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There is a very nice recent paper by Lemke Oliver and Soundararajan (complete with a popular science article about it by the consistently excellent Erica Klarreich for Quanta) about a surprising (but now satisfactorily explained) bias in the distribution of pairs of consecutive primes when reduced to a small modulus .

This phenomenon is superficially similar to the more well known Chebyshev bias concerning the reduction of a single prime to a small modulus , but is in fact a rather different (and much stronger) bias than the Chebyshev bias, and seems to arise from a completely different source. The Chebyshev bias asserts, roughly speaking, that a randomly selected prime of a large magnitude will typically (though not always) be slightly more likely to be a quadratic non-residue modulo than a quadratic residue, but the bias is small (the difference in probabilities is only about for typical choices of ), and certainly consistent with known or conjectured positive results such as Dirichlet’s theorem or the generalised Riemann hypothesis. The reason for the Chebyshev bias can be traced back to the von Mangoldt explicit formula which relates the distribution of the von Mangoldt function modulo with the zeroes of the -functions with period . This formula predicts (assuming some standard conjectures like GRH) that the von Mangoldt function is quite unbiased modulo . The von Mangoldt function is *mostly* concentrated in the primes, but it also has a medium-sized contribution coming from *squares* of primes, which are of course all located in the quadratic residues modulo . (Cubes and higher powers of primes also make a small contribution, but these are quite negligible asymptotically.) To balance everything out, the contribution of the primes must then exhibit a small preference towards quadratic non-residues, and this is the Chebyshev bias. (See this article of Rubinstein and Sarnak for a more technical discussion of the Chebyshev bias, and this survey of Granville and Martin for an accessible introduction. The story of the Chebyshev bias is also related to Skewes’ number, once considered the largest explicit constant to naturally appear in a mathematical argument.)

The paper of Lemke Oliver and Soundararajan considers instead the distribution of the pairs for small and for large consecutive primes , say drawn at random from the primes comparable to some large . For sake of discussion let us just take . Then all primes larger than are either or ; Chebyshev’s bias gives a very slight preference to the latter (of order , as discussed above), but apart from this, we expect the primes to be more or less equally distributed in both classes. For instance, assuming GRH, the probability that lands in would be , and similarly for .

In view of this, one would expect that up to errors of or so, the pair should be equally distributed amongst the four options , , , , thus for instance the probability that this pair is would naively be expected to be , and similarly for the other three tuples. These assertions are not yet proven (although some non-trivial upper and lower bounds for such probabilities can be obtained from recent work of Maynard).

However, Lemke Oliver and Soundararajan argue (backed by both plausible heuristic arguments (based ultimately on the Hardy-Littlewood prime tuples conjecture), as well as substantial numerical evidence) that there is a significant bias away from the tuples and – informally, adjacent primes don’t like being in the same residue class! For instance, they predict that the probability of attaining is in fact

with similar predictions for the other three pairs (in fact they give a somewhat more precise prediction than this). The magnitude of this bias, being comparable to , is significantly stronger than the Chebyshev bias of .

One consequence of this prediction is that the prime gaps are slightly less likely to be divisible by than naive random models of the primes would predict. Indeed, if the four options , , , all occurred with equal probability , then should equal with probability , and and with probability each (as would be the case when taking the difference of two random numbers drawn from those integers not divisible by ); but the Lemke Oliver-Soundararajan bias predicts that the probability of being divisible by three should be slightly lower, being approximately .

Below the fold we will give a somewhat informal justification of (a simplified version of) this phenomenon, based on the Lemke Oliver-Soundararajan calculation using the prime tuples conjecture.

Chantal David, Andrew Granville, Emmanuel Kowalski, Phillipe Michel, Kannan Soundararajan, and I are running a program at MSRI in the Spring of 2017 (more precisely, from Jan 17, 2017 to May 26, 2017) in the area of analytic number theory, with the intention to bringing together many of the leading experts in all aspects of the subject and to present recent work on the many active areas of the subject (the discussion on previous blog posts here have mostly focused on advances in the study of the distribution of the prime numbers, but there have been many other notable recent developments too, such as refinements of the circle method, a deeper understanding of the asymptotics of bounded multiplicative functions and of the “pretentious” approach to analytic number theory, more “analysis-friendly” formulations of the theorems of Deligne and others involving trace functions over fields, and new subconvexity theorems for automorphic forms, to name a few). Like any other semester MSRI program, there will be a number of workshops, seminars, and similar activities taking place while the members are in residence. I’m personally looking forward to the program, which should be occurring in the midst of a particularly productive time for the subject. Needless to say, I (and the rest of the organising committee) plan to be present for most of the program.

Applications for Postdoctoral Fellowships, Research Memberships, and Research Professorships for this program (and for other MSRI programs in this time period, namely the companion program in Harmonic Analysis and the Fall program in Geometric Group Theory, as well as the complementary program in all other areas of mathematics) have just opened up today. Applications are open to everyone (until they close on Dec 1), but require supporting documentation, such as a CV, statement of purpose, and letters of recommendation from other mathematicians; see the application page for more details.

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