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Let ${(X,T,\mu)}$ be a measure-preserving system – a probability space ${(X,\mu)}$ equipped with a measure-preserving translation ${T}$ (which for simplicity of discussion we shall assume to be invertible). We will informally think of two points ${x,y}$ in this space as being “close” if ${y = T^n x}$ for some ${n}$ that is not too large; this allows one to distinguish between “local” structure at a point ${x}$ (in which one only looks at nearby points ${T^n x}$ for moderately large ${n}$) and “global” structure (in which one looks at the entire space ${X}$). The local/global distinction is also known as the time-averaged/space-averaged distinction in ergodic theory.

A measure-preserving system is said to be ergodic if all the invariant sets are either zero measure or full measure. An equivalent form of this statement is that any measurable function ${f: X \rightarrow {\bf R}}$ which is locally essentially constant in the sense that ${f(Tx) = f(x)}$ for ${\mu}$-almost every ${x}$, is necessarily globally essentially constant in the sense that there is a constant ${c}$ such that ${f(x) = c}$ for ${\mu}$-almost every ${x}$. A basic consequence of ergodicity is the mean ergodic theorem: if ${f \in L^2(X,\mu)}$, then the averages ${x \mapsto \frac{1}{N} \sum_{n=1}^N f(T^n x)}$ converge in ${L^2}$ norm to the mean ${\int_X f\ d\mu}$. (The mean ergodic theorem also applies to other ${L^p}$ spaces with ${1 < p < \infty}$, though it is usually proven first in the Hilbert space ${L^2}$.) Informally: in ergodic systems, time averages are asymptotically equal to space averages. Specialising to the case of indicator functions, this implies in particular that ${\frac{1}{N} \sum_{n=1}^N \mu( E \cap T^n E)}$ converges to ${\mu(E)^2}$ for any measurable set ${E}$.

In this short note I would like to use the mean ergodic theorem to show that ergodic systems also have the property that “somewhat locally constant” functions are necessarily “somewhat globally constant”; this is not a deep observation, and probably already in the literature, but I found it a cute statement that I had not previously seen. More precisely:

Corollary 1 Let ${(X,T,\mu)}$ be an ergodic measure-preserving system, and let ${f: X \rightarrow {\bf R}}$ be measurable. Suppose that

$\displaystyle \limsup_{N \rightarrow \infty} \frac{1}{N} \sum_{n=1}^N \mu( \{ x \in X: f(T^n x) = f(x) \} ) \geq \delta \ \ \ \ \ (1)$

for some ${0 \leq \delta \leq 1}$. Then there exists a constant ${c}$ such that ${f(x)=c}$ for ${x}$ in a set of measure at least ${\delta}$.

Informally: if ${f}$ is locally constant on pairs ${x, T^n x}$ at least ${\delta}$ of the time, then ${f}$ is globally constant at least ${\delta}$ of the time. Of course the claim fails if the ergodicity hypothesis is dropped, as one can simply take ${f}$ to be an invariant function that is not essentially constant, such as the indicator function of an invariant set of intermediate measure. This corollary can be viewed as a manifestation of the general principle that ergodic systems have the same “global” (or “space-averaged”) behaviour as “local” (or “time-averaged”) behaviour, in contrast to non-ergodic systems in which local properties do not automatically transfer over to their global counterparts.

Proof: By composing ${f}$ with (say) the tangent function, we may assume without loss of generality that ${f}$ is bounded. Let ${k>0}$, and partition ${X}$ as ${\bigcup_{m \in {\bf Z}} E_{m,k}}$, where ${E_{m,k}}$ is the level set

$\displaystyle E_{m,\varepsilon} := \{ x \in X: m 2^{-k} \leq f(x) < (m+1) 2^{-k} \}.$

For each ${\varepsilon}$, only finitely many of the ${E_{m,k}}$ are non-empty. By (1), one has

$\displaystyle \limsup_{N \rightarrow \infty} \sum_m \frac{1}{N} \sum_{n=1}^N \mu( E_{m,k} \cap T^n E_{m,k} ) \geq \delta.$

Using the ergodic theorem, we conclude that

$\displaystyle \sum_m \mu( E_{m,k} )^2 \geq \delta.$

On the other hand, ${\sum_m \mu(E_{m,k}) = 1}$. Thus there exists ${m_k}$ such that ${\mu(E_{m_k,k}) \geq \delta}$, thus

$\displaystyle \mu( \{ x \in X: m_k 2^{-k} \leq f(x) < (m_k+1) 2^{-k} \} ) \geq \delta.$

By the Bolzano-Weierstrass theorem, we may pass to a subsequence where ${m_k 2^{-k}}$ converges to a limit ${c}$, then we have

$\displaystyle \mu( \{ x \in X: c-2^{-k} \leq f(x) \leq c+2^{-k} \}) \geq \delta$

for infinitely many ${k}$, and hence

$\displaystyle \mu( \{ x \in X: f(x) = c \}) \geq \delta.$

The claim follows. $\Box$

Let ${G = (G,+)}$, ${H = (H,+)}$ be additive groups (i.e., groups with an abelian addition group law). A map ${f: G \rightarrow H}$ is a homomorphism if one has

$\displaystyle f(x+y) - f(x) - f(y) = 0$

for all ${x,y \in G}$. A map ${f: G \rightarrow H}$ is an affine homomorphism if one has

$\displaystyle f(x_1) - f(x_2) + f(x_3) - f(x_4) = 0 \ \ \ \ \ (1)$

for all additive quadruples ${(x_1,x_2,x_3,x_4)}$ in ${G}$, by which we mean that ${x_1,x_2,x_3,x_4 \in G}$ and ${x_1-x_2+x_3-x_4=0}$. The two notions are closely related; it is easy to verify that ${f}$ is an affine homomorphism if and only if ${f}$ is the sum of a homomorphism and a constant.

Now suppose that ${H}$ also has a translation-invariant metric ${d}$. A map ${f: G \rightarrow H}$ is said to be a quasimorphism if one has

$\displaystyle f(x+y) - f(x) - f(y) = O(1) \ \ \ \ \ (2)$

for all ${x,y \in G}$, where ${O(1)}$ denotes a quantity at a bounded distance from the origin. Similarly, ${f: G \rightarrow H}$ is an affine quasimorphism if

$\displaystyle f(x_1) - f(x_2) + f(x_3) - f(x_4) = O(1) \ \ \ \ \ (3)$

for all additive quadruples ${(x_1,x_2,x_3,x_4)}$ in ${G}$. Again, one can check that ${f}$ is an affine quasimorphism if and only if it is the sum of a quasimorphism and a constant (with the implied constant of the quasimorphism controlled by the implied constant of the affine quasimorphism). (Since every constant is itself a quasimorphism, it is in fact the case that affine quasimorphisms are quasimorphisms, but now the implied constant in the latter is not controlled by the implied constant of the former.)

“Trivial” examples of quasimorphisms include the sum of a homomorphism and a bounded function. Are there others? In some cases, the answer is no. For instance, suppose we have a quasimorphism ${f: {\bf Z} \rightarrow {\bf R}}$. Iterating (2), we see that ${f(kx) = kf(x) + O(k)}$ for any integer ${x}$ and natural number ${k}$, which we can rewrite as ${f(kx)/kx = f(x)/x + O(1/|x|)}$ for non-zero ${x}$. Also, ${f}$ is Lipschitz. Sending ${k \rightarrow \infty}$, we can verify that ${f(x)/x}$ is a Cauchy sequence as ${x \rightarrow \infty}$ and thus tends to some limit ${\alpha}$; we have ${\alpha = f(x)/x + O(1/x)}$ for ${x \geq 1}$, hence ${f(x) = \alpha x + O(1)}$ for positive ${x}$, and then one can use (2) one last time to obtain ${f(x) = \alpha x + O(1)}$ for all ${x}$. Thus ${f}$ is the sum of the homomorphism ${x \mapsto \alpha x}$ and a bounded sequence.

In general, one can phrase this problem in the language of group cohomology (discussed in this previous post). Call a map ${f: G \rightarrow H}$ a ${0}$-cocycle. A ${1}$-cocycle is a map ${\rho: G \times G \rightarrow H}$ obeying the identity

$\displaystyle \rho(x,y+z) + \rho(y,z) = \rho(x,y) + \rho(x+y,z)$

for all ${x,y,z \in G}$. Given a ${0}$-cocycle ${f: G \rightarrow H}$, one can form its derivative ${\partial f: G \times G \rightarrow H}$ by the formula

$\displaystyle \partial f(x,y) := f(x+y)-f(x)-f(y).$

Such functions are called ${1}$-coboundaries. It is easy to see that the abelian group of ${1}$-coboundaries is a subgroup of the abelian group of ${1}$-cocycles. The quotient of these two groups is the first group cohomology of ${G}$ with coefficients in ${H}$, and is denoted ${H^1(G; H)}$.

If a ${0}$-cocycle is bounded then its derivative is a bounded ${1}$-coboundary. The quotient of the group of bounded ${1}$-cocycles by the derivatives of bounded ${0}$-cocycles is called the bounded first group cohomology of ${G}$ with coefficients in ${H}$, and is denoted ${H^1_b(G; H)}$. There is an obvious homomorphism ${\phi}$ from ${H^1_b(G; H)}$ to ${H^1(G; H)}$, formed by taking a coset of the space of derivatives of bounded ${0}$-cocycles, and enlarging it to a coset of the space of ${1}$-coboundaries. By chasing all the definitions, we see that all quasimorphism from ${G}$ to ${H}$ are the sum of a homomorphism and a bounded function if and only if this homomorphism ${\phi}$ is injective; in fact the quotient of the space of quasimorphisms by the sum of homomorphisms and bounded functions is isomorphic to the kernel of ${\phi}$.

In additive combinatorics, one is often working with functions which only have additive structure a fraction of the time, thus for instance (1) or (3) might only hold “${1\%}$ of the time”. This makes it somewhat difficult to directly interpret the situation in terms of group cohomology. However, thanks to tools such as the Balog-Szemerédi-Gowers lemma, one can upgrade this sort of ${1\%}$-structure to ${100\%}$-structure – at the cost of restricting the domain to a smaller set. Here I record one such instance of this phenomenon, thus giving a tentative link between additive combinatorics and group cohomology. (I thank Yuval Wigderson for suggesting the problem of locating such a link.)

Theorem 1 Let ${G = (G,+)}$, ${H = (H,+)}$ be additive groups with ${|G|=N}$, let ${S}$ be a subset of ${H}$, let ${E \subset G}$, and let ${f: E \rightarrow H}$ be a function such that

$\displaystyle f(x_1) - f(x_2) + f(x_3) - f(x_4) \in S$

for ${\geq K^{-1} N^3}$ additive quadruples ${(x_1,x_2,x_3,x_4)}$ in ${E}$. Then there exists a subset ${A}$ of ${G}$ containing ${0}$ with ${|A| \gg K^{-O(1)} N}$, a subset ${X}$ of ${H}$ with ${|X| \ll K^{O(1)}}$, and a function ${g: 4A-4A \rightarrow H}$ such that

$\displaystyle g(x+y) - g(x)-g(y) \in X + 496S - 496S \ \ \ \ \ (4)$

for all ${x, y \in 2A-2A}$ (thus, the derivative ${\partial g}$ takes values in ${X + 496 S - 496 S}$ on ${2A - 2A}$), and such that for each ${h \in A}$, one has

$\displaystyle f(x+h) - f(x) - g(h) \in 8S - 8S \ \ \ \ \ (5)$

for ${\gg K^{-O(1)} N}$ values of ${x \in E}$.

Presumably the constants ${8}$ and ${496}$ can be improved further, but we have not attempted to optimise these constants. We chose ${2A-2A}$ as the domain on which one has a bounded derivative, as one can use the Bogulybov lemma (see e.g, Proposition 4.39 of my book with Van Vu) to find a large Bohr set inside ${2A-2A}$. In applications, the set ${S}$ need not have bounded size, or even bounded doubling; for instance, in the inverse ${U^4}$ theory over a small finite fields ${F}$, one would be interested in the situation where ${H}$ is the group of ${n \times n}$ matrices with coefficients in ${F}$ (for some large ${n}$, and ${S}$ being the subset consisting of those matrices of rank bounded by some bound ${C = O(1)}$.

Proof: By hypothesis, there are ${\geq K N^3}$ triples ${(h,x,y) \in G^3}$ such that ${x,x+h,y,y+h \in E}$ and

$\displaystyle f(x+h) - f(x) \in f(y+h)-f(y) + S. \ \ \ \ \ (6)$

Thus, there is a set ${B \subset G}$ with ${|B| \gg K^{-1} N}$ such that for all ${h \in B}$, one has (6) for ${\gg K^{-1} N^2}$ pairs ${(x,y) \in G^2}$ with ${x,x+h,y,y+h \in E}$; in particular, there exists ${y = y(h) \in E \cap (E-h)}$ such that (6) holds for ${\gg K^{-1} N}$ values of ${x \in E \cap (E-h)}$. Setting ${g_0(h) := f(y(h)+h) - f(y(h))}$, we conclude that for each ${h \in B}$, one has

$\displaystyle f(x+h) - f(x) \in g_0(h) + S \ \ \ \ \ (7)$

for ${\gg K^{-1} N}$ values of ${x \in E \cap (E-h)}$.

Consider the bipartite graph whose vertex sets are two copies of ${E}$, and ${x}$ and ${x+h}$ connected by a (directed) edge if ${h \in B}$ and (7) holds. Then this graph has ${\gg K^{-2} N^2}$ edges. Applying (a slight modification of) the Balog-Szemerédi-Gowers theorem (for instance by modifying the proof of Corollary 5.19 of my book with Van Vu), we can then find a subset ${C}$ of ${E}$ with ${|C| \gg K^{-O(1)} N}$ with the property that for any ${x_1,x_3 \in C}$, there exist ${\gg K^{-O(1)} N^3}$ triples ${(x_2,y_1,y_2) \in E^3}$ such that the edges ${(x_1,y_1), (x_2,y_1), (x_2,y_2), (x_3,y_2)}$ all lie in this bipartite graph. This implies that, for all ${x_1,x_3 \in C}$, there exist ${\gg K^{-O(1)} N^7}$ septuples ${(x_2,y_1,y_2,z_{11},z_{21},z_{22},z_{32}) \in G^7}$ obeying the constraints

$\displaystyle f(y_j) - f(x_i), f(y_j+z_{ij}) - f(x_i+z_{ij}) \in g_0(y_j-x_i) + S$

and ${y_j, x_i, y_j+z_{ij}, x_i+z_{ij} \in E}$ for ${ij = 11, 21, 22, 32}$. These constraints imply in particular that

$\displaystyle f(x_3) - f(x_1) \in f(x_3+z_{32}) - f(y_2+z_{32}) + f(y_2+z_{22}) - f(x_2+z_{22}) + f(x_2+z_{21}) - f(y_1+z_{21}) + f(y_1+z_{11}) - f(x_1+z_{11}) + 4S - 4S.$

Also observe that

$\displaystyle x_3 - x_1 = (x_3+z_{32}) - (y_2+z_{32}) + (y_2+z_{22}) - (x_2+z_{22}) + (x_2+z_{21}) - (y_1+z_{21}) + (y_1+z_{11}) - (x_1+z_{11}).$

Thus, if ${h \in G}$ and ${x_3,x_1 \in C}$ are such that ${x_3-x_1 = h}$, we see that

$\displaystyle f(w_1) - f(w_2) + f(w_3) - f(w_4) + f(w_5) - f(w_6) + f(w_7) - f(w_8) \in f(x_3) - f(x_1) + 4S - 4S$

for ${\gg K^{-O(1)} N^7}$ octuples ${(w_1,w_2,w_3,w_4,w_5,w_6,w_7,w_8) \in E^8}$ in the hyperplane

$\displaystyle h = w_1 - w_2 + w_3 - w_4 + w_5 - w_6 + w_7 - w_8.$

By the pigeonhole principle, this implies that for any fixed ${h \in G}$, there can be at most ${O(K^{O(1)})}$ sets of the form ${f(x_3)-f(x_1) + 3S-3S}$ with ${x_3-x_1=h}$, ${x_1,x_3 \in C}$ that are pairwise disjoint. Using a greedy algorithm, we conclude that there is a set ${W_h}$ of cardinality ${O(K^{O(1)})}$, such that each set ${f(x_3) - f(x_1) + 3S-3S}$ with ${x_3-x_1=h}$, ${x_1,x_3 \in C}$ intersects ${w+4S -4S}$ for some ${w \in W_h}$, or in other words that

$\displaystyle f(x_3) - f(x_1) \in W_{x_3-x_1} + 8S-8S \ \ \ \ \ (8)$

whenever ${x_1,x_3 \in C}$. In particular,

$\displaystyle \sum_{h \in G} \sum_{w \in W_h} | \{ (x_1,x_3) \in C^2: x_3-x_1 = h; f(x_3) - f(x_1) \in w + 8S-8S \}| \geq |C|^2 \gg K^{-O(1)} N^2.$

This implies that there exists a subset ${A}$ of ${G}$ with ${|A| \gg K^{-O(1)} N}$, and an element ${g_1(h) \in W_h}$ for each ${h \in A}$, such that

$\displaystyle | \{ (x_1,x_3) \in C^2: x_3-x_1 = h; f(x_3) - f(x_1) \in g_1(h) + 8S-8S \}| \gg K^{-O(1)} N \ \ \ \ \ (9)$

for all ${h \in A}$. Note we may assume without loss of generality that ${0 \in A}$ and ${g_1(0)=0}$.

Suppose that ${h_1,\dots,h_{16} \in A}$ are such that

$\displaystyle \sum_{i=1}^{16} (-1)^{i-1} h_i = 0. \ \ \ \ \ (10)$

By construction of ${A}$, and permuting labels, we can find ${\gg K^{-O(1)} N^{16}}$ 16-tuples ${(x_1,\dots,x_{16},y_1,\dots,y_{16}) \in C^{32}}$ such that

$\displaystyle y_i - x_i = (-1)^{i-1} h_i$

and

$\displaystyle f(y_i) - f(x_i) \in (-1)^{i-1} g_i(h) + 8S - 8S$

for ${i=1,\dots,16}$. We sum this to obtain

$\displaystyle f(y_1) + \sum_{i=1}^{15} f(y_{i+1})-f(x_i) - f(x_8) \in \sum_{i=1}^{16} (-1)^{i-1} g_1(h_i) + 128 S - 128 S$

and hence by (8)

$\displaystyle f(y_1) - f(x_{16}) + \sum_{i=1}^{15} W_{k_i} \in \sum_{i=1}^{16} (-1)^{i-1} g_1(h_i) + 248 S - 248 S$

where ${k_i := y_{i+1}-x_i}$. Since

$\displaystyle y_1 - x_{16} + \sum_{i=1}^{15} k_i = 0$

we see that there are only ${N^{16}}$ possible values of ${(y_1,x_{16},k_1,\dots,k_{15})}$. By the pigeonhole principle, we conclude that at most ${O(K^{O(1)})}$ of the sets ${\sum_{i=1}^{16} (-1)^i g_1(h_i) + 248 S - 248 S}$ can be disjoint. Arguing as before, we conclude that there exists a set ${X}$ of cardinality ${O(K^{O(1)})}$ such that

$\displaystyle \sum_{i=1}^{16} (-1)^{i-1} g_1(h_i) \in X + 496 S - 496 S \ \ \ \ \ (11)$

whenever (10) holds.

For any ${h \in 4A-4A}$, write ${h}$ arbitrarily as ${h = \sum_{i=1}^8 (-1)^{i-1} h_i}$ for some ${h_1,\dots,h_8 \in A}$ (with ${h_5=\dots=h_8=0}$ if ${h \in 2A-2A}$, and ${h_2 = \dots = h_8 = 0}$ if ${h \in A}$) and then set

$\displaystyle g(h) := \sum_{i=1}^8 (-1)^i g_1(h_i).$

Then from (11) we have (4). For ${h \in A}$ we have ${g(h) = g_1(h)}$, and (5) then follows from (9). $\Box$