The other day my friend Leo presented the following puzzle to me. Given a partition $\left\{ \mathcal O_n \right\}_{n\in I}$ of positive integers with $\mathcal O_n$ all infinite, find a condition that is equivalent to $I$ finite. The motivation for the problem was juggling: each $\mathcal O_n$ is the "orbit" of the $n^{\text{th}}$ ball, and we want to know when we are juggling finitely many balls.

After playing around with some examples we came up with the definition of width of an infinite subset of $\mathbb Z_+$: the width of $\mathcal O$ denoted by $w(\mathcal O)$ is the supremum of distances between consecutive elements. Intuitively, width is kind of the reciprocal of natural density. Recall that the natural density of $\mathcal O$ is the limit $d(\mathcal O) = \lim_{n\to \infty} a(n)/n$ where $a(n)$ is the number of elements of $\mathcal O$ in $\left\{ 1,...,n \right\}$. Therefore $1/w(\mathcal O) \leq d(\mathcal O)$. Let's see why that is.

Given $\mathcal O = \left\{ x_i \right\}_1^\infty \subset \mathbb Z_+$, let $y_0 = x_1$ and $y_i = x_{i+1} - x_i$ so that $y_i$'s are the "gaps" between consecutive terms of the sequence $\mathcal O$. Then $w(\mathcal O) = \sup \left\{ y_i: i\geq 1 \right\}$. On the other hand, for $n = x_i$

$\begin{aligned} a(n)/n &= i/x_i \text{\hspace{2cm} because $a(x_i) = i$}\\ &= \frac{i}{\sum_{j=1}^i y_j} \geq \frac{i}{\sum_{j=1}^i w(\mathcal O)} = 1/w(\mathcal O). \end{aligned}$So taking $\lim_i \to \infty$ we get $d(\mathcal O) \geq 1/w(\mathcal O)$. Additionally, if all but finitely many gaps $y_i$ are equal to $w(\mathcal O)$, then $d(\mathcal O)$ exists and equals $1/w(\mathcal O)$.

Taking $\liminf_{i\to\infty}$ of (1) actually shows that even the lower density $\underline{d}(\mathcal O) = \liminf_n a(n)/n$ is at least $1/w(\mathcal O)$. The advantage of using the lower density is that it is defined for all subsets of natural numbers. Let's record this observation.

*$O_1$*: for $\mathcal O \subset \mathbb Z_+$, $1/w(\mathcal O) \leq \underline{d}(\mathcal O)$, where $1/w(\mathcal O)=0$ if $w(\mathcal O) = \infty$.

Here is another easy observation:

*$O_2$*: If $\forall n \in I, w(\mathcal O_n) \leq M$ for some fixed integer $M$, then $I$ is finite.

*Proof*: If $I$ is infinite, consider $M+1$ sets $\mathcal O_1,...,\mathcal O_{M+1}$ and an interval $[a,a+M-1]$ where $a$ is large enough that the smallest element of each $\mathcal O_n, n\leq M+1$ is below $a$. Then all $M+1$ disjoint sets $\mathcal O_1,...,\mathcal O_{M+1}$ have at least one element in $[a,a+M-1]$, which is impossible by pigeonhole principle.

So if $w(\mathcal O_n) = O(1)$, then $I$ is finite – we are juggling finitely many balls. This leads to another conjecture: if $\forall n \in I, w(\mathcal O_n) \leq M_n$, then $I$ is finite (the only difference is that now $M_n$ depends on $n$). This one is not true. Let the first set fill half of naturals, the second – half of the remaining half, etc:

$\mathcal O_1 = 2\mathbb Z_+,\ \mathcal O_2 = 1 + 4\mathbb Z_+,\ \mathcal O_3 = 3+8\mathbb Z_+,\ ... ,\ \mathcal O_n = 2^{n-1}-1 + 2^n\mathbb Z_+.$Here $w(\mathcal O_n) = 2^n$ with $I$ infinite.

So far we know that if $w(\mathcal O_n) = O(1)$, then $I$ is finite, but $w(\mathcal O_n) = O(2^n)$ is not strong enough to guarantee that. A natural question is:

*Question*: is there an increasing function $f(n)$ such that $w(\mathcal O_n) = O(f(n))$ if and only if $I$ is finite? Perhaps $f(n) = n^2$ or another polynomial?

We already saw that $1/w(\mathcal O) \leq \underline{d}(\mathcal O)$. So it might be fruitful to think about the (lower) densities of $\mathcal O_n$. Intuitively, the sum of densities of a partition cannot be larger than 1 because each density is the "proportion" of the set in $\mathbb Z_+$. Indeed, this is easy to formally state and prove:

*$O_3$*: if sets $\left\{ \mathcal O_n \right\}_{n=1}^\infty$ are disjoint, then $\sum_{n=1}^\infty \underline{d}(\mathcal O_n) \leq 1$.

*Proof*: It suffices to prove that $\sum_{n=1}^N \underline{d}(\mathcal O_n) \leq 1$ for all $N$ so fix any $N$. We have

Putting observations *$O_1$* and *$O_3$* together we obtain

*$O_4$*: If $I$ is infinite, then $\sum_{n=1}^\infty 1/w(\mathcal O_n) \leq 1$. In particular, $1/w(\mathcal O_n)$ is asymptotically smaller than $1/n$. Formally, $w(\mathcal O_n) = \omega(n)$.

See wikipedia for the $\omega$ and $\Omega$ notation.

The contrapositive of the above is $w(\mathcal O_n) = O(n) \implies |I| < \infty$. Is the converse true? For example, can we find an infinite partition $\left\{ \mathcal O_n \right\}$ of $\mathbb Z_+$ with $w(\mathcal O_n) \leq n^2?$ In order to answer this question I wrote a program that explores the "greedy" algorithm of making successive sets $\mathcal O_n$.

We want to see if we can "fit" infinitely many disjoint sets $\left\{ \mathcal O_n \right\}$ in $\mathbb Z_+$ with $w(\mathcal O_n) \leq n^2$ (starting at $n=2$). The naive greedy algorithm for doing this is as follows. Let $\mathcal O_2 = 4,8,12,16,\text{etc}$. We now want to let $\mathcal O_3 = 9,18,27,36,\text{etc.}$ but there is a collision at $36$. So change $36$ to $35$ and keep going at strides of $9$. In general, place the next element of $\mathcal O_n$, go to the current element plus the width $n^2$. If this spot is empty, put it there, if not, try the spot one below, etc. If we are ever unable to find the next spot because on our search down we returned back to the current element, then this strategy fails. If no such failure occurs, then we succeed.

The aforementioned program successfully uses this strategy for $10^8$ numbers, i.e. we fill the set $\left\{ 1,\dots,10^8 \right\}$ with sets $\mathcal O_2,\dots,\mathcal O_{\sqrt{10^8}}$ without any problems. Additionally letting the width of $\mathcal O_n$ be $c \cdot n^{1+\epsilon}$ for higher constants $c$ and smaller values of $\epsilon>0$ suggests that this strategy is successful for $w(\mathcal O_n) = \Theta(n^{1+\epsilon})$ for $\epsilon>0$ arbitrarily small. So we have the conjecture

*$C_1$*: For any $\epsilon>0$ the "greedy" algorithm produces infinitely many sets $\mathcal O_n$ with $w(\mathcal O_n) = \Theta(n^{1+\epsilon})$.

If this conjecture is true, then we have the following two facts:

$|I| = \infty \implies w(\mathcal O_n) = \omega(n)$.

$w(\mathcal O_n) = \Omega(n^{1+\epsilon}) \implies |I| = \infty$.

At that point it is still unclear what happens at, say, $w(\mathcal O_n) = \Theta(n\log^2 n)$, since $\sum \frac{1}{n\log^k n}$ converges for $k>1$. But if *$C_1$* is true, perhaps the following is true as well.

*$C_2$*: For any increasing function $f$ such that $\sum_n 1/f(n)$ converges, the "greedy" algorithm produces infinitely many sets $\mathcal O_n$ with $w(\mathcal O_n) = \Theta(f(n))$.

This would finally give the equivalence

$|I|=\infty \iff \sum_{n\in I} 1/w(\mathcal O_n) < \infty.$If $I$ is finite then any sum over $n\in I$ converges, so stating the statement above takes a bit more precision but we'll cross that bridge when we get there.

Lean is a proof assistant that allows people to "explain" mathematics to a computer. For example, here is my proof of the squeeze theorem. It would be cool to formalize the above observations in Lean.

© Vasily Ilin. Last modified: November 25, 2021. Website built with Franklin.jl and the Julia programming language.