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Given any finite collection of elements ${(f_i)_{i \in I}}$ in some Banach space ${X}$, the triangle inequality tells us that

$\displaystyle \| \sum_{i \in I} f_i \|_X \leq \sum_{i \in I} \|f_i\|_X.$

However, when the ${f_i}$ all “oscillate in different ways”, one expects to improve substantially upon the triangle inequality. For instance, if ${X}$ is a Hilbert space and the ${f_i}$ are mutually orthogonal, we have the Pythagorean theorem

$\displaystyle \| \sum_{i \in I} f_i \|_X = (\sum_{i \in I} \|f_i\|_X^2)^{1/2}.$

For sake of comparison, from the triangle inequality and Cauchy-Schwarz one has the general inequality

$\displaystyle \| \sum_{i \in I} f_i \|_X \leq (\# I)^{1/2} (\sum_{i \in I} \|f_i\|_X^2)^{1/2} \ \ \ \ \ (1)$

for any finite collection ${(f_i)_{i \in I}}$ in any Banach space ${X}$, where ${\# I}$ denotes the cardinality of ${I}$. Thus orthogonality in a Hilbert space yields “square root cancellation”, saving a factor of ${(\# I)^{1/2}}$ or so over the trivial bound coming from the triangle inequality.

More generally, let us somewhat informally say that a collection ${(f_i)_{i \in I}}$ exhibits decoupling in ${X}$ if one has the Pythagorean-like inequality

$\displaystyle \| \sum_{i \in I} f_i \|_X \ll_\varepsilon (\# I)^\varepsilon (\sum_{i \in I} \|f_i\|_X^2)^{1/2}$

for any ${\varepsilon>0}$, thus one obtains almost the full square root cancellation in the ${X}$ norm. The theory of almost orthogonality can then be viewed as the theory of decoupling in Hilbert spaces such as ${L^2({\bf R}^n)}$. In ${L^p}$ spaces for ${p < 2}$ one usually does not expect this sort of decoupling; for instance, if the ${f_i}$ are disjointly supported one has

$\displaystyle \| \sum_{i \in I} f_i \|_{L^p} = (\sum_{i \in I} \|f_i\|_{L^p}^p)^{1/p}$

and the right-hand side can be much larger than ${(\sum_{i \in I} \|f_i\|_{L^p}^2)^{1/2}}$ when ${p < 2}$. At the opposite extreme, one usually does not expect to get decoupling in ${L^\infty}$, since one could conceivably align the ${f_i}$ to all attain a maximum magnitude at the same location with the same phase, at which point the triangle inequality in ${L^\infty}$ becomes sharp.

However, in some cases one can get decoupling for certain ${2 < p < \infty}$. For instance, suppose we are in ${L^4}$, and that ${f_1,\dots,f_N}$ are bi-orthogonal in the sense that the products ${f_i f_j}$ for ${1 \leq i < j \leq N}$ are pairwise orthogonal in ${L^2}$. Then we have

$\displaystyle \| \sum_{i = 1}^N f_i \|_{L^4}^2 = \| (\sum_{i=1}^N f_i)^2 \|_{L^2}$

$\displaystyle = \| \sum_{1 \leq i,j \leq N} f_i f_j \|_{L^2}$

$\displaystyle \ll (\sum_{1 \leq i,j \leq N} \|f_i f_j \|_{L^2}^2)^{1/2}$

$\displaystyle = \| (\sum_{1 \leq i,j \leq N} |f_i f_j|^2)^{1/2} \|_{L^2}$

$\displaystyle = \| \sum_{i=1}^N |f_i|^2 \|_{L^2}$

$\displaystyle \leq \sum_{i=1}^N \| |f_i|^2 \|_{L^2}$

$\displaystyle = \sum_{i=1}^N \|f_i\|_{L^4}^2$

giving decoupling in ${L^4}$. (Similarly if each of the ${f_i f_j}$ is orthogonal to all but ${O_\varepsilon( N^\varepsilon )}$ of the other ${f_{i'} f_{j'}}$.) A similar argument also gives ${L^6}$ decoupling when one has tri-orthogonality (with the ${f_i f_j f_k}$ mostly orthogonal to each other), and so forth. As a slight variant, Khintchine’s inequality also indicates that decoupling should occur for any fixed ${2 < p < \infty}$ if one multiplies each of the ${f_i}$ by an independent random sign ${\epsilon_i \in \{-1,+1\}}$.

In recent years, Bourgain and Demeter have been establishing decoupling theorems in ${L^p({\bf R}^n)}$ spaces for various key exponents of ${2 < p < \infty}$, in the “restriction theory” setting in which the ${f_i}$ are Fourier transforms of measures supported on different portions of a given surface or curve; this builds upon the earlier decoupling theorems of Wolff. In a recent paper with Guth, they established the following decoupling theorem for the curve ${\gamma({\bf R}) \subset {\bf R}^n}$ parameterised by the polynomial curve

$\displaystyle \gamma: t \mapsto (t, t^2, \dots, t^n).$

For any ball ${B = B(x_0,r)}$ in ${{\bf R}^n}$, let ${w_B: {\bf R}^n \rightarrow {\bf R}^+}$ denote the weight

$\displaystyle w_B(x) := \frac{1}{(1 + \frac{|x-x_0|}{r})^{100n}},$

which should be viewed as a smoothed out version of the indicator function ${1_B}$ of ${B}$. In particular, the space ${L^p(w_B) = L^p({\bf R}^n, w_B(x)\ dx)}$ can be viewed as a smoothed out version of the space ${L^p(B)}$. For future reference we observe a fundamental self-similarity of the curve ${\gamma({\bf R})}$: any arc ${\gamma(I)}$ in this curve, with ${I}$ a compact interval, is affinely equivalent to the standard arc ${\gamma([0,1])}$.

Theorem 1 (Decoupling theorem) Let ${n \geq 1}$. Subdivide the unit interval ${[0,1]}$ into ${N}$ equal subintervals ${I_i}$ of length ${1/N}$, and for each such ${I_i}$, let ${f_i: {\bf R}^n \rightarrow {\bf R}}$ be the Fourier transform

$\displaystyle f_i(x) = \int_{\gamma(I_i)} e(x \cdot \xi)\ d\mu_i(\xi)$

of a finite Borel measure ${\mu_i}$ on the arc ${\gamma(I_i)}$, where ${e(\theta) := e^{2\pi i \theta}}$. Then the ${f_i}$ exhibit decoupling in ${L^{n(n+1)}(w_B)}$ for any ball ${B}$ of radius ${N^n}$.

Orthogonality gives the ${n=1}$ case of this theorem. The bi-orthogonality type arguments sketched earlier only give decoupling in ${L^p}$ up to the range ${2 \leq p \leq 2n}$; the point here is that we can now get a much larger value of ${n}$. The ${n=2}$ case of this theorem was previously established by Bourgain and Demeter (who obtained in fact an analogous theorem for any curved hypersurface). The exponent ${n(n+1)}$ (and the radius ${N^n}$) is best possible, as can be seen by the following basic example. If

$\displaystyle f_i(x) := \int_{I_i} e(x \cdot \gamma(\xi)) g_i(\xi)\ d\xi$

where ${g_i}$ is a bump function adapted to ${I_i}$, then standard Fourier-analytic computations show that ${f_i}$ will be comparable to ${1/N}$ on a rectangular box of dimensions ${N \times N^2 \times \dots \times N^n}$ (and thus volume ${N^{n(n+1)/2}}$) centred at the origin, and exhibit decay away from this box, with ${\|f_i\|_{L^{n(n+1)}(w_B)}}$ comparable to

$\displaystyle 1/N \times (N^{n(n+1)/2})^{1/(n(n+1))} = 1/\sqrt{N}.$

On the other hand, ${\sum_{i=1}^N f_i}$ is comparable to ${1}$ on a ball of radius comparable to ${1}$ centred at the origin, so ${\|\sum_{i=1}^N f_i\|_{L^{n(n+1)}(w_B)}}$ is ${\gg 1}$, which is just barely consistent with decoupling. This calculation shows that decoupling will fail if ${n(n+1)}$ is replaced by any larger exponent, and also if the radius of the ball ${B}$ is reduced to be significantly smaller than ${N^n}$.

This theorem has the following consequence of importance in analytic number theory:

Corollary 2 (Vinogradov main conjecture) Let ${s, n, N \geq 1}$ be integers, and let ${\varepsilon > 0}$. Then

$\displaystyle \int_{[0,1]^n} |\sum_{j=1}^N e( j x_1 + j^2 x_2 + \dots + j^n x_n)|^{2s}\ dx_1 \dots dx_n$

$\displaystyle \ll_{\varepsilon,s,n} N^{s+\varepsilon} + N^{2s - \frac{n(n+1)}{2}+\varepsilon}.$

Proof: By the Hölder inequality (and the trivial bound of ${N}$ for the exponential sum), it suffices to treat the critical case ${s = n(n+1)/2}$, that is to say to show that

$\displaystyle \int_{[0,1]^n} |\sum_{j=1}^N e( j x_1 + j^2 x_2 + \dots + j^n x_n)|^{n(n+1)}\ dx_1 \dots dx_n \ll_{\varepsilon,n} N^{\frac{n(n+1)}{2}+\varepsilon}.$

We can rescale this as

$\displaystyle \int_{[0,N] \times [0,N^2] \times \dots \times [0,N^n]} |\sum_{j=1}^N e( x \cdot \gamma(j/N) )|^{n(n+1)}\ dx \ll_{\varepsilon,n} N^{n(n+1)+\varepsilon}.$

As the integrand is periodic along the lattice ${N{\bf Z} \times N^2 {\bf Z} \times \dots \times N^n {\bf Z}}$, this is equivalent to

$\displaystyle \int_{[0,N^n]^n} |\sum_{j=1}^N e( x \cdot \gamma(j/N) )|^{n(n+1)}\ dx \ll_{\varepsilon,n} N^{\frac{n(n+1)}{2}+n^2+\varepsilon}.$

The left-hand side may be bounded by ${\ll \| \sum_{j=1}^N f_j \|_{L^{n(n+1)}(w_B)}^{n(n+1)}}$, where ${B := B(0,N^n)}$ and ${f_j(x) := e(x \cdot \gamma(j/N))}$. Since

$\displaystyle \| f_j \|_{L^{n(n+1)}(w_B)} \ll (N^{n^2})^{\frac{1}{n(n+1)}},$

the claim now follows from the decoupling theorem and a brief calculation. $\Box$

Using the Plancherel formula, one may equivalently (when ${s}$ is an integer) write the Vinogradov main conjecture in terms of solutions ${j_1,\dots,j_s,k_1,\dots,k_s \in \{1,\dots,N\}}$ to the system of equations

$\displaystyle j_1^i + \dots + j_s^i = k_1^i + \dots + k_s^i \forall i=1,\dots,n,$

but we will not use this formulation here.

A history of the Vinogradov main conjecture may be found in this survey of Wooley; prior to the Bourgain-Demeter-Guth theorem, the conjecture was solved completely for ${n \leq 3}$, or for ${n > 3}$ and ${s}$ either below ${n(n+1)/2 - n/3 + O(n^{2/3})}$ or above ${n(n-1)}$, with the bulk of recent progress coming from the efficient congruencing technique of Wooley. It has numerous applications to exponential sums, Waring’s problem, and the zeta function; to give just one application, the main conjecture implies the predicted asymptotic for the number of ways to express a large number as the sum of ${23}$ fifth powers (the previous best result required ${28}$ fifth powers). The Bourgain-Demeter-Guth approach to the Vinogradov main conjecture, based on decoupling, is ostensibly very different from the efficient congruencing technique, which relies heavily on the arithmetic structure of the program, but it appears (as I have been told from second-hand sources) that the two methods are actually closely related, with the former being a sort of “Archimedean” version of the latter (with the intervals ${I_i}$ in the decoupling theorem being analogous to congruence classes in the efficient congruencing method); hopefully there will be some future work making this connection more precise. One advantage of the decoupling approach is that it generalises to non-arithmetic settings in which the set ${\{1,\dots,N\}}$ that ${j}$ is drawn from is replaced by some other similarly separated set of real numbers. (A random thought – could this allow the Vinogradov-Korobov bounds on the zeta function to extend to Beurling zeta functions?)

Below the fold we sketch the Bourgain-Demeter-Guth argument proving Theorem 1.

I thank Jean Bourgain and Andrew Granville for helpful discussions.