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I’ve just uploaded to the arXiv my paper “Some remarks on the lonely runner conjecture“, submitted to Contributions to discrete mathematics. I had blogged about the lonely runner conjecture in this previous blog post, and I returned to the problem recently to see if I could obtain anything further. The results obtained were more modest than I had hoped, but they did at least seem to indicate a potential strategy to make further progress on the problem, and also highlight some of the difficulties of the problem.

One can rephrase the lonely runner conjecture as the following covering problem. Given any integer “velocity” {v} and radius {0 < \delta < 1/2}, define the Bohr set {B(v,\delta)} to be the subset of the unit circle {{\bf R}/{\bf Z}} given by the formula

\displaystyle B(v,\delta) := \{ t \in {\bf R}/{\bf Z}: \|vt\| \leq \delta \},

where {\|x\|} denotes the distance of {x} to the nearest integer. Thus, for {v} positive, {B(v,\delta)} is simply the union of the {v} intervals {[\frac{a-\delta}{v}, \frac{a+\delta}{v}]} for {a=0,\dots,v-1}, projected onto the unit circle {{\bf R}/{\bf Z}}; in the language of the usual formulation of the lonely runner conjecture, {B(v,\delta)} represents those times in which a runner moving at speed {v} returns to within {\delta} of his or her starting position. For any non-zero integers {v_1,\dots,v_n}, let {\delta(v_1,\dots,v_n)} be the smallest radius {\delta} such that the {n} Bohr sets {B(v_1,\delta),\dots,B(v_n,\delta)} cover the unit circle:

\displaystyle {\bf R}/{\bf Z} = \bigcup_{i=1}^n B(v_i,\delta). \ \ \ \ \ (1)


Then define {\delta_n} to be the smallest value of {\delta(v_1,\dots,v_n)}, as {v_1,\dots,v_n} ranges over tuples of distinct non-zero integers. The Dirichlet approximation theorem quickly gives that

\displaystyle \delta(1,\dots,n) = \frac{1}{n+1}

and hence

\displaystyle \delta_n \leq \frac{1}{n+1}

for any {n \geq 1}. The lonely runner conjecture is equivalent to the assertion that this bound is in fact optimal:

Conjecture 1 (Lonely runner conjecture) For any {n \geq 1}, one has {\delta_n = \frac{1}{n+1}}.

This conjecture is currently known for {n \leq 6} (see this paper of Barajas and Serra), but remains open for higher {n}.

It is natural to try to attack the problem by establishing lower bounds on the quantity {\delta_n}. We have the following “trivial” bound, that gets within a factor of two of the conjecture:

Proposition 2 (Trivial bound) For any {n \geq 1}, one has {\delta_n \geq \frac{1}{2n}}.

Proof: It is not difficult to see that for any non-zero velocity {v} and any {0 < \delta < 1/2}, the Bohr set {B(v,\delta)} has Lebesgue measure {m(B(v,\delta)) = 2\delta}. In particular, by the union bound

\displaystyle m(\bigcup_{i=1}^n B(v_i,\delta)) \leq \sum_{i=1}^n m(B(v_i,\delta)) \ \ \ \ \ (2)


we see that the covering (1) is only possible if {1 \leq 2 n \delta}, giving the claim. \Box

So, in some sense, all the difficulty is coming from the need to improve upon the trivial union bound (2) by a factor of two.

Despite the crudeness of the union bound (2), it has proven surprisingly hard to make substantial improvements on the trivial bound {\delta_n \geq \frac{1}{2n}}. In 1994, Chen obtained the slight improvement

\displaystyle \delta_n \geq \frac{1}{2n - 1 + \frac{1}{2n-3}}

which was improved a little by Chen and Cusick in 1999 to

\displaystyle \delta_n \geq \frac{1}{2n-3}

when {2n-3} was prime. In a recent paper of Perarnau and Serra, the bound

\displaystyle \delta_n \geq \frac{1}{2n-2+o(1)}

was obtained for arbitrary {n}. These bounds only improve upon the trivial bound by a multiplicative factor of {1+O(1/n)}. Heuristically, one reason for this is as follows. The union bound (2) would of course be sharp if the Bohr sets {B(v_i,\delta)} were all disjoint. Strictly speaking, such disjointness is not possible, because all the Bohr sets {B(v_i,\delta)} have to contain the origin as an interior point. However, it is possible to come up with a large number of Bohr sets {B(v_i,\delta)} which are almost disjoint. For instance, suppose that we had velocities {v_1,\dots,v_s} that were all prime numbers between {n/4} and {n/2}, and that {\delta} was equal to {\delta_n} (and in particular was between {1/2n} and {1/(n+1)}. Then each set {B(v_i,\delta)} can be split into a “kernel” interval {[-\frac{\delta}{v_i}, \frac{\delta}{v_i}]}, together with the “petal” intervals {\bigcup_{a=1}^{v_i-1} [\frac{a-\delta}{v_i}, \frac{a+\delta}{v_i}]}. Roughly speaking, as the prime {v_i} varies, the kernel interval stays more or less fixed, but the petal intervals range over disjoint sets, and from this it is not difficult to show that

\displaystyle m(\bigcup_{i=1}^s B(v_i,\delta)) = (1-O(\frac{1}{n})) \sum_{i=1}^s m(B(v_i,\delta)),

so that the union bound is within a multiplicative factor of {1+O(\frac{1}{n})} of the truth in this case.

This does not imply that {\delta_n} is within a multiplicative factor of {1+O(1/n)} of {\frac{1}{2n}}, though, because there are not enough primes between {n/4} and {n/2} to assign to {n} distinct velocities; indeed, by the prime number theorem, there are only about {\frac{n}{4\log n}} such velocities that could be assigned to a prime. So, while the union bound could be close to tight for up to {\asymp n/\log n} Bohr sets, the above counterexamples don’t exclude improvements to the union bound for larger collections of Bohr sets. Following this train of thought, I was able to obtain a logarithmic improvement to previous lower bounds:

Theorem 3 For sufficiently large {n}, one has {\delta_n \geq \frac{1}{2n} + \frac{c \log n}{n^2 (\log\log n)^2}} for some absolute constant {c>0}.

The factors of {\log\log n} in the denominator are for technical reasons and might perhaps be removable by a more careful argument. However it seems difficult to adapt the methods to improve the {\log n} in the numerator, basically because of the obstruction provided by the near-counterexample discussed above.

Roughly speaking, the idea of the proof of this theorem is as follows. If we have the covering (1) for {\delta} very close to {1/2n}, then the multiplicity function {\sum_{i=1}^n 1_{B(v_i,\delta)}} will then be mostly equal to {1}, but occasionally be larger than {1}. On the other hand, one can compute that the {L^2} norm of this multiplicity function is significantly larger than {1} (in fact it is at least {(3/2-o(1))^{1/2}}). Because of this, the {L^3} norm must be very large, which means that the triple intersections {B(v_i,\delta) \cap B(v_j,\delta) \cap B(v_k,\delta)} must be quite large for many triples {(i,j,k)}. Using some basic Fourier analysis and additive combinatorics, one can deduce from this that the velocities {v_1,\dots,v_n} must have a large structured component, in the sense that there exists an arithmetic progression of length {\asymp n} that contains {\asymp n} of these velocities. For simplicity let us take the arithmetic progression to be {\{1,\dots,n\}}, thus {\asymp n} of the velocities {v_1,\dots,v_n} lie in {\{1,\dots,n\}}. In particular, from the prime number theorem, most of these velocities will not be prime, and will in fact likely have a “medium-sized” prime factor (in the precise form of the argument, “medium-sized” is defined to be “between {\log^{10} n} and {n^{1/10}}“). Using these medium-sized prime factors, one can show that many of the {B(v_i,\delta)} will have quite a large overlap with many of the other {B(v_j,\delta)}, and this can be used after some elementary arguments to obtain a more noticeable improvement on the union bound (2) than was obtained previously.

A modification of the above argument also allows for the improved estimate

\displaystyle \delta(v_1,\dots,v_n) \geq \frac{1+c-o(1)}{2n} \ \ \ \ \ (3)


if one knows that all of the velocities {v_1,\dots,v_n} are of size {O(n)}.

In my previous blog post, I showed that in order to prove the lonely runner conjecture, it suffices to do so under the additional assumption that all of the velocities {v_1,\dots,v_n} are of size {O(n^{O(n^2)})}; I reproduce this argument (slightly cleaned up for publication) in the current preprint. There is unfortunately a huge gap between {O(n)} and {O(n^{O(n^2)})}, so the above bound (3) does not immediately give any new bounds for {\delta_n}. However, one could perhaps try to start attacking the lonely runner conjecture by increasing the range {O(n)} for which one has good results, and by decreasing the range {O(n^{O(n^2)})} that one can reduce to. For instance, in the current preprint I give an elementary argument (using a certain amount of case-checking) that shows that the lonely runner bound

\displaystyle \delta(v_1,\dots,v_n) \geq \frac{1}{n+1} \ \ \ \ \ (4)


holds if all the velocities {v_1,\dots,v_n} are assumed to lie between {1} and {1.2 n}. This upper threshold of {1.2 n} is only a tiny improvement over the trivial threshold of {n}, but it seems to be an interesting sub-problem of the lonely runner conjecture to increase this threshold further. One key target would be to get up to {2n}, as there are actually a number of {n}-tuples {(v_1,\dots,v_n)} in this range for which (4) holds with equality. The Dirichlet approximation theorem of course gives the tuple {(1,2,\dots,n)}, but there is also the double {(2,4,\dots,2n)} of this tuple, and furthermore there is an additional construction of Goddyn and Wong that gives some further examples such as {(1,2,3,4,5,7,12)}, or more generally one can start with the standard tuple {(1,\dots,n)} and accelerate one of the velocities {v} to {2v}; this turns out to work as long as {v} shares a common factor with every integer between {n-v+1} and {2n-2v+1}. There are a few more examples of this type in the paper of Goddyn and Wong, but all of them can be placed in an arithmetic progression of length {O(n \log n)} at most, so if one were very optimistic, one could perhaps envision a strategy in which the upper bound of {O(n^{O(n^2)})} mentioned earlier was reduced all the way to something like {O( n \log n )}, and then a separate argument deployed to treat this remaining case, perhaps isolating the constructions of Goddyn and Wong (and possible variants thereof) as the only extreme cases.

Let {\alpha \in {\bf R}/{\bf Z}} be an element of the unit circle, let {N \geq 1}, and let {\rho > 0}. We define the (rank one) Bohr set {B_N(\alpha;\rho)} to be the set

\displaystyle B_N(\alpha;\rho) := \{ n \in {\bf Z}: -N \leq n \leq N; \|n\alpha\|_{{\bf R}/{\bf Z}} \leq \rho \}

where {\|x\|_{{\bf R}/{\bf Z}}} is the distance to the origin in the unit circle (or equivalently, the distance to the nearest integer, after lifting up to {{\bf R}}). These sets play an important role in additive combinatorics and in additive number theory. For instance, they arise naturally when applying the circle method, because Bohr sets describe the oscillation of exponential phases such as {n \mapsto e^{2\pi i n \alpha}}.

Observe that Bohr sets enjoy the doubling property

\displaystyle B_N(\alpha;\rho) + B_N(\alpha;\rho) \subset B_{2N}(\alpha;2\rho),

thus doubling the Bohr set doubles both the length parameter {N} and the radius parameter {\rho}. As such, these Bohr sets resemble two-dimensional balls (or boxes). Indeed, one can view {B_N(\alpha;\rho)} as the preimage of the two-dimensional box {[-1,1] \times [-\rho,\rho] \subset {\bf R} \times {\bf R}/{\bf Z}} under the homomorphism {n \mapsto (n/N, \alpha n \hbox{ mod } 1)}.

Another class of finite set with two-dimensional behaviour is the class of (rank two) generalised arithmetic progressions

\displaystyle P( a_1,a_2; N_1,N_2 ) := \{ n_1 a_1 + n_2 a_2: n_1,n_2 \in {\bf Z}; |n_1| \leq N_1, |n_2| \leq N_2 \}

with {a_1,a_2 \in {\bf Z}} and {N_1,N_2 > 0} Indeed, we have

\displaystyle P( a_1,a_2; N_1,N_2 ) + P( a_1,a_2; N_1,N_2 ) \subset P( a_1,a_2; 2N_1, 2N_2 )

and so we see, as with the Bohr set, that doubling the generalised arithmetic progressions doubles the two defining parameters of that progression.

More generally, there is an analogy between rank {r} Bohr sets

\displaystyle B_N(\alpha_1,\ldots,\alpha_r; \rho_1,\ldots,\rho_r) := \{ n \in {\bf Z}: -N \leq n \leq N; \|n\alpha_i\|_{{\bf R}/{\bf Z}} \leq \rho_i

\displaystyle \hbox{ for all } 1 \leq i \leq r \}

and the rank {r+1} generalised arithmetic progressions

\displaystyle P( a_1,\ldots,a_{r+1}; N_1,\ldots,N_{r+1} ) := \{ n_1 a_1 + \ldots + n_{r+1} a_{r+1}:

\displaystyle n_1,\ldots,n_{r+1} \in {\bf Z}; |n_i| \leq N_i \hbox{ for all } 1 \leq i \leq r+1 \}.

One of the aims of additive combinatorics is to formalise analogies such as the one given above. By using some arguments from the geometry of numbers, for instance, one can show that for any rank {r} Bohr set {B_N(\alpha_1,\ldots,\alpha_r;\rho_1,\ldots,\rho_r)}, there is a rank {r+1} generalised arithmetic progression {P(a_1,\ldots,a_{r+1}; N_1,\ldots,N_{r+1})} for which one has the containments

\displaystyle B_N(\alpha_1,\ldots,\alpha_r;\epsilon \rho_1,\ldots,\epsilon \rho_r) \subset P(a_1,\ldots,a_{r+1}; N_1,\ldots,N_{r+1})

\displaystyle \subset B_N(\alpha_1,\ldots,\alpha_r;\rho_1,\ldots,\rho_r)

for some explicit {\epsilon>0} depending only on {r} (in fact one can take {\epsilon = (r+1)^{-2(r+1)}}); this is (a slight modification of) Lemma 4.22 of my book with Van Vu.

In the special case when {r=1}, one can make a significantly more detailed description of the link between rank one Bohr sets and rank two generalised arithmetic progressions, by using the classical theory of continued fractions, which among other things gives a fairly precise formula for the generators {a_1,a_2} and lengths {N_1,N_2} of the generalised arithmetic progression associated to a rank one Bohr set {B_N(\alpha;\rho)}. While this connection is already implicit in the continued fraction literature (for instance, in the classic text of Hardy and Wright), I thought it would be a good exercise to work it out explicitly and write it up, which I will do below the fold.

It is unfortunate that the theory of continued fractions is restricted to the rank one setting (it relies very heavily on the total ordering of one-dimensional sets such as {{\bf Z}} or {{\bf R}}). A higher rank version of the theory could potentially help with questions such as the Littlewood conjecture, which remains open despite a substantial amount of effort and partial progress on the problem. At the end of this post I discuss how one can use the rank one theory to rephrase the Littlewood conjecture as a conjecture about a doubly indexed family of rank four progressions, which can be used to heuristically justify why this conjecture should be true, but does not otherwise seem to shed much light on the problem.

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