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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 {p_n, p_{n+1}} when reduced to a small modulus {q}.

This phenomenon is superficially similar to the more well known Chebyshev bias concerning the reduction of a single prime {p_n} to a small modulus {q}, 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 {p} of a large magnitude {x} will typically (though not always) be slightly more likely to be a quadratic non-residue modulo {q} than a quadratic residue, but the bias is small (the difference in probabilities is only about {O(1/\sqrt{x})} for typical choices of {x}), 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 {\Lambda} modulo {q} with the zeroes of the {L}-functions with period {q}. This formula predicts (assuming some standard conjectures like GRH) that the von Mangoldt function {\Lambda} is quite unbiased modulo {q}. 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 {q}. (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 {(p_n \hbox{ mod } q, p_{n+1} \hbox{ mod } q)} for small {q} and for large consecutive primes {p_n, p_{n+1}}, say drawn at random from the primes comparable to some large {x}. For sake of discussion let us just take {q=3}. Then all primes {p_n} larger than {3} are either {1 \hbox{ mod } 3} or {2 \hbox{ mod } 3}; Chebyshev’s bias gives a very slight preference to the latter (of order {O(1/\sqrt{x})}, 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 {p_n} lands in {1 \hbox{ mod } 3} would be {1/2 + O( x^{-1/2+o(1)} )}, and similarly for {2 \hbox{ mod } 3}.

In view of this, one would expect that up to errors of {O(x^{-1/2+o(1)})} or so, the pair {(p_n \hbox{ mod } 3, p_{n+1} \hbox{ mod } 3)} should be equally distributed amongst the four options {(1 \hbox{ mod } 3, 1 \hbox{ mod } 3)}, {(1 \hbox{ mod } 3, 2 \hbox{ mod } 3)}, {(2 \hbox{ mod } 3, 1 \hbox{ mod } 3)}, {(2 \hbox{ mod } 3, 2 \hbox{ mod } 3)}, thus for instance the probability that this pair is {(1 \hbox{ mod } 3, 1 \hbox{ mod } 3)} would naively be expected to be {1/4 + O(x^{-1/2+o(1)})}, 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 {(1 \hbox{ mod } 3, 1 \hbox{ mod } 3)} and {(2 \hbox{ mod } 3, 2 \hbox{ mod } 3)} – informally, adjacent primes don’t like being in the same residue class! For instance, they predict that the probability of attaining {(1 \hbox{ mod } 3, 1 \hbox{ mod } 3)} is in fact

\displaystyle  \frac{1}{4} - \frac{1}{8} \frac{\log\log x}{\log x} + O( \frac{1}{\log x} )

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 {\log\log x / \log x}, is significantly stronger than the Chebyshev bias of {O(1/\sqrt{x})}.

One consequence of this prediction is that the prime gaps {p_{n+1}-p_n} are slightly less likely to be divisible by {3} than naive random models of the primes would predict. Indeed, if the four options {(1 \hbox{ mod } 3, 1 \hbox{ mod } 3)}, {(1 \hbox{ mod } 3, 2 \hbox{ mod } 3)}, {(2 \hbox{ mod } 3, 1 \hbox{ mod } 3)}, {(2 \hbox{ mod } 3, 2 \hbox{ mod } 3)} all occurred with equal probability {1/4}, then {p_{n+1}-p_n} should equal {0 \hbox{ mod } 3} with probability {1/2}, and {1 \hbox{ mod } 3} and {2 \hbox{ mod } 3} with probability {1/4} each (as would be the case when taking the difference of two random numbers drawn from those integers not divisible by {3}); but the Lemke Oliver-Soundararajan bias predicts that the probability of {p_{n+1}-p_n} being divisible by three should be slightly lower, being approximately {1/2 - \frac{1}{4} \frac{\log\log x}{\log x}}.

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.

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