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This is my final Milliman lecture, in which I talk about the sum-product phenomenon in arithmetic combinatorics, and some selected recent applications of this phenomenon to uniform distribution of exponentials, expander graphs, randomness extractors, and detecting (sieving) almost primes in group orbits, particularly as developed by Bourgain and his co-authors.
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Today I’d like to discuss a beautiful inequality in graph theory, namely the crossing number inequality. This inequality gives a useful bound on how far a given graph is from being planar, and has a number of applications, for instance to sum-product estimates. Its proof is also an excellent example of the amplification trick in action; here the main source of amplification is the freedom to pass to subobjects, which is a freedom which I didn’t touch upon in the previous post on amplification. The crossing number inequality (and its proof) is well known among graph theorists but perhaps not among the wider mathematical community, so I thought I would publicise it here.

In this post, when I talk about a graph, I mean an abstract collection of vertices V, together with some abstract edges E joining pairs of vertices together. We will assume that the graph is undirected (the edges do not have a preferred orientation), loop-free (an edge cannot begin and start at the same vertex), and multiplicity-free (any pair of vertices is joined by at most one edge). More formally, we can model all this by viewing E as a subset of \binom{V}{2} := \{ e \subset V: |e|=2 \}, the set of 2-element subsets of V, and we view the graph G as an ordered pair G = (V,E). (The notation is set up so that |\binom{V}{2}| = \binom{|V|}{2}.)

Now one of the great features of graphs, as opposed to some other abstract maths concepts, is that they are easy to draw: the abstract vertices become dots on a plane, while the edges become line segments or curves connecting these dots. [To avoid some technicalities we do not allow these curves to pass through the dots, except if the curve is terminating at that dot.] Let us informally refer to such a concrete representation D of a graph G as a drawing of that graph. Clearly, any non-trivial graph is going to have an infinite number of possible drawings. In some of these drawings, a pair of edges might cross each other; in other drawings, all edges might be disjoint (except of course at the vertices, where edges with a common endpoint are obliged to meet). If G has a drawing D of the latter type, we say that the graph G is planar.

Given an abstract graph G, or a drawing thereof, it is not always obvious as to whether that graph is planar; just because the drawing that you currently possess of G contains crossings, does not necessarily mean that all drawings of G do. The wonderful little web game “Planarity” illustrates this point excellently. Nevertheless, there are definitely graphs which are not planar; in particular the complete graph K_5 on five vertices, and the complete bipartite graph K_{3,3} on two sets of three vertices, are non-planar.

There is in fact a famous theorem of Kuratowski that says that these two graphs are the only “source” of non-planarity, in the sense that any non-planar graph contains (a subdivision of) one of these graphs as a subgraph. (There is of course the even more famous four-colour theorem that asserts that every planar graphs is four-colourable, but this is not the topic of my post today.)

Intuitively, if we fix the number of vertices |V|, and increase the number of edges |E|, then the graph should become “increasingly non-planar”; conversely, if we keep the same number of edges |E| but spread them amongst a greater number of vertices |V|, then the graph should become “increasingly planar”. Is there a quantitative way to measure the “non-planarity” of a graph, and to formalise the above intuition as some sort of inequality?
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