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One of my favourite unsolved problems in harmonic analysis is the restriction problem. This problem, first posed explicitly by Elias Stein, can take many equivalent forms, but one of them is this: one starts with a smooth compact hypersurface (possibly with boundary) in , such as the unit sphere in , and equips it with surface measure . One then takes a bounded measurable function on this surface, and then computes the (inverse) Fourier transform
of the measure . As is bounded and is a finite measure, this is a bounded function on ; from the dominated convergence theorem, it is also continuous. The restriction problem asks whether this Fourier transform also decays in space, and specifically whether lies in for some . (This is a natural space to control decay because it is translation invariant, which is compatible on the frequency space side with the modulation invariance of .) By the closed graph theorem, this is the case if and only if there is an estimate of the form
for some constant that can depend on but not on . By a limiting argument, to provide such an estimate, it suffices to prove such an estimate under the additional assumption that is smooth.
Strictly speaking, the above problem should be called the extension problem, but it is dual to the original formulation of the restriction problem, which asks to find those exponents for which the Fourier transform of an function can be meaningfully restricted to a hypersurface , in the sense that the map can be continuously defined from to, say, . A duality argument shows that the exponents for which the restriction property holds are the dual exponents to the exponents for which the extension problem holds.
There are several motivations for studying the restriction problem. The problem is connected to the classical question of determining the nature of the convergence of various Fourier summation methods (and specifically, Bochner-Riesz summation); very roughly speaking, if one wishes to perform a partial Fourier transform by restricting the frequencies (possibly using a well-chosen weight) to some region (such as a ball), then one expects this operation to well behaved if the boundary of this region has good restriction (or extension) properties. More generally, the restriction problem for a surface is connected to the behaviour of Fourier multipliers whose symbols are singular at . The problem is also connected to the analysis of various linear PDE such as the Helmholtz equation, Schro\”dinger equation, wave equation, and the (linearised) Korteweg-de Vries equation, because solutions to such equations can be expressed via the Fourier transform in the form for various surfaces (the sphere, paraboloid, light cone, and cubic for the Helmholtz, Schrödinger, wave, and linearised Korteweg de Vries equation respectively). A particular family of restriction-type theorems for such surfaces, known as Strichartz estimates, play a foundational role in the nonlinear perturbations of these linear equations (e.g. the nonlinear Schrödinger equation, the nonlinear wave equation, and the Korteweg-de Vries equation). Last, but not least, there is a a fundamental connection between the restriction problem and the Kakeya problem, which roughly speaking concerns how tubes that point in different directions can overlap. Indeed, by superimposing special functions of the type , known as wave packets, and which are concentrated on tubes in various directions, one can “encode” the Kakeya problem inside the restriction problem; in particular, the conjectured solution to the restriction problem implies the conjectured solution to the Kakeya problem. Finally, the restriction problem serves as a simplified toy model for studying discrete exponential sums whose coefficients do not have a well controlled phase; this perspective was, for instance, used by Ben Green when he established Roth’s theorem in the primes by Fourier-analytic methods, which was in turn one of the main inspirations for our later work establishing arbitrarily long progressions in the primes, although we ended up using ergodic-theoretic arguments instead of Fourier-analytic ones and so did not directly use restriction theory in that paper.
The estimate (1) is trivial for and becomes harder for smaller . The geometry, and more precisely the curvature, of the surface , plays a key role: if contains a portion which is completely flat, then it is not difficult to concoct an for which fails to decay in the normal direction to this flat portion, and so there are no restriction estimates for any finite . Conversely, if is not infinitely flat at any point, then from the method of stationary phase, the Fourier transform can be shown to decay at a power rate at infinity, and this together with a standard method known as the argument can be used to give non-trivial restriction estimates for finite . However, these arguments fall somewhat short of obtaining the best possible exponents . For instance, in the case of the sphere , the Fourier transform is known to decay at the rate and no better as , which shows that the condition is necessary in order for (1) to hold for this surface. The restriction conjecture for asserts that this necessary condition is also sufficient. However, the -based argument gives only the Tomas-Stein theorem, which in this context gives (1) in the weaker range . (On the other hand, by the nature of the method, the Tomas-Stein theorem does allow the norm on the right-hand side to be relaxed to , at which point the Tomas-Stein exponent becomes best possible. The fact that the Tomas-Stein theorem has an norm on the right-hand side is particularly valuable for applications to PDE, leading in particular to the Strichartz estimates mentioned earlier.)
Over the last two decades, there was a fair amount of work in pushing past the Tomas-Stein barrier. For sake of concreteness let us work just with the restriction problem for the unit sphere in . Here, the restriction conjecture asserts that (1) holds for all , while the Tomas-Stein theorem gives only . By combining a multiscale analysis approach with some new progress on the Kakeya conjecture, Bourgain was able to obtain the first improvement on this range, establishing the restriction conjecture for . The methods were steadily refined over the years; until recently, the best result (due to myself) was that the conjecture held for all , which proceeded by analysing a “bilinear ” variant of the problem studied previously by Bourgain and by Wolff. This is essentially the limit of that method; the relevant bilinear estimate fails for . (This estimate was recently established at the endpoint by Jungjin Lee (personal communication), though this does not quite improve the range of exponents in (1) due to a logarithmic inefficiency in converting the bilinear estimate to a linear one.)
On the other hand, the full range of exponents in (1) was obtained by Bennett, Carbery, and myself (with an alternate proof later given by Guth), but only under the additional assumption of non-coplanar interactions. In three dimensions, this assumption was enforced by replacing (1) with the weaker trilinear (and localised) variant
where and are arbitrary, is the ball of radius in , and are compact portions of whose unit normals are never coplanar, thus there is a uniform lower bound
for some and all . If it were not for this non-coplanarity restriction, (2) would be equivalent to (1) (by setting and , with the converse implication coming from Hölder’s inequality; the loss can be removed by a lemma from a paper of mine). At the time we wrote this paper, we tried fairly hard to try to remove this non-coplanarity restriction in order to recover progress on the original restriction conjecture, but without much success.
A few weeks ago, though, Bourgain and Guth found a new way to use multiscale analysis to “interpolate” between the result of Bennett, Carbery and myself (that has optimal exponents, but requires non-coplanar interactions), with a more classical square function estimate of Córdoba that handles the coplanar case. A direct application of this interpolation method already ties with the previous best known result in three dimensions (i.e. that (1) holds for ). But it also allows for the insertion of additional input, such as the best Kakeya estimate currently known in three dimensions, due to Wolff. This enlarges the range slightly to . The method also can extend to variable-coefficient settings, and in some of these cases (where there is so much “compression” going on that no additional Kakeya estimates are available) the estimates are best possible.
As is often the case in this field, there is a lot of technical book-keeping and juggling of parameters in the formal arguments of Bourgain and Guth, but the main ideas and “numerology” can be expressed fairly readily. (In mathematics, numerology refers to the empirically observed relationships between various key exponents and other numerical parameters; in many cases, one can use shortcuts such as dimensional analysis or informal heuristic, to compute these exponents long before the formal argument is completely in place.) Below the fold, I would like to record this numerology for the simplest of the Bourgain-Guth arguments, namely a reproof of (1) for . This is primarily for my own benefit, but may be of interest to other experts in this particular topic. (See also my 2003 lecture notes on the restriction conjecture.)
In order to focus on the ideas in the paper (rather than on the technical details), I will adopt an informal, heuristic approach, for instance by interpreting the uncertainty principle and the pigeonhole principle rather liberally, and by focusing on main terms in a decomposition and ignoring secondary terms. I will also be somewhat vague with regard to asymptotic notation such as . Making the arguments rigorous requires a certain amount of standard but tedious effort (and is one of the main reasons why the Bourgain-Guth paper is as long as it is), which I will not focus on here.