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Wed, 18 Apr 2018

Lower mathematics solves an easy problem

[ Warning: this article is mathematically uninteresting. ]

I woke up in the middle of the night last night and while I was waiting to go back to sleep, I browsed math Stack Exchange. At four in the morning I am not at my best, but sometimes I can learn something and sometimes I can even contribute.

The question that grabbed my attention this time was Arithmetic sequence where every term is prime?. OP wants to know if the arithmetic sequence $$d\mapsto a+d b$$ contains composite elements for every fixed positive integers !!a,b!!.

Now of course the answer is yes, or the counterexample would give us a quick and simple method for constructing prime numbers, and finding such has been an open problem for thousands of years. OP was certainly aware of this, but had not been able to find a simple proof. Their searching was confounded by more advanced matters relating to the Green-Tao theorem and such like, which, being more interesting, are much more widely discussed.

There are a couple of remarkable things about the answers that were given. First, even though the problem is easy, the first two answers posted were actually wrong, and another (quickly deleted) was so complicated that I couldn't tell if it was right or not.

One user immediately commented:

What happens if !!d=a!!?

which is very much to the point; when !!d=a!! then the element of the sequence is !!a+ab!! which is necessarily composite…

…unless !!a=1!!. So the comment does not quite take care of the whole question. A second user posted an answer with this same omission, and had to correct it later.

I might not have picked up on this case either, during the daytime. But at 4 AM I was not immediately certain that !!a+ab!! was composite and I think about it. I factored it to get !!a(1+b)!! and then I saw that if !!a=1!! or !!1+b=1!! then we lose. (!!1+b=1!! is impossible. !!a+ab!! might of course be composite even if !!a=1!!, but further argumentation is needed.)

So I did pick up on this, and gave a complete answer, of which the important part is:

Just take !!d=kb+k+a!! for any !!k!! whatever. Then the element is $$kb^2+(k+a)b+a = (kb+a)(b+a)$$ which is composite.

Okay, fine. But OP asked how I came up with that and if it was pure “insight”, so I thought I'd try to reconstruct how I got there at 4 AM. The problem is simple enough that I think I can remember most of how I got to the answer.

As I've mentioned before, I am not a pure insight kind of person. While better mathematicians are flitting swiftly from peak to peak, I plod along in the dark and gloomy valleys. I did not get !!d=kb+k+a!! in a brilliant flash of inspiration.

Instead, my thought process, as well as I can remember it, went like this:

  • “That doesn't work when !!a=1!!. But there must be composite numbers in sequences of the form !!d b+1!!. I wonder what they look like?”

  • “I guess I'll try an example. How about !!4d+1!!?”

  • “Hmm, it starts at 5, 5 is composite… No it isn't.”

  • “But it's increasing by 4 each time so it must hit each mod-5 residue class in some order.”

I should cut in at this point to add that my thinking was nowhere near this articulate or even verbal. The thing about the sequence hitting all the residue classes was more like a feeling in my body, like when I am recognizing a familiar place. When !!a!! and !!b!! are relatively prime, that means that when you are taking steps of size !!b!!, you hit all the !!a!!'s and don't skip any; that's what relatively prime is all about.

So maybe that counts as “insight”? Or “intuition about relative primality”? I think that description makes it sound much more impressive than it really is. I do not want a lot of credit for this. Maybe a better way to describe it is that I had been in this familiar place many times before, and I recognized it again.

Anyway I continued something like this:

  • “If it hits every residue class over and over in sequence it must hit residue class !!0!! infinitely often. How does that go? It hits !!5!!, so it hits !!5+4·5 = 25!! also.”

That was good enough for me; I did not even consider the next hit, !!45!!, perhaps because that number was too big for me to calculate at that moment.

I didn't use the phrase “residue class” either. That's just my verbal translation of my 4AM nonverbal thinking. At the time it was more like: there are some good things to hit and some bad ones, and the good ones are evenly spaced out, so if we hit each position in the even spacing-ness we must periodically hit some of the good things.

  • “Okay, then the first element of !!1+d b!! is !!1+b!!, and then every !!1+b!! steps after that it hits another multiple of !!1+b!!, so we want every !!1+b!! elements, so take !!d = 1 + k(1+b)!!.”

Then I posted the answer, saying that when !!a=1!! you take !!d=1+k(1+b)!! and the sequence element is !!1+b+kb+kb^2 = (1+b)(1+kb)!!.

Then I realized that I had the same feeling in my body even when !!a≠1!!, because it only depended on the way the residue classes repeated, and changing !!a!! doesn't affect that, it just slides everything left or right by a constant amount. So I went back to edit the !!1+k(1+b)!! to be !!a+k(1+b)!! instead.

I have no particular conclusion to draw about this.


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