Daniel Kane and I have just uploaded to the arXiv our paper “A bound on partitioning clusters“, submitted to the Electronic Journal of Combinatorics. In this short and elementary paper, we consider a question that arose from biomathematical applications: given a finite family of sets (or “clusters”), how many ways can there be of partitioning a set in this family as the disjoint union of two other sets in this family? That is to say, what is the best upper bound one can place on the quantity

in terms of the cardinality of ? A trivial upper bound would be , since this is the number of possible pairs , and clearly determine . In our paper, we establish the improved bound

where is the somewhat strange exponent

so that . Furthermore, this exponent is best possible!

Actually, the latter claim is quite easy to show: one takes to be all the subsets of of cardinality either or , for a multiple of , and the claim follows readily from Stirling’s formula. So it is perhaps the former claim that is more interesting (since many combinatorial proof techniques, such as those based on inequalities such as the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality, tend to produce exponents that are rational or at least algebraic). We follow the common, though unintuitive, trick of generalising a problem to make it simpler. Firstly, one generalises the bound to the “trilinear” bound

for arbitrary finite collections of sets. One can place all the sets in inside a single finite set such as , and then by replacing every set in by its complement in , one can phrase the inequality in the equivalent form

for arbitrary collections of subsets of . We generalise further by turning sets into functions, replacing the estimate with the slightly stronger convolution estimate

for arbitrary functions on the Hamming cube , where the convolution is on the integer lattice rather than on the finite field vector space . The advantage of working in this general setting is that it becomes very easy to apply induction on the dimension ; indeed, to prove this estimate for arbitrary it suffices to do so for . This reduces matters to establishing the elementary inequality

for all , which can be done by a combination of undergraduate multivariable calculus and a little bit of numerical computation. (The left-hand side turns out to have local maxima at , with the latter being the cause of the numerology (1).)

The same sort of argument also gives an energy bound

for any subset of the Hamming cube, where

is the additive energy of . The example shows that the exponent cannot be improved.

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