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This will be counting but

For the first time ever, I have temporarily reached the top of the culture pecking order in France, since I was able to go see “Einstein on the Beach” during its run at the Théâtre du Châtelet in January. This was clearly “the” évènement to attend (even two months or so before, buying two good contiguous seats was almost impossible), and the reactions of the audience suggested that many people were there because of the “the” instead of their desire to see the évènement, and were correspondingly a bit nonplussed by the work. Thus the two people sitting on my right left after a bit more than a third of the opera. (It was clearly indicated that, during the performance, which is a bit longer than four hours and has no intermission, it was allowed to leave and come back as desired, but they did not reappear).

Personally, I knew the music extremely well and it was a great pleasure to finally see the full spectacle. I had already attended two other Robert Wilson stagings, and I like his style (i.e., I have no objection to watching a light pillar move from horizontal to vertical in the space of twenty minutes or so), but it was the first time I saw a full-length Glass opera live, and I’d have paid gladly quite a bit more than I did.

The full staging certainly answers a few of the puzzled questions one might get from the music alone. In particular, the scenes entitled “Dance 1″ and “Dance 2″ felt more alive when seen as, well, dances. In fact, I arbitrarily decided that the first represents electromagnetism (it begins with a voice saying “Bern, Switzerland, 1905″), and the second nuclear forces (a sinister character crosses the stage and I see it as representing the potential for evil arising from nuclear physics). Einstein would have appreciated that, despite the random-looking evolutions of the dancers, these were certainly not the result of dice throws, since collisions would certainly have been unavoidable otherwise.

One of the Paris representations was filmed, and shown on French television, so that it can be found on the internet. However, I watched it a bit, and the fact that there are many cameras giving different angles of view seems to diminish the full immersive effect of the live show. But that’s certainly better than nothing…

Three little things I learnt recently

In no particular order, and with no relevance whatsoever to the beginning of the year, here are three mathematical facts I learnt in recent months which might belong to the “I should have known this” category:

(1) Which finite fields k have the property that there is a “square root” homomorphism
s\ :\ (k^{\times})^2\rightarrow k^{\times},
i.e., a group homomorphism such that s(x)^2=x for all non-zero squares x in k?

The answer is that such an s exists if and only if either p=2 or -1 is not a square in k (so, for k=\mathbf{Z}/p\mathbf{Z}, this means that p\equiv 3\pmod 4).

The proof of this is an elementary exercise. In particular, the necessity of the condition, for p odd, is just the same argument that works for the complex numbers: if s exists and -1 is a square, then we have
1=s(1)=s((-1)\times (-1))=s(-1)^2=-1,
which is a contradiction (note that s(-1) only exists because of the assumption that -1 is a square).

The question, and the similarity with the real and complex cases, immediately suggests the question of determining (if possible) which other fields admit a square-root homomorphism. And, lo and behold, the first Google search reveals a nice 2012 paper by Waterhouse in the American Math. Monthly that shows that the answer is the same: if K is a field of characteristic different from 2, then K admits a homomorphism
s\ :\ (K^{\times})^2\rightarrow K^{\times},
with s(x)^2=x, if and only if -1 is not a square in K.

(The argument for sufficiency is not very hard: one first checks that it is enough to find a subgroup R of K^{\times} such that the homomorphism
t\, :\, R\times \{\pm 1\}\rightarrow K^{\times}
given by t(x,\varepsilon)=\varepsilon x is an isomorphism; viewing K^{\times}/(K^{\times})^2) as a vector space over \mathbf{Z}/2\mathbf{Z}, such a subgroup R is obtained as the pre-image in K^{\times} of a complementary subspace to the line generated by (-1)(K^\times)^2, which is a one-dimensional space because $-1$ is assumed to not be a square.)

It seems unlikely that such a basic facts would not have been stated before 2012, but Waterhouse gives no previous reference (and I don’t know any myself!)

(2) While reviewing the Polymath8 paper, I learnt the following identity of Lommel for Bessel functions (see page 135 of Watson’s treatise:
\int_0^u tJ_{\nu}(t)^2dt=\frac{1}{2}u^2\Bigl(J_{\nu}(u)^2-J_{\nu-1}(u)J_{\nu+1}(u)\Bigr)
where J_{\mu} is the Bessel function of the first kind. This is used to find the optimal weight in the original Goldston-Pintz-Yıldırım argument (a computation first done by B. Conrey, though it was apparently unpublished until a recent paper of Farkas, Pintz and Révész.)

There are rather few “exact” indefinite integrals of functions obtained from Bessel functions or related functions which are known, and again I should probably have heard of this result before. What could be an analogue for Kloosterman sums?

(3) In my recent paper with G. Ricotta (extending to automorphic forms on all GL(n) the type of central limit theorem found previously in a joint paper with É. Fouvry, S. Ganguly and Ph. Michel for Hecke eigenvalues of classical modular forms in arithmetic progressions), we use the identity
 \sum_{k\geq 0}\binom{N-1+k}{k}^2 T^k=\frac{P_N(T)}{(1-T)^{2N-1}}
where N\geq 1 is a fixed integer and

This is probably well-known, but we didn’t know it before. Our process in finding and checking this formula is certainly rather typical: small values of N were computed by hand (or using a computer algebra system), leading quickly to a general conjecture, namely the identity above. At least Mathematica can in fact check that this is correct (in the sense of evaluating the left-hand side to a form obviously equivalent to the right-hand side), but as usual it gives no clue as to why this is true (and in particular, how difficult or deep the result is!) However, a bit of looking around and guessing that this had to do with hypergeometric functions (because P_N is close to a Legendre polynomial, which is a special case of a hypergeometric function) reveal that, in fact, we have to deal with about the simplest identity for hypergeometric functions, going back to Euler: precisely, the formula is identical with the transformation
{}_2F_1(\alpha,\beta;1;z)=\sum_{k\geq 0}\frac{\alpha (\alpha+1)\cdots   (\alpha+k-1)\beta(\beta+1)\cdots \beta+k-1)} {(k!)^2}z^k
is (a special case of) the Gauss hypergeometric function.

Reflections on reading the Polymath8(a) paper

Earlier today, I finished reviewing the Polymath8 paper (except for the last section, which is a discussion of possible improvements to some of the results in the paper; this is now a bit obsolete, and will probably be deleted).

Since the discussion on the project (and on the paper in particular) is almost entirely available online on Terry Tao’s blog, one can review the reviewing process, which is somewhat unusual in current mathematics, where reading/reviewing/refereeing a paper is mostly done in the dark.

Looking back, it seems that I began on September 30 (I thought it had been earlier…) At that time, the paper was about 164 pages long, and the current version is 176 pages long, so it is not so surprising that it took a bit more than two months to read through it, when combined with the semester teaching and other duties. (In fact, I changed some line-spacing settings, and the final version would have been probably at least five pages longer otherwise.)

At first, I actually intended to read the paper as if refereeing it, in some sense, with just corrections and minor changes, and things would certainly have gone faster in that case. But it seems that I have some genetic disorder and that I can’t read a paper through without wanting to change all the notation and quite a bit more (for good or ill…) Thus, where quite a few sections are concerned (especially towards the end), I basically re-typed much of the text with many many changes of notation. This was of course slower, but there is one big advantage in proceeding this way: I was much more likely to catch and correct typos and minor slips, and moreover I couldn’t just decide to go over a section with glassy eyes, since all the variables, functions, names of auxiliary quantities, and so on needed to be changed…

As far as mathematical issues in the first draft are concerned, I found only one which required any work to correct. I’d be very surprised if there were any still lurking, since I basically re-did every single computation, including checking numerical constants. And even this issue was really minor in comparison with the complexity of the whole argument, and didn’t affect the “generic” cases of the bounds where it was present.

So I think one can say that this paper has been reviewed in full basically at the thoroughest possible technical level (i.e., excluding philosophical or high-level comments). I actually wonder, in a hypothetical way, if I would ever have accepted to referee this paper, and if I had, whether I would have worked as carefully as I did…

And I am not quite done with bounded gaps between primes, since the Association des collaborateurs de Nicolas Bourbaki has asked me to give a Bourbaki seminar on the work of Zhang (and Maynard); this will be on March 29, 2014, in Paris, and I will now start preparing the text that will accompany the lecture…
But before I begin, I will offer myself a nice whisky this evening.

Trace functions, a survey

At last count, my series of works with Étienne Fouvry and Philippe Michel on trace functions and their applications consists of seven research papers or preprints, amounting to a bit more than 200 pages. To these are added a number of works-in-progress or partial notes (some with results we did not need or use and so took out of earlier drafts of our papers, some with worked-out examples or remarks, etc). We have a relatively firm project of writing a monograph account of the whole theory and applications, which we view in part as a way of making accessible some of the deep consequences of the Riemann Hypothesis over finite fields of Deligne, but this is clearly a long-term project. In the meantime, we have written a first short survey, the first draft of which can be found on my web page. This is in fact the written (and slightly expanded) account of a Colloquio de Giorgi that I gave at the

[Scuola Normale Superiore]

Scuola Normale Superiore

Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa earlier this year, and we have included an unusual representation of the fundamental domain of the modular group acting on the upper half-plane as an homage and acknowledgement of this occasion.



James Maynard, auteur du théorème de l’année

How many times in a year is an analytic number theorist supposed to faint from admiration? We’ve learnt of the full three prime Vinogradov Theorem by Helfgott, then of Zhang’s proof of the bounded gap property for primes. Now, from Oberwolfach, comes the equally (or even more) amazing news that James Maynard has announced a proof of the bounded gap property that manages not only to ask merely for the Bombieri-Vinogradov theorem in terms of information concerning the distribution of primes in arithmetic progressions, but also obtains a gap smaller than 700 (in fact, even better when using optimal narrow k-tuples), where the efforts of the Polymath8 project only lead to 4680, using quite a bit of machinery.

(The preprint should be available soon, from what I understand, and thus a full independent verification of these results.)

Two remarks, one serious, one not (the reader can guess which is which):

(1) Again, from friends in Oberwolfach (teaching kept me, alas, from being able to attend the conference), I heard that Maynard’s method leads to the bounded gap property (with increasing bounds on the gaps) using as input any positive exponent of distribution for primes in arithmetic progressions (where Bombieri-Vinogradov means exponent 1/2; incidentally, this also means that the Generalized Riemann Hypothesis is strong enough to get bounded gaps, which did not follow from Zhang’s work). From the point of view of modern proofs, there is essentially no difference between positive exponent of distribution and exponent 1/2, since either property would be proved using the large sieve inequality and the Siegel-Walfisz theorem, and it makes little sense to prove a weaker large sieve inequality than the one that gives exponent 1/2. Question: could one conceivably even dispense with the large sieve inequality, i.e., prove the bounded gap property only using the Siegel-Walfisz theorem? This is a bit a rhetorical question, since the large sieve is nowadays rather easy, but maybe the following formulation is of some interest: do we know an example of an increasing sequence of integers n_k, not sparse, not weird, that satisfies the Siegel-Walfisz property, but has unbounded gaps, i.e., \liminf (n_{k+1}-n_k)=+\infty?

(2) There are still a bit more than two months to go before the end of the year; will a bright PhD student rise to the challenge, and prove the twin prime conjecture?

[P.S. Borgesian readers will understand the title of this post, although a spanish version might have been more appropriate...]