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I have uploaded to the arXiv my paper “Exploring the toolkit of Jean Bourgain“. This is one of a collection of papers to be published in the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society describing aspects of the work of Jean Bourgain; other contributors to this collection include Keith Ball, Ciprian Demeter, and Carlos Kenig. Because the other contributors will be covering specific areas of Jean’s work in some detail, I decided to take a non-overlapping tack, and focus instead on some basic tools of Jean that he frequently used across many of the fields he contributed to. Jean had a surprising number of these “basic tools” that he wielded with great dexterity, and in this paper I focus on just a few of them:

- Reducing qualitative analysis results (e.g., convergence theorems or dimension bounds) to quantitative analysis estimates (e.g., variational inequalities or maximal function estimates).
- Using dyadic pigeonholing to locate good scales to work in or to apply truncations.
- Using random translations to amplify small sets (low density) into large sets (positive density).
- Combining large deviation inequalities with metric entropy bounds to control suprema of various random processes.

Each of these techniques is individually not too difficult to explain, and were certainly employed on occasion by various mathematicians prior to Bourgain’s work; but Jean had internalized them to the point where he would instinctively use them as soon as they became relevant to a given problem at hand. I illustrate this at the end of the paper with an exposition of one particular result of Jean, on the Erdős similarity problem, in which his main result (that any sum of three infinite sets of reals has the property that there exists a positive measure set that does not contain any homothetic copy of ) is basically proven by a sequential application of these tools (except for dyadic pigeonholing, which turns out not to be needed here).

I had initially intended to also cover some other basic tools in Jean’s toolkit, such as the uncertainty principle and the use of probabilistic decoupling, but was having trouble keeping the paper coherent with such a broad focus (certainly I could not identify a single paper of Jean’s that employed all of these tools at once). I hope though that the examples given in the paper gives some reasonable impression of Jean’s research style.

Jordan Ellenberg, Richard Oberlin, and I have just uploaded to the arXiv the paper “The Kakeya set and maximal conjectures for algebraic varieties over finite fields“, submitted to Mathematika. This paper builds upon some work of Dvir and later authors on the Kakeya problem in finite fields, which I have discussed in this earlier blog post. Dvir established the following:

Kakeya set conjecture for finite fields.Let F be a finite field, and let E be a subset of that contains a line in every direction. Then E has cardinality at least for some .

The initial argument of Dvir gave . This was improved to for some explicit by Saraf and Sudan, and recently to by Dvir, Kopparty, Saraf, and Sudan, which is within a factor 2 of the optimal result.

In our work we investigate a somewhat different set of improvements to Dvir’s result. The first concerns the *Kakeya maximal function* of a function , defined for all directions in the projective hyperplane at infinity by the formula

where the supremum ranges over all lines in oriented in the direction . Our first result is the endpoint estimate for this operator, namely

Kakeya maximal function conjecture in finite fields.We have for some constant .

This result implies Dvir’s result, since if f is the indicator function of the set E in Dvir’s result, then for every . However, it also gives information on more general sets E which do not necessarily contain a line in every direction, but instead contain a certain fraction of a line in a subset of directions. The exponents here are best possible in the sense that all other mapping properties of the operator can be deduced (with bounds that are optimal up to constants) by interpolating the above estimate with more trivial estimates. This result is the finite field analogue of a long-standing (and still open) conjecture for the Kakeya maximal function in Euclidean spaces; we rely on the polynomial method of Dvir, which thus far has not extended to the Euclidean setting (but note the very interesting variant of this method by Guth that has established the endpoint multilinear Kakeya maximal function estimate in this setting, see this blog post for further discussion).

It turns out that a direct application of the polynomial method is not sufficient to recover the full strength of the maximal function estimate; but by combining the polynomial method with the Nikishin-Maurey-Pisier-Stein “method of random rotations” (as interpreted nowadays by Stein and later by Bourgain, and originally inspired by the factorisation theorems of Nikishin, Maurey, and Pisier), one can already recover a “restricted weak type” version of the above estimate. If one then enhances the polynomial method with the “method of multiplicities” (as introduced by Saraf and Sudan) we can then recover the full “strong type” estimate; a few more details below the fold.

It turns out that one can generalise the above results to more general affine or projective algebraic varieties over finite fields. In particular, we showed

Kakeya maximal function conjecture in algebraic varieties.Suppose that is an (n-1)-dimensional algebraic variety. Let be an integer. Then we havefor some constant , where the supremum is over all irreducible algebraic curves of degree at most d that pass through x but do not lie in W, and W(F) denotes the F-points of W.

The ordinary Kakeya maximal function conjecture corresponds to the case when N=n, W is the hyperplane at infinity, and the degree d is equal to 1. One corollary of this estimate is a Dvir-type result: a subset of which contains, for each x in W, an irreducible algebraic curve of degree d passing through x but not lying in W, has cardinality if . (In particular this implies a lower bound for Nikodym sets worked out by Li.) The dependence of the implied constant on W is only via the degree of W.

The techniques used in the flat case can easily handle curves of higher degree (provided that we allow the implied constants to depend on d), but the method of random rotations does not seem to work directly on the algebraic variety W as there are usually no symmetries of this variety to exploit. Fortunately, we can get around this by using a “random projection trick” to “flatten” W into a hyperplane (after first expressing W as the zero locus of some polynomials, and then composing with the graphing map for such polynomials), reducing the non-flat case to the flat case.

Below the fold, I wish to sketch two of the key ingredients in our arguments, the random rotations method and the random projections trick. (We of course also use some algebraic geometry, but mostly low-tech stuff, on the level of Bezout’s theorem, though we do need one non-trivial result of Kleiman (from SGA6), that asserts that bounded degree varieties can be cut out by a bounded number of polynomials of bounded degree.)

[Update, March 14: See also Jordan’s own blog post on our paper.]

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