Posts Tagged ‘Polya theory’

The goal of this post is to give a purely combinatorial proof of Newton’s sums which would have interrupted the flow of the previous post. Recall that, in the notation of the previous post, Newton’s sums (also known as the first Newton-Girard identity) state that

\displaystyle p_k - e_1 p_{k-1} \pm ... = (-1)^{k+1} ke_k.

One way to motivate a combinatorial proof is to recast the generating function interpretation appropriately. Given a polynomial C(t) with non-negative integer coefficients and C(0) = 0, let r_1, ... r_n be the reciprocals of the roots of C(t) - 1 = 0. Then

\displaystyle \frac{t C'(t)}{1 - C(t)} = \sum_{k \ge 1} p_k(r_1, ... r_n) t^k.

The left hand side of this identity suggests a particular interpretation in terms of the combinatorial species described by C(t). Today we’ll describe this species when C(t) is a polynomial with non-negative integer coefficients and then describe it in the general case, which will handle the extension to the symmetric function case as well.

The method of proof used here is closely related to a post I made previously about the properties of the Frobenius map, and at the end of the post I’ll try to discuss what I think might be going on.


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I ended the last post by asking whether the proof of baby Polya extends to the multi-parameter setting where we want to keep track of how many of each color we use. In fact, it does. First, we should specify what exactly we’re trying to compute. Recall the setup: we have colors 1, 2, ... n (represented by variables r_1, r_2, ... r_n), and we have a set of slots S with |S| = m acted on by a group G where each slot will be assigned a color. Define f_G(t_1, ... t_n) to be the number of orbits of functions S \to \{ 1, 2, ... n \} under the action of G where color i is used t_i times. (Since the action of G only permutes slots, it doesn’t change the multiset of colors used.) What we want to compute is the generating function

\displaystyle F_G(r_1, r_2, ... r_n) = \sum_{t_1 + ... + t_n = m} f_G(t_1, t_2, ... t_n) r_1^{t_1} r_2^{t_2} ... r_n^{t_n}.

Note that setting r_1 = r_2 = .... = r_n = 1 we recover F_G(n), which doesn’t contain information about particular color combinations. By the orbit-counting lemma, this is equivalent to computing

\displaystyle \frac{1}{|G|} \sum_{g \in G} | \text{Fix}(g) |(r_1, r_2, ... r_n)

where we must now count fixed points in a weighted manner, recording the multiset of colors in each fixed point. How do we go about doing this?


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The orbit-stabilizer theorem implies, very immediately, one of the most important counting results in group theory. The proof is easy enough to give in a paragraph now that we’ve set up the requisite machinery. Remember that we counted fixed points by looking at the size of the stabilizer subgroup. Let’s count them another way. Since a fixed point is really a pair (g, x) such that gx = x, and we’ve been counting them indexed by x, let’s count them indexed by g. We use \text{Fix}(g) to denote the set of fixed points of g. (Note that this is a function of the group action, not the group, but again we’re abusing notation.) Counting the total number of fixed points “vertically,” then “horizontally,” gives the following.

Proposition: \displaystyle \sum_{x \in S} |\text{Stab}(x)| = \sum_{g \in G} | \text{Fix}(g) |.

On the other hand, by the orbit-stabilizer theorem, it’s true for any orbit O that \displaystyle \sum_{x \in O} | \text{Stab}(x) | = |G|, since the cosets of any stabilizer subgroup partition |G|. This immediately gives us the lemma formerly known as Burnside’s, or the Cauchy-Frobenius lemma, which we’ll give a neutral name.

Orbit-counting lemma: The number of orbits in a group action is given by \displaystyle \frac{1}{|G|} \sum_{g \in G} | \text{Fix}(g) |, i.e. the average number of fixed points.

In this post we’ll investigate some consequences of this result.


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Sometimes I worry that I should be more consistent or more lenient about the background I expect of my readers. (Readers, I have to admit that I still don’t really know who you are!) Considering how important I think it is that mathematicians value communicating their ideas to non-specialists (what John Armstrong calls the Generally Interested Lay Audience (GILA)), I should probably be putting my money where my mouth is.

So, inspired by the Unapologetic Mathematician, I have decided on a little project: to build up to a discussion of the Polya enumeration theorem without assuming any prerequisites other than a passing familiarity with group theory. Posts in this project, or any subsequent similar projects, will be labeled “GILA.” The general plan is to talk about group actions in general, the orbit-stabilizer theorem, the lemma formerly known as Burnside’s, and generating functions on the way. Much of this discussion can be found in Section 7 of Stanley’s lectures on algebraic combinatorics.

The PET is a very general way to think about questions of the following nature:

  1. How many ways are there to paint the faces of a cube if we consider two colorings related by some rotation to be the same?
  2. How many ways are there to paint the beads on a necklace if we consider two colorings related by a rotation of the necklace to be the same?
  3. How many ways are there to place some balls into some urns if we consider two placements related by a relabeling of the balls to be the same? (In other words, we want the balls to be “indistinguishable.”)
  4. How many graphs with a fixed number of vertices and edges are there if we consider two graphs related by a relabeling of the vertices to be the same? (In other words, we want the graphs to be “non-isomorphic.”)

The general situation is that we have a (finite) set S of slots and another (for now, finite) set C of objects we want to put into those slots, which it is useful to think of as a set of colors that we can “paint” the slots. We also have a (finite) group G of symmetries that controls when we consider two colorings to be “the same.” To understand this situation, it is first necessary to understand something about group actions.


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