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As laid out in the foundational work of Kolmogorov, a *classical probability space* (or probability space for short) is a triplet , where is a set, is a -algebra of subsets of , and is a countably additive probability measure on . Given such a space, one can form a number of interesting function spaces, including

- the (real) Hilbert space of square-integrable functions , modulo -almost everywhere equivalence, and with the positive definite inner product ; and
- the unital commutative Banach algebra of essentially bounded functions , modulo -almost everywhere equivalence, with defined as the essential supremum of .

There is also a trace on defined by integration: .

One can form the category of classical probability spaces, by defining a morphism between probability spaces to be a function which is measurable (thus for all ) and measure-preserving (thus for all ).

Let us now abstract the algebraic features of these spaces as follows; for want of a better name, I will refer to this abstraction as an *algebraic probability space*, and is very similar to the non-commutative probability spaces studied in this previous post, except that these spaces are now commutative (and real).

Definition 1Analgebraic probability spaceis a pair where

- is a unital commutative real algebra;
- is a homomorphism such that and for all ;
- Every element of is
boundedin the sense that . (Technically, this isn’t an algebraic property, but I need it for technical reasons.)A morphism is a homomorphism which is trace-preserving, in the sense that for all .

For want of a better name, I’ll denote the category of algebraic probability spaces as . One can view this category as the opposite category to that of (a subcategory of) the category of tracial commutative real algebras. One could emphasise this opposite nature by denoting the algebraic probability space as rather than ; another suggestive (but slightly inaccurate) notation, inspired by the language of schemes, would be rather than . However, we will not adopt these conventions here, and refer to algebraic probability spaces just by the pair .

By the previous discussion, we have a covariant functor that takes a classical probability space to its algebraic counterpart , with a morphism of classical probability spaces mapping to a morphism of the corresponding algebraic probability spaces by the formula

for . One easily verifies that this is a functor.

In this post I would like to describe a functor which partially inverts (up to natural isomorphism), that is to say a recipe for starting with an algebraic probability space and producing a classical probability space . This recipe is not new – it is basically the (commutative) Gelfand-Naimark-Segal construction (discussed in this previous post) combined with the Loomis-Sikorski theorem (discussed in this previous post). However, I wanted to put the construction in a single location for sake of reference. I also wanted to make the point that and are not complete inverses; there is a bit of information in the algebraic probability space (e.g. topological information) which is lost when passing back to the classical probability space. In some future posts, I would like to develop some ergodic theory using the algebraic foundations of probability theory rather than the classical foundations; this turns out to be convenient in the ergodic theory arising from nonstandard analysis (such as that described in this previous post), in which the groups involved are uncountable and the underlying spaces are not standard Borel spaces.

Let us describe how to construct the functor , with details postponed to below the fold.

- Starting with an algebraic probability space , form an inner product on by the formula , and also form the spectral radius .
- The inner product is clearly positive semi-definite. Quotienting out the null vectors and taking completions, we arrive at a real Hilbert space , to which the trace may be extended.
- Somewhat less obviously, the spectral radius is well-defined and gives a norm on . Taking limits of sequences in of bounded spectral radius gives us a subspace of that has the structure of a real commutative Banach algebra.
- The idempotents of the Banach algebra may be indexed by elements of an abstract -algebra .
- The Boolean algebra homomorphisms (or equivalently, the real algebra homomorphisms ) may be indexed by elements of a space .
- Let denote the -algebra on generated by the basic sets for every .
- Let be the -ideal of generated by the sets , where is a sequence with .
- One verifies that is isomorphic to . Using this isomorphism, the trace on can be used to construct a countably additive measure on . The classical probability space is then , and the abstract spaces may now be identified with their concrete counterparts , .
- Every algebraic probability space morphism generates a classical probability morphism via the formula
using a pullback operation on the abstract -algebras that can be defined by density.

Remark 1The classical probability space constructed by the functor has some additional structure; namely is a -Stone space (a Stone space with the property that the closure of any countable union of clopen sets is clopen), is the Baire -algebra (generated by the clopen sets), and the null sets are the meager sets. However, we will not use this additional structure here.

The partial inversion relationship between the functors and is given by the following assertion:

- There is a natural transformation from to the identity functor .

More informally: if one starts with an algebraic probability space and converts it back into a classical probability space , then there is a trace-preserving algebra homomorphism of to , which respects morphisms of the algebraic probability space. While this relationship is far weaker than an equivalence of categories (which would require that and are both natural isomorphisms), it is still good enough to allow many ergodic theory problems formulated using classical probability spaces to be reformulated instead as an equivalent problem in algebraic probability spaces.

Remark 2The opposite composition is a little odd: it takes an arbitrary probability space and returns a more complicated probability space , with being the space of homomorphisms . while there is “morally” an embedding of into using the evaluation map, this map does not exist in general because points in may well have zero measure. However, if one takes a “pointless” approach and focuses just on the measure algebras , , then these algebras become naturally isomorphic after quotienting out by null sets.

Remark 3An algebraic probability space captures a bit more structure than a classical probability space, because may be identified with a proper subset of that describes the “regular” functions (or random variables) of the space. For instance, starting with the unit circle (with the usual Haar measure and the usual trace ), any unital subalgebra of that is dense in will generate the same classical probability space on applying the functor , namely one will get the space of homomorphisms from to (with the measure induced from ). Thus for instance could be the continuous functions , the Wiener algebra or the full space , but the classical space will be unable to distinguish these spaces from each other. In particular, the functor loses information (roughly speaking, this functor takes an algebraic probability space and completes it to a von Neumann algebra, but then forgets exactly what algebra was initially used to create this completion). In ergodic theory, this sort of “extra structure” is traditionally encoded in topological terms, by assuming that the underlying probability space has a nice topological structure (e.g. a standard Borel space); however, with the algebraic perspective one has the freedom to have non-topological notions of extra structure, by choosing to be something other than an algebra of continuous functions on a topological space. I hope to discuss one such example of extra structure (coming from the Gowers-Host-Kra theory of uniformity seminorms) in a later blog post (this generalises the example of the Wiener algebra given previously, which is encoding “Fourier structure”).

A small example of how one could use the functors is as follows. Suppose one has a classical probability space with a measure-preserving action of an uncountable group , which is only defined (and an action) up to almost everywhere equivalence; thus for instance for any set and any , and might not be exactly equal, but only equal up to a null set. For similar reasons, an element of the invariant factor might not be exactly invariant with respect to , but instead one only has and equal up to null sets for each . One might like to “clean up” the action of to make it defined everywhere, and a genuine action everywhere, but this is not immediately achievable if is uncountable, since the union of all the null sets where something bad occurs may cease to be a null set. However, by applying the functor , each shift defines a morphism on the associated algebraic probability space (i.e. the Koopman operator), and then applying , we obtain a shift on a new classical probability space which now gives a genuine measure-preserving action of , and which is equivalent to the original action from a measure algebra standpoint. The invariant factor now consists of those sets in which are genuinely -invariant, not just up to null sets. (Basically, the classical probability space contains a Boolean algebra with the property that every measurable set is equivalent up to null sets to precisely one set in , allowing for a canonical “retraction” onto that eliminates all null set issues.)

More indirectly, the functors suggest that one should be able to develop a “pointless” form of ergodic theory, in which the underlying probability spaces are given algebraically rather than classically. I hope to give some more specific examples of this in later posts.

There are a number of ways to construct the real numbers , for instance

- as the metric completion of (thus, is defined as the set of Cauchy sequences of rationals, modulo Cauchy equivalence);
- as the space of Dedekind cuts on the rationals ;
- as the space of quasimorphisms on the integers, quotiented by bounded functions. (I believe this construction first appears in this paper of Street, who credits the idea to Schanuel, though the germ of this construction arguably goes all the way back to Eudoxus.)

There is also a fourth family of constructions that proceeds via nonstandard analysis, as a special case of what is known as the *nonstandard hull construction*. (Here I will assume some basic familiarity with nonstandard analysis and ultraproducts, as covered for instance in this previous blog post.) Given an unbounded nonstandard natural number , one can define two external additive subgroups of the nonstandard integers :

- The group of all nonstandard integers of magnitude less than or comparable to ; and
- The group of nonstandard integers of magnitude infinitesimally smaller than .

The group is a subgroup of , so we may form the quotient group . This space is isomorphic to the reals , and can in fact be used to construct the reals:

Proposition 1For any coset of , there is a unique real number with the property that . The map is then an isomorphism between the additive groups and .

*Proof:* Uniqueness is clear. For existence, observe that the set is a Dedekind cut, and its supremum can be verified to have the required properties for .

In a similar vein, we can view the unit interval in the reals as the quotient

where is the nonstandard (i.e. internal) set ; of course, is not a group, so one should interpret as the image of under the quotient map (or , if one prefers). Or to put it another way, (1) asserts that is the image of with respect to the map .

In this post I would like to record a nice measure-theoretic version of the equivalence (1), which essentially appears already in standard texts on Loeb measure (see e.g. this text of Cutland). To describe the results, we must first quickly recall the construction of *Loeb measure* on . Given an internal subset of , we may define the elementary measure of by the formula

This is a finitely additive probability measure on the Boolean algebra of internal subsets of . We can then construct the *Loeb outer measure* of any subset in complete analogy with Lebesgue outer measure by the formula

where ranges over all sequences of internal subsets of that cover . We say that a subset of is *Loeb measurable* if, for any (standard) , one can find an internal subset of which differs from by a set of Loeb outer measure at most , and in that case we define the *Loeb measure* of to be . It is a routine matter to show (e.g. using the Carathéodory extension theorem) that the space of Loeb measurable sets is a -algebra, and that is a countably additive probability measure on this space that extends the elementary measure . Thus now has the structure of a probability space .

Now, the group acts (Loeb-almost everywhere) on the probability space by the addition map, thus for and (excluding a set of Loeb measure zero where exits ). This action is clearly seen to be measure-preserving. As such, we can form the *invariant factor* , defined by restricting attention to those Loeb measurable sets with the property that is equal -almost everywhere to for each .

The claim is then that this invariant factor is equivalent (up to almost everywhere equivalence) to the unit interval with Lebesgue measure (and the trivial action of ), by the same factor map used in (1). More precisely:

Theorem 2Given a set , there exists a Lebesgue measurable set , unique up to -a.e. equivalence, such that is -a.e. equivalent to the set . Conversely, if is Lebesgue measurable, then is in , and .

More informally, we have the measure-theoretic version

of (1).

*Proof:* We first prove the converse. It is clear that is -invariant, so it suffices to show that is Loeb measurable with Loeb measure . This is easily verified when is an elementary set (a finite union of intervals). By countable subadditivity of outer measure, this implies that Loeb outer measure of is bounded by the Lebesgue outer measure of for any set ; since every Lebesgue measurable set differs from an elementary set by a set of arbitrarily small Lebesgue outer measure, the claim follows.

Now we establish the forward claim. Uniqueness is clear from the converse claim, so it suffices to show existence. Let . Let be an arbitrary standard real number, then we can find an internal set which differs from by a set of Loeb measure at most . As is -invariant, we conclude that for every , and differ by a set of Loeb measure (and hence elementary measure) at most . By the (contrapositive of the) underspill principle, there must exist a standard such that and differ by a set of elementary measure at most for all . If we then define the nonstandard function by the formula

then from the (nonstandard) triangle inequality we have

(say). On the other hand, has the Lipschitz continuity property

and so in particular we see that

for some Lipschitz continuous function . If we then let be the set where , one can check that differs from by a set of Loeb outer measure , and hence does so also. Sending to zero, we see (from the converse claim) that is a Cauchy sequence in and thus converges in for some Lebesgue measurable . The sets then converge in Loeb outer measure to , giving the claim.

Thanks to the Lebesgue differentiation theorem, the conditional expectation of a bounded Loeb-measurable function can be expressed (as a function on , defined -a.e.) as

By the abstract ergodic theorem from the previous post, one can also view this conditional expectation as the element in the closed convex hull of the shifts , of minimal norm. In particular, we obtain a form of the von Neumann ergodic theorem in this context: the averages for converge (as a net, rather than a sequence) in to .

If is (the standard part of) an internal function, that is to say the ultralimit of a sequence of finitary bounded functions, one can view the measurable function as a limit of the that is analogous to the “graphons” that emerge as limits of graphs (see e.g. the recent text of Lovasz on graph limits). Indeed, the measurable function is related to the discrete functions by the formula

for all , where is the nonprincipal ultrafilter used to define the nonstandard universe. In particular, from the Arzela-Ascoli diagonalisation argument there is a subsequence such that

thus is the asymptotic density function of the . For instance, if is the indicator function of a randomly chosen subset of , then the asymptotic density function would equal (almost everywhere, at least).

I’m continuing to look into understanding the ergodic theory of actions, as I believe this may allow one to apply ergodic theory methods to the “single-scale” or “non-asymptotic” setting (in which one averages only over scales comparable to a large parameter , rather than the traditional asymptotic approach of letting the scale go to infinity). I’m planning some further posts in this direction, though this is still a work in progress.

The von Neumann ergodic theorem (the Hilbert space version of the mean ergodic theorem) asserts that if is a unitary operator on a Hilbert space , and is a vector in that Hilbert space, then one has

in the strong topology, where is the -invariant subspace of , and is the orthogonal projection to . (See e.g. these previous lecture notes for a proof.) The same proof extends to more general amenable groups: if is a countable amenable group acting on a Hilbert space by unitary transformations , and is a vector in that Hilbert space, then one has

for any Folner sequence of , where is the -invariant subspace. Thus one can interpret as a certain average of elements of the orbit of .

I recently discovered that there is a simple variant of this ergodic theorem that holds even when the group is not amenable (or not discrete), using a more abstract notion of averaging:

Theorem 1 (Abstract ergodic theorem)Let be an arbitrary group acting unitarily on a Hilbert space , and let be a vector in . Then is the element in the closed convex hull of of minimal norm, and is also the unique element of in this closed convex hull.

*Proof:* As the closed convex hull of is closed, convex, and non-empty in a Hilbert space, it is a classical fact (see e.g. Proposition 1 of this previous post) that it has a unique element of minimal norm. If for some , then the midpoint of and would be in the closed convex hull and be of smaller norm, a contradiction; thus is -invariant. To finish the first claim, it suffices to show that is orthogonal to every element of . But if this were not the case for some such , we would have for all , and thus on taking convex hulls , a contradiction.

Finally, since is orthogonal to , the same is true for for any in the closed convex hull of , and this gives the second claim.

This result is due to Alaoglu and Birkhoff. It implies the amenable ergodic theorem (1); indeed, given any , Theorem 1 implies that there is a finite convex combination of shifts of which lies within (in the norm) to . By the triangle inequality, all the averages also lie within of , but by the Folner property this implies that the averages are eventually within (say) of , giving the claim.

It turns out to be possible to use Theorem 1 as a substitute for the mean ergodic theorem in a number of contexts, thus removing the need for an amenability hypothesis. Here is a basic application:

Corollary 2 (Relative orthogonality)Let be a group acting unitarily on a Hilbert space , and let be a -invariant subspace of . Then and are relatively orthogonal over their common subspace , that is to say the restrictions of and to the orthogonal complement of are orthogonal to each other.

*Proof:* By Theorem 1, we have for all , and the claim follows. (Thanks to Gergely Harcos for this short argument.)

Now we give a more advanced application of Theorem 1, to establish some “Mackey theory” over arbitrary groups . Define a *-system* to be a probability space together with a measure-preserving action of on ; this gives an action of on , which by abuse of notation we also call :

(In this post we follow the usual convention of defining the spaces by quotienting out by almost everywhere equivalence.) We say that a -system is *ergodic* if consists only of the constants.

(A technical point: the theory becomes slightly cleaner if we interpret our measure spaces abstractly (or “pointlessly“), removing the underlying space and quotienting by the -ideal of null sets, and considering maps such as only on this quotient -algebra (or on the associated von Neumann algebra or Hilbert space ). However, we will stick with the more traditional setting of classical probability spaces here to keep the notation familiar, but with the understanding that many of the statements below should be understood modulo null sets.)

A *factor* of a -system is another -system together with a *factor map* which commutes with the -action (thus for all ) and respects the measure in the sense that for all . For instance, the *-invariant factor* , formed by restricting to the invariant algebra , is a factor of . (This factor is the first factor in an important hierachy, the next element of which is the *Kronecker factor* , but we will not discuss higher elements of this hierarchy further here.) If is a factor of , we refer to as an *extension* of .

From Corollary 2 we have

Corollary 3 (Relative independence)Let be a -system for a group , and let be a factor of . Then and are relatively independent over their common factor , in the sense that the spaces and are relatively orthogonal over when all these spaces are embedded into .

This has a simple consequence regarding the product of two -systems and , in the case when the action is trivial:

Lemma 4If are two -systems, with the action of on trivial, then is isomorphic to in the obvious fashion.

This lemma is immediate for countable , since for a -invariant function , one can ensure that holds simultaneously for all outside of a null set, but is a little trickier for uncountable .

*Proof:* It is clear that is a factor of . To obtain the reverse inclusion, suppose that it fails, thus there is a non-zero which is orthogonal to . In particular, we have orthogonal to for any . Since lies in , we conclude from Corollary 3 (viewing as a factor of ) that is also orthogonal to . Since is an arbitrary element of , we conclude that is orthogonal to and in particular is orthogonal to itself, a contradiction. (Thanks to Gergely Harcos for this argument.)

Now we discuss the notion of a group extension.

Definition 5 (Group extension)Let be an arbitrary group, let be a -system, and let be a compact metrisable group. A-extensionof is an extension whose underlying space is (with the product of and the Borel -algebra on ), the factor map is , and the shift maps are given bywhere for each , is a measurable map (known as the

cocycleassociated to the -extension ).

An important special case of a -extension arises when the measure is the product of with the Haar measure on . In this case, also has a -action that commutes with the -action, making a -system. More generally, could be the product of with the Haar measure of some closed subgroup of , with taking values in ; then is now a system. In this latter case we will call *-uniform*.

If is a -extension of and is a measurable map, we can define the *gauge transform* of to be the -extension of whose measure is the pushforward of under the map , and whose cocycles are given by the formula

It is easy to see that is a -extension that is isomorphic to as a -extension of ; we will refer to and as *equivalent* systems, and as *cohomologous* to . We then have the following fundamental result of Mackey and of Zimmer:

Theorem 6 (Mackey-Zimmer theorem)Let be an arbitrary group, let be an ergodic -system, and let be a compact metrisable group. Then every ergodic -extension of is equivalent to an -uniform extension of for some closed subgroup of .

This theorem is usually stated for amenable groups , but by using Theorem 1 (or more precisely, Corollary 3) the result is in fact also valid for arbitrary groups; we give the proof below the fold. (In the usual formulations of the theorem, and are also required to be Lebesgue spaces, or at least standard Borel, but again with our abstract approach here, such hypotheses will be unnecessary.) Among other things, this theorem plays an important role in the Furstenberg-Zimmer structural theory of measure-preserving systems (as well as subsequent refinements of this theory by Host and Kra); see this previous blog post for some relevant discussion. One can obtain similar descriptions of non-ergodic extensions via the ergodic decomposition, but the result becomes more complicated to state, and we will not do so here.

Given two unit vectors in a real inner product space, one can define the *correlation* between these vectors to be their inner product , or in more geometric terms, the cosine of the angle subtended by and . By the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality, this is a quantity between and , with the extreme positive correlation occurring when are identical, the extreme negative correlation occurring when are diametrically opposite, and the zero correlation occurring when are orthogonal. This notion is closely related to the notion of correlation between two non-constant square-integrable real-valued random variables , which is the same as the correlation between two unit vectors lying in the Hilbert space of square-integrable random variables, with being the normalisation of defined by subtracting off the mean and then dividing by the standard deviation of , and similarly for and .

One can also define correlation for complex (Hermitian) inner product spaces by taking the real part of the complex inner product to recover a real inner product.

While reading the (highly recommended) recent popular maths book “How not to be wrong“, by my friend and co-author Jordan Ellenberg, I came across the (important) point that correlation is not necessarily transitive: if correlates with , and correlates with , then this does not imply that correlates with . A simple geometric example is provided by the three unit vectors

in the Euclidean plane : and have a positive correlation of , as does and , but and are not correlated with each other. Or: for a typical undergraduate course, it is generally true that good exam scores are correlated with a deep understanding of the course material, and memorising from flash cards are correlated with good exam scores, but this does not imply that memorising flash cards is correlated with deep understanding of the course material.

However, there are at least two situations in which some partial version of transitivity of correlation can be recovered. The first is in the “99%” regime in which the correlations are *very* close to : if are unit vectors such that is *very* highly correlated with , and is *very* highly correlated with , then this *does* imply that is very highly correlated with . Indeed, from the identity

(and similarly for and ) and the triangle inequality

Thus, for instance, if and , then . This is of course closely related to (though slightly weaker than) the triangle inequality for angles:

Remark 1(Thanks to Andrew Granville for conversations leading to this observation.) The inequality (1) also holds for sub-unit vectors, i.e. vectors with . This comes by extending in directions orthogonal to all three original vectors and to each other in order to make them unit vectors, enlarging the ambient Hilbert space if necessary. More concretely, one can apply (1) to the unit vectorsin .

But even in the “” regime in which correlations are very weak, there is still a version of transitivity of correlation, known as the *van der Corput lemma*, which basically asserts that if a unit vector is correlated with *many* unit vectors , then many of the pairs will then be correlated with each other. Indeed, from the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality

Thus, for instance, if for at least values of , then (after removing those indices for which ) must be at least , which implies that for at least pairs . Or as another example: if a random variable exhibits at least positive correlation with other random variables , then if , at least two distinct must have positive correlation with each other (although this argument does not tell you *which* pair are so correlated). Thus one can view this inequality as a sort of `pigeonhole principle” for correlation.

A similar argument (multiplying each by an appropriate sign ) shows the related van der Corput inequality

and this inequality is also true for complex inner product spaces. (Also, the do not need to be unit vectors for this inequality to hold.)

Geometrically, the picture is this: if positively correlates with all of the , then the are all squashed into a somewhat narrow cone centred at . The cone is still wide enough to allow a few pairs to be orthogonal (or even negatively correlated) with each other, but (when is large enough) it is not wide enough to allow *all* of the to be so widely separated. Remarkably, the bound here does not depend on the dimension of the ambient inner product space; while increasing the number of dimensions should in principle add more “room” to the cone, this effect is counteracted by the fact that in high dimensions, almost all pairs of vectors are close to orthogonal, and the exceptional pairs that are even weakly correlated to each other become exponentially rare. (See this previous blog post for some related discussion; in particular, Lemma 2 from that post is closely related to the van der Corput inequality presented here.)

A particularly common special case of the van der Corput inequality arises when is a unit vector fixed by some unitary operator , and the are shifts of a single unit vector . In this case, the inner products are all equal, and we arrive at the useful van der Corput inequality

(In fact, one can even remove the absolute values from the right-hand side, by using (2) instead of (4).) Thus, to show that has negligible correlation with , it suffices to show that the shifts of have negligible correlation with each other.

Here is a basic application of the van der Corput inequality:

Proposition 2 (Weyl equidistribution estimate)Let be a polynomial with at least one non-constant coefficient irrational. Then one haswhere .

Note that this assertion implies the more general assertion

for any non-zero integer (simply by replacing by ), which by the Weyl equidistribution criterion is equivalent to the sequence being asymptotically equidistributed in .

*Proof:* We induct on the degree of the polynomial , which must be at least one. If is equal to one, the claim is easily established from the geometric series formula, so suppose that and that the claim has already been proven for . If the top coefficient of is rational, say , then by partitioning the natural numbers into residue classes modulo , we see that the claim follows from the induction hypothesis; so we may assume that the top coefficient is irrational.

In order to use the van der Corput inequality as stated above (i.e. in the formalism of inner product spaces) we will need a non-principal ultrafilter (see e.g this previous blog post for basic theory of ultrafilters); we leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out how to present the argument below without the use of ultrafilters (or similar devices, such as Banach limits). The ultrafilter defines an inner product on bounded complex sequences by setting

Strictly speaking, this inner product is only positive semi-definite rather than positive definite, but one can quotient out by the null vectors to obtain a positive-definite inner product. To establish the claim, it will suffice to show that

for every non-principal ultrafilter .

Note that the space of bounded sequences (modulo null vectors) admits a shift , defined by

This shift becomes unitary once we quotient out by null vectors, and the constant sequence is clearly a unit vector that is invariant with respect to the shift. So by the van der Corput inequality, we have

for any . But we may rewrite . Then observe that if , is a polynomial of degree whose coefficient is irrational, so by induction hypothesis we have for . For we of course have , and so

for any . Letting , we obtain the claim.

Let be a quasiprojective variety defined over a finite field , thus for instance could be an affine variety

where is -dimensional affine space and are a finite collection of polynomials with coefficients in . Then one can define the set of -rational points, and more generally the set of -rational points for any , since can be viewed as a field extension of . Thus for instance in the affine case (1) we have

The Weil conjectures are concerned with understanding the number

of -rational points over a variety . The first of these conjectures was proven by Dwork, and can be phrased as follows.

Theorem 1 (Rationality of the zeta function)Let be a quasiprojective variety defined over a finite field , and let be given by (2). Then there exist a finite number of algebraic integers (known ascharacteristic valuesof ), such thatfor all .

After cancelling, we may of course assume that for any and , and then it is easy to see (as we will see below) that the become uniquely determined up to permutations of the and . These values are known as the *characteristic values* of . Since is a rational integer (i.e. an element of ) rather than merely an algebraic integer (i.e. an element of the ring of integers of the algebraic closure of ), we conclude from the above-mentioned uniqueness that the set of characteristic values are invariant with respect to the Galois group . To emphasise this Galois invariance, we will not fix a specific embedding of the algebraic numbers into the complex field , but work with all such embeddings simultaneously. (Thus, for instance, contains three cube roots of , but which of these is assigned to the complex numbers , , will depend on the choice of embedding .)

An equivalent way of phrasing Dwork’s theorem is that the (-form of the) zeta function

associated to (which is well defined as a formal power series in , at least) is equal to a rational function of (with the and being the poles and zeroes of respectively). Here, we use the formal exponential

Equivalently, the (-form of the) zeta-function is a meromorphic function on the complex numbers which is also periodic with period , and which has only finitely many poles and zeroes up to this periodicity.

Dwork’s argument relies primarily on -adic analysis – an analogue of complex analysis, but over an algebraically complete (and metrically complete) extension of the -adic field , rather than over the Archimedean complex numbers . The argument is quite effective, and in particular gives explicit upper bounds for the number of characteristic values in terms of the complexity of the variety ; for instance, in the affine case (1) with of degree , Bombieri used Dwork’s methods (in combination with Deligne’s theorem below) to obtain the bound , and a subsequent paper of Hooley established the slightly weaker bound purely from Dwork’s methods (a similar bound had also been pointed out in unpublished work of Dwork). In particular, one has bounds that are uniform in the field , which is an important fact for many analytic number theory applications.

These -adic arguments stand in contrast with Deligne’s resolution of the last (and deepest) of the Weil conjectures:

Theorem 2 (Riemann hypothesis)Let be a quasiprojective variety defined over a finite field , and let be a characteristic value of . Then there exists a natural number such that for every embedding , where denotes the usual absolute value on the complex numbers . (Informally: and all of its Galois conjugates have complex magnitude .)

To put it another way that closely resembles the classical Riemann hypothesis, all the zeroes and poles of the -form lie on the critical lines for . (See this previous blog post for further comparison of various instantiations of the Riemann hypothesis.) Whereas Dwork uses -adic analysis, Deligne uses the essentially orthogonal technique of ell-adic cohomology to establish his theorem. However, ell-adic methods can be used (via the Grothendieck-Lefschetz trace formula) to establish rationality, and conversely, in this paper of Kedlaya p-adic methods are used to establish the Riemann hypothesis. As pointed out by Kedlaya, the ell-adic methods are tied to the intrinsic geometry of (such as the structure of sheaves and covers over ), while the -adic methods are more tied to the *extrinsic* geometry of (how sits inside its ambient affine or projective space).

In this post, I would like to record my notes on Dwork’s proof of Theorem 1, drawing heavily on the expositions of Serre, Hooley, Koblitz, and others.

The basic strategy is to control the rational integers both in an “Archimedean” sense (embedding the rational integers inside the complex numbers with the usual norm ) as well as in the “-adic” sense, with the characteristic of (embedding the integers now in the “complexification” of the -adic numbers , which is equipped with a norm that we will recall later). (This is in contrast to the methods of ell-adic cohomology, in which one primarily works over an -adic field with .) The Archimedean control is trivial:

Proposition 3 (Archimedean control of )With as above, and any embedding , we havefor all and some independent of .

*Proof:* Since is a rational integer, is just . By decomposing into affine pieces, we may assume that is of the affine form (1), then we trivially have , and the claim follows.

Another way of thinking about this Archimedean control is that it guarantees that the zeta function can be defined holomorphically on the open disk in of radius centred at the origin.

The -adic control is significantly more difficult, and is the main component of Dwork’s argument:

Proposition 4 (-adic control of )With as above, and using an embedding (defined later) with the characteristic of , we can find for any real a finite number of elements such thatfor all .

Another way of thinking about this -adic control is that it guarantees that the zeta function can be defined *meromorphically* on the entire -adic complex field .

Proposition 4 is ostensibly much weaker than Theorem 1 because of (a) the error term of -adic magnitude at most ; (b) the fact that the number of potential characteristic values here may go to infinity as ; and (c) the potential characteristic values only exist inside the complexified -adics , rather than in the algebraic integers . However, it turns out that by combining -adic control on in Proposition 4 with the trivial control on in Proposition 3, one can obtain Theorem 1 by an elementary argument that does not use any further properties of (other than the obvious fact that the are rational integers), with the in Proposition 4 chosen to exceed the in Proposition 3. We give this argument (essentially due to Borel) below the fold.

The proof of Proposition 4 can be split into two pieces. The first piece, which can be viewed as the number-theoretic component of the proof, uses external descriptions of such as (1) to obtain the following decomposition of :

Proposition 5 (Decomposition of )With and as above, we can decompose as a finite linear combination (over the integers) of sequences , such that for each such sequence , the zeta functionsare entire in , by which we mean that

as .

This proposition will ultimately be a consequence of the properties of the Teichmuller lifting .

The second piece, which can be viewed as the “-adic complex analytic” component of the proof, relates the -adic entire nature of a zeta function with control on the associated sequence , and can be interpreted (after some manipulation) as a -adic version of the Weierstrass preparation theorem:

Proposition 6 (-adic Weierstrass preparation theorem)Let be a sequence in , such that the zeta functionis entire in . Then for any real , there exist a finite number of elements such that

for all and some .

Clearly, the combination of Proposition 5 and Proposition 6 (and the non-Archimedean nature of the norm) imply Proposition 4.

This is a blog version of a talk I recently gave at the IPAM workshop on “The Kakeya Problem, Restriction Problem, and Sum-product Theory”.

Note: the discussion here will be highly non-rigorous in nature, being extremely loose in particular with asymptotic notation and with the notion of dimension. Caveat emptor.

One of the most infamous unsolved problems at the intersection of geometric measure theory, incidence combinatorics, and real-variable harmonic analysis is the Kakeya set conjecture. We will focus on the following three-dimensional case of the conjecture, stated informally as follows:

Conjecture 1 (Kakeya conjecture)Let be a subset of that contains a unit line segment in every direction. Then .

This conjecture is not precisely formulated here, because we have not specified exactly what type of set is (e.g. measurable, Borel, compact, etc.) and what notion of dimension we are using. We will deliberately ignore these technical details in this post. It is slightly more convenient for us here to work with lines instead of unit line segments, so we work with the following slight variant of the conjecture (which is essentially equivalent):

Conjecture 2 (Kakeya conjecture, again)Let be a family of lines in that meet and contain a line in each direction. Let be the union of the restriction to of every line in . Then .

As the space of all directions in is two-dimensional, we thus see that is an (at least) two-dimensional subset of the four-dimensional space of lines in (actually, it lies in a compact subset of this space, since we have constrained the lines to meet ). One could then ask if this is the only property of that is needed to establish the Kakeya conjecture, that is to say if any subset of which contains a two-dimensional family of lines (restricted to , and meeting ) is necessarily three-dimensional. Here we have an easy counterexample, namely a plane in (passing through the origin), which contains a two-dimensional collection of lines. However, we can exclude this case by adding an additional axiom, leading to what one might call a “strong” Kakeya conjecture:

Conjecture 3 (Strong Kakeya conjecture)Let be a two-dimensional family of lines in that meet , and assume theWolff axiomthat no (affine) plane contains more than a one-dimensional family of lines in . Let be the union of the restriction of every line in . Then .

Actually, to make things work out we need a more quantitative version of the Wolff axiom in which we constrain the metric entropy (and not just dimension) of lines that lie *close* to a plane, rather than exactly *on* the plane. However, for the informal discussion here we will ignore these technical details. Families of lines that lie in different directions will obey the Wolff axiom, but the converse is not true in general.

In 1995, Wolff established the important lower bound (for various notions of dimension, e.g. Hausdorff dimension) for sets in Conjecture 3 (and hence also for the other forms of the Kakeya problem). However, there is a key obstruction to going beyond the barrier, coming from the possible existence of *half-dimensional (approximate) subfields* of the reals . To explain this problem, it easiest to first discuss the complex version of the strong Kakeya conjecture, in which all relevant (real) dimensions are doubled:

Conjecture 4 (Strong Kakeya conjecture over )Let be a four (real) dimensional family of complex lines in that meet the unit ball in , and assume theWolff axiomthat no four (real) dimensional (affine) subspace contains more than a two (real) dimensional family of complex lines in . Let be the union of the restriction of every complex line in . Then has real dimension .

The argument of Wolff can be adapted to the complex case to show that all sets occuring in Conjecture 4 have real dimension at least . Unfortunately, this is sharp, due to the following fundamental counterexample:

Proposition 5 (Heisenberg group counterexample)Let be the Heisenberg groupand let be the family of complex lines

with and . Then is a five (real) dimensional subset of that contains every line in the four (real) dimensional set ; however each four real dimensional (affine) subspace contains at most a two (real) dimensional set of lines in . In particular, the strong Kakeya conjecture over the complex numbers is false.

This proposition is proven by a routine computation, which we omit here. The group structure on is given by the group law

giving the structure of a -step simply-connected nilpotent Lie group, isomorphic to the usual Heisenberg group over . Note that while the Heisenberg group is a counterexample to the complex strong Kakeya conjecture, it is not a counterexample to the complex form of the original Kakeya conjecture, because the complex lines in the Heisenberg counterexample do not point in distinct directions, but instead only point in a three (real) dimensional subset of the four (real) dimensional space of available directions for complex lines. For instance, one has the one real-dimensional family of parallel lines

with ; multiplying this family of lines on the right by a group element in gives other families of parallel lines, which in fact sweep out all of .

The Heisenberg counterexample ultimately arises from the “half-dimensional” (and hence degree two) subfield of , which induces an involution which can then be used to define the Heisenberg group through the formula

Analogous Heisenberg counterexamples can also be constructed if one works over finite fields that contain a “half-dimensional” subfield ; we leave the details to the interested reader. Morally speaking, if in turn contained a subfield of dimension (or even a subring or “approximate subring”), then one ought to be able to use this field to generate a counterexample to the strong Kakeya conjecture over the reals. Fortunately, such subfields do not exist; this was a conjecture of Erdos and Volkmann that was proven by Edgar and Miller, and more quantitatively by Bourgain (answering a question of Nets Katz and myself). However, this fact is not entirely trivial to prove, being a key example of the sum-product phenomenon.

We thus see that to go beyond the dimension bound of Wolff for the 3D Kakeya problem over the reals, one must do at least one of two things:

- (a) Exploit the distinct directions of the lines in in a way that goes beyond the Wolff axiom; or
- (b) Exploit the fact that does not contain half-dimensional subfields (or more generally, intermediate-dimensional approximate subrings).

(The situation is more complicated in higher dimensions, as there are more obstructions than the Heisenberg group; for instance, in four dimensions quadric surfaces are an important obstruction, as discussed in this paper of mine.)

Various partial or complete results on the Kakeya problem over various fields have been obtained through route (a) or route (b). For instance, in 2000, Nets Katz, Izabella Laba and myself used route (a) to improve Wolff’s lower bound of for Kakeya sets very slightly to (for a weak notion of dimension, namely upper Minkowski dimension). In 2004, Bourgain, Katz, and myself established a sum-product estimate which (among other things) ruled out approximate intermediate-dimensional subrings of , and then pursued route (b) to obtain a corresponding improvement to the Kakeya conjecture over finite fields of prime order. The analogous (discretised) sum-product estimate over the reals was established by Bourgain in 2003, which in principle would allow one to extend the result of Katz, Laba and myself to the strong Kakeya setting, but this has not been carried out in the literature. Finally, in 2009, Dvir used route (a) and introduced the polynomial method (as discussed previously here) to completely settle the Kakeya conjecture in finite fields.

Below the fold, I present a heuristic argument of Nets Katz and myself, which in principle would use route (b) to establish the full (strong) Kakeya conjecture. In broad terms, the strategy is as follows:

- Assume that the (strong) Kakeya conjecture fails, so that there are sets of the form in Conjecture 3 of dimension for some . Assume that is “optimal”, in the sense that is as large as possible.
- Use the optimality of (and suitable non-isotropic rescalings) to establish strong forms of standard structural properties expected of such sets , namely “stickiness”, “planiness”, “local graininess” and “global graininess” (we will roughly describe these properties below). Heuristically, these properties are constraining to “behave like” a putative Heisenberg group counterexample.
- By playing all these structural properties off of each other, show that can be parameterised locally by a one-dimensional set which generates a counterexample to Bourgain’s sum-product theorem. This contradiction establishes the Kakeya conjecture.

Nets and I have had an informal version of argument for many years, but were never able to make a satisfactory theorem (or even a partial Kakeya result) out of it, because we could not rigorously establish anywhere near enough of the necessary structural properties (stickiness, planiness, etc.) on the optimal set for a large number of reasons (one of which being that we did not have a good notion of dimension that did everything that we wished to demand of it). However, there is beginning to be movement in these directions (e.g. in this recent result of Guth using the polynomial method obtaining a weak version of local graininess on certain Kakeya sets). In view of this (and given that neither Nets or I have been actively working in this direction for some time now, due to many other projects), we’ve decided to distribute these ideas more widely than before, and in particular on this blog.

Roth’s theorem on arithmetic progressions asserts that every subset of the integers 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 be a compact abelian group, with Haar probability measure , which is -divisible (i.e. the map is surjective) and let be a measurable subset of with for some . Then we havewhere denotes the bound for some depending only on .

This theorem is usually formulated in the case that is a finite abelian group of odd order (in which case the result is essentially due to Meshulam) or more specifically a cyclic group of odd order (in which case it is essentially due to Varnavides), but is also valid for the more general setting of -divisible compact abelian groups, as we shall shortly see. One can be more precise about the dependence of the implied constant on , 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 -divisibility hypothesis, but the proof we will discuss runs into some technical issues due to the degeneracy of the shift in that case.

We can deduce Theorem 1 from the following more general Khintchine-type statement. Let denote the Pontryagin dual of a compact abelian group , that is to say the set of all continuous homomorphisms from to the (additive) unit circle . Thus is a discrete abelian group, and functions have a Fourier transform defined by

If is -divisible, then is -torsion-free in the sense that the map is injective. For any finite set and any radius , define the *Bohr set*

where denotes the distance of to the nearest integer. We refer to the cardinality of as the *rank* of the Bohr set. We record a simple volume bound on Bohr sets:

Lemma 2 (Volume packing bound)Let be a compact abelian group with Haar probability measure . For any Bohr set , we have

*Proof:* We can cover the torus by translates of the cube . Then the sets form an cover of . But all of these sets lie in a translate of , and the claim then follows from the translation invariance of .

Given any Bohr set , we define a normalised “Lipschitz” cutoff function by the formula

where is the constant such that

thus

The function should be viewed as an -normalised “tent function” cutoff to . Note from Lemma 2 that

We then have the following sharper version of Theorem 1:

Theorem 3 (Roth-Khintchine theorem)Let be a -divisible compact abelian group, with Haar probability measure , and let . Then for any measurable function , there exists a Bohr set with and such thatwhere denotes the convolution operation

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 and equal to a small multiple of to conclude that there is a Bohr set with and such that

But from (2) we have the pointwise bound , 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 to capture all the “large Fourier coefficients” of , but such that a certain “dilate” of does not capture much more Fourier energy of than 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 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 considered above to achieve a similar effect.

Throughout this post, we will work only at the *formal* level of analysis, ignoring issues of convergence of integrals, justifying differentiation under the integral sign, and so forth. (Rigorous justification of the conservation laws and other identities arising from the formal manipulations below can usually be established in an *a posteriori* fashion once the identities are in hand, without the need to rigorously justify the manipulations used to come up with these identities).

It is a remarkable fact in the theory of differential equations that many of the ordinary and partial differential equations that are of interest (particularly in geometric PDE, or PDE arising from mathematical physics) admit a variational formulation; thus, a collection of one or more fields on a domain taking values in a space will solve the differential equation of interest if and only if is a critical point to the functional

involving the fields and their first derivatives , where the Lagrangian is a function on the vector bundle over consisting of triples with , , and a linear transformation; we also usually keep the boundary data of fixed in case has a non-trivial boundary, although we will ignore these issues here. (We also ignore the possibility of having additional constraints imposed on and , which require the machinery of Lagrange multipliers to deal with, but which will only serve as a distraction for the current discussion.) It is common to use local coordinates to parameterise as and as , in which case can be viewed locally as a function on .

Example 1 (Geodesic flow)Take and to be a Riemannian manifold, which we will write locally in coordinates as with metric for . A geodesic is then a critical point (keeping fixed) of the energy functionalor in coordinates (ignoring coordinate patch issues, and using the usual summation conventions)

As discussed in this previous post, both the Euler equations for rigid body motion, and the Euler equations for incompressible inviscid flow, can be interpreted as geodesic flow (though in the latter case, one has to work

reallyformally, as the manifold is now infinite dimensional).More generally, if is itself a Riemannian manifold, which we write locally in coordinates as with metric for , then a harmonic map is a critical point of the energy functional

or in coordinates (again ignoring coordinate patch issues)

If we replace the Riemannian manifold by a Lorentzian manifold, such as Minkowski space , then the notion of a harmonic map is replaced by that of a wave map, which generalises the scalar wave equation (which corresponds to the case ).

Example 2 (-particle interactions)Take and ; then a function can be interpreted as a collection of trajectories in space, which we give a physical interpretation as the trajectories of particles. If we assign each particle a positive mass , and also introduce a potential energy function , then it turns out that Newton’s laws of motion in this context (with the force on the particle being given by the conservative force ) are equivalent to the trajectories being a critical point of the action functional

Formally, if is a critical point of a functional , this means that

whenever is a (smooth) deformation with (and with respecting whatever boundary conditions are appropriate). Interchanging the derivative and integral, we (formally, at least) arrive at

Write for the infinitesimal deformation of . By the chain rule, can be expressed in terms of . In coordinates, we have

where we parameterise by , and we use subscripts on to denote partial derivatives in the various coefficients. (One can of course work in a coordinate-free manner here if one really wants to, but the notation becomes a little cumbersome due to the need to carefully split up the tangent space of , and we will not do so here.) Thus we can view (2) as an integral identity that asserts the vanishing of a certain integral, whose integrand involves , where vanishes at the boundary but is otherwise unconstrained.

A general rule of thumb in PDE and calculus of variations is that whenever one has an integral identity of the form for some class of functions that vanishes on the boundary, then there must be an associated differential identity that justifies this integral identity through Stokes’ theorem. This rule of thumb helps explain why integration by parts is used so frequently in PDE to justify integral identities. The rule of thumb can fail when one is dealing with “global” or “cohomologically non-trivial” integral identities of a topological nature, such as the Gauss-Bonnet or Kazhdan-Warner identities, but is quite reliable for “local” or “cohomologically trivial” identities, such as those arising from calculus of variations.

In any case, if we apply this rule to (2), we expect that the integrand should be expressible as a spatial divergence. This is indeed the case:

Proposition 1(Formal) Let be a critical point of the functional defined in (1). Then for any deformation with , we havewhere is the vector field that is expressible in coordinates as

*Proof:* Comparing (4) with (3), we see that the claim is equivalent to the Euler-Lagrange equation

The same computation, together with an integration by parts, shows that (2) may be rewritten as

Since is unconstrained on the interior of , the claim (6) follows (at a formal level, at least).

Many variational problems also enjoy one-parameter continuous *symmetries*: given any field (not necessarily a critical point), one can place that field in a one-parameter family with , such that

for all ; in particular,

which can be written as (2) as before. Applying the previous rule of thumb, we thus expect another divergence identity

whenever arises from a continuous one-parameter symmetry. This expectation is indeed the case in many examples. For instance, if the spatial domain is the Euclidean space , and the Lagrangian (when expressed in coordinates) has no direct dependence on the spatial variable , thus

then we obtain translation symmetries

for , where is the standard basis for . For a fixed , the left-hand side of (7) then becomes

where . Another common type of symmetry is a *pointwise* symmetry, in which

for all , in which case (7) clearly holds with .

If we subtract (4) from (7), we obtain the celebrated theorem of Noether linking symmetries with conservation laws:

Theorem 2 (Noether’s theorem)Suppose that is a critical point of the functional (1), and let be a one-parameter continuous symmetry with . Let be the vector field in (5), and let be the vector field in (7). Then we have the pointwise conservation law

In particular, for one-dimensional variational problems, in which , we have the conservation law for all (assuming of course that is connected and contains ).

Noether’s theorem gives a systematic way to locate conservation laws for solutions to variational problems. For instance, if and the Lagrangian has no explicit time dependence, thus

then by using the time translation symmetry , we have

as discussed previously, whereas we have , and hence by (5)

and so Noether’s theorem gives conservation of the *Hamiltonian*

For instance, for geodesic flow, the Hamiltonian works out to be

so we see that the speed of the geodesic is conserved over time.

For pointwise symmetries (9), vanishes, and so Noether’s theorem simplifies to ; in the one-dimensional case , we thus see from (5) that the quantity

is conserved in time. For instance, for the -particle system in Example 2, if we have the translation invariance

for all , then we have the pointwise translation symmetry

for all , and some , in which case , and the conserved quantity (11) becomes

as was arbitrary, this establishes conservation of the *total momentum*

Similarly, if we have the rotation invariance

for any and , then we have the pointwise rotation symmetry

for any skew-symmetric real matrix , in which case , and the conserved quantity (11) becomes

since is an arbitrary skew-symmetric matrix, this establishes conservation of the *total angular momentum*

Below the fold, I will describe how Noether’s theorem can be used to locate all of the conserved quantities for the Euler equations of inviscid fluid flow, discussed in this previous post, by interpreting that flow as geodesic flow in an infinite dimensional manifold.

I’ve just uploaded to the arXiv the paper “Finite time blowup for an averaged three-dimensional Navier-Stokes equation“, submitted to J. Amer. Math. Soc.. The main purpose of this paper is to formalise the “supercriticality barrier” for the global regularity problem for the Navier-Stokes equation, which roughly speaking asserts that it is not possible to establish global regularity by any “abstract” approach which only uses upper bound function space estimates on the nonlinear part of the equation, combined with the energy identity. This is done by constructing a modification of the Navier-Stokes equations with a nonlinearity that obeys essentially all of the function space estimates that the true Navier-Stokes nonlinearity does, and which also obeys the energy identity, but for which one can construct solutions that blow up in finite time. Results of this type had been previously established by Montgomery-Smith, Gallagher-Paicu, and Li-Sinai for variants of the Navier-Stokes equation without the energy identity, and by Katz-Pavlovic and by Cheskidov for dyadic analogues of the Navier-Stokes equations in five and higher dimensions that obeyed the energy identity (see also the work of Plechac and Sverak and of Hou and Lei that also suggest blowup for other Navier-Stokes type models obeying the energy identity in five and higher dimensions), but to my knowledge this is the first blowup result for a Navier-Stokes type equation in three dimensions that also obeys the energy identity. Intriguingly, the method of proof in fact hints at a possible route to establishing blowup for the true Navier-Stokes equations, which I am now increasingly inclined to believe is the case (albeit for a very small set of initial data).

To state the results more precisely, recall that the Navier-Stokes equations can be written in the form

for a divergence-free velocity field and a pressure field , where is the viscosity, which we will normalise to be one. We will work in the non-periodic setting, so the spatial domain is , and for sake of exposition I will not discuss matters of regularity or decay of the solution (but we will always be working with strong notions of solution here rather than weak ones). Applying the Leray projection to divergence-free vector fields to this equation, we can eliminate the pressure, and obtain an evolution equation

purely for the velocity field, where is a certain bilinear operator on divergence-free vector fields (specifically, . The global regularity problem for Navier-Stokes is then equivalent to the global regularity problem for the evolution equation (1).

An important feature of the bilinear operator appearing in (1) is the cancellation law

(using the inner product on divergence-free vector fields), which leads in particular to the fundamental energy identity

This identity (and its consequences) provide essentially the only known *a priori* bound on solutions to the Navier-Stokes equations from large data and arbitrary times. Unfortunately, as discussed in this previous post, the quantities controlled by the energy identity are supercritical with respect to scaling, which is the fundamental obstacle that has defeated all attempts to solve the global regularity problem for Navier-Stokes without any additional assumptions on the data or solution (e.g. perturbative hypotheses, or *a priori* control on a critical norm such as the norm).

Our main result is then (slightly informally stated) as follows

Theorem 1There exists anaveragedversion of the bilinear operator , of the formfor some probability space , some spatial rotation operators for , and some Fourier multipliers of order , for which one still has the cancellation law

and for which the averaged Navier-Stokes equation

(There are some integrability conditions on the Fourier multipliers required in the above theorem in order for the conclusion to be non-trivial, but I am omitting them here for sake of exposition.)

Because spatial rotations and Fourier multipliers of order are bounded on most function spaces, automatically obeys almost all of the upper bound estimates that does. Thus, this theorem blocks any attempt to prove global regularity for the true Navier-Stokes equations which relies purely on the energy identity and on upper bound estimates for the nonlinearity; one must use some additional structure of the nonlinear operator which is not shared by an averaged version . Such additional structure certainly exists – for instance, the Navier-Stokes equation has a vorticity formulation involving only differential operators rather than pseudodifferential ones, whereas a general equation of the form (2) does not. However, “abstract” approaches to global regularity generally do not exploit such structure, and thus cannot be used to affirmatively answer the Navier-Stokes problem.

It turns out that the particular averaged bilinear operator that we will use will be a finite linear combination of *local cascade operators*, which take the form

where is a small parameter, are Schwartz vector fields whose Fourier transform is supported on an annulus, and is an -rescaled version of (basically a “wavelet” of wavelength about centred at the origin). Such operators were essentially introduced by Katz and Pavlovic as dyadic models for ; they have the essentially the same scaling property as (except that one can only scale along powers of , rather than over all positive reals), and in fact they can be expressed as an average of in the sense of the above theorem, as can be shown after a somewhat tedious amount of Fourier-analytic symbol manipulations.

If we consider nonlinearities which are a finite linear combination of local cascade operators, then the equation (2) more or less collapses to a system of ODE in certain “wavelet coefficients” of . The precise ODE that shows up depends on what precise combination of local cascade operators one is using. Katz and Pavlovic essentially considered a single cascade operator together with its “adjoint” (needed to preserve the energy identity), and arrived (more or less) at the system of ODE

where are scalar fields for each integer . (Actually, Katz-Pavlovic worked with a technical variant of this particular equation, but the differences are not so important for this current discussion.) Note that the quadratic terms on the RHS carry a higher exponent of than the dissipation term; this reflects the supercritical nature of this evolution (the energy is monotone decreasing in this flow, so the natural size of given the control on the energy is ). There is a slight technical issue with the dissipation if one wishes to embed (3) into an equation of the form (2), but it is minor and I will not discuss it further here.

In principle, if the mode has size comparable to at some time , then energy should flow from to at a rate comparable to , so that by time or so, most of the energy of should have drained into the mode (with hardly any energy dissipated). Since the series is summable, this suggests finite time blowup for this ODE as the energy races ever more quickly to higher and higher modes. Such a scenario was indeed established by Katz and Pavlovic (and refined by Cheskidov) if the dissipation strength was weakened somewhat (the exponent has to be lowered to be less than ). As mentioned above, this is enough to give a version of Theorem 1 in five and higher dimensions.

On the other hand, it was shown a few years ago by Barbato, Morandin, and Romito that (3) in fact admits global smooth solutions (at least in the dyadic case , and assuming non-negative initial data). Roughly speaking, the problem is that as energy is being transferred from to , energy is also simultaneously being transferred from to , and as such the solution races off to higher modes a bit too prematurely, without absorbing all of the energy from lower modes. This weakens the strength of the blowup to the point where the moderately strong dissipation in (3) is enough to kill the high frequency cascade before a true singularity occurs. Because of this, the original Katz-Pavlovic model cannot quite be used to establish Theorem 1 in three dimensions. (Actually, the original Katz-Pavlovic model had some additional dispersive features which allowed for another proof of global smooth solutions, which is an unpublished result of Nazarov.)

To get around this, I had to “engineer” an ODE system with similar features to (3) (namely, a quadratic nonlinearity, a monotone total energy, and the indicated exponents of for both the dissipation term and the quadratic terms), but for which the cascade of energy from scale to scale was not interrupted by the cascade of energy from scale to scale . To do this, I needed to insert a *delay* in the cascade process (so that after energy was dumped into scale , it would take some time before the energy would start to transfer to scale ), but the process also needed to be *abrupt* (once the process of energy transfer started, it needed to conclude very quickly, before the delayed transfer for the next scale kicked in). It turned out that one could build a “quadratic circuit” out of some basic “quadratic gates” (analogous to how an electrical circuit could be built out of basic gates such as amplifiers or resistors) that achieved this task, leading to an ODE system essentially of the form

where is a suitable large parameter and is a suitable small parameter (much smaller than ). To visualise the dynamics of such a system, I found it useful to describe this system graphically by a “circuit diagram” that is analogous (but not identical) to the circuit diagrams arising in electrical engineering:

The coupling constants here range widely from being very large to very small; in practice, this makes the and modes absorb very little energy, but exert a sizeable influence on the remaining modes. If a lot of energy is suddenly dumped into , what happens next is roughly as follows: for a moderate period of time, nothing much happens other than a trickle of energy into , which in turn causes a rapid exponential growth of (from a very low base). After this delay, suddenly crosses a certain threshold, at which point it causes and to exchange energy back and forth with extreme speed. The energy from then rapidly drains into , and the process begins again (with a slight loss in energy due to the dissipation). If one plots the total energy as a function of time, it looks schematically like this:

As in the previous heuristic discussion, the time between cascades from one frequency scale to the next decay exponentially, leading to blowup at some finite time . (One could describe the dynamics here as being similar to the famous “lighting the beacons” scene in the Lord of the Rings movies, except that (a) as each beacon gets ignited, the previous one is extinguished, as per the energy identity; (b) the time between beacon lightings decrease exponentially; and (c) there is no soundtrack.)

There is a real (but remote) possibility that this sort of construction can be adapted to the true Navier-Stokes equations. The basic blowup mechanism in the averaged equation is that of a von Neumann machine, or more precisely a construct (built within the laws of the inviscid evolution ) that, after some time delay, manages to suddenly create a replica of itself at a finer scale (and to largely erase its original instantiation in the process). In principle, such a von Neumann machine could also be built out of the laws of the inviscid form of the Navier-Stokes equations (i.e. the Euler equations). In physical terms, one would have to build the machine purely out of an ideal fluid (i.e. an inviscid incompressible fluid). If one could somehow create enough “logic gates” out of ideal fluid, one could presumably build a sort of “fluid computer”, at which point the task of building a von Neumann machine appears to reduce to a software engineering exercise rather than a PDE problem (providing that the gates are suitably stable with respect to perturbations, but (as with actual computers) this can presumably be done by converting the analog signals of fluid mechanics into a more error-resistant digital form). The key thing missing in this program (in both senses of the word) to establish blowup for Navier-Stokes is to construct the logic gates within the laws of ideal fluids. (Compare with the situation for cellular automata such as Conway’s “Game of Life“, in which Turing complete computers, universal constructors, and replicators have all been built within the laws of that game.)

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

either for small values of (in particular ) or asymptotically as . The previous thread may be found here. The currently best known bounds on can be found at the wiki page (which has recently returned to full functionality, after a partial outage).

The current focus is on improving the upper bound on under the assumption of the generalised Elliott-Halberstam conjecture (GEH) from to , which looks to be the limit of the method (see this previous comment for a semi-rigorous reason as to why is not possible with this method). With the most general Selberg sieve available, the problem reduces to the following three-dimensional variational one:

Problem 1Does there exist a (not necessarily convex) polytope with quantities , and a non-trivial square-integrable function supported on such that

- when ;
- when ;
- when ;
and such that we have the inequality

(Initially it was assumed that was convex, but we have now realised that this is not necessary.)

An affirmative answer to this question will imply on GEH. We are “within almost two percent” of this claim; we cannot quite reach yet, but have got as far as . However, we have not yet fully optimised in the above problem.

The most promising route so far is to take the symmetric polytope

with symmetric as well, and (we suspect that the optimal will be roughly ). (However, it is certainly worth also taking a look at easier model problems, such as the polytope , which has no vanishing marginal conditions to contend with; more recently we have been looking at the non-convex polytope .) Some further details of this particular case are given below the fold.

There should still be some progress to be made in the other regimes of interest – the unconditional bound on (currently at ), and on any further progress in asymptotic bounds for for larger – but the current focus is certainly on the bound on on GEH, as we seem to be tantalisingly close to an optimal result here.

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