# Combinatorics versus geometric…

… is like using roman numerals versus using a positional numeral system, like the hindu-arabic numerals we all know very well. And there is evidence that our brain is NOT using combinatorial techniques, but geometric, see further.

What is this post about? Well, it is about the problem of using knowledge concerning topological groups in order to study discrete approximate groups, as Tao proposes in his new course, it is about discrete finitely generated groups with polynomial growth which, as Gromov taught us, when seen from far away they become nilpotent Lie groups, and so on. Only that there is a long way towards these subjects, so please bear me a little bit more.

This is part of a larger project to try to understand approximate groups, as well as normed groups with dilations, in a more geometric way. One point of interest is understanding the solution to the Hilbert’s fifth problem from a more general perspective, and this passes by NOT using combinatorial techniques from the start, even if they are one of the most beautiful mathematical gems which is the solution given by Gleason-Montgomery-Zippin to the problem.

What is combinatorial about this solution? Well, it reduces (in a brilliant way) the problem to counting, by using objects which are readily at hand in any topological group, namely the one-parameter subgroups. There is nothing wrong about this, only that, from this point of view, Gromov’s theorem on groups with polynomial growth appears as magical. Where is this nilpotent structure coming from?

As written in a previous post, Hilbert’s fifth problem without one-parameter subgroups, Gromov’ theorem is saying a profound geometrical thing about a finitely generated group with polynomial growth: that seen from far away this group is self-similar, that is a conical group, or a contractible group w.r.t. any of its dilations. That is all! the rest is just a Siebert’ result. This structure is deeply hidden in the proof and one of my purposes is to understand where it is coming from. A way of NOT understanding this is to use huge chunks of mathematical candy in order to make this structure appear by magic.

I cannot claim that I understand this, that I have a complete solution, but instead, for this post, I looked for an analogy and I think I have found one.

It is the one from the first lines of the post.

Indeed, what is wrong, by analogy, with the roman numeral system? Nothing, actually, we have generators, like I, V, X, L, C, D, M, and relations, like IIII = IV, and so on (yes, they are not generators and relations exactly like in a group sense). The problems appear when we want to do complex operations, like addition of large numbers. Then we have to be really clever and use very intelligent and profound combinatorial arguments in order to efficiently manage all the cancellations and whatnot coming from the massive use of relations. Relations are at very small scale, we have to bridge the way towards large scales, therefore we have to approximate the errors by counting in different ways and to be very clever about these ways.

Another solution for this, historically preferred, was to use a positional number system, which is more geometric, because it exploits a large scale property of natural numbers, which is that their collection is (approximately) self-similar. Indeed, take (as another kind of generators, again not in a group sense), a small set, like B={0, 1, 2, …, 8, 9} and count in base 10, which goes roughly like this: take a (big, preferably) natural number $X$ and do the following

– initialize $i = 1$,

– find the smallest natural power $a_{i}$ of 10 such that $10^{-a_{i}} X$ has a norm smaller than 10, then pick the element $k_{i}$ of $B$ which minimizes the distance to $10^{-a_{i}} X$,

– substract (from the right or the left, it does not matter here because addition of natural numbers is commutative) $10^{a_{i}} k_{i}$ from $X$, and rename the result by $X$,

-repeat until $X \in B$ and finish the algorithm by taking the last digit as $X$.

In the end (remember, I said “roughly”) represent $X$ as a string which codes the string of pairs $(a_{i}, k_{i})$.

The advantage of this representation of natural numbers is that we can do, with controlled precision, the addition of big numbers, approximately. Indeed, take two very big numbers $X, Y$ and take another number, like $10$. Then for any natural $n$ define $(X+Y)$ approx(n) $= 10^{n} ( [X]_{n} + [Y]_{n})$

where $[X]_{n}$ is the number which is represented as the truncation of the string which represents $X$ up to the first $n$ letters, counting from left to right.
If $n$ is small compared with $X, Y$, then $(X+Y)$ approx(n) is close to the true $X+Y$, but the computational effort for calculating $(X+Y)$ approx(n) is much smaller than the one for calculating $X+Y$.

Once we have this large scale self-similarity, then we may exploit it by using the more geometrical positional numeral system instead of the roman numeral system, that is my analogy. Notice that in this (almost correct) algorithm $10^{a} X$ is not understood as $X+X+....+X$ $10^{a}$ times.

Let me now explain why the positional numeral system is more geometric, by giving a neuroscience argument, besides what I wrote in this previous post: “How not to get bored, by reading Gromov and Tao” (mind the comma!).

I reproduce from the wiki page on “Subitizing and counting

Subitizing, coined in 1949 by E.L. Kaufman et al. refers to the rapid, accurate, and confident judgments of number performed for small numbers of items. The term is derived from the Latin adjective subitus (meaning “sudden”) and captures a feeling of immediately knowing how many items lie within the visual scene, when the number of items present falls within the subitizing range. Number judgments for larger set-sizes were referred to either as counting or estimating, depending on the number of elements present within the display, and the time given to observers in which to respond (i.e., estimation occurs if insufficient time is available for observers to accurately count all the items present).

The accuracy, speed, and confidence with which observers make judgments of the number of items are critically dependent on the number of elements to be enumerated. Judgments made for displays composed of around one to four items are rapid, accurate and confident. However, as the number of items to be enumerated increases beyond this amount, judgments are made with decreasing accuracy and confidence. In addition, response times rise in a dramatic fashion, with an extra 250–350 ms added for each additional item within the display beyond about four.

This is a brain competence which is spatial (geometrical) in nature, as evidenced by Simultanagnosia:

Clinical evidence supporting the view that subitizing and counting may involve functionally and anatomically distinct brain areas comes from patients with simultanagnosia, one of the key components of Balint’s syndrome. Patients with this disorder suffer from an inability to perceive visual scenes properly, being unable to localize objects in space, either by looking at the objects, pointing to them, or by verbally reporting their position. Despite these dramatic symptoms, such patients are able to correctly recognize individual objects. Crucially, people with simultanagnosia are unable to enumerate objects outside the subitizing range, either failing to count certain objects, or alternatively counting the same object several times.

From the wiki description of simultanagnosia:

Simultanagnosia is a rare neurological disorder characterized by the inability of an individual to perceive more than a single object at a time. It is one of three major components of Bálint’s syndrome, an uncommon and incompletely understood variety of severe neuropsychological impairments involving space representation (visuospatial processing). The term “simultanagnosia” was first coined in 1924 by Wolpert to describe a condition where the affected individual could see individual details of a complex scene but failed to grasp the overall meaning of the image.

I rest my case.

## 10 thoughts on “Combinatorics versus geometric…”

1. isomorphismes says:

Where does Gromov teach about zooming out so that the discrete groups look Lie?

1. chorasimilarity says:
1. isomorphismes says:

What you described is a very promising concept … sort of like http://www.ams.org/notices/200606/whatis-roe.pdf … in fact I don’t know how I’ve lived so long without it!

Seriously, though, not having some kind of “zoom out” tool feels like having neither a microscope nor a telescope. Or maybe I mean having only a microscope but no normal sight.

2. chorasimilarity says:

Yes, Roe’s coarse spaces are the same thinking. This type of reasoning is all over the place in math, but not yet in physics. Do you know that the notion of metric space is only 100 years old?
Btw if you care there are 3 posts on metric profiles and curvature, you may like them.

3. isomorphismes says:

Well, since your whole site is good and they’re on the site, I’m sure yes =)

4. chorasimilarity says:

There is something very interesting about this! Explanations soon, finally I have time to do it, in the good cooperative way.