# Chains and antichains

I’ve recently been at the UK-Hungary winter olympiad camp in Tata, for what is now my sixth time. As well as doing some of my own work, have enjoyed the rare diversion of some deterministic combinatorics. It seems to be a local variant of the pigeonhole principle that given six days at a mathematical event in Hungary, at least one element from {Ramsay theory, Erdos-Szekeres, antichains in the hypercube} will be discussed, with probability one. On this occasion, all were discussed, so I thought I’d write something about at least one of them.

Posets and directed acyclic graphs

This came up on the problem set constructed by the Hungarian leaders. The original formulation asked students to show that among any 17 positive integers, there are either five such that no one divides any other, or five such that among any pair, one divides the other.

It is fairly clear why number theory plays little role. We assign the given integers to the vertices of a graph, and whenever a divides b, we add a directed edge from the vertex corresponding to a to the vertex corresponding to b. Having translated the given situation into a purely combinatorial statement, fortunately we can translate the goal into the same language. If we can find a chain of four directed edges (hence five vertices – beware confusing use of the word ‘length’ here) then we have found the second possible option. Similarly, if we can find an antichain, a set of five vertices with no directed edges between them, then we have found the first possible option.

It’s worth noting that the directed graph we are working with with is transitive. That is, whenever there is an edge a->b and b->c, there will also be an edge a->c. This follows immediately from the divisibility condition. There are also no directed cycles in the graph, since otherwise there would be a cycle of integers where each divided its successor. But of course, when a divides b and these are distinct positive integers, this means that b is strictly larger than a, and so this relation cannot cycle.

In fact, among a set of positive integers, divisibility defines a partial order, which we might choose to define as any ordering whether the associated directed graph is transitive and acyclic, although obviously we could use language more naturally associated with orderings. Either way, from now on we consider posets and the associated DAGs (directed acyclic graphs) interchangeably.

Dilworth’s theorem

In the original problem, we are looking for either a large chain, or a large antichain. We are trying to prove that it’s not possible to have largest chain size at most four, and largest antichain size at most four when there are 17 vertices, so we suspect there may some underlying structure: in some sense perhaps the vertex set is the ‘product’ of a chain and an antichain, or at least a method of producing antichains from a single vertex.

Anyway, one statement of Dilworth’s theorem is as follows:

Statement 1: in a poset with nm+1 elements, there is either a chain of size n+1, or an antichain of size m+1.

Taking n=m=4 immediately finishes the original problem about families of divisors. While this is the most useful statement here, it’s probably not the original, which says the following:

Statement 2: in a poset, there exists $\mathcal{C}$ a decomposition into chains, and an antichain $A$ such that $|\mathcal{C}|=|A|$.

Remark 1: Note that for any decomposition into chains and any antichain, we have $|\mathcal{C}|\ge |A|$, since you can’t have more than one representative from any chain in the antichain. So Statement 2 is saying that equality does actually hold.

Remark 2: Statement 1 follows immediately from Statement 2. If all antichains had size at most m, then there’s a decomposition into at most m chains. But each chain has size n, so the total size of the graph is at most mn. Contradiction.

Unsuccessful proof strategies for Dilworth

Since various smart young people who didn’t know the statement or proof of Dilworth’s theorem attempted to find it (in the form of Statement 1, and in a special case) in finite time conditions, it’s easy to talk about what doesn’t work, and try to gain intellectual value by qualifying why.

• Forgetting directions: in general one might well attack a problem by asking whether we have more information than we need. But ignoring the directions of the edges is throwing away too much information. After doing this, antichains are fine, but maybe you need to exhibit some undirected ‘chains’. Unless these undirected chains are much longer than you are aiming for, you will struggle to reconstruct directed chains out of them.
• Where can the final vertex go?: in a classic trope, one might exhibit a directed graph on nm vertices with neither a chain of size n+1 nor an antichain of size m+1. We attempt to argue that this construction is essentially unique, and that it goes wrong when we add an extra vertex. As a general point, it seems unlikely to be easier to prove that exactly one class of configurations has a given property in the nm case, than to prove no configurations has the same property in the nm+1 case. A standalone proof of uniqueness is likely to be hard, or a disguised rehash of an actual proof of the original statement.
• Removing a chain: If you remove a chain of maximal length, then, for contradiction, what you have left is m(n-1)+1 vertices. If you have a long chain left, then you’re done, although maximality has gone wrong somewhere. So you have an antichain size n in what remains. But it’s totally unclear why it should be possible to extend the antichain with one of the vertices you’ve just removed.

An actual proof of Dilworth (Statement 1), and two consequences

This isn’t really a proof, instead a way of classifying the vertices in the directed graph so that this version of Dilworth. As we said earlier, we imagine there may be some product structure. In particular, we expect to be able to find a maximal chain, and a nice antichain associated to each element of the maximal chain.

We start by letting $V_0$ consist of all the vertices which are sources, that is, have zero indegree. These are minima in the partial ordering setting. Now let $V_1$ consist of all vertices whose in-neighbourhood is entirely contained in $V_0$, that is they are descendents only of $V_0$. Then let $V_2$ consist of all remaining vertices whose in-neighourhood is entirely contained in $V_0\cup V_1$ (but not entirely in $V_0$, otherwise it would have already been treated), and so on. We end up with what one might call an onion decomposition of the vertices based on how far they are from the sources. We end up with $V_0,V_1,\ldots,V_k$, and then we can find a chain of size k+1 by starting with any vertex in $V_k$ and constructing backwards towards the source. However, this is also the largest possible size of a chain, because every time we move up a level in the chain, we must move from $V_i$ to $V_j$ where j>i.

It’s easy to check that each $V_i$ is an antichain, and thus we can read off Statement 1. A little more care, and probably an inductive argument is required to settle Statement 2.

We have however proved what is often called the dual of Dilworth’s theorem, namely that in a poset there exists a chain C, and a decomposition into a collection $\mathcal{A}$ of antichains, for which $|C|=|\mathcal{A}|$.

Finally, as promised returning to Erdos-Szekeres, if not to positive integers. We apply Dilworth Statement 1 to a sequence of $m^2+1$ real numbers $a_0,a_1,\ldots,a_{m^2}$, with the ordering $a_i\rightarrow a_j$ if $i\le j$ and $a_i\le a_j$. Chains correspond to increasing subsequences, and antichains to decreasing subsequences, so we have shown that there is either a monotone subsequence of length m+1.