Polymath3 (PHC6): The Polynomial Hirsch Conjecture – A Topological Approach

This is a new polymath3 research thread. Our aim is to tackle the polynomial Hirsch conjecture which asserts that there is a polynomial upper bound for the diameter of graphs of d-dimensional polytopes with n facets. Our research so far was devoted to an abstract combinatorial setting. We studied an appealing conjecture by Nicolai Hahnle and considered an even more general abstraction proposed by Yury Volvovskiy. Comments towards this abstract conjecture are most welcome!

Here, I would like to mention a topological approach which follows a result that was discovered independently by Tamon Stephen and Hugh Thomas in their paper An Euler characteristic proof that 4-prismatoids have width at most 4,
and by Paco Santos in his paper Embedding a pair of graphs in a surface, and the width of 4-dimensional prismatoids. This post is based on a discussion with Paco Santos at Oberwolfach.

Two maps on a two dimensional Sphere

Theorem: Given a red map and a blue map drawn in general position on S^2 there is an intersection point of two edges of different colors which is adjacent (in the refined map) to a red vertex and to a blue vertex.

Blue and black maps

There are two proofs for the theorem. The proof by Stephen and Thomas uses an Euler characteristic argument. The proof by Santos applies a connectivity argument. Both papers are short and elegant. Both papers point out that the result does not hold for maps on a torus.

Santos’ counterexample to the Hirsch conjecture is based on showing that a direct extension of this result to maps in three dimensions fails. (Even for two maps coming from fans based on polytopes.) Of course, first Paco found his counterexample and then the two-map theorem was found in response to his question  of whether one can find in dimension four counterexamples of the kind he presented in dimension five.

The theorem by Santos, Stephen, and Thomas is very elegant. The proofs are simple but far from obvious and it seems to me that the result will find interesting applications. Its elegance and depth reminded me of Anton Klyachko’s car crash theorem.

A topological question in high dimensions

Now we are ready to present a higher-dimensional analog:

Tentative Conjecture: Let M_1 be a red map and let  M_2 be a blue map drawn in general position on S^{n}, and let $M$ be their common refinement.  There is a vertex w of M a blue vertex v \in M_1, a red vertex u \in M_2 and two faces F,~G \in M such that 1) v,w \in F, 2) w,u \in G, and 3) \dim F + \dim G =n.

A simple (but perhaps not the most general) setting in which to ask this question is with regard to the red and blue maps  coming from red and blue polyhedral fans associated to red and blue convex polytopes. The common refinement will be the fan obtained by taking all intersections of cones, one from the first fan and one from the second.

(Perhaps when n=2k we can even guarantee that \dim F=\dim G=k.)

Why the tentative conjecture implies that the diameter is polynomial

An affirmative answer to this conjecture will lead to a bound of the form dn for the graph of d-polytopes with n facets.

Here is why:

– It is known that the diameter of every polytope with n facets and dimension d is bounded above by the “length” of a Dantzig figure with 2n-2d facets and n-d vertices.

Here a Dantzig figure is a simple polytope of dimension D with 2D facets and two complementary vertices. (i.e., two vertices such that each vertex lies in half of the facets, and they do not belong to any common facet).

The length of the Dantzig figure is the graph distance between these two vertices. This is the classical “d-step theorem” of Klee and Walkup, 1967.

– The length of a Dantzig figure of dimension d is the same as the minimum distance between blue and red vertices in a pair of two maps in the (d-2)-sphere, with d cells each.

– Our tentative conjecture implies, by dimension on d, that the minimum distance between blue and red vertices in a pair of maps in the d-sphere and with n cells is bounded above by (essentially) nd. (n cells means “cells of the blue map plus cells of the red map”, not “cells of the common refinement”).

The abstract setting and other approaches

More comments, ideas, and updates on the abstract setting are of course very welcome Also very welcome are other approaches to the polynomial Hirsch conjecture, and discussion of related problems.

An example showing that the theorem fail for blue and red maps on a torus.

János Pach: Guth and Katz’s Solution of Erdős’s Distinct Distances Problem

Click here for the most recent polymath3 research thread.

Erdős and Pach celebrating another November day many years ago. The Wolf disguised as Little Red Riding Hood. Pach disguised as another Pach.

This post is authored by János Pach

A Festive Day: November 19

Today is a festive day. It was on this day, November 19, 1863, that Abraham Lincoln presented his famous Gettysburg Address. Seventy nine years later, on the same day (on his own birthday!), Georgy Zhukov, Marshal of the Soviet Union, launched Operation Uranus, turning the tide of the battle of Stalingrad and of World War II. Now sixty eight years later, here we stand (or sit) and experience my very first attempt to contribute to a blog, as Gil has suggested so many times during the past couple of years. But above all, this is a festive day, because earlier today Larry Guth and Nets Hawk Katz posted on arXiv
(http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/1011/1011.4105v1.pdf) an almost complete solution of Erdös’s Distinct Distances Problem. The story started with Erdős’s 1946 paper published in the American Mathematical Monthly. In this paper, he posed two general questions about the distribution of distances determined by a finite set of points in a metric space.

1. Unit Distance Problem: At most how many times can the same distance (say, distance 1) occur among a set of n points?

2. Distinct Distances Problem: What is the minimum number of distinct distances determined by a set of n points?

Because of the many failed attempts to give reasonable bounds on these functions even in the plane, one had to realize that these questions are not merely “gems” in recreational mathematics. They have raised deep problems, some of which can be solved using graph theoretic and combinatorial ideas. In fact, the discovery of many important combinatorial techniques and results were motivated by their expected geometric consequences. (For more about the history of this problem, read my book with Pankaj Agarwal: Combinatorial Geometry, and for many related open problems, my book with Peter Brass and Willy Moser: Research Problems in Discrete Geometry.)

Erdős conjectured that in the plane the number of unit distances determined by n points is at most n^{1+c/loglog n}, for a positive constant c, but the best known upper bound, due to Spencer, Szemeredi, and Trotter is only O(n^{4/3}). As for the Distinct Distances Problem, the order of magnitude of the conjectured minimum is n/\sqrt{log n}, while the best lower bound was n^{0.8641...}, thanks to combined efforts by J. Solymosi – C.D. Toth (2001) and N.H. Katz – G. Tardos (2004).

This was the situation until today! The sensational new paper of Guth and Katz presents a proof of an almost tight lower bound of the order of n/log n. Let us celebrate this fantastic development! In this area of research, it is already considered a great achievement if by introducing an ingenious new idea one is able to improve a bound by a factor of n^{\delta} for some positive δ. Continue reading

Benoît’s Fractals

Mandelbrot set

Benoît Mandelbrot passed away a few dayes ago on October 14, 2010. Since 1987, Mandelbrot was a member of the Yale’s mathematics department. This chapterette from my book “Gina says: Adventures in the Blogosphere String War”   about fractals is brought here on this sad occasion. 

A little demonstration of Mandelbrot’s impact: when you search in Google for an image for “Mandelbrot” do not get pictures of Mandelbrot himself but rather pictures of Mandelbrot’s creation. You get full pages of beautiful pictures of Mandelbrot sets


Benoit Mandelbrot (1924-2010)

Modeling physics by continuous smooth mathematical objects have led to the most remarkable achievements of science in the last centuries. The interplay between smooth geometry and stochastic processes is also a very powerfull and fruitful idea. Mandelbrot’s realization of the prominence of fractals and his works on their study can be added to this short list of major paradigms in mathematical modeling of real world phenomena.


Fractals are beautiful mathematical objects whose study goes back to the late 19th century. The Sierpiński triangle and the Koch snowflake are early examples of fractals which are constructed by simple recursive rules. Continue reading

Answer to Test Your Intuition (3)

Question: Let X=[0,1]^d be the d-dimensional cube. Turn X into a torus T^d by identifying opposite facets. What is the minumum (d-1)-dimensional volume f(d) of a subset Y of X which intersects every non-trivial cycle in T^d.

Answer: Taking Y to be all points in the solid cube with one coordinate having value 1/2, gives you a set Y that seperates all cycles and has (d-1)-dimensional volume equals d. It is not difficult to prove that f(d) \ge C\sqrt d. Guy Kindler, Ryan O’donnell, Anup Rao and Avi Wigderson proved the existence of Y which seperates all cycles with vol(Y) =O(\sqrt d). A simpler argument was found by Noga Alon and Boaz Klartag.  For an even simpler treatement of this result along with several discrete analogs see this paper by Noga.