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Roth’s theorem on arithmetic progressions asserts that every subset of the integers ${{\bf Z}}$ of positive upper density contains infinitely many arithmetic progressions of length three. There are many versions and variants of this theorem. Here is one of them:

Theorem 1 (Roth’s theorem) Let ${G = (G,+)}$ be a compact abelian group, with Haar probability measure ${\mu}$, which is ${2}$-divisible (i.e. the map ${x \mapsto 2x}$ is surjective) and let ${A}$ be a measurable subset of ${G}$ with ${\mu(A) \geq \alpha}$ for some ${0 < \alpha < 1}$. Then we have

$\displaystyle \int_G \int_G 1_A(x) 1_A(x+r) 1_A(x+2r)\ d\mu(x) d\mu(r) \gg_\alpha 1,$

where ${X \gg_\alpha Y}$ denotes the bound ${X \geq c_\alpha Y}$ for some ${c_\alpha > 0}$ depending only on ${\alpha}$.

This theorem is usually formulated in the case that ${G}$ is a finite abelian group of odd order (in which case the result is essentially due to Meshulam) or more specifically a cyclic group ${G = {\bf Z}/N{\bf Z}}$ of odd order (in which case it is essentially due to Varnavides), but is also valid for the more general setting of ${2}$-divisible compact abelian groups, as we shall shortly see. One can be more precise about the dependence of the implied constant ${c_\alpha}$ on ${\alpha}$, but to keep the exposition simple we will work at the qualitative level here, without trying at all to get good quantitative bounds. The theorem is also true without the ${2}$-divisibility hypothesis, but the proof we will discuss runs into some technical issues due to the degeneracy of the ${2r}$ shift in that case.

We can deduce Theorem 1 from the following more general Khintchine-type statement. Let ${\hat G}$ denote the Pontryagin dual of a compact abelian group ${G}$, that is to say the set of all continuous homomorphisms ${\xi: x \mapsto \xi \cdot x}$ from ${G}$ to the (additive) unit circle ${{\bf R}/{\bf Z}}$. Thus ${\hat G}$ is a discrete abelian group, and functions ${f \in L^2(G)}$ have a Fourier transform ${\hat f \in \ell^2(\hat G)}$ defined by

$\displaystyle \hat f(\xi) := \int_G f(x) e^{-2\pi i \xi \cdot x}\ d\mu(x).$

If ${G}$ is ${2}$-divisible, then ${\hat G}$ is ${2}$-torsion-free in the sense that the map ${\xi \mapsto 2 \xi}$ is injective. For any finite set ${S \subset \hat G}$ and any radius ${\rho>0}$, define the Bohr set

$\displaystyle B(S,\rho) := \{ x \in G: \sup_{\xi \in S} \| \xi \cdot x \|_{{\bf R}/{\bf Z}} < \rho \}$

where ${\|\theta\|_{{\bf R}/{\bf Z}}}$ denotes the distance of ${\theta}$ to the nearest integer. We refer to the cardinality ${|S|}$ of ${S}$ as the rank of the Bohr set. We record a simple volume bound on Bohr sets:

Lemma 2 (Volume packing bound) Let ${G}$ be a compact abelian group with Haar probability measure ${\mu}$. For any Bohr set ${B(S,\rho)}$, we have

$\displaystyle \mu( B( S, \rho ) ) \gg_{|S|, \rho} 1.$

Proof: We can cover the torus ${({\bf R}/{\bf Z})^S}$ by ${O_{|S|,\rho}(1)}$ translates ${\theta+Q}$ of the cube ${Q := \{ (\theta_\xi)_{\xi \in S} \in ({\bf R}/{\bf Z})^S: \sup_{\xi \in S} \|\theta_\xi\|_{{\bf R}/{\bf Z}} < \rho/2 \}}$. Then the sets ${\{ x \in G: (\xi \cdot x)_{\xi \in S} \in \theta + Q \}}$ form an cover of ${G}$. But all of these sets lie in a translate of ${B(S,\rho)}$, and the claim then follows from the translation invariance of ${\mu}$. $\Box$

Given any Bohr set ${B(S,\rho)}$, we define a normalised “Lipschitz” cutoff function ${\nu_{B(S,\rho)}: G \rightarrow {\bf R}}$ by the formula

$\displaystyle \nu_{B(S,\rho)}(x) = c_{B(S,\rho)} (1 - \frac{1}{\rho} \sup_{\xi \in S} \|\xi \cdot x\|_{{\bf R}/{\bf Z}})_+ \ \ \ \ \ (1)$

where ${c_{B(S,\rho)}}$ is the constant such that

$\displaystyle \int_G \nu_{B(S,\rho)}\ d\mu = 1,$

thus

$\displaystyle c_{B(S,\rho)} = \left( \int_{B(S,\rho)} (1 - \frac{1}{\rho} \sup_{\xi \in S} \|\xi \cdot x\|_{{\bf R}/{\bf Z}})\ d\mu(x) \right)^{-1}.$

The function ${\nu_{B(S,\rho)}}$ should be viewed as an ${L^1}$-normalised “tent function” cutoff to ${B(S,\rho)}$. Note from Lemma 2 that

$\displaystyle 1 \ll_{|S|,\rho} c_{B(S,\rho)} \ll_{|S|,\rho} 1. \ \ \ \ \ (2)$

We then have the following sharper version of Theorem 1:

Theorem 3 (Roth-Khintchine theorem) Let ${G = (G,+)}$ be a ${2}$-divisible compact abelian group, with Haar probability measure ${\mu}$, and let ${\epsilon>0}$. Then for any measurable function ${f: G \rightarrow [0,1]}$, there exists a Bohr set ${B(S,\rho)}$ with ${|S| \ll_\epsilon 1}$ and ${\rho \gg_\epsilon 1}$ such that

$\displaystyle \int_G \int_G f(x) f(x+r) f(x+2r) \nu_{B(S,\rho)}*\nu_{B(S,\rho)}(r)\ d\mu(x) d\mu(r) \ \ \ \ \ (3)$

$\displaystyle \geq (\int_G f\ d\mu)^3 - O(\epsilon)$

where ${*}$ denotes the convolution operation

$\displaystyle f*g(x) := \int_G f(y) g(x-y)\ d\mu(y).$

A variant of this result (expressed in the language of ergodic theory) appears in this paper of Bergelson, Host, and Kra; a combinatorial version of the Bergelson-Host-Kra result that is closer to Theorem 3 subsequently appeared in this paper of Ben Green and myself, but this theorem arguably appears implicitly in a much older paper of Bourgain. To see why Theorem 3 implies Theorem 1, we apply the theorem with ${f := 1_A}$ and ${\epsilon}$ equal to a small multiple of ${\alpha^3}$ to conclude that there is a Bohr set ${B(S,\rho)}$ with ${|S| \ll_\alpha 1}$ and ${\rho \gg_\alpha 1}$ such that

$\displaystyle \int_G \int_G 1_A(x) 1_A(x+r) 1_A(x+2r) \nu_{B(S,\rho)}*\nu_{B(S,\rho)}(r)\ d\mu(x) d\mu(r) \gg \alpha^3.$

But from (2) we have the pointwise bound ${\nu_{B(S,\rho)}*\nu_{B(S,\rho)} \ll_\alpha 1}$, and Theorem 1 follows.

Below the fold, we give a short proof of Theorem 3, using an “energy pigeonholing” argument that essentially dates back to the 1986 paper of Bourgain mentioned previously (not to be confused with a later 1999 paper of Bourgain on Roth’s theorem that was highly influential, for instance in emphasising the importance of Bohr sets). The idea is to use the pigeonhole principle to choose the Bohr set ${B(S,\rho)}$ to capture all the “large Fourier coefficients” of ${f}$, but such that a certain “dilate” of ${B(S,\rho)}$ does not capture much more Fourier energy of ${f}$ than ${B(S,\rho)}$ itself. The bound (3) may then be obtained through elementary Fourier analysis, without much need to explicitly compute things like the Fourier transform of an indicator function of a Bohr set. (However, the bound obtained by this argument is going to be quite poor – of tower-exponential type.) To do this we perform a structural decomposition of ${f}$ into “structured”, “small”, and “highly pseudorandom” components, as is common in the subject (e.g. in this previous blog post), but even though we crucially need to retain non-negativity of one of the components in this decomposition, we can avoid recourse to conditional expectation with respect to a partition (or “factor”) of the space, using instead convolution with one of the ${\nu_{B(S,\rho)}}$ considered above to achieve a similar effect.

This is the tenth thread for the Polymath8b project to obtain new bounds for the quantity

$H_m := \liminf_{n \to\infty} p_{n+m} - p_n$;

the previous thread may be found here.

Numerical progress on these bounds have slowed in recent months, although we have very recently lowered the unconditional bound on $H_1$ from 252 to 246 (see the wiki page for more detailed results).  While there may still be scope for further improvement (particularly with respect to bounds for $H_m$ with $m=2,3,4,5$, which we have not focused on for a while, it looks like we have reached the point of diminishing returns, and it is time to turn to the task of writing up the results.

A draft version of the paper so far may be found here (with the directory of source files here).  Currently, the introduction and the sieve-theoretic portions of the paper are written up, although the sieve-theoretic arguments are surprisingly lengthy, and some simplification (or other reorganisation) may well be possible.  Other portions of the paper that have not yet been written up include the asymptotic analysis of $M_k$ for large k (leading in particular to results for m=2,3,4,5), and a description of the quadratic programming that is used to estimate $M_k$ for small and medium k.  Also we will eventually need an appendix to summarise the material from Polymath8a that we would use to generate various narrow admissible tuples.

One issue here is that our current unconditional bounds on $H_m$ for m=2,3,4,5 rely on a distributional estimate on the primes which we believed to be true in Polymath8a, but never actually worked out (among other things, there was some delicate algebraic geometry issues concerning the vanishing of certain cohomology groups that was never resolved).  This issue does not affect the m=1 calculations, which only use the Bombieri-Vinogradov theorem or else assume the generalised Elliott-Halberstam conjecture.  As such, we will have to rework the computations for these $H_m$, given that the task of trying to attain the conjectured distributional estimate on the primes would be a significant amount of work that is rather disjoint from the rest of the Polymath8b writeup.  One could simply dust off the old maple code for this (e.g. one could tweak the code here, with the constraint  1080*varpi/13+ 330*delta/13<1  being replaced by 600*varpi/7+180*delta/7<1), but there is also a chance that our asymptotic bounds for $M_k$ (currently given in messy detail here) could be sharpened.  I plan to look at this issue fairly soon.

Also, there are a number of smaller observations (e.g. the parity problem barrier that prevents us from ever getting a better bound on $H_1$ than 6) that should also go into the paper at some point; the current outline of the paper as given in the draft is not necessarily comprehensive.