementary in nature. (But, as stated earlier, we will not discuss the deepest new result in Zhang’s paper, namely Theorem 6.) Our presentation will deviate a little bit from the traditional sieve-theoretic approach in a few places. Firstly, there is a portion of the argument that is traditionally handled using contour integration and properties of the Riemann zeta function; we will present a “cheaper” approach (which Ben Green and I used in our papers, e.g. in this one) using Fourier analysis, with the only property used about the zeta function being the elementary fact that blows up like as one approaches from the right. To deal with the contribution of small primes (which is the source of the singular series ), it will be convenient to use the “-trick” (introduced in this paper of mine with Ben), passing to a single residue class mod (where is the product of all the small primes) to end up in a situation in which all small primes have been “turned off” which leads to better pseudorandomness properties (for instance, once one eliminates all multiples of small primes, almost all pairs of remaining numbers will be coprime).

In the third Marker lecture, I would like to discuss the recent progress, particularly by Goldston, Pintz, and Yıldırım, on finding small gaps between consecutive primes. (See also the surveys by Goldston-Pintz-Yıldırım, by Green, and by Soundararajan on the subject; the material here is based to some extent on these prior surveys.)

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