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A sequence {a: {\bf Z} \rightarrow {\bf C}} of complex numbers is said to be quasiperiodic if it is of the form

\displaystyle a(n) = F( \alpha_1 n \hbox{ mod } 1, \dots, \alpha_k n \hbox{ mod } 1)

for some real numbers {\alpha_1,\dots,\alpha_k} and continuous function {F: ({\bf R}/{\bf Z})^k \rightarrow {\bf C}}. For instance, linear phases such as {n \mapsto e(\alpha n + \beta)} (where {e(\theta) := e^{2\pi i \theta}}) are examples of quasiperiodic sequences; the top order coefficient {\alpha} (modulo {1}) can be viewed as a “frequency” of the integers, and an element of the Pontryagin dual {\hat {\bf Z} \equiv {\bf R}/{\bf Z}} of the integers. Any periodic sequence is also quasiperiodic (taking {k=1} and {\alpha_1} to be the reciprocal of the period). A sequence is said to be almost periodic if it is the uniform limit of quasiperiodic sequences. For instance any Fourier series of the form

\displaystyle a(n) = \sum_{j=1}^\infty c_j e(\alpha_j n)

with {\alpha_1,\alpha_2,\dots} real numbers and {c_1,c_2,\dots} an absolutely summable sequence of complex coefficients, will be almost periodic.

These sequences arise in various “complexity one” problems in arithmetic combinatorics and ergodic theory. For instance, if {(X, \mu, T)} is a measure-preserving system – a probability space {(X,\mu)} equipped with a measure-preserving shift, and {f_1,f_2 \in L^\infty(X)} are bounded measurable functions, then the correlation sequence

\displaystyle a(n) := \int_X f_1(x) f_2(T^n x)\ d\mu(x)

can be shown to be an almost periodic sequence, plus an error term {b_n} which is “null” in the sense that it has vanishing uniform density:

\displaystyle \sup_N \frac{1}{M} \sum_{n=N+1}^{N+M} |b_n| \rightarrow 0 \hbox{ as } M \rightarrow \infty.

This can be established in a number of ways, for instance by writing {a(n)} as the Fourier coefficients of the spectral measure of the shift {T} with respect to the functions {f_1,f_2}, and then decomposing that measure into pure point and continuous components.

In the last two decades or so, it has become clear that there are natural higher order versions of these concepts, in which linear polynomials such as {\alpha n + \beta} are replaced with higher degree counterparts. The most obvious candidates for these counterparts would be the polynomials {\alpha_d n^d + \dots + \alpha_0}, but this turns out to not be a complete set of higher degree objects needed for the theory. Instead, the higher order versions of quasiperiodic and almost periodic sequences are now known as basic nilsequences and nilsequences respectively, while the higher order version of a linear phase is a nilcharacter; each nilcharacter then has a symbol that is a higher order generalisation of the concept of a frequency (and the collection of all symbols forms a group that can be viewed as a higher order version of the Pontryagin dual of {{\bf Z}}). The theory of these objects is spread out in the literature across a number of papers; in particular, the theory of nilcharacters is mostly developed in Appendix E of this 116-page paper of Ben Green, Tamar Ziegler, and myself, and is furthermore written using nonstandard analysis and treating the more general setting of higher dimensional sequences. I therefore decided to rewrite some of that material in this blog post, in the simpler context of the qualitative asymptotic theory of one-dimensional nilsequences and nilcharacters rather than the quantitative single-scale theory that is needed for combinatorial applications (and which necessitated the use of nonstandard analysis in the previous paper).

For technical reasons (having to do with the non-trivial topological structure on nilmanifolds), it will be convenient to work with vector-valued sequences, that take values in a finite-dimensional complex vector space {{\bf C}^m} rather than in {{\bf C}}. By doing so, the space of sequences is now, technically, no longer a ring, as the operations of addition and multiplication on vector-valued sequences become ill-defined. However, we can still take complex conjugates of a sequence, and add sequences taking values in the same vector space {{\bf C}^m}, and for sequences taking values in different vector spaces {{\bf C}^m}, {{\bf C}^{m'}}, we may utilise the tensor product {\otimes: {\bf C}^m \times {\bf C}^{m'} \rightarrow {\bf C}^{mm'}}, which we will normalise by defining

\displaystyle (z_1,\dots,z_m) \otimes (w_1,\dots,w_{m'}) = (z_1 w_1, \dots, z_1 w_{m'}, \dots, z_m w_1, \dots, z_m w_{m'} ).

This product is associative and bilinear, and also commutative up to permutation of the indices. It also interacts well with the Hermitian norm

\displaystyle \| (z_1,\dots,z_m) \| := \sqrt{|z_1|^2 + \dots + |z_m|^2}

since we have {\|z \otimes w\| = \|z\| \|w\|}.

The traditional definition of a basic nilsequence (as defined for instance by Bergelson, Host, and Kra) is as follows:

Definition 1 (Basic nilsequence, first definition) A nilmanifold of step at most {d} is a quotient {G/\Gamma}, where {G} is a connected, simply connected nilpotent Lie group of step at most {d} (thus, all {d+1}-fold commutators vanish) and {\Gamma} is a discrete cocompact lattice in {G}. A basic nilsequence of degree at most {d} is a sequence of the form {n \mapsto F(g^n g_0 \Gamma)}, where {g_0 \Gamma \in G/\Gamma}, {g \in G}, and {F: G/\Gamma \rightarrow {\bf C}^m} is a continuous function.

For instance, it is not difficult using this definition to show that a sequence is a basic nilsequence of degree at most {1} if and only if it is quasiperiodic. The requirement that {G} be simply connected can be easily removed if desired by passing to a universal cover, but it is technically convenient to assume it (among other things, it allows for a well-defined logarithm map that obeys the Baker-Campbell-Hausdorff formula). When one wishes to perform a more quantitative analysis of nilsequences (particularly when working on a “single scale”. sich as on a single long interval {\{ N+1, \dots, N+M\}}), it is common to impose additional regularity conditions on the function {F}, such as Lipschitz continuity or smoothness, but ordinary continuity will suffice for the qualitative discussion in this blog post.

Nowadays, and particularly when one needs to understand the “single-scale” equidistribution properties of nilsequences, it is more convenient (as is for instance done in this ICM paper of Green) to use an alternate definition of a nilsequence as follows.

Definition 2 Let {d \geq 0}. A filtered group of degree at most {d} is a group {G} together with a sequence {G_\bullet = (G_0,G_1,G_2,\dots)} of subgroups {G \geq G_0 \geq G_1 \geq \dots} with {G_{d+1}=\{\hbox{id}\}} and {[G_i,G_j] \subset G_{i+j}} for {i,j \geq 0}. A polynomial sequence {g: {\bf Z} \rightarrow G} into a filtered group is a function such that {\partial_{h_i} \dots \partial_{h_1} g(n) \in G_i} for all {i \geq 0} and {n,h_1,\dots,h_i \in{\bf Z}}, where {\partial_h g(n) := g(n+h) g(n)^{-1}} is the difference operator. A filtered nilmanifold of degree at most {s} is a quotient {G/\Gamma}, where {G} is a filtered group of degree at most {s} such that {G} and all of the subgroups {G_i} are connected, simply connected nilpotent filtered Lie group, and {\Gamma} is a discrete cocompact subgroup of {G} such that {\Gamma_i := \Gamma \cap G_i} is a discrete cocompact subgroup of {G_i}. A basic nilsequence of degree at most {d} is a sequence of the form {n \mapsto F(g(n))}, where {g: {\bf Z} \rightarrow G} is a polynomial sequence, {G/\Gamma} is a filtered nilmanifold of degree at most {d}, and {F: G \rightarrow {\bf C}^m} is a continuous function which is {\Gamma}-automorphic, in the sense that {F(g \gamma) = F(g)} for all {g \in G} and {\gamma \in \Gamma}.

One can easily identify a {\Gamma}-automorphic function on {G} with a function on {G/\Gamma}, but there are some (very minor) advantages to working on the group {G} instead of the quotient {G/\Gamma}, as it becomes slightly easier to modify the automorphy group {\Gamma} when needed. (But because the action of {\Gamma} on {G} is free, one can pass from {\Gamma}-automorphic functions on {G} to functions on {G/\Gamma} with very little difficulty.) The main reason to work with polynomial sequences {n \mapsto g(n)} rather than geometric progressions {n \mapsto g^n g_0 \Gamma} is that they form a group, a fact essentially established by by Lazard and Leibman; see Corollary B.4 of this paper of Green, Ziegler, and myself for a proof in the filtered group setting.

It is easy to see that any sequence that is a basic nilsequence of degree at most {d} in the sense of the first definition, is also a basic nilsequence of degree at most {d} in the second definition, since a nilmanifold of degree at most {d} can be filtered using the lower central series, and any linear sequence {n \mapsto g^n g_0} will be a polynomial sequence with respect to that filtration. The converse implication is a little trickier, but still not too hard to show: see Appendix C of this paper of Ben Green, Tamar Ziegler, and myself. There are two key examples of basic nilsequences to keep in mind. The first are the polynomially quasiperiodic sequences

\displaystyle a(n) = F( P_1(n), \dots, P_k(n) ),

where {P_1,\dots,P_k: {\bf Z} \rightarrow {\bf R}} are polynomials of degree at most {d}, and {F: {\bf R}^k \rightarrow {\bf C}^m} is a {{\bf Z}^k}-automorphic (i.e., {{\bf Z}^k}-periodic) continuous function. The map {P: {\bf Z} \rightarrow {\bf R}^k} defined by {P(n) := (P_1(n),\dots,P_k(n))} is a polynomial map of degree at most {d}, if one filters {{\bf R}^k} by defining {({\bf R}^k)_i} to equal {{\bf R}^k} when {i \leq d}, and {\{0\}} for {i > d}. The torus {{\bf R}^k/{\bf Z}^k} then becomes a filtered nilmanifold of degree at most {d}, and {a(n)} is thus a basic nilsequence of degree at most {d} as per the second definition. It is also possible explicitly describe {a_n} as a basic nilsequence of degree at most {d} as per the first definition, for instance (in the {k=1} case) by taking {G} to be the space of upper triangular unipotent {d+1 \times d+1} real matrices, and {\Gamma} the subgroup with integer coefficients; we leave the details to the interested reader.

The other key example is a sequence of the form

\displaystyle a(n) = F( \alpha n, \{ \alpha n \} \beta n )

where {\alpha,\beta} are real numbers, {\{ \alpha n \} = \alpha n - \lfloor \alpha n \rfloor} denotes the fractional part of {\alpha n}, and and {F: {\bf R}^2 \rightarrow {\bf C}^m} is a {{\bf Z}^2}-automorphic continuous function that vanishes in a neighbourhood of {{\bf Z} \times {\bf R}}. To describe this as a nilsequence, we use the nilpotent connected, simply connected degree {2}, Heisenberg group

\displaystyle G := \begin{pmatrix} 1 & {\bf R} & {\bf R} \\ 0 & 1 & {\bf R} \\ 0 & 0 & 1 \end{pmatrix}

with the lower central series filtration {G_0=G_1=G}, {G_2= [G,G] = \begin{pmatrix} 1 &0 & {\bf R} \\ 0 & 1 & 0 \\ 0 & 0 & 1 \end{pmatrix}}, and {G_i = \{ \mathrm{id} \}} for {i > 2}, {\Gamma} to be the discrete compact subgroup

\displaystyle \Gamma := \begin{pmatrix} 1 & {\bf Z} & {\bf Z} \\ 0 & 1 & {\bf Z} \\ 0 & 0 & 1 \end{pmatrix},

{g: {\bf Z} \rightarrow G} to be the polynomial sequence

\displaystyle g(n) := \begin{pmatrix} 1 & \beta n & \alpha \beta n^2 \\ 0 & 1 & \alpha n \\ 0 & 0 & 1 \end{pmatrix}

and {\tilde F: G \rightarrow {\bf C}^m} to be the {\Gamma}-automorphic function

\displaystyle \tilde F( \begin{pmatrix} 1 & x & y \\ 0 & 1 & z \\ 0 & 0 & 1 \end{pmatrix} ) = F( \{ z \}, y - \lfloor z \rfloor x );

one easily verifies that this function is indeed {\Gamma}-automorphic, and it is continuous thanks to the vanishing properties of {F}. Also we have {a(n) = \tilde F(g(n))}, so {a} is a basic nilsequence of degree at most {2}. One can concoct similar examples with {\{ \alpha n \} \beta n} replaced by other “bracket polynomials” of {n}; for instance

\displaystyle a(n) = F( \alpha n, \{ \alpha n - \frac{1}{2} \} \beta n )

will be a basic nilsequence if {F} now vanishes in a neighbourhood of {(\frac{1}{2}+{\bf Z}) \times {\bf R}} rather than {{\bf Z} \times {\bf R}}. See this paper of Bergelson and Leibman for more discussion of bracket polynomials (also known as generalised polynomials) and their relationship to nilsequences.

A nilsequence of degree at most {d} is defined to be a sequence that is the uniform limit of basic nilsequences of degree at most {d}. Thus for instance a sequence is a nilsequence of degree at most {1} if and only if it is almost periodic, while a sequence is a nilsequence of degree at most {0} if and only if it is constant. Such objects arise in higher order recurrence: for instance, if {h_0,\dots,h_d} are integers, {(X,\mu,T)} is a measure-preserving system, and {f_0,\dots,f_d \in L^\infty(X)}, then it was shown by Leibman that the sequence

\displaystyle n \mapsto \int_X f_0(T^{h_0 n} x) \dots f_d(T^{h_d n} x)\ d\mu(x)

is equal to a nilsequence of degree at most {d}, plus a null sequence. (The special case when the measure-preserving system was ergodic and {h_i = i} for {i=0,\dots,d} was previously established by Bergelson, Host, and Kra.) Nilsequences also arise in the inverse theory of the Gowers uniformity norms, as discussed for instance in this previous post.

It is easy to see that a sequence {a: {\bf Z} \rightarrow {\bf C}^m} is a basic nilsequence of degree at most {d} if and only if each of its {m} components are. The scalar basic nilsequences {a: {\bf Z} \rightarrow {\bf C}} of degree {d} are easily seen to form a {*}-algebra (that is to say, they are a complex vector space closed under pointwise multiplication and complex conjugation), which implies similarly that vector-valued basic nilsequences {a: {\bf Z} \rightarrow {\bf C}^m} of degree at most {d} form a complex vector space closed under complex conjugation for each {m}, and that the tensor product of any two basic nilsequences of degree at most {d} is another basic nilsequence of degree at most {d}. Similarly with “basic nilsequence” replaced by “nilsequence” throughout.

Now we turn to the notion of a nilcharacter, as defined in this paper of Ben Green, Tamar Ziegler, and myself:

Definition 3 (Nilcharacters) Let {d \geq 1}. A sub-nilcharacter of degree {d} is a basic nilsequence {\chi: n \mapsto F(g(n))} of degree at most {d}, such that {F} obeys the additional modulation property

\displaystyle F( g_d g ) = e( \xi \cdot g_d ) F(g) \ \ \ \ \ (1)

for all {g \in G} and {g_d \in G_d}, where {\xi: G_d \rightarrow {\bf R}} is a continuous homomorphism {g_d \mapsto \xi \cdot g_d}. (Note from (1) and {\Gamma}-automorphy that unless {F} vanishes identically, {\xi} must map {\Gamma_d} to {{\bf Z}}, thus without loss of generality one can view {\xi} as an element of the Pontryagial dual of the torus {G_d / \Gamma_d}.) If in addition one has {\|F(g)\|=1} for all {g \in G}, we call {\chi} a nilcharacter of degree {d \geq 1}.

In the degree one case {d=1}, the only sub-nilcharacters are of the form {\chi(n) = e(\alpha n)} for some vector {c \in {\bf C}^m} and {\alpha \in {\bf R}}, and this is a nilcharacter if {c} is a unit vector. Similarly, in higher degree, any sequence of the form {\chi(n) = c e(P(n))}, where {c \in {\bf C}^m} is a vector and {P: {\bf Z} \rightarrow {\bf R}} is a polynomial of degree at most {d}, is a sub-nilcharacter of degree {d}, and a character if {c} is a unit vector. A nilsequence of degree at most {d-1} is automatically a sub-nilcharacter of degree {d}, and a nilcharacter if it is of magnitude {1}. A further example of a nilcharacter is provided by the two-dimensional sequence {\chi: {\bf Z} \rightarrow {\bf C}^2} defined by

\displaystyle \chi(n) := ( F_0( \alpha n ) e( \{ \alpha n \} \beta n ), F_{1/2}( \alpha n ) e( \{ \alpha n - \frac{1}{2} \} \beta n ) ) \ \ \ \ \ (2)

where {F_0, F_{1/2}: {\bf R} \rightarrow {\bf C}} are continuous, {{\bf Z}}-automorphic functions that vanish on a neighbourhood of {{\bf Z}} and {\frac{1}{2}+{\bf Z}} respectively, and which form a partition of unity in the sense that

\displaystyle |F_0(x)|^2 + |F_{1/2}(x)|^2 = 1

for all {x \in {\bf R}}. Note that one needs both {F_0} and {F_{1/2}} to be not identically zero in order for all these conditions to be satisfied; it turns out (for topological reasons) that there is no scalar nilcharacter that is “equivalent” to this nilcharacter in a sense to be defined shortly. In some literature, one works exclusively with sub-nilcharacters rather than nilcharacters, however the former space contains zero-divisors, which is a little annoying technically. Nevertheless, both nilcharacters and sub-nilcharacters generate the same set of “symbols” as we shall see later.

We claim that every degree {d} sub-nilcharacter {f: {\bf Z} \rightarrow {\bf C}^m} can be expressed in the form {f = c \chi}, where {\chi: {\bf Z} \rightarrow {\bf C}^{m'}} is a degree {d} nilcharacter, and {c: {\bf C}^{m'} \rightarrow {\bf C}^m} is a linear transformation. Indeed, by scaling we may assume {f(n) = F(g(n))} where {|F| < 1} uniformly. Using partitions of unity, one can find further functions {F_1,\dots,F_m} also obeying (1) for the same character {\xi} such that {|F_1|^2 + \dots + |F_m|^2} is non-zero; by dividing out the {F_1,\dots,F_m} by the square root of this quantity, and then multiplying by {\sqrt{1-|F|^2}}, we may assume that

\displaystyle |F|^2 + |F_1|^2 + \dots + |F_m|^2 = 1,

and then

\displaystyle \chi(n) := (F(g(n)), F_1(g(n)), \dots, F_m(g(n)))

becomes a degree {d} nilcharacter that contains {f(n)} amongst its components, giving the claim.

As we shall show below, nilsequences can be approximated uniformly by linear combinations of nilcharacters, in much the same way that quasiperiodic or almost periodic sequences can be approximated uniformly by linear combinations of linear phases. In particular, nilcharacters can be used as “obstructions to uniformity” in the sense of the inverse theory of the Gowers uniformity norms.

The space of degree {d} nilcharacters forms a semigroup under tensor product, with the constant sequence {1} as the identity. One can upgrade this semigroup to an abelian group by quotienting nilcharacters out by equivalence:

Definition 4 Let {d \geq 1}. We say that two degree {d} nilcharacters {\chi: {\bf Z} \rightarrow {\bf C}^m}, {\chi': {\bf Z} \rightarrow {\bf C}^{m'}} are equivalent if {\chi \otimes \overline{\chi'}: {\bf Z} \rightarrow {\bf C}^{mm'}} is equal (as a sequence) to a basic nilsequence of degree at most {d-1}. (We will later show that this is indeed an equivalence relation.) The equivalence class {[\chi]_{\mathrm{Symb}^d({\bf Z})}} of such a nilcharacter will be called the symbol of that nilcharacter (in analogy to the symbol of a differential or pseudodifferential operator), and the collection of such symbols will be denoted {\mathrm{Symb}^d({\bf Z})}.

As we shall see below the fold, {\mathrm{Symb}^d({\bf Z})} has the structure of an abelian group, and enjoys some nice “symbol calculus” properties; also, one can view symbols as precisely describing the obstruction to equidistribution for nilsequences. For {d=1}, the group is isomorphic to the Ponytragin dual {\hat {\bf Z} = {\bf R}/{\bf Z}} of the integers, and {\mathrm{Symb}^d({\bf Z})} for {d > 1} should be viewed as higher order generalisations of this Pontryagin dual. In principle, this group can be explicitly described for all {d}, but the theory rapidly gets complicated as {d} increases (much as the classification of nilpotent Lie groups or Lie algebras of step {d} rapidly gets complicated even for medium-sized {d} such as {d=3} or {d=4}). We will give an explicit description of the {d=2} case here. There is however one nice (and non-trivial) feature of {\mathrm{Symb}^d({\bf Z})} for {d \geq 2} – it is not just an abelian group, but is in fact a vector space over the rationals {{\bf Q}}!

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