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In the last set of notes, we obtained the following structural theorem concerning approximate groups:

Theorem 1Let be a finite -approximate group. Then there exists a coset nilprogression of rank and step contained in , such that is covered by left-translates of (and hence also by right-translates of ).

Remark 1Under some mild additional hypotheses (e.g. if the dimensions of are sufficiently large, or if is placed in a certain “normal form”, details of which may be found in this paper), a coset nilprogression of rank and step will be an -approximate group, thus giving a partial converse to Theorem 1. (It is not quite a full converse though, even if one works qualitatively and forgets how the constants depend on : if is covered by a bounded number of left- and right-translates of , one needs the group elements to “approximately normalise” in some sense if one wants to then conclude that is an approximate group.) The mild hypotheses alluded to above can be enforced in the statement of the theorem, but we will not discuss this technicality here, and refer the reader to the above-mentioned paper for details.

By placing the coset nilprogression in a virtually nilpotent group, we have the following corollary in the global case:

Corollary 2Let be a finite -approximate group in an ambient group . Then is covered by left cosets of a virtually nilpotent subgroup of .

In this final set of notes, we give some applications of the above results. The first application is to replace “-approximate group” by “sets of bounded doubling”:

Proposition 3Let be a finite non-empty subset of a (global) group such that . Then there exists a coset nilprogression of rank and step and cardinality such that can be covered by left-translates of , and also by right-translates of .

We will also establish (a strengthening of) a well-known theorem of Gromov on groups of polynomial growth, as promised back in Notes 0, as well as a variant result (of a type known as a “generalised Margulis lemma”) controlling the almost stabilisers of discrete actions of isometries.

The material here is largely drawn from my recent paper with Emmanuel Breuillard and Ben Green.

Emmanuel Breuillard, Ben Green, and I have just uploaded to the arXiv our paper “The structure of approximate groups“, submitted to Pub. IHES. We had announced the main results of this paper in various forums (including this blog) for a few months now, but it had taken some time to fully write up the paper and put in various refinements and applications.

As announced previously, the main result of this paper is what is a (virtually, qualitatively) complete description of finite approximate groups in an arbitrary (local or global) group . For simplicity let us work in the much more familiar setting of global groups, although our results also apply (but are a bit more technical to state) in the local group setting.

Recall that in a global group , a -approximate group is a symmetric subset of containing the origin, with the property that the product set is covered by left-translates of . Examples of -approximate groups include genuine groups, convex bodies in a bounded dimensional vector space, small balls in a bounded dimensional Lie group, large balls in a discrete nilpotent group of bounded rank or step, or generalised arithmetic progressions (or more generally, coset progressions) of bounded rank in an abelian group. Specialising now to finite approximate groups, a key example of such a group is what we call a *coset nilprogression*: a set of the form , where is a homomorphism with finite kernel from a subgroup of to a nilpotent group of bounded step, and is a *nilprogression* with a bounded number of generators in and some lengths , where consists of all the words involving at most copies of , copies of , and so forth up to copies of . One can show (by some nilpotent algebra) that all such coset nilprogressions are -approximate groups so long as the step and the rank are bounded (and if are sufficiently large).

Our main theorem (which was essentially conjectured independently by Helfgott and by Lindenstrauss) asserts, roughly speaking, that coset nilprogressions are essentially the only examples of approximate groups.

Theorem 1Let be a -approximate group. Then contains a coset nilprogression of rank and step , such that can be covered by left-translates of .

In the torsion-free abelian case, this result is essentially Freiman’s theorem (with an alternate proof by Ruzsa); for general abelian case, it is due to Green and Ruzsa. Various partial results in this direction for some other groups (e.g. free groups, nilpotent groups, solvable groups, or simple groups of Lie type) are also known; see these previous blog posts for a summary of several of these results.

This result has a number of applications to geometric growth theory, and in particular to variants of Gromov’s theorem of groups of polynomial growth, which asserts that a finitely generated group is of polynomial growth if and only if it is virtually nilpotent. The connection lies in the fact that if the balls associated to a finite set of generators has polynomial growth, then some simple volume-packing arguments combined with the pigeonhole principle will show that will end up being a -approximate group for many radii . In fact, since our theorem only needs a *single* approximate group to obtain virtually nilpotent structure, we are able to obtain some new strengthenings of Gromov’s theorem. For instance, if is any -approximate group in a finitely generated group that contains for some set of generators and some that is sufficiently large depending on , our theorem implies that is virtually nilpotent, answering a question of Petrunin. Among other things, this gives an alternate proof of a recent result of Kapovitch and Wilking (see also this previous paper of Cheeger and Colding) that a compact manifold of bounded diameter and Ricci curvature at least necessarily has a virtually nilpotent fundamental group if is sufficiently small (depending only on dimension). The main point here is that no lower bound on the injectivity radius is required. Another application is a “Margulis-type lemma”, which asserts that if a metric space has “bounded packing” (in the sense that any ball of radius (say) is covered by a bounded number of balls of radius ), and is a group of isometries on that acts discretely (i.e. every orbit has only finitely many elements (counting multiplicity) in each bounded set), then the near-stabiliser of a point is virtually nilpotent if is small enough depending on the packing constant.

There are also some variants and refinements to the main theorem proved in the paper, such as an extension to local groups, and also an improvement on the bound on the rank and step from to (but at the cost of replacing in the theorem with ).

I’ll be discussing the proof of the main theorem in detail in the next few lecture notes of my current graduate course. The full proof is somewhat lengthy (occupying about 50 pages of the 90-page paper), but can be summarised in the following steps:

- (Hrushovski) Take an arbitrary sequence of finite -approximate groups, and show that an appropriate limit of such groups can be “modeled” in some sense by an open bounded subset of a locally compact group. (The precise definition of “model” is technical, but “macroscopically faithful representation” is a good first approximation.) As discussed in the previous lecture notes, we use an ultralimit for this purpose; the paper of Hrushovski where this strategy was first employed also considered more sophisticated model-theoretic limits. To build a locally compact topology, Hrushovski used some tools from definability theory; in our paper, we instead use a combinatorial lemma of Sanders (closely related to a similar result of Croot and Sisask.)
- (Gleason-Yamabe) The locally compact group can in turn be “modeled” by a Lie group (possibly after shrinking the group, and thus the ultralimit , slightly). (This result arose from the solution to Hilbert’s fifth problem, as discussed here. For our extension to local groups, we use a recent local version of the Gleason-Yamabe theorem, due to Goldbring.)
- (Gleason) Using the escape properties of the Lie model, construct a norm (and thus a left-invariant metric ) on the ultralimit approximate group (and also on the finitary groups ) that obeys a number of good properties, such as a commutator estimate . (This is modeled on an analogous construction used in the theory of Hilbert’s fifth problem, as discussed in this previous set of lecture notes.) This norm is essentially an
*escape norm*associated to (a slight modification) of or . - (Jordan-Bieberbach-Frobenius) We now take advantage of the finite nature of the by locating the non-trivial element of with minimal escape norm (but one has to first quotient out the elements of zero escape norm first). The commutator estimate mentioned previously ensures that this element is essentially “central” in . One can then quotient out a progression generated by this central element (reducing the dimension of the Lie model by one in the process) and iterates the process until the dimension of the model drops to zero. Reversing the process, this constructs a coset nilprogression inside . This argument is based on the classic proof of Jordan’s theorem due to Bieberbach and Frobenius, as discussed in this blog post.

One quirk of the argument is that it requires one to work in the category of local groups rather than global groups. (This is somewhat analogous to how, in the standard proofs of Freiman’s theorem, one needs to work with the category of Freiman homomorphisms, rather than group homomorphisms.) The reason for this arises when performing the quotienting step in the Jordan-Bieberbach-Frobenius leg of the argument. The obvious way to perform this step (and the thing that we tried first) would be to quotient out by the entire cyclic group generated by the element of minimal escape norm. However, it turns out that this doesn’t work too well, because the group quotiented out is so “large” that it can create a lot of torsion in the quotient. In particular, elements which used to have positive escape norm, can now become trapped in the quotient of , thus sending their escape norm to zero. This leads to an inferior conclusion (in which a coset nilprogression is replaced by a more complicated tower of alternating extensions between central progressions and finite groups, similar to the towers encountered in my previous paper on this topic). To prevent this unwanted creation of torsion, one has to truncate the cyclic group before it escapes , so that one quotients out by a geometric progression rather than the cyclic group. But the operation of quotienting out by a , which is a local group rather than a global one, cannot be formalised in the category of global groups, but only in the category of local groups. Because of this, we were forced to carry out the entire argument using the language of local groups. As it turns out, the arguments are ultimately more natural in this setting, although there is an initial investment of notation required, given that global group theory is much more familiar and well-developed than local group theory.

One interesting feature of the argument is that it does not use much of the existing theory of Freiman-type theorems, instead building the coset nilprogression directly from the geometric properties of the approximate group. In particular, our argument gives a new proof of Freiman’s theorem in the abelian case, which largely avoids Fourier analysis (except through the use of the theory of Hilbert’s fifth problem, which uses the Peter-Weyl theorem (or, in the abelian case, Pontryagin duality), which is basically a version of Fourier analysis).

This fall (starting Monday, September 26), I will be teaching a graduate topics course which I have entitled “Hilbert’s fifth problem and related topics.” The course is going to focus on three related topics:

- Hilbert’s fifth problem on the topological description of Lie groups, as well as the closely related (local) classification of locally compact groups (the Gleason-Yamabe theorem).
- Approximate groups in nonabelian groups, and their classification via the Gleason-Yamabe theorem (this is very recent work of Emmanuel Breuillard, Ben Green, Tom Sanders, and myself, building upon earlier work of Hrushovski);
- Gromov’s theorem on groups of polynomial growth, as proven via the classification of approximate groups (as well as some consequences to fundamental groups of Riemannian manifolds).

I have already blogged about these topics repeatedly in the past (particularly with regard to Hilbert’s fifth problem), and I intend to recycle some of that material in the lecture notes for this course.

The above three families of results exemplify two broad principles (part of what I like to call “the dichotomy between structure and randomness“):

- (Rigidity) If a group-like object exhibits a weak amount of regularity, then it (or a large portion thereof) often automatically exhibits a strong amount of regularity as well;
- (Structure) This strong regularity manifests itself either as Lie type structure (in continuous settings) or nilpotent type structure (in discrete settings). (In some cases, “nilpotent” should be replaced by sister properties such as “abelian“, “solvable“, or “polycyclic“.)

Let me illustrate what I mean by these two principles with two simple examples, one in the continuous setting and one in the discrete setting. We begin with a continuous example. Given an complex matrix , define the matrix exponential of by the formula

which can easily be verified to be an absolutely convergent series.

Exercise 1Show that the map is a real analytic (and even complex analytic) map from to , and obeys the restricted homomorphism property

Proposition 1 (Rigidity and structure of matrix homomorphisms)Let be a natural number. Let be the group of invertible complex matrices. Let be a map obeying two properties:

- (Group-like object) is a homomorphism, thus for all .
- (Weak regularity) The map is continuous.
Then:

- (Strong regularity) The map is smooth (i.e. infinitely differentiable). In fact it is even real analytic.
- (Lie-type structure) There exists a (unique) complex matrix such that for all .

*Proof:* Let be as above. Let be a small number (depending only on ). By the homomorphism property, (where we use here to denote the identity element of ), and so by continuity we may find a small such that for all (we use some arbitrary norm here on the space of matrices, and allow implied constants in the notation to depend on ).

The map is real analytic and (by the inverse function theorem) is a diffeomorphism near . Thus, by the inverse function theorem, we can (if is small enough) find a matrix of size such that . By the homomorphism property and (1), we thus have

On the other hand, by another application of the inverse function theorem we see that the squaring map is a diffeomorphism near in , and thus (if is small enough)

We may iterate this argument (for a fixed, but small, value of ) and conclude that

for all . By the homomorphism property and (1) we thus have

whenever is a dyadic rational, i.e. a rational of the form for some integer and natural number . By continuity we thus have

for all real . Setting we conclude that

for all real , which gives existence of the representation and also real analyticity and smoothness. Finally, uniqueness of the representation follows from the identity

Exercise 2Generalise Proposition 1 by replacing the hypothesis that is continuous with the hypothesis that is Lebesgue measurable (Hint:use the Steinhaus theorem.). Show that the proposition fails (assuming the axiom of choice) if this hypothesis is omitted entirely.

Note how one needs both the group-like structure and the weak regularity in combination in order to ensure the strong regularity; neither is sufficient on its own. We will see variants of the above basic argument throughout the course. Here, the task of obtaining smooth (or real analytic structure) was relatively easy, because we could borrow the smooth (or real analytic) structure of the domain and range ; but, somewhat remarkably, we shall see that one can still build such smooth or analytic structures even when none of the original objects have any such structure to begin with.

Now we turn to a second illustration of the above principles, namely Jordan’s theorem, which uses a discreteness hypothesis to upgrade Lie type structure to nilpotent (and in this case, abelian) structure. We shall formulate Jordan’s theorem in a slightly stilted fashion in order to emphasise the adherence to the above-mentioned principles.

Theorem 2 (Jordan’s theorem)Let be an object with the following properties:

- (Group-like object) is a group.
- (Discreteness) is finite.
- (Lie-type structure) is contained in (the group of unitary matrices) for some .
Then there is a subgroup of such that

- ( is close to ) The index of in is (i.e. bounded by for some quantity depending only on ).
- (Nilpotent-type structure) is abelian.

A key observation in the proof of Jordan’s theorem is that if two unitary elements are close to the identity, then their commutator is even closer to the identity (in, say, the operator norm ). Indeed, since multiplication on the left or right by unitary elements does not affect the operator norm, we have

and so by the triangle inequality

Now we can prove Jordan’s theorem.

*Proof:* We induct on , the case being trivial. Suppose first that contains a central element which is not a multiple of the identity. Then, by definition, is contained in the centraliser of , which by the spectral theorem is isomorphic to a product of smaller unitary groups. Projecting to each of these factor groups and applying the induction hypothesis, we obtain the claim.

Thus we may assume that contains no central elements other than multiples of the identity. Now pick a small (one could take in fact) and consider the subgroup of generated by those elements of that are within of the identity (in the operator norm). By considering a maximal -net of we see that has index at most in . By arguing as before, we may assume that has no central elements other than multiples of the identity.

If consists only of multiples of the identity, then we are done. If not, take an element of that is not a multiple of the identity, and which is as close as possible to the identity (here is where we crucially use that is finite). By (2), we see that if is sufficiently small depending on , and if is one of the generators of , then lies in and is closer to the identity than , and is thus a multiple of the identity. On the other hand, has determinant . Given that it is so close to the identity, it must therefore be the identity (if is small enough). In other words, is central in , and is thus a multiple of the identity. But this contradicts the hypothesis that there are no central elements other than multiples of the identity, and we are done.

Commutator estimates such as (2) will play a fundamental role in many of the arguments we will see in this course; as we saw above, such estimates combine very well with a discreteness hypothesis, but will also be very useful in the continuous setting.

Exercise 3Generalise Jordan’s theorem to the case when is a finite subgroup of rather than of . (Hint:The elements of are not necessarily unitary, and thus do not necessarily preserve the standard Hilbert inner product of . However, if one averages that inner product by the finite group , one obtains a new inner product on that is preserved by , which allows one to conjugate to a subgroup of . This averaging trick is (a small) part of Weyl’s unitary trick in representation theory.)

Exercise 4 (Inability to discretise nonabelian Lie groups)Show that if , then the orthogonal group cannot contain arbitrarily dense finite subgroups, in the sense that there exists an depending only on such that for every finite subgroup of , there exists a ball of radius in (with, say, the operator norm metric) that is disjoint from . What happens in the case?

Remark 1More precise classifications of the finite subgroups of are known, particularly in low dimensions. For instance, one can show that the only finite subgroups of (which is a double cover of) are isomorphic to either a cyclic group, a dihedral group, or the symmetry group of one of the Platonic solids.

A celebrated theorem of Gromov reads:

Theorem 1Every finitely generated group of polynomial growth is virtually nilpotent.

The original proof of Gromov’s theorem was quite non-elementary, using an infinitary limit and exploiting the work surrounding the solution to Hilbert’s fifth problem. More recently, Kleiner provided a proof which was more elementary (based in large part on an earlier paper of Colding and Minicozzi), though still not entirely so, relying in part on (a weak form of the) Tits alternative and also on an ultrafilter argument of Korevaar-Schoen and Mok. I discuss Kleiner’s argument more in this previous blog post.

Recently, Yehuda Shalom and I established a quantitative version of Gromov’s theorem by making every component of Kleiner’s argument finitary. Technically, this provides a fully elementary proof of Gromov’s theorem (we do use one infinitary limit to simplify the argument a little bit, but this is not truly necessary); however, because we were trying to quantify as much of the result as possible, the argument became quite lengthy.

In this note I want to record a short version of the argument of Yehuda and myself which is not quantitative, but gives a self-contained and largely elementary proof of Gromov’s theorem. The argument is not too far from the Kleiner argument, but has a number of simplifications at various places. In a number of places, there was a choice to take between a short argument that was “inefficient” in the sense that it did not lead to a good quantitative bound, and a lengthier argument which led to better quantitative bounds. I have opted for the former in all such cases.

Yehuda and I plan to write a short paper containing this argument as well as some additional material, but due to some interest in this particular proof, we are detailing it here on this blog in advance of our paper.

Note: this post will assume familiarity with the basic terminology of group theory, and will move somewhat quickly through the technical details.

Yehuda Shalom and I have just uploaded to the arXiv our paper “A finitary version of Gromov’s polynomial growth theorem“, to be submitted to Geom. Func. Anal.. The purpose of this paper is to establish a quantitative version of Gromov’s polynomial growth theorem which, among other things, is meaningful for finite groups. Here is a statement of Gromov’s theorem:

Gromov’s theorem.Let be a group generated by a finite (symmetric) set , and suppose that one has the polynomial growth condition(1)

for all sufficiently large and some fixed , where is the ball of radius generated by (i.e. the set of all words in of length at most , evaluated in ). Then is virtually nilpotent, i.e. it has a finite index subgroup which is nilpotent of some finite step .

As currently stated, Gromov’s theorem is qualitative rather than quantitative; it does not specify any relationship between the input data (the growth exponent and the range of scales for which one has (1)), and the output parameters (in particular, the index of the nilpotent subgroup of , and the step of that subgroup). However, a compactness argument (sketched in this previous blog post) shows that some such relationship must exist; indeed, if one has (1) for all for some sufficiently large , then one can ensure has index at most and step at most for some quantities , ; thus Gromov’s theorem is inherently a “local” result which only requires one to multiply the generator set a finite number of times before one sees the virtual nilpotency of the group. However, the compactness argument does not give an explicit value to the quantities , and the nature of Gromov’s proof (using, in particular, the deep Montgomery-Zippin-Yamabe theory on Hilbert’s fifth problem) does not easily allow such an explicit value to be extracted.

Another point is that the original formulation of Gromov’s theorem required the polynomial bound (1) at *all* sufficiently large scales . A later proof of this theorem by van den Dries and Wilkie relaxed this hypothesis to requiring (1) just for infinitely many scales ; the later proof by Kleiner (which I blogged about here) also has this relaxed hypothesis.

Our main result reduces the hypothesis (1) to a single large scale, and makes most of the qualitative dependencies in the theorem quantitative:

Theorem 1.If (1) holds for some for some sufficiently large absolute constant , then contains a finite index subgroup which is nilpotent of step at most .

The argument does in principle provide a bound on the index of in , but it is very poor (of Ackermann type). If instead one is willing to relax “nilpotent” to “polycyclic“, the bounds on the index are somewhat better (of tower exponential type), though still far from ideal.

There is a related finitary analogue of Gromov’s theorem by Makarychev and Lee, which asserts that any finite group of uniformly polynomial growth has a subgroup with a large abelianisation. The quantitative bounds in that result are quite strong, but on the other hand the hypothesis is also strong (it requires upper and lower bounds of the form (1) at all scales) and the conclusion is a bit weaker than virtual nilpotency. The argument is based on a modification of Kleiner’s proof.

Our argument also proceeds by modifying Kleiner’s proof of Gromov’s theorem (a significant fraction of which was already quantitative), and carefully removing all of the steps which require one to take an asymptotic limit. To ease this task, we look for the most elementary arguments available for each step of the proof (thus consciously avoiding powerful tools such as the Tits alternative). A key technical issue is that because there is only a single scale for which one has polynomial growth, one has to work at scales significantly less than in order to have any chance of keeping control of the various groups and other objects being generated.

Below the fold, I discuss a stripped down version of Kleiner’s argument, and then how we convert it to a fully finitary argument.

This week there is a conference here at IPAM on expanders in pure and applied mathematics. I was an invited speaker, but I don’t actually work in expanders *per se* (though I am certainly interested in them). So I spoke instead about the recent simplified proof by Kleiner of the celebrated theorem of Gromov on groups of polynomial growth. (This proof does not directly mention expanders, but the argument nevertheless hinges on the *absence* of expansion in the Cayley graph of a group of polynomial growth, which is exhibited through the smoothness properties of harmonic functions on such graphs.)

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