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

Theorem 1 (Szemerédi’s theorem)Let be a positive integer, and let be a function with for some , where we use the averaging notation , , etc.. Then for we havefor some depending only on .

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

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

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

- Every positive integer has a prime factorisation
into (not necessarily distinct) primes , which is unique up to rearrangement. Taking logarithms, we obtain a partition

of .

- (Prime number theorem) A randomly selected integer of size will be prime with probability when is large.
- If is a randomly selected large integer of size , and is a randomly selected prime factor of (with each index being chosen with probability ), then is approximately uniformly distributed between and . (See Proposition 9 of this previous blog post.)
- The set of real numbers arising from the prime factorisation of a large random number converges (away from the origin, and in a suitable weak sense) to the Poisson-Dirichlet process in the limit . (See the previously mentioned blog post for a definition of the Poisson-Dirichlet process, and a proof of this claim.)

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

- Every permutation has a cycle decomposition
into disjoint cycles , which is unique up to rearrangement, and where we count each fixed point of as a cycle of length . If is the length of the cycle , we obtain a partition

of .

- (Prime number theorem for permutations) A randomly selected permutation of will be an -cycle with probability exactly . (This was noted in this previous blog post.)
- If is a random permutation in , and is a randomly selected cycle of (with each being selected with probability ), then is exactly uniformly distributed on . (See Proposition 8 of this blog post.)
- The set of real numbers arising from the cycle decomposition of a random permutation converges (in a suitable sense) to the Poisson-Dirichlet process in the limit . (Again, see this previous blog post for details.)

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

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

- Every monic polynomial has a factorisation
into irreducible monic polynomials , which is unique up to rearrangement. Taking degrees, we obtain a partition

of .

- (Prime number theorem for polynomials) A randomly selected monic polynomial of degree will be irreducible with probability when is fixed and is large.
- If is a random monic polynomial of degree , and is a random irreducible factor of (with each selected with probability ), then is approximately uniformly distributed in when is fixed and is large.
- The set of real numbers arising from the factorisation of a randomly selected polynomial of degree converges (in a suitable sense) to the Poisson-Dirichlet process when is fixed and is large.

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

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

Theorem 1 (Prime number theorem)The probability that a random monic polynomial of degree is irreducible is in the limit where is fixed and the characteristic goes to infinity.

*Proof:* There are monic polynomials of degree . If is irreducible, then the zeroes of are distinct and lie in the finite field , but do not lie in any proper subfield of that field. Conversely, every element of that does not lie in a proper subfield is the root of a unique monic polynomial in of degree (the minimal polynomial of ). Since the union of all the proper subfields of has size , the total number of irreducible polynomials of degree is thus , and the claim follows.

Remark 2The above argument and inclusion-exclusion in fact gives the well known exact formula for the number of irreducible monic polynomials of degree .

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

Theorem 3The partition of a random monic polynomial of degree converges in distribution to the partition of a random permutation of length , in the limit where is fixed and the characteristic goes to infinity.

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

Lemma 4 (Most polynomials square-free in large limit)A random monic polynomial of degree will be square-free with probability when is fixed and (or ) goes to infinity. In a similar spirit, two randomly selected monic polynomials of degree will be coprime with probability if are fixed and or goes to infinity.

*Proof:* For any polynomial of degree , the probability that is divisible by is at most . Summing over all polynomials of degree , and using the union bound, we see that the probability that is *not* squarefree is at most , giving the first claim. For the second, observe from the first claim (and the fact that has only a bounded number of factors) that is squarefree with probability , giving the claim.

Now we can prove the theorem. Elementary combinatorics tells us that the probability of a random permutation consisting of cycles of length for , where are nonnegative integers with , is precisely

since there are ways to write a given tuple of cycles in cycle notation in nondecreasing order of length, and ways to select the labels for the cycle notation. On the other hand, by Theorem 1 (and using Lemma 4 to isolate the small number of cases involving repeated factors) the number of monic polynomials of degree that are the product of irreducible polynomials of degree is

which simplifies to

and the claim follows.

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

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

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

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

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

for all and some piecewise linear, continuous, non-decreasing function with , where the error is bounded by a constant depending only on , and where has at most pieces, each of which has a slope that is a natural number of size . To put it another way, the function for behaves (up to multiplicative constants) like a piecewise polynomial function, where the degree of the function and number of pieces is bounded by a constant depending on .

One could ask whether the function has any convexity or concavity properties. It turns out that it can exhibit either convex or concave behaviour (or a combination of both). For instance, if is contained in a large finite group, then will eventually plateau to a constant, exhibiting concave behaviour. On the other hand, in nilpotent groups one can see convex behaviour; for instance, in the Heisenberg group , if one sets to be a set of matrices of the form for some large (abusing the notation somewhat), then grows cubically for but then grows quartically for .

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

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

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

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

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

Suppose that are two subgroups of some ambient group , with the index of in being finite. Then is the union of left cosets of , thus for some set of cardinality . The elements of are not entirely arbitrary with regards to . For instance, if is a *normal* subgroup of , then for each , the conjugation map preserves . In particular, if we write for the conjugate of by , then

Even if is not normal in , it turns out that the conjugation map *approximately* preserves , if is bounded. To quantify this, let us call two subgroups *-commensurate* for some if one has

Proposition 1Let be groups, with finite index . Then for every , the groups and are -commensurate, in fact

*Proof:* One can partition into left translates of , as well as left translates of . Combining the partitions, we see that can be partitioned into at most non-empty sets of the form . Each of these sets is easily seen to be a left translate of the subgroup , thus . Since

and , we obtain the claim.

One can replace the inclusion by commensurability, at the cost of some worsening of the constants:

Corollary 2Let be -commensurate subgroups of . Then for every , the groups and are -commensurate.

*Proof:* Applying the previous proposition with replaced by , we see that for every , and are -commensurate. Since and have index at most in and respectively, the claim follows.

It turns out that a similar phenomenon holds for the more general concept of an *approximate group*, and gives a “classification” of all the approximate groups containing a given approximate group as a “bounded index approximate subgroup”. Recall that a -approximate group in a group for some is a symmetric subset of containing the identity, such that the product set can be covered by at most left translates of (and thus also right translates, by the symmetry of ). For simplicity we will restrict attention to finite approximate groups so that we can use their cardinality as a measure of size. We call finite two approximate groups *-commensurate* if one has

note that this is consistent with the previous notion of commensurability for genuine groups.

Theorem 3Let be a group, and let be real numbers. Let be a finite -approximate group, and let be a symmetric subset of that contains .

- (i) If is a -approximate group with , then one has for some set of cardinality at most . Furthermore, for each , the approximate groups and are -commensurate.
- (ii) Conversely, if for some set of cardinality at most , and and are -commensurate for all , then , and is a -approximate group.

Informally, the assertion that is an approximate group containing as a “bounded index approximate subgroup” is equivalent to being covered by a bounded number of shifts of , where approximately normalises in the sense that and have large intersection. Thus, to classify all such , the problem essentially reduces to that of classifying those that approximately normalise .

To prove the theorem, we recall some standard lemmas from arithmetic combinatorics, which are the foundation stones of the “Ruzsa calculus” that we will use to establish our results:

Lemma 4 (Ruzsa covering lemma)If and are finite non-empty subsets of , then one has for some set with cardinality .

*Proof:* We take to be a subset of with the property that the translates are disjoint in , and such that is maximal with respect to set inclusion. The required properties of are then easily verified.

Lemma 5 (Ruzsa triangle inequality)If are finite non-empty subsets of , then

*Proof:* If is an element of with and , then from the identity we see that can be written as the product of an element of and an element of in at least distinct ways. The claim follows.

Now we can prove (i). By the Ruzsa covering lemma, can be covered by at most

left-translates of , and hence by at most left-translates of , thus for some . Since only intersects if , we may assume that

and hence for any

By the Ruzsa covering lemma again, this implies that can be covered by at most left-translates of , and hence by at most left-translates of . By the pigeonhole principle, there thus exists a group element with

Since

and

the claim follows.

Now we prove (ii). Clearly

Now we control the size of . We have

From the Ruzsa triangle inequality and symmetry we have

and thus

By the Ruzsa covering lemma, this implies that is covered by at most left-translates of , hence by at most left-translates of . Since , the claim follows.

We now establish some auxiliary propositions about commensurability of approximate groups. The first claim is that commensurability is approximately transitive:

Proposition 6Let be a -approximate group, be a -approximate group, and be a -approximate group. If and are -commensurate, and and are -commensurate, then and are -commensurate.

*Proof:* From two applications of the Ruzsa triangle inequality we have

By the Ruzsa covering lemma, we may thus cover by at most left-translates of , and hence by left-translates of . By the pigeonhole principle, there thus exists a group element such that

and so by arguing as in the proof of part (i) of the theorem we have

and similarly

and the claim follows.

The next proposition asserts that the union and (modified) intersection of two commensurate approximate groups is again an approximate group:

Proposition 7Let be a -approximate group, be a -approximate group, and suppose that and are -commensurate. Then is a -approximate subgroup, and is a -approximate subgroup.

Using this proposition, one may obtain a variant of the previous theorem where the containment is replaced by commensurability; we leave the details to the interested reader.

*Proof:* We begin with . Clearly is symmetric and contains the identity. We have . The set is already covered by left translates of , and hence of ; similarly is covered by left translates of . As for , we observe from the Ruzsa triangle inequality that

and hence by the Ruzsa covering lemma, is covered by at most left translates of , and hence by left translates of , and hence of . Similarly is covered by at most left translates of . The claim follows.

Now we consider . Again, this is clearly symmetric and contains the identity. Repeating the previous arguments, we see that is covered by at most left-translates of , and hence there exists a group element with

Now observe that

and so by the Ruzsa covering lemma, can be covered by at most left-translates of . But this latter set is (as observed previously) contained in , and the claim follows.

I’ve just uploaded to the arXiv my paper “Cancellation for the multilinear Hilbert transform“, submitted to Collectanea Mathematica. This paper uses methods from additive combinatorics (and more specifically, the arithmetic regularity and counting lemmas from this paper of Ben Green and myself) to obtain a slight amount of progress towards the open problem of obtaining bounds for the trilinear and higher Hilbert transforms (as discussed in this previous blog post). For instance, the trilinear Hilbert transform

is not known to be bounded for any to , although it is conjectured to do so when and . (For well below , one can use additive combinatorics constructions to demonstrate unboundedness; see this paper of Demeter.) One can approach this problem by considering the truncated trilinear Hilbert transforms

for . It is not difficult to show that the boundedness of is equivalent to the boundedness of with bounds that are uniform in and . On the other hand, from Minkowski’s inequality and Hölder’s inequality one can easily obtain the *non-uniform* bound of for . The main result of this paper is a slight improvement of this trivial bound to as . Roughly speaking, the way this gain is established is as follows. First there are some standard time-frequency type reductions to reduce to the task of obtaining some non-trivial cancellation on a single “tree”. Using a “generalised von Neumann theorem”, we show that such cancellation will happen if (a discretised version of) one or more of the functions (or a dual function that it is convenient to test against) is small in the Gowers norm. However, the arithmetic regularity lemma alluded to earlier allows one to represent an arbitrary function , up to a small error, as the sum of such a “Gowers uniform” function, plus a structured function (or more precisely, an *irrational virtual nilsequence*). This effectively reduces the problem to that of establishing some cancellation in a single tree in the case when all functions involved are irrational virtual nilsequences. At this point, the contribution of each component of the tree can be estimated using the “counting lemma” from my paper with Ben. The main term in the asymptotics is a certain integral over a nilmanifold, but because the kernel in the trilinear Hilbert transform is odd, it turns out that this integral vanishes, giving the required cancellation.

The same argument works for higher order Hilbert transforms (and one can also replace the coefficients in these transforms with other rational constants). However, because the quantitative bounds in the arithmetic regularity and counting lemmas are so poor, it does not seem likely that one can use these methods to remove the logarithmic growth in entirely, and some additional ideas will be needed to resolve the full conjecture.

In 1946, Ulam, in response to a theorem of Anning and Erdös, posed the following problem:

Problem 1 (Erdös-Ulam problem)Let be a set such that the distance between any two points in is rational. Is it true that cannot be (topologically) dense in ?

The paper of Anning and Erdös addressed the case that all the distances between two points in were integer rather than rational in the affirmative.

The Erdös-Ulam problem remains open; it was discussed recently over at Gödel’s lost letter. It is in fact likely (as we shall see below) that the set in the above problem is not only forbidden to be topologically dense, but also cannot be Zariski dense either. If so, then the structure of is quite restricted; it was shown by Solymosi and de Zeeuw that if fails to be Zariski dense, then all but finitely many of the points of must lie on a single line, or a single circle. (Conversely, it is easy to construct examples of dense subsets of a line or circle in which all distances are rational, though in the latter case the square of the radius of the circle must also be rational.)

The main tool of the Solymosi-de Zeeuw analysis was Faltings’ celebrated theorem that every algebraic curve of genus at least two contains only finitely many rational points. The purpose of this post is to observe that an affirmative answer to the full Erdös-Ulam problem similarly follows from the conjectured analogue of Falting’s theorem for surfaces, namely the following conjecture of Bombieri and Lang:

Conjecture 2 (Bombieri-Lang conjecture)Let be a smooth projective irreducible algebraic surface defined over the rationals which is of general type. Then the set of rational points of is not Zariski dense in .

In fact, the Bombieri-Lang conjecture has been made for varieties of arbitrary dimension, and for more general number fields than the rationals, but the above special case of the conjecture is the only one needed for this application. We will review what “general type” means (for smooth projective complex varieties, at least) below the fold.

The Bombieri-Lang conjecture is considered to be extremely difficult, in particular being substantially harder than Faltings’ theorem, which is itself a highly non-trivial result. So this implication should not be viewed as a practical route to resolving the Erdös-Ulam problem unconditionally; rather, it is a demonstration of the power of the Bombieri-Lang conjecture. Still, it was an instructive algebraic geometry exercise for me to carry out the details of this implication, which quickly boils down to verifying that a certain quite explicit algebraic surface is of general type (Theorem 4 below). As I am not an expert in the subject, my computations here will be rather tedious and pedestrian; it is likely that they could be made much slicker by exploiting more of the machinery of modern algebraic geometry, and I would welcome any such streamlining by actual experts in this area. (For similar reasons, there may be more typos and errors than usual in this post; corrections are welcome as always.) My calculations here are based on a similar calculation of van Luijk, who used analogous arguments to show (assuming Bombieri-Lang) that the set of perfect cuboids is not Zariski-dense in its projective parameter space.

We also remark that in a recent paper of Makhul and Shaffaf, the Bombieri-Lang conjecture (or more precisely, a weaker consequence of that conjecture) was used to show that if is a subset of with rational distances which intersects any line in only finitely many points, then there is a uniform bound on the cardinality of the intersection of with any line. I have also recently learned (private communication) that an unpublished work of Shaffaf has obtained a result similar to the one in this post, namely that the Erdös-Ulam conjecture follows from the Bombieri-Lang conjecture, plus an additional conjecture about the rational curves in a specific surface.

Let us now give the elementary reductions to the claim that a certain variety is of general type. For sake of contradiction, let be a dense set such that the distance between any two points is rational. Then certainly contains two points that are a rational distance apart. By applying a translation, rotation, and a (rational) dilation, we may assume that these two points are and . As is dense, there is a third point of not on the axis, which after a reflection we can place in the upper half-plane; we will write it as with .

Given any two points in , the quantities are rational, and so by the cosine rule the dot product is rational as well. Since , this implies that the -component of every point in is rational; this in turn implies that the product of the -coordinates of any two points in is rational as well (since this differs from by a rational number). In particular, and are rational, and all of the points in now lie in the lattice . (This fact appears to have first been observed in the 1988 habilitationschrift of Kemnitz.)

Now take four points , in in general position (so that the octuplet avoids any pre-specified hypersurface in ); this can be done if is dense. (If one wished, one could re-use the three previous points to be three of these four points, although this ultimately makes little difference to the analysis.) If is any point in , then the distances from to are rationals that obey the equations

for , and thus determine a rational point in the affine complex variety defined as

By inspecting the projection from to , we see that is a branched cover of , with the generic cover having points (coming from the different ways to form the square roots ); in particular, is a complex affine algebraic surface, defined over the rationals. By inspecting the monodromy around the four singular base points (which switch the sign of one of the roots , while keeping the other three roots unchanged), we see that the variety is connected away from its singular set, and thus irreducible. As is topologically dense in , it is Zariski-dense in , and so generates a Zariski-dense set of rational points in . To solve the Erdös-Ulam problem, it thus suffices to show that

Claim 3For any non-zero rational and for rationals in general position, the rational points of the affine surface is not Zariski dense in .

This is already very close to a claim that can be directly resolved by the Bombieri-Lang conjecture, but is affine rather than projective, and also contains some singularities. The first issue is easy to deal with, by working with the projectivisation

of , where is the homogeneous quadratic polynomial

with

and the projective complex space is the space of all equivalence classes of tuples up to projective equivalence . By identifying the affine point with the projective point , we see that consists of the affine variety together with the set , which is the union of eight curves, each of which lies in the closure of . Thus is the projective closure of , and is thus a complex irreducible projective surface, defined over the rationals. As is cut out by four quadric equations in and has degree sixteen (as can be seen for instance by inspecting the intersection of with a generic perturbation of a fibre over the generically defined projection ), it is also a complete intersection. To show (3), it then suffices to show that the rational points in are not Zariski dense in .

Heuristically, the reason why we expect few rational points in is as follows. First observe from the projective nature of (1) that every rational point is equivalent to an integer point. But for a septuple of integers of size , the quantity is an integer point of of size , and so should only vanish about of the time. Hence the number of integer points of height comparable to should be about

this is a convergent sum if ranges over (say) powers of two, and so from standard probabilistic heuristics (see this previous post) we in fact expect only finitely many solutions, in the absence of any special algebraic structure (e.g. the structure of an abelian variety, or a birational reduction to a simpler variety) that could produce an unusually large number of solutions.

The Bombieri-Lang conjecture, Conjecture 2, can be viewed as a formalisation of the above heuristics (roughly speaking, it is one of the most optimistic natural conjectures one could make that is compatible with these heuristics while also being invariant under birational equivalence).

Unfortunately, contains some singular points. Being a complete intersection, this occurs when the Jacobian matrix of the map has less than full rank, or equivalently that the gradient vectors

for are linearly dependent, where the is in the coordinate position associated to . One way in which this can occur is if one of the gradient vectors vanish identically. This occurs at precisely points, when is equal to for some , and one has for all (so in particular ). Let us refer to these as the *obvious* singularities; they arise from the geometrically evident fact that the distance function is singular at .

The other way in which could occur is if a non-trivial linear combination of at least two of the gradient vectors vanishes. From (2), this can only occur if for some distinct , which from (1) implies that

for two choices of sign . If the signs are equal, then (as are in general position) this implies that , and then we have the singular point

If the non-trivial linear combination involved three or more gradient vectors, then by the pigeonhole principle at least two of the signs involved must be equal, and so the only singular points are (5). So the only remaining possibility is when we have two gradient vectors that are parallel but non-zero, with the signs in (3), (4) opposing. But then (as are in general position) the vectors are non-zero and non-parallel to each other, a contradiction. Thus, outside of the obvious singular points mentioned earlier, the only other singular points are the two points (5).

We will shortly show that the obvious singularities are *ordinary double points*; the surface near any of these points is analytically equivalent to an ordinary cone near the origin, which is a cone over a smooth conic curve . The two non-obvious singularities (5) are slightly more complicated than ordinary double points, they are *elliptic singularities*, which approximately resemble a cone over an elliptic curve. (As far as I can tell, this resemblance is exact in the category of real smooth manifolds, but not in the category of algebraic varieties.) If one blows up each of the point singularities of separately, no further singularities are created, and one obtains a smooth projective surface (using the Segre embedding as necessary to embed back into projective space, rather than in a product of projective spaces). Away from the singularities, the rational points of lift up to rational points of . Assuming the Bombieri-Lang conjecture, we thus are able to answer the Erdös-Ulam problem in the affirmative once we establish

This will be done below the fold, by the pedestrian device of explicitly constructing global differential forms on ; I will also be working from a complex analysis viewpoint rather than an algebraic geometry viewpoint as I am more comfortable with the former approach. (As mentioned above, though, there may well be a quicker way to establish this result by using more sophisticated machinery.)

I thank Mark Green and David Gieseker for helpful conversations (and a crash course in varieties of general type!).

Remark 5The above argument shows in fact (assuming Bombieri-Lang) that sets with all distances rational cannot be Zariski-dense, and thus (by Solymosi-de Zeeuw) must lie on a single line or circle with only finitely many exceptions. Assuming a stronger version of Bombieri-Lang involving a general number field , we obtain a similar conclusion with “rational” replaced by “lying in ” (one has to extend the Solymosi-de Zeeuw analysis to more general number fields, but this should be routine, using the analogue of Faltings’ theorem for such number fields).

Van Vu and I have just uploaded to the arXiv our paper “Random matrices have simple spectrum“. Recall that an Hermitian matrix is said to have simple eigenvalues if all of its eigenvalues are distinct. This is a very typical property of matrices to have: for instance, as discussed in this previous post, in the space of all Hermitian matrices, the space of matrices without all eigenvalues simple has codimension three, and for real symmetric cases this space has codimension two. In particular, given any random matrix ensemble of Hermitian or real symmetric matrices with an absolutely continuous distribution, we conclude that random matrices drawn from this ensemble will almost surely have simple eigenvalues.

For discrete random matrix ensembles, though, the above argument breaks down, even though general universality heuristics predict that the statistics of discrete ensembles should behave similarly to those of continuous ensembles. A model case here is the adjacency matrix of an Erdös-Rényi graph – a graph on vertices in which any pair of vertices has an independent probability of being in the graph. For the purposes of this paper one should view as fixed, e.g. , while is an asymptotic parameter going to infinity. In this context, our main result is the following (answering a question of Babai):

Our argument works for more general Wigner-type matrix ensembles, but for sake of illustration we will stick with the Erdös-Renyi case. Previous work on local universality for such matrix models (e.g. the work of Erdos, Knowles, Yau, and Yin) was able to show that any individual eigenvalue gap did not vanish with probability (in fact for some absolute constant ), but because there are different gaps that one has to simultaneously ensure to be non-zero, this did not give Theorem 1 as one is forced to apply the union bound.

Our argument in fact gives simplicity of the spectrum with probability for any fixed ; in a subsequent paper we also show that it gives a quantitative lower bound on the eigenvalue gaps (analogous to how many results on the singularity probability of random matrices can be upgraded to a bound on the least singular value).

The basic idea of argument can be sketched as follows. Suppose that has a repeated eigenvalue . We split

for a random minor and a random sign vector ; crucially, and are independent. If has a repeated eigenvalue , then by the Cauchy interlacing law, also has an eigenvalue . We now write down the eigenvector equation for at :

Extracting the top coefficients, we obtain

If we let be the -eigenvector of , then by taking inner products with we conclude that

we typically expect to be non-zero, in which case we arrive at

In other words, in order for to have a repeated eigenvalue, the top right column of has to be orthogonal to an eigenvector of the minor . Note that and are going to be independent (once we specify which eigenvector of to take as ). On the other hand, thanks to inverse Littlewood-Offord theory (specifically, we use an inverse Littlewood-Offord theorem of Nguyen and Vu), we know that the vector is unlikely to be orthogonal to any given vector independent of , unless the coefficients of are extremely special (specifically, that most of them lie in a generalised arithmetic progression). The main remaining difficulty is then to show that eigenvectors of a random matrix are typically not of this special form, and this relies on a conditioning argument originally used by Komlós to bound the singularity probability of a random sign matrix. (Basically, if an eigenvector has this special form, then one can use a fraction of the rows and columns of the random matrix to determine the eigenvector completely, while still preserving enough randomness in the remaining portion of the matrix so that this vector will in fact not be an eigenvector with high probability.)

In graph theory, the recently developed theory of *graph limits* has proven to be a useful tool for analysing large dense graphs, being a convenient reformulation of the Szemerédi regularity lemma. Roughly speaking, the theory asserts that given any sequence of finite graphs, one can extract a subsequence which converges (in a specific sense) to a continuous object known as a “graphon” – a symmetric measurable function . What “converges” means in this context is that subgraph densities converge to the associated integrals of the graphon . For instance, the edge density

converge to the integral

the triangle density

converges to the integral

the four-cycle density

converges to the integral

and so forth. One can use graph limits to prove many results in graph theory that were traditionally proven using the regularity lemma, such as the triangle removal lemma, and can also reduce many asymptotic graph theory problems to continuous problems involving multilinear integrals (although the latter problems are not necessarily easy to solve!). See this text of Lovasz for a detailed study of graph limits and their applications.

One can also express graph limits (and more generally hypergraph limits) in the language of nonstandard analysis (or of ultraproducts); see for instance this paper of Elek and Szegedy, Section 6 of this previous blog post, or this paper of Towsner. (In this post we assume some familiarity with nonstandard analysis, as reviewed for instance in the previous blog post.) Here, one starts as before with a sequence of finite graphs, and then takes an ultraproduct (with respect to some arbitrarily chosen non-principal ultrafilter ) to obtain a nonstandard graph , where is the ultraproduct of the , and similarly for the . The set can then be viewed as a symmetric subset of which is measurable with respect to the Loeb -algebra of the product (see this previous blog post for the construction of Loeb measure). A crucial point is that this -algebra is larger than the product of the Loeb -algebra of the individual vertex set . This leads to a decomposition

where the “graphon” is the orthogonal projection of onto , and the “regular error” is orthogonal to all product sets for . The graphon then captures the statistics of the nonstandard graph , in exact analogy with the more traditional graph limits: for instance, the edge density

(or equivalently, the limit of the along the ultrafilter ) is equal to the integral

where denotes Loeb measure on a nonstandard finite set ; the triangle density

(or equivalently, the limit along of the triangle densities of ) is equal to the integral

and so forth. Note that with this construction, the graphon is living on the Cartesian square of an abstract probability space , which is likely to be inseparable; but it is possible to cut down the Loeb -algebra on to minimal countable -algebra for which remains measurable (up to null sets), and then one can identify with , bringing this construction of a graphon in line with the traditional notion of a graphon. (See Remark 5 of this previous blog post for more discussion of this point.)

Additive combinatorics, which studies things like the additive structure of finite subsets of an abelian group , has many analogies and connections with asymptotic graph theory; in particular, there is the arithmetic regularity lemma of Green which is analogous to the graph regularity lemma of Szemerédi. (There is also a higher order arithmetic regularity lemma analogous to hypergraph regularity lemmas, but this is not the focus of the discussion here.) Given this, it is natural to suspect that there is a theory of “additive limits” for large additive sets of bounded doubling, analogous to the theory of graph limits for large dense graphs. The purpose of this post is to record a candidate for such an additive limit. This limit can be used as a substitute for the arithmetic regularity lemma in certain results in additive combinatorics, at least if one is willing to settle for qualitative results rather than quantitative ones; I give a few examples of this below the fold.

It seems that to allow for the most flexible and powerful manifestation of this theory, it is convenient to use the nonstandard formulation (among other things, it allows for full use of the transfer principle, whereas a more traditional limit formulation would only allow for a transfer of those quantities continuous with respect to the notion of convergence). Here, the analogue of a nonstandard graph is an *ultra approximate group* in a nonstandard group , defined as the ultraproduct of finite -approximate groups for some standard . (A -approximate group is a symmetric set containing the origin such that can be covered by or fewer translates of .) We then let be the external subgroup of generated by ; equivalently, is the union of over all standard . This space has a Loeb measure , defined by setting

whenever is an internal subset of for any standard , and extended to a countably additive measure; the arguments in Section 6 of this previous blog post can be easily modified to give a construction of this measure.

The Loeb measure is a translation invariant measure on , normalised so that has Loeb measure one. As such, one should think of as being analogous to a locally compact abelian group equipped with a Haar measure. It should be noted though that is not *actually* a locally compact group with Haar measure, for two reasons:

- There is not an obvious topology on that makes it simultaneously locally compact, Hausdorff, and -compact. (One can get one or two out of three without difficulty, though.)
- The addition operation is not measurable from the product Loeb algebra to . Instead, it is measurable from the coarser Loeb algebra to (compare with the analogous situation for nonstandard graphs).

Nevertheless, the analogy is a useful guide for the arguments that follow.

Let denote the space of bounded Loeb measurable functions (modulo almost everywhere equivalence) that are supported on for some standard ; this is a complex algebra with respect to pointwise multiplication. There is also a convolution operation , defined by setting

whenever , are bounded nonstandard functions (extended by zero to all of ), and then extending to arbitrary elements of by density. Equivalently, is the pushforward of the -measurable function under the map .

The basic structural theorem is then as follows.

Theorem 1 (Kronecker factor)Let be an ultra approximate group. Then there exists a (standard) locally compact abelian group of the formfor some standard and some compact abelian group , equipped with a Haar measure and a measurable homomorphism (using the Loeb -algebra on and the Baire -algebra on ), with the following properties:

- (i) has dense image, and is the pushforward of Loeb measure by .
- (ii) There exists sets with open and compact, such that
- (iii) Whenever with compact and open, there exists a nonstandard finite set such that
- (iv) If , then we have the convolution formula
where are the pushforwards of to , the convolution on the right-hand side is convolution using , and is the pullback map from to . In particular, if , then for all .

One can view the locally compact abelian group as a “model “or “Kronecker factor” for the ultra approximate group (in close analogy with the Kronecker factor from ergodic theory). In the case that is a genuine nonstandard finite group rather than an ultra approximate group, the non-compact components of the Kronecker group are trivial, and this theorem was implicitly established by Szegedy. The compact group is quite large, and in particular is likely to be inseparable; but as with the case of graphons, when one is only studying at most countably many functions , one can cut down the size of this group to be separable (or equivalently, second countable or metrisable) if desired, so one often works with a “reduced Kronecker factor” which is a quotient of the full Kronecker factor . Once one is in the separable case, the Baire sigma algebra is identical with the more familiar Borel sigma algebra.

Given any sequence of uniformly bounded functions for some fixed , we can view the function defined by

as an “additive limit” of the , in much the same way that graphons are limits of the indicator functions . The additive limits capture some of the statistics of the , for instance the normalised means

converge (along the ultrafilter ) to the mean

and for three sequences of functions, the normalised correlation

converges along to the correlation

the normalised Gowers norm

converges along to the Gowers norm

and so forth. We caution however that some correlations that involve evaluating more than one function at the same point will not necessarily be preserved in the additive limit; for instance the normalised norm

does not necessarily converge to the norm

but can converge instead to a larger quantity, due to the presence of the orthogonal projection in the definition (4) of .

An important special case of an additive limit occurs when the functions involved are indicator functions of some subsets of . The additive limit does not necessarily remain an indicator function, but instead takes values in (much as a graphon takes values in even though the original indicators take values in ). The convolution is then the ultralimit of the normalised convolutions ; in particular, the measure of the support of provides a lower bound on the limiting normalised cardinality of a sumset. In many situations this lower bound is an equality, but this is not necessarily the case, because the sumset could contain a large number of elements which have very few () representations as the sum of two elements of , and in the limit these portions of the sumset fall outside of the support of . (One can think of the support of as describing the “essential” sumset of , discarding those elements that have only very few representations.) Similarly for higher convolutions of . Thus one can use additive limits to partially control the growth of iterated sumsets of subsets of approximate groups , in the regime where stays bounded and goes to infinity.

Theorem 1 can be proven by Fourier-analytic means (combined with Freiman’s theorem from additive combinatorics), and we will do so below the fold. For now, we give some illustrative examples of additive limits.

Example 2 (Bohr sets)We take to be the intervals , where is a sequence going to infinity; these are -approximate groups for all . Let be an irrational real number, let be an interval in , and for each natural number let be the Bohr setIn this case, the (reduced) Kronecker factor can be taken to be the infinite cylinder with the usual Lebesgue measure . The additive limits of and end up being and , where is the finite cylinder

and is the rectangle

Geometrically, one should think of and as being wrapped around the cylinder via the homomorphism , and then one sees that is converging in some normalised weak sense to , and similarly for and . In particular, the additive limit predicts the growth rate of the iterated sumsets to be quadratic in until becomes comparable to , at which point the growth transitions to linear growth, in the regime where is bounded and is large.

If were rational instead of irrational, then one would need to replace by the finite subgroup here.

Example 3 (Structured subsets of progressions)We take be the rank two progressionwhere is a sequence going to infinity; these are -approximate groups for all . Let be the subset

Then the (reduced) Kronecker factor can be taken to be with Lebesgue measure , and the additive limits of the and are then and , where is the square

and is the circle

Geometrically, the picture is similar to the Bohr set one, except now one uses a Freiman homomorphism for to embed the original sets into the plane . In particular, one now expects the growth rate of the iterated sumsets and to be quadratic in , in the regime where is bounded and is large.

Example 4 (Dissociated sets)Let be a fixed natural number, and takewhere are randomly chosen elements of a large cyclic group , where is a sequence of primes going to infinity. These are -approximate groups. The (reduced) Kronecker factor can (almost surely) then be taken to be with counting measure, and the additive limit of is , where and is the standard basis of . In particular, the growth rates of should grow approximately like for bounded and large.

Example 5 (Random subsets of groups)Let be a sequence of finite additive groups whose order is going to infinity. Let be a random subset of of some fixed density . Then (almost surely) the Kronecker factor here can be reduced all the way to the trivial group , and the additive limit of the is the constant function . The convolutions then converge in the ultralimit (modulo almost everywhere equivalence) to the pullback of ; this reflects the fact that of the elements of can be represented as the sum of two elements of in ways. In particular, occupies a proportion of .

Example 6 (Trigonometric series)Take for a sequence of primes going to infinity, and for each let be an infinite sequence of frequencies chosen uniformly and independently from . Let denote the random trigonometric seriesThen (almost surely) we can take the reduced Kronecker factor to be the infinite torus (with the Haar probability measure ), and the additive limit of the then becomes the function defined by the formula

In fact, the pullback is the ultralimit of the . As such, for any standard exponent , the normalised norm

can be seen to converge to the limit

The reader is invited to consider combinations of the above examples, e.g. random subsets of Bohr sets, to get a sense of the general case of Theorem 1.

It is likely that this theorem can be extended to the noncommutative setting, using the noncommutative Freiman theorem of Emmanuel Breuillard, Ben Green, and myself, but I have not attempted to do so here (see though this recent preprint of Anush Tserunyan for some related explorations); in a separate direction, there should be extensions that can control higher Gowers norms, in the spirit of the work of Szegedy.

Note: the arguments below will presume some familiarity with additive combinatorics and with nonstandard analysis, and will be a little sketchy in places.

In addition to the Fields medallists mentioned in the previous post, the IMU also awarded the Nevanlinna prize to Subhash Khot, the Gauss prize to Stan Osher (my colleague here at UCLA!), and the Chern medal to Phillip Griffiths. Like I did in 2010, I’ll try to briefly discuss one result of each of the prize winners, though the fields of mathematics here are even further from my expertise than those discussed in the previous post (and all the caveats from that post apply here also).

Subhash Khot is best known for his Unique Games Conjecture, a problem in complexity theory that is perhaps second in importance only to the problem for the purposes of demarcating the mysterious line between “easy” and “hard” problems (if one follows standard practice and uses “polynomial time” as the definition of “easy”). The problem can be viewed as an assertion that it is difficult to find exact solutions to certain standard theoretical computer science problems (such as -SAT); thanks to the NP-completeness phenomenon, it turns out that the precise problem posed here is not of critical importance, and -SAT may be substituted with one of the many other problems known to be NP-complete. The unique games conjecture is similarly an assertion about the difficulty of finding even *approximate* solutions to certain standard problems, in particular “unique games” problems in which one needs to colour the vertices of a graph in such a way that the colour of one vertex of an edge is determined uniquely (via a specified matching) by the colour of the other vertex. This is an easy problem to solve if one insists on exact solutions (in which 100% of the edges have a colouring compatible with the specified matching), but becomes extremely difficult if one permits approximate solutions, with no exact solution available. In analogy with the NP-completeness phenomenon, the threshold for approximate satisfiability of many other problems (such as the MAX-CUT problem) is closely connected with the truth of the unique games conjecture; remarkably, the truth of the unique games conjecture would imply asymptotically sharp thresholds for many of these problems. This has implications for many theoretical computer science constructions which rely on hardness of approximation, such as probabilistically checkable proofs. For a more detailed survey of the unique games conjecture and its implications, see this Bulletin article of Trevisan.

My colleague Stan Osher has worked in many areas of applied mathematics, ranging from image processing to modeling fluids for major animation studies such as Pixar or Dreamworks, but today I would like to talk about one of his contributions that is close to an area of my own expertise, namely compressed sensing. One of the basic reconstruction problem in compressed sensing is the basis pursuit problem of finding the vector in an affine space (where and are given, and is typically somewhat smaller than ) which minimises the -norm of the vector . This is a convex optimisation problem, and thus solvable in principle (it is a polynomial time problem, and thus “easy” in the above theoretical computer science sense). However, once and get moderately large (e.g. of the order of ), standard linear optimisation routines begin to become computationally expensive; also, it is difficult for off-the-shelf methods to exploit any additional structure (e.g. sparsity) in the measurement matrix . Much of the problem comes from the fact that the functional is only barely convex. One way to speed up the optimisation problem is to relax it by replacing the constraint with a convex penalty term , thus one is now trying to minimise the unconstrained functional

This functional is more convex, and is over a computationally simpler domain than the affine space , so is easier (though still not entirely trivial) to optimise over. However, the minimiser to this problem need not match the minimiser to the original problem, particularly if the (sub-)gradient of the original functional is large at , and if is not set to be small. (And setting *too* small will cause other difficulties with numerically solving the optimisation problem, due to the need to divide by very small denominators.) However, if one modifies the objective function by an additional linear term

then some simple convexity considerations reveal that the minimiser to this new problem *will* match the minimiser to the original problem, provided that is (or more precisely, lies in) the (sub-)gradient of at – even if is not small. But, one does not know in advance what the correct value of should be, because one does not know what the minimiser is.

With Yin, Goldfarb and Darbon, Osher introduced a Bregman iteration method in which one solves for and simultaneously; given an initial guess for both and , one first updates to the minimiser of the convex functional

and then updates to the natural value of the subgradient at , namely

(note upon taking the first variation of (1) that is indeed in the subgradient). This procedure converges remarkably quickly (both in theory and in practice) to the true minimiser even for non-small values of , and also has some ability to be parallelised, and has led to actual performance improvements of an order of magnitude or more in certain compressed sensing problems (such as reconstructing an MRI image).

Phillip Griffiths has made many contributions to complex, algebraic and differential geometry, and I am not qualified to describe most of these; my primary exposure to his work is through his text on algebraic geometry with Harris, but as excellent though that text is, it is not really representative of his research. But I thought I would mention one cute result of his related to the famous Nash embedding theorem. Suppose that one has a smooth -dimensional Riemannian manifold that one wants to embed locally into a Euclidean space . The Nash embedding theorem guarantees that one can do this if is large enough depending on , but what is the minimal value of one can get away with? Many years ago, my colleague Robert Greene showed that sufficed (a simplified proof was subsequently given by Gunther). However, this is not believed to be sharp; if one replaces “smooth” with “real analytic” then a standard Cauchy-Kovalevski argument shows that is possible, and no better. So this suggests that is the threshold for the smooth problem also, but this remains open in general. The cases is trivial, and the case is not too difficult (if the curvature is non-zero) as the codimension is one in this case, and the problem reduces to that of solving a Monge-Ampere equation. With Bryant and Yang, Griffiths settled the case, under a non-degeneracy condition on the Einstein tensor. This is quite a serious paper – over 100 pages combining differential geometry, PDE methods (e.g. Nash-Moser iteration), and even some harmonic analysis (e.g. they rely at one key juncture on an extension theorem of my advisor, Elias Stein). The main difficulty is that that the relevant PDE degenerates along a certain characteristic submanifold of the cotangent bundle, which then requires an extremely delicate analysis to handle.

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.

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