A ‘k -basis’ for N is a subset A of the natural numbers with the property that any natural number n can be written as a sum a1 + a2 + . . . + ak , where each ai lies in A. Recall Lagrange’s four square theorem, which (in our new language) says that the squares form a 4-basis for the N. (The more general problem of the minimum k so that the set of pth powers forms a k -basis is known as Waring’s Problem, and the general question is far from solved.) My curiosity went in the opposite direction, toward two-bases: with four summands, we have a density zero 4-basis with the squares. It seems natural to ask: is there a density zero 2-basis for N? (A ‘density zero’ subset of N is a set A ⊆ N with the property that limn→∞ An = A ∩ {0, 1, 2, . . .} = [n].)
An n

= 0, where

The first easy observation is that we can get arbitrarily close to zero density by considering the following sets. Choose any N ∈ N, and let A = {0, 1, 2 . . . , N − 1} ∪ {N, 2N, 3N, . . .}. Then for any n ∈ N, let r be the remainder upon dividing n by N : then r is among the numbers {0, 1, 2, . . . , N − 1}, and n − r is divisible by N , and so is among the numbers {N, 2N, . . .}. Hence A is a 2-basis. What is the density of A? the finite set [N − 1] doesn’t change the density, so A has density exactly 1/N . Since N was arbitrary, we can have 2-bases of arbitrarily small density. Define f (n) = min[n]⊆2A |A|, using the additive number theory notation 2A = {a1 + a2 : a1 , a2 ∈ A}. That is, f (n) is the minimum size of required for a set to be a two-basis for the numbers 0 to n. We now make the following two observations about the function f : 1) limn→∞
f (n) n

= 0.

2) For each n ≥ 0, f (n + 1) = f (n) or f (n) = f (n) + 1.
n) bounds the By our construction above, 2-bases of arbitrarily small density exist: since f ( n density (at n) of any 2-basis from below, it is clear that it must go to zero as n → ∞.

As for the second claim, suppose that A is a minimal set for n, i.e. [n] ⊆ 2A and |A| = f (n). If n +1 ∈ 2A, then f (n +1) = f (n); if not, then the set B = A ∪{n +1 − a} for some a ∈ A, so that |B | = f (n) + 1 and [n + 1] ⊆ 2B . Then, in the latter case, f (n + 1) ≤ f (n) + 1. It is obvious that f (n) is non-decreasing: hence, it always takes steps of 0 or 1. Combining 1) with this result says that those n with f (n + 1) = f (n) + 1 must form a density zero set, else 1) would be violated.



How does this knowledge of f help us? Denote by S (n) the set of all A with [n] ⊆ 2A and |A| = f (n). Our hope is that there is some increasing chain Sx1 ⊆ Sx2 ⊆ . . ., with

x1 ≤ x2 ≤ . . . and Sxi ∈ S (xi ) ∀i. If such a chain existed, then
j =0

Sxj = S would be a

density zero two-basis for N. This is where I was (am) stuck: there doesn’t seem like an easy way to prove that such a chain exists. Another problem with this is that a density zero set might exist even if such a chain doesn’t: the S (n)’s are the minimal size sets that work, but perhaps there is some ‘slightly’ larger set - still density zero - that works. It is tempting to suggest that any density zero two-basis ought to have a subset of the above form, but this seems unlikely to be true. Ok, now for the punch line. There does exist a density zero two basis for N, which was offered to me, and reluctantly accepted. Assume for a moment that the famous Goldbach conjecture - that any even number is the sum of two primes - is true. Then simply take the set P of primes, with the set P = {p − 1 : p ∈ P }: the primes have density zero, so P P has every even number as a sum of two members of P . To get any odd number n, first write n + 1 as a sum of two primes p + q ; then n = p + (q − 1), or (p − 1) + q . The Goldbach conjecture has not been proven, but no matter: it has been proven that all but a zero density set of even numbers can be written as a sum of two primes.1 (This is no trivial matter, mind you!) Simply take this set in union with P and P , and we have the same result. This answer is unsatisfying, so lets examine some statistical approaches. We can generate potential candidates A ⊂ N by forming the following chain: pick a set of naturals A0 with [m] ⊆ A0 for some m ∈ N. Then, for i = 1, 2, 3, . . ., make the recursive definition Ai−1 , if i ∈ 2Ai−1 Ai − 1 ∪ {i − a} for some a ∈ Ai−1 , otherwise


Ai =

That is, for each i, do nothing if i is already a sum of a pair of elements from Ai−1 , and if not, give Ai−1 the natural number i − a for some a ∈ Ai−1 , so that i = (i − a) + a ∈ Ai . If we choose the element a from A uniformly and at random, we can examine the sets i≥0 Ai = A, which will by definition be two-bases for N. What will these sets look like? As it turns out, these randomly generated bases don’t do so well compared to our construction using Goldbach, though they do seem to be density zero. Since these sets A don’t appear to be directly calculable, even for fixed choices of elements a, the best we can do is a computer simulation, which of course, has to end at a finite n. Figure 1 gives a plot of the mean density of 1,000 randomly generated sets A1000 , in blue, plotted against the
H. L. & Vaughan, R. C. (1975). ”The exceptional set in Goldbach’s problem. Collection of articles in memory of Jurii Vladimirovich Linnik”. Acta arithmetica 27: 353370



Figure 1. A plot of the random density (blue) vs. the ‘Goldbach’ density (red).

density obtained assuming Goldbach, given by 2π (n), where π (n) is the prime counting n) function, or asymptotically, 2log( . Figure 2 gives ‘step plots’ of a three different random n sets A, i.e. it plots the cumulative sum of the functions δ (n) = |A(n)| − |A(n − 1)|, which records when the sets take a new (randomly chosen) number. It may be possible to prove some statistical result regarding these sets, i.e. that such a set is density zero with some positive probability. There are many questions related to these kinds of bases, and I plan on investigating them further: problems related to the number of representations of a natural number with elements of a two-basis A has been extensively studied, and there are many open problems. More keen to my interest are problems of ‘minimal bases’ and ‘maximal nonbases,’ as outlined in a paper by M.B. Nathanson. 2 I plan on investigating these questions further in the coming months.


Bases and Maximal Nonbases in Additive Number Theory. J. Number Th. 6 (1974), 324-333



Figure 2. A plot of the ‘step plots’ of three randomly chosen bases for [10,000].
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