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As in previous posts, we use the following asymptotic notation: is a parameter going off to infinity, and all quantities may depend on unless explicitly declared to be “fixed”. The asymptotic notation is then defined relative to this parameter. A quantity is said to be *of polynomial size* if one has , and *bounded* if . We also write for , and for .

The purpose of this post is to collect together all the various refinements to the second half of Zhang’s paper that have been obtained as part of the polymath8 project and present them as a coherent argument (though not fully self-contained, as we will need some lemmas from previous posts).

In order to state the main result, we need to recall some definitions.

Definition 1 (Singleton congruence class system)Let , and let denote the square-free numbers whose prime factors lie in . Asingleton congruence class systemon is a collection of primitive residue classes for each , obeying the Chinese remainder theorem propertywhenever are coprime. We say that such a system has

controlled multiplicityif thefor any fixed and any congruence class with . Here is the divisor function.

Next we need a relaxation of the concept of -smoothness.

Definition 2 (Dense divisibility)Let . A positive integer is said to be-densely divisibleif, for every , there exists a factor of in the interval . We let denote the set of -densely divisible positive integers.

Now we present a strengthened version of the Motohashi-Pintz-Zhang conjecture , which depends on parameters and .

Conjecture 3() Let , and let be a congruence class system with controlled multiplicity. Thenfor any fixed , where is the von Mangoldt function.

The difference between this conjecture and the weaker conjecture is that the modulus is constrained to be -densely divisible rather than -smooth (note that is no longer constrained to lie in ). This relaxation of the smoothness condition improves the Goldston-Pintz-Yildirim type sieving needed to deduce from ; see this previous post.

The main result we will establish is

This improves upon previous constraints of (see this blog comment) and (see Theorem 13 of this previous post), which were also only established for instead of . Inserting Theorem 4 into the Pintz sieve from this previous post gives for (see this blog comment), which when inserted in turn into newly set up tables of narrow prime tuples gives infinitely many prime gaps of separation at most .

As in previous posts, we use the following asymptotic notation: is a parameter going off to infinity, and all quantities may depend on unless explicitly declared to be “fixed”. The asymptotic notation is then defined relative to this parameter. A quantity is said to be *of polynomial size* if one has , and said to be *bounded* if . Another convenient notation: we write for . Thus for instance the divisor bound asserts that if has polynomial size, then the number of divisors of is .

This post is intended to highlight a phenomenon unearthed in the ongoing polymath8 project (and is in fact a key component of Zhang’s proof that there are bounded gaps between primes infinitely often), namely that one can get quite good bounds on relatively short exponential sums when the modulus is smooth, through the basic technique of *Weyl differencing* (ultimately based on the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality, and also related to the van der Corput lemma in equidistribution theory). Improvements in the case of smooth moduli have appeared before in the literature (e.g. in this paper of Heath-Brown, paper of Graham and Ringrose, this later paper of Heath-Brown, this paper of Chang, or this paper of Goldmakher); the arguments here are particularly close to that of the first paper of Heath-Brown. It now also appears that further optimisation of this Weyl differencing trick could lead to noticeable improvements in the numerology for the polymath8 project, so I am devoting this post to explaining this trick further.

To illustrate the method, let us begin with the classical problem in analytic number theory of estimating an *incomplete character sum*

where is a primitive Dirichlet character of some conductor , is an integer, and is some quantity between and . Clearly we have the trivial bound

we also have the classical Pólya-Vinogradov inequality

This latter inequality gives improvements over the trivial bound when is much larger than , but not for much smaller than . The Pólya-Vinogradov inequality can be deduced via a little Fourier analysis from the completed exponential sum bound

for any , where . (In fact, from the classical theory of Gauss sums, this exponential sum is equal to for some complex number of norm .)

In the case when is a prime, improving upon the above two inequalities is an important but difficult problem, with only partially satisfactory results so far. To give just one indication of the difficulty, the seemingly modest improvement

to the Pólya-Vinogradov inequality when was a prime required a 14-page paper in Inventiones by Montgomery and Vaughan to prove, and even then it was only conditional on the generalised Riemann hypothesis! See also this more recent paper of Granville and Soundararajan for an unconditional variant of this result in the case that has odd order.

Another important improvement is the Burgess bound, which in our notation asserts that

for any fixed integer , assuming that is square-free (for simplicity) and of polynomial size; see this previous post for a discussion of the Burgess argument. This is non-trivial for as small as .

In the case when is prime, there has been very little improvement to the Burgess bound (or its Fourier dual, which can give bounds for as large as ) in the last fifty years; an improvement to the exponents in (3) in this case (particularly anything that gave a power saving for below ) would in fact be rather significant news in analytic number theory.

However, in the opposite case when is *smooth* – that is to say, all of its factors are much smaller than – then one can do better than the Burgess bound in some regimes. This fact has been observed in several places in the literature (in particular, in the papers of Heath-Brown, Graham-Ringrose, Chang, and Goldmakher mentioned previously), but also turns out to (implicitly) be a key insight in Zhang’s paper on bounded prime gaps. In the case of character sums, one such improved estimate (closely related to Theorem 2 of the Heath-Brown paper) is as follows:

Proposition 1Let be square-free with a factorisation and of polynomial size, and let be integers with . Then for any primitive character with conductor , one has

This proposition is particularly powerful when is smooth, as this gives many factorisations with the ability to specify with a fair amount of accuracy. For instance, if is -smooth (i.e. all prime factors are at most ), then by the greedy algorithm one can find a divisor of with ; if we set , then , and the above proposition then gives

which can improve upon the Burgess bound when is small. For instance, if , then this bound becomes ; in contrast the Burgess bound only gives for this value of (using the optimal choice for ), which is inferior for .

The hypothesis that be squarefree may be relaxed, but for applications to the Polymath8 project, it is only the squarefree moduli that are relevant.

*Proof:* If then the claim follows from the trivial bound (1), while for the claim follows from (2). Hence we may assume that

We use the method of Weyl differencing, the key point being to difference in multiples of .

Let , thus . For any , we have

By the Chinese remainder theorem, we may factor

where are primitive characters of conductor respectively. As is periodic of period , we thus have

and so we can take out of the inner summation of the right-hand side of (4) to obtain

and hence by the triangle inequality

Note how the characters on the right-hand side only have period rather than . This reduction in the period is ultimately the source of the saving over the Pólya-Vinogradov inequality.

Note that the inner sum vanishes unless , which is an interval of length by choice of . Thus by Cauchy-Schwarz one has

We expand the right-hand side as

We first consider the diagonal contribution . In this case we use the trivial bound for the inner summation, and we soon see that the total contribution here is .

Now we consider the off-diagonal case; by symmetry we can take . Then the indicator functions restrict to the interval . On the other hand, as a consequence of the Weil conjectures for curves one can show that

for any ; indeed one can use the Chinese remainder theorem and the square-free nature of to reduce to the case when is prime, in which case one can apply (for instance) the original paper of Weil to establish this bound, noting also that and are coprime since is squarefree. Applying the method of completion of sums (or the Parseval formula), this shows that

Summing in (using Lemma 5 from this previous post) we see that the total contribution to the off-diagonal case is

which simplifies to . The claim follows.

A modification of the above argument (using more complicated versions of the Weil conjectures) allows one to replace the summand by more complicated summands such as for some polynomials or rational functions of bounded degree and obeying a suitable non-degeneracy condition (after restricting of course to those for which the arguments are well-defined). We will not detail this here, but instead turn to the question of estimating slightly longer exponential sums, such as

where should be thought of as a little bit larger than .

This is the final continuation of the online reading seminar of Zhang’s paper for the polymath8 project. (There are two other continuations; this previous post, which deals with the combinatorial aspects of the second part of Zhang’s paper, and this previous post, that covers the Type I and Type II sums.) The main purpose of this post is to present (and hopefully, to improve upon) the treatment of the final and most innovative of the key estimates in Zhang’s paper, namely the Type III estimate.

The main estimate was already stated as Theorem 17 in the previous post, but we quickly recall the relevant definitions here. As in other posts, we always take to be a parameter going off to infinity, with the usual asymptotic notation associated to this parameter.

Definition 1 (Coefficient sequences)Acoefficient sequenceis a finitely supported sequence that obeys the boundsfor all , where is the divisor function.

- (i) If is a coefficient sequence and is a primitive residue class, the (signed)
discrepancyof in the sequence is defined to be the quantity- (ii) A coefficient sequence is said to be
at scalefor some if it is supported on an interval of the form .- (iii) A coefficient sequence at scale is said to be
smoothif it takes the form for some smooth function supported on obeying the derivative boundsfor all fixed (note that the implied constant in the notation may depend on ).

For any , let denote the square-free numbers whose prime factors lie in . The main result of this post is then the following result of Zhang:

Theorem 2 (Type III estimate)Let be fixed quantities, and let be quantities such thatand

and

for some fixed . Let be coefficient sequences at scale respectively with smooth. Then for any we have

In fact we have the stronger “pointwise” estimate

(This is very slightly stronger than previously claimed, in that the condition has been dropped.)

It turns out that Zhang does not exploit any averaging of the factor, and matters reduce to the following:

Theorem 3 (Type III estimate without )Let be fixed, and let be quantities such thatand

and

for some fixed . Let be smooth coefficient sequences at scales respectively. Then we have

for all and some fixed .

Let us quickly see how Theorem 3 implies Theorem 2. To show (4), it suffices to establish the bound

for all , where denotes a quantity that is independent of (but can depend on other quantities such as ). The left-hand side can be rewritten as

From Theorem 3 we have

where the quantity does not depend on or . Inserting this asymptotic and using crude bounds on (see Lemma 8 of this previous post) we conclude (4) as required (after modifying slightly).

It remains to establish Theorem 3. This is done by a set of tools similar to that used to control the Type I and Type II sums:

- (i) completion of sums;
- (ii) the Weil conjectures and bounds on Ramanujan sums;
- (iii) factorisation of smooth moduli ;
- (iv) the Cauchy-Schwarz and triangle inequalities (Weyl differencing).

The specifics are slightly different though. For the Type I and Type II sums, it was the classical Weil bound on Kloosterman sums that were the key source of power saving; Ramanujan sums only played a minor role, controlling a secondary error term. For the Type III sums, one needs a significantly deeper consequence of the Weil conjectures, namely the estimate of Bombieri and Birch on a three-dimensional variant of a Kloosterman sum. Furthermore, the Ramanujan sums – which are a rare example of sums that actually exhibit *better* than square root cancellation, thus going beyond even what the Weil conjectures can offer – make a crucial appearance, when combined with the factorisation of the smooth modulus (this new argument is arguably the most original and interesting contribution of Zhang).

This is one of the continuations of the online reading seminar of Zhang’s paper for the polymath8 project. (There are two other continuations; this previous post, which deals with the combinatorial aspects of the second part of Zhang’s paper, and a post to come that covers the Type III sums.) The main purpose of this post is to present (and hopefully, to improve upon) the treatment of two of the three key estimates in Zhang’s paper, namely the Type I and Type II estimates.

The main estimate was already stated as Theorem 16 in the previous post, but we quickly recall the relevant definitions here. As in other posts, we always take to be a parameter going off to infinity, with the usual asymptotic notation associated to this parameter.

Definition 1 (Coefficient sequences)Acoefficient sequenceis a finitely supported sequence that obeys the boundsfor all , where is the divisor function.

- (i) If is a coefficient sequence and is a primitive residue class, the (signed)
discrepancyof in the sequence is defined to be the quantity- (ii) A coefficient sequence is said to be
at scalefor some if it is supported on an interval of the form .- (iii) A coefficient sequence at scale is said to
obey the Siegel-Walfisz theoremif one has- (iv) A coefficient sequence at scale is said to be
smoothif it takes the form for some smooth function supported on obeying the derivative boundsfor all fixed (note that the implied constant in the notation may depend on ).

In Lemma 8 of this previous post we established a collection of “crude estimates” which assert, roughly speaking, that for the purposes of averaged estimates one may ignore the factor in (1) and pretend that was in fact . We shall rely frequently on these “crude estimates” without further citation to that precise lemma.

For any , let denote the square-free numbers whose prime factors lie in .

Definition 2 (Singleton congruence class system)Let . Asingleton congruence class systemon is a collection of primitive residue classes for each , obeying the Chinese remainder theorem propertywhenever are coprime. We say that such a system has

controlled multiplicityif the

The main result of this post is then the following:

Theorem 3 (Type I/II estimate)Let be fixed quantities such thatand let be coefficient sequences at scales respectively with

with obeying a Siegel-Walfisz theorem. Then for any and any singleton congruence class system with controlled multiplicity we have

The proof of this theorem relies on five basic tools:

- (i) the Bombieri-Vinogradov theorem;
- (ii) completion of sums;
- (iii) the Weil conjectures;
- (iv) factorisation of smooth moduli ; and
- (v) the Cauchy-Schwarz and triangle inequalities (Weyl differencing and the dispersion method).

For the purposes of numerics, it is the interplay between (ii), (iii), and (v) that drives the final conditions (7), (8). The Weil conjectures are the primary source of power savings ( for some fixed ) in the argument, but they need to overcome power losses coming from completion of sums, and also each use of Cauchy-Schwarz tends to halve any power savings present in one’s estimates. Naively, one could thus expect to get better estimates by relying more on the Weil conjectures, and less on completion of sums and on Cauchy-Schwarz.

The purpose of this post is to isolate a combinatorial optimisation problem regarding subset sums; any improvement upon the current known bounds for this problem would lead to numerical improvements for the quantities pursued in the Polymath8 project. (UPDATE: Unfortunately no purely combinatorial improvement is possible, see comments.) We will also record the number-theoretic details of how this combinatorial problem is used in Zhang’s argument establishing bounded prime gaps.

First, some (rough) motivational background, omitting all the number-theoretic details and focusing on the combinatorics. (But readers who just want to see the combinatorial problem can skip the motivation and jump ahead to Lemma 5.) As part of the Polymath8 project we are trying to establish a certain estimate called for as wide a range of as possible. Currently the best result we have is:

Theorem 1 (Zhang’s theorem, numerically optimised)holds whenever .

Enlarging this region would lead to a better value of certain parameters , which in turn control the best bound on asymptotic gaps between consecutive primes. See this previous post for more discussion of this. At present, the best value of is applied by taking sufficiently close to , so improving Theorem 1 in the neighbourhood of this value is particularly desirable.

I’ll state exactly what is below the fold. For now, suffice to say that it involves a certain number-theoretic function, the von Mangoldt function . To prove the theorem, the first step is to use a certain identity (the Heath-Brown identity) to decompose into a lot of pieces, which take the form

for some bounded (in Zhang’s paper never exceeds ) and various weights supported at various scales that multiply up to approximately :

We can write , thus ignoring negligible errors, are non-negative real numbers that add up to :

A key technical feature of the Heath-Brown identity is that the weight associated to sufficiently large values of (e.g. ) are “smooth” in a certain sense; this will be detailed below the fold.

The operation is Dirichlet convolution, which is commutative and associative. We can thus regroup the convolution (1) in a number of ways. For instance, given any partition into disjoint sets , we can rewrite (1) as

where is the convolution of those with , and similarly for .

Zhang’s argument splits into two major pieces, in which certain classes of (1) are established. Cheating a little bit, the following three results are established:

Theorem 2 (Type 0 estimate, informal version)The term (1) gives an acceptable contribution to wheneverfor some .

Theorem 3 (Type I/II estimate, informal version)The term (1) gives an acceptable contribution to whenever one can find a partition such thatwhere is a quantity such that

Theorem 4 (Type III estimate, informal version)The term (1) gives an acceptable contribution to whenever one can find with distinct withand

The above assertions are oversimplifications; there are some additional minor smallness hypotheses on that are needed but at the current (small) values of under consideration they are not relevant and so will be omitted.

The deduction of Theorem 1 from Theorems 2, 3, 4 is then accomplished from the following, purely combinatorial, lemma:

Lemma 5 (Subset sum lemma)Let be such thatLet be non-negative reals such that

Then at least one of the following statements hold:

- (Type 0) There is such that .
- (Type I/II) There is a partition such that
where is a quantity such that

- (Type III) One can find distinct with
and

The purely combinatorial question is whether the hypothesis (2) can be relaxed here to a weaker condition. This would allow us to improve the ranges for Theorem 1 (and hence for the values of and alluded to earlier) without needing further improvement on Theorems 2, 3, 4 (although such improvement is also going to be a focus of Polymath8 investigations in the future).

Let us review how this lemma is currently proven. The key sublemma is the following:

Lemma 6Let , and let be non-negative numbers summing to . Then one of the following three statements hold:

- (Type 0) There is a with .
- (Type I/II) There is a partition such that
- (Type III) There exist distinct with and .

*Proof:* Suppose Type I/II never occurs, then every partial sum is either “small” in the sense that it is less than or equal to , or “large” in the sense that it is greater than or equal to , since otherwise we would be in the Type I/II case either with as is and the complement of , or vice versa.

Call a summand “powerless” if it cannot be used to turn a small partial sum into a large partial sum, thus there are no such that is small and is large. We then split where are the powerless elements and are the powerful elements.

By induction we see that if and is small, then is also small. Thus every sum of powerful summand is either less than or larger than . Since a powerful element must be able to convert a small sum to a large sum (in fact it must be able to convert a small sum of powerful summands to a large sum, by stripping out the powerless summands), we conclude that every powerful element has size greater than . We may assume we are not in Type 0, then every powerful summand is at least and at most . In particular, there have to be at least three powerful summands, otherwise cannot be as large as . As , we have , and we conclude that the sum of any two powerful summands is large (which, incidentally, shows that there are *exactly* three powerful summands). Taking to be three powerful summands in increasing order we land in Type III.

Now we see how Lemma 6 implies Lemma 5. Let be as in Lemma 5. We take almost as large as we can for the Type I/II case, thus we set

for some sufficiently small . We observe from (2) that we certainly have

and

with plenty of room to spare. We then apply Lemma 6. The Type 0 case of that lemma then implies the Type 0 case of Lemma 5, while the Type I/II case of Lemma 6 also implies the Type I/II case of Lemma 5. Finally, suppose that we are in the Type III case of Lemma 6. Since

we thus have

and so we will be done if

Inserting (3) and taking small enough, it suffices to verify that

but after some computation this is equivalent to (2).

It seems that there is some slack in this computation; some of the conclusions of the Type III case of Lemma 5, in particular, ended up being “wasted”, and it is possible that one did not fully exploit all the partial sums that could be used to create a Type I/II situation. So there may be a way to make improvements through purely combinatorial arguments. (UPDATE: As it turns out, this is sadly not the case: consderation of the case when , , and shows that one cannot obtain any further improvement without actually improving the Type I/II and Type III analysis.)

A technical remark: for the application to Theorem 1, it is possible to enforce a bound on the number of summands in Lemma 5. More precisely, we may assume that is an even number of size at most for any natural number we please, at the cost of adding the additioal constraint to the Type III conclusion. Since is already at least , which is at least , one can safely take , so can be taken to be an even number of size at most , which in principle makes the problem of optimising Lemma 5 a fixed linear programming problem. (Zhang takes , but this appears to be overkill. On the other hand, does not appear to be a parameter that overly influences the final numerical bounds.)

Below the fold I give the number-theoretic details of the combinatorial aspects of Zhang’s argument that correspond to the combinatorial problem described above.

This post is a continuation of the previous post on sieve theory, which is an ongoing part of the Polymath8 project to improve the various parameters in Zhang’s proof that bounded gaps between primes occur infinitely often. Given that the comments on that page are getting quite lengthy, this is also a good opportunity to “roll over” that thread.

We will continue the notation from the previous post, including the concept of an admissible tuple, the use of an asymptotic parameter going to infinity, and a quantity depending on that goes to infinity sufficiently slowly with , and (the -trick).

The objective of this portion of the Polymath8 project is to make as efficient as possible the connection between two types of results, which we call and . Let us first state , which has an integer parameter :

Conjecture 1() Let be a fixed admissible -tuple. Then there are infinitely many translates of which contain at least two primes.

Zhang was the first to prove a result of this type with . Since then the value of has been lowered substantially; at this time of writing, the current record is .

There are two basic ways known currently to attain this conjecture. The first is to use the Elliott-Halberstam conjecture for some :

Conjecture 2() One hasfor all fixed . Here we use the abbreviation for .

Here of course is the von Mangoldt function and the Euler totient function. It is conjectured that holds for all , but this is currently only known for , an important result known as the Bombieri-Vinogradov theorem.

In a breakthrough paper, Goldston, Yildirim, and Pintz established an implication of the form

for any , where depends on . This deduction was very recently optimised by Farkas, Pintz, and Revesz and also independently in the comments to the previous blog post, leading to the following implication:

Theorem 3 (EH implies DHL)Let be a real number, and let be an integer obeying the inequalitywhere is the first positive zero of the Bessel function . Then implies .

Note that the right-hand side of (2) is larger than , but tends asymptotically to as . We give an alternate proof of Theorem 3 below the fold.

Implications of the form Theorem 3 were modified by Motohashi and Pintz, which in our notation replaces by an easier conjecture for some and , at the cost of degrading the sufficient condition (2) slightly. In our notation, this conjecture takes the following form for each choice of parameters :

Conjecture 4() Let be a fixed -tuple (not necessarily admissible) for some fixed , and let be a primitive residue class. Thenfor any fixed , where , are the square-free integers whose prime factors lie in , and is the quantity

and is the set of congruence classes

and is the polynomial

This is a weakened version of the Elliott-Halberstam conjecture:

Proposition 5 (EH implies MPZ)Let and . Then implies for any . (In abbreviated form: implies .)

In particular, since is conjecturally true for all , we conjecture to be true for all and .

*Proof:* Define

then the hypothesis (applied to and and then subtracting) tells us that

for any fixed . From the Chinese remainder theorem and the Siegel-Walfisz theorem we have

for any coprime to (and in particular for ). Since , where is the number of prime divisors of , we can thus bound the left-hand side of (3) by

The contribution of the second term is by standard estimates (see Proposition 8 below). Using the very crude bound

and standard estimates we also have

and the claim now follows from the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality.

In practice, the conjecture is easier to prove than due to the restriction of the residue classes to , and also the restriction of the modulus to -smooth numbers. Zhang proved for any . More recently, our Polymath8 group has analysed Zhang’s argument (using in part a corrected version of the analysis of a recent preprint of Pintz) to obtain whenever are such that

The work of Motohashi and Pintz, and later Zhang, implicitly describe arguments that allow one to deduce from provided that is sufficiently large depending on . The best implication of this sort that we have been able to verify thus far is the following result, established in the previous post:

Theorem 6 (MPZ implies DHL)Let , , and let be an integer obeying the constraintThen implies .

This complicated version of is roughly of size . It is unlikely to be optimal; the work of Motohashi-Pintz and Pintz suggests that it can essentially be improved to , but currently we are unable to verify this claim. One of the aims of this post is to encourage further discussion as to how to improve the term in results such as Theorem 6.

We remark that as (5) is an open condition, it is unaffected by infinitesimal modifications to , and so we do not ascribe much importance to such modifications (e.g. replacing by for some arbitrarily small ).

The known deductions of from claims such as or rely on the following elementary observation of Goldston, Pintz, and Yildirim (essentially a weighted pigeonhole principle), which we have placed in “-tricked form”:

Lemma 7 (Criterion for DHL)Let . Suppose that for each fixed admissible -tuple and each congruence class such that is coprime to for all , one can find a non-negative weight function , fixed quantities , a quantity , and a fixed positive power of such that one has the upper boundfor all , and the key inequality

holds. Then holds. Here is defined to equal when is prime and otherwise.

By (6), (7), this quantity is at least

By (8), this expression is positive for all sufficiently large . On the other hand, (9) can only be positive if at least one summand is positive, which only can happen when contains at least two primes for some with . Letting we obtain as claimed.

In practice, the quantity (referred to as the *sieve level*) is a power of such as or , and reflects the strength of the distribution hypothesis or that is available; the quantity will also be a key parameter in the definition of the sieve weight . The factor reflects the order of magnitude of the expected density of in the residue class ; it could be absorbed into the sieve weight by dividing that weight by , but it is convenient to not enforce such a normalisation so as not to clutter up the formulae. In practice, will some combination of and .

Once one has decided to rely on Lemma 7, the next main task is to select a good weight for which the ratio is as small as possible (and for which the sieve level is as large as possible. To ensure non-negativity, we use the Selberg sieve

for some weights vanishing for that are to be chosen, where is an interval and is the polynomial . If the distribution hypothesis is , one takes and ; if the distribution hypothesis is instead , one takes and .

One has a useful amount of flexibility in selecting the weights for the Selberg sieve. The original work of Goldston, Pintz, and Yildirim, as well as the subsequent paper of Zhang, the choice

is used for some additional parameter to be optimised over. More generally, one can take

for some suitable (in particular, sufficiently smooth) cutoff function . We will refer to this choice of sieve weights as the “analytic Selberg sieve”; this is the choice used in the analysis in the previous post.

However, there is a slight variant choice of sieve weights that one can use, which I will call the “elementary Selberg sieve”, and it takes the form

for a sufficiently smooth function , where

for is a -variant of the Euler totient function, and

for is a -variant of the function . (The derivative on the cutoff is convenient for computations, as will be made clearer later in this post.) This choice of weights may seem somewhat arbitrary, but it arises naturally when considering how to optimise the quadratic form

(which arises naturally in the estimation of in (6)) subject to a fixed value of (which morally is associated to the estimation of in (7)); this is discussed in any sieve theory text as part of the general theory of the Selberg sieve, e.g. Friedlander-Iwaniec.

The use of the elementary Selberg sieve for the bounded prime gaps problem was studied by Motohashi and Pintz. Their arguments give an alternate derivation of from for sufficiently large, although unfortunately we were not able to confirm some of their calculations regarding the precise dependence of on , and in particular we have not yet been able to improve upon the specific criterion in Theorem 6 using the elementary sieve. However it is quite plausible that such improvements could become available with additional arguments.

Below the fold we describe how the elementary Selberg sieve can be used to reprove Theorem 3, and discuss how they could potentially be used to improve upon Theorem 6. (But the elementary Selberg sieve and the analytic Selberg sieve are in any event closely related; see the appendix of this paper of mine with Ben Green for some further discussion.) For the purposes of polymath8, either developing the elementary Selberg sieve or continuing the analysis of the analytic Selberg sieve from the previous post would be a relevant topic of conversation in the comments to this post.

In a recent paper, Yitang Zhang has proven the following theorem:

Theorem 1 (Bounded gaps between primes)There exists a natural number such that there are infinitely many pairs of distinct primes with .

Zhang obtained the explicit value of for . A polymath project has been proposed to lower this value and also to improve the understanding of Zhang’s results; as of this time of writing, the current “world record” is (and the link given should stay updated with the most recent progress.

Zhang’s argument naturally divides into three steps, which we describe in reverse order. The last step, which is the most elementary, is to deduce the above theorem from the following weak version of the Dickson-Hardy-Littlewood (DHL) conjecture for some :

Theorem 2() Let be an admissible -tuple, that is to say a tuple of distinct integers which avoids at least one residue class mod for every prime . Then there are infinitely many translates of that contain at least two primes.

Zhang obtained for . The current best value of is , as discussed in this previous blog post. To get from to Theorem 1, one has to exhibit an admissible -tuple of diameter at most . For instance, with , the narrowest admissible -tuple that we can construct has diameter , which explains the current world record. There is an active discussion on trying to improve the constructions of admissible tuples at this blog post; it is conceivable that some combination of computer search and clever combinatorial constructions could obtain slightly better values of for a given value of . The relationship between and is approximately of the form (and a classical estimate of Montgomery and Vaughan tells us that we cannot make much narrower than , see this previous post for some related discussion).

The second step in Zhang’s argument, which is somewhat less elementary (relying primarily on the sieve theory of Goldston, Yildirim, Pintz, and Motohashi), is to deduce from a certain conjecture for some . Here is one formulation of the conjecture, more or less as (implicitly) stated in Zhang’s paper:

Conjecture 3() Let be an admissible tuple, let be an element of , let be a large parameter, and definefor any natural number , and

for any function . Let equal when is a prime , and otherwise. Then one has

for any fixed .

Note that this is slightly different from the formulation of in the previous post; I have reverted to Zhang’s formulation here as the primary purpose of this post is to read through Zhang’s paper. However, I have distinguished two separate parameters here instead of one, as it appears that there is some room to optimise by making these two parameters different.

In the previous post, I described how one can deduce from . Ignoring an exponentially small error , it turns out that one can deduce from whenever one can find a smooth function vanishing to order at least at such that

By selecting for a real parameter to optimise over, and ignoring the technical term alluded to previously (which is the only quantity here that depends on ), this gives from whenever

It may be possible to do better than this by choosing smarter choices for , or performing some sort of numerical calculus of variations or spectral theory; people interested in this topic are invited to discuss it in the previous post.

The final, and deepest, part of Zhang’s work is the following theorem (Theorem 2 from Zhang’s paper, whose proof occupies Sections 6-13 of that paper, and is about 32 pages long):

The significance of the fraction is that Zhang’s argument proceeds for a general choice of , but ultimately the argument only closes if one has

(see page 53 of Zhang) which is equivalent to . Plugging in this choice of into (1) then gives with as stated previously.

Improving the value of in Theorem 4 would lead to improvements in and then as discussed above. The purpose of this reading seminar is then twofold:

- Going through Zhang’s argument in order to improve the value of (perhaps by decreasing ); and
- Gaining a more holistic understanding of Zhang’s argument (and perhaps to find some more “global” improvements to that argument), as well as related arguments such as the prior work of Bombieri, Fouvry, Friedlander, and Iwaniec that Zhang’s work is based on.

In addition to reading through Zhang’s paper, the following material is likely to be relevant:

- A recent blog post of Emmanuel Kowalski on the technical details of Zhang’s argument.
- Scanned notes from a talk related to the above blog post.
- A recent expository note by Fouvry, Kowalski, and Michel on a Friedlander-Iwaniec character sum relevant to this argument.
- This 1981 paper of Fouvry and Iwaniec which is the first result in the literature which is roughly of the type . (This paper seems to give a related result for and , if I read it correctly; I don’t yet understand what prevents this result or modifications thereof from being used in place of Theorem 4.)

I envisage a loose, unstructured format for the reading seminar. In the comments below, I am going to post my own impressions, questions, and remarks as I start going through the material, and I encourage other participants to do the same. The most obvious thing to do is to go through Zhang’s Sections 6-13 in linear order, but it may make sense for some participants to follow a different path. One obvious near-term goal is to carefully go through Zhang’s arguments for instead of , and record exactly how various exponents depend on , and what inequalities these parameters need to obey for the arguments to go through. It may be that this task can be done at a fairly superficial level without the need to carefully go through the analytic number theory estimates in that paper, though of course we should also be doing that as well. This may lead to some “cheap” optimisations of which can then propagate to improved bounds on and thanks to the other parts of the Polymath project.

Everyone is welcome to participate in this project (as per the usual polymath rules); however I would request that “meta” comments about the project that are not directly related to the task of reading Zhang’s paper and related works be placed instead on the polymath proposal page. (Similarly, comments regarding the optimisation of given and should be placed at this post, while comments on the optimisation of given should be given at this post. On the other hand, asking questions about Zhang’s paper, even (or especially!) “dumb” ones, would be very appropriate for this post and such questions are encouraged.

Suppose one is given a -tuple of distinct integers for some , arranged in increasing order. When is it possible to find infinitely many translates of which consists entirely of primes? The case is just Euclid’s theorem on the infinitude of primes, but the case is already open in general, with the case being the notorious twin prime conjecture.

On the other hand, there are some tuples for which one can easily answer the above question in the negative. For instance, the only translate of that consists entirely of primes is , basically because each translate of must contain an even number, and the only even prime is . More generally, if there is a prime such that meets each of the residue classes , then every translate of contains at least one multiple of ; since is the only multiple of that is prime, this shows that there are only finitely many translates of that consist entirely of primes.

To avoid this obstruction, let us call a -tuple *admissible* if it avoids at least one residue class for each prime . It is easy to check for admissibility in practice, since a -tuple is automatically admissible in every prime larger than , so one only needs to check a finite number of primes in order to decide on the admissibility of a given tuple. For instance, or are admissible, but is not (because it covers all the residue classes modulo ). We then have the famous Hardy-Littlewood prime tuples conjecture:

Conjecture 1 (Prime tuples conjecture, qualitative form)If is an admissible -tuple, then there exists infinitely many translates of that consist entirely of primes.

This conjecture is extremely difficult (containing the twin prime conjecture, for instance, as a special case), and in fact there is *no* explicitly known example of an admissible -tuple with for which we can verify this conjecture (although, thanks to the recent work of Zhang, we know that satisfies the conclusion of the prime tuples conjecture for some , even if we can’t yet say what the precise value of is).

Actually, Hardy and Littlewood conjectured a more precise version of Conjecture 1. Given an admissible -tuple , and for each prime , let denote the number of residue classes modulo that meets; thus we have for all by admissibility, and also for all . We then define the *singular series* associated to by the formula

where is the set of primes; by the previous discussion we see that the infinite product in converges to a finite non-zero number.

We will also need some asymptotic notation (in the spirit of “cheap nonstandard analysis“). We will need a parameter that one should think of going to infinity. Some mathematical objects (such as and ) will be independent of and referred to as *fixed*; but unless otherwise specified we allow all mathematical objects under consideration to depend on . If and are two such quantities, we say that if one has for some fixed , and if one has for some function of (and of any fixed parameters present) that goes to zero as (for each choice of fixed parameters).

Conjecture 2 (Prime tuples conjecture, quantitative form)Let be a fixed natural number, and let be a fixed admissible -tuple. Then the number of natural numbers such that consists entirely of primes is .

Thus, for instance, if Conjecture 2 holds, then the number of twin primes less than should equal , where is the twin prime constant

As this conjecture is stronger than Conjecture 1, it is of course open. However there are a number of partial results on this conjecture. For instance, this conjecture is known to be true if one introduces some additional averaging in ; see for instance this previous post. From the methods of sieve theory, one can obtain an *upper bound* of for the number of with all prime, where depends only on . Sieve theory can also give analogues of Conjecture 2 if the primes are replaced by a suitable notion of almost prime (or more precisely, by a weight function concentrated on almost primes).

Another type of partial result towards Conjectures 1, 2 come from the results of Goldston-Pintz-Yildirim, Motohashi-Pintz, and of Zhang. Following the notation of this recent paper of Pintz, for each , let denote the following assertion (DHL stands for “Dickson-Hardy-Littlewood”):

Conjecture 3() Let be a fixed admissible -tuple. Then there are infinitely many translates of which containat least twoprimes.

This conjecture gets harder as gets smaller. Note for instance that would imply all the cases of Conjecture 1, including the twin prime conjecture. More generally, if one knew for some , then one would immediately conclude that there are an infinite number of pairs of consecutive primes of separation at most , where is the minimal diameter amongst all admissible -tuples . Values of for small can be found at this link (with denoted in that page). For large , the best upper bounds on have been found by using admissible -tuples of the form

where denotes the prime and is a parameter to be optimised over (in practice it is an order of magnitude or two smaller than ); see this blog post for details. The upshot is that one can bound for large by a quantity slightly smaller than (and the large sieve inequality shows that this is sharp up to a factor of two, see e.g. this previous post for more discussion).

In a key breakthrough, Goldston, Pintz, and Yildirim were able to establish the following conditional result a few years ago:

Theorem 4 (Goldston-Pintz-Yildirim)Suppose that the Elliott-Halberstam conjecture is true for some . Then is true for some finite . In particular, this establishes an infinite number of pairs of consecutive primes of separation .

The dependence of constants between and given by the Goldston-Pintz-Yildirim argument is basically of the form . (UPDATE: as recently observed by Farkas, Pintz, and Revesz, this relationship can be improved to .)

Unfortunately, the Elliott-Halberstam conjecture (which we will state properly below) is only known for , an important result known as the Bombieri-Vinogradov theorem. If one uses the Bombieri-Vinogradov theorem instead of the Elliott-Halberstam conjecture, Goldston, Pintz, and Yildirim were still able to show the highly non-trivial result that there were infinitely many pairs of consecutive primes with (actually they showed more than this; see e.g. this survey of Soundararajan for details).

Actually, the full strength of the Elliott-Halberstam conjecture is not needed for these results. There is a technical specialisation of the Elliott-Halberstam conjecture which does not presently have a commonly accepted name; I will call it the *Motohashi-Pintz-Zhang conjecture* in this post, where is a parameter. We will define this conjecture more precisely later, but let us remark for now that is a consequence of .

We then have the following two theorems. Firstly, we have the following strengthening of Theorem 4:

Theorem 5 (Motohashi-Pintz-Zhang)Suppose that is true for some . Then is true for some .

A version of this result (with a slightly different formulation of ) appears in this paper of Motohashi and Pintz, and in the paper of Zhang, Theorem 5 is proven for the concrete values and . We will supply a self-contained proof of Theorem 5 below the fold, the constants upon those in Zhang’s paper (in particular, for , we can take as low as , with further improvements on the way). As with Theorem 4, we have an inverse quadratic relationship .

In his paper, Zhang obtained for the first time an unconditional advance on :

This is a deep result, building upon the work of Fouvry-Iwaniec, Friedlander-Iwaniec and Bombieri–Friedlander–Iwaniec which established results of a similar nature to but simpler in some key respects. We will not discuss this result further here, except to say that they rely on the (higher-dimensional case of the) Weil conjectures, which were famously proven by Deligne using methods from l-adic cohomology. Also, it was believed among at least some experts that the methods of Bombieri, Fouvry, Friedlander, and Iwaniec were not quite strong enough to obtain results of the form , making Theorem 6 a particularly impressive achievement.

Combining Theorem 6 with Theorem 5 we obtain for some finite ; Zhang obtains this for but as detailed below, this can be lowered to . This in turn gives infinitely many pairs of consecutive primes of separation at most . Zhang gives a simple argument that bounds by , giving his famous result that there are infinitely many pairs of primes of separation at most ; by being a bit more careful (as discussed in this post) one can lower the upper bound on to , and if one instead uses the newer value for one can instead use the bound . (Many thanks to Scott Morrison for these numerics.) UPDATE: These values are now obsolete; see this web page for the latest bounds.

In this post we would like to give a self-contained proof of both Theorem 4 and Theorem 5, which are both sieve-theoretic results that are mainly elementary in nature. (But, as stated earlier, we will not discuss the deepest new result in Zhang’s paper, namely Theorem 6.) Our presentation will deviate a little bit from the traditional sieve-theoretic approach in a few places. Firstly, there is a portion of the argument that is traditionally handled using contour integration and properties of the Riemann zeta function; we will present a “cheaper” approach (which Ben Green and I used in our papers, e.g. in this one) using Fourier analysis, with the only property used about the zeta function being the elementary fact that blows up like as one approaches from the right. To deal with the contribution of small primes (which is the source of the singular series ), it will be convenient to use the “-trick” (introduced in this paper of mine with Ben), passing to a single residue class mod (where is the product of all the small primes) to end up in a situation in which all small primes have been “turned off” which leads to better pseudorandomness properties (for instance, once one eliminates all multiples of small primes, almost all pairs of remaining numbers will be coprime).

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