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Tamar Ziegler and I have just uploaded to the arXiv two related papers: “Concatenation theorems for anti-Gowers-uniform functions and Host-Kra characteoristic factors” and “polynomial patterns in primes“, with the former developing a “quantitative Bessel inequality” for local Gowers norms that is crucial in the latter.

We use the term “concatenation theorem” to denote results in which structural control of a function in two or more “directions” can be “concatenated” into structural control in a *joint* direction. A trivial example of such a concatenation theorem is the following: if a function is constant in the first variable (thus is constant for each ), and also constant in the second variable (thus is constant for each ), then it is constant in the joint variable . A slightly less trivial example: if a function is affine-linear in the first variable (thus, for each , there exist such that for all ) and affine-linear in the second variable (thus, for each , there exist such that for all ) then is a quadratic polynomial in ; in fact it must take the form

for some real numbers . (This can be seen for instance by using the affine linearity in to show that the coefficients are also affine linear.)

The same phenomenon extends to higher degree polynomials. Given a function from one additive group to another, we say that is of *degree less than * along a subgroup of if all the -fold iterated differences of along directions in vanish, that is to say

for all and , where is the difference operator

(We adopt the convention that the only of degree less than is the zero function.)

We then have the following simple proposition:

Proposition 1 (Concatenation of polynomiality)Let be of degree less than along one subgroup of , and of degree less than along another subgroup of , for some . Then is of degree less than along the subgroup of .

Note the previous example was basically the case when , , , , and .

*Proof:* The claim is trivial for or (in which is constant along or respectively), so suppose inductively and the claim has already been proven for smaller values of .

We take a derivative in a direction along to obtain

where is the shift of by . Then we take a further shift by a direction to obtain

leading to the *cocycle equation*

Since has degree less than along and degree less than along , has degree less than along and less than along , so is degree less than along by induction hypothesis. Similarly is also of degree less than along . Combining this with the cocycle equation we see that is of degree less than along for any , and hence is of degree less than along , as required.

While this proposition is simple, it already illustrates some basic principles regarding how one would go about proving a concatenation theorem:

- (i) One should perform induction on the degrees involved, and take advantage of the recursive nature of degree (in this case, the fact that a function is of less than degree along some subgroup of directions iff all of its first derivatives along are of degree less than ).
- (ii) Structure is preserved by operations such as addition, shifting, and taking derivatives. In particular, if a function is of degree less than along some subgroup , then any derivative of is also of degree less than along ,
*even if does not belong to*.

Here is another simple example of a concatenation theorem. Suppose an at most countable additive group acts by measure-preserving shifts on some probability space ; we call the pair (or more precisely ) a *-system*. We say that a function is a *generalised eigenfunction of degree less than * along some subgroup of and some if one has

almost everywhere for all , and some functions of degree less than along , with the convention that a function has degree less than if and only if it is equal to . Thus for instance, a function is an generalised eigenfunction of degree less than along if it is constant on almost every -ergodic component of , and is a generalised function of degree less than along if it is an eigenfunction of the shift action on almost every -ergodic component of . A basic example of a higher order eigenfunction is the function on the *skew shift* with action given by the generator for some irrational . One can check that for every integer , where is a generalised eigenfunction of degree less than along , so is of degree less than along .

We then have

Proposition 2 (Concatenation of higher order eigenfunctions)Let be a -system, and let be a generalised eigenfunction of degree less than along one subgroup of , and a generalised eigenfunction of degree less than along another subgroup of , for some . Then is a generalised eigenfunction of degree less than along the subgroup of .

The argument is almost identical to that of the previous proposition and is left as an exercise to the reader. The key point is the point (ii) identified earlier: the space of generalised eigenfunctions of degree less than along is preserved by multiplication and shifts, as well as the operation of “taking derivatives” even along directions that do not lie in . (To prove this latter claim, one should restrict to the region where is non-zero, and then divide by to locate .)

A typical example of this proposition in action is as follows: consider the -system given by the -torus with generating shifts

for some irrational , which can be checked to give a action

The function can then be checked to be a generalised eigenfunction of degree less than along , and also less than along , and less than along . One can view this example as the dynamical systems translation of the example (1) (see this previous post for some more discussion of this sort of correspondence).

The main results of our concatenation paper are analogues of these propositions concerning a more complicated notion of “polynomial-like” structure that are of importance in additive combinatorics and in ergodic theory. On the ergodic theory side, the notion of structure is captured by the *Host-Kra characteristic factors* of a -system along a subgroup . These factors can be defined in a number of ways. One is by duality, using the *Gowers-Host-Kra uniformity seminorms* (defined for instance here) . Namely, is the factor of defined up to equivalence by the requirement that

An equivalent definition is in terms of the *dual functions* of along , which can be defined recursively by setting and

where denotes the ergodic average along a Følner sequence in (in fact one can also define these concepts in non-amenable abelian settings as per this previous post). The factor can then be alternately defined as the factor generated by the dual functions for .

In the case when and is -ergodic, a deep theorem of Host and Kra shows that the factor is equivalent to the inverse limit of nilsystems of step less than . A similar statement holds with replaced by any finitely generated group by Griesmer, while the case of an infinite vector space over a finite field was treated in this paper of Bergelson, Ziegler, and myself. The situation is more subtle when is not -ergodic, or when is -ergodic but is a proper subgroup of acting non-ergodically, when one has to start considering measurable families of directional nilsystems; see for instance this paper of Austin for some of the subtleties involved (for instance, higher order group cohomology begins to become relevant!).

One of our main theorems is then

Proposition 3 (Concatenation of characteristic factors)Let be a -system, and let be measurable with respect to the factor and with respect to the factor for some and some subgroups of . Then is also measurable with respect to the factor .

We give two proofs of this proposition in the paper; an ergodic-theoretic proof using the Host-Kra theory of “cocycles of type (along a subgroup )”, which can be used to inductively describe the factors , and a combinatorial proof based on a combinatorial analogue of this proposition which is harder to state (but which roughly speaking asserts that a function which is nearly orthogonal to all bounded functions of small norm, and also to all bounded functions of small norm, is also nearly orthogonal to alll bounded functions of small norm). The combinatorial proof parallels the proof of Proposition 2. A key point is that dual functions obey a property analogous to being a generalised eigenfunction, namely that

where and is a “structured function of order ” along . (In the language of this previous paper of mine, this is an assertion that dual functions are uniformly almost periodic of order .) Again, the point (ii) above is crucial, and in particular it is key that any structure that has is inherited by the associated functions and . This sort of inheritance is quite easy to accomplish in the ergodic setting, as there is a ready-made language of factors to encapsulate the concept of structure, and the shift-invariance and -algebra properties of factors make it easy to show that just about any “natural” operation one performs on a function measurable with respect to a given factor, returns a function that is still measurable in that factor. In the finitary combinatorial setting, though, encoding the fact (ii) becomes a remarkably complicated notational nightmare, requiring a huge amount of “epsilon management” and “second-order epsilon management” (in which one manages not only scalar epsilons, but also function-valued epsilons that depend on other parameters). In order to avoid all this we were forced to utilise a nonstandard analysis framework for the combinatorial theorems, which made the arguments greatly resemble the ergodic arguments in many respects (though the two settings are still not equivalent, see this previous blog post for some comparisons between the two settings). Unfortunately the arguments are still rather complicated.

For combinatorial applications, dual formulations of the concatenation theorem are more useful. A direct dualisation of the theorem yields the following decomposition theorem: a bounded function which is small in norm can be split into a component that is small in norm, and a component that is small in norm. (One may wish to understand this type of result by first proving the following baby version: any function that has mean zero on every coset of , can be decomposed as the sum of a function that has mean zero on every coset, and a function that has mean zero on every coset. This is dual to the assertion that a function that is constant on every coset and constant on every coset, is constant on every coset.) Combining this with some standard “almost orthogonality” arguments (i.e. Cauchy-Schwarz) give the following Bessel-type inequality: if one has a lot of subgroups and a bounded function is small in norm for most , then it is also small in norm for most . (Here is a baby version one may wish to warm up on: if a function has small mean on for some large prime , then it has small mean on most of the cosets of most of the one-dimensional subgroups of .)

There is also a generalisation of the above Bessel inequality (as well as several of the other results mentioned above) in which the subgroups are replaced by more general *coset progressions* (of bounded rank), so that one has a Bessel inequailty controlling “local” Gowers uniformity norms such as by “global” Gowers uniformity norms such as . This turns out to be particularly useful when attempting to compute polynomial averages such as

for various functions . After repeated use of the van der Corput lemma, one can control such averages by expressions such as

(actually one ends up with more complicated expressions than this, but let’s use this example for sake of discussion). This can be viewed as an average of various Gowers uniformity norms of along arithmetic progressions of the form for various . Using the above Bessel inequality, this can be controlled in turn by an average of various Gowers uniformity norms along rank two generalised arithmetic progressions of the form for various . But for generic , this rank two progression is close in a certain technical sense to the “global” interval (this is ultimately due to the basic fact that two randomly chosen large integers are likely to be coprime, or at least have a small gcd). As a consequence, one can use the concatenation theorems from our first paper to control expressions such as (2) in terms of *global* Gowers uniformity norms. This is important in number theoretic applications, when one is interested in computing sums such as

or

where and are the Möbius and von Mangoldt functions respectively. This is because we are able to control global Gowers uniformity norms of such functions (thanks to results such as the proof of the inverse conjecture for the Gowers norms, the orthogonality of the Möbius function with nilsequences, and asymptotics for linear equations in primes), but much less control is currently available for local Gowers uniformity norms, even with the assistance of the generalised Riemann hypothesis (see this previous blog post for some further discussion).

By combining these tools and strategies with the “transference principle” approach from our previous paper (as improved using the recent “densification” technique of Conlon, Fox, and Zhao, discussed in this previous post), we are able in particular to establish the following result:

Theorem 4 (Polynomial patterns in the primes)Let be polynomials of degree at most , whose degree coefficients are all distinct, for some . Suppose that is admissible in the sense that for every prime , there are such that are all coprime to . Then there exist infinitely many pairs of natural numbers such that are prime.

Furthermore, we obtain an asymptotic for the number of such pairs in the range , (actually for minor technical reasons we reduce the range of to be very slightly less than ). In fact one could in principle obtain asymptotics for smaller values of , and relax the requirement that the degree coefficients be distinct with the requirement that no two of the differ by a constant, provided one had good enough local uniformity results for the Möbius or von Mangoldt functions. For instance, we can obtain an asymptotic for triplets of the form unconditionally for , and conditionally on GRH for all , using known results on primes in short intervals on average.

The case of this theorem was obtained in a previous paper of myself and Ben Green (using the aforementioned conjectures on the Gowers uniformity norm and the orthogonality of the Möbius function with nilsequences, both of which are now proven). For higher , an older result of Tamar and myself was able to tackle the case when (though our results there only give lower bounds on the number of pairs , and no asymptotics). Both of these results generalise my older theorem with Ben Green on the primes containing arbitrarily long arithmetic progressions. The theorem also extends to multidimensional polynomials, in which case there are some additional previous results; see the paper for more details. We also get a technical refinement of our previous result on narrow polynomial progressions in (dense subsets of) the primes by making the progressions just a little bit narrower in the case of the density of the set one is using is small.

. This latter Bessel type inequality is particularly useful in combinatorial and number-theoretic applications, as it allows one to convert “global” Gowers uniformity norm (basically, bounds on norms such as ) to “local” Gowers uniformity norm control.

Van Vu and I just posted to the arXiv our paper “sum-free sets in groups” (submitted to Discrete Analysis), as well as a companion survey article (submitted to J. Comb.). Given a subset of an additive group , define the quantity to be the cardinality of the largest subset of which is *sum-free in * in the sense that all the sums with distinct elements of lie outside of . For instance, if is itself a group, then , since no two elements of can sum to something outside of . More generally, if is the union of groups, then is at most , thanks to the pigeonhole principle.

If is the integers, then there are no non-trivial subgroups, and one can thus expect to start growing with . For instance, one has the following easy result:

*Proof:* We use an argument of Ruzsa, which is based in turn on an older argument of Choi. Let be the largest element of , and then recursively, once has been selected, let be the largest element of not equal to any of the , such that for all , terminating this construction when no such can be located. This gives a sequence of elements in which are sum-free in , and with the property that for any , either is equal to one of the , or else for some with . Iterating this, we see that any is of the form for some and . The number of such expressions is at most , thus which implies . Since , the claim follows.

In particular, we have for subsets of the integers. It has been possible to improve upon this easy bound, but only with remarkable effort. The best lower bound currently is

a result of Shao (building upon earlier work of Sudakov, Szemeredi, and Vu and of Dousse). In the opposite direction, a construction of Ruzsa gives examples of large sets with .

Using the standard tool of Freiman homomorphisms, the above results for the integers extend to other torsion-free abelian groups . In our paper we study the opposite case where is finite (but still abelian). In this paper of Erdös (in which the quantity was first introduced), the following question was posed: if is sufficiently large depending on , does this imply the existence of two elements with ? As it turns out, we were able to find some simple counterexamples to this statement. For instance, if is any finite additive group, then the set has but with no summing to zero; this type of example in fact works with replaced by any larger Mersenne prime, and we also have a counterexample in for arbitrarily large. However, in the positive direction, we can show that the answer to Erdös’s question is positive if is assumed to have no small prime factors. That is to say,

Theorem 2For every there exists such that if is a finite abelian group whose order is not divisible by any prime less than or equal to , and is a subset of with order at least and , then there exist with .

There are two main tools used to prove this result. One is an “arithmetic removal lemma” proven by Král, Serra, and Vena. Note that the condition means that for any *distinct* , at least one of the , , must also lie in . Roughly speaking, the arithmetic removal lemma allows one to “almost” remove the requirement that be distinct, which basically now means that for almost all . This near-dilation symmetry, when combined with the hypothesis that has no small prime factors, gives a lot of “dispersion” in the Fourier coefficients of which can now be exploited to prove the theorem.

The second tool is the following structure theorem, which is the main result of our paper, and goes a fair ways towards classifying sets for which is small:

Theorem 3Let be a finite subset of an arbitrary additive group , with . Then one can find finite subgroups with such that and . Furthermore, if , then the exceptional set is empty.

Roughly speaking, this theorem shows that the example of the union of subgroups mentioned earlier is more or less the “only” example of sets with , modulo the addition of some small exceptional sets and some refinement of the subgroups to dense subsets.

This theorem has the flavour of other inverse theorems in additive combinatorics, such as Freiman’s theorem, and indeed one can use Freiman’s theorem (and related tools, such as the Balog-Szemeredi theorem) to easily get a weaker version of this theorem. Indeed, if there are no sum-free subsets of of order , then a fraction of all pairs in must have their sum also in (otherwise one could take random elements of and they would be sum-free in with positive probability). From this and the Balog-Szemeredi theorem and Freiman’s theorem (in arbitrary abelian groups, as established by Green and Ruzsa), we see that must be “commensurate” with a “coset progression” of bounded rank. One can then eliminate the torsion-free component of this coset progression by a number of methods (e.g. by using variants of the argument in Proposition 1), with the upshot being that one can locate a finite group that has large intersection with .

At this point it is tempting to simply remove from and iterate. But one runs into a technical difficulty that removing a set such as from can alter the quantity in unpredictable ways, so one has to still keep around when analysing the residual set . A second difficulty is that the latter set could be considerably smaller than or , but still large in absolute terms, so in particular any error term whose size is only bounded by for a small could be massive compared with the residual set , and so such error terms would be unacceptable. One can get around these difficulties if one first performs some preliminary “normalisation” of the group , so that the residual set does not intersect any coset of too strongly. The arguments become even more complicated when one starts removing more than one group from and analyses the residual set ; indeed the “epsilon management” involved became so fearsomely intricate that we were forced to use a nonstandard analysis formulation of the problem in order to keep the complexity of the argument at a reasonable level (cf. my previous blog post on this topic). One drawback of doing so is that we have no effective bounds for the implied constants in our main theorem; it would be of interest to obtain a more direct proof of our main theorem that would lead to effective bounds.

I’ve just uploaded to the arXiv my paper Finite time blowup for high dimensional nonlinear wave systems with bounded smooth nonlinearity, submitted to Comm. PDE. This paper is in the same spirit as (though not directly related to) my previous paper on finite time blowup of supercritical NLW systems, and was inspired by a question posed to me some time ago by Jeffrey Rauch. Here, instead of looking at supercritical equations, we look at an extremely subcritical equation, namely a system of the form

where is the unknown field, and is the nonlinearity, which we assume to have all derivatives bounded. A typical example of such an equation is the higher-dimensional sine-Gordon equation

for a scalar field . Here is the d’Alembertian operator. We restrict attention here to classical (i.e. smooth) solutions to (1).

We do not assume any Hamiltonian structure, so we do not require to be a gradient of a potential . But even without such Hamiltonian structure, the equation (1) is very well behaved, with many *a priori* bounds available. For instance, if the initial position and initial velocity are smooth and compactly supported, then from finite speed of propagation has uniformly bounded compact support for all in a bounded interval. As the nonlinearity is bounded, this immediately places in in any bounded time interval, which by the energy inequality gives an a priori bound on in this time interval. Next, from the chain rule we have

which (from the assumption that is bounded) shows that is in , which by the energy inequality again now gives an a priori bound on .

One might expect that one could keep iterating this and obtain *a priori* bounds on in arbitrarily smooth norms. In low dimensions such as , this is a fairly easy task, since the above estimates and Sobolev embedding already place one in , and the nonlinear map is easily verified to preserve the space for any natural number , from which one obtains a priori bounds in any Sobolev space; from this and standard energy methods, one can then establish global regularity for this equation (that is to say, any smooth choice of initial data generates a global smooth solution). However, one starts running into trouble in higher dimensions, in which no bound is available. The main problem is that even a really nice nonlinearity such as is unbounded in higher Sobolev norms. The estimates

and

ensure that the map is bounded in low regularity spaces like or , but one already runs into trouble with the second derivative

where there is a troublesome lower order term of size which becomes difficult to control in higher dimensions, preventing the map to be bounded in . Ultimately, the issue here is that when is not controlled in , the function can oscillate at a much higher frequency than ; for instance, if is the one-dimensional wave for some and , then oscillates at frequency , but the function more or less oscillates at the larger frequency .

In medium dimensions, it is possible to use dispersive estimates for the wave equation (such as the famous Strichartz estimates) to overcome these problems. This line of inquiry was pursued (albeit for slightly different classes of nonlinearity than those considered here) by Heinz-von Wahl, Pecher (in a series of papers), Brenner, and Brenner-von Wahl; to cut a long story short, one of the conclusions of these papers was that one had global regularity for equations such as (1) in dimensions . (I reprove this result using modern Strichartz estimate and Littlewood-Paley techniques in an appendix to my paper. The references given also allow for some growth in the nonlinearity , but we will not detail the precise hypotheses used in these papers here.)

In my paper, I complement these positive results with an almost matching negative result:

Theorem 1If and , then there exists a nonlinearity with all derivatives bounded, and a solution to (1) that is smooth at time zero, but develops a singularity in finite time.

The construction crucially relies on the ability to choose the nonlinearity , and also needs some injectivity properties on the solution (after making a symmetry reduction using an assumption of spherical symmetry to view as a function of variables rather than ) which restricts our counterexample to the case. Thus the model case of the higher-dimensional sine-Gordon equation is not covered by our arguments. Nevertheless (as with previous finite-time blowup results discussed on this blog), one can view this result as a *barrier* to trying to prove regularity for equations such as in eleven and higher dimensions, as any such argument must somehow use a property of that equation that is not applicable to the more general system (1).

Let us first give some back-of-the-envelope calculations suggesting why there could be finite time blowup in eleven and higher dimensions. For sake of this discussion let us restrict attention to the sine-Gordon equation . The blowup ansatz we will use is as follows: for each frequency in a sequence of large quantities going to infinity, there will be a spacetime “cube” on which the solution oscillates with “amplitude” and “frequency” , where is an exponent to be chosen later; this ansatz is of course compatible with the uncertainty principle. Since as , this will create a singularity at the spacetime origin . To make this ansatz plausible, we wish to make the oscillation of on driven primarily by the forcing term at . Thus, by Duhamel’s formula, we expect a relation roughly of the form

on , where is the usual free wave propagator, and is the indicator function of .

On , oscillates with amplitude and frequency , we expect the derivative to be of size about , and so from the principle of stationary phase we expect to oscillate at frequency about . Since the wave propagator preserves frequencies, and is supposed to be of frequency on we are thus led to the requirement

Next, when restricted to frequencies of order , the propagator “behaves like” , where is the spherical averaging operator

where is surface measure on the unit sphere , and is the volume of that sphere. In our setting, is comparable to , and so we have the informal approximation

on .

Since is bounded, is bounded as well. This gives a (non-rigorous) upper bound

which when combined with our ansatz that has ampitude about on , gives the constraint

which on applying (2) gives the further constraint

which can be rearranged as

It is now clear that the optimal choice of is

and this blowup ansatz is only self-consistent when

or equivalently if .

To turn this ansatz into an actual blowup example, we will construct as the sum of various functions that solve the wave equation with forcing term in , and which concentrate in with the amplitude and frequency indicated by the above heuristic analysis. The remaining task is to show that can be written in the form for some with all derivatives bounded. For this one needs some injectivity properties of (after imposing spherical symmetry to impose a dimensional reduction on the domain of from dimensions to ). This requires one to construct some solutions to the free wave equation that have some unusual restrictions on the range (for instance, we will need a solution taking values in the plane that avoid one quadrant of that plane). In order to do this we take advantage of the very explicit nature of the fundamental solution to the wave equation in odd dimensions (such as ), particularly under the assumption of spherical symmetry. Specifically, one can show that in odd dimension , any spherically symmetric function of the form

for an arbitrary smooth function , will solve the free wave equation; this is ultimately due to iterating the “ladder operator” identity

This precise and relatively simple formula for allows one to create “bespoke” solutions that obey various unusual properties, without too much difficulty.

It is not clear to me what to conjecture for . The blowup ansatz given above is a little inefficient, in that the frequency component of the solution is only generated from a portion of the component, namely the portion close to a certain light cone. In particular, the solution does not saturate the Strichartz estimates that are used to establish the positive results for , which helps explain the slight gap between the positive and negative results. It may be that a more complicated ansatz could work to give a negative result in ten dimensions; conversely, it is also possible that one could use more advanced estimates than the Strichartz estimate (that somehow capture the “thinness” of the fundamental solution, and not just its dispersive properties) to stretch the positive results to ten dimensions. Which side the case falls in all come down to some rather delicate numerology.

…

Kevin Ford, James Maynard, and I have uploaded to the arXiv our preprint “Chains of large gaps between primes“. This paper was announced in our previous paper with Konyagin and Green, which was concerned with the largest gap

between consecutive primes up to , in which we improved the Rankin bound of

to

for large (where we use the abbreviations , , and ). Here, we obtain an analogous result for the quantity

which measures how far apart the gaps between chains of consecutive primes can be. Our main result is

whenever is sufficiently large depending on , with the implied constant here absolute (and effective). The factor of is inherent to the method, and related to the basic probabilistic fact that if one selects numbers at random from the unit interval , then one expects the minimum gap between adjacent numbers to be about (i.e. smaller than the mean spacing of by an additional factor of ).

Our arguments combine those from the previous paper with the matrix method of Maier, who (in our notation) showed that

for an infinite sequence of going to infinity. (Maier needed to restrict to an infinite sequence to avoid Siegel zeroes, but we are able to resolve this issue by the now standard technique of simply eliminating a prime factor of an exceptional conductor from the sieve-theoretic portion of the argument. As a byproduct, this also makes all of the estimates in our paper effective.)

As its name suggests, the Maier matrix method is usually presented by imagining a matrix of numbers, and using information about the distribution of primes in the columns of this matrix to deduce information about the primes in at least one of the rows of the matrix. We found it convenient to interpret this method in an equivalent probabilistic form as follows. Suppose one wants to find an interval which contained a block of at least primes, each separated from each other by at least (ultimately, will be something like and something like ). One can do this by the probabilistic method: pick to be a random large natural number (with the precise distribution to be chosen later), and try to lower bound the probability that the interval contains at least primes, no two of which are within of each other.

By carefully choosing the residue class of with respect to small primes, one can eliminate several of the from consideration of being prime immediately. For instance, if is chosen to be large and even, then the with even have no chance of being prime and can thus be eliminated; similarly if is large and odd, then cannot be prime for any odd . Using the methods of our previous paper, we can find a residue class (where is a product of a large number of primes) such that, if one chooses to be a large random element of (that is, for some large random integer ), then the set of shifts for which still has a chance of being prime has size comparable to something like ; furthermore this set is fairly well distributed in in the sense that it does not concentrate too strongly in any short subinterval of . The main new difficulty, not present in the previous paper, is to get *lower* bounds on the size of in addition to upper bounds, but this turns out to be achievable by a suitable modification of the arguments.

Using a version of the prime number theorem in arithmetic progressions due to Gallagher, one can show that for each remaining shift , is going to be prime with probability comparable to , so one expects about primes in the set . An upper bound sieve (e.g. the Selberg sieve) also shows that for any distinct , the probability that and are both prime is . Using this and some routine second moment calculations, one can then show that with large probability, the set will indeed contain about primes, no two of which are closer than to each other; with no other numbers in this interval being prime, this gives a lower bound on .

I’ve just uploaded two related papers to the arXiv:

- The logarithmically averaged Chowla and Elliott conjectures for two-point correlations, submitted to Forum of Mathematics, Pi; and
- The Erdos discrepancy problem, submitted to the new arXiv overlay journal, Discrete Analysis (see this recent announcement on Tim Gowers’ blog).

This pair of papers is an outgrowth of these two recent blog posts and the ensuing discussion. In the first paper, we establish the following logarithmically averaged version of the Chowla conjecture (in the case of two-point correlations (or “pair correlations”)):

Theorem 1 (Logarithmically averaged Chowla conjecture)Let be natural numbers, and let be integers such that . Let be a quantity depending on that goes to infinity as . Let denote the Liouville function. Then one has

For comparison, the non-averaged Chowla conjecture would imply that

which is a strictly stronger estimate than (2), and remains open.

The arguments also extend to other completely multiplicative functions than the Liouville function. In particular, one obtains a slightly averaged version of the non-asymptotic Elliott conjecture that was shown in the previous blog post to imply a positive solution to the Erdos discrepancy problem. The averaged version of the conjecture established in this paper is slightly weaker than the one assumed in the previous blog post, but it turns out that the arguments there can be modified without much difficulty to accept this averaged Elliott conjecture as input. In particular, we obtain an unconditional solution to the Erdos discrepancy problem as a consequence; this is detailed in the second paper listed above. In fact we can also handle the vector-valued version of the Erdos discrepancy problem, in which the sequence takes values in the unit sphere of an arbitrary Hilbert space, rather than in .

Estimates such as (2) or (3) are known to be subject to the “parity problem” (discussed numerous times previously on this blog), which roughly speaking means that they cannot be proven solely using “linear” estimates on functions such as the von Mangoldt function. However, it is known that the parity problem can be circumvented using “bilinear” estimates, and this is basically what is done here.

We now describe in informal terms the proof of Theorem 1, focusing on the model case (2) for simplicity. Suppose for contradiction that the left-hand side of (2) was large and (say) positive. Using the multiplicativity , we conclude that

is also large and positive for all primes that are not too large; note here how the logarithmic averaging allows us to leave the constraint unchanged. Summing in , we conclude that

is large and positive for any given set of medium-sized primes. By a standard averaging argument, this implies that

is large for many choices of , where is a medium-sized parameter at our disposal to choose, and we take to be some set of primes that are somewhat smaller than . (A similar approach was taken in this recent paper of Matomaki, Radziwill, and myself to study sign patterns of the Möbius function.) To obtain the required contradiction, one thus wants to demonstrate significant cancellation in the expression (4). As in that paper, we view as a random variable, in which case (4) is essentially a bilinear sum of the random sequence along a random graph on , in which two vertices are connected if they differ by a prime in that divides . A key difficulty in controlling this sum is that for randomly chosen , the sequence and the graph need not be independent. To get around this obstacle we introduce a new argument which we call the “entropy decrement argument” (in analogy with the “density increment argument” and “energy increment argument” that appear in the literature surrounding Szemerédi’s theorem on arithmetic progressions, and also reminiscent of the “entropy compression argument” of Moser and Tardos, discussed in this previous post). This argument, which is a simple consequence of the Shannon entropy inequalities, can be viewed as a quantitative version of the standard subadditivity argument that establishes the existence of Kolmogorov-Sinai entropy in topological dynamical systems; it allows one to select a scale parameter (in some suitable range ) for which the sequence and the graph exhibit some weak independence properties (or more precisely, the mutual information between the two random variables is small).

Informally, the entropy decrement argument goes like this: if the sequence has significant mutual information with , then the entropy of the sequence for will grow a little slower than linearly, due to the fact that the graph has zero entropy (knowledge of more or less completely determines the shifts of the graph); this can be formalised using the classical Shannon inequalities for entropy (and specifically, the non-negativity of conditional mutual information). But the entropy cannot drop below zero, so by increasing as necessary, at some point one must reach a metastable region (cf. the finite convergence principle discussed in this previous blog post), within which very little mutual information can be shared between the sequence and the graph . Curiously, for the application it is not enough to have a purely quantitative version of this argument; one needs a quantitative bound (which gains a factor of a bit more than on the trivial bound for mutual information), and this is surprisingly delicate (it ultimately comes down to the fact that the series diverges, which is only barely true).

Once one locates a scale with the low mutual information property, one can use standard concentration of measure results such as the Hoeffding inequality to approximate (4) by the significantly simpler expression

The important thing here is that Hoeffding’s inequality gives exponentially strong bounds on the failure probability, which is needed to counteract the logarithms that are inevitably present whenever trying to use entropy inequalities. The expression (5) can then be controlled in turn by an application of the Hardy-Littlewood circle method and a non-trivial estimate

for averaged short sums of a modulated Liouville function established in another recent paper by Matomäki, Radziwill and myself.

When one uses this method to study more general sums such as

one ends up having to consider expressions such as

where is the coefficient . When attacking this sum with the circle method, one soon finds oneself in the situation of wanting to locate the large Fourier coefficients of the exponential sum

In many cases (such as in the application to the Erdös discrepancy problem), the coefficient is identically , and one can understand this sum satisfactorily using the classical results of Vinogradov: basically, is large when lies in a “major arc” and is small when it lies in a “minor arc”. For more general functions , the coefficients are more or less arbitrary; the large values of are no longer confined to the major arc case. Fortunately, even in this general situation one can use a restriction theorem for the primes established some time ago by Ben Green and myself to show that there are still only a bounded number of possible locations (up to the uncertainty mandated by the Heisenberg uncertainty principle) where is large, and we can still conclude by using (6). (Actually, as recently pointed out to me by Ben, one does not need the full strength of our result; one only needs the restriction theorem for the primes, which can be proven fairly directly using Plancherel’s theorem and some sieve theory.)

It is tempting to also use the method to attack higher order cases of the (logarithmically) averaged Chowla conjecture, for instance one could try to prove the estimate

The above arguments reduce matters to obtaining some non-trivial cancellation for sums of the form

A little bit of “higher order Fourier analysis” (as was done for very similar sums in the ergodic theory context by Frantzikinakis-Host-Kra and Wooley-Ziegler) lets one control this sort of sum if one can establish a bound of the form

where goes to infinity and is a very slowly growing function of . This looks very similar to (6), but the fact that the supremum is now inside the integral makes the problem much more difficult. However it looks worth attacking (7) further, as this estimate looks like it should have many nice applications (beyond just the case of the logarithmically averaged Chowla or Elliott conjectures, which is already interesting).

For higher than , the same line of analysis requires one to replace the linear phase by more complicated phases, such as quadratic phases or even -step nilsequences. Given that (7) is already beyond the reach of current literature, these even more complicated expressions are also unavailable at present, but one can imagine that they will eventually become tractable, in which case we would obtain an averaged form of the Chowla conjecture for all , which would have a number of consequences (such as a logarithmically averaged version of Sarnak’s conjecture, as per this blog post).

It would of course be very nice to remove the logarithmic averaging, and be able to establish bounds such as (3). I did attempt to do so, but I do not see a way to use the entropy decrement argument in a manner that does not require some sort of averaging of logarithmic type, as it requires one to pick a scale that one cannot specify in advance, which is not a problem for logarithmic averages (which are quite stable with respect to dilations) but is problematic for ordinary averages. But perhaps the problem can be circumvented by some clever modification of the argument. One possible approach would be to start exploiting multiplicativity at products of primes, and not just individual primes, to try to keep the scale fixed, but this makes the concentration of measure part of the argument much more complicated as one loses some independence properties (coming from the Chinese remainder theorem) which allowed one to conclude just from the Hoeffding inequality.

Kaisa Matomäki, Maksym Radziwiłł, and I have just uploaded to the arXiv our paper “Sign patterns of the Liouville and Möbius functions“. This paper is somewhat similar to our previous paper in that it is using the recent breakthrough of Matomäki and Radziwiłł on mean values of multiplicative functions to obtain partial results towards the Chowla conjecture. This conjecture can be phrased, roughly speaking, as follows: if is a fixed natural number and is selected at random from a large interval , then the sign pattern becomes asymptotically equidistributed in in the limit . This remains open for . In fact even the significantly weaker statement that each of the sign patterns in is attained infinitely often is open for . However, in 1986, Hildebrand showed that for all sign patterns are indeed attained infinitely often. Our first result is a strengthening of Hildebrand’s, moving a little bit closer to Chowla’s conjecture:

Theorem 1Let . Then each of the sign patterns in is attained by the Liouville function for a set of natural numbers of positive lower density.

Thus for instance one has for a set of of positive lower density. The case of this theorem already appears in the original paper of Matomäki and Radziwiłł (and the significantly simpler case of the sign patterns and was treated previously by Harman, Pintz, and Wolke).

The basic strategy in all of these arguments is to assume for sake of contradiction that a certain sign pattern occurs extremely rarely, and then exploit the complete multiplicativity of (which implies in particular that , , and for all ) together with some combinatorial arguments (vaguely analogous to solving a Sudoku puzzle!) to establish more complex sign patterns for the Liouville function, that are either inconsistent with each other, or with results such as the Matomäki-Radziwiłł result. To illustrate this, let us give some examples, arguing a little informally to emphasise the combinatorial aspects of the argument. First suppose that the sign pattern almost never occurs. The prime number theorem tells us that and are each equal to about half of the time, which by inclusion-exclusion implies that the sign pattern almost never occurs. In other words, we have for almost all . But from the multiplicativity property this implies that one should have

and

for almost all . But the above three statements are contradictory, and the claim follows.

Similarly, if we assume that the sign pattern almost never occurs, then a similar argument to the above shows that for any fixed , one has for almost all . But this means that the mean is abnormally large for most , which (for large enough) contradicts the results of Matomäki and Radziwiłł. Here we see that the “enemy” to defeat is the scenario in which only changes sign very rarely, in which case one rarely sees the pattern .

It turns out that similar (but more combinatorially intricate) arguments work for sign patterns of length three (but are unlikely to work for most sign patterns of length four or greater). We give here one fragment of such an argument (due to Hildebrand) which hopefully conveys the Sudoku-type flavour of the combinatorics. Suppose for instance that the sign pattern almost never occurs. Now suppose is a typical number with . Since we almost never have the sign pattern , we must (almost always) then have . By multiplicativity this implies that

We claim that this (almost always) forces . For if , then by the lack of the sign pattern , this (almost always) forces , which by multiplicativity forces , which by lack of (almost always) forces , which by multiplicativity contradicts . Thus we have ; a similar argument gives almost always, which by multiplicativity gives , a contradiction. Thus we almost never have , which by the inclusion-exclusion argument mentioned previously shows that for almost all .

One can continue these Sudoku-type arguments and conclude eventually that for almost all . To put it another way, if denotes the non-principal Dirichlet character of modulus , then is almost always constant away from the multiples of . (Conversely, if changed sign very rarely outside of the multiples of three, then the sign pattern would never occur.) Fortunately, the main result of Matomäki and Radziwiłł shows that this scenario cannot occur, which establishes that the sign pattern must occur rather frequently. The other sign patterns are handled by variants of these arguments.

Excluding a sign pattern of length three leads to useful implications like “if , then ” which turn out are just barely strong enough to quite rigidly constrain the Liouville function using Sudoku-like arguments. In contrast, excluding a sign pattern of length four only gives rise to implications like “`if , then “, and these seem to be much weaker for this purpose (the hypothesis in these implications just isn’t satisfied nearly often enough). So a different idea seems to be needed if one wishes to extend the above theorem to larger values of .

Our second theorem gives an analogous result for the Möbius function (which takes values in rather than ), but the analysis turns out to be remarkably difficult and we are only able to get up to :

Theorem 2Let . Then each of the sign patterns in is attained by the Möbius function for a set of positive lower density.

It turns out that the prime number theorem and elementary sieve theory can be used to handle the case and all the cases that involve at least one , leaving only the four sign patterns to handle. It is here that the zeroes of the Möbius function cause a significant new obstacle. Suppose for instance that the sign pattern almost never occurs for the Möbius function. The same arguments that were used in the Liouville case then show that will be almost always equal to , *provided that are both square-free*. One can try to chain this together as before to create a long string where the Möbius function is constant, but this cannot work for any larger than three, because the Möbius function vanishes at every multiple of four.

The constraints we assume on the Möbius function can be depicted using a graph on the squarefree natural numbers, in which any two adjacent squarefree natural numbers are connected by an edge. The main difficulty is then that this graph is highly disconnected due to the multiples of four not being squarefree.

To get around this, we need to enlarge the graph. Note from multiplicativity that if is almost always equal to when are squarefree, then is almost always equal to when are squarefree and is divisible by . We can then form a graph on the squarefree natural numbers by connecting to whenever are squarefree and is divisible by . If this graph is “locally connected” in some sense, then will be constant on almost all of the squarefree numbers in a large interval, which turns out to be incompatible with the results of Matomäki and Radziwiłł. Because of this, matters are reduced to establishing the connectedness of a certain graph. More precisely, it turns out to be sufficient to establish the following claim:

Theorem 3For each prime , let be a residue class chosen uniformly at random. Let be the random graph whose vertices consist of those integers not equal to for any , and whose edges consist of pairs in with . Then with probability , the graph is connected.

We were able to show the connectedness of this graph, though it turned out to be remarkably tricky to do so. Roughly speaking (and suppressing a number of technicalities), the main steps in the argument were as follows.

- (Early stage) Pick a large number (in our paper we take to be odd, but I’ll ignore this technicality here). Using a moment method to explore neighbourhoods of a single point in , one can show that a vertex in is almost always connected to at least numbers in , using relatively short paths of short diameter. (This is the most computationally intensive portion of the argument.)
- (Middle stage) Let be a typical number in , and let be a scale somewhere between and . By using paths involving three primes, and using a variant of Vinogradov’s theorem and some routine second moment computations, one can show that with quite high probability, any “good” vertex in is connected to a “good” vertex in by paths of length three, where the definition of “good” is somewhat technical but encompasses almost all of the vertices in .
- (Late stage) Combining the two previous results together, we can show that most vertices will be connected to a vertex in for any in . In particular, will be connected to a set of vertices in . By tracking everything carefully, one can control the length and diameter of the paths used to connect to this set, and one can also control the parity of the elements in this set.
- (Final stage) Now if we have two vertices at a distance apart. By the previous item, one can connect to a large set of vertices in , and one can similarly connect to a large set of vertices in . Now, by using a Vinogradov-type theorem and second moment calculations again (and ensuring that the elements of and have opposite parity), one can connect many of the vertices in to many of the vertices by paths of length three, which then connects to , and gives the claim.

It seems of interest to understand random graphs like further. In particular, the graph on the integers formed by connecting to for all in a randomly selected residue class mod for each prime is particularly interesting (it is to the Liouville function as is to the Möbius function); if one could show some “local expander” properties of this graph , then one would have a chance of modifying the above methods to attack the first unsolved case of the Chowla conjecture, namely that has asymptotic density zero (perhaps working with logarithmic density instead of natural density to avoids some technicalities).

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 .

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.

I’ve just uploaded to the arXiv my paper “Failure of the pointwise and maximal ergodic theorems for the free group“, submitted to Forum of Mathematics, Sigma. This paper concerns a variant of the pointwise ergodic theorem of Birkhoff, which asserts that if one has a measure-preserving shift map on a probability space , then for any , the averages converge pointwise almost everywhere. (In the important case when the shift map is ergodic, the pointwise limit is simply the mean of the original function .)

The pointwise ergodic theorem can be extended to measure-preserving actions of other amenable groups, if one uses a suitably “tempered” Folner sequence of averages; see this paper of Lindenstrauss for more details. (I also wrote up some notes on that paper here, back in 2006 before I had started this blog.) But the arguments used to handle the amenable case break down completely for non-amenable groups, and in particular for the free non-abelian group on two generators.

Nevo and Stein studied this problem and obtained a number of pointwise ergodic theorems for -actions on probability spaces . For instance, for the spherical averaging operators

(where denotes the length of the reduced word that forms ), they showed that converged pointwise almost everywhere provided that was in for some . (The need to restrict to spheres of even radius can be seen by considering the action of on the two-element set in which both generators of act by interchanging the elements, in which case is determined by the parity of .) This result was reproven with a different and simpler proof by Bufetov, who also managed to relax the condition to the weaker condition .

The question remained open as to whether the pointwise ergodic theorem for -actions held if one only assumed that was in . Nevo and Stein were able to establish this for the Cesáro averages , but not for itself. About six years ago, Assaf Naor and I tried our hand at this problem, and was able to show an associated maximal inequality on , but due to the non-amenability of , this inequality did not transfer to and did not have any direct impact on this question, despite a fair amount of effort on our part to attack it.

Inspired by some recent conversations with Lewis Bowen, I returned to this problem. This time around, I tried to construct a counterexample to the pointwise ergodic theorem – something Assaf and I had not seriously attempted to do (perhaps due to being a bit too enamoured of our maximal inequality). I knew of an existing counterexample of Ornstein regarding a failure of an ergodic theorem for iterates of a self-adjoint Markov operator – in fact, I had written some notes on this example back in 2007. Upon revisiting my notes, I soon discovered that the Ornstein construction was adaptable to the setting, thus settling the problem in the negative:

Theorem 1 (Failure of pointwise ergodic theorem)There exists a measure-preserving -action on a probability space and a non-negative function such that for almost every .

To describe the proof of this theorem, let me first briefly sketch the main ideas of Ornstein’s construction, which gave an example of a self-adjoint Markov operator on a probability space and a non-negative such that for almost every . By some standard manipulations, it suffices to show that for any given and , there exists a self-adjoint Markov operator on a probability space and a non-negative with , such that on a set of measure at least . Actually, it will be convenient to replace the Markov chain with an *ancient Markov chain* – that is to say, a sequence of non-negative functions for both positive and negative , such that for all . The purpose of requiring the Markov chain to be ancient (that is, to extend infinitely far back in time) is to allow for the Markov chain to be shifted arbitrarily in time, which is key to Ornstein’s construction. (Technically, Ornstein’s original argument only uses functions that go back to a large negative time, rather than being infinitely ancient, but I will gloss over this point for sake of discussion, as it turns out that the version of the argument can be run using infinitely ancient chains.)

For any , let denote the claim that for any , there exists an ancient Markov chain with such that on a set of measure at least . Clearly holds since we can just take for all . Our objective is to show that holds for arbitrarily small . The heart of Ornstein’s argument is then the implication

for any , which upon iteration quickly gives the desired claim.

Let’s see informally how (1) works. By hypothesis, and ignoring epsilons, we can find an ancient Markov chain on some probability space of total mass , such that attains the value of or greater almost everywhere. Assuming that the Markov process is irreducible, the will eventually converge as to the constant value of , in particular its final state will essentially stay above (up to small errors).

Now suppose we duplicate the Markov process by replacing with a double copy (giving the uniform probability measure), and using the disjoint sum of the Markov operators on and as the propagator, so that there is no interaction between the two components of this new system. Then the functions form an ancient Markov chain of mass at most that lives solely in the first half of this copy, and attains the value of or greater on almost all of the first half , but is zero on the second half. The final state of will be to stay above in the first half , but be zero on the second half.

Now we modify the above example by allowing an infinitesimal amount of interaction between the two halves , of the system (I mentally think of and as two identical boxes that a particle can bounce around in, and now we wish to connect the boxes by a tiny tube). The precise way in which this interaction is inserted is not terribly important so long as the new Markov process is irreducible. Once one does so, then the ancient Markov chain in the previous example gets replaced by a slightly different ancient Markov chain which is more or less identical with for negative times , or for bounded positive times , but for very large values of the final state is now constant across the entire state space , and will stay above on this space.

Finally, we consider an ancient Markov chain which is basically of the form

for some large parameter and for all (the approximation becomes increasingly inaccurate for much larger than , but never mind this for now). This is basically two copies of the original Markov process in separate, barely interacting state spaces , but with the second copy delayed by a large time delay , and also attenuated in amplitude by a factor of . The total mass of this process is now . Because of the component of , we see that basically attains the value of or greater on the first half . On the second half , we work with times close to . If is large enough, would have averaged out to about at such times, but the component can get as large as here. Summing (and continuing to ignore various epsilon losses), we see that can get as large as on almost all of the second half of . This concludes the rough sketch of how one establishes the implication (1).

It was observed by Bufetov that the spherical averages for a free group action can be lifted up to become powers of a Markov operator, basically by randomly assigning a “velocity vector” to one’s base point and then applying the Markov process that moves along that velocity vector (and then randomly changing the velocity vector at each time step to the “reduced word” condition that the velocity never flips from to ). Thus the spherical average problem has a Markov operator interpretation, which opens the door to adapting the Ornstein construction to the setting of systems. This turns out to be doable after a certain amount of technical artifice; the main thing is to work with -measure preserving systems that admit ancient Markov chains that are initially supported in a very small region in the “interior” of the state space, so that one can couple such systems to each other “at the boundary” in the fashion needed to establish the analogue of (1) without disrupting the ancient dynamics of such chains. The initial such system (used to establish the base case ) comes from basically considering the action of on a (suitably renormalised) “infinitely large ball” in the Cayley graph, after suitably gluing together the boundary of this ball to complete the action. The ancient Markov chain associated to this system starts at the centre of this infinitely large ball at infinite negative time , and only reaches the boundary of this ball at the time .

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