The *sinc* function is important in signal processing for removing noise and reconstructing the original signal. It’s defined rather simply as sin(*x*)/*x*, so it’s surprising that it actually has its own special name (you have to be careful at *x* = 0, but the limit is sensibly defined as 1). As you can see in the formula and depiction below, sinc is an even function:

The integral under the curve evaluates to π:

A couple of people called Borwein noticed that this identity generalises:

However, this breaks down once you get as far as the term containing sinc(x/15), at which point the integral evaluates to some horrible rational multiple of π instead!

For a more impressive variation on this theme, replace the odd integers with non-composite numbers congruent to 1 (mod 4), i.e. 1 and primes of the form 4*k* + 1. The pattern continues up until the following point:

Once you add the next term in this sequence, 493541, the pattern breaks down spectacularly; the resulting value is only an inconceivably microscopic distance from π.

### The Polya conjecture

George Pólya conjectured that, for every *N* > 1, the proportion of numbers *n* ≤ *N* with an odd number of prime factors (including multiplicity) is at least ½. This is what the situation looks like for the first few positive integers (*N* up to 100000). If the blue line hits the horizontal axis, the conjecture breaks down:

There seems to be some anomaly around *N* = 50000, where it is dangerously close to the horizontal axis. Fortunately, the zoom below demonstrates that there exists a hair’s breadth between them, so we’re safe … for now.

Indeed, we’re actually safe for quite some time. We can go well into the hundreds of millions before encountering a difficulty. However, in the spirit of Murphy’s Law, we *do* eventually find a counter-example. The first proof demonstrated that there’s a counter-example somewhere around *N* = 10^361. Since then, exhaustive searches confirm that the first counter-example is *N* = 906150257 (which looks prime, but isn’t; it has a pair of 5-digit prime factors).

### Skewes’ number

Since the time of Euler, it was known that approximately *N*/log(*N*) of the numbers below *N* are prime. Legendre refined this estimate to *N*/(log(*N*) − *B*), where *B* is a number called *Legendre’s constant*. It was first estimated to be about 1.08366, but has since been shown to be precisely 1!

A further refinement by Gauss gives the number of primes below *N* as the value of the following integral, called the logarithmic integral:

Li(*N*) was conjectured to always be an underestimate of the number of primes below *N*. It transpires that eventually this breaks down. An initial upper bound for the first time at which this occurs is *Skewes’ number*, roughly *e^e^e^e^e^e*. We now know that the conjecture breaks down somewhere between 10^14 and 10^317.

### Stupidly large integers

To quickly conclude, there are many questions in combinatorics (Ramsey theory, for instance), where even the lower bounds are mind-bogglingly massive. Harvey Friedman defines *n(k)* to be the length of the longest possible sequence {*a_i*} over a *k*-letter alphabet such that no block of letters {*a*_*i*, *a*_(*i*+1), …, *a*_2*i*} occurs as a subsequence of a later block {*a*_*j*, *a*_(*j*+1), …, *a*_2*j*}.

We have *n*(1) = 3, *n*(2) = 11, *n*(3) > A(7000) (where A is the Ackermann function) and *n*(4) > A(A(… A(1) …)), where there are A(187196) compositions of the Ackermann function. To put this in perspective, it dwarfs Graham’s number. Later terms are incredibly, overwhelmingly large.

Friedman then defined a function TREE, which grows so large that even TREE(3) is massively immense compared with *n*(4). I’ll discuss this later.

Nelson, a (perhaps kooky?) mathematician at Princeton wrote a paper called “Warning Signs of a Possible Collapse of Contemporary Mathematics”: https://web.math.princeton.edu/~nelson/papers/warn.pdf

where (if I understand correctly) he claims that there’s a difference between multiplication and exponentiation, and that it is moderately reasonable to believe that multiplication is total, but that exponentiation is not total – or at least not provably total.

Harvey Friedman wrote a paper called “Demonstrably Necessary Uses of Abstraction”: http://www.math.osu.edu/~friedman.8/pdf/RADEM092602.pdf

If I understand correctly, he says that the proofs of totality of the various very-fast-growing functions that you mention require gradually stronger inductive principles. So you could work in a logic weaker than the one necessary to prove Friedman’s n function total, or strong enough to prove n total, but not strong enough to prove TREE total.

Is that a reasonable gloss? I’m only a dilettante, and I certainly do not understand the arguments in detail.

Fast-growing functions can be associated with countable ordinals:

In the environment of first-order Peano arithmetic, you can’t do transfinite induction beyond epsilon_0 (which is much smaller than the small Veblen ordinal). Hence, it’s impossible to prove that the TREE function is total just using first-order Peano arithmetic.

This is an awesome post! I wonder if I can http://xkcd.com/217/ someone with the sinc identities…

Quite possibly. If you have a modern calculator which does ‘exact’ arithmetic, you can fool it by entering “ln(640320^3+744)/sqrt(163)” and watch as it gives pi as the supposed ‘answer’. This demonstrates that it must use inverse symbolic lookup, similar to (but not as sophisticated as) Robert Munafo’s RIES.

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