## Mathematical progress, artistic progress, local-to-global

I like this post by Peli Grietzer, which asks (and I oversimplify:)  when we say art is good, are we talking about the way it reflects or illuminates some aspect of our being, or are we talking about the way it wins the culture game?  And Peli finds help navigating this problem from an unexpected source:  Terry Tao’s description of the simultaneously local and global nature of mathematical progress.  Two friends of Quomodocumque coming together!  Unexcerptable, really, so click through if you like this kind of stuff.

## This Week’s Finds In Number Theory

Twenty years ago yesterday, John Baez posted the first installment of This Week’s Finds in Mathematical Physics.  In so doing, he invented the math blog, and, quite possibly, the blog itself.  A lot of mathematicians of my generation found in John’s blog an accessible, informal, but never dumbed-down window beyond what we were learning in classes, into the messy and contentious ground of current research.  And everybody who blogs now owes him a gigantic debt.

In his honor I thought it would be a good idea to post a “This Week’s Finds” style post of my own, with capsule summaries of a few papers I’ve recently noted with pleasure and interest.  I won’t be able to weave these into a story the way John often did, though!  Nor will there be awesome ASCII graphics.  Nor will any of the papers actually be from this week, because I’m a little behind on my math.NT abstract scanning.

If you run a math blog, please consider doing the same in your own field!  I’ll link to it.

Update:  It begins!  Valeria de Palva offers This Week’s Finds In Categorical Logic.  And Matt Ward, a grad student at UW-Seattle, has This Week’s Finds in Arithmetic Geometry.

1)  “On sets defining few ordinary lines,” by Ben Green and Terry Tao.

The idea that has launched a thousand papers in additive combinatorics:  if you are a set approximately closed under some kind of relation, then you are approximately a set which is actually closed under that kind of relation.  Subset of a group mostly closed under multiplication?  You must be close to an honest subgroup.  Subset of Z with too many pair-sums agreeing?  You have an unusually large intersection with an authentic arithmetic progression.  And so on.

This new paper considers the case of sets in R^2 with few ordinary lines; that is, sets S such that most lines that intersect S at all intersect S in three or more points.  How can you cook up a set of points with this property?  There are various boring ways, like making all the points collinear.  But there’s only one interesting way I can think of:  have the points form an “arithmetic progression” …,-3P,-2P, -P, P,2P,3P, …. in an elliptic curve!  (A finite subgroup also works.)  Then the usual description of the group law on the curve tells us that the line joining two points of S quite often passes through a third.  Green and Tao prove a remarkable quasi-converse to this fact:  if a set has few ordinary lines, it must be concentrated on a cubic algebraic curve!  This might be my favorite “approximately structured implies approximates a structure” theorem yet.

2) “Asymptotic behavior of rational curves,” by David Bourqui.  Oh, I was about to start writing this but when I searched I realized I already blogged about this paper when it came out!  I leave this here because the paper is just as interesting now as it was then…

3) “The fluctuations in the number of points of smooth plane curves over finite fields,” by Alina Bucur, Chantal David, Brooke Feigon, and Matilde Lalin;

“The probability that a complete intersection is smooth,” by Alina Bucur and Kiran Kedlaya;

“The distribution of the number of points on trigonal curves over F_q,” by Melanie Matchett Wood;

“Semiample Bertini theorems over finite fields,” by Daniel Erman and Melanie Matchett Wood.

How many rational points does a curve over F_q have?  We discussed this question here a few years ago, coming to no clear conclusion.  I still maintain that if the curve is understood to vary over M_g(F_q), with q fixed and g growing, the problem is ridiculously hard.

But in more manageable families of curves, we now know a lot more than we did in 2008.

You might guess, of course, that the average number of points should be q+1; if you have to reason to think of Frobenius as biased towards having positive or negative trace, why not guess that the trace, on average, is 0?  Bucur-David-Feigon-Lalin prove that this is exactly the case for a random smooth plane curve.  It’s not hard to check that this holds for a random hyperelliptic curve as well.  But for a random trigonal curve, Wood proves that the answer is different — the average is slightly less than q+2!

Where did the extra point come from?

Here’s one way I like to think of it.  This is very vague, and proves nothing, of course.  The trigonal curve X has a degree-3 map to P^1, which is ramified at some divisor D in P^1.  If D is a random divisor, it has one F_q-point on average.  How many F_q-points on X lie over each rational point P of D?  Well, generically, the ramification is going to be simple, and this means that there are two rational points over D; the branch point, and the unique unramified point.  Over every other F_q-point of D, the Frobenius action on the preimage in X should be a random element of S_3, with an average of one fixed point.  To sum up, in expectation we should see q rational points of X over q non-branch rational points of P^1, and 2 rational points of X over a single rational branch point in P^1, for a total of q+2.

(Erman and Wood, in a paper released just a few months ago, prove much more general results of a similar flavor about smooth members of linear systems on P^1 x P^1 (or other Hirzebruch surfaces, or other varieties entirely) which are semiample; for instance, they may have a map to P^1 which stays constant in degree, while their intersection with another divisor gets larger and larger.)

Most mysterious of all is the theorem of Bucur and Kedlaya, which shows (among other things) that if X is a random smooth intersection of two hypersurfaces of large degree in P^3, then the size of |X(F_q)| is slightly less than q+1 on average.  For this phenomenon I have no heuristic explanation at all.  What’s keeping the points away?

## Cheap non-standard analysis and expressions of certainty

Really liked Terry’s post on cheap nonstandard analysis.  I’ll add one linguistic comment.  As Terry points out, you lose the law of the excluded middle in this context, and that means you have to be very careful about logical connectives:

Because of the lack of the law of excluded middle, though, sometimes one has to take some care in phrasing statements properly before they will transfer. For instance, the statement “If ${xy=0}$, then either ${x=0}$ or ${y=0}$” is of course true for standard reals, but not for nonstandard reals; a counterexample can be given for instance by ${x_{\bf n} := 1 + (-1)^{\bf n}}$ and ${y_{\bf n} := 1 - (-1)^{\bf n}}$. However, the rephrasing “If ${x \neq 0}$ and ${y \neq 0}$, then ${xy \neq 0}$” is true for nonstandard reals (why?). As a rough rule of thumb, as long as the logical connectives “or” and “not” are avoided, one can transfer standard statements to cheap nonstandard ones, but otherwise one may need to reformulate the statement first before transfer becomes possible.

I like to keep stuff like this straight by thinking of the cheap-nonstandard statement “x=0″ as “I am certain that x=0.”  Then it’s plainly wrong to say “If I’m certain that xy=0, then either I’m certain that x=0 or I’m certain that y=0.”  On the other hand, “If I’m certain that x is nonzero and I’m certain that y is nonzero, I’m certain that xy is nonzero” is legit.  This is of course in keeping with Terry’s analogy between nonstandard reals and random variables, which are also in some sense “those things which are like real numbers yet are not exactly real numbers, and about whose values we might want to express certainty or uncertainty.”

Update:  I meant to add:  an ultrafilter represents an agent who is certain about everything!

## “Kakeya sets over non-archimedean local rings,” by Dummit and Hablicsek

A new paper posted this week on the arXiv this week by UW grad students Evan Dummit and Márton Hablicsek answers a question left open in a paper of mine with Richard Oberlin and Terry Tao.  Let me explain why I was interested in this question and why I like Evan and Marci’s answer so much!

Recall:  a Kakeya set in an n-dimensional vector space over a field k is a set containing a line (or, in the case k = R, a unit line segment) in every direction.  The “Kakeya problem,” phrased loosely, is to prove that Kakeya sets cannot be too small.

But what does “small” mean?  You might want it to mean “measure 0″ but for the small but important fact that in this interpretation the problem has a negative answer:  as Besicovitch discovered in 1919, there are Kakeya sets in R^2 with measure 0!  So Kakeya’s conjecture concerns a stronger notion of “small”  — he conjectures that a Kakeya set in R^n cannot have Hausdorff or Minkowski dimension strictly smaller than n.

(At this point, if you haven’t thought about the Kakeya conjecture before, you might want to read Terry’s long expository post about the Kakeya conjecture and Dvir’s theorem; I cannot do it any better here.)

The big recent news in this area, of course, is Dvir’s theorem that that the Kakeya conjecture is true when k is a finite field.

Of course one hopes that Dvir’s argument will give some ideas for an attack on the original problem in R^n.  And that hasn’t happened yet; though the “polynomial method,” as the main idea of Dvir’s theorem is now called, has found lots of applications to other problems in real combinatorial geometry (e.g. Guth and Katz’s proof of the joints conjecture.)

Why not Kakeya?  Well, here’s one clue.  Dvir actually proves more than the Kakeya conjecture!  He proves that a Kakeya set in F_q^n has positive measure.

(Note:  F_q^n is a finite set, so of course any nonempty subset has positive measure; so “positive measure” here is shorthand for “there’s a lower bound for the measure which is bounded away from 0 as q grows with n fixed.”)

What this tells you is that R really is different from F_q with respect to this problem; if Dvir’s proof “worked” over R, it would prove that a Kakeya set in R^n had positive measure, which is false.

So what’s the difference between R and F_q?  In my view, it’s that R has multiple scales, while F_q only has one.  Two elements in F_q are either the same or distinct, but there is nothing else going on metrically, while distinct real lines can be very close together or very far apart.  The interaction between distances at different scales is your constant companion when working on these problems in the real setting; so maybe it’s not so shocking that a one-scale field like F_q is not a perfect model for the phenomena we’re trying to study.

Which leads us to the ring F_q[[t]] — the “non-archimedean local ring” which Dummit and Hablicsek write about.  This ring is somehow “in between” finite fields and real numbers.  On the one hand, it is “profinite,” which is to say it is approximated by a sequence of larger and larger finite rings F_q[[t]]/t^k.  On the other hand, it has infinitely many scales, like R.  From the point of view of Kakeya sets, is it more like a finite field, or more like the real numbers?  In particular, does it have Kakeya sets of measure 0, making it potentially a good model for the real Kakeya problem?

This is the question Richard, Terry, and I asked, and Evan and Marci show that the answer is yes; they construct explicitly a Kakeya set in F_q[[t]]^2 with measure 0.

Now when we asked this question in our paper, I thought maybe you could do this by imitating Besicovitch’s argument in a straightforward way.  I did not succeed in doing this.  Evan and Marci tried too, and they told me that this just plain doesn’t work.  The construction they came up with is (at least as far as I can see) completely different from anything that makes sense over R.  And the way they prove measure 0 is extremely charming; they define a Markov process such for which the complement of their Kakeya set is the set of points that eventually hit 0, and then show by standard methods that their Markov process goes to 0 with probability 1!

Of course you ask:  does their Kakeya set have Minkowski dimension 2?  Yep — and indeed, they prove that any Kakeya set in F_q[[t]]^2 has Minkowski dimension 2, thus proving the Kakeya conjecture in this setting, up to the distinction between Hausdorff and Minkowski dimension.  (Experts should feel free to weigh in an tell me how much we should worry about this distinction.)  Note that dimension 2 is special:  the Kakeya conjecture in R^2 is known as well.  For every n > 2 we’re in the dark, over F_q[[t]] as well as over R.

To sum up:  what Dummit and Hablicsek prove makes me feel like the Kakeya problem over  F_q[[t]] is, at least potentially, a pretty good model for the Kakeya problem over R!  Not that we know how to solve the Kakeya problem over F_q[[t]]…..