Archive for the ‘Straight maths’ Category

The work of Endre Szemerédi

March 8, 2013

A few years ago, Springer published a book called, The Abel Prize: 2003-2007 The First Five Years. A brief calculation will reveal that a second volume ought to be due soon, and that is indeed the case. I was asked to write the article about Endre Szemerédi, the 2012 winner, which I have just finished. I am glad to say that Springer’s policy with regard to this book is extremely enlightened: not only am I allowed to post my article as a preprint, but the entire book will be posted on the Norwegian Academy of Sciences website and will be freely accessible.

I was told to write the article as I pleased — the articles in the first volume are very different in style from each other — so I went for a style that was not unlike what I might have written if I had wanted to present several of Szemerédi’s results in a series of blog posts. That is, I’ve tried to explain the ideas, and when the going gets tough I have skipped the details. So it seems appropriate to post the article on this blog.

If you look at it and happen to notice any typos, false statements, wrong emphases, etc., I think it isn’t too late to make changes, so I’d be grateful to hear about them. Here is the article.

Ted Odell

February 10, 2013


I was shocked and saddened to hear about a week ago that Ted Odell, a mathematician to whom I owe a lot, died suddenly on January 9th of a heart attack while he was travelling to this year’s joint AMS/MAA meeting in San Diego. He was 65, but seemed a lot younger.

Ted was a world leader in Banach space theory, and in particular in the infinite-dimensional theory. The wry and slightly enigmatic smile you see in the photo was extremely characteristic: if I imagine Ted, I automatically imagine him with exactly that smile. Less clear from the photo, though perhaps it can be guessed from the camera angle, is that he was extremely tall: he belonged to a handful of mathematicians I know who make me feel short (Tom Sanders and Alex Scott being two others).

I first met Ted when I went to my first ever conference, in Strobl am Wolfgangsee in Austria in 1989. I can’t remember how it came about, but I ended up chatting to him, and he started explaining to me in a wonderfully clear way — the kind of explanation you just can’t get from a textbook — how Tsirelson’s space worked. I read in an obituary by András Zsak (which starts on page 30 of this issue of the LMS newsletter) that Ted had a reputation for being kind and encouraging to young mathematicians. He certainly was to me at this conference, taking the time to give this explanation to a graduate student about whom he knew nothing. Most of the next section describes an argument that he sketched out for me on one of those yellow pads of paper that seem to be standard in US maths departments. (I think I’ve still got the yellow sheets that he let me keep, but I’ve no idea where they are.)

What are dense Sidon subsets of {1,2,…,n} like?

July 13, 2012

The short answer if you don’t feel like reading a post with some actual mathematics in it is that I don’t know.

Now for the longer answer. A subset A of \{1,2,\dots,n\} is called a Sidon set if the only solutions of the equation a+b=c+d with a,b,c,d\in A are the trivial ones with a=c and b=d or a=d and b=c. Since the number of pairs a\leq b with a,b\in A is |A|(|A|+1)/2 and 2\leq a+b\leq 2n whenever a,b\in A, it is trivial that if A is a Sidon set, then |A|(|A|+1)/2\leq 2n, which gives an upper bound for |A| of around 2\sqrt{n}.

A new way of proving sumset estimates

February 10, 2011

A very important role in additive combinatorics is played by the following theorem. If A is a finite subset of \mathbb{Z}, or indeed of any Abelian group, and if |A+A|\leq C|A|, then for any non-negative integers k and l we have the estimate |kA-lA|\leq C^{k+l}|A|. This is a theorem of Plünnecke that was rediscovered by Ruzsa. The proof had a structure of the following kind: define a type of graph, now known as a Plünnecke graph, and a notion of “magnification ratio”; formulate an inequality concerning Plünnecke graphs; using Menger’s theorem, prove the inequality for graphs with magnification ratio 1 (Menger’s theorem being used to find a collection of disjoint paths, the existence of which is a trivially sufficient condition for the inequality to hold in this case); using the tensor product trick and the construction of Plünnecke graphs that approximately have certain magnification ratios, deduce the result for all magnification ratios; construct a Plünnecke graph from a subset of an Abelian group; show, in a nice but not entirely obvious way, that the sumset estimates follow from the inequality about graphs.

The argument is an attractive one in the sense that it builds up to the result by means of clean and elementary steps (except perhaps that the approximations needed in the final step require one to get one’s hands slightly dirty). However, it is not an attractive argument if you have to give the proof in a lecture course: there are a lot of details to remember. I have this difficulty with other arguments too: there is a certain style of argument in combinatorics where one proves an amazing result after a long sequence of elementary observations. Reading such a proof can be easy, but remembering the precise sequence of elementary observations sometimes isn’t. Of course, if one feels this way about a proof, it is a good sign that one probably hasn’t fully understood the proof, as there is usually some story to tell about how the sequence of elementary observations was discovered. I freely admit to not fully understanding the proof of the sumset estimates in this deep way, and relying to some extent on memorization when I have lectured the result.

But now, I am glad to say, all that is a thing of the past. A research student of mine (about to be a former research student of mine), George Petridis, has come up with a ridiculously simple proof of the sumset estimates. Indeed, it is so ridiculously simple that my first reaction was that it could not be correct. Here’s the kind of reasoning I used: Terence Tao came up with a very nice argument, quite a bit simpler than the Plünnecke-Ruzsa proof, which gave a weaker bound that was still strong enough to be just as useful for applications in additive combinatorics. So it’s sort of obvious that getting the more exact bound must be irreducibly difficult. However, I should mention that George had previously come up with a new proof of Plünnecke’s graph inequality that had the same quality of “obvious wrongness”: it did not use Menger’s theorem, or anything like it, and did not use any kind of product trick.

Anyhow, the proof is so short that I can give it in full in this blog post, with George’s permission. (more…)

Polymath6: A is to B as C is to ???

February 5, 2011

The Polymath experiment is still very much in its infancy, with the result that we still have only a rather hazy idea of what the advantages and disadvantages are of open online multiple collaboration. It is easy to think of potential advantages and disadvantages, but the more actual experience we can draw on, the more we will get a feel for which of these plausible speculations are correct.

In my last post but one I outlined a few thoughts about the cap-set problem. Although this wasn’t meant as the beginning of a Polymath project (as I said in the post, it was modelled more on Gil Kalai’s notion of an “open discussion”), it had something in common with such projects, to the point where one of the worries people have about the Polymath approach actually occurred: I suggested a line of attack that was, unbeknownst to me, actively being pursued by somebody.

I do not know exactly what calculations went on in the minds of Michael Bateman and Nets Katz when they decided to go public with their ideas before they had fully worked them out, but my guess is that they wanted to establish that they had got there first. This they did by the very effective method of explaining that the simple observations that I had made were much weaker than what they already knew how to prove. As it happens, the story has had a happy ending for them, since they managed, soon after posting their comments, to push their ideas to the point where they have obtained the first improvement to the Roth/Meshulam bound, something that many people have wanted to do for a long time.

More on the cap-set problem

January 18, 2011

Update: Nets Katz and Michael Bateman have posted a preprint to the arxiv that gives an n^\epsilon improvement to the bounds for the cap-set problem. More on this later.

I have been extremely pleased with the response to my first post on the cap-set problem, in that various people have very generously shared their ideas about it. Indeed, Nets Katz has even posted a comment that may give an improvement to the bound by a factor of n^\epsilon for some very small \epsilon. (For reasons I have already explained, this would be very interesting if it worked.) This followed a previous comment in which he outlined some arguments that he had found with Michael Bateman that go a lot further than the ones that appeared in the section entitled “Sets with very weak additive structure” in my previous post.

Also, Ernie Croot, in addition to sketching a different very interesting approach to the problem, suggested that I should get in touch with Seva Lev, which I did. Seva has an example of a cap set that is interestingly different from the usual examples. I will discuss it in a moment.

My plan, by the way, is to try to understand the ideas in Ernie’s and Nets’s comments and then explain them in my own words in a future post. But I’m not yet ready to do that, so in this post I want to discuss some other aspects of the problem, including Seva’s example.

What is difficult about the cap-set problem?

January 11, 2011

An observation that has been made many times is that the internet is a perfect place to disseminate mathematical knowledge that is worth disseminating but that is not conventionally publishable. Another observation that has been made many times is that either of the following features can render a piece of mathematics unpublishable, even if it could be useful to other mathematicians.

1. It is not original.

2. It does not lead anywhere conclusive.

A piece of unoriginal mathematical writing can be useful if it explains a known piece of mathematics in a new way (and “new” here does not mean radically original — just a slightly different slant that can potentially appeal to a different audience), or if it explains something that “all the experts know” but nobody has bothered to write down. And an inconclusive observation such as “This proof attempt looks promising at first, but the following construction suggests that it won’t work, though unfortunately I cannot actually prove a rigorous result along those lines,” can be very helpful to somebody else who is thinking about a problem.

I’m mentioning all this because I have recently spent a couple of weeks thinking about the cap-set problem, getting excited about an approach, realizing that it can’t work, and finally connecting these observations with conversations I have had in the past (in particular with Ben Green and Tom Sanders) in order to see that these thoughts are ones that are almost certainly familiar to several people. They ought to have been familiar to me too, but the fact is that they weren’t, so I’m writing this as a kind of time-saving device for anyone who wants to try their hand at the cap-set problem and who isn’t one of the handful of experts who will find everything that I write obvious.

Added a little later: this post has taken far longer to write than I expected, because I went on to realize that the realization that the approach couldn’t work was itself problematic. It is possible that some of what I write below is new after all, though that is not my main concern. (It seems to me that mathematicians sometimes pay too much attention to who was the first to make a relatively simple observation that is made with high probability by anybody sensible who thinks seriously about a given problem. The observations here are of that kind, though if any of them led to a proof then I suppose they might look better with hindsight.) The post has ended up as a general discussion of the problem with several loose ends. I hope that others may see how to tie some of them up and be prepared to share their thoughts. This may sound like the beginning of a Polymath project. I’m not sure whether it is, but discuss the possibility at the end of the post.

A solution to an exposition problem

May 20, 2009

Let me explain the title of this post by quoting from Timothy Chow’s highly recommended expository article A beginner’s guide to forcing: “All mathematicians are familiar with the concept of an open research problem. I propose the less familiar concept of an open exposition problem. Solving an open exposition problem means explaining a mathematical subject in a way that renders it totally perspicuous. Every step should be motivated and clear; ideally, students should feel that they could have arrived at the results themselves.” He goes on to claim that forcing was an open exposition problem, since there was no explanation in the literature that had these qualities.

I have just finished giving a graduate course in Cambridge on two highlights of theoretical computer science: Razborov’s lower bound for the monotone circuit complexity of the clique function, and Shor’s quantum algorithm for factorizing integers. Because nobody was taking an exam on the course, I was free to be somewhat informal in the lectures, but at one or two points it got slightly too informal so I rashly promised that I would produce notes on Razborov’s theorem. However, the document that resulted ended up being less a set of lecture notes in the usual sense and more an attempt to solve an exposition problem in Chow’s sense. Very briefly, Razborov produces a lattice of a certain kind, with a rather strange definition, and it goes on to do the job it is supposed to do in a seemingly miraculous way. What I have written is an attempt to solve the problem, “Where did Razborov’s definition come from?” (more…)

Cohomology for amateurs—by an amateur

May 7, 2009

I have just finished a Tricki article about how to recognise situations where homology and cohomology can help you. (It is aimed at people who might have seen the definitions but felt uncomfortable about how to apply them.) Ages ago, I sort of promised to write something on this topic on this blog, so I am posting the article. This will have the added, though no doubt painful, benefit that people who know far more about the topic will be able to point out mistakes, misleading statements, unnecessarily complicated ways of thinking about things, and so on. But the one thing I do like is the (admittedly old-fashioned) way of looking at homology and cohomology as “soap-bubble homotopy”. See below for an explanation. (more…)

Must an “explicitly defined” Banach space contain c_0 or ell_p?

February 17, 2009

I do not know how to make this question fully precise (except in ways that make the answer uninteresting), but I have wondered about it for a long time, and it has arisen again in the discussion following my recent post on the Banach space constructed by Spiros Argyros and Richard Haydon. Here I would like to say enough to enable others to think about it. One could think of this post as the beginning of polymath2, but I expect polymath2 to be somewhat different from polymath1 for various reasons: it will involve different people, it may well go much more slowly than polymath1 (I would like to think of it quietly chugging away in the background), and I am not comfortable with some of the mathematics that will be essential to formulating a good conjecture. On a more practical level, I think that having a wiki for polymath 1 (see my blogroll for a link) has worked very well as a way of organizing our collective thoughts on the density Hales-Jewett theorem, and if polymath2 gets off the ground then I would expect an accompanying wiki to be part of it from the very beginning. (more…)


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