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One of the most important topological concepts in analysis is that of compactness (as discussed for instance in my Companion article on this topic).  There are various flavours of this concept, but let us focus on sequential compactness: a subset E of a topological space X is sequentially compact if every sequence in E has a convergent subsequence whose limit is also in E.  This property allows one to do many things with the set E.  For instance, it allows one to maximise a functional on E:

Proposition 1. (Existence of extremisers)  Let E be a non-empty sequentially compact subset of a topological space X, and let $F: E \to {\Bbb R}$ be a continuous function.  Then the supremum $\sup_{x \in E} f(x)$ is attained at at least one point $x_* \in E$, thus $F(x) \leq F(x_*)$ for all $x \in E$.  (In particular, this supremum is finite.)  Similarly for the infimum.

Proof. Let $-\infty < L \leq +\infty$ be the supremum $L := \sup_{x \in E} F(x)$.  By the definition of supremum (and the axiom of (countable) choice), one can find a sequence $x^{(n)}$ in E such that $F(x^{(n)}) \to L$.  By compactness, we can refine this sequence to a subsequence (which, by abuse of notation, we shall continue to call $x^{(n)}$) such that $x^{(n)}$ converges to a limit x in E.  Since we still have $f(x^{(n)}) \to L$, and f is continuous at x, we conclude that f(x)=L, and the claim for the supremum follows.  The claim for the infimum is similar.  $\Box$

Remark 1. An inspection of the argument shows that one can relax the continuity hypothesis on F somewhat: to attain the supremum, it suffices that F be upper semicontinuous, and to attain the infimum, it suffices that F be lower semicontinuous. $\diamond$

We thus see that sequential compactness is useful, among other things, for ensuring the existence of extremisers.  In finite-dimensional spaces (such as vector spaces), compact sets are plentiful; indeed, the Heine-Borel theorem asserts that every closed and bounded set is compact.  However, once one moves to infinite-dimensional spaces, such as function spaces, then the Heine-Borel theorem fails quite dramatically; most of the closed and bounded sets one encounters in a topological vector space are non-compact, if one insists on using a reasonably “strong” topology.  This causes a difficulty in (among other things) calculus of variations, which is often concerned to finding extremisers to a functional $F: E \to {\Bbb R}$ on a subset E of an infinite-dimensional function space X.

In recent decades, mathematicians have found a number of ways to get around this difficulty.  One of them is to weaken the topology to recover compactness, taking advantage of such results as the Banach-Alaoglu theorem (or its sequential counterpart).  Of course, there is a tradeoff: weakening the topology makes compactness easier to attain, but makes the continuity of F harder to establish.  Nevertheless, if F enjoys enough “smoothing” or “cancellation” properties, one can hope to obtain continuity in the weak topology, allowing one to do things such as locate extremisers.  (The phenomenon that cancellation can lead to continuity in the weak topology is sometimes referred to as compensated compactness.)

Another option is to abandon trying to make all sequences have convergent subsequences, and settle just for extremising sequences to have convergent subsequences, as this would still be enough to retain Theorem 1.  Pursuing this line of thought leads to the Palais-Smale condition, which is a substitute for compactness in some calculus of variations situations.

But in many situations, one cannot weaken the topology to the point where the domain E becomes compact, without destroying the continuity (or semi-continuity) of F, though one can often at least find an intermediate topology (or metric) in which F is continuous, but for which E is still not quite compact.  Thus one can find sequences $x^{(n)}$ in E which do not have any subsequences that converge to a constant element $x \in E$, even in this intermediate metric.  (As we shall see shortly, one major cause of this failure of compactness is the existence of a non-trivial action of a non-compact group G on E; such a group action can cause compensated compactness or the Palais-Smale condition to fail also.)  Because of this, it is a priori conceivable that a continuous function F need not attain its supremum or infimum.

Nevertheless, even though a sequence $x^{(n)}$ does not have any subsequences that converge to a constant x, it may have a subsequence (which we also call $x^{(n)}$) which converges to some non-constant sequence $y^{(n)}$ (in the sense that the distance $d(x^{(n)},y^{(n)})$ between the subsequence and the new sequence in a this intermediate metric), where the approximating sequence $y^{(n)}$ is of a very structured form (e.g. “concentrating” to a point, or “travelling” off to infinity, or a superposition $y^{(n)} = \sum_j y^{(n)}_j$ of several concentrating or travelling profiles of this form).  This weaker form of compactness, in which superpositions of a certain type of profile completely describe all the failures (or defects) of compactness, is known as concentration compactness, and the decomposition $x^{(n)} \approx \sum_j y^{(n)}_j$ of the subsequence is known as the profile decomposition.  In many applications, it is a sufficiently good substitute for compactness that one can still do things like locate extremisers for functionals F –  though one often has to make some additional assumptions of F to compensate for the more complicated nature of the compactness.  This phenomenon was systematically studied by P.L. Lions in the 80s, and found great application in calculus of variations and nonlinear elliptic PDE.  More recently, concentration compactness has been a crucial and powerful tool in the non-perturbative analysis of nonlinear dispersive PDE, in particular being used to locate “minimal energy blowup solutions” or “minimal mass blowup solutions” for such a PDE (analogously to how one can use calculus of variations to find minimal energy solutions to a nonlinear elliptic equation); see for instance this recent survey by Killip and Visan.

In typical applications, the concentration compactness phenomenon is exploited in moderately sophisticated function spaces (such as Sobolev spaces or Strichartz spaces), with the failure of traditional compactness being connected to a moderately complicated group G of symmetries (e.g. the group generated by translations and dilations).  Because of this, concentration compactness can appear to be a rather complicated and technical concept when it is first encountered.  In this note, I would like to illustrate concentration compactness in a simple toy setting, namely in the space $X = l^1({\Bbb Z})$ of absolutely summable sequences, with the uniform ($l^\infty$) metric playing the role of the intermediate metric, and the translation group ${\Bbb Z}$ playing the role of the symmetry group G.  This toy setting is significantly simpler than any model that one would actually use in practice [for instance, in most applications X is a Hilbert space], but hopefully it serves to illuminate this useful concept in a less technical fashion.