The Summer 2017 Mathematics A To Z: Height Function (elliptic curves)


I am one letter closer to the end of Gaurish’s main block of requests. They’re all good ones, mind you. This gets me back into elliptic curves and Diophantine equations. I might be writing about the wrong thing.

Summer 2017 Mathematics A to Z, featuring a coati (it's kind of the Latin American raccoon) looking over alphabet blocks, with a lot of equations in the background.
Art courtesy of Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comic Newshounds. He has a Patreon for those able to support his work. He’s also open for commissions, starting from US$10.

Height Function.

My love’s father has a habit of asking us to rate our hobbies. This turned into a new running joke over a family vacation this summer. It’s a simple joke: I shuffled the comparables. “Which is better, Bon Jovi or a roller coaster?” It’s still a good question.

But as genial yet nasty as the spoof is, my love’s father asks natural questions. We always want to compare things. When we form a mathematical construct we look for ways to measure it. There’s typically something. We’ll put one together. We call this a height function.

We start with an elliptic curve. The coordinates of the points on this curve satisfy some equation. Well, there are many equations they satisfy. We pick one representation for convenience. The convenient thing is to have an easy-to-calculate height. We’ll write the equation for the curve as

y^2 = x^3 + Ax + B

Here both ‘A’ and ‘B’ are some integers. This form might be unique, depending on whether a slightly fussy condition on prime numbers hold. (Specifically, if ‘p’ is a prime number and ‘p4‘ divides into ‘A’, then ‘p6‘ must not divide into ‘B’. Yes, I know you realized that right away. But I write to a general audience, some of whom are learning how to see these things.) Then the height of this curve is whichever is the larger number, four times the cube of the absolute value of ‘A’, or 27 times the square of ‘B’. I ask you to just run with it. I don’t know the implications of the height function well enough to say why, oh, 25 times the square of ‘B’ wouldn’t do as well. The usual reason for something like that is that some obvious manipulation makes the 27 appear right away, or disappear right away.

This idea of height feeds in to a measure called rank. “Rank” is a term the young mathematician encounters first while learning matrices. It’s the number of rows in a matrix that aren’t equal to some sum or multiple of other rows. That is, it’s how many different things there are among a set. You can see why we might find that interesting. So many topics have something called “rank” and it measures how many different things there are in a set of things. In elliptic curves, the rank is a measure of how complicated the curve is. We can imagine the rational points on the elliptic curve as things generated by some small set of starter points. The starter points have to be of infinite order. Starter points that don’t, don’t count for the rank. Please don’t worry about what “infinite order” means here. I only mention this infinite-order business because if I don’t then something I have to say about two paragraphs from here will sound daft. So, the rank is how many of these starter points you need to generate the elliptic curve. (WARNING: Call them “generating points” or “generators” during your thesis defense.)

There’s no known way of guessing what the rank is if you just know ‘A’ and ‘B’. There are algorithms that can calculate the rank given a particular ‘A’ and ‘B’. But it’s not something like the quadratic formula where you can just do a quick calculation and know what you’re looking for. We don’t even know if the algorithms we have will work for every elliptic curve.

We think that there’s no limit to the height of elliptic curves. We don’t know this. We know there exist curves with ranks as high as 28. They seem to be rare [*]. I don’t know if that’s proven. But we do know there are elliptic curves with rank zero. A lot of them, in fact. (See what I meant two paragraphs back?) These are the elliptic curves that have only finitely many rational points on them.

And there’s a lot of those. There’s a well-respected that the average rank, of all the elliptic curves there are, is ½. It might be. What we have been able to prove is that the average rank is less than or equal to 1.17. Also that it should be larger than zero. So we’re maybe closing in on the ½ conjecture? At least we know something. I admit this essay I’ve started wondering what we do know of elliptic curves.

What do the height, and through it the rank, get us? I worry I’m repeating myself. By themselves they give us families of elliptic curves. Shapes that are similar in a particular and not-always-obvious way. And they feed into the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture, which is the hipster’s Riemann Hypothesis. That is, it’s this big, unanswered, important problem that would, if answered, tell us things about a lot of questions that I’m not sure can be concisely explained. At least not why they’re interesting. We know some special cases, at least. Wikipedia tells me nothing’s proved for curves with rank greater than 1. Humanity’s ignorance on this point makes me feel slightly better pondering what I don’t know about elliptic curves.

(There are some other things within the field of elliptic curves called height functions. There’s particularly a height of individual points. I was unsure which height Gaurish found interesting so chose one. The other starts by measuring something different; it views, for example, \frac{1}{2} as having a lower height than does \frac{51}{101} , even though the numbers are quite close in value. It develops along similar lines, trying to find classes of curves with similar behavior. And it gets into different unsolved conjectures. We have our ideas about how to think of fields.).


[*] Wikipedia seems to suggest we only know of one, provided by Professor Noam Elkies in 2006, and let me quote it in full. I apologize that it isn’t in the format I suggested at top was standard. Elkies way outranks me academically so we have to do things his way:

y^2 + xy + y = x^3 - x^2 -  20,067,762,415,575,526,585,033,208,209,338,542,750,930,230,312,178,956,502 x + 34,481,611,795,030,556,467,032,985,690,390,720,374,855,944,359,319,180,361,266,008,296,291,939,448,732,243,429

I can’t figure how to get WordPress to present that larger. I sympathize. I’m tired just looking at an equation like that. This page lists records of known elliptic curve ranks. I don’t know if the lack of any records more recent than 2006 reflects the page not having been updated or nobody having found a rank-29 curve. I fully accept the field might be more difficult than even doing maintenance on a web page’s content is.

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Did This German Retiree Solve A Decades-Old Conjecture?


And then this came across my desktop (my iPad’s too old to work with the Twitter client anymore):

The underlying news is that one Thomas Royen, a Frankfurt (Germany)-area retiree, seems to have proven the Gaussian Correlation Inequality. It wasn’t a conjecture that sounded familiar to me, but the sidebar (on the Quanta Magazine article to which I’ve linked there) explains it and reminds me that I had heard about it somewhere or other. It’s about random variables. That is, things that can take on one of a set of different values. If you think of them as the measurements of something that’s basically consistent but never homogenous you’re doing well.

Suppose you have two random variables, two things that can be measured. There’s a probability the first variable is in a particular range, greater than some minimum and less than some maximum. There’s a probability the second variable is in some other particular range. What’s the probability that both variables are simultaneously in these particular ranges? This is easy to answer for some specific cases. For example if the two variables have nothing to do with each other then everybody who’s taken a probability class knows. The probability of both variables being in their ranges is the probability the first is in its range times the probability the second is in its range. The challenge is telling whether it’s always true, whether the variables are related to each other or not. Or telling when it’s true if it isn’t always.

The article (and pop reporting on this) is largely about how the proof has gone unnoticed. There’s some interesting social dynamics going on there. Royen published in an obscure-for-the-field journal, one he was an editor for; this makes it look dodgy, at least. And the conjecture’s drawn “proofs” that were just wrong; this discourages people from looking for obscurely-published proofs.

Some of the articles I’ve seen on this make Royen out to be an amateur. And I suppose there is a bias against amateurs in professional mathematics. There is in every field. It’s true that mathematics doesn’t require professional training the way that, say, putting out oil rig fires does. Anyone capable of thinking through an argument rigorously is capable of doing important original work. But there are a lot of tricks to thinking an argument through that are important, and I’d bet on the person with training.

In any case, Royen isn’t a newcomer to the field who just heard of an interesting puzzle. He’d been a statistician, first for a pharmaceutical company and then for a technical university. He may not have a position or tie to a mathematics department or a research organization but he’s someone who would know roughly what to do.

So did he do it? I don’t know; I’m not versed enough in the field to say. It’s interesting to see if he has.

The End 2016 Mathematics A To Z: Jordan Curve


I realize I used this thing in one of my Theorem Thursday posts but never quite said what it was. Let me fix that.

Jordan Curve

Get a rubber band. Well, maybe you can’t just now, even if you wanted to after I gave orders like that. Imagine a rubber band. I apologize to anyone so offended by my imperious tone that they’re refusing. It’s the convention for pop mathematics or science.

Anyway, take your rubber band. Drop it on a table. Fiddle with it so it hasn’t got any loops in it and it doesn’t twist over any. I want the whole of one edge of the band touching the table. You can imagine the table too. That is a Jordan Curve, at least as long as the rubber band hasn’t broken.

This may not look much like a circle. It might be close, but I bet it’s got some wriggles in its curves. Maybe it even curves so much the thing looks more like a kidney bean than a circle. Maybe it pinches so much that it looks like a figure eight, a couple of loops connected by a tiny bridge on the interior. Doesn’t matter. You can bring out the circle. Put your finger inside the rubber band’s loops and spiral your finger around. Do this gently and the rubber band won’t jump off the table. It’ll round out to as perfect a circle as the limitations of matter allow.

And for that matter, if we wanted, we could take a rubber band laid down as a perfect circle. Then nudge it here and push it there and wrinkle it up into as complicated a figure as you like. Either way is as possible.

A Jordan Curve is a closed curve, a curve that loops around back to itself. And it’s simple. That is, it doesn’t cross over itself at any point. However weird and loopy this figure is, as long as it doesn’t cross over itself, it’s got in a sense the same shape as a circle. We can imagine a function that matches every point on a true circle to a point on the Jordan Curve. A set of points in order on the original circle will match to points in the same order on the Jordan Curve. There’s nothing missing and there’s no jumps or ambiguous points. And no point on the Jordan Curve matches to two or more on the original circle. (This is why we don’t let the curve to cross over itself.)

When I wrote about the Jordan Curve Theorem it was about how to tell how a curve divides a plane into two pieces, an inside and an outside. You can have some pretty complicated-looking figures. I have an example on the Jordan Curve Theorem essay, but you can make your own by doodling. And we can look at it as a circle, as a rubber band, twisted all around.

This all dips into topology, the study of how shapes connect when we don’t care about distance. But there are simple wondrous things to find about them. For example. Draw a Jordan Curve, please. Any that you like. Now draw a triangle. Again, any that you like.

There is some trio of points in your Jordan Curve which connect to a triangle the same shape as the one you drew. It may be bigger than your triangle, or smaller. But it’ll look similar. The angles inside will all be the same as the ones you started with. This should help make doodling during a dull meeting even more exciting.

There may be four points on your Jordan Curve that make a square. I don’t know. Nobody knows for sure. There certainly are if your curve is convex, that is, if no line between any two points on the curve goes outside the curve. And it’s true even for curves that aren’t complex if they are smooth enough. But generally? For an arbitrary curve? We don’t know. It might be true. It might be impossible to find a square in some Jordan Curve. It might be the Jordan Curve you drew. Good luck looking.

What’s The Shortest Proof I’ve Done?


I didn’t figure to have a bookend for last week’s “What’s The Longest Proof I’ve Done? question. I don’t keep track of these things, after all. And the length of a proof must be a fluid concept. If I show something is a direct consequence of a previous theorem, is the proof’s length the two lines of new material? Or is it all the proof of the previous theorem plus two new lines?

I would think the shortest proof I’d done was showing that the logarithm of 1 is zero. This would be starting from the definition of the natural logarithm of a number x as the definite integral of 1/t on the interval from 1 to x. But that requires a bunch of analysis to support the proof. And the Intermediate Value Theorem. Does that stuff count? Why or why not?

But this happened to cross my desk: The Shortest-Known Paper Published in a Serious Math Journal: Two Succinct Sentences, an essay by Dan Colman. It reprints a paper by L J Lander and T R Parkin which appeared in the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society in 1966.

It’s about Euler’s Sums of Powers Conjecture. This is a spinoff of Fermat’s Last Theorem. Leonhard Euler observed that you need at least two whole numbers so that their squares add up to a square. And you need three cubes of whole numbers to add up to the cube of a whole number. Euler speculated you needed four whole numbers so that their fourth powers add up to a fourth power, five whole numbers so that their fifth powers add up to a fifth power, and so on.

And it’s not so. Lander and Parkin found that this conjecture is false. They did it the new old-fashioned way: they set a computer to test cases. And they found four whole numbers whose fifth powers add up to a fifth power. So the quite short paper answers a long-standing question, and would be hard to beat for accessibility.

There is another famous short proof sometimes credited as the most wordless mathematical presentation. Frank Nelson Cole gave it on the 31st of October, 1903. It was about the Mersenne number 267-1, or in human notation, 147,573,952,589,676,412,927. It was already known the number wasn’t prime. (People wondered because numbers of the form 2n-1 often lead us to perfect numbers. And those are interesting.) But nobody knew which factors it was. Cole gave his talk by going up to the board, working out 267-1, and then moving to the other side of the board. There he wrote out 193,707,721 × 761,838,257,287, and showed what that was. Then, per legend, he sat down without ever saying a word, and took in the standing ovation.

I don’t want to cast aspersions on a great story like that. But mathematics is full of great stories that aren’t quite so. And I notice that one of Cole’s doctoral students was Eric Temple Bell. Bell gave us a great many tales of mathematics history that are grand and great stories that just weren’t so. So I want it noted that I don’t know where we get this story from, or how it may have changed in the retellings. But Cole’s proof is correct, at least according to Octave.

So not every proof is too long to fit in the universe. But then I notice that Mathworld’s page regarding the Euler Sum of Powers Conjecture doesn’t cite the 1966 paper. It cites instead Lander and Parkin’s “A Counterexample to Euler’s Sum of Powers Conjecture” from Mathematics of Computation volume 21, number 97, of 1967. There the paper has grown to three pages, although it’s only a couple paragraphs of one page and three lines of citation on the third. It’s not so easy to read either, but it does explain how they set about searching for counterexamples. But it may give you some better idea of how numerical mathematicians find things.

Counting Things


I’ve been working on my little thread of posts about sports mathematics. But I’ve also had a rather busy week and I just didn’t have time to finish the next bit of pondering I had regarding baseball scores. Among other things I had the local pinball league’s post-season Split-Flipper Tournament to play in last night. I played lousy, too.

So I hope I may bring your attention to some interesting posts from Baking And Math. Yenergy started, last week, with a post about the Gauss Circle Problem. Carl Friedrich Gauss you may know as the mathematical genius who proved the Fundamental Theorem of Whatever Subfield Of Mathematics You’re Talking About. Circles are those same old things. The problem is quite old, and easy to understand, and not answered yet. Start with a grid of regularly spaced dots. Draw a circle centered on one of the dots. How many dots are inside the circle?

Obviously you can count. What we would like is a formula, though: if this is the radius then that function of the radius is the number of points. We don’t have that, remarkably. Yenergy describes some of that, and some ways to estimate the number of points. This is for the circle and for some other shapes.

Yesterday, Yenergy continued the discussion and got into partitions. Partitions sound boring; they’re about identifying ways to split something up into components. Yet they turn up everywhere. I’m most used to them in statistical mechanics, the study of physics problems where there’s too many things moving to keep track of them all. But it isn’t surprising they turn up in this sort of point-counting problem.

As a bonus Yenergy links to an article examining a famous story about Gauss. This is specifically the famous story about him, as a child, doing a quite long arithmetic problem at a glance. It’s a story that’s passed into legend and I had not known how much of it was legend.

A Leap Day 2016 Mathematics A To Z: Conjecture


For today’s entry in the Leap Day 2016 Mathematics A To Z I have an actual request from from Elke Stangl. I’d had another ‘c’ request, for ‘continued fractions’. I’ve decided to address that by putting ‘Fractions, continued’ on the roster. If you have other requests, for letters not already committed, please let me know. I’ve got some letters I can use yet.

Conjecture.

An old joke says a mathematician’s job is to turn coffee into theorems. I prefer tea, which may be why I’m not employed as a mathematician. A theorem is a logical argument that starts from something known to be true. Or we might start from something assumed to be true, if we think the setup interesting and plausible. And it uses laws of logical inference to draw a conclusion that’s also true and, hopefully, interesting. If it isn’t interesting, maybe it’s useful. If it isn’t either, maybe at least the argument is clever.

How does a mathematician know what theorems to try proving? We could assemble any combination of premises as the setup to a possible theorem. And we could imagine all sorts of possible conclusions. Most of them will be syntactically gibberish, the equivalent of our friends the monkeys banging away on keyboards. Of those that aren’t, most will be untrue, or at least impossible to argue. Of the rest, potential theorems that could be argued, many will be too long or too unfocused to follow. Only a tiny few potential combinations of premises and conclusions could form theorems of any value. How does a mathematician get a good idea where to spend her time?

She gets it from experience. In learning what theorems, what arguments, have been true in the past she develops a feeling for things that would plausibly be true. In playing with mathematical constructs she notices patterns that seem to be true. As she gains expertise she gets a sense for things that feel right. And she gets a feel for what would be a reasonable set of premises to bundle together. And what kinds of conclusions probably follow from an argument that people can follow.

This potential theorem, this thing that feels like it should be true, a conjecture.

Properly, we don’t know whether a conjecture is true or false. The most we can say is that we don’t have evidence that it’s false. New information might show that we’re wrong and we would have to give up the conjecture. Finding new examples that it’s true might reinforce our idea that it’s true, but that doesn’t prove it’s true.

For example, we have the Goldbach Conjecture. According to it every even number greater than two can be written as the sum of exactly two prime numbers. The evidence for it is very good: every even number we’ve tied has worked out, up through at least 4,000,000,000,000,000,000. But it isn’t proven. It’s possible that it’s impossible from the standard rules of arithmetic.

That’s a famous conjecture. It’s frustrated mathematicians for centuries. It’s easy to understand and nobody’s found a proof. Famous conjectures, the ones that get names, tend to do that. They looked nice and simple and had hidden depths.

Most conjectures aren’t so storied. They instead appear as notes at the end of a section in a journal article or a book chapter. Or they’re put on slides meant to refresh the audience’s interest where it’s needed. They are needed at the fifteen-minute park of a presentation, just after four slides full of dense equations. They are also needed at the 35-minute mark, in the middle of a field of plots with too many symbols and not enough labels. And one’s needed just before the summary of the talk, so that the audience can try to remember what the presentation was about and why they thought they could understand it. If the deadline were not so tight, if the conference were a month or so later, perhaps the mathematician would find a proof for these conjectures.

Perhaps. As above, some conjectures turn out to be hard. Fermat’s Last Theorem stood for four centuries as a conjecture. Its first proof turned out to be nothing like anything Fermat could have had in mind. Mathematics popularizers lost an easy hook when that was proven. We used to be able to start an essay on Fermat’s Last Theorem by huffing about how it was properly a conjecture but the wrong term stuck to it because English is a perverse language. Now we have to start by saying how it used to be a conjecture instead.

But few are like that. Most conjectures are ideas that feel like they ought to be true. They appear because a curious mind will look for new ideas that resemble old ones, or will notice patterns that seem to resemble old patterns.

And sometimes conjectures turn out to be false. Something can look like it ought to be true, or maybe would be true, and yet be false. Often we can prove something isn’t true by finding an example, just as you might expect. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Here’s a false conjecture, one that was put forth by Goldbach. All odd numbers are either prime, or can be written as the sum of a prime and twice a square number. (He considered 1 to be a prime number.) It’s not true, but it took over a century to show that. If you want to find a counterexample go ahead and have fun trying.

Still, if a mathematician turns coffee into theorems, it is through the step of finding conjectures, promising little paths in the forest of what is not yet known.

The Short, Unhappy Life Of A Doomed Conjecture


So last month amongst the talk about the radius of a circle inscribed in a Pythagorean right triangle I mentioned that I had, briefly, floated a conjecture that might have spun off it. It didn’t, though I promised to describe the chain of thought I had while exploring it, on the grounds that the process of coming up with mathematical ideas doesn’t get described much, and certainly doesn’t get described for the sorts of fiddling little things that make up a trifle like this.

A triangle with sides a, b, and c, and an inscribed circle. From the center of the circle are lines going to the vertices of the triangle, dividing the circle into three smaller triangles, with bases of lengths, a, b, and c respectively and all with the same height, r, the radius of the inscribed circle.
A triangle (meant to be a right triangle) with an inscribed circle of radius r. The triangle is divided into three smaller triangles meeting at the center of the inscribed circle.

The point from which I started was a question about the radius of a circle inscribed in the right triangle with legs of length 5, 12, and 13. This turns out to have a radius of 2, which is interesting because it’s a whole number. It turns out to be simple to show that for a Pythagorean right triangle, that is, a right triangle whose legs are a Pythagorean triple — like (3, 4, 5), or (5, 12, 13), any where the square of the biggest number is the same as what you get adding together the squares of the two smaller numbers — the inscribed circle has a radius that’s a whole number. For example, the circle you could inscribe in a triangle of sides 3, 4, and 5 would have radius 1. The circle inscribed in a triangle of sides 8, 15, and 17 would have radius 3; so does the circle inscribed in a triangle of sides 7, 24, and 25.

Since I now knew that (and in multiple ways: HowardAt58 had his own geometric solution, and you can also do this algebraically) I started to wonder about the converse. If a Pythagorean right triangle’s inscribed circle has a whole number for a radius, can does knowing a circle has a whole number for a radius tell us anything about the triangle it’s inscribed in? This is an easy way to build new conjectures: given that “if A is true, then B must be true”, can it also be that “if B is true, then A must be true”? Only rarely will that be so — it’s neat when it is — but we might be able to patch something up, like, “if B, C, and D are all simultaneously true, then A must be true”, or perhaps, “if B is true, then at least E must be true”, where E resembles A but maybe doesn’t make such a strong claim. Thus are tiny little advances in mathematics created.

Continue reading “The Short, Unhappy Life Of A Doomed Conjecture”

No Conjecture For 19,000


I failed to notice when it happened but my little blog here reached its 19,000th page view sometime on Saturday the 22nd. I’m sorry to have missed it; I like keeping track of these little milestones and I expect to be pretty self-confident if and when I hit 20,000. I know these aren’t enormous numbers, as even mathematics blogging goes, but I do feel like I’m getting a larger audience, that’s sometimes also more engaged, and that’s gratifying.

Since I don’t want to just seem to be bragging about a really minor accomplishment I hoped to include a conjecture that would be a nice little puzzle, following up on the right-triangle stuff done so recently here. But in writing out the problem exactly, I realized that the conjecture I had in mind was (a) false, and (b) really obviously false. Which is a shame, but so many attempts at figuring out something turn out that way. I’m deciding whether to swallow my pride and lay out the line of thought that ended up in disappointment, on the grounds that you never get to see a mathematician go through the stages of discovery only to come up with a flop; that’s not the sort of thing that gets into papers, much less textbooks, unless there’s a good juicy scandal behind it. We’ll see.

Radius of the inscribed circle of a right angled triangle


For that “About An Inscribed Circle” problem I posted the other day: HowardAt58 worked out one way of proving what the radius of the circle that just fits within the 5-12-13 right triangle has to be, and in a pretty neat geometric fashion. Worth the read. I recommend following his steps along by hand, writing each out, but that reflects that I’m much more likely to follow mathematical reasoning if I write it out, even if I don’t do something past what the original author does. HowardAt58 also includes a little conjecture, inspired by playing around with a couple of Pythagorean triangles (playing around with a couple of examples is a great way to find conjectures), which I at least believe to be true.

Interestingly, his proof isn’t the same geometric proof that I’d realized we could do, so, I’m thinking to include that as another follow-up around here when I can make a couple diagrams that explain it.

Saving school math

incircle radius with text

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