Discontinuous Phase Transitions

Yesterday, Demeter Kiss from Cambridge gave a seminar in Oxford about a model for self-destructive percolation on \mathbb{Z}^2 that had implications for the (non-)existence of an infinite-parameter forest fire model on the same lattice. I enjoyed talking about this and his recent work on the related model of frozen percolation on \mathbb{Z}^2. Considering these models in the lattice setting present a whole range of interesting geometric challenges that are not present in the mean-field case that has mainly occupied my research direction so far.

The afternoon’s discussion included lots of open problems about percolation. Several of these are based around continuity of the phase transition, so I thought I would write a quite post about some simple examples of this, and one example where it does not hold.

A helpful base example is bond percolation on the lattice \mathbb{Z}^2. Here, we specify some probability p in [0,1], and we declare edges of the lattice open with probability p, independently of each other. We then consider the graph induced by the open edges. We say that percolation occurs if the origin is contained in an infinite open component. The terminology arises from the interpretation as fluid being added at the origin and flowing down open edges. We define \theta(p) to be the probability that the origin is in an infinite component when the parameter is p. By translation-invariance, we can get some sort of 0-1 law, to conclude that there is an infinite component somewhere in the system with probability either 0 or 1, depending on whether \theta(p) is positive or zero. Indeed, we can further show that if it is positive, then with probability 1 there is a unique infinite component.

We define the critical probability p_c:= \inf\{\theta(p)>0\}. A question worth asking is then, what is \theta(p_c)? In some examples, we can find p_c, but we cannot prove that \theta(p) is continuous around p_c. In the case of \mathbb{Z}^2 this is known, and it is known from work of Kesten that p_c=1/2. See below for a plot of \theta(p) in this setting (obtained from this blog, though possibly originating elsewhere).

percolation probabilityThe aim is to find an example where we do not have such a continuous phase transition. The original work on frozen percolation took place on trees, and one of Kiss’s results is confirms that these show qualitatively different phenomena to the same process on the lattice. In some sense, trees lie halfway between a lattice and a mean-field model, since there is often some independence when we look down the tree from a given generation, if it is well-defined to use such language.

Anyway, first we consider percolation on an infinite regular rooted k-ary tree. This means we have a root, which has k children, each of which in turn has k children, and so on. As before we consider bond percolation with parameter p. In this setting, we have a language to describe the resulting open component of the root. The offspring distribution of any vertex in the open component is given by Bin(k,p) independently of everything else, so we can view this component as the realisation of a Galton-Watson tree with this offspring distribution. This distribution has finite mean kp, and so we can state explicitly when the survival probability is positive. This happens when the mean is greater than 1, ie p>1/k.

For our actual example, we will consider the survival probability, but the technicalities are easier to explain if we look at the extinction probability, now using the language of branching processes. Suppose the offspring distribution has pgf given by

f(x)=p_0+p_1x+p_2x^2+\ldots.

Then the extinction probability q satisfies f(q)=q. I want to pause to consider what happens if this equation has multiple solutions. Indeed, in most interesting cases it will have multiple solutions, since f(1) will always be 1 if it is a non-defective offspring distribution. It is typically cited that: the extinction probability q is the smallest solution to this equation. I want to discuss why that is the case.

To approach this, we have to consider what extinction means. It is the limit in the event sense of the events {we are extinct after n generations}. Let the probabilities of these events be q_n, so q_0=0. Then by a straightforward coupling argument, we must have

0=q_0\le q_1\le q_2 \le\ldots\le q:= \lim q_n \le 1.

But, by the same generating function argument as before, q_{n+1}=f(q_n)\ge q_n. So if we split [0,1] into regions A where f(x)\ge x and B where f(x)<x, all the (q_n)s must occur in the former, and so since it is closed, their limit must be in A also. Note that if f(x) intersects x lots of times, then region A is not necessarily connected. In the diagram below, in moving from q_n to q_{n+1} we might jump across part of B.

Iterative percolation graphThis is bad, as we are trying to prove that q is the right boundary of the connected component of A containing 0. But this cannot happen, as f is monotonic. So if one of the roots of f(x)=x in between the hypothesised q_n<q_{n+1} is called z, then f(q_n)< f(z)=z < q_{n+1}, a contradiction.

Ok, so now we are ready to consider our counterexample to continuity over the percolation threshold. See references for a link to the original source of this example. We have to choose a slightly more complicated event than mere survival or extinction. We consider bond percolation as before on the infinite ternary tree, where every vertex has precisely 3 offspring. Our percolation event is now that the root is the root of an infinite binary tree. That is, the root has at least two children, each of which have at least two children, each of which, and so on.

If we set this probability equal to q, and the probability of an edge being open equal to p, then we have the recurrence:

q=3p^2(1-p)q^2+p^3[3q^2(1-q)+q^3].

The first term corresponds to the root having two open edges to offspring, and the second to the root having all three open edges to offspring. After manipulating, we end up with

q\left[2p^3q^2-3p^2q+1\right]=0.

We are therefore interested in roots of the quadratic lying between 0 and 1. The discriminant can be evaluated as

\Delta=p^3(9p-8),

and so there are no real roots where p<8/9. But when p=8/9, we have a repeated root at q=27/32, which is obviously not zero!

This equation is qualitatively different to the previous one for the extinction probability of a Galton-Watson tree. There, we had a quadratic, with one root at 1. As we varied p, the other root moved continuously from greater than one to less than one, so it passed through 1, giving continuity at the critical probability. Here, we have a cubic, again with one root at 1. But now the other roots are complex for small p, meaning that the local minimum of the cubic lies above the x-axis. As p gets to the critical value, it the local minimum passes below the x-axis, and suddenly we have a repeated root, not at zero.

I would like to have a neat probabilistic heuristic for this result, without having to make reference to generating functions. At the moment, the best I can come up with is to say that the original problem is simple, in the sense that the critical probability is as small as it could be while still making sense in expectation. To be concrete, when the mean of the offspring generation is less than 1, the expected size of the nth generation tends to zero, so there certainly could not be positive probability of having an infinite component.

Whereas in the binary tree example, we only require p=2/3 to have, in expectation, the right number of open edges to theoretically allow an infinite binary tree. If we think of percolation as a dynamic process by coupling in p, essentially as we move from p=2/3 to p=8/9 we need to add enough edges near the origin to be able to take advantage of the high density of edges available far from the origin. The probability of this working given you start from n vertices grows much faster (as n grows) than in the original problem, so you might expect a faster transition.

This is so content-free I’m reluctant even to call it a heuristic. I would be very interested to hear of any more convincing argument for this phenomenon!

REFERENCES

Dekking, Pakes – On family trees and subtrees of simple branching processes (link)

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