A family of sets for some is a sunflower if there is a *core set* contained in each of the such that the *petal sets* are disjoint. If , let denote the smallest natural number with the property that any family of distinct sets of cardinality at most contains distinct elements that form a sunflower. The celebrated Erdös-Rado theorem asserts that is finite; in fact Erdös and Rado gave the bounds

*sunflower conjecture*asserts in fact that the upper bound can be improved to . This remains open at present despite much effort (including a Polymath project); after a long series of improvements to the upper bound, the best general bound known currently is for all , established in 2019 by Rao (building upon a recent breakthrough a month previously of Alweiss, Lovett, Wu, and Zhang). Here we remove the easy cases or in order to make the logarithmic factor a little cleaner.

Rao’s argument used the Shannon noiseless coding theorem. It turns out that the argument can be arranged in the very slightly different language of Shannon entropy, and I would like to present it here. The argument proceeds by locating the core and petals of the sunflower separately (this strategy is also followed in Alweiss-Lovett-Wu-Zhang). In both cases the following definition will be key. In this post all random variables, such as random sets, will be understood to be discrete random variables taking values in a finite range. We always use boldface symbols to denote random variables, and non-boldface for deterministic quantities.

Definition 1 (Spread set)Let . A random set is said to be -spread if one has for all sets . A family of sets is said to be -spread if is non-empty and the random variable is -spread, where is drawn uniformly from .

The core can then be selected greedily in such a way that the remainder of a family becomes spread:

Lemma 2 (Locating the core)Let be a family of subsets of a finite set , each of cardinality at most , and let . Then there exists a “core” set of cardinality at most such that the set has cardinality at least , and such that the family is -spread. Furthermore, if and the are distinct, then .

*Proof:* We may assume is non-empty, as the claim is trivial otherwise. For any , define the quantity

Let be the set (3). Since , is non-empty. It remains to check that the family is -spread. But for any and drawn uniformly at random from one has

Observe that , and the probability is only non-empty when are disjoint, so that . The claim follows.In view of the above lemma, the bound (2) will then follow from

Proposition 3 (Locating the petals)Let be natural numbers, and suppose that for a sufficiently large constant . Let be a finite family of subsets of a finite set , each of cardinality at most which is -spread. Then there exist such that is disjoint.

Indeed, to prove (2), we assume that is a family of sets of cardinality greater than for some ; by discarding redundant elements and sets we may assume that is finite and that all the are contained in a common finite set . Apply Lemma 2 to find a set of cardinality such that the family is -spread. By Proposition 3 we can find such that are disjoint; since these sets have cardinality , this implies that the are distinct. Hence form a sunflower as required.

Remark 4Proposition 3 is easy to prove if we strengthen the condition on to . In this case, we have for every , hence by the union bound we see that for any with there exists such that is disjoint from the set , which has cardinality at most . Iterating this, we obtain the conclusion of Proposition 3 in this case. This recovers a bound of the form , and by pursuing this idea a little further one can recover the original upper bound (1) of Erdös and Rado.

It remains to prove Proposition 3. In fact we can locate the petals one at a time, placing each petal inside a random set.

Proposition 5 (Locating a single petal)Let the notation and hypotheses be as in Proposition 3. Let be a random subset of , such that each lies in with an independent probability of . Then with probability greater than , contains one of the .

To see that Proposition 5 implies Proposition 3, we randomly partition into by placing each into one of the , chosen uniformly and independently at random. By Proposition 5 and the union bound, we see that with positive probability, it is simultaneously true for all that each contains one of the . Selecting one such for each , we obtain the required disjoint petals.

We will prove Proposition 5 by gradually increasing the density of the random set and arranging the sets to get quickly absorbed by this random set. The key iteration step is

Proposition 6 (Refinement inequality)Let and . Let be a random subset of a finite set which is -spread, and let be a random subset of independent of , such that each lies in with an independent probability of . Then there exists another -spread random subset of whose support is contained in the support of , such that and

Note that a direct application of the first moment method gives only the bound

but the point is that by switching from to an equivalent we can replace the factor by a quantity significantly smaller than .One can iterate the above proposition, repeatedly replacing with (noting that this preserves the -spread nature of ) to conclude

Corollary 7 (Iterated refinement inequality)Let , , and . Let be a random subset of a finite set which is -spread, and let be a random subset of independent of , such that each lies in with an independent probability of . Then there exists another random subset of with support contained in the support of , such that

Now we can prove Proposition 5. Let be chosen shortly. Applying Corollary 7 with drawn uniformly at random from the , and setting , or equivalently , we have

In particular, if we set , so that , then by choice of we have , hence In particular with probability at least , there must exist such that , giving the proposition.It remains to establish Proposition 6. This is the difficult step, and requires a clever way to find the variant of that has better containment properties in than does. The main trick is to make a conditional copy of that is conditionally independent of subject to the constraint . The point here is that this constrant implies the inclusions

and Because of the -spread hypothesis, it is hard for to contain any fixed large set. If we could apply this observation in the contrapositive to we could hope to get a good upper bound on the size of and hence on thanks to (4). One can also hope to improve such an upper bound by also employing (5), since it is also hard for the random set to contain a fixed large set. There are however difficulties with implementing this approach due to the fact that the random sets are coupled with in a moderately complicated fashion. In Rao’s argument a somewhat complicated encoding scheme was created to give information-theoretic control on these random variables; below the fold we accomplish a similar effect by using Shannon entropy inequalities in place of explicit encoding. A certain amount of information-theoretic sleight of hand is required to decouple certain random variables to the extent that the Shannon inequalities can be effectively applied. The argument bears some resemblance to the “entropy compression method” discussed in this previous blog post; there may be a way to more explicitly express the argument below in terms of that method. (There is also some kinship with the method of dependent random choice, which is used for instance to establish the Balog-Szemerédi-Gowers lemma, and was also translated into information theoretic language in these unpublished notes of Van Vu and myself.)

** — 1. Shannon entropy — **

In this section we lay out all the tools from the theory of Shannon entropy that we will need.

Define an *empirical sequence* for a random variable taking values in a discrete set to be a sequence in such that the empirical samples of this sequence converge in distribution to in the sense that

If is a random variable taking values in some set , its *Shannon entropy* is defined by the formula

We record the following standard and easily verified facts:

Lemma 8 (Basic Shannon inequalities)Let be random variables.

- (i) (Monotonicity) If is a deterministic function of , then . More generally, if is a deterministic function of and , then . If is a deterministic function of , then .
- (ii) (Subadditivity) One has , with equality iff , are independent. More generally, one has , with equality iff , are conditionally independent with respect to .
- (iii) (Chain rule) One has . More generally . In particular , and iff are independent; similarly, , and iff are conditionally independent with respect to .
- (iv) (Jensen’s inequality) If takes values in a finite set then , with equality iff is uniformly distributed in . More generally, if takes values in a set that depends on , then , with equality iff is uniformly distributed in after conditioning on .
- (v) (Gibbs inequality) If take values in the same finite set , then (we permit the right-hand side to be infinite, which makes the inequality vacuously true).

See this previous blog post for some intuitive analogies to understand Shannon entropy.

Now we establish some inequalities of relevance to random sets.

We first observe that any small random set largely determines any of its subsets. Define a *random subset* of a random set to be a random set such that holds almost surely.

Lemma 9 (Subsets of small sets have small conditional entropy)Let be a random finite set.

- (i) One has for any random subset of .
- (ii) One has . If is almost surely non-empty, we can improve this to .

*Proof:* The set takes values in the power set of , so the claim (i) follows from Lemma 8(iv). (Note how it is convenient here that we are using the base for the logarithm.)

For (ii), apply Lemma 8(v) with and the geometric random variable for natural numbers (or for positive , if is non-empty).

Now we encode the property of a random variable being -spread in the language of Shannon entropy.

Lemma 10 (Information-theoretic interpretation of spread)Let be a random finite set that is -spread for some .

- (i) If is uniformly distributed amongst some finite collection of sets, then for all random subsets of .
- (ii) In the general case, if are an empirical sequence of , then as , where is drawn uniformly from and is a random subset of .

Informally: large random subsets of an -spread set necessarily have a lot of mutual information with . Conversely, one can bound the size of a random subset of an -spread set by bounding its mutual information with .

*Proof:* In case (i), it suffices by Lemma 8(iv) to establish the bound

Given a finite non-empty set and , let denote the collection of -element subsets of . A uniformly chosen element of is thus a random -element subset of ; we refer to the quantity as the *density* of this random subset, and as a *uniformly chosen random subset of of density *. (Of course, this is only defined when is an integer multiple of .) Uniformly chosen random sets have the following information-theoretic relationships to small random sets:

Lemma 11Let be a finite non-empty set, let be a uniformly chosen random subset of of some density (which is a multiple of ).

- (i) (Spread) If is a random subset of , then
- (ii) (Absorption) If is a random subset of , then

*Proof:* To prove (i), it suffices by Lemma 10(i) to show that is -spread, which amounts to showing that

For (ii), by replacing with we may assume that are disjoint. From Lemma 8(iii) and Lemma 9(ii) it suffices to show that

which in turn is implied by for each . By Lemma 8(iv) it suffices to show that but this follows from multiplying together the inequalities for .The following “relative product” construction will be important for us. Given a random variable and a deterministic function of that variable, one can construct a conditionally independent copy of subject to the condition , with the joint distribution

(Note that this is usually*not*the same as starting with a completely independent copy of and then conditioning to the event ; cf. Simpson’s paradox.) By construction, has the same distribution as , and is conditionally independent of relative to . In particular, from Lemma 8 we have which we can also write as a “entropy Cauchy-Schwarz identity” This can be compared with the combinatorial inequality or equivalently whenever is a function on a non-empty finite set , which is easily proven as a consequence of Cauchy-Schwarz. One nice advantage of the entropy formalism over the combinatorial one is that the analogue of this instance of the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality automatically becomes an equality (this is related to the asymptotic equipartition property in the microstates interpretation of entropy).

** — 2. Proof of refinement inequality — **

Now we have enough tools to prove Proposition 6. Let be as in that proposition. If is in the support of we can set so we can instead assume that is never empty. In particular

In order to use Lemma 10 we fix an empirical sequence for . We relabel as , and let be a parameter going off to infinity (so in particular is identified with a subset of . We let be drawn uniformly at random from , and let be a uniform random subset of of density independent of . Observe from Stirling’s formula that converges in distribution to . Thus it will suffice to find another uniform random variable from such that

as , since we can pass to a subsequence in which converges in distribution to . From (8) we haveFrom we can form the random set ; we then form a conditionally independent copy of subject to the constraint

We use as the uniform variable to establish (9). The point is that the relation (11) implies that so it will suffice to show that and hence by (7) and hence by Lemma 8(ii) and independence of Now we try to relate the first term on the left-hand side with . Note from (11) that we have the identity and hence by Lemma 8(i) We estimate the relative entropy of here by selecting first , then , then . More precisely, using the chain rule and monotonicity (Lemma 8(i), (iii)) we have From Lemma 9(i) we have and Putting all this together, we conclude If we apply Lemma 10(ii) right away we will get the estimate which is a bound resembling (12), but the dependence on the parameters are too weak. To do better we return to the relative product construction to decouple some of the random variables here. From the tuple we can form the random variable , then form a conditionally independent copy of subject to the constraints From (11) and Lemma 8(i) we then have The point is that is now conditionally independent of relative to , so we can also rewrite the above conditional entropy as We now use the chain rule to disentangle the role of , writing the previous as From independence we have and from Lemma 9(i) we have We discard the negative term . Putting all this together, we obtainNow, from the constraints (11), (13) we have

and Thus by Lemma 8(i), (ii), followed by Lemma 10(ii) and Lemma 11(i), we have which when inserted back into (14) using and simplifies to and the claim follows.
## 24 comments

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20 July, 2020 at 10:11 pm

David RobertsThe formatting around the two uses of Erdős’ name in the first paragraph is broken.

[Corrected, thanks – T.]21 July, 2020 at 5:04 pm

David RobertsUnfortunately, though the diacritics are fixed, the link doesn’t stop where it’s meant to!

[Corrected, thanks – T.]26 July, 2020 at 10:29 am

MaxThere is one more spare ‘}’ too much in that link text (“… theorem}”).

21 July, 2020 at 4:40 am

Darko VeljanLet G=(V,E) be a connected graph, n=#V. Let I be a subset of V with k el (“infected” vertices); let N(v) be the nbhd of v; suppose #N(v)<r+1 for all v.. Let J be the set of all vertices at distance at most s from infected vertices. What are bounds of probability that a random vertex will be infected

Answer (perhaps could be a better one). Between k/n and k[1+r+r(r-1)+r(r-1)^2+…+r(r-1)^(s-1)]/n. Exponential in s= distance from infected vertices.

21 July, 2020 at 5:40 am

AnonymousDear Pro Tao,

Has Sunflower conjecture been solved completely? If not still yet, I expect good news from you. I am really excited to read your paper like watching a football match.

Thank sir,

24 July, 2020 at 1:53 pm

Dmitriy ZakharovThank you for the great post! Here are some typos I spotted:

In the proof of Lemma 11 V should be instead of W and S instead of X in some binomial coefficients.

In (11) take union instead of intersection.

“and hence by Lemma 8(i): …” In the formula below this line W’ should be instead of W.

After “we can form the random variable” instead of

Missing “=” after “so we can also rewrite the above conditional entropy as”

[Corrected, thanks – T.]26 July, 2020 at 12:08 pm

AnonymousA natural generalization of the concept of “Sunflower” to a family of multisets is to similarly define under the additional constraint that the multiplicity of each element in any multiset is at most . Clearly .

Is it possible that can be expressed as a function of and ?

27 July, 2020 at 4:22 am

MaxOn the bottom of the Polymath wiki page, the section and table with f(k,r) appears to have k and r reversed w.r.t. here and the upper half of the page. (It says f(k,r) = k^r +… while we have here and earlier on the page Sun(k,r) ~ r^k.) I don’t know whom to contact for this, but the main author of the page is https://asone.ai/polymath/index.php?title=User:Teorth with user page signed(?) “Terence Tao”, so maybe …?

[Corrected, thanks – T.]27 July, 2020 at 8:01 am

Max(Note that in the paper by Kostochka et al., where the formula appears as “k^r”, r is the cardinality of the sets and k is the number of petals — the converse of what k & r stand for here and on the Polymath wiki page!)

27 July, 2020 at 3:41 pm

rafik zeraoulia@Terry Tao, I ask if there is any relationship between Szemerédi’s theorem and Sunflower conjecture?

pleas check my question here:

https://mathoverflow.net/q/366245/51189

Thanks

1 August, 2020 at 7:18 am

aWhy is writing down things in information theoretic parlance better?

2 August, 2020 at 4:53 pm

Terence TaoThe bounds are a little sharper and I found the argument to be somewhat less

ad hocwhen presented in this language as it is largely based on piecing together various basic estimates using the Shannon entropy inequalities (although the trick of passing to a conditional copytwiceto get a good bound still feels somewhat magical to me).1 August, 2020 at 7:14 pm

Lutz WarnkeMinor typo: in the proof of Proposition 5, below Corollary 7 I believe it should read E |A’ \ V| < 1/r (to obtain the claimed probability via Markov).

[Corrected, thanks – T.]2 August, 2020 at 5:01 am

Is there any relationship between Szemerédi's theorem and Sunflower conjecture? ~ MathOverflow ~ mathubs.com[…] rate. In the same time it is an open problem to determine the exact rate growth or exact bounds for The sunflower (the sunflower lemma via Shannon entropy). My question here […]

3 August, 2020 at 11:28 pm

Yuval FilmusThe proof of Lemma 10(i) uses Jensen’s inequality in the wrong direction.

[Here we are using the equality case of Jensen’s inequality (crucially relying on the uniform distribution of ) – T.]5 August, 2020 at 11:30 am

Amazing: Ryan Alweiss, Shachar Lovett, Kewen Wu, Jiapeng Zhang made dramatic progress on the Sunflower Conjecture | Combinatorics and more[…] Updates: (from comments below) Anup Rao presents a simplification of the original Alweiss, Lovett, Wu, and Zhang argument. https://arxiv.org/abs/1909.04774; An excellent Quanta Magazine article by Kevin Hartnett https://www.quantamagazine.org/mathematicians-begin-to-tame-wild-sunflower-problem-20191021/ . Terry Tao posted a version of Rao’s proof https://terrytao.wordpress.com/2020/07/20/the-sunflower-lemma-via-shannon-entropy/. […]

11 August, 2020 at 9:01 am

TCould someone please explain what it means to say ‘ is now conditionally independent of relative to ? I read this to mean that when we fix and , then the random variable m conditioned on these is independent from the random variables and conditioned on these. But I don’t understand why we no longer condition on the events in (13). Is it just notation? So when you write the entropy of conditioned on , then you actually mean the constraint ? Thanks!

14 August, 2020 at 7:35 am

Terence TaoThe constraints in (13) hold almost surely, they do not need to be conditioned on further. ( is a conditionally independent copy of subject to (13), which is

notthe same as an unconditionally independent copy that is then conditioned to (13); see the discussion at the end of Section 1.)13 August, 2020 at 4:32 pm

The Ionescu-Wainger multiplier theorem and the adeles | What's new[…] losses in (i), and recent progress on the Erdos-Rado sunflower conjecture (as discussed in this recent post) to improve the bounds in (ii). For (i), the key point is that one can express a sum such […]

25 September, 2020 at 6:56 am

Lutz WarnkeIn case someone finds it useful, let me remark that a very minor variant of the existing probabilistic arguments yields an upper bound of form Sun(k,r) \le (Cr \log k)^k for k,r \ge 2.

This was observed during a 2020 REU with undergrads Tolson Bell and Suchakree Chueluecha,

and the minor twist is to randomly partition X into 2r sets V_1,…,V_{2r} (instead of r sets).

Indeed, for R \ge C r \log k and fixed j, the proof of Proposition 5 then shows that V_j contains at least one of the A_i with probability at least 1/2 whenever the universal constant C is sufficiently large (this can also be deduced from Lemma 4 in Rao’s paper).

The expected number of sets V_j containing at least one of the A_i is thus at least 2r * 1/2 = r, ensuring that the required r disjoint sets A_{i_1}, \ldots, A_{i_r} must exist.

This establishes Proposition 3 for R \ge C r \log k, which in turn gives the claimed upper bound Sun(k,r) \le (Cr \log k)^k, see also https://arxiv.org/abs/2009.09327

28 April, 2021 at 9:23 pm

Lunjia HuThank you for the great post! Here is a minor technical issue I spotted:

At the beginning of Section 2: proof of refinement inequality, conditioning on the event that is non-empty may cause the resulting distribution to be no longer -spread. This can be fixed by setting deterministically whenever is in the support of . Of course, this could make the distribution of different from that of and thus violate a desired property of Proposition 6, but for the purpose of proving Proposition 5, we only need the weaker property that the support of is contained in the support of .

[Correction implemented, thanks – T.]19 May, 2021 at 3:04 pm

Entropy Estimation via Two Chains: Streamlining the Proof of the Sunflower Lemma – Theory Dish[…] of this blog post is to present a streamlined proof of Theorem 1. The proof is largely based on a blog post by Terence Tao where he presented an elegant proof of Rao’s result using Shannon entropy. […]

16 June, 2021 at 12:30 am

How to write LaTeX on a static blog smoothly? ~ TeX - LaTeX ~ AsktoWorld.com[…] look of the blogpost I’m targeting is similar to this blog or this one. But anything goes if it’s easy to setup and […]

30 July, 2021 at 6:17 am

DeepCA minor correction : in the last line of the proof of Lemma 2, is in the wrong direction : that would imply .

Rather, one should say that if , then the probability is indeed . Therefore, is in fact .

[Corrected, thanks – T.]