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Polynomial Methods in Combinatorics

Larry Guth
American Mathematical Society
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
University Lecture Series 64
BLL Rating: 

The Basic Library List Committee recommends this book for acquisition by undergraduate mathematics libraries.

[Reviewed by
Darren Glass
, on

Most of the books that we cover here at MAA Reviews deal with mathematics that was done decades, if not centuries, ago rather than being truly contemporary. There is good reason for that, as it can be difficult to write a good book about a topic until it is clear how it fits into the bigger picture of the discipline, what applications it might have, and even what terminology and notation the community will eventually settle on. When books are written about contemporary topics, they tend to be dense monographs intended for specialists in the area rather than expository books written for graduate students, or even undergraduates.

While there are good reasons that authors often don’t try to convey new ideas to more general audiences, Larry Guth’s new book, Polynomial Methods in Combinatorics is the exception that proves the rule. In this volume, he attempts to take a very modern area of mathematics — roughly described as the intersection of geometric combinatorics and harmonic analysis — where research is being actively done by some of the top mathematicians in the world, and write about it in a way that is accessible to advanced undergraduate students. And he succeeds marvelously. His book is essentially a treatise on polynomials, and how a close look at certain polynomials can be used to answer deep and exciting questions in algebraic geometry and combinatorics.

To illustrate this idea, the book starts by stating the finite field Kakeya problem: Given a finite field \(\mathbb{F}_q\), what is the smallest set of points \(K\) in \(\mathbb{F}_q^n\) so that \(K\) contains a line in every direction? In 2009, Dvir showed that this set \(K\) must contain at least \((10n)^{-n}q^n\) points. While the problem as stated sounds like a geometric problem, Dvir’s approach was actually algebraic in nature, as he considered the properties of the lowest degree polynomial that vanishes on all of the points in \(K\).

As another example, Guth describes the Erdős distinct distance problem, and how he and Nets Katz have been able to very recently show that any set of \(n\) points in \(\mathbb{R}^2\) must have at least \(cn(\log(n))^{-1}\) distinct distances between them, for some constant \(c\). Again, this problem seems to be geometric in nature but their approach uses polynomials.

Guth gives proofs of both of these theorems and also spends time discussing why more naïve approaches to them did not give results that were as strong as those that were achieved using these approaches. He then uses all of these ideas as a launching pad to explore a variety of areas of mathematics. The bulk of the book applies these ideas to the study of incidence geometry, which looks at the various ways that lines and circles intersect in the plane. One of the first results in this area was due to Szemeredi and Trotter in the 1980s, and says that if you have a set of \(L\) lines in the plane \(\mathbb{R}^2\) then the number of points that lie on \(r\) or more of these points is bounded (up to a constant) by \(L^2r^{-3}+Lr^{-1}\). Guth’s book extends these ideas to higher dimensions as well as additional hypotheses: for example, what if you insist that some portion of your lines lie on a given hypersurface? Does that additional structure give you better bounds? Along the way to addressing all of these questions, Guth introduces ideas in error-correcting codes, algebraic geometry (Bezout’s theorem plays a particularly large role), polynomial partitions, ruled surface theory, differential geometry, and even Fourier analysis.

A final chapter looks at applications of the polynomial method to questions in number theory. In particular, Guth looks at solutions to diophantine equations as well as Thue and Roth’s theorems about approximations to diophantine equations. These results are more classical than most of the material in the book (although even they only really date to the early twentieth century), but show that the idea of using polynomials throughout mathematics has a rich history.

The ideas in Guth’s book are simultaneously very deep and very elementary. The book is not for the faint of heart, but at the same time most of the book does not require much more background than a good abstract algebra course along with some familiarity with number theory and linear algebra.

Guth’s exposition is truly wonderful, and he has a good sense of when to do concrete examples and when to keep the material more abstract. He often goes on digressions, but they never feel like they take you too far off the path. There are a handful of exercises, so one can imagine using this book for an advanced undergraduate or beginning graduate course, but I think the book will find its best audience from people who just want to learn about some of these recent developments in geometry. No matter what stage they are at, I think that anyone who reads this book will walk away feeling like they have a deeper understanding of a very exciting area of mathematics.

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Darren Glass is a Professor of Mathematics at Gettysburg College. His mathematical interests include algebraic geometry, graph theory, and number theory. He can be reached at