Monthly Archives: April 2018

Challenges facing community cohesion (and Math.StackExchange in particular)

In about a month, Math.StackExchange will turn 8. Way back when I was an undergrad, I joined the site. This was 7 years ago, during the site’s first year.

Now with some perspective as a frequent contributor/user/moderator of various online newsgroups and fora, I want to take a moment to examine the current state of Math.SE.

To a certain extent, this is inspired by Joel Spolsky’s series of posts on StackOverflow (which he is currently writing and sending out). But this is also inspired by recent discussion on Meta.Math.SE. As I began to collect my thoughts to make a coherent reply, I realized that I have a lot of thoughts, and a lot to say.

So this is chapter one of a miniseries of writings on internet fora, and Math.SE and StackOverflow in particular.


Posted in Programming, SE | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Paper Announcement: A Shifted Sum for the Congruent Number Problem

Tom Hulse, Chan Ieong Kuan, Alex Walker, and I have just uploaded a new paper to the arXiv titled A Shifted Sum for the Congruent Number Problem. In this charming, short paper, we investigate a particular sum of terms which are products of square-indicator functions and show that its asymptotics are deeply connected to congruent numbers. This note serves to describe and provide additional context for these results. (This note is also available as a pdf).

Congruent Numbers

We consider some triangles. There are many right triangles, such as the triangle with sides $(3, 4, 5)$ or the triangle with sides $(1, 1, \sqrt{2})$. We call a right triangle rational when all its side lengths are rational numbers. For illustration, $(3, 4, 5)$ is rational, while $(1, 1, \sqrt{2})$ is not. $\DeclareMathOperator{\sqfree}{sqfree}$

There is mythology surrounding rational right triangles. According to legend, the ancient Greeks, led both philosophcally and mathematically by Pythagoras (who was the first person to call himself a philosopher and essentially the first to begin to distill and codify mathematics), believed all numbers and quantities were ratios of integers (rational). When a disciple of Pythagoras named Hippasus found that the side lengths of the right triangle $(1, 1, \sqrt{2})$ were not rational multiples of each other, the other followers of Pythagoras killed him by casting him overboard while at sea for having produced an element which contradicted the gods. (It with some irony that we now attribute this as a simple consequence of the Pythagorean Theorem).

This mythology is uncertain, but what is certain is that even the ancient Greeks were interested in studying rational right triangles, and they began to investigate what we now call the Congruent Number Problem. By the year 972 the CNP appears in Arabic manuscripts in (essentially) its modern formulation. The Congruent Number Problem (CNP) may be the oldest unresolved math problem.

We call a positive rational number $t$ congruent if there is a rational right triangle with area $t$. The triangle $(3,4,5)$ shows that $6 = 3 \cdot 4 / 2$ is congruent. The CNP is to describe all congruent numbers. Alternately, the CNP asks whether there is an algorithm to show definitively whether or not $t$ is a congruent number for any $t$.

We can reduce the problem to a statement about integers. If the rational number $t = p/q$ is the area of a triangle with legs $a$ and $b$, then the triangle $aq$ and $bq$ has area $tq^2 = pq$. It follows that to every rational number there is an associated squarefree integer for which either both are congruent or neither are congruent. Further, if $t$ is congruent, then $ty^2$ and $t/y^2$ are congruent for any integer $y$.

We may also restrict to integer-sided triangles if we allow ourselves to look for those triangles with squarefree area $t$. That is, if $t$ is the area of a triangle with rational sides $a/A$ and $b/B$, then $tA^2 B^2$ is the area of the triangle with integer sides $aB$ and $bA$.

It is in this form that we consider the CNP today.

Congruent Number Problem

Given a squarefree integer $t$, does there exist a triangle with integer side lengths such that the squarefree part of the area of the triangle is $t$?

We will write this description a lot, so for a triangle $T$ we introduce the notation
\sqfree(T) = \text{The squarefree part of the area of } T.
For example, the area of the triangle $T = (6, 8, 10)$ is $24 = 6 \cdot 2^2$, and so $\sqfree(T) = 6$. We should expect this, as $T$ is exactly a doubled-in-size $(3,4,5)$ triangle, which also corresponds to the congruent number $6$. Note that this allows us to only consider primitive right triangles.

Main Result

Let $\tau(n)$ denote the square-indicator function. That is, $\tau(n)$ is $1$ if $n$ is a square, and is $0$ otherwise. Then the main result of the paper is that the sum
S_t(X) := \sum_{m = 1}^X \sum_{n = 1}^X \tau(m-n)\tau(m)\tau(nt)\tau(m+n)
is related to congruent numbers through the asymptotic
S_t(X) = C_t \sqrt X + O_t\Big( \log^{r/2} X\Big),
C_t = \sum_{h_i \in \mathcal{H}(t)} \frac{1}{h_i}.
Each $h_i$ is a hypotenuse of a primitive integer right triangle $T$ with $\sqfree(T) = t$. Each hypotnesue will occur in a pair of similar triangles $(a,b, h_i)$ and $(b, a, h_i)$; $\mathcal{H}(t)$ is the family of these triangles, choosing only one triangle from each similar pair. The exponent $r$ in the error term is the rank of the elliptic curve
E_t(\mathbb{Q}): y^2 = x^3 – t^2 x.

What this says is that $S_t(X)$ will have a main term if and only if $t$ is a congruent number, so that computing $S_t(X)$ for sufficiently large $X$ will show whether $t$ is congruent. (In fact, it’s easy to show that $S_t(X) \neq 0$ if and only if $t$ is congruent, so the added value here is the nature of the asymptotic).

We should be careful to note that this does not solve the CNP, since the error term depends in an inexplicit way on the desired number $t$. What this really means is that we do not have a good way of recognizing when the first nonzero term should occur in the double sum. We can only guarantee that for any $t$, understanding $S_t(X)$ for sufficiently large $X$ will allow one to understand whether $t$ is congruent or not.

Intuition and Methodology

There are four primary components to this result:

  1. There is a bijection between primitive integer right triangles $T$ with
    $\sqfree(T) = t$ and arithmetic progressions of squares $m^2 – tn^2, m^2,
    m^2 + tn^2$ (where each term is itself a square).
  2. There is a bijection between primitive integer right triangles $T$ with
    $\sqfree(T) = t$ and points on the elliptic curve $E_t(\mathbb{Q}): y^2 = x^3
    – t x$ with $y \neq 0 $.
  3. If the triangle $T$ corresponds to a point $P$ on the curve $E_t$, then
    the size of the hypotenuse of $T$ can be bounded below by $H(P)$, the
    (naive) height of the point on the elliptic curve.
  4. Néron (and perhaps Mordell, but I’m not quite fluent in the initial
    history of the theory of elliptic curves) proved strong (upper) bounds on
    the number of points on an elliptic curve up to a given height. (In fact,
    they proved asymptotics which are much stronger than we use).

In this paper, we use $(1)$ to relate triangles $T$ to the sum $S_t(X)$ and we use $(2)$ to relate these triangles to points on the elliptic curve. Tracking the exact nature of the hypotenuses through these bijections allows us to relate the sum to certain points on elliptic curves. In order to facilitate the tracking of these hypotenuses, we phrase these bijections in slightly different ways than have appeared in the literature. By $(3)$ and $(4)$, we can bound the number and size of the hypotenuses which appear in terms of numbers of points on the elliptic curve up to a certain height. Intuitively this is why the higher the rank of the elliptic curve (corresponding roughly to the existence of many more points on the curve), the worse the error term in our asymptotic.

I would further conjecture that the error term in our asymptotic is essentially best-possible, even though we have thrown away some information in our proof.

Additional Context

We are not the first to note either the bijection between triangles $T$ and arithmetic progressions of squares or between triangles $T$ and points on a particular elliptic curve. The first is surely an ancient observation, but I don’t know who first considered the relation to elliptic curves. But it’s certain that this was a fundamental aspect in Tunnell’s famous work A Classical Diophantine Problem and Modular Forms of Weight 3/2 from 1983, where he used the properties of the elliptic curve $E_t$ to relate the CNP to the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer Conjecture.

One statement following from the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture (BSD) is that if an elliptic curve $E$ has rank $r$, then the $L$-function $L(s, E)$ has a zero of order $r$ at $1$. The relation between lots of points on the curve and the existence of a zero is intuitive from the approximate relation that
L(1, E) \approx \lim_{X} \prod_{p \leq X} \frac{p}{\#E(\mathbb{F}_p)},
so if $E$ has lots and lots of points then we should expect the multiplicands to be very small.

On the other hand, the elliptic curve $E_t: y^2 = x^3 – t^2 x$ has the interesting property that any point with $y \neq 0$ generates a free group of points on the curve. From the bijections alluded to above, a primitive right integer triangle $T$ with $\sqfree(T) = t$ corresponds to a point on $E_t$ with $y \neq 0$, and thus guarantees that there are lots of points on the curve. Tunnell showed that what I described as “lots of points” is actually enough points that $L(1, E)$ must be zero (assuming the relation between the rank of the curve and the value of $L(1, E)$ from BSD).

Tunnell proved that if BSD is true, then $L(1, E) = 0$ if and only if $n$ is a congruent number.

Yet for any elliptic curve we know how to compute $L(1, E)$ to guaranteed accuracy (for instance by using Dokchitser’s algorithm). Thus a corollary of Tunnell’s theorem is that BSD implies that there is an algorithm which can be used to determine definitively whether or not any particular integer $t$ is congruent.

This is the state of the art on the congruent number problem. Unfortunately, BSD (or even the somewhat weaker between BSD and mere nonzero rank of elliptic curves as is necessary for Tunnell’s result for the CNP) is quite far from being proven.

In this context, the main result of this paper is not as effective at actually determining whether a number is congruent or not. But it does have the benefit of not relying on any unknown conjecture.

And there is some potential follow-up questions. The sum $S_t(X)$ appears as an integral transform of the multiple Dirichlet series
\sum_{m,n} \frac{\tau(m-n)\tau(m)\tau(nt)\tau(m+n)}{m^s n^w}
\sum_{m,n} \frac{r_1(m-n)r_1(m)r_1(nt)r_1(m+n)}{m^s n^w},
where $r_1(n)$ is $1$ if $n = 0$ or $2$ if $n$ is a positive square, and $0$ otherwise. Then $r_1(n)$ appears as the Fourier coefficients of the half-integral weight standard theta function
= \sum_{n \in \mathbb{Z}} e^{2 \pi i n^2 z}
= \sum_{n \geq 0} r_1(n) e^{2 \pi i n z},
and $S_t(X)$ is a shifted convolution sum coming from some products of modular forms related to $\theta(z)$.

It may be possible to gain further understanding of the behavior of $S_t(X)$ (and therefore the congruent number problem) by studying the shifted convolution as coming from theta functions.

I would guess that there is a deep relation to Tunnell’s analysis in his 1983 paper, as in some sense he constructs appropriate products of three theta functions and uses them centrally in his proof. But I do not understand this relationship well enough yet to know whether it is possible to deepen our understanding of the CNP, BSD, or Tunnell’s proof. That is something to explore in the future.

Posted in Expository, Math.NT, Mathematics | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Cracking Codes with Python: A Book Review

How do you begin to learn a technical subject?

My first experience in “programming” was following a semi-tutorial on how to patch the Starcraft exe in order to make it understand replays from previous versions. I was about 10, and I cobbled together my understanding from internet mailing lists and chatrooms. The documentation was awful and the original description was flawed, and to make it worse, I didn’t know anything about any sort of programming yet. But I trawled these lists and chatroom logs and made it work, and learned a few things. Each time Starcraft was updated, the old replay system broke completely and it was necessary to make some changes, and I got pretty good at figuring out what changes were necessary and how to perform these patches.

On the other hand, my first formal experience in programming was taking a course at Georgia Tech many years later, in which a typical activity would revolve around an exciting topic like concatenating two strings or understanding object polymorphism. These were dry topics presented to us dryly, but I knew that I wanted to understand what was going on and so I suffered the straight-faced-ness of the class and used the course as an opportunity to build some technical depth.

Now I recognize that these two approaches cover most first experiences learning a technical subject: a motivated survey versus monographic study. At the heart of the distinction is a decision to view and alight on many topics (but not delving deeply in most) or to spend as much time as is necessary to understand completely each topic (and hence to not touch too many different topics). Each has their place, but each draws a very different crowd.

The book Cracking Codes with Python: An Introduction to Building and Breaking Ciphers by Al Sweigart1 is very much a motivated flight through various topics in programming and cryptography, and not at all a deep technical study of any individual topic. A more accurate (though admittedly less beckoning) title might be An Introduction to Programming Concepts Through Building and Breaking Ciphers in Python. The main goal is to promote programmatical thinking by exploring basic ciphers, and the medium happens to be python.

But ciphers are cool. And breaking them is cool. And if you think you might want to learn something about programming and you might want to learn something about ciphers, then this is a great book to read.

Sweigart has a knack for writing approachable descriptions of what’s going on without delving into too many details. In fact, in some sense Sweigart has already written this book before: his other books Automate the Boring Stuff with Python and Invent your own Computer Games with Python are similarly survey material using python as the medium, though with different motivating topics.

Each chapter of this book is centered around exploring a different aspect of a cipher, and introduces additional programming topics to do so. For example, one chapter introduces the classic Caesar cipher, as well as the “if”, “else”, and “elif” conditionals (and a few other python functions). Another chapter introduces brute-force breaking the Caesar cipher (as well as string formatting in python).

In each chapter, Sweigart begins by giving a high-level overview of the topics in that chapter, followed by python code which accomplishes the goal of the chapter, followed by a detailed description of what each block of code accomplishes. Readers get to see fully written code that does nontrivial things very quickly, but on the other hand the onus of code generation is entirely on the book and readers may have trouble adapting the concepts to other programming tasks. (But remember, this is more survey, less technical description). Further, Sweigart uses a number of good practices in his code that implicitly encourages good programming behaviors: modules are written with many well-named functions and well-named variables, and sufficiently modularly that earlier modules are imported and reused later.

But this book is not without faults. As with any survey material, one can always disagree on what topics are or are not included. The book covers five classical ciphers (Caesar, transposition, substitution, Vigenere, and affine) and one modern cipher (textbook-RSA), as well as the write-backwards cipher (to introduce python concepts) and the one-time-pad (presented oddly as a Vigenere cipher whose key is the same length as the message). For some unknown reason, Sweigart chooses to refer to RSA almost everywhere as “the public key cipher”, which I find both misleading (there are other public key ciphers) and giving insufficient attribution (the cipher is implemented in chapter 24, but “RSA” appears only once as a footnote in that chapter. Hopefully the reader was paying lots of attention, as otherwise it would be rather hard to find out more about it).

Further, the choice of python topics (and their order) is sometimes odd. In truth, this book is almost language agnostic and one could very easily adapt the presentation to any other scripting language, such as C.

In summary, this book is an excellent resource for the complete beginner who wants to learn something about programming and wants to learn something about ciphers. After reading this book, the reader will be a mid-beginner student of python (knee-deep is apt) and well-versed in classical ciphers. Should the reader feel inspired to learn more python, then he or she would probably feel comfortable diving into a tutorial or reference for their area of interest (like Full Stack Python if interested in web dev, or Python for Data Analysis if interested in data science). Or he or she might dive into a more complete monograph like Dive into Python or the monolithic Learn Python. Many fundamental topics (such as classes and objects, list comprehensions, data structures or algorithms) are not covered, and so “advanced” python resources would not be appropriate.

Further, should the reader feel inspired to learn more about cryptography, then I recommend that he or she consider Cryptanalysis by Gaines, which is a fun book aimed at diving deeper into classical pre-computer ciphers, or the slightly heavier but still fun resource would “Codebreakers” by Kahn. For much further cryptography, it’s necessary to develop a bit of mathematical maturity, which is its own hurdle.

This book is not appropriate for everyone. An experienced python programmer could read this book in an hour, skipping the various descriptions of how python works along the way. An experienced programmer who doesn’t know python could similarly read this book in a lazy afternoon. Both would probably do better reading either a more advanced overview of either cryptography or python, based on what originally drew them to the book.

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