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This week I have been at a Banff workshop “Combinatorics meets Ergodic theory“, focused on the combinatorics surrounding Szemerédi’s theorem and the Gowers uniformity norms on one hand, and the ergodic theory surrounding Furstenberg’s multiple recurrence theorem and the Host-Kra structure theory on the other. This was quite a fruitful workshop, and directly inspired the various posts this week on this blog. Incidentally, BIRS being as efficient as it is, videos for this week’s talks are already online.

As mentioned in the previous two posts, Ben Green, Tamar Ziegler, and myself proved the following inverse theorem for the Gowers norms:

Theorem 1 (Inverse theorem for Gowers norms) Let {N \geq 1} and {s \geq 1} be integers, and let {\delta > 0}. Suppose that {f: {\bf Z} \rightarrow [-1,1]} is a function supported on {[N] := \{1,\dots,N\}} such that

\displaystyle \frac{1}{N^{s+2}} \sum_{n,h_1,\dots,h_{s+1} \in {\bf Z}} \prod_{\omega \in \{0,1\}^{s+1}} f(n+\omega_1 h_1 + \dots + \omega_{s+1} h_{s+1}) \geq \delta.

Then there exists a filtered nilmanifold {G/\Gamma} of degree {\leq s} and complexity {O_{s,\delta}(1)}, a polynomial sequence {g: {\bf Z} \rightarrow G}, and a Lipschitz function {F: G/\Gamma \rightarrow {\bf R}} of Lipschitz constant {O_{s,\delta}(1)} such that

\displaystyle \frac{1}{N} \sum_n f(n) F(g(n) \Gamma) \gg_{s,\delta} 1.

There is a higher dimensional generalisation, which first appeared explicitly (in a more general form) in this preprint of Szegedy (which used a slightly different argument than the one of Ben, Tammy, and myself; see also this previous preprint of Szegedy with related results):

Theorem 2 (Inverse theorem for multidimensional Gowers norms) Let {N \geq 1} and {s,d \geq 1} be integers, and let {\delta > 0}. Suppose that {f: {\bf Z}^d \rightarrow [-1,1]} is a function supported on {[N]^d} such that

\displaystyle \frac{1}{N^{d(s+2)}} \sum_{n,h_1,\dots,h_{s+1} \in {\bf Z}^d} \prod_{\omega \in \{0,1\}^{s+1}} f(n+\omega_1 h_1 + \dots + \omega_{s+1} h_{s+1}) \geq \delta. \ \ \ \ \ (1)

Then there exists a filtered nilmanifold {G/\Gamma} of degree {\leq s} and complexity {O_{s,\delta,d}(1)}, a polynomial sequence {g: {\bf Z}^d \rightarrow G}, and a Lipschitz function {F: G/\Gamma \rightarrow {\bf R}} of Lipschitz constant {O_{s,\delta,d}(1)} such that

\displaystyle \frac{1}{N^d} \sum_{n \in {\bf Z}^d} f(n) F(g(n) \Gamma) \gg_{s,\delta,d} 1.

The {d=2} case of this theorem was recently used by Wenbo Sun. One can replace the polynomial sequence with a linear sequence if desired by using a lifting trick (essentially due to Furstenberg, but which appears explicitly in Appendix C of my paper with Ben and Tammy).

In this post I would like to record a very neat and simple observation of Ben Green and Nikos Frantzikinakis, that uses the tool of Freiman isomorphisms to derive Theorem 2 as a corollary of the one-dimensional theorem. Namely, consider the linear map {\phi: {\bf Z}^d \rightarrow {\bf Z}} defined by

\displaystyle \phi( n_1,\dots,n_d ) := \sum_{i=1}^d (10 N)^{i-1} n_i,

that is to say {\phi} is the digit string base {10N} that has digits {n_d \dots n_1}. This map is a linear map from {[N]^d} to a subset of {[d 10^d N^d]} of density {1/(d10^d)}. Furthermore it has the following “Freiman isomorphism” property: if {n, h_1,\dots,h_{s+1}} lie in {{\bf Z}} with {n + \omega_1 h_1 + \dots + \omega_{s+1} h_{s+1}} in the image set {\phi( [N]^d )} of {[N]^d} for all {\omega}, then there exist (unique) lifts {\tilde n \in {\bf Z}^d, \tilde h_1,\dots,\tilde h_{s+1} \in {\bf Z}} such that

\displaystyle \tilde n + \omega_1 \tilde h_1 + \dots + \omega_{s+1} \tilde h_{s+1} \in [N]^d

and

\displaystyle \phi( \tilde n + \omega_1 \tilde h_1 + \dots + \omega_{s+1} \tilde h_{s+1} ) = n + \omega_1 h_1 + \dots + \omega_{s+1} h_{s+1}

for all {\omega}. Indeed, the injectivity of {\phi} on {[N]^d} uniquely determines the sum {\tilde n + \omega_1 \tilde h_1 + \dots + \omega_{s+1} \tilde h_{s+1}} for each {\omega}, and one can use base {10N} arithmetic to verify that the alternating sum of these sums on any {2}-facet of the cube {\{0,1\}^{s+1}} vanishes, which gives the claim. (In the language of additive combinatorics, the point is that {\phi} is a Freiman isomorphism of order (say) {8} on {[N]^d}.)

Now let {\tilde f: {\bf Z} \rightarrow [-1,1]} be the function defined by setting {\tilde f( \phi(n) ) := f(n)} whenever {n \in [N]^d}, with {\tilde f} vanishing outside of {\phi([N]^d)}. If {f} obeys (1), then from the above Freiman isomorphism property we have

\displaystyle \frac{1}{N^{d(s+2)}} \sum_{n, h_1,\dots,h_{s+1} \in {\bf Z}} \prod_{\omega \in \{0,1\}^{s+1}} \tilde f(n+\omega_1 h_1 + \dots + \omega_{s+1} h_{s+1}) \geq \delta.

Applying the one-dimensional inverse theorem (Theorem 1), with {\delta} reduced by a factor of {d 10^d} and {N} replaced by {d 10^d N^d}, this implies the existence of a filtered nilmanifold {G/\Gamma} of degree {\leq s} and complexity {O_{s,\delta,d}(1)}, a polynomial sequence {g: {\bf Z} \rightarrow G}, and a Lipschitz function {F: G/\Gamma \rightarrow {\bf R}} of Lipschitz constant {O_{s,\delta,d}(1)} such that

\displaystyle \frac{1}{N^{d(s+2)}} \sum_{n \in {\bf Z}} \tilde f(n) F(g(n) \Gamma) \gg_{s,\delta,d} 1

which by the Freiman isomorphism property again implies that

\displaystyle \frac{1}{N^{d(s+2)}} \sum_{n \in {\bf Z}^d} f(n) F(g(\phi(n)) \Gamma) \gg_{s,\delta,d} 1.

But the map {n \mapsto g(\phi(n))} is clearly a polynomial map from {{\bf Z}^d} to {G} (the composition of two polynomial maps is polynomial, see e.g. Appendix B of my paper with Ben and Tammy), and the claim follows.

Remark 3 This trick appears to be largely restricted to the case of boundedly generated groups such as {{\bf Z}^d}; I do not see any easy way to deduce an inverse theorem for, say, {\bigcup_{n=1}^\infty {\mathbb F}_p^n} from the {{\bf Z}}-inverse theorem by this method.

Remark 4 By combining this argument with the one in the previous post, one can obtain a weak ergodic inverse theorem for {{\bf Z}^d}-actions. Interestingly, the Freiman isomorphism argument appears to be difficult to implement directly in the ergodic category; in particular, there does not appear to be an obvious direct way to derive the Host-Kra inverse theorem for {{\bf Z}^d} actions (a result first obtained in the PhD thesis of Griesmer) from the counterpart for {{\bf Z}} actions.

Note: this post is of a particularly technical nature, in particular presuming familiarity with nilsequences, nilsystems, characteristic factors, etc., and is primarily intended for experts.

As mentioned in the previous post, Ben Green, Tamar Ziegler, and myself proved the following inverse theorem for the Gowers norms:

Theorem 1 (Inverse theorem for Gowers norms) Let {N \geq 1} and {s \geq 1} be integers, and let {\delta > 0}. Suppose that {f: {\bf Z} \rightarrow [-1,1]} is a function supported on {[N] := \{1,\dots,N\}} such that

\displaystyle \frac{1}{N^{s+2}} \sum_{n,h_1,\dots,h_{s+1}} \prod_{\omega \in \{0,1\}^{s+1}} f(n+\omega_1 h_1 + \dots + \omega_{s+1} h_{s+1}) \geq \delta.

Then there exists a filtered nilmanifold {G/\Gamma} of degree {\leq s} and complexity {O_{s,\delta}(1)}, a polynomial sequence {g: {\bf Z} \rightarrow G}, and a Lipschitz function {F: G/\Gamma \rightarrow {\bf R}} of Lipschitz constant {O_{s,\delta}(1)} such that

\displaystyle \frac{1}{N} \sum_n f(n) F(g(n) \Gamma) \gg_{s,\delta} 1.

This result was conjectured earlier by Ben Green and myself; this conjecture was strongly motivated by an analogous inverse theorem in ergodic theory by Host and Kra, which we formulate here in a form designed to resemble Theorem 1 as closely as possible:

Theorem 2 (Inverse theorem for Gowers-Host-Kra seminorms) Let {s \geq 1} be an integer, and let {(X, T)} be an ergodic, countably generated measure-preserving system. Suppose that one has

\displaystyle \lim_{N \rightarrow \infty} \frac{1}{N^{s+1}} \sum_{h_1,\dots,h_{s+1} \in [N]} \int_X \prod_{\omega \in \{0,1\}^{s+1}} f(T^{\omega_1 h_1 + \dots + \omega_{s+1} h_{s+1}}x)\ d\mu(x)

\displaystyle > 0

for all non-zero {f \in L^\infty(X)} (all {L^p} spaces are real-valued in this post). Then {(X,T)} is an inverse limit (in the category of measure-preserving systems, up to almost everywhere equivalence) of ergodic degree {\leq s} nilsystems, that is to say systems of the form {(G/\Gamma, x \mapsto gx)} for some degree {\leq s} filtered nilmanifold {G/\Gamma} and a group element {g \in G} that acts ergodically on {G/\Gamma}.

It is a natural question to ask if there is any logical relationship between the two theorems. In the finite field category, one can deduce the combinatorial inverse theorem from the ergodic inverse theorem by a variant of the Furstenberg correspondence principle, as worked out by Tamar Ziegler and myself, however in the current context of {{\bf Z}}-actions, the connection is less clear.

One can split Theorem 2 into two components:

Theorem 3 (Weak inverse theorem for Gowers-Host-Kra seminorms) Let {s \geq 1} be an integer, and let {(X, T)} be an ergodic, countably generated measure-preserving system. Suppose that one has

\displaystyle \lim_{N \rightarrow \infty} \frac{1}{N^{s+1}} \sum_{h_1,\dots,h_{s+1} \in [N]} \int_X \prod_{\omega \in \{0,1\}^{s+1}} T^{\omega_1 h_1 + \dots + \omega_{s+1} h_{s+1}} f\ d\mu

\displaystyle > 0

for all non-zero {f \in L^\infty(X)}, where {T^h f := f \circ T^h}. Then {(X,T)} is a factor of an inverse limit of ergodic degree {\leq s} nilsystems.

Theorem 4 (Pro-nilsystems closed under factors) Let {s \geq 1} be an integer. Then any factor of an inverse limit of ergodic degree {\leq s} nilsystems, is again an inverse limit of ergodic degree {\leq s} nilsystems.

Indeed, it is clear that Theorem 2 implies both Theorem 3 and Theorem 4, and conversely that the two latter theorems jointly imply the former. Theorem 4 is, in principle, purely a fact about nilsystems, and should have an independent proof, but this is not known; the only known proofs go through the full machinery needed to prove Theorem 2 (or the closely related theorem of Ziegler). (However, the fact that a factor of a nilsystem is again a nilsystem was established previously by Parry.)

The purpose of this post is to record a partial implication in reverse direction to the correspondence principle:

Proposition 5 Theorem 1 implies Theorem 3.

As mentioned at the start of the post, a fair amount of familiarity with the area is presumed here, and some routine steps will be presented with only a fairly brief explanation.

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A few years ago, Ben Green, Tamar Ziegler, and myself proved the following (rather technical-looking) inverse theorem for the Gowers norms:

Theorem 1 (Discrete inverse theorem for Gowers norms) Let {N \geq 1} and {s \geq 1} be integers, and let {\delta > 0}. Suppose that {f: {\bf Z} \rightarrow [-1,1]} is a function supported on {[N] := \{1,\dots,N\}} such that

\displaystyle  \frac{1}{N^{s+2}} \sum_{n,h_1,\dots,h_{s+1}} \prod_{\omega \in \{0,1\}^{s+1}} f(n+\omega_1 h_1 + \dots + \omega_{s+1} h_{s+1}) \geq \delta.

Then there exists a filtered nilmanifold {G/\Gamma} of degree {\leq s} and complexity {O_{s,\delta}(1)}, a polynomial sequence {g: {\bf Z} \rightarrow G}, and a Lipschitz function {F: G/\Gamma \rightarrow {\bf R}} of Lipschitz constant {O_{s,\delta}(1)} such that

\displaystyle  \frac{1}{N} \sum_n f(n) F(g(n) \Gamma) \gg_{s,\delta} 1.

For the definitions of “filtered nilmanifold”, “degree”, “complexity”, and “polynomial sequence”, see the paper of Ben, Tammy, and myself. (I should caution the reader that this blog post will presume a fair amount of familiarity with this subfield of additive combinatorics.) This result has a number of applications, for instance to establishing asymptotics for linear equations in the primes, but this will not be the focus of discussion here.

The purpose of this post is to record the observation that this “discrete” inverse theorem, together with an equidistribution theorem for nilsequences that Ben and I worked out in a separate paper, implies a continuous version:

Theorem 2 (Continuous inverse theorem for Gowers norms) Let {s \geq 1} be an integer, and let {\delta>0}. Suppose that {f: {\bf R} \rightarrow [-1,1]} is a measurable function supported on {[0,1]} such that

\displaystyle  \int_{{\bf R}^{s+1}} \prod_{\omega \in \{0,1\}^{s+1}} f(t+\omega_1 h_1 + \dots + \omega_{s+1} h_{s+1})\ dt dh_1 \dots dh_{s+1} \geq \delta. \ \ \ \ \ (1)

Then there exists a filtered nilmanifold {G/\Gamma} of degree {\leq s} and complexity {O_{s,\delta}(1)}, a (smooth) polynomial sequence {g: {\bf R} \rightarrow G}, and a Lipschitz function {F: G/\Gamma \rightarrow {\bf R}} of Lipschitz constant {O_{s,\delta}(1)} such that

\displaystyle  \int_{\bf R} f(t) F(g(t) \Gamma)\ dt \gg_{s,\delta} 1.

The interval {[0,1]} can be easily replaced with any other fixed interval by a change of variables. A key point here is that the bounds are completely uniform in the choice of {f}. Note though that the coefficients of {g} can be arbitrarily large (and this is necessary, as can be seen just by considering functions of the form {f(t) = \cos( \xi t)} for some arbitrarily large frequency {\xi}).

It is likely that one could prove Theorem 2 by carefully going through the proof of Theorem 1 and replacing all instances of {{\bf Z}} with {{\bf R}} (and making appropriate modifications to the argument to accommodate this). However, the proof of Theorem 1 is quite lengthy. Here, we shall proceed by the usual limiting process of viewing the continuous interval {[0,1]} as a limit of the discrete interval {\frac{1}{N} \cdot [N]} as {N \rightarrow \infty}. However there will be some problems taking the limit due to a failure of compactness, and specifically with regards to the coefficients of the polynomial sequence {g: {\bf N} \rightarrow G} produced by Theorem 1, after normalising these coefficients by {N}. Fortunately, a factorisation theorem from a paper of Ben Green and myself resolves this problem by splitting {g} into a “smooth” part which does enjoy good compactness properties, as well as “totally equidistributed” and “periodic” parts which can be eliminated using the measurability (and thus, approximate smoothness), of {f}.

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Szemerédi’s theorem asserts that any subset of the integers of positive upper density contains arbitrarily large arithmetic progressions. Here is an equivalent quantitative form of this theorem:

Theorem 1 (Szemerédi’s theorem) Let {N} be a positive integer, and let {f: {\bf Z}/N{\bf Z} \rightarrow [0,1]} be a function with {{\bf E}_{x \in {\bf Z}/N{\bf Z}} f(x) \geq \delta} for some {\delta>0}, where we use the averaging notation {{\bf E}_{x \in A} f(x) := \frac{1}{|A|} \sum_{x \in A} f(x)}, {{\bf E}_{x,r \in A} f(x) := \frac{1}{|A|^2} \sum_{x, r \in A} f(x)}, etc.. Then for {k \geq 3} we have

\displaystyle  {\bf E}_{x,r \in {\bf Z}/N{\bf Z}} f(x) f(x+r) \dots f(x+(k-1)r) \geq c(k,\delta)

for some {c(k,\delta)>0} depending only on {k,\delta}.

The equivalence is basically thanks to an averaging argument of Varnavides; see for instance Chapter 11 of my book with Van Vu or this previous blog post for a discussion. We have removed the cases {k=1,2} as they are trivial and somewhat degenerate.

There are now many proofs of this theorem. Some time ago, I took an ergodic-theoretic proof of Furstenberg and converted it to a purely finitary proof of the theorem. The argument used some simplifying innovations that had been developed since the original work of Furstenberg (in particular, deployment of the Gowers uniformity norms, as well as a “dual” norm that I called the uniformly almost periodic norm, and an emphasis on van der Waerden’s theorem for handling the “compact extension” component of the argument). But the proof was still quite messy. However, as discussed in this previous blog post, messy finitary proofs can often be cleaned up using nonstandard analysis. Thus, there should be a nonstandard version of the Furstenberg ergodic theory argument that is relatively clean. I decided (after some encouragement from Ben Green and Isaac Goldbring) to write down most of the details of this argument in this blog post, though for sake of brevity I will skim rather quickly over arguments that were already discussed at length in other blog posts. In particular, I will presume familiarity with nonstandard analysis (in particular, the notion of a standard part of a bounded real number, and the Loeb measure construction), see for instance this previous blog post for a discussion.

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In analytic number theory, there is a well known analogy between the prime factorisation of a large integer, and the cycle decomposition of a large permutation; this analogy is central to the topic of “anatomy of the integers”, as discussed for instance in this survey article of Granville. Consider for instance the following two parallel lists of facts (stated somewhat informally). Firstly, some facts about the prime factorisation of large integers:

  • Every positive integer {m} has a prime factorisation

    \displaystyle  m = p_1 p_2 \dots p_r

    into (not necessarily distinct) primes {p_1,\dots,p_r}, which is unique up to rearrangement. Taking logarithms, we obtain a partition

    \displaystyle  \log m = \log p_1 + \log p_2 + \dots + \log p_r

    of {\log m}.

  • (Prime number theorem) A randomly selected integer {m} of size {m \sim N} will be prime with probability {\approx \frac{1}{\log N}} when {N} is large.
  • If {m \sim N} is a randomly selected large integer of size {N}, and {p = p_i} is a randomly selected prime factor of {m = p_1 \dots p_r} (with each index {i} being chosen with probability {\frac{\log p_i}{\log m}}), then {\log p_i} is approximately uniformly distributed between {0} and {\log N}. (See Proposition 9 of this previous blog post.)
  • The set of real numbers {\{ \frac{\log p_i}{\log m}: i=1,\dots,r \}} arising from the prime factorisation {m = p_1 \dots p_r} of a large random number {m \sim N} converges (away from the origin, and in a suitable weak sense) to the Poisson-Dirichlet process in the limit {N \rightarrow \infty}. (See the previously mentioned blog post for a definition of the Poisson-Dirichlet process, and a proof of this claim.)

Now for the facts about the cycle decomposition of large permutations:

  • Every permutation {\sigma \in S_n} has a cycle decomposition

    \displaystyle  \sigma = C_1 \dots C_r

    into disjoint cycles {C_1,\dots,C_r}, which is unique up to rearrangement, and where we count each fixed point of {\sigma} as a cycle of length {1}. If {|C_i|} is the length of the cycle {C_i}, we obtain a partition

    \displaystyle  n = |C_1| + \dots + |C_r|

    of {n}.

  • (Prime number theorem for permutations) A randomly selected permutation of {S_n} will be an {n}-cycle with probability exactly {1/n}. (This was noted in this previous blog post.)
  • If {\sigma} is a random permutation in {S_n}, and {C_i} is a randomly selected cycle of {\sigma} (with each {i} being selected with probability {|C_i|/n}), then {|C_i|} is exactly uniformly distributed on {\{1,\dots,n\}}. (See Proposition 8 of this blog post.)
  • The set of real numbers {\{ \frac{|C_i|}{n} \}} arising from the cycle decomposition {\sigma = C_1 \dots C_r} of a random permutation {\sigma \in S_n} converges (in a suitable sense) to the Poisson-Dirichlet process in the limit {n \rightarrow \infty}. (Again, see this previous blog post for details.)

See this previous blog post (or the aforementioned article of Granville, or the Notices article of Arratia, Barbour, and Tavaré) for further exploration of the analogy between prime factorisation of integers and cycle decomposition of permutations.

There is however something unsatisfying about the analogy, in that it is not clear why there should be such a kinship between integer prime factorisation and permutation cycle decomposition. It turns out that the situation is clarified if one uses another fundamental analogy in number theory, namely the analogy between integers and polynomials {P \in {\mathbf F}_q[T]} over a finite field {{\mathbf F}_q}, discussed for instance in this previous post; this is the simplest case of the more general function field analogy between number fields and function fields. Just as we restrict attention to positive integers when talking about prime factorisation, it will be reasonable to restrict attention to monic polynomials {P}. We then have another analogous list of facts, proven very similarly to the corresponding list of facts for the integers:

  • Every monic polynomial {f \in {\mathbf F}_q[T]} has a factorisation

    \displaystyle  f = P_1 \dots P_r

    into irreducible monic polynomials {P_1,\dots,P_r \in {\mathbf F}_q[T]}, which is unique up to rearrangement. Taking degrees, we obtain a partition

    \displaystyle  \hbox{deg} f = \hbox{deg} P_1 + \dots + \hbox{deg} P_r

    of {\hbox{deg} f}.

  • (Prime number theorem for polynomials) A randomly selected monic polynomial {f \in {\mathbf F}_q[T]} of degree {n} will be irreducible with probability {\approx \frac{1}{n}} when {q} is fixed and {n} is large.
  • If {f \in {\mathbf F}_q[T]} is a random monic polynomial of degree {n}, and {P_i} is a random irreducible factor of {f = P_1 \dots P_r} (with each {i} selected with probability {\hbox{deg} P_i / n}), then {\hbox{deg} P_i} is approximately uniformly distributed in {\{1,\dots,n\}} when {q} is fixed and {n} is large.
  • The set of real numbers {\{ \hbox{deg} P_i / n \}} arising from the factorisation {f = P_1 \dots P_r} of a randomly selected polynomial {f \in {\mathbf F}_q[T]} of degree {n} converges (in a suitable sense) to the Poisson-Dirichlet process when {q} is fixed and {n} is large.

The above list of facts addressed the large {n} limit of the polynomial ring {{\mathbf F}_q[T]}, where the order {q} of the field is held fixed, but the degrees of the polynomials go to infinity. This is the limit that is most closely analogous to the integers {{\bf Z}}. However, there is another interesting asymptotic limit of polynomial rings to consider, namely the large {q} limit where it is now the degree {n} that is held fixed, but the order {q} of the field goes to infinity. Actually to simplify the exposition we will use the slightly more restrictive limit where the characteristic {p} of the field goes to infinity (again keeping the degree {n} fixed), although all of the results proven below for the large {p} limit turn out to be true as well in the large {q} limit.

The large {q} (or large {p}) limit is technically a different limit than the large {n} limit, but in practice the asymptotic statistics of the two limits often agree quite closely. For instance, here is the prime number theorem in the large {q} limit:

Theorem 1 (Prime number theorem) The probability that a random monic polynomial {f \in {\mathbf F}_q[T]} of degree {n} is irreducible is {\frac{1}{n}+o(1)} in the limit where {n} is fixed and the characteristic {p} goes to infinity.

Proof: There are {q^n} monic polynomials {f \in {\mathbf F}_q[T]} of degree {n}. If {f} is irreducible, then the {n} zeroes of {f} are distinct and lie in the finite field {{\mathbf F}_{q^n}}, but do not lie in any proper subfield of that field. Conversely, every element {\alpha} of {{\mathbf F}_{q^n}} that does not lie in a proper subfield is the root of a unique monic polynomial in {{\mathbf F}_q[T]} of degree {f} (the minimal polynomial of {\alpha}). Since the union of all the proper subfields of {{\mathbf F}_{q^n}} has size {o(q^n)}, the total number of irreducible polynomials of degree {n} is thus {\frac{q^n - o(q^n)}{n}}, and the claim follows. \Box

Remark 2 The above argument and inclusion-exclusion in fact gives the well known exact formula {\frac{1}{n} \sum_{d|n} \mu(\frac{n}{d}) q^d} for the number of irreducible monic polynomials of degree {n}.

Now we can give a precise connection between the cycle distribution of a random permutation, and (the large {p} limit of) the irreducible factorisation of a polynomial, giving a (somewhat indirect, but still connected) link between permutation cycle decomposition and integer factorisation:

Theorem 3 The partition {\{ \hbox{deg}(P_1), \dots, \hbox{deg}(P_r) \}} of a random monic polynomial {f= P_1 \dots P_r\in {\mathbf F}_q[T]} of degree {n} converges in distribution to the partition {\{ |C_1|, \dots, |C_r|\}} of a random permutation {\sigma = C_1 \dots C_r \in S_n} of length {n}, in the limit where {n} is fixed and the characteristic {p} goes to infinity.

We can quickly prove this theorem as follows. We first need a basic fact:

Lemma 4 (Most polynomials square-free in large {q} limit) A random monic polynomial {f \in {\mathbf F}_q[T]} of degree {n} will be square-free with probability {1-o(1)} when {n} is fixed and {q} (or {p}) goes to infinity. In a similar spirit, two randomly selected monic polynomials {f,g} of degree {n,m} will be coprime with probability {1-o(1)} if {n,m} are fixed and {q} or {p} goes to infinity.

Proof: For any polynomial {g} of degree {m}, the probability that {f} is divisible by {g^2} is at most {1/q^{2m}}. Summing over all polynomials of degree {1 \leq m \leq n/2}, and using the union bound, we see that the probability that {f} is not squarefree is at most {\sum_{1 \leq m \leq n/2} \frac{q^m}{q^{2m}} = o(1)}, giving the first claim. For the second, observe from the first claim (and the fact that {fg} has only a bounded number of factors) that {fg} is squarefree with probability {1-o(1)}, giving the claim. \Box

Now we can prove the theorem. Elementary combinatorics tells us that the probability of a random permutation {\sigma \in S_n} consisting of {c_k} cycles of length {k} for {k=1,\dots,r}, where {c_k} are nonnegative integers with {\sum_{k=1}^r k c_k = n}, is precisely

\displaystyle  \frac{1}{\prod_{k=1}^r c_k! k^{c_k}},

since there are {\prod_{k=1}^r c_k! k^{c_k}} ways to write a given tuple of cycles {C_1,\dots,C_r} in cycle notation in nondecreasing order of length, and {n!} ways to select the labels for the cycle notation. On the other hand, by Theorem 1 (and using Lemma 4 to isolate the small number of cases involving repeated factors) the number of monic polynomials of degree {n} that are the product of {c_k} irreducible polynomials of degree {k} is

\displaystyle  \frac{1}{\prod_{k=1}^r c_k!} \prod_{k=1}^r ( (\frac{1}{k}+o(1)) q^k )^{c_k} + o( q^n )

which simplifies to

\displaystyle  \frac{1+o(1)}{\prod_{k=1}^r c_k! k^{c_k}} q^n,

and the claim follows.

This was a fairly short calculation, but it still doesn’t quite explain why there is such a link between the cycle decomposition {\sigma = C_1 \dots C_r} of permutations and the factorisation {f = P_1 \dots P_r} of a polynomial. One immediate thought might be to try to link the multiplication structure of permutations in {S_n} with the multiplication structure of polynomials; however, these structures are too dissimilar to set up a convincing analogy. For instance, the multiplication law on polynomials is abelian and non-invertible, whilst the multiplication law on {S_n} is (extremely) non-abelian but invertible. Also, the multiplication of a degree {n} and a degree {m} polynomial is a degree {n+m} polynomial, whereas the group multiplication law on permutations does not take a permutation in {S_n} and a permutation in {S_m} and return a permutation in {S_{n+m}}.

I recently found (after some discussions with Ben Green) what I feel to be a satisfying conceptual (as opposed to computational) explanation of this link, which I will place below the fold.

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I’ve just uploaded to the arXiv my paper “Inverse theorems for sets and measures of polynomial growth“. This paper was motivated by two related questions. The first question was to obtain a qualitatively precise description of the sets of polynomial growth that arise in Gromov’s theorem, in much the same way that Freiman’s theorem (and its generalisations) provide a qualitatively precise description of sets of small doubling. The other question was to obtain a non-abelian analogue of inverse Littlewood-Offord theory.

Let me discuss the former question first. Gromov’s theorem tells us that if a finite subset {A} of a group {G} exhibits polynomial growth in the sense that {|A^n|} grows polynomially in {n}, then the group generated by {A} is virtually nilpotent (the converse direction also true, and is relatively easy to establish). This theorem has been strengthened a number of times over the years. For instance, a few years ago, I proved with Shalom that the condition that {|A^n|} grew polynomially in {n} could be replaced by {|A^n| \leq C n^d} for a single {n}, as long as {n} was sufficiently large depending on {C,d} (in fact we gave a fairly explicit quantitative bound on how large {n} needed to be). A little more recently, with Breuillard and Green, the condition {|A^n| \leq C n^d} was weakened to {|A^n| \leq n^d |A|}, that is to say it sufficed to have polynomial relative growth at a finite scale. In fact, the latter paper gave more information on {A} in this case, roughly speaking it showed (at least in the case when {A} was a symmetric neighbourhood of the identity) that {A^n} was “commensurate” with a very structured object known as a coset nilprogression. This can then be used to establish further control on {A}. For instance, it was recently shown by Breuillard and Tointon (again in the symmetric case) that if {|A^n| \leq n^d |A|} for a single {n} that was sufficiently large depending on {d}, then all the {A^{n'}} for {n' \geq n} have a doubling constant bounded by a bound {C_d} depending only on {d}, thus {|A^{2n'}| \leq C_d |A^{n'}|} for all {n' \geq n}.

In this paper we are able to refine this analysis a bit further; under the same hypotheses, we can show an estimate of the form

\displaystyle  \log |A^{n'}| = \log |A^n| + f( \log n' - \log n ) + O_d(1)

for all {n' \geq n} and some piecewise linear, continuous, non-decreasing function {f: [0,+\infty) \rightarrow [0,+\infty)} with {f(0)=0}, where the error {O_d(1)} is bounded by a constant depending only on {d}, and where {f} has at most {O_d(1)} pieces, each of which has a slope that is a natural number of size {O_d(1)}. To put it another way, the function {n' \mapsto |A^{n'}|} for {n' \geq n} behaves (up to multiplicative constants) like a piecewise polynomial function, where the degree of the function and number of pieces is bounded by a constant depending on {d}.

One could ask whether the function {f} has any convexity or concavity properties. It turns out that it can exhibit either convex or concave behaviour (or a combination of both). For instance, if {A} is contained in a large finite group, then {n \mapsto |A^n|} will eventually plateau to a constant, exhibiting concave behaviour. On the other hand, in nilpotent groups one can see convex behaviour; for instance, in the Heisenberg group {\begin{pmatrix}{} {1} {\mathbf Z} {\mathbf Z} \\ {0} {1} {\mathbf Z} \\ {0} {1} \end{pmatrix}}, if one sets {A} to be a set of matrices of the form {\begin{pmatrix} 1 & O(N) & O(N^3) \\ 0 & 1 & O(N) \\ 0 & 0 & 1 \end{pmatrix}} for some large {N} (abusing the {O()} notation somewhat), then {n \mapsto A^n} grows cubically for {n \leq N} but then grows quartically for {n > N}.

To prove this proposition, it turns out (after using a somewhat difficult inverse theorem proven previously by Breuillard, Green, and myself) that one has to analyse the volume growth {n \mapsto |P^n|} of nilprogressions {P}. In the “infinitely proper” case where there are no unexpected relations between the generators of the nilprogression, one can lift everything to a simply connected Lie group (where one can take logarithms and exploit the Baker-Campbell-Hausdorff formula heavily), eventually describing {P^n} with fair accuracy by a certain convex polytope with vertices depending polynomially on {n}, which implies that {|P^n|} depends polynomially on {n} up to constants. If one is not in the “infinitely proper” case, then at some point {n_0} the nilprogression {P^{n_0}} develops a “collision”, but then one can use this collision to show (after some work) that the dimension of the “Lie model” of {P^{n_0}} has dropped by at least one from the dimension of {P} (the notion of a Lie model being developed in the previously mentioned paper of Breuillard, Greenm, and myself), so that this sort of collision can only occur a bounded number of times, with essentially polynomial volume growth behaviour between these collisions.

The arguments also give a precise description of the location of a set {A} for which {A^n} grows polynomially in {n}. In the symmetric case, what ends up happening is that {A^n} becomes commensurate to a “coset nilprogression” {HP} of bounded rank and nilpotency class, whilst {A} is “virtually” contained in a scaled down version {HP^{1/n}} of that nilprogression. What “virtually” means is a little complicated; roughly speaking, it means that there is a set {X} of bounded cardinality such that {aXHP^{1/n} \approx XHP^{1/n}} for all {a \in A}. Conversely, if {A} is virtually contained in {HP^{1/n}}, then {A^n} is commensurate to {HP} (and more generally, {A^{mn}} is commensurate to {HP^m} for any natural number {m}), giving quite a (qualitatively) precise description of {A} in terms of coset nilprogressions.

The main tool used to prove these results is the structure theorem for approximate groups established by Breuillard, Green, and myself, which roughly speaking asserts that approximate groups are always commensurate with coset nilprogressions. A key additional trick is a pigeonholing argument of Sanders, which in this context is the assertion that if {A^n} is comparable to {A^{2n}}, then there is an {n'} between {n} and {2n} such that {A \cdot A^{n'}} is very close in size to {A^{n'}} (up to a relative error of {1/n}). It is this fact, together with the comparability of {A^{n'}} to a coset nilprogression {HP}, that allows us (after some combinatorial argument) to virtually place {A} inside {HP^{1/n}}.

Similar arguments apply when discussing iterated convolutions {\mu^{*n}} of (symmetric) probability measures on a (discrete) group {G}, rather than combinatorial powers {A^n} of a finite set. Here, the analogue of volume {A^n} is given by the negative power {\| \mu^{*n} \|_{\ell^2}^{-2}} of the {\ell^2} norm of {\mu^{*n}} (thought of as a non-negative function on {G} of total mass 1). One can also work with other norms here than {\ell^2}, but this norm has some minor technical conveniences (and other measures of the “spread” of {\mu^{*n}} end up being more or less equivalent for our purposes). There is an analogous structure theorem that asserts that if {\mu^{*n}} spreads at most polynomially in {n}, then {\mu^{*n}} is “commensurate” with the uniform probability distribution on a coset progression {HP}, and {\mu} itself is largely concentrated near {HP^{1/\sqrt{n}}}. The factor of {\sqrt{n}} here is the familiar scaling factor in random walks that arises for instance in the central limit theorem. The proof of (the precise version of) this statement proceeds similarly to the combinatorial case, using pigeonholing to locate a scale {n'} where {\mu *\mu^{n'}} has almost the same {\ell^2} norm as {\mu^{n'}}.

A special case of this theory occurs when {\mu} is the uniform probability measure on {n} elements {v_1,\dots,v_n} of {G} and their inverses. The probability measure {\mu^{*n}} is then the distribution of a random product {w_1 \dots w_n}, where each {w_i} is equal to one of {v_{j_i}} or its inverse {v_{j_i}^{-1}}, selected at random with {j_i} drawn uniformly from {\{1,\dots,n\}} with replacement. This is very close to the Littlewood-Offord situation of random products {u_1 \dots u_n} where each {u_i} is equal to {v_i} or {v_i^{-1}} selected independently at random (thus {j_i} is now fixed to equal {i} rather than being randomly drawn from {\{1,\dots,n\}}. In the case when {G} is abelian, it turns out that a little bit of Fourier analysis shows that these two random walks have “comparable” distributions in a certain {\ell^2} sense. As a consequence, the results in this paper can be used to recover an essentially optimal abelian inverse Littlewood-Offord theorem of Nguyen and Vu. In the nonabelian case, the only Littlewood-Offord theorem I am aware of is a recent result of Tiep and Vu for matrix groups, but in this case I do not know how to relate the above two random walks to each other, and so we can only obtain an analogue of the Tiep-Vu results for the symmetrised random walk {w_1 \dots w_n} instead of the ordered random walk {u_1 \dots u_n}.

Just a short post here to note that the cover story of this month’s Notices of the AMS, by John Friedlander, is about the recent work on bounded gaps between primes by Zhang, Maynard, our own Polymath project, and others.

I may as well take this opportunity to upload some slides of my own talks on this subject: here are my slides on small and large gaps between the primes that I gave at the “Latinos in the Mathematical Sciences” back in April, and here are my slides on the Polymath project for the Schock Prize symposium last October.  (I also gave an abridged version of the latter talk at an AAAS Symposium in February, as well as the Breakthrough Symposium from last November.)

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