The Rearrangement Inequality

A favourite result of many students doing olympiad inequality problems is the so-called Rearrangement Inequality. This is a mathematical formulation of the idea well-known to even the smallest of child that if you prefer cakes to carrots then if you are offered two of one and one of the other, you should take two of the one you prefer!

At a more formal level, it says that given two strings of non-negative numbers

a_1\le a_2,\le \ldots\le a_n, \quad b_1\le b_2\le \ldots\le b_n,

if you want to form a sum of products of pairs, like

a_1b_4+a_2b_1+a_3b_3+\ldots,

you get the largest result if you take

a_1b_1+a_2b_2+\ldots+a_nb_n.

Formally, for any permutation \sigma \in S_n,

a_1b_1+\ldots+a_nb_n\ge a_1b_{\sigma(1)}+\ldots+a_nb_{\sigma(n)}\ge a_1b_n+\ldots+a_nb_1.

That is, you multiply the largest terms in each sequence together.

The notation to describe to equality case is a bit annoying. Essentially, the sums are equal if and only if the summands exactly correspond. If the sequences are strictly increasing, then equality holds only if the permutation \sigma=\text{id}.

This result is nice because, although it is rarely explicitly useful, it goes in a different direction from the standard scheme of results strengthening AM-GM, Cauchy-Schwarz and so on, and is in some sense more intuitive than these more well-known inequalities, at least in the form presented in an olympiad context.

I was thinking about this partly because it’s a nice result in its own right, but also because it came up in a research problem to do with comparing the expected likelihood of different tree isomorphism classes arising in an inhomogeneous, but relatively well-behaved, random graph model. The probability of forming a given tree is a homogeneous multivariate polynomial in the ages of the vertices that would form the tree. It is then necessary to integrate over the joint distribution (which fortunately is a product in the limit) of the ages of the vertices. I was playing around with this by considering what seemed to be the extreme cases: the star and the path. I was working with the relatively simple case n=4, and it struck me that perhaps the polynomial for the star was always at least as large as that for the path. This would be convenient as it would avoid the need for a horrific-looking integral calculation. This turned out to be true. My first method was a heavy but uncontroversial convexity and stationary point argument, but I found a pair of vectors embedded in the desired inequality on which I could deploy rearrangement.

Anyway, I thought I should be able to come up with a nice proof, and I think this is one. I think this is particularly nice because it is a demonstration that one can do a proof by induction without explicitly inducting on the natural numbers.

We begin with a base case, which is the theorem for n=2, even though we will not be doing induction in the canonical way. We are required to prove that given

a_1\le a_2,\quad b_1\le b_2,

that

a_1b_1+a_2b_2\ge a_1b_2+a_2b_1,

since these are the only available permutations. Moving some terms around gives

(a_2-a_1)(b_2-b_1)\ge 0,

which is true by construction, and so the n=2 result follows.

We now move straight to the general n case. We focus on the left of the two inequalities in the statement of the result, since the other will follow by an identical method, applied in reverse. We consider the case where \sigma is a transposition. For example, we might consider 12435. When we write out the result we want:

a_1b_1+a_2b_2+a_3b_3+a_4b_4+a_5b_5\ge a_1b_1+a_2b_2+a_3b_4+a_4b_3+a_5b_5,

we realise that many of the terms cancel, and the content of the theorem reduces to the n=2 case we have already dealt with. Obviously, this holds equally well whenever \sigma is a transposition. Similarly, if \sigma is a product of two disjoint transpositions, which means that two disjoint pairs of elements are interchanged, we can apply the n=2 case twice, then add on the extra terms to get the result.

In fact, we can do much better than this, by using the fact that any permutation can be expressed as a product of transpositions. We need to be careful about the risk of asserting that every time we multiply the permutation \sigma by a transposition, the value of the associated sum-product expression gets smaller. While the idea is correct, this cannot be generally true. After all, applying the same transposition twice returns us to the identity permutation!

We can nonetheless say something useful. If we start with a permutation

\sigma(1),\sigma(2),\ldots,\sigma(n),

and we interchange the ith and jth elements, to get,

\tau=\sigma(1),\ldots,\sigma(i-1),\sigma(j),\sigma(i+1),\ldots,\sigma(j-1),\sigma(i),\sigma(j+1),\ldots,\sigma(n),

then the product sum corresponding to \tau is less than or equal to the product sum corresponding to \sigma if $\sigma(i)\leq sigma(j)$, under the implicit assumption that i<j. In other words, we can prove the rearrangement inequality for any permutation \sigma that can be obtained from the identity by repeatedly interchanging elements that are initially in increasing order. Essentially, we have defined a partial ordering on the set of permutations.

It suffices to check that all permutations have this property. In fact, this is relatively easy. We can move element n to its required position in \sigma by successively swapping with (n-1), (n-2), etc. If we set this up as an inductive argument, we can finish by applying the hypothesis to the remaining (n-1) elements, which are in the same order as the identity permutation on [n-1].

So we have proved the left-hand side of the Rearrangement Inequality. In fact, this partial ordering framework makes it clear how to prove the right-hand side. By an identical argument, we can get from any permutation to the reverse identity by a similar set of operations.

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