# Antichains in the grid

In the previous post on this topic, we discussed Dilworth’s theorem on chains and antichains in a general partially ordered set. In particular, whatever the size of the largest antichain in a poset, it is possible to partition the poset into exactly that many chains. So for various specific posets, or the directed acyclic graphs associated to them, we are interested in the size of this largest antichain.

The following example turned out to be more interesting than I’d expected. At a conventional modern maths olympiad, there are typically three questions on each paper, and for reasons lost in the mists of time, each student receives an integer score between 0 and 7 per question. A natural question to ask is “how many students need to sit a paper before it’s guaranteed that one will scores at least as highly as another on every question?” (I’m posing this as a straight combinatorial problem – the correlation between scores on different questions will be non-zero and presumably positive, but that is not relevant here.)

The set of outcomes is clearly $\{0,1,\ldots,7\}^3$, with the usual weak domination partial order inherited from $\mathbb{R}^3$. Then an antichain corresponds to a set of triples of scores such that no triple dominates another triple. So the answer to the question posed is: “the size of the largest antichain in this poset, plus one.”

In general, we might ask about $\{1,2,\ldots,n\}^d$, again with the weak domination ordering. This directed graph, which generalises the hypercube as well as our example, is called the grid.

Heuristics for the largest antichain

Retaining the language of test scores on multiple questions is helpful. In the previous post, we constructed a partition of the poset into antichains, indexed by the elements of some maximal chain, by starting with the sources, then looking at everything descended only from sources, and so on. (Recall that the statement that this is possible was referred to as the dual of Dilworth’s theorem.) In the grid, there’s a lot of symmetry (in particular under the mapping $x\mapsto n+1-x$ in every coordinate), and so you end up with the same family of antichains whether you work upwards from the sources or downwards from the sinks. (Or vice versa depending on how you’ve oriented your diagram…) The layers of antichains also have a natural interpretation – each layer corresponds to a given total score. It’s clear a priori why each of these is an antichain. If A scores the same as B overall, but strictly more on the first question, this must be counterbalanced by a strictly lower score on another question.

So a natural guess for the largest antichain is the largest antichain corresponding to some fixed total score. Which total score should this be? It ought to be the middle layer, that is total score $\frac{(n+1)d}{2}$, or the two values directly on either side if this isn’t an integer. My intuition was probabilistic. The uniform distribution on the grid is achieved by IID uniform distributions in each coordinate, which you can think of as a random walk, especially if you subtract off the mean first. It feels that any symmetric random walk should have mode zero or next-to-zero. Certainly this works asymptotically in a rescaled sense by CLT, and in a slightly stronger sense by local CLT, but we don’t really want asymptotics here.

When I started writing the previous paragraph, I assumed there would be a simple justification for the claim that the middle layer(s) was largest, whether by straight enumeration, or some combinatorial argument, or even generating functions. Perhaps there is, and I didn’t spot it. Induction on d definitely works though, with a slightly stronger hypothesis that the layer sizes are symmetric around the median, and monotone on either side of the median. The details are simple and not especially interesting, so I won’t go into them.

From now on, the hypothesis is that this middle layer of the grid is the largest antichain. Why shouldn’t it, for example, be some mixture of middle-ish layers? (*) Well, heuristically, any score sequence in one layer removes several possibilities from a directly adjacent layer, and it seems unlikely that this effect is going to cancel out if you take some intermediate number of score sequences in the first layer. Also, the layers get smaller as you go away from the middle, so because of the large amount of symmetry (coordinates are exchangeable etc), it feels reasonable that there should be surjections between layers in the outward direction from the middle. The union of all these surjections gives a decomposition into chains.

This result is in fact true, and its proof by Bollobas and Leader, using shadows and compression can be found in the very readable Sections 0 and 1 of [1].

Most of the key ideas to a compression argument are present in the case n=2, for which some notes by Leader can be found here, starting with Proof 1 of Theorem 3, the approach of which is developed over subsequent sections. We treat the case n=2, but focusing on a particularly slick approach that does not generalise as successfully. We also return to the original case d=3 without using anything especially exotic.

Largest antichain in the hypercube – Sperner’s Theorem

The hypercube $\{0,1\}^d$ is the classical example. There is a natural correspondence between the vertices of the hypercube, and subsets of $[d]$. The ordering on the hypercube corresponds to the ordering given by containment on $\mathcal{P}([d])$. Almost by definition, the k-th layer corresponds to subsets of size k, and thus includes $\binom{d}{k}$ subsets. The claim is that the size of the largest antichain is $\binom{d}{\lfloor d/2 \rfloor}$, corresponding to the middle layer if d is even, and one of the two middle layers if d is odd. This result is true, and is called Sperner’s theorem.

I know a few proofs of this from the Combinatorics course I attended in my final year at Cambridge. As explained, I’m mostly going to ignore the arguments using compression and shadows, even though these generalise better.

As in the previous post, one approach is to exhibit a covering family of exactly this number of disjoint chains. Indeed, this can be done layer by layer, working outwards from the middle layer(s). The tool here is Hall’s Marriage Theorem, and we verify the relevant condition by double-counting. Probably the hardest case is demonstrating the existence of a matching between the middle pair of layers when d is odd.

Take d odd, and let $d':= \lfloor d/2\rfloor$. Now consider any subset S of the d’-th layer $\binom{[d]}{d'}$. We now let the upper shadow of S be

$\partial^+(S):= \{A\in \binom{[d]}{d'+1}\,:\, \exists B\in S, B\subset A\},$

the sets in the (d’+1)-th layer which lie above some set in S. To apply Hall’s Marriage theorem, we have to show that $|\partial^+(S)|\ge |S|$ for all choice of S.

We double-count the number of edges in the hypercube from $S$ to $\partial^+(S)$. Firstly, for every element $B\in S$, there are exactly d’ relevant edges. Secondly, for every element $A\in\partial^+(S)$, there are exactly d’ edges to some element of $\binom{[d]}{d'}$, and so in particular there are at most d’ edges to elements of S. Thus

$d' |S|=|\text{edges }S\leftrightarrow\partial^+(S)| \le d' |\partial^+(S)|,$

which is exactly what we require for Hall’s MT. The argument for the matching between other layers is the same, with a bit more notation, but also more flexibility, since it isn’t a perfect matching.

The second proof looks at maximal chains. Recall, in this context, a maximal chain is a sequence $\mathcal{C}=B_0\subset B_1\subset\ldots\subset B_d$ where each $B_k:= \binom{[d]}{k}$. We now consider some largest-possible antichain $\mathcal{A}$, and count how many maximal chains include an element $A\in\mathcal{A}$. If $|A|=k$, it’s easy to convince yourself that there are $\binom{d}{r}$ such maximal chains. However, given $A\ne A'\in\mathcal{A}$, the set of maximal chains containing A and the set of maximal chains containing A’ are disjoint, since $\mathcal{A}$ is an antichain. From this, we obtain

$\sum_{A\in\mathcal{A}} \binom{d}{|A|} \le d!.$ (**)

Normally after a change of notation, so that we are counting the size of the intersection of the antichain with each layer, this is called the LYM inequality after Lubell, Yamamoto and Meshalkin. The heuristic is that the sum of the proportions of layers taken up by the antichain is at most one. This is essentially the same as earlier at (*). This argument can also be phrased probabilistically, by choosing a *random* maximal chain, and considering the probability that it intersects the proposed largest antichain, which is, naturally, at most one. Of course, the content is the same as this deterministic combinatorial argument.

Either way, from (**), the statement of Sperner’s theorem follows rapidly, since we know that $\binom{d}{|A|}\le \binom{d}{\lfloor d/2\rfloor}$ for all A.

Largest antichain in the general grid

Instead of attempting a proof or even a digest of the argument in the general case, I’ll give a brief outline of why the previous arguments don’t transfer immediately. It’s pretty much the same reason for both approaches. In the hypercube, there is a lot of symmetry within each layer. Indeed, almost by definition, any vertex in the k-th layer can be obtained from any other vertex in the k-th layer just by permuting the labels (or permuting the coordinates if thinking as a vector).

The hypercube ‘looks the same’ from every vertex, but that is not true of the grid. Consider for clarity the n=8, d=3 case we discussed right at the beginning, and compare the scores (7,0,0) and (2,2,3). The number of maximal chains through (7,0,0) is $\binom{14}{7}$, while the number of maximal chains through (2,2,3) is $\binom{7}{2, 2,3}\binom{14}{4,5,5}$, and the latter is a lot larger, which means any attempt to use the second argument is going to be tricky, or at least require an extra layer of detail. Indeed, exactly the same problem arises when we try and use Hall’s condition to construct the optimal chain covering directly. In the double-counting section, it’s a lot more complicated than just multiplying by d’, as was the case in the middle of the hypercube.

Largest antichain in the d=3 grid

We can, however, do the d=3 case. As we will see, the main reason we can do the d=3 case is that the d=2 case is very tractable, and we have lots of choices for the chain coverings, and can choose one which is well-suited to the move to d=3. Indeed, when I set this problem to some students, an explicit listing of a maximal chain covering was the approach some of them went for, and the construction wasn’t too horrible to state.

[Another factor is that it computationally feasible to calculate the size of the middle layer, which is much more annoying in d>3.]

[I’m redefining the grid here as $\{0,1,\ldots,n-1\}^d$ rather than $\{1,2,\ldots,n\}^d$.]

The case distinction between n even and n odd is going to make both the calculation and the argument annoying, so I’m only going to treat the even case, since n=8 was the original problem posed. I should be honest and confess that I haven’t checked the n odd case, but I assume it’s similar.

So when n is even, there are two middle layers namely $\frac{3n}{2}-2, \frac{3n}{2}-1$ (corresponding to total score 10 and total score eleven in the original problem). I calculated the number of element in the $\frac{3n}{2}-1$ layer by splitting based on the value of the first coordinate. I found it helpful to decompose the resulting sum as

$\sum_{k=0}^{n-1} = \sum_{k=0}^{\frac{n}{2}-1} + \sum_{k=\frac{n}{2}}^{n-1},$

based on whether there is an upper bound, or a lower bound on the value taken by the second coordinate. This is not very interesting, and I obtained the answer $\frac{3n^2}{4}$, and of course this is an integer, since n is even.

Now to show that any antichain has size at most $\frac{3n^2}{4}$. Here we use our good control on the chain coverings in the case d=2. We note that there is a chain covering of the (n,d=2) grid where the chains have 2n-1, 2n-3,…, 3, 1 elements (%). We get this by starting with a maximal chain, then taking a maximal chain on what remains etc. It’s pretty much the first thing you’re likely to try.

Consider an antichain with size A in the (n,d=3) grid, and project into the second and third coordinates. The image sets are distinct, because otherwise a non-trivial pre-image would be a chain. So we have A sets in the (n,d=2) grid. How many can be in each chain in the decomposition (%). Well, if there are more than n in any chain in (%), then two must have been mapped from elements of the (n,d=3) grid with the same first coordinate, and so satisfy a containment relation. So in fact there are at most n image points in any of the chains of (%). So we now have a bound of $n^2$. But of course, some of the chains in (%) have length less than n, so we are throwing away information. Indeed, the number of images points in a given chain is at most

$\max(n,\text{length of chain}),$

and so the number of image points in total is bounded by

$n+\ldots+n+ (n-1)+(n-3)+\ldots+1,$

where there are n/2 copies of n in the first half of the sum. Evaluating this sum gives $\frac{3n^2}{4}$, exactly as we wanted.

References

[1] – Bollobas, Leader (1991) – Compressions and Isoperimetric Inequalities. Available open-access here.

# Enumerating Forests

I’ve just got back from a visit to Budapest University of Technology, where it was very pleasant to be invited to give a talk, as well as continuing the discussion our research programme with Balazs. My talk concerned a limit for the exploration process of an Erdos-Renyi random graph conditioned to have no cycles. Watch this space (hopefully very soon) for a fully rigorous account of this. In any case, my timings were not as slick as I would like, and I had to miss out a chunk I’d planned to say about a result of Britikov concerning enumerating unrooted forests. It therefore feels like an excellent time to write something again, and explain this paper, which you might be able to find here, if you have appropriate journal rights.

We are interested to calculate $a_{n,m}$ the number of forests with vertex set [n] consisting of m unrooted trees. Recall that if we were interested in rooted trees, we could appeal to Prufer codes to show that there are $m n^{n-m-1}$ such forests, and indeed results of Pitman give a coalescent/fragmentation scheme as m varies between 1 and n-1. It seems that there is no neat combinatorial re-interpretation of the unrooted case though, so Britikov uses an analytic method.

We know that

$a_{n,m}= \frac{n!}{m!} \sum_{\substack{k_1+\ldots+k_m=n\\ k_i\ge 1}} \prod_{j=1}^m \frac{k_j^{k_j-2}}{k_j!}.$

To see this, observe that the $k_j$s correspond to the sizes of the m trees in the forest; $\frac{n!}{\prod k_j!}$ gives the multinomial number of ways to assign vertices to the trees; given the labels for a tree of size $k_j$, there are $k_j^{k_j-2}$ ways to make up the tree itself; and $\frac{1}{m!}$ accounts for the fact that the trees have no order.

What we would really like to do is to take the uniform distribution on the set of all labelled trees, then simulate m IID copies of this distribution, and condition the union to contain precisely n vertices. But obviously this is an infinite set, so we cannot choose uniformly from it. Instead, we can tilt so that large trees are unlikely. In particular, for each x we define

$\mathbb{P}(\xi=k) \propto \frac{k^{k-2} x^k}{k!}$,

and define the normalising constant

$B(x):= \sum_{k\ge 1} \frac{k^{k-2}x^k}{k!},$

whenever it exists. It turns out that $x\le e^{-1}$ is precisely the condition for $B(x)<\infty$. Note now that if $\xi_1,x_2,\ldots$ are IID copies of $\xi$, then

$\mathbb{P}(\xi_1+\ldots+\xi_m=n) = \frac{x^n}{B(x)^m} \sum_{k_1+\ldots + k_m=n} \prod_{j=1}^m \frac{k_j^{k_j-2}}{k_j!},$

and so we obtain

$a_{n,m}= \frac{n!}{m!} \frac{B(x)^m}{x^n} \mathbb{P}(\xi_1+\ldots + \xi_m=n).$

So asymptotics for $a_{n,m}$ might follows from laws of large numbers of this distribution $\xi$.

So far, we haven’t said anything about how to choose this value x. But observe that if you want to have lots of trees in the forest, then the individual trees should generally be small, so we take x small to tilt away from a preference for large trees. It turns out that there is a similar interpretation of criticality for forests as for general graphs, and taking x equal to 1/e, its radius of convergence works well for this setting. If you want even fewer trees, there is no option to take x larger than 1/e, but instead one can use large deviations machinery rather than laws of large number asymptotics.

We will be interested in asymptotics of the characteristic function of $\xi$ for x=1/e. In particular $\mathbb{E}[e^{it\xi}]=\frac{B(xe^{it})}{B(x)}$, and it will be enough to clarify the behaviour of this as $t\rightarrow 0$. It’s easier to work with a relation analytic function

$\theta(x)=\sum_{k\ge 1} \frac{k^{k-1}x^k}{k!},$

ie the integral of B. What now feels like a long time ago I wrote a masters’ thesis on the subject of multiplicative coalescence, and this shows up as the generating function of the solutions to Smoluchowski’s equations with monodisperse initial conditions, which are themselves closely related to the Borel distributions. In any case, several of the early papers on this topic made progress by establishing that the radius of convergence is 1/e, and that $\theta(x)e^{-\theta(x)}=x$ everywhere where $|x|\le 1/e$. We want to consider x=1/e, for which $\theta=1$.

Note that $\mathbb{E}\xi = \frac{\theta(x)}{B(x)}$, so we will make progress by relating $B(x),\theta(x)$ in two ways. One way involves playing around with contour integrals in a fashion that is clear in print, but involves quite a lot of notation. The second way is the Renyi relation which asserts that $\theta(x)=B(x)+\frac{\theta(x)^2}{2}$. We will briefly give a combinatorial proof. Observe that after multiplying through by factorials and interpreting the square of a generating function, this is equivalent to

$k^{k-1} = k^{k-2} + \frac12 \sum_{\substack{l+m=k\\l,m\ge 1}} l^{l-1}m^{m-1}\binom{k}{l},$

for all k. As we might expect from the appearance of this equality, we can prove it using a bijection on trees. Obviously on the LHS we have the size of the set of rooted trees on [k]. Now consider the set of pairs of disjoint rooted trees with vertex set [k]. This second term on the RHS is clearly the size of this set. Given an element of this set, join up the two roots, and choose whichever root was not initially in the same tree as 1 to be the new root. We claim this gives a bijection between this set, and the set of rooted trees on [k], for which 1 is not the root. Given the latter, the only pair of trees that leads to the right rooted tree on [k] under this mapping is given by cutting off the unique edge incident to the root that separates the root and vertex 1. In particular, since there is a canonical bijection between rooted trees for which 1 is the root, and unrooted trees (!), we can conclude the Renyi relation.

The Renyi relation now gives $\mathbb{E}\xi = \frac{\theta(x)}{B(x)}=2$ when x=1/e. If we wanted, we could show that the variance is infinite, which is not completely surprising, as the parameter x lies on the radius of convergence of the generating function.

Now, playing around with contour integrals, and being careful about which strands to take leads to the asymptotic as $t\rightarrow 0$

$\mathbb{E}[ e^{it\xi}] = 1+2it + \frac{2}{3}i |2t|^{3/2} (i\mathrm{sign}(t))^{3/2} + o(|t|^{3/2}).$

So from this, we can show that the characteristic function of the rescaled centred partial sum $\frac{\xi_1+\ldots+\xi_N-2N}{bN^{2/3}}$ converges to $\exp(-|t|^{3/2}\exp(\frac{i\pi}{4}\mathrm{sign} t))$, where $b= (32/9)^{1/3}$ is a constant arising out of the previous step.

We recognise this as the characteristic function of the stable distribution with parameters 3/2 and -1. In particular, we know now that $\xi$ is in the domain of attraction for a stable-3/2 distribution. If we wanted a version of the central limit theorem for such partial sums, we could have that, but since we care about the partial sums of the $\xi_i$s taking a specific value, rather than a range of values on the scale of the fluctuations, we actually need a local limit theorem.

To make this clear, let’s return to the simplest example of the CLT, with some random variables with mean $\mu$ and variance $\sigma^2<\infty$. Then the partial sums satisfy

$\mathbb{P}(\mu N + a\sigma\sqrt{N} \le S_N \le \mu_N+b\sigma\sqrt{N}) \rightarrow \int_a^b f_{\mathcal N}(x)dx,$

as $N\rightarrow\infty$. But what about the probability of $S_N$ taking a particular value m that lies between $\mu N+a\sigma \sqrt{N}$ and $\mu N + b\sigma \sqrt{N}$? If the underlying distribution was continuous, this would be uncontroversial – considering the probability of lying in a range that is smaller than the scale of the CLT can be shown in a similar way to the CLT itself. A local limit theorem asserts that when the underlying distribution is supported on some lattice, mostly naturally the integers, then these probabilities are in the limit roughly the same whenever m is close to $\mu N+a\sigma\sqrt{N}$.

In this setting, a result of Ibragimov and Linnik that I have struggled to find anywhere in print (especially in English) gives us local limit theory for integer-supported distributions in the domain of attraction of a stable distribution. Taking p( ) to be the density of this distribution, we obtain

$bm^{2/3}\mathbb{P}(\xi_1+\ldots+\xi_m=n) - p(\frac{n-2m}{b m^{2/3}}) \rightarrow 0$

as $n\rightarrow\infty$, uniformly on any set of m for which $z= \frac{n-2m}{bm^{2/3}}$ is bounded. Conveniently, the two occurrences of b clear, and Britikov obtains

$a_{n,m} = (1+o(1)) \frac{\sqrt{2\pi} n^{n-1/6}}{2^{n-m}(n-m)!} p(\frac{n-2m}{n^{2/3}},$

uniformly in the same sense as before.

# Random Maps 2 – The Schaeffer Bijection

As indicated at the end of the previous post, our aim is to find a natural bijection between the set of pointed, rooted quadrangulations with n faces, and some set of objects based on decorating rooted plane trees with n edges in some fashion. Unlike our previous example, the construction of this bijection is definitely not trivial. It seems like a foolish ambition to explain this without several pictures, so I’m going to focus on some aspects of the analysis which I found challenging, rather than the construction itself.

Anyway, we don’t yet know what the extended set of trees should be. We need an extra factor of $3^n$, so it is natural to consider adding some sort of labelling of the tree, where for each non-root vertex in turn there are three options. So, given a rooted tree T, we label the vertices such that the root has label 0, and if a parent vertex has label k, any offspring has label k-1, k or k+1. Such a labelling is called admissable, and $\mathbb{T}_n$ is the set of rooted plane trees with n edges and an admissable labelling.

We now demonstrate how to construct an element of $\mathcal{Q}_n$ from an element of $\mathbb{T}_n$. Various authors had considered this problem to various extents, and so what follows is known as the Cori-Vauquelin-Schaeffer bijection, at least in this course.

Consider a contour exploration of the tree. That is, start out at the root and at all times take first-edge you encounter going clockwise from your current direction. When you arrive at a leaf, you will indeed therefore immediately retrace your most recent step. The key property is that you traverse each edge exactly twice, and so we may think of the tree as having 2n oriented edges. It is more useful to think about corners. A corner is the directed arc (WLOG clockwise) between adjacent edges at a vertex. There is a natural bijection between corners and directed edges, by looking anti-clockwise from the tail of the edge. So the contour process explored the directed edges in some order, and hence explores the corners of the tree. One thing I found confusing initially was switching between considering vertices and corners. I feel in retrospect that the only reason we need the vertices themselves is to induce the labelling onto the corners. These are the only thing we will use in the construction.

As we trace out the contour process, naturally we see different labels. We define the successor of a corner with label k to be the next corner seen in the contour process (taken modulo 2n if necessary) with label k-1. Note that any corner on a vertex with minimal label will not have a successor. To counter this, we add a new vertex, suggestively called $v_*$, with a single corner (ie no edges yet) and denote this corner to be the successor of the corners in the original tree with minimal label.

To construct our quadrangulation, we simply join up every corner with its successor corner. Note that if you are thinking of the successor of a corner as a vertex (rather than as a corner) you will get in trouble here, as it might be several ways to draw this arc.

The red arcs and vertex v* are added to form the quadrangulation. Note the blue angles indicate the three corners around the vertex labelled -1.

It is not obvious that it is possible to do this so that the arcs do not overlap. However, by considering the label process as you explore via the contour process, it becomes clear that you can discount the possibility of any overlaps one by one. This applies equally to pairs of new arcs overlapping, as well as new arcs overlapping with edges of the original tree. In any case, we remove the edges of the original tree to obtain the quadrangulation.

Note that when you move from any corner of a vertex with label k to its successor, then to the successor of its successor and so on, the labels are decreasing, so eventually you must end up at a corner with minimal label, and hence at $v_*$. We conclude that the graph of arcs is connected. It remains to show that it is a quadrangulation.

This is rather fiddly to do without a diagram. Note first that whenever we have a directed edge in the tree going from label k to label k-1, then this edge essentially becomes an arc of the quadrangulation. We show that the edge oriented in the other direction, called say e, induces three further arcs of a quadrangle. So e goes from label k-1 to k. Consider the corners before and following e in the contour exploration, which is a corner around the vertex with label k. The successor of the corner after e is a corner with label k-1, and this has a successor with label k-2. By construction, this must also be the successor of the corner before e. Why? Well as we traverse the contour beyond e, the first appearance of label k-1 must happen before the first appearance of label k-2, as the increments can only be in {-1,0,1}. This gives us the three further arcs. Note also that the 2-colouring of the quadrangulation is given by the parity of the tree-labelling.

I was bothered about what happens if two vertices with label k-1 are in fact the same. This would happen if, for example, the vertex labelled k is a leaf. Then, at least two of the corners around the single vertex with label k-1 have the same corner as successor. A naïve attempt at drawing the resulting arcs did not give a quadrangle. The key observation is that you have to draw the arcs in the direction of the contour process. So in this case, the arc from the corner before edge e will loop all the way around the vertex with label k, so it contains the other two relevant arcs on its way to the vertex with label k-2, giving us the ‘pacman’ quadrangle discussed earlier.

The other case we have to check is when our base edge joins two vertices with label k. Then the other two vertices of the face will have label k-1. This is similar to the above, and slightly easier.

As a preliminary to checking that we can invert this construction, we observe that the vertices of the quadrangulation are the vertices of the original tree plus $v_*$, and furthermore, the labels in the tree are given by the graph distance from $v_*$ in the quadrangulation, with a constant added uniformly so that the root vertex has label 0.

At this point, we observe that in the construction, we didn’t specify how to choose the rooted edge of the quadrangulation. Canonically, we take it to be the arc between the first corner of the root in the contour process, and its successor. However, we can orient it in either direction, giving us the extra factor of 2 we were looking for.

Returning to the inverse, it is clear what to do when we see a quadrangle corresponding to the second case above – namely put an edge between the two vertices with label k. In the case where the face has labels {k,k-1,k-1,k-2} it is less obvious. Note though that by starting at the first corner of the root, which is identified by the rooted edge in the quadrangulation, we can recover the contour process from the arcs of the quadrangulation, and the labels. So when we see such a face, we can use this information to choose which of the (k-1)-labelled vertices to join to the vertex with label k.

Anyway, now we are convinced that this bijection works, the next stage is to apply it to gain extra information about a uniformly-chosen large quadrangulation. We can view the vertices as being those of a large uniform plane tree, and the labels as given by a random walk along this large tree. We might expect to see this labelling structure converge to something that looks like Brownian motion indexed by a Brownian continuum random tree, in a sense to be made more precise. And the labelling is not merely a decoration in the quadrangulation, since it specifies the distance to the identified point $v_*$. In particular, this gives a bound on the distance between any two vertices in the quadrangulation, eg two vertices chosen uniformly at random. In fact, by looking more carefully at the scaling limit of the uniform tree’s contour process, we can say rather more than that.

# Random Maps 1 – Towards the Schaeffer Bijection

I have spent the past ten days in Saint Flour, an inaccessible but picturesque town in the rolling hills of Cantal, in the middle of France, and venue for perhaps the most notable summer school in probability. My highlight has been the course ‘Aspects of Random Maps’ delivered by Gregory Miermont, and I thought I should write a few posts about points of interest encountered during the lectures and private study.

A map is an embedding of a connected graph onto a surface. We typically do not care about the nature of this embedding up to homeomorphisms of the surface which preserve orientations of the map. One advantage for doing this is that the set of maps now might be countable, and the set of maps with n edges might be finite. This can be proved by considering a map to be obtained by glueing together polygonal faces. Some potential glueings are impossible, and some are equivalent, but for a fixed number of edges, the number of such sets of polygons and a possible glueing is finite. In fact we can be much more precise than this about how to describe precisely the legal glueing through a triple of permutations, but I won’t discuss this here.

I haven’t yet given a complete definition of a map. We want a typical large map, that is a map with a large number of vertices and edges, to be topologically roughly the same as the surface it is embedded into. In particular, the map needs to encode the geometric features of the surface. So a small triangle on the surface of a torus should not be considered a map. To rigorise this, we demand that any face of a map should be a topological disc, in particular, it should be simply connected. Since the torus itself is not simply connected, this excludes our triangle example. Note a single vertex on a torus is also excluded.

Although it goes against the usual order of definitions, it might be helpful to think of a map as an embedding which satisfies Euler’s formula: V – E + F = 2 -2g, where g is the genus of the surface. For a connected planar graph, induction is on the number of edges and vertices is the typical way to prove this result. The inductive step works the same on a more general surface, but it is less clear what the base case should be. Another consequence of the definition is that we should work on the sphere rather than the plane. From now on, this is our surface of interest.

We begin by considering $\mathcal{M}_n$ to be the family of rooted plane maps with n edges. The root is a distinguished oriented edge. Our aim is to count the size of this set.

Before doing this, we digress onto the topic of rooted plane trees. Note that any (rooted) tree in the classical sense is planar, but in a rooted plane tree, we also specify the geometric ordering of the offspring. For example, if the root has two offspring, of which one has precisely one offspring and the other has none, we consider these as two separate cases.

So now, if we denote by $a_k$ the number of plane trees with k edges, we can define a generating function via $A(z):=\sum_{k\ge 0} a_k z^k$. If the root vertex v has no offspring, this gives one possibility corresponding to k=0. Otherwise, there is a well-defined left-most offspring of the root, called u. Then u and its descendents form a plane tree, and v and its descendents apart from those through u also form a plane tree. So after accounting for the edge between u and v, we obtain

$A(z)=1+zA(z)^2,$

whenever A(z) is defined. We now can apply whichever is our favourite method of showing that this is the generating function of the Catalan numbers, $a_k=\frac{1}{k+1}\binom{2k}{k}$.

There is a more complicated version of this generating function argument due to Tutte that allows us to enumerate $\mathcal{M}_n$. It is convenient to work with a second variable in the generating function that encodes the degree of the root face. The resulting equation of generating functions is less well-known but using the Lagrange inversion formula gives the explicit expression

$|\mathcal{M}_n|=\frac{2}{n+2}\cdot \frac{3^n}{n+1}\binom{2n}{n}.$

Although there are extra terms, this motivates seeking a bijection between maps, and some version of rooted plane trees, perhaps decorated with some extra information. As in many cases, this will turn out to be possible. The bijection we end up with will not just help us enumerate the maps, but will also allow us to control a lot more information about distances in the map, which will be particularly useful when we try to take limits.

The first observation is that given a map, we can construct a dual map, by placing fresh vertices somewhere in the middle of each face, and joining a pair of these if the corresponding faces in the original graph share an edge.

Alternatively, we can place the same fresh vertices in the middle of each face, then join each new vertex to an original vertex, if that original vertex lies on the face corresponding to the new vertex. If you focus in on an original edge, it is clear that it is now surrounded by a ‘diamond’ (if you’ve drawn the diagram in a natural way) of new edges. Removing the original edges thus leaves us with a quadrangulation. This procedure is called the ‘trivial bijection’ between $\mathcal{M}_n$ and $\mathcal{Q}_n$, the family of rooted quadrangulations with n faces. Note that the root in such a quadrangulation is an identified directed edge, rather than a vertex. We haven’t yet specified how to describe the root of the resulting quadrangulation. It suffices to take the first new edge which lies clockwise of the root edge in the original graph, seen from the ‘tail’ of the root, which is of course oriented.

In this, and the bijections which follow, the natural questions to ask are: a) is the inverse obvious? and b) what happens to self-loops and isthmuses? Here, the inverse really is obvious. Any quadrangulation is bipartite, hence two-colourable, so we need to fix one colour and join the two vertices of that colour within each face to recover the original graph. The root tells us which colour we need to take. As for the second question, first we should say that an isthmus is an edge which has the same face on both sides. This causes no problems in this particular bijection. For the self-loops, we get a sort of Pacman-like quadrangle, with two ‘outer-edges’ between the same two vertices, and an edge between one of the outer vertices and some internal vertex. This edge contributes twice to the degree of the face.

The upshot of this is that for a simple enumeration, it suffices to prove that $|\mathcal{Q}_n|=\frac{2}{n+2}\cdot \frac{3^n}{n+1}\binom{2n}{n}$. This may not look like we have achieved much, but we can now apply Euler’s formula to any quadrangulation in this set to deduce that the number of vertices present is n+2. If we consider the set $\mathcal{Q}_n^*$, where now we identify a particular vertex $v_*$ in the quadrangulation, it suffices to prove that $|\mathcal{Q}_n^*|=2.3^n \cdot a_n$, where $a_n$ is the nth Catalan number as before. Now we have the most efficient setup to look for a bijection with some type of decorated plane tree as discussed before.

# Coupling from the Past

In a long series of previous posts I have talked about mixing times for Markov chains. We consider how long it takes for the distribution of a particular Markov chain to approach equilibrium. We are particularly interested in the asymptotics when some parameter of the model grows, such as the size of the state space, grows to infinity.

But why are we interested in the underlying problem? The idea of Markov Chain Monte Carlo methods is to sample from an intractable distribution by instead sampling from a Markov chain which approximates the distribution well at large times. A distribution might be intractable because it is computationally demanding to work out the normalising constant, or it might be distributed uniformly on a complicated combinatorial set. If, however, the distribution is the equilibrium distribution of some Markov chain, then we know how to at least sample from a distribution which is close to the one we want. But we need to know how long to run the process. We will typically tolerate some small error in approximating the distribution (whether we measure this in terms of total variation distance or some other metric doesn’t really matter at this heuristic level), but we need to know how it scale. If we double the size of the system, do we need to double the number of iterations of the chain, or square it. This is really important if we are going to use this for large real-world models with finite computing power!

Sometimes though, an approximation is not enough. If we want an exact sample from the equilibrium distribution, Markov chains typically will not help us as it is only in very artificial examples that the distribution after some finite time is actually the equilibrium distribution. One thing that we might use is a stationary time, which is a stopping time T, for which $X_T\stackrel{d}{=}\pi$. Note that there is one trivial way to do this. We can sample Y from distribution $\pi$ before starting the process, then stop X at the first time T for which $X_T=Y$. But this is no help really, as we need to have Y in the first place!

So we are really interested in less trivial stationary times. Perhaps the best example is the top-to-random shuffle. Here we are given a pack of labelled cards, WLOG initially in descending order at each step we move the top card in the pile to a randomly-chosen location in the pile (which includes back onto the top). Then it turns out that the first time we move the card originally at the bottom from the top to somewhere is a strong stationary time. This is fairly natural, as by this time, every card has been involved in at least one randomising event.

Anyway, so this gives a somewhat artificial way to sample from the uniform distribution on a pack of cards. This strong stationary time is almost surely finite, with distribution given by the coupon collector problem, for which the expectation grows as $n\log n$, where n is the number of cards.

The problem with this method is that it is not easy in general to come up with a non-contrived stationary time such as this one. The idea of coupling from the past, discussed by some previous authors but introduced in this context by Propp and Wilson in the mid ’90s, is another method to achieve perfect sampling from the equilibrium distribution of a Markov chain. The idea here is to work backwards rather than forwards. The rest of this post, which discusses this idea, is based on the talk given at the Junior Probability Seminar by Irene, and on the chapter in the Levin, Peres, Wilmer book.

The key to the construction is a coupling of the transitions of a Markov chain. In the setting of a simple random walk, we have by construction a coupling of the transitions. It doesn’t matter which state we are at: we toss a coin to decide whether to move up or down, and we can do this without reference to our current position. Levin, Peres and WIlmer call this a random mapping representation in general, and it is yet another concept that is less scary than its definition might suggest.

Given a transition matrix P on state space S, such a representation is a function

$\phi: S\times[0,1]\rightarrow S,\text{ s.t. }\mathbb{P}(\phi(i,U)=j)=p_{ij},$

where U is a U(0,1) random variable independent of choice of i. In particular, once we have the random value of u, we can consider $\phi(i,u)$ as i varies, to obtain a random map $S\rightarrow S$. Crucially, this map is not necessarily a bijection.

Note first that there are many possibilities for constructing the representation $\phi$. For some chains, and some representations, in particular random walks on vertex-transitive graphs (such as SRW – only for now we are restricting attention to finite state spaces) it is possible to choose $\phi$ so that it always gives a bijection, but it is also always possible to choose it so that there is some probability it doesn’t give a bijection.

Let $U_1,U_2,\ldots$ be an IID sequence of U[0,1] random variables, and write $\phi_i$ for the random map induced by $U_i$. Then consider the sequence of iterated maps:

$\phi_1, \phi_1\circ \phi_2, \ldots, \phi_1\circ\ldots\circ\phi_n,$

and let T be the (random) smallest time such that the image of $\phi_1\circ\ldots\circ \phi_T$ is a single state. Ie, as we go backwards in time through the maps $\phi_i$, we are gradually losing various states, corresponding to the maps not being bijections. Since the state space is finite, and the probability of not being a bijection is positive, it can be shown that T is almost surely finite. The claim then is that

$Y=\text{Im}(\phi_1\circ\ldots\circ \phi_T)$

is distributed as the equilibrium distribution of the chain. We finish by proving this.

Proof: Since the algorithm terminates after finite time almost surely, given any $\epsilon>0$, we can choose N such that the probability the algorithm stops in at most N steps is greater than $1-\epsilon$.

Now run the Markov chain from time -N, started in the equilibrium distribution, with the transition from time -t to -(t-1) given by the random mapping driven by $U_t$. Thus at time 0, the distribution of the chain is still the equilibrium distribution. But if we condition on the event that $T\le N$, then $X_0=\phi_1\circ \ldots \circ\phi_n(X_{-N})=Y$ regardless of the initial value. So $\mathbb{P}(X_0\ne Y)<\epsilon$, and hence the result follows, since $\epsilon>0$ was arbitrary.

What makes this easier than strong stationary times is that we don’t have to be clever to come up with the stopping time. It is however still important to know how long on average it takes to run the algorithm. At the end of her talk, Irene showed how to adapt this algorithm to deal with Probabilistic Cellular Automata. Roughly speaking, these are a sequence of infinite strings of 0s and 1s. The value of some element is determined randomly as a function of the values in the row underneath, say the element directly underneath and the two either side. In that setting, if you start with a finite subsequence and couple from the past by looking down to lower rows, each time you drop down a row you consider one further element, so in fact the coupling from the past algorithm has to eliminate possibilities fast enough to make up for this, if we want to terminate almost surely in finite time.

Here’s a link to the paper which discusses this in fuller detail.

# Rhombus Tilings and a Nice Bijection

I want to write a short post giving an example of what seems to me to be a rather nice proof without words. Like all the best proofs without words, they require some words to set everything up, and then even the proof itself is enhanced with a few words.

The goal is a bijection between two combinatorial objects. The first is the family of rhombus tilings. Perhaps the easiest way to define these is to give an example.

As you can see, we have tiled a hexagon with rhombi. The tiles are allowed to be in any of the three possible orientations. It matters that the angles of the hexagon are 120, as we want it to be possible to squeeze rhombi into a corner in two different ways (ie either a single tile or two tiles together), and thus the rhombi should also have angles 120 and 60. The hexagon does not have to be equilateral, as in this example, but obviously all the side lengths should be an integer multiple of the side length of the rhombus, which without loss of generality we may take to be 1.

The other combinatorial object is the class of plane partitions. We again give an example:

4 3 3 2 1
4 2 2 2
3 2 2 1
2 1 1

Notice that all the rows and columns are weakly decreasing. One observation worth making is that the diagonals gives a family of so-called interlaced partitions. In any case, we want to establish this bijection. First I show the idea, that is the proof without words bit. Then I’ll clarify exactly how to make the bijection work.

The first step is to colour a rhombus tiling with a different colour for each orientation, as shown.

The next step is the proof without words bit. We now look at the diagram as if we were looking into a stack of cubes arranged in the positive orthant of R^3. The colouring makes this much more visually arresting. Black rhombi correspond to the (visible) top sides of cubes, while blue and red faces point out in the x and y directions respectively. The key observation is that a rhombus tiling means we can see at least one face of every cube. Otherwise we would need some smaller rhombi to account for the way that some cubes will be partially hidden between taller but closer piles. So if make a note of the heights of all the piles, we should get a plane partition.

After reordering our definition of plane partition, so it is weakly increasing left-right and down-up, corresponding to the x and y axes drawn on the above diagram, the given rhombus tiling should give the following plane partition:

1 2 3
0 1 3
0 0 2

The only thing we need to sort out is precisely how the dimensions of the hexagon restrict the choice of plane partition. Note that we could keep the heights exactly the same but get a different tiling by adding an extra row of red oriented rhombi above the top-left part, and an extra row of blue oriented rhombi above the top-right part. The point is that this would give us a bigger hexagon.

The first observation is that the dimensions of the plane partition correspond to two of the side lengths of the hexagon, indeed the bottom two sides. The third length of the hexagon corresponds to the maximum possible height (ie z component) of the region we are looking at. This is therefore an upper bound on the heights of the stacks.

So we can conclude our bijective argument. There is a bijection between rhombus tilings of the hexagon with side lengths X, Y, Z and plane partitions with dimension X x Y, (where entries are allowed to be zero) where the largest element (which is by definition also the top-left element, or top-right in our re-definition) is at most Z.

It seems there are plenty of interesting questions to be asked about both deterministic and random tilings and plane partitions, based on talks in Marseille. For now though, I feel ill-qualified even to read about such things, so will leave it at that for today.

# The Contour Process

As I explained in my previous post, I haven’t been reading around as much as I would generally like to recently. A few days in London staying with my parents and catching up with some friends has therefore been a good chance to get back into the habit of leafing through papers and Pitman’s book among other things.

This morning’s post should be a relatively short one. I’m going to define the contour process, a function of a (random or deterministic) tree, related to the exploration process which I have mentioned a few times previously. I will then use this to prove a simple but cute result equating in distribution the sizes of two different branching processes via a direct bijection.

The Contour Process

To start with, we have to have a root, and from that root we label the tree with a depth-first labelling. An example of this is given below. It is helpful at this stage to conceive this process as an explorer walking on the tree, and turning back on themselves only when there is no option to visit a vertex they haven’t already seen. So in the example tree shown, the depth-first exploration visits vertex V_2 exactly four times. Note that with this description, it is clear that the exploration traverses every edge exactly twice, and so the length of the sequence is 2n-1, where n is the number of vertices in the tree since obviously, we start and end at the root.

Another common interpretation of this depth-first exploration is to take some planar realisation of the tree. (Note trees are always planar – proof via induction after removing a leaf.) Then if you treat the tree as a hedge and starting at the root walk along, following the outer boundary with your right hand, this exactly recreates the process.

The height of a tree at a particular vertex is simply the graph distance between that vertex and the root. So when we move from one vertex to an adjacent vertex, the height must increase or decrease by 1.

The contour process is the sequence of heights seen along the depth-first exploration. It is therefore a sequence:

$0=h_0,h_1,\ldots,h_{2n-1}=0,\quad h_i\geq 0,$

and such that $|h_{i+1}-h_i|=1$.

Note that though the contour process uniquely determines the tree structure, the choice of depth-first labelling is a priori non-canonical. For example, in the display above, V_3 might have been explored before V_2. Normally this is resolved by taking the suitable vertex with the smallest label in the original tree to be next. It makes little difference to any analysis to choose the ordering of descendents of some vertex in a depth-first labelling randomly. Note that this explains why it is rather hard to recover Cayley’s theorem about the number of rooted trees on n vertices from this characterisation. Although the number of suitable contour functions is possible to calculate, we would require a complicated multiplicative correction for labelling if we wanted to recover the number of trees.

The only real observation about the uses of the contour process at this stage is that it is not in general a random walk with IID increments for a Galton-Watson branching process. This equivalence is what made the exploration process so useful. In particular, it made it straightforward, at least heuristically, to see why large trees might have a limit interpretation through Brownian excursions. If for example, the offspring distribution is bounded above, say by M, then the contour process certainly cannot be a random walk, as if we have visited a particular vertex exactly M+1 times, then it cannot have another descendent, and so we must return closer to the root at the next step.

I want to mention that in fact Aldous showed his results on scaling limits towards the Continuum Random Tree through the contour process rather than the exploration process. However, I don’t want to say any more about that right now.

A Neat Equivalence

What I do want to talk about is the following distribution on the positive integers. This comes up in Balazs Rath and Balint Toth’s work on forest-fires on the complete graph that I have been reading about recently. The role of this distribution is a conjectured equilibrium distribution for component size in a version of the Erdos-Renyi process where components are deleted (or ‘struck by lightning’) at a rate tuned so that giant components ‘just’ never emerge.

This distribution has the possibly useful property that it is the distribution of the total population size in a Galton-Watson process with Geom(1/2) offspring distribution. It is also the distribution of the total number of leaves in a critical binary branching process, where every vertex has either two descendents or zero descendents, each with probability 1/2. Note that both of these tree processes are critical, as the expected number of offspring is 1 in each case. This is a good start, as it suggests that the relevant equilibrium distribution should also have the power-law tail that is found in these critical branching processes. This would confirm that the forest-fire model exhibits self-organised criticality.

Anyway, as a sanity check, I tried to find a reason why, ignoring the forest-fires for now, these two distributions should be the same. One can argue using generating functions, but there is also the following nice bijective argument.

We focus first on the critical Geometric branching process. We examine its contour function. As explained above, the contour process is not in general a random walk with IID increments. However, for this particular case, it is. The geometric distribution should be viewed as the family of discrete memoryless distributions.

This is useful for the contour process. Note that if we are at vertex V for the (m+1)th time, that is we have already explored m of the edges out of V, then the probability that there is at least one further edge is 1/2, independently of the history of the exploration, as the offspring distribution is Geometric(1/2), which we can easily think of as adding edges one at a time based on independent fair coin tosses until we see a tail for example. The contour process for this random tree is therefore a simple symmetric random walk on Z. Note that this will hit -1 at some point, and the associated contour process is the RW up to the final time it hits 0 before hitting -1. We can check that this obeys the clear rule that with probability 1/2 the tree is a single vertex.

Now we consider the other model, the Galton-Watson process with critical binary branching mechanism. We should consider the exploration process. Recall that the increments in this process are given by the offspring distribution minus one. So this random sequence also behaves as a simple symmetric random walk on Z, again stopped when we hit -1.

To complete the bijective argument, we have to relate leaves in the binary process to vertices in the geometric one. A vertex is a leaf if it has no offspring, so the number of leaves is the number of times before the hitting time of -1 that the exploration process decreases by 1. (*)

Similarly for the contour process. Note that there is bijection between the set of vertices that aren’t the root and the set of edges. The contour process explores every edge exactly twice, once giving an increase of 1 and once giving a decrease of 1. So there is a bijection between the times that the contour process decreases by 1 and the non-root vertices. But the contour process was defined only up to the time we return to the root. This is fine if we know in advance how large the tree is, but we don’t know which return to the root is the final return to the root. So if we extend the random walk to the first time it hits -1, the portion up until the last increment is the contour process, and the final increment must be a decrease by 1, hence there is a bijection between the number of vertices in the Geom(1/2) G-W tree and the number of times that the contour process decreases by 1 before the hitting time of -1. Comparing with (*) gives the result.

# Generating Functions for the IMO

The background to this post is that these days I find myself using generating functions all the time, especially for describing the stationary states of various coalescence-like processes. I remember meeting them vaguely while preparing for the IMO as a student. However, a full working understanding must have eluded me at the time, as for Q5 on IMO 2008 in Madrid I had written down in big boxes the two statements involving generating functions that immediately implied the answer, but failed to finish it off. The aim of this post is to help this year’s team avoid that particular pitfall.

What are they?

I’m going to define some things in a way which will be most relevant to the type of problems you are meeting now. Start with a sequence $(a_0,a_1,a_2,\ldots)$. Typically these will be the sizes of various combinatorial sets. Eg a_n = number of partitions of [n] with some property. Define the generating function of the sequence to be:

$f(x)=\sum_{k\geq 0}a_k x^k=a_0+a_1x+a_2x^2+\ldots.$

If the sequence is finite, then this generating function is a polynomial. In general it is a power series. As you may know, some power series can be rather complicated, in terms of where they are defined. Eg

$1+x+x^2+x^3+\ldots=\frac{1}{1-x},$

only when |x|<1. For other values of x, the LHS diverges. Defining f over C is fine too. This sort of thing is generally NOT important for applications of generating functions to combinatorics. To borrow a phrase from Wilf, a generating function is a convenient clothesline’ on which to hang a sequence of numbers.

We need a notation to get back from the generating function to the coefficients. Write $[x^k]g(x)$ to denote the coefficient of $x^k$ in the power series g(x). So, if $g(x)=3x^3-5x^2+7$, then $[x^2]g(x)=-5$. It hopefully should never be relevant unless you read some other notes on the topic, but the notation $[\alpha x^2]g(x):=\frac{[x^2]g(x)}{\alpha}$, which does make sense after a while.

How might they be useful?

Example: binomial coefficients $a_k=\binom{n}{k}$ appear, as the name suggests, as coefficients of

$f_n(x)=(1+x)^n=\sum_{k=0}^n \binom{n}{k}x^k.$

Immediate consequence: it’s trivial to work out $\sum_{k=0}^n \binom{n}{k}$ and $\sum_{k=0}^n(-1)^k \binom{n}{k}$ by substituting $x=\pm 1$ into f_n.

Less obvious consequence. By considering choosing n from a red balls and b blue balls, one can verify

$\binom{a+b}{n}=\sum_{k=0}^n \binom{a}{k}\binom{b}{n-k}.$

We can rewrite the RHS as

$\sum_{k+l=n}\binom{a}{k}\binom{b}{l}.$

Think how we calculate the coefficient of $x^n$ in the product $f(x)g(x)$, and it is now clear that $\binom{a+b}{n}=[x^n](1+x)^{a+b}$, while

$\sum_{k+l=n}\binom{a}{k}\binom{b}{l}=[x^n](1+x)^a(1+x)^b,$

so the result again follows. This provides a good slogan for generating functions: they often replicate arguments via bijections, even if you can’t find the bijection.

Useful for? – Multinomial sums

The reason why the previous argument for binomial coefficients worked nicely is because we were interested in the coefficients, but had a neat expression for the generating function as a polynomial. In particular, we had an expression

$\sum_{k+l=n}a_k b_l.$

This is always a clue that generating functions might be useful. This is sometimes called a convolution.

Exercise: prove that in general, if f(x) is the generating function of (a_k) and g(x) the generating function of (b_l), then f(x)g(x) is the generating function of $\sum_{k+l=n}a_kb_l$.

Even more usefully, this works in the multinomial case:

$\sum_{k_1+\ldots+k_m=n}a^{(1)}_{k_1}\ldots a^{(m)}_{k_m}.$

In many applications, these $a^{(i)}$s will all be the same. We don’t even have to specify how many k_i’s there are to be considered. After all, if we want the sum to be n, then only finitely many can be non-zero. So:

$\sum_{m}\sum_{k_1+\ldots+k_m=n}a_{k_1}\ldots a_{k_m}=[x^n]f(x)^n=[x^n]f(x)^\infty,$

provided f(0)=1.

Useful when? – You recognise the generating function!

In some cases, you can identify the generating function as a standard’ function, eg the geometric series. In that case, manipulating the generating functions is likely to be promising. Here is a list of some useful power series you might spot.

$1+x+x^2+\ldots=\frac{1}{1-x},\quad |x|<1$

$1+2x+3x^2+\ldots=\frac{1}{(1-x)^2},\quad |x|<1$

$e^x=1+x+\frac{x^2}{2!}+\frac{x^3}{3!}+\ldots$

$\cos x=1-\frac{x^2}{2!}+\frac{x^4}{4!}\pm\ldots$

Exercise: if you know what differentiation means, show that if f(x) is the gen fn of (a_k), then xf'(x) is the gen fn of ka_k.

Technicalities: some of these identities are defined only for certain values of x. This may be a problem if they are defined at, say, only a single point, but in general this shouldn’t be the case. In addition, you don’t need to worry about differentiability. You can definition differentiation of power series by $x^n\mapsto nx^{n-1}$, and sort out convergence later if necessary.

Useful for? – Recurrent definitions

The Fibonacci numbers are defined by:

$F_0=F_1=1,\quad F_{n+1}=F_n+F_{n-1},\quad n\geq 1.$

Let F(x) be the generating function of the sequence F_n. So, for n=>1,

$[x^n]F(x)=[x^{n-1}]F(x)+[x^{n-2}]F(x)=[x^n](xF(x)+x^2F(x)),$

and F(0)=1, so we can conclude that:

$F(x)=1+(x+x^2)F(x)\quad\Rightarrow\quad F(x)=\frac{1}{1-x-x^2}.$

Exercise: Find a closed form for the generating function of the Catalan numbers, defined recursively by:

$C_n=C_0C_{n-1}+C_1C_{n-2}+\ldots+C_{n-1}C_0.$

Can you now find the coefficients explicitly for this generating function?

Useful for? – Partitions

Partitions can be an absolute nightmare to work with because of the lack of explicit formulae. Often any attempt at a calculation turns into a massive IEP bash. This prompts a search for bijective or bare-hands arguments, but generating functions can be useful too.

For now (*), let’s assume a partition of [n] means a sequence of positive integers $a_1\geq a_2\geq\ldots\geq a_k$ such that $a_1+\ldots+a_k=n$. Let p(n) be the number of partitions of [n].

(* there are other definitions, in terms of a partition of the set [n] into k disjoint but unlabelled sets. Be careful about definitions, but the methods often extend to whatever framework is required. *)

Exercise: Show that the generating function of p(n) is:

$\left(\frac{1}{1-x}\right)\left(\frac{1}{1-x^2}\right)\left(\frac{1}{1-x^3}\right)\ldots$

Note that if we are interested only in partitions of [n], then we don’t need to consider any terms with exponent greater than n, so if we wanted we could take a finite product instead.

Example: the mint group will remember this problem from the first session in Cambridge:

Show that the number of partitions of [n] with distinct parts is equal to the number of partitions of [n] with odd parts.

Rather than the fiddly bijection argument found in the session, we can now treat this as a simple calculation. The generating function for distinct parts is given by:

$(1+x)(1+x^2)(1+x^3)\ldots,$

while the generating function for odd parts is given by:

$\left(\frac{1}{1-x}\right)\left(\frac{1}{1-x^3}\right)\left(\frac{1}{1-x^5}\right)\ldots.$

Writing the former as

$\left(\frac{1-x^2}{1-x}\right)\left(\frac{1-x^4}{1-x^2}\right)\left(\frac{1-x^6}{1-x^3}\right)\ldots$

shows that these are equal and the result follows.

Other things – Multivariate Generating Functions

If you want to track a sequence in two variables, say $a_{m,n}$, then you can encode this with the bivariate generating function

$f(x,y):=\sum_{m,n\geq 0}a_{m,n}x^my^n.$

The coefficients are then extracted by $[x^ay^b]$ and so on. There’s some interesting stuff on counting lattice paths with this method.

Sums over arithmetic progressions via roots of unity

Note that we can extract both $\sum a_n$ and $\sum (-1)^na_n$ by judicious choice of x in f(x). By taking half the sum or half the difference, we can obtain

$a_0+a_2+a_4+\ldots=\frac12(f(1)+f(-1)),\quad a_1+a_3+a_5+\ldots=\frac12(f(1)-f(-1)).$

Can we do this in general? Yes actually. If you want $a_0+a_k+a_{2k}+\ldots$, this is given by:

$a_0+a_k+a_{2k}+\ldots+\frac{1}{k}\left(f(1)+f(w)+\ldots+f(w^{k-1})\right),$

where $w=e^{2\pi i/k}$ is a $k$th root of unity. Exercise: Prove this.

For greater clarity, first try the case k=4, and consider the complex part of the power series evaluated at +i and -1.

# Bell Polynomials

Trees with a single cycle

When counting combinatorial objects, it is often the case that we have two types of structure present at different levels. The aim of this post is to introduce the Bell polynomials, which provides the most natural notation for describing this sort of situation, and to mention some of the results that become easier to derive in this framework. This post is based on material and exercises from Chapter 1 of Jim Pitman’s book Combinatorial Stochastic Processes, which is great, and also available online here.

The structures that Bell polynomials enumerate are called composite structures in this account. Rather than give a definition right away, I shall give an example. An object I have been thinking about in the past few weeks are graphs on n vertices containing precisely one cycle. Some of the background for this has been explained in recent posts.

In a recent post on Prufer codes, I gave the classical argument showing that the number of trees on n vertices is $n^{n-2}$. We might consider a unicyclic graph to be a tree with an extra edge. But if we consider the number of ways to add a further vertex to a tree, we get

$n^{n-2}\left[\binom{n}{2}-(n-1)\right]=n^{n-2}\binom{n-1}{2}.$

Obviously, we have overcounted. If the single cycle in a graph has length k, then the graph has been counted exactly k times in this enumeration. But it is not obvious how many graphs have a single cycle of length k.

Instead, we stop worrying about exactly how many of these there are, as there might not be a simple expression anyway. As soon as we start using them in any actual argument, it will be useful to know various properties about the graphs, but probably not exactly how many there are.

Let’s focus on this single cycle of length k say. If we remove the edges of the cycle, we are left with a collection of trees. Why? Well if there was a cycle in the remaining graph, then the original graph would have had at least two cycles. So we have a collection of trees, unsurprisingly called a forest. Remembering that some of the trees may in fact be a single vertex (on the cycle), it is clear that there is a bijection between these trees and the vertices of the cycle in the obvious way. We can think of the graph as a k-cycle, dressed with trees.

Alternatively, once we have specified its size, we can forget about the k-cycle altogether. The graph is precisely defined by a forest of k trees on n vertices, with a specified root in each tree indicating which vertex lies on the cycle, and a permutation specifying the cyclic ordering of the trees. We can write this as

$N_{n,k}=(k-1)!\sum_{(A_1,\ldots,A_k)\in\mathcal{P}^k(n)}a_1^{a_1-1}\cdot\ldots\cdot a_k^{a_k-1},\quad \text{for }a_i=|A_i|,$

where $\mathcal{P}^k(n)$ is the number of partitions of [n] with k blocks. Remember that the blocks in a partition are necessarily unordered. This makes sense in this setting as the cyclic permutation chosen from the (k-1)! possibilities specifies the order on the cycle.

Bell Polynomials

The key point about this description is that there are two types of combinatorial structure present. We have the rooted trees, and also a cyclic ordering of the rooted trees. Bell polynomials generalise this idea. It is helpful to be less specific and think of partitions of [n] into blocks. There are $w_j$ arrangements of any block of size j, and there are $v_k$ ways to arrange the blocks, if there are k of them. Note that we assume $v_k$ is independent of the arrangements within the collection of blocks. So in the previous example, $w_j=j^{j-2}$, and $v_k=(k-1)!$. Pitman denotes these sequences by $v_\bullet,w_\bullet$. Then the (n,k)th partial Bell polynomial, $B_{n,k}(w_\bullet)$ gives the number of divisions into k blocks:

$B_{n,k}(w_\bullet):=\sum_{(A_1,\ldots,A_k)\in\mathcal{P}^k(n)}\prod_{i=1}^k w_{a_i}.$

The total number of arrangements is given by the Bell polynomial

$B_n(v_\bullet,w_\bullet):=\sum_{k=1}^n v_k B_{n,k}(w_\bullet).$

Here are some other examples of Bell polynomials. The Stirling numbers of the first kind $c_{n,k}$ give the number of permutations of [n] with k cycles. Since we don’t want to impose any combinatorial structure on the set of cycles, we don’t need to consider $v_\bullet$, and the number of ways to make a j-cycle from a j-block is $w_j=(j-1)!$, so $c_{n,k}:=B_{n,k}((\bullet-1)!)$. Similarly, the Stirling numbers of the second kind $S_{n,k}$ give the number of permutations of [n] into k blocks. Almost by definition, $S_{n,k}:=B_{n,k}(1^\bullet)$, where $1^\bullet$ is defined to be the sequence containing all 1s.

Applications

So far, this is just a definition that gives an abbreviated description for the sizes of several interesting sets of discrete objects. Having clean notation is always important, but there are further advantages of using Bell polynomials. I don’t want to reproduce the entirety of the chapter I’ve read, so my aim for this final section is to give a very vague outline of why this is a useful formulation.

Bell polynomials can be treated rather nicely via generating functions. The key to this is to take a sum not over partitions, but rather over ordered partitions, which are exactly the same, except now we also care about the order of the blocks. This has the advantage that there is a correspondence between ordered partitions with k blocks and compositions with k terms. If the composition is $n_1+\ldots+n_k=n$, it is clear why there are $\binom{n}{n_1,\ldots,n_k}$ ordered partitions encoding this structure. This multinomial coefficient can be written as a product of factorials of $n_i$s over i, and so we can write:

$B_{n,k}(w_\bullet)=\frac{n!}{k!}\sum_{(n_1,\ldots,n_k)}\prod_{i=1}^k \frac{w_{n_i}}{n_i!}.$

This motivates considering the exponential generating function given by

$w(\xi)=\sum_{j=1}^\infty w_j\frac{\xi_j}{j!},$

as this leads to the neat expressions:

$B_{n,k}(w_\bullet)=n![\xi^n]\frac{w(\xi)^k}{k!},\quad B_n(v_\bullet,w_\bullet)=n![\xi^n]v(w(\xi)).$

The Bell polynomial $B_n(v_\bullet,w_\bullet)$ counts the number of partitions of [n] subject to some extra structure. If we choose uniformly from this set, we get a distribution on this combinatorial object, for which the Bell polynomial provides the normalising constant. If we then ignore the extra structure, the sequences $v_\bullet,w_\bullet$ induce a probability distribution on the set of partitions of n. This distribution is known as a Gibbs partition. It is interesting to consider when and whether it is possible to define a splitting mechanism such that the Gibbs partitions can be coupled to form a fragmentation process. This is the opposite of a coalescence process. Here, we have a sequence of masses, and at each integer time we have rules to determine which mass to pick, and a rule for how to break it into two pieces. It is certainly not the case that for an arbitrary splitting rule and sequences $v_\bullet,w_\bullet$, the one-step fragmentation of the Gibbs partition on n gives the corresponding Gibbs partition on (n-1).

CLT for random permutations

For the final demonstration of the use of Bell polynomials, I am going to sketch the outline of a solution to exercise 1.5.4. which shows that the number of cycles in a uniformly chosen permutation has a CLT. This is not at all obvious, since the number of permutations of [n] with k cycles is given by $B_{n,k}((\bullet-1)!)$ and there is certainly no simple form for this, so the possibility of doing a technical limiting argument seems slim.

For ease of notation, we copy Pitman and write $c_{n,k}:=B_{n,k}((\bullet-1)!)$ as before. First we show exercise 1.2.3. which asserts that

$x(x+1)\ldots(x+(n-1))=\sum_{k=1}^n c_{n,k}x^k.$

We argue combinatorially. The RHS is the number of ways to choose $\sigma\in S_n$ and a colouring of [n] with k colours such that the orbits of $\sigma$ are monochromatic. We prove that the LHS also has this property by induction on the number of vertices. We claim there is a 1-to-(x+n) map from configurations on n vertices to configurations on (n+1) vertices. Given $\sigma\in S_n$ and colouring, for any $a\in[n]$, we construct $\sigma_a\in S_{n+1}$ by $\sigma_a(a)=n+1$, $\sigma_a(n)=\sigma(a)$ and for all other x, $\sigma_a(x)=\sigma(x)$. We give n+1 the same colour as a. This gives us n possibilities. Alternatively, we can map (n+1) to itself and give it any colour we want. This gives us x possibilities. A slightly more careful argument shows that this is indeed a 1-to-(x+n) map, which is exactly what we require.

So the polynomial

$A_n(z)=\sum_{k=0}^nc_{n,k}z^k,$

has n real zeros, which allows us to write

$\frac{c_{n,k}}{A_n(1)}=\mathbb{P}(X_1+\ldots+X_n=k),$

where the Xs are independent but not identically distributed Bernoulli trials. The number of cycles is then given by this sum, and so becomes a simple matter to verify the CLT by checking a that the variances grows appropriately. As both mean and variance are asymptotically log n, we can conclude that:

$\frac{K_n - \log n}{\sqrt{\log n}}\stackrel{d}{\rightarrow} N(0,1).$

In a future post, I want to give a quick outline of section 1.3. which details how the Bell polynomials can be surprisingly useful to find the moments of infinitely divisible distributions.

# Bijections, Prufer Codes and Cayley’s Formula

I’m currently at the training camp in Cambridge for this year’s UK IMO squad. This afternoon I gave a talk to some of the less experienced students about combinatorics. My aim was to cover as many useful tricks for calculating the sizes of combinatorial sets as I could in an hour and a half. We started by discussing binomial coefficients, which pleasingly turned out to be revision for the majority. But my next goal was to demonstrate that we are much more interested in the fact that we can calculate these if we want than in the actual expression for their values.

Put another way, my argument was that the interpretation of $\binom{n}{m}$ as the number of ways to choose m objects from a collection of n, or the number of up-and-right paths from (0,0) to (m,n) is more useful than the fact that $\binom{n}{m}=\frac{n!}{m!(n-m)!}$. The opening gambit was to prove the fundamental result underlying the famous construction of Pascal’s triangle that

$\binom{n+1}{m+1}=\binom{n}{m}+\binom{n}{m+1}.$

This is not a hard result to prove by manipulating factorials, but it is a very easy result to prove in the path-counting setting, for example.

So it turned out that the goal of my session, as further supported by some unsubtly motivated problems from the collection, was to convince the students to use bijections as much as possible. That is, if you have to count something awkward, show that counting the awkward thing is equivalent to counting something more manageable, then count that instead. For many simpler questions, this equivalence is often drawn implicitly using words (“each of the n objects can be in any subset of the collection of bags so we multiply…” etc), but it is always worth having in mind the formal bijective approach. Apart from anything else, asking the question “is this bijection so obvious I don’t need to prove it” is often a good starting-point for assessing whether the argument is in fact correct!

Anyway, I really wanted to show my favouriite bijection argument, but there wasn’t time, and I didn’t want to spoil other lecturers’ thunder by defining a graph and a tree and so forth. The exploration process encoding of trees is a strong contender, but today I want to define quickly the Prufer coding for trees, and use it to prove a famous result I’ve been using a lot recently, Cayley’s formula for the number of spanning trees on the complete graph with n vertices, $n^{n-2}$.

We are going to count rooted trees instead. Since we can choose any vertex to be the root, there are $n^{n-1}$ rooted trees on n vertices. The description of the Prufer code is relatively simple. Take a rooted tree with vertices labelled by [n]. A leaf is a vertex with degree 1, other than the root. Find the leaf with the largest label. Write down the label of the single vertex to which this leaf is connected, then delete the leaf. Now repeat the procedure, writing down the label of the vertex connected to the leaf now with the largest label, until there are only two vertices remaining, when you delete the non-root vertex, and write down the label of the root. We get a string of (n-1) labels. We want to show that this mapping is a bijection from the set of rooted trees with vertices labelled by [n] to $[n]^{n-1}$.

Let’s record informally how we would recover a tree from the Prufer code. First, observe that the label of any vertex which is not a leaf must appear in the code. Why? Well, the root label appears right at the end, if not earlier, and every vertex must be deleted. But a vertex cannot be deleted until it has degree one, so the neighbours further from the root (or ancestors) of the vertex must be removed first, and so by construction the label appears. So know what the root is, and what the leaves are straight away.

In fact we can say slightly more than this. The number of times the root label appears is the degree of the root, while the number of times any other label appears is the degree of the corresponding vertex minus one. Call this sequence the Prufer degrees.

So we construct the tree backwards from the leaves towards the root. We add edges one at a time, with the k-th edge joining the vertex with the k-th label to some other vertex. For k=1, this other vertex is the leaf with maximum label. In general, let $G_k$ be the graph formed after the addition of k-1 edges, so $G_1$ is empty, and $G_n$ is the full tree. Define $T_k$ to be the set of vertices such that their degree in $G_k$ is exactly one less than their Prufer degree. Note that $T_1$ is therefore the set of leaves suggested by the Prufer code. So we form $G_{k+1}$ by adding an edge between the vertex with label appearing at position k+1 in the Prufer sequence and the vertex of $T_k$ with maximum label.

Proving that this is indeed the inverse is a bit fiddly, more because of notation than any actual mathematics. You probably want to show injectivity by an extremal argument, taking the closest vertex to the root that is different in two trees with the same Prufer code. I hope it isn’t a complete cop out to swerve around presenting this in full technical detail, as I feel I’ve achieved by main goal of explaining why bijection arguments can reduce a counting problem that was genuinely challenging to an exercise in choosing sensible notation for proving a fairly natural bijection.