In the winter quarter (starting January 5) I will be teaching a graduate topics course entitled “An introduction to analytic prime number theory“. As the name suggests, this is a course covering many of the analytic number theory techniques used to study the distribution of the prime numbers . I will list the topics I intend to cover in this course below the fold. As with my previous courses, I will place lecture notes online on my blog in advance of the physical lectures.
The type of results about primes that one aspires to prove here is well captured by Landau’s classical list of problems:
- Even Goldbach conjecture: every even number greater than two is expressible as the sum of two primes.
- Twin prime conjecture: there are infinitely many pairs which are simultaneously prime.
- Legendre’s conjecture: for every natural number , there is a prime between and .
- There are infinitely many primes of the form .
All four of Landau’s problems remain open, but we have convincing heuristic evidence that they are all true, and in each of the four cases we have some highly non-trivial partial results, some of which will be covered in this course. We also now have some understanding of the barriers we are facing to fully resolving each of these problems, such as the parity problem; this will also be discussed in the course.
One of the main reasons that the prime numbers are so difficult to deal with rigorously is that they have very little usable algebraic or geometric structure that we know how to exploit; for instance, we do not have any useful prime generating functions. One of course can create non-useful functions of this form, such as the ordered parameterisation that maps each natural number to the prime , or one could invoke Matiyasevich’s theorem to produce a polynomial of many variables whose only positive values are prime, but these sorts of functions have no usable structure to exploit (for instance, they give no insight into any of the Landau problems listed above; see also Remark 2 below). The various primality tests in the literature, while useful for practical applications (e.g. cryptography) involving primes, have also proven to be of little utility for these sorts of problems; again, see Remark 2. In fact, in order to make plausible heuristic predictions about the primes, it is best to take almost the opposite point of view to the structured viewpoint, using as a starting point the belief that the primes exhibit strong pseudorandomness properties that are largely incompatible with the presence of rigid algebraic or geometric structure. We will discuss such heuristics later in this course.
It may be in the future that some usable structure to the primes (or related objects) will eventually be located (this is for instance one of the motivations in developing a rigorous theory of the “field with one element“, although this theory is far from being fully realised at present). For now, though, analytic and combinatorial methods have proven to be the most effective way forward, as they can often be used even in the near-complete absence of structure.
In this course, we will not discuss combinatorial approaches (such as the deployment of tools from additive combinatorics) in depth, but instead focus on the analytic methods. The basic principles of this approach can be summarised as follows:
- Rather than try to isolate individual primes in , one works with the set of primes in aggregate, focusing in particular on asymptotic statistics of this set. For instance, rather than try to find a single pair of twin primes, one can focus instead on the count of twin primes up to some threshold . Similarly, one can focus on counts such as , , or , which are the natural counts associated to the other three Landau problems. In all four of Landau’s problems, the basic task is now to obtain a non-trivial lower bounds on these counts.
- If one wishes to proceed analytically rather than combinatorially, one should convert all these counts into sums, using the fundamental identity
(or variants thereof) for the cardinality of subsets of the natural numbers , where is the indicator function of (and ranges over ). Thus we are now interested in estimating (and particularly in lower bounding) sums such as
- Once one expresses number-theoretic problems in this fashion, we are naturally led to the more general question of how to accurately estimate (or, less ambitiously, to lower bound or upper bound) sums such as
or more generally bilinear or multilinear sums such as
for various functions of arithmetic interest. (Importantly, one should also generalise to include integrals as well as sums, particularly contour integrals or integrals over the unit circle or real line, but we postpone discussion of these generalisations to later in the course.) Indeed, a huge portion of modern analytic number theory is devoted to precisely this sort of question. In many cases, we can predict an expected main term for such sums, and then the task is to control the error term between the true sum and its expected main term. It is often convenient to normalise the expected main term to be zero or negligible (e.g. by subtracting a suitable constant from ), so that one is now trying to show that a sum of signed real numbers (or perhaps complex numbers) is small. In other words, the question becomes one of rigorously establishing a significant amount of cancellation in one’s sums (also referred to as a gain or savings over a benchmark “trivial bound”). Or to phrase it negatively, the task is to rigorously prevent a conspiracy of non-cancellation, caused for instance by two factors in the summand exhibiting an unexpectedly large correlation with each other.
- It is often difficult to discern cancellation (or to prevent conspiracy) directly for a given sum (such as ) of interest. However, analytic number theory has developed a large number of techniques to relate one sum to another, and then the strategy is to keep transforming the sum into more and more analytically tractable expressions, until one arrives at a sum for which cancellation can be directly exhibited. (Note though that there is often a short-term tradeoff between analytic tractability and algebraic simplicity; in a typical analytic number theory argument, the sums will get expanded and decomposed into many quite messy-looking sub-sums, until at some point one applies some crude estimation to replace these messy sub-sums by tractable ones again.) There are many transformations available, ranging such basic tools as the triangle inequality, pointwise domination, or the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality to key identities such as multiplicative number theory identities (such as the Vaughan identity and the Heath-Brown identity), Fourier-analytic identities (e.g. Fourier inversion, Poisson summation, or more advanced trace formulae), or complex analytic identities (e.g. the residue theorem, Perron’s formula, or Jensen’s formula). The sheer range of transformations available can be intimidating at first; there is no shortage of transformations and identities in this subject, and if one applies them randomly then one will typically just transform a difficult sum into an even more difficult and intractable expression. However, one can make progress if one is guided by the strategy of isolating and enhancing a desired cancellation (or conspiracy) to the point where it can be easily established (or dispelled), or alternatively to reach the point where no deep cancellation is needed for the application at hand (or equivalently, that no deep conspiracy can disrupt the application).
- One particularly powerful technique (albeit one which, ironically, can be highly “ineffective” in a certain technical sense to be discussed later) is to use one potential conspiracy to defeat another, a technique I refer to as the “dueling conspiracies” method. This technique may be unable to prevent a single strong conspiracy, but it can sometimes be used to prevent two or more such conspiracies from occurring, which is particularly useful if conspiracies come in pairs (e.g. through complex conjugation symmetry, or a functional equation). A related (but more “effective”) strategy is to try to “disperse” a single conspiracy into several distinct conspiracies, which can then be used to defeat each other.
As stated before, the above strategy has not been able to establish any of the four Landau problems as stated. However, they can come close to such problems (and we now have some understanding as to why these problems remain out of reach of current methods). For instance, by using these techniques (and a lot of additional effort) one can obtain the following sample partial results in the Landau problems:
- Chen’s theorem: every sufficiently large even number is expressible as the sum of a prime and an almost prime (the product of at most two primes). The proof proceeds by finding a nontrivial lower bound on , where is the set of almost primes.
- Zhang’s theorem: There exist infinitely many pairs of consecutive primes with . The proof proceeds by giving a non-negative lower bound on the quantity for large and certain distinct integers between and . (The bound has since been lowered to .)
- The Baker-Harman-Pintz theorem: for sufficiently large , there is a prime between and . Proven by finding a nontrivial lower bound on .
- The Friedlander-Iwaniec theorem: There are infinitely many primes of the form . Proven by finding a nontrivial lower bound on .
We will discuss (simpler versions of) several of these results in this course.
Of course, for the above general strategy to have any chance of succeeding, one must at some point use some information about the set of primes. As stated previously, usefully structured parametric descriptions of do not appear to be available. However, we do have two other fundamental and useful ways to describe :
- (Sieve theory description) The primes consist of those numbers greater than one, that are not divisible by any smaller prime.
- (Multiplicative number theory description) The primes are the multiplicative generators of the natural numbers : every natural number is uniquely factorisable (up to permutation) into the product of primes (the fundamental theorem of arithmetic).
The sieve-theoretic description and its variants lead one to a good understanding of the almost primes, which turn out to be excellent tools for controlling the primes themselves, although there are known limitations as to how much information on the primes one can extract from sieve-theoretic methods alone, which we will discuss later in this course. The multiplicative number theory methods lead one (after some complex or Fourier analysis) to the Riemann zeta function (and other L-functions, particularly the Dirichlet L-functions), with the distribution of zeroes (and poles) of these functions playing a particularly decisive role in the multiplicative methods.
Many of our strongest results in analytic prime number theory are ultimately obtained by incorporating some combination of the above two fundamental descriptions of (or variants thereof) into the general strategy described above. In contrast, more advanced descriptions of , such as those coming from the various primality tests available, have (until now, at least) been surprisingly ineffective in practice for attacking problems such as Landau’s problems. One reason for this is that such tests generally involve operations such as exponentiation or the factorial function , which grow too quickly to be amenable to the analytic techniques discussed above.
To give a simple illustration of these two basic approaches to the primes, let us first give two variants of the usual proof of Euclid’s theorem:
Proof: (Multiplicative number theory proof) Suppose for contradiction that there were only finitely many primes . Then, by the fundamental theorem of arithmetic, every natural number is expressible as the product of the primes . But the natural number is larger than one, but not divisible by any of the primes , a contradiction.
(Sieve-theoretic proof) Suppose for contradiction that there were only finitely many primes . Then, by the Chinese remainder theorem, the set of natural numbers that is not divisible by any of the has density , that is to say
In particular, has positive density and thus contains an element larger than . But the least such element is one further prime in addition to , a contradiction.
Remark 1 One can also phrase the proof of Euclid’s theorem in a fashion that largely avoids the use of contradiction; see this previous blog post for more discussion.
Both proofs in fact extend to give a stronger result:
Proof: (Multiplicative number theory proof) By the fundamental theorem of arithmetic, every natural number is expressible uniquely as the product of primes in increasing order. In particular, we have the identity
(both sides make sense in as everything is unsigned). Since the left-hand side is divergent, the right-hand side is as well. But
and , so must be divergent.
(Sieve-theoretic proof) Suppose for contradiction that the sum is convergent. For each natural number , let be the set of natural numbers not divisible by the first primes , and let be the set of numbers not divisible by any prime in . As in the previous proof, each has density . Also, since contains at most multiples of , we have from the union bound that
Since is assumed to be convergent, we conclude that the density of converges to the density of ; thus has density , which is non-zero by the hypothesis that converges. On the other hand, since the primes are the only numbers greater than one not divisible by smaller primes, is just , which has density zero, giving the desired contradiction.
Remark 2 We have seen how easy it is to prove Euler’s theorem by analytic methods. In contrast, there does not seem to be any known proof of this theorem that proceeds by using any sort of prime-generating formula or a primality test, which is further evidence that such tools are not the most effective way to make progress on problems such as Landau’s problems. (But the weaker theorem of Euclid, Theorem 1, can sometimes be proven by such devices.)
The two proofs of Theorem 2 given above are essentially the same proof, as is hinted at by the geometric series identity
One can also see the Riemann zeta function begin to make an appearance in both proofs. Once one goes beyond Euler’s theorem, though, the sieve-theoretic and multiplicative methods begin to diverge significantly. On one hand, sieve theory can still handle to some extent sets such as twin primes, despite the lack of multiplicative structure (one simply has to sieve out two residue classes per prime, rather than one); on the other, multiplicative number theory can attain results such as the prime number theorem for which purely sieve theoretic techniques have not been able to establish. The deepest results in analytic number theory will typically require a combination of both sieve-theoretic methods and multiplicative methods in conjunction with the many transforms discussed earlier (and, in many cases, additional inputs from other fields of mathematics such as arithmetic geometry, ergodic theory, or additive combinatorics).