We now move away from the world of multiplicative prime number theory covered in Notes 1 and Notes 2, and enter the wider, and complementary, world of non-multiplicative prime number theory, in which one studies statistics related to non-multiplicative patterns, such as twins . This creates a major jump in difficulty; for instance, even the most basic multiplicative result about the primes, namely Euclid’s theorem that there are infinitely many of them, remains unproven for twin primes. Of course, the situation is even worse for stronger results, such as Euler’s theorem, Dirichlet’s theorem, or the prime number theorem. Finally, even many multiplicative questions about the primes remain open. The most famous of these is the Riemann hypothesis, which gives the asymptotic (see Proposition 24 from Notes 2). But even if one assumes the Riemann hypothesis, the precise distribution of the error term in the above asymptotic (or in related asymptotics, such as for the sum that measures the distribution of primes in short intervals) is not entirely clear.
Despite this, we do have a number of extremely convincing and well supported models for the primes (and related objects) that let us predict what the answer to many prime number theory questions (both multiplicative and non-multiplicative) should be, particularly in asymptotic regimes where one can work with aggregate statistics about the primes, rather than with a small number of individual primes. These models are based on taking some statistical distribution related to the primes (e.g. the primality properties of a randomly selected -tuple), and replacing that distribution by a model distribution that is easy to compute with (e.g. a distribution with strong joint independence properties). One can then predict the asymptotic value of various (normalised) statistics about the primes by replacing the relevant statistical distributions of the primes with their simplified models. In this non-rigorous setting, many difficult conjectures on the primes reduce to relatively simple calculations; for instance, all four of the (still unsolved) Landau problems may now be justified in the affirmative by one or more of these models. Indeed, the models are so effective at this task that analytic number theory is in the curious position of being able to confidently predict the answer to a large proportion of the open problems in the subject, whilst not possessing a clear way forward to rigorously confirm these answers!
As it turns out, the models for primes that have turned out to be the most accurate in practice are random models, which involve (either explicitly or implicitly) one or more random variables. This is despite the prime numbers being obviously deterministic in nature; no coins are flipped or dice rolled to create the set of primes. The point is that while the primes have a lot of obvious multiplicative structure (for instance, the product of two primes is never another prime), they do not appear to exhibit much discernible non-multiplicative structure asymptotically, in the sense that they rarely exhibit statistical anomalies in the asymptotic limit that cannot be easily explained in terms of the multiplicative properties of the primes. As such, when considering non-multiplicative statistics of the primes, the primes appear to behave pseudorandomly, and can thus be modeled with reasonable accuracy by a random model. And even for multiplicative problems, which are in principle controlled by the zeroes of the Riemann zeta function, one can obtain good predictions by positing various pseudorandomness properties of these zeroes, so that the distribution of these zeroes can be modeled by a random model.
Of course, one cannot expect perfect accuracy when replicating a deterministic set such as the primes by a probabilistic model of that set, and each of the heuristic models we discuss below have some limitations to the range of statistics about the primes that they can expect to track with reasonable accuracy. For instance, many of the models about the primes do not fully take into account the multiplicative structure of primes, such as the connection with a zeta function with a meromorphic continuation to the entire complex plane; at the opposite extreme, we have the GUE hypothesis which appears to accurately model the zeta function, but does not capture such basic properties of the primes as the fact that the primes are all natural numbers. Nevertheless, each of the models described below, when deployed within their sphere of reasonable application, has (possibly after some fine-tuning) given predictions that are in remarkable agreement with numerical computation and with known rigorous theoretical results, as well as with other models in overlapping spheres of application; they are also broadly compatible with the general heuristic (discussed in this previous post) that in the absence of any exploitable structure, asymptotic statistics should default to the most “uniform”, “pseudorandom”, or “independent” distribution allowable.
As hinted at above, we do not have a single unified model for the prime numbers (other than the primes themselves, of course), but instead have an overlapping family of useful models that each appear to accurately describe some, but not all, aspects of the prime numbers. In this set of notes, we will discuss four such models:
- The Cramér random model and its refinements, which model the set of prime numbers by a random set.
- The Möbius pseudorandomness principle, which predicts that the Möbius function does not correlate with any genuinely different arithmetic sequence of reasonable “complexity”.
- The equidistribution of residues principle, which predicts that the residue classes of a large number modulo a small or medium-sized prime behave as if they are independently and uniformly distributed as varies.
- The GUE hypothesis, which asserts that the zeroes of the Riemann zeta function are distributed (at microscopic and mesoscopic scales) like the zeroes of a GUE random matrix, and which generalises the pair correlation conjecture regarding pairs of such zeroes.
This is not an exhaustive list of models for the primes and related objects; for instance, there is also the model in which the major arc contribution in the Hardy-Littlewood circle method is predicted to always dominate, and with regards to various finite groups of number-theoretic importance, such as the class groups discussed in Supplement 1, there are also heuristics of Cohen-Lenstra type. Historically, the first heuristic discussion of the primes along these lines was by Sylvester, who worked informally with a model somewhat related to the equidistribution of residues principle. However, we will not discuss any of these models here.
A word of warning: the discussion of the above four models will inevitably be largely informal, and “fuzzy” in nature. While one can certainly make precise formalisations of at least some aspects of these models, one should not be inflexibly wedded to a specific such formalisation as being “the” correct way to pin down the model rigorously. (To quote the statistician George Box: “all models are wrong, but some are useful”.) Indeed, we will see some examples below the fold in which some finer structure in the prime numbers leads to a correction term being added to a “naive” implementation of one of the above models to make it more accurate, and it is perfectly conceivable that some further such fine-tuning will be applied to one or more of these models in the future. These sorts of mathematical models are in some ways closer in nature to the scientific theories used to model the physical world, than they are to the axiomatic theories one is accustomed to in rigorous mathematics, and one should approach the discussion below accordingly. In particular, and in contrast to the other notes in this course, the material here is not directly used for proving further theorems, which is why we have marked it as “optional” material. Nevertheless, the heuristics and models here are still used indirectly for such purposes, for instance by
- giving a clearer indication of what results one expects to be true, thus guiding one to fruitful conjectures;
- providing a quick way to scan for possible errors in a mathematical claim (e.g. by finding that the main term is off from what a model predicts, or an error term is too small);
- gauging the relative strength of various assertions (e.g. classifying some results as “unsurprising”, others as “potential breakthroughs” or “powerful new estimates”, others as “unexpected new phenomena”, and yet others as “way too good to be true”); or
- setting up heuristic barriers (such as the parity barrier) that one has to resolve before resolving certain key problems (e.g. the twin prime conjecture).
See also my previous essay on the distinction between “rigorous” and “post-rigorous” mathematics, or Thurston’s essay discussing, among other things, the “definition-theorem-proof” model of mathematics and its limitations.
Remark 1 The material in this set of notes presumes some prior exposure to probability theory. See for instance this previous post for a quick review of the relevant concepts.