Sometimes blog posts about recent breakthroughs can be useful because they convey the main ideas of a proof without getting bogged down in the technical details. But the recent solution of the cap-set problem by Jordan Ellenberg, and independently and fractionally later by Dion Gijswijt, both making crucial use of an amazing lemma of Croot, Lev and Pach that was made public a week or so before, does not really invite that kind of post, since the papers are so short, and the ideas so transparent, that it’s hard to know how a blog post can explain them more clearly.

But as I’ve got a history with this problem, including posting about it on this blog in the past, I feel I can’t just not react. So in this post and a subsequent one (or ones) I want to do three things. The first is just to try to describe my own personal reaction to these events. The second is more mathematically interesting. As regular readers of this blog will know, I have a strong interest in the question of where mathematical ideas come from, and a strong conviction that they *always* result from a fairly systematic process — and that the opposite impression, that some ideas are incredible bolts from the blue that require “genius” or “sudden inspiration” to find, is an illusion that results from the way mathematicians present their proofs after they have discovered them.

From time to time an argument comes along that appears to present a stiff challenge to my view. The solution to the cap-set problem is a very good example: it’s easy to understand the proof, but the argument has a magic quality that leaves one wondering how on earth anybody thought of it. I’m referring particularly to the Croot-Lev-Pach lemma here. I don’t pretend to have a complete account of how the idea might have been discovered (if any of Ernie, Seva or Peter, or indeed anybody else, want to comment about this here, that would be extremely welcome), but I have some remarks.

The third thing I’d like to do reflects another interest of mine, which is avoiding duplication of effort. I’ve spent a little time thinking about whether there is a cheap way of getting a Behrend-type bound for Roth’s theorem out of these ideas (and I’m not the only one). Although I wasn’t expecting the answer to be yes, I think there is some value in publicizing some of the dead ends I’ve come across. Maybe it will save others from exploring them, or maybe, just maybe, it will stimulate somebody to find a way past the barriers that seem to be there.

(more…)