Lots of Ingleton Matroids


In 1971, Aubrey Ingleton [1] showed that the rank function of representable matroids satisfies additional linear inequalities that do not follow from the usual rank axioms. The inequality he observed now bears his name. It states that, for all sets $A,B,C,D$ in a representable matroid $M$,
&r(A\cup B) + r(A \cup C) + r(A \cup D) + r(B \cup C) + r(B \cup D) \\
\ge & \ r(A) + r(B) + r(A \cup B \cup C) + r(A \cup B \cup D) + r(C \cup D)

As difficult to typeset as it may be, this is an intriguing fact. The problem of characterizing which matroids are representable is difficult; various authors [2][3] have considered whether it is possible to extend one of the usual axiom systems in a natural way to capture precisely the representable matroids. Ingleton’s inequality suggests the kind of extra axiom that might need to be added to the rank axioms if thinking along these lines. Perhaps more importantly, the Ingleton inequality gives a concise way to certify that a matroid is not representable; if $(A,B,C,D)$ is a $4$-tuple in a matroid $M$ violating the inequality, then $M$ is non-representable. This has been useful to many authors that wish to construct non-representable matroids, in particular in a result of Mayhew, Newman, Welsh and Whittle [4] that constructs a very rich family of excluded minors for the real-representable matroid, all violating Ingleton’s inequality.

Finally, the Ingleton inequality is closely related to everyone’s favourite non-representable matroid, the Vámos matroid $V_8$. This rank-$4$ matroid has eight elements and ground set $E$ that is the disjoint union of four two-element sets $P_1,P_2,P_3,P_4$, in which the dependent four-element sets are precisely the pairs $P_i \cup P_j$ with $i < j$ and $(i,j) \ne (3,4)$. The tuple $(A,B,C,D) = (P_1,P_2,P_3,P_4)$ violates the inequality in this case: the left-hand and right-hand sides are $15$ and $16$ respectively. On the other hand, satisfying Ingleton’s inequality for all choices of $A,B,C,D$ is not enough to imply representability; for example, the non-Desargues matroid satisfies Ingleton’s inequality but is still non-representable, as is the direct sum of the Fano and non-Fano matroids.


This post is about a recent result [7] I’ve obtained with Jorn van der Pol that answers what we consider to be a natural question: how `close’ is the class of matroids that satisfy Ingleton’s inequality to the class of representable matroids? For convenience, we will call a matroid Ingleton if Ingleton’s inequality is satisfied for all choices of $(A,B,C,D)$. It might not be immediatley clear what the answer should be. Some (weak) positive evidence is the fact that the Ingleton matroids are closed under minors and duality (see [5], Lemmas 3.9 and 4.5) and that $V_8$ is non-Ingleton. However, I think the natural educated guess goes in the other direction; Ingleton’s inequality seems too coarse to capture, even approximately, a notion as intricate as linear representability In fact, Mayhew, Newman and Whittle [3] have in fact shown that it is impossible to define the class of representable matroids by adding any finite list of rank inequalities to the usual rank axioms, let alone a single inequality.

Our result confirms this suspicion.

Theorem 1: For all sufficiently large $n$, the number of Ingleton matroids with ground set $\{1,\dotsc,n\}$ is at least $2^{\frac{1.94 \log n}{n^2}\binom{n}{n/2}}$.

To view this result in context, the lower bound should be compared to the counts of representable matroids and of all matroids. On a fixed ground set $[n] = \{1,\dotsc, n\}$ The number of representable matroids is at most $2^{n^3/4}$ for all $n \ge 12$ [6], and the number of matroids is at least $2^{\tfrac{1}{n}\binom{n}{n/2}}$. (Both these upper and lower bounds are in fact correct counts up to a constant factor in the exponent). This first expression is singly exponential in $n$, having the form $2^{\mathrm{poly}(n)}$, while the second is doubly exponential, having the form $2^{2^n/\mathrm{poly}(n)}$. The lower bound in our theorem is of the second type, showing that the Ingleton matroids asymptoticlaly dwarf the representable matroids in number. In other words, knowing that a matroid is Ingleton tells you essentially nothing about whether it is representable. (In fact, our techniques show that the number of rank-$4$ Ingleton matroids on $[n]$ is asymptotically larger than the class of all representable matroids on $[n]$, which seems surprising.) The ideas in the proof of the above theorem are simple and we obtain a nice excluded minor result on the way; I briefly sketch them below. For the full proof, see https://arxiv.org/abs/1710.01924 .

Ingleton Sparse Paving Matroids

Our proof actually constructs a large number of Ingleton matroids of a specific sort: sparse paving. These matroids, which have come up in previous matroidunion posts, play a very special role in the landscape of all matroids; they are matroids that, while having a somewhat trivial structure, are conjectured to comprise almost all matroids. For the definition, it is easier to talk about the nonbases of a matroid than its bases. Let $\binom{[n]}{r}$ denote the collection of $r$-element subsets of $[n]$. Given a rank-$r$ matroid on $[n]$, call a dependent set in $\binom{[n]}{r}$ a nonbasis of $M$.

A rank-$r$ matroid is sparse paving if for any two nonbases $U_1,U_2$ of $M$, we have $|U_1 \cap U_2| < r-1$. Equivalently, no two nonbases of $M$ differ by a single exchange, or every dependent set of $M$ is a circuit-hyperplane of $M$. In fact, this condition itself implies that the matroid axioms are satisfied; given any collection $\mathcal{K}$ of $r$-element subsets of $[n]$, if no two sets in $K$ intersect in exactly $r-1$ elements, then $\mathcal{K}$ is the set of nonbases of a sparse paving matroid on $[n]$. Thus, an easy way to guarantee that a set $\mathcal{K}$ is actually the set of nonbases of a matroid is to prove that no two of its members intersect in $r-1$ elements.

Our key lemma gives a simpler way to understand Ingleton’s inequality for sparse paving matroids. In general, it is very hard to mentally juggle the $A$’s, $B$’s, $C$’s and $D$’s while working with the inequality, but for sparse paving matroids, things are much simpler.

Lemma 1: If $M$ is a rank-$r$ sparse paving matroid, then $M$ is Ingleton if and only if there do not exist pairwise disjoint sets $P_1,P_2,P_3,P_4,K$ where $|P_1| = |P_2| = |P_3| = |P_4| = 2$ and $|K|=r-4$, such that the five $r$-element sets $K \cup P_i \cup P_j: i < j, (i,j) \ne (3,4)$ are nonbases, while the set $K \cup P_3 \cup B_4$ is a basis.

This statement may look technical, but it should also look familiar. If $P_1,P_2,P_3,P_4,K$ are sets as above, then the minor $N = (M / K)|(P_1\cup P_2 \cup P_3 \cup P_4)$ is an eight-element sparse paving matroid having a partition $(P_1,P_2,P_3,P_4)$ into two-element sets, where precisely five of the six sets $P_i \cup P_j$ are nonbases, and the last is a basis. This is a structure very similar to that of the Vámos matroid. Call an eight-element, rank-$4$ matroid $N$ having such a property Vámos-like. (Such an $N$ need not be precisely the Vámos matroid, as there may be four-element sets of other forms that are also nonbases of $N$). In any Vámos-like matroid, $(A,B,C,D) = (P_1,P_2,P_3,P_4)$ will violate Ingleton’s inequality. We can restate Lemma 1 as follows.

Lemma 1 (simplified): If $M$ is a sparse paving matroid, then $M$ is Ingleton if and only if $M$ has no Vámos-like minor.

There are evidently only finitely many Vámos-like matroids, since they have eight elements; in fact, thanks to Dillon Mayhew and Gordon Royle’s excellent computational work [8], we know all $39$ of them; as well as the Vámos matroid itself, they include the matroid AG$(3,2)^-$ obtained by relaxing a circuit-hyperplane of the rank-$4$ binary affine geometry. It is easy to show that the sparse paving matroids are themselves a minor-closed class with excluded minors $U_{1,1} \oplus U_{0,2}$ and $U_{0,1} \oplus U_{2,2}$. Combined with Lemma 1, this gives us a nice excluded minor theorem:

Theorem 2: There are precisely $41$ excluded minors for the class of Ingleton sparse paving matroids: the $39$ Vámos-like matroids, as well as $U_{1,1} \oplus U_{0,2}$ and $U_{0,1} \oplus U_{2,2}$.

The Proof

Armed with Lemma 1, we can now take a crack at proving our main theorem. For simplicity, we will prove a slightly weaker result, with a worse constant of $0.2$ and no logarithmic factor in the exponent. The stronger result is obtained by doing some counting tricks a bit more carefully. The good news is that the proof of the weaker theorem is short enough to fit completely in this post.

Theorem 3: For all sufficiently large $n$, there are at least $2^{0.2n^{-2}\binom{n}{n/2}}$ Ingleton sparse paving matroids with ground set $[n]$

Let $n$ be large and let $r = \left\lfloor n/2 \right\rfloor$ and $N = \binom{n}{r}$. Let $c = 0.4$. We will take a uniformly random subset $\mathcal{X}$ of $\left\lfloor c n^{-2}\binom{n}{r}\right\rfloor$ of the $\binom{n}{r}$ sets in $\binom{[n]}{r}$. We then hope that $\mathcal{X}$ is the set of nonbases of an Ingleton sparse paving matroid. If it is not, we remove some sets in $\mathcal{X}$ so that it is.

We consider two possibilities that, together, encompass both ways $\mathcal{X}$ can fail to be the set of nonbases of a sparse paving matroid. They are

  1. $\mathcal{X}$ is not the set of nonbases of a sparse paving matroid. (That is, there are sets $U_1,U_2 \in \mathcal{X}$ whose intersection has size $r-1$.)
  2. $\mathcal{X}$ is the set of nonbases of a sparse paving matroid, but this matroid fails to be Ingleton. (That is, there are pairwise disjoint subsets $P_1,P_2,P_3,P_4,K$ of $[n]$ where $|P_1| = |P_2| = |P_3| = |P_4| = 2$ and $|K|=r-4$, such that at least five of the six $r$-element sets $K \cup P_i \cup P_j: i < j, (i,j)$ are nonbases.)

Let $a(\mathcal{X}),b(\mathcal{X})$ denote the number of times each of these types of failure occurs. The condition in (2) is slightly coarser than required, for reasons we will see in a minute. So $a(X)$ is the number of pairs $(U_1,U_2)$ with $|U_1 \cap U_2| = r-1$ and $U_1,U_2 \in X$, and $b(X)$ is the number of $5$-tuples $(P_1,P_2,P_3,P_4,K)$ satisfying the condition in (2).

Claim: If $n$ is large, then $\mathbf{E}(a(\mathcal{X}) + 2b(\mathcal{X})) < \tfrac{1}{2}|\mathcal{X}|$.

Proof of claim: The number of pairs $U_1,U_2$ intersecting in $r-1$ elements is $\binom{n}{r}r(n-r) < n^2\binom{n}{r}$. For each such pair, the probability that $U_1,U_2 \in X$ is at most $(|\mathcal{X}|/\binom{n}{r})^2 \le c^2n^{-4}$. Therefore \[\mathbf{E}(a(\mathcal{X})) \le c^2n^{-2}\binom{n}{r} = (1+o(1))c|\mathcal{X}|.\]

The number of $5$-tuples $(K,P_1,P_2,P_3,P_4)$ pf disjoint sets where $|K| = r-4$ and $|P_i| = 2$ is at most $\binom{n}{2}^4\binom{n-8}{r-4} < \tfrac{n^8}{16}\binom{n}{r}$. The probability that, for some such tuple, at least five of the sets $K \cup P_i \cup P_j$ are in $X$ is at most $6(|\mathcal{X}|/\binom{n}{r})^5 \le 6c^5n^{-10}$. Therefore
\[\mathbf{E}(b(\mathcal{X})) \le \frac{n^8}{16}\binom{n}{r}\cdot 6c^5 n^{-10} = (1+o(1))\tfrac{3}{8}c^4|\mathcal{X}|.\]
By linearity of expectation, the claim now holds since $c = 0.4$ gives $c + \tfrac{3}{4}c^4 < \tfrac{1}{2}$.

Now, let $\mathcal{X}_0$ be a set of size $\left\lfloor c n^{-2}\binom{n}{r}\right\rfloor$ for which $a(\mathcal{X}) + 2b(\mathcal{X}) < \tfrac{1}{2}|\mathcal{X}_0|$. We now remove from $\mathcal{X}_0$ one of the two sets $U_1,U_2$ for each pair contributing to $a(\mathcal{X}_0)$, and two of the sets $K \cup P_i \cup P_j$ for each tuple $(K,P_1,P_2,P_3,P_4)$ contributing to $b(\mathcal{X}_0)$. This leaves a subset $\mathcal{X}_0’$ of $\mathcal{X}_0$ of size $\tfrac{1}{2}|\mathcal{X}_0| \approx \tfrac{1}{2}cn^{-2}\binom{n}{r} = 0.2n^{-2}\binom{n}{r}$. By construction and Lemma 1, $\mathcal{X}_0’$ is the set of nonbases of a rank-$r$ Ingleton sparse paving matroid on $[n]$. However (and this is where condition (2) needed to be strengthened slightly), so are all subsets of $\mathcal{X}_0’$. This puts the size of $\mathcal{X}_0’$ in the exponent; there are therefore at least $2^{0.2n^{-2}\binom{n}{n/2}}$ Ingleton sparse paving matroids on $[n]$, as required.


  1. A.W. Ingleton. Representation of matroids. In D.J.A Welsh, editor, Combinatorial mathematics and its applications (Proceedings of a conference held at the Mathematical Institute, Oxford, from 7-10 July, 1969). Academic Press, 1971.
  2. P. Vámos. The missing axiom of matroid theory is lost forever. J. London Math. Soc. 18 (1978), 403-408
  3. D. Mayhew, M. Newman and G. Whittle. Yes, the “missing axiom” of matroid theory is lost forever, arXiv:1412.8399
  4. D. Mayhew, M. Newman and G. Whittle. On excluded minors for real-representability. J. Combin. Theory Ser. B 66 (2009), 685-689. 
  5. A. Cameron. Kinser inequalities and related matroids. Master’s Thesis, Victoria University of Wellington. Also available at arXiv:1401.0500
  6. P. Nelson. Almost all matroids are non-representable. arXiv:1605.04288
  7. P. Nelson and J. van der Pol. Doubly exponentially many Ingleton matroids. arXiv:1710.01924
  8. D. Mayhew and G.F. Royle. Matroids with nine elements. J. Combin. Theory Ser. B 98 (2008), 882-890.

The densest matroids without a given projective geometry minor

This post is about some work done in collaboration with my graduate student Zachary Walsh. The problem is a simple one, and is the binary matroid analogue of a question studied by Thomason [1] about the edge-density of graphs with no $K_t$-minor. He shows that a simple graph on $n$ vertices without a $K_t$-minor has at most $\alpha(t)n$ edges, where $\alpha(t)$ is a best-possible constant depending only on $t$ that has the order of $t \sqrt{\log t}$. Determining this order exactly is no mean feat, but a disappointing reality is that the extremal examples are random graphs – in other words, there is no nice explicit construction for graphs that are as dense as possible with no $K_t$-minor. Because of this, tightening the upper bound of $\alpha(t)n$ to a specific function of $n$ and $t$ seems near-impossible.

The analogous question for matroids is much more pleasant. We’ll stick to binary matroids here, but in [2], we prove versions of theorem I discuss for all prime fields. For binary matroids, projective geometries play the same role that cliques do in graphs. Our main theorem is the following:

Theorem 1: Let $t$ be a nonnegative integer. If $n$ is sufficiently large, and $M$ is a simple rank-$n$ binary matroid with no $\mathrm{PG}(t+2,2)$-minor, then $|M| \le 2^t\binom{n+1-t}{2} + 2^t-1$. Furthermore, there is a unique simple rank-$n$ binary matroid for which equality holds.

Unlike for graphs, we can write down a nice function. Note that for $t = 0$, the function above is just $\binom{n+1}{2}$; in fact, in this case, the cycle matroid of a clique on $n+1$ vertices is the one example for which equality holds and in fact the result specialises to an old theorem of Heller [3] about the density of matroids without an $F_7$-minor. This was the only previously known case.

The case for $t = 1$ was conjectured by Irene in her post from 2014. Irene also conjectured the extremal examples; they are all even cycle matroids. These can be defined as the matroids having a representation of the form $\binom{w}{A}$, where $A$ is a matrix having at most two nonzero entries per column, and $w$ is any binary row vector. The largest simple rank-$n$ even cycle matroids can be shown to have no $\mathrm{PG}(3,2)$-minor and have $2\binom{n}{2}-1$ elements; this agrees with the expression in our theorem for $t = 1$.

These first two examples suggest a pattern allowing us to construct the extremal matroids more generally; we want a matrix with $n$ rows and as many columns as possible, having distinct nonzero columns, that is obtained from a matrix with at most two nonzero entries per column by appending $t$ rows. For a given column, there are $2^t$ choices for the first $t$ entries, and $\binom{n-t}{0} + \binom{n-t}{1} + \binom{n-t}{2}$ for the last $n-2$ (as we can choose zero, one or two positions where the column is nonzero). Since we can’t choose the zero vector both times, the total number of possible columns is $2^t(\binom{n-t}{0} + \binom{n-t}{1} + \binom{n-t}{2})-1 = 2^t\binom{n-t+1}{2} + 2^t-1$, the bound in our theorem. Let’s call this maximal matroid $G^t(n)$. Note that $G^0(n)$ is just the cycle matroid $M(K_{n+1})$

We can prove by induction that $G^t(n)$ has no $\mathrm{PG}(t+2,2)$-minor; the $t = 0$ case is obvious since $\mathrm{PG}(2,2)$ is nongraphic. Then, one can argue that appending a row to a binary representation of a matroid with no $\mathrm{PG}(k,2)$-minor gives a matroid with no $\mathrm{PG}(k+1,2)$-minor; since (for $t > 1$) $G^{t}(n)$ is obtained from $G^{t-1}(n-1)$ by taking parallel extensions of columns and then appending a row, inductively it has no $\mathrm{PG}(t+2,2)$-minor as required.

All I have argued here is that equality holds for the claimed examples. The proof in the other direction makes essential use of the structure theory for minor-closed classes of matroids due to Geelen, Gerards and Whittle [4]; essentially we reduce Theorem 1 to the case where $M$ is very highly connected, then use the results in [4] about matroids in minor-closed classes that have very high connectivity to argue the bound. I discussed a statement that uses these structure theorems in similar ways back in this post.

We can actually say things about excluding matroids other than just projective geometries. The machinery in [2] also gives a result about excluding affine geometries:

Theorem 2: Let $t \ge 0$ be an integer and $n$ be sufficiently large. If $M$ is a simple rank-$n$ binary matroid with no $\mathrm{AG}(t+3,2)$-minor, then $|M| \le 2^t\binom{n+1-t}{2} + 2^t-1$. Furthermore, if equality holds, then $M$ is isomorphic to $G^t(n)$.

This was proved for $t = 0$ in [5] but was unknown for larger $t$. Again, the examples where equality holds are these nice matroids $G^t(n)$. Our more general result characterizes precisely which minors we can exclude and get similar behaviour. To state it, we need one more definition. Let $A$ be the binary representation of $G^t(n+1)$ discussed earlier (where each column has at most two nonzero entries in the last $n+1-t$ positions) and let $A’$ be obtained from $A$ by appending a single column, labelled $e$, whose nonzero entries are in the last three positions. Let $G^t(n)’$ be the simplification of $M(A’) / e$; so $G^t(n)’$ is a rank-$n$ matroid obtained by applying a single `projection’ to $G^t(n+1)$. I will conclude by stating the most general version of our theorem for binary matroids; with a little work, it implies both the previous results.

Theorem 3: Let $t \ge 0$ be an integer and $N$ be a simple rank-$k$ binary matroid. The following are equivalent:

  • For all sufficiently large $n$, if $M$ is a simple rank-$n$ binary matroid with no $N$-minor, then $|M| \le 2^t\binom{n+1-t}{2} + 2^t-1$, and $M \cong G^t(n)$ if equality holds. 
  • $N$ is a restriction of $G^t(k)’$ but not of $G^t(k)$.


[1] A. Thomason: The extremal function for complete minors, J. Combinatorial Theory Ser. B 81 (2001), 318–338.

[2] P. Nelson, Z. Walsh, The extremal function for geometry minors of matroids over prime fields, arXiv:1703.03755 [math.CO]

[3] I. Heller, On linear systems with integral valued solutions, Pacific. J. Math. 7 (1957) 1351–1364.

[4] J. Kung, D. Mayhew, I. Pivotto, and G. Royle, Maximum size binary matroids with no AG(3,2)-minor are graphicSIAM J. Discrete Math. 28 (2014), 1559–1577.

[5] J. Geelen, B. Gerards and G. Whittle, The highly connected matroids in minor-closed classes, Ann. Comb. 19 (2015), 107–123.


The number of representable matroids

Hello everyone – MatroidUnion is back!

Rudi and Jorn wrote a nice post earlier this year about questions in asymptotic matroid theory, and beautiful new results they’ve obtained in this area. While reading one of their papers on this topic, I saw that they restated the conjecture that almost all matroids on $n$ elements are non-representable. This was first explicitly written down by Mayhew, Newman, Welsh and Whittle [1] but earlier alluded to by Brylawski and Kelly [2] (in fact, the latter authors claim that the problem is an ‘exercise in random matroids’ but give no clue how to complete it). Indeed I would argue that most of us would independently come up with the same conjecture after thinking about these questions for a few minutes; surely representable matroids are vanishingly rare among all matroids!

In any case, reading this conjecture reminded me that, like many ‘obvious’ statements in asymptotic matroid theory it was still open, and seemed somewhat hard to approach with existing techniques. I’m happy to say that this is no longer the case; as it happened, I discovered a short proof that I will now give in this post. The proof is also on the arXiv [3]; there, it is written with the bounds as tight as possible. Here, I will relax the calculations a little here to make the proof more accessible, as well as using more elementary bounds so the entire argument is self-contained. The theorem we prove is the following:

Theorem: For $n \ge 10$, the number of representable matroids with ground set $[n] = \{1,\dotsc,n\}$ is at most $2^{2n^3}$.

The number of matroids on $n$ elements is well-known to be doubly exponential in $n$, so the above gives the ‘almost all’ statement we need, in fact confirming the intuition that representable matroids are extremely rare among matroids in general. The bound in the proof can in fact be improved to something of the form $2^{n^3(1/4 + o(1))}$, and I believe the true count has this form; see [3] for more of a discussion.

Our path to the proof is indirect; we proceed by considering a more general question on `zero-patterns’ of polynomials, in the vein of [4]. Let $f_1, \dotsc, f_N$ be integer polynomials in variables $x_1, \dotsc, x_m$. Write $\|f\|$ for the absolute value of the largest coefficient of a polynomial $f$, which we call its height; it is fairly easy to prove that $\|f + g\| \le \|f\| + \|g\|$ and that $\|fg\| \le \binom{\deg(f) + \deg(g)}{\deg(f)} \|f\|\ \|g\|$ for all $f$ and $g$. We will map these polynomials to various fields; for a field $\mathbb{K}$ and a polynomial $f$, write $f^{\mathbb{K}}$ for the polynomial in $\mathbb{K}[x_1, \dotsc, x_m]$ obtained by mapping each coefficient of $f$ to an element of $\mathbb{K}$ using the natural homomorphism $\phi\colon \mathbb{Z} \to \mathbb{K}$.

Given a field $\mathbb{K}$ and some $u_1, \dotsc, u_m \in \mathbb{K}$, the polynomials $f_i^{\mathbb{K}}(u_1, \dotsc, u_m)$ all take values in $\mathbb{K}$, and in general some will be zero and some nonzero in $\mathbb{K}$. We are interested in the number of different ways this can happen, where we allow both the field $\mathbb{K}$ and the $u_j$ to be chosen arbitrarily; to this end, we say a set $S \subseteq [N]$ is \realisable with respect to the polynomials $f_1, \dotsc, f_N$ if there is a field $\mathbb{K}$ and there are values $u_1, \dotsc, u_m \in \mathbb{K}$ such that \[S = \{i \in [N]: f^{\mathbb{K}}(u_1, \dotsc, u_m) \ne 0_{\mathbb{K}}\}.\] In other words, $S$ is realisable if and only if, after mapping to some field and substituting some values into the arguments, $S$ is the support of the list $f_1, \dotsc, f_N$. We will get to the matroid application in a minute; for now, we prove a lemma that bounds the number of different realisable sets:

Lemma: Let $c,d$ be integers and let $f_1, \dotsc, f_N$ be integer polynomials in $x_1, \dotsc, x_m$ with $\deg(f_i) \le d$ and $\|f_i\| \le c$ for all $i$. If an integer $k$ satisfies
\[ 2^k > (2kc(dN)^d)^{N\binom{Nd+m}{m}}, \] then there are at most $k$ realisable sets for $(f_1, \dotsc, f_N)$.

Proof: If not, then there are distinct realisable sets $S_1, \dotsc, S_k \subseteq [N]$. For each $i \in [k]$, define a polynomial $g_i$ by $g_i(x_1, \dotsc, x_m) = \prod_{j \in S_i}f_j(x)$. Clearly $\deg(g_i) \le Nd$, and since each $g_i$ is the product of at most $N$ different $f_i$, we use our upper bound on the product of heights to get
\[ \|g_i\| \le c^N \binom{dN}{d}^N (2kc’)^D\], so we have a collision – there exist distinct sets $I,I’ \subseteq [k]$ such that $g_I = g_I’$. By removing common elements we can assume that $I$ and $I’$ are disjoint.

Let $\ell \in I \cup I’$ be chosen so that $|S_{\ell}|$ is as small as possible. We can assume that $\ell \in I$. Since the set $S_{\ell}$ is realisable, there is a field $\mathbb{K}$ and there are values $u_1, \dotsc, u_m \in \mathbb{K}$ such that $S_{\ell} = \{i \in [N]: f_{\ell}^{\mathbb{K}}(u_1, \dotsc, u_m) \ne 0_{\mathbb{K}}\}$. So $g^{\mathbb{K}}_{\ell}$, by its definition, is the product of nonzero elements of $\mathbb{K}$, so is nonzero. For each $t \in I \cup I’ – \{\ell\}$, on the other hand, since $|S_t| \ge |S_\ell|$ and $S_t \ne S_\ell$ there is some $j \in S_t – S_\ell$, which implies that the zero term $f^{\mathbb{K}}_j(u_1, \dotsc, u_m)$ shows up in the product $g^{\mathbb{K}}_t(u_1, \dotsc, u_m)$. It follows from these two observations that
\[ 0_{\mathbb{K}} \ne g^{\mathbb{K}}_I(u_1, \dotsc, u_m) = g^{\mathbb{K}}_{I’}(u_1, \dotsc, u_m) = 0_{\mathbb{K}}, \] which is a contradiction.

Why is this relevant to representable matroids? Because representing a rank-$r$ matroid $M$ with ground set $[n]$ is equivalent to finding an $r \times n$ matrix $[x_{i,j}]$ over some field, for which the $r \times r$ determinants corresponding to bases of $M$ are nonzero and the other determinants are zero. In other words, a matroid $M$ is representable if and only if the set $\mathcal{B}$ of bases of $M$ is realisable with respect to the polynomials $(f_A \colon A \in \binom{[n]}{r})$, where $f_A$ is the integer polynomial in the $rn$ variables $[x_{ij} \colon i \in [r],j \in [n]]$ that is the determinant of the $r \times r$ submatrix of $[x_{ij}]$ with column set $A$. Thus, the number of rank-$r$ representable matroids on $n$ elements is the number of realisable sets with respect to these $f_A$.

To bound this quantity, we apply the Lemma, for which we need to understand the parameters $N,m,a,d$. Now $m = rn \le n^2$ is just the number of variables. $N = \binom{n}{r} \le 2^n$ is the number of $r \times r$ submatrices. (We can in fact assume that $N = 2^n$ and $m = n^2$ by introducing dummy polynomials and variables). Finally, since the $f_A$ are determinants, we have $\deg(f_A) = r \le n$ and $\|f_A\| = 1$ for all $a$, so $(N,m,c,d) = (2^n,n^2,1,n)$ will do. To apply the lemma, it suffices to find a $k$ for which
\[ 2^k > (2kc(dN)^d)^{N\binom{Nd+m}{m}}, \] or in other words, \[k > N\binom{Nd+m}{m}\log_2(2kc(dN)^d)).\] If you are happy to believe that $k = 2^{2n^3}/2n$ satisfies this, then you can skip the next two estimates, but for the sticklers among us, here they are:
Using $(N,m,d,c) = (2^n,n^2,n,1)$ and $n \ge 20$ we have \[N\binom{Nd+m}{m} \le 2^n(2^{n+1}n)^{n^2} = 2^{n^2(n+1 + \log_2(n)) + n} \le 2^{2n^3}/6n^4.\] (Here we need that $n^3 > n^2(1+\log_2 n) + n + \log_2(6n^4)$, which holds for $n \ge 10$.) Similarly, for $k = 2^{2n^3}/(2n)$ we have $2kc < 2^{2n^3}$, so
\[\log_2(2kc(dN)^d)) < \log_2(2^{2n^3}(n2^n)^n) < 2n^3 + n^2 + n \log_2 n < 3n^3.\] Combining these estimates, we see that $k = 2^{2n^3}/2n$ satisfies the hypotheses of the lemma, so this $k$ is an upper bound on the number of rank-$r$ representable matroids on $n$ elements. This is only a valid bound for each particular $r$, but that is what our extra factor of $2n$ was for; the rank $r$ can take at most $n+1$ values, so the number of representable matroids on $[n]$ in total is at most $(n+1)k < 2nk = 2^{2n^3}$. This completes the proof of the main theorem.

[1] D. Mayhew, M. Newman, D. Welsh, and G. Whittle, On the asymptotic proportion of connected matroids, European J. Combin. 32 (2011), 882-890.
[2] T. Brylawski and D. Kelly, Matroids and combinatorial geometries, University of North Carolina Department of Mathematics, Chapel Hill, N.C. (1980). Carolina Lecture Series
[3] P. Nelson, Almost all matroids are non-representable, arXiv:1605.04288 [math.CO]
[4] L. Rónyai, L. Babai and M. K. Ganapathy, On the number of zero-patterns of a sequence of polynomials, J. Amer. Math. Soc. 14 (2001), 717–735.

The limits of structure theory?

This post is about some conjectures on matroid minor structure theory in the most general setting possible: excluding a uniform matroid. Jim Geelen previously discussed questions in this area in [1], and most of what I write here comes from discussions with him.

Whether they be for graphs or matroids, qualitative structure theorems for minor-closed classes usually fit a particular template. They make a statement that the members of a minor-closed class are ‘close’ to having a particular basic structure, where the structure should be something that differs the graphs/matroids in the class from arbitrary/random ones. In the case of proper minor-closed classes of graphs, this structure takes the form of embeddability on a fixed topological surface, as was famously shown by Robertson and Seymour. For matroids representable over a fixed finite field, the structure arises from classes of group-labelled graphs that embed on a fixed topological surface, classes of group-labelled graphs in general, and (when the order of the field is non-prime) classes of matroids representable over a fixed subfield. These results for finite fields have been shown in recent years by Geelen, Gerards and Whittle, and have already given us powerful tools for understanding the matroids in minor-closed classes, as demonstrated most notably in their proof of Rota’s conjecture.

Extending graph minors structure theory to minor-closed classes of matroids over finite fields was no mean feat, but there is real reason to believe that we can generalise it further.  It seems unlikely that one could obtain very strong structural results for all minor-closed classes; for example, the class of sparse paving matroids (that is, the matroids whose girth is at least the rank and whose cogirth at least the corank) is minor-closed, and is conjectured to contain almost all matroids – intuitively, a structure theorem that allows us to ‘understand’ the class of sparse paving matroids seems unlikely. The sticking point here seems to be that this class contains all uniform matroids. At the moment, we think that one should be able to obtain sensible qualititative structure theorems precisely for the minor-closed classes that don’t contain all the uniform matroids. In this post, I’ll state a conjectures that makes this kind of statement. For this, we need two ingredients.

Basic Structures

We first need an idea which basic structures we expect to see as outcomes. These turn out to be pretty close to what goes on in the finite field representable case. Let $\mathcal{M}$ be a minor-closed class not containing all uniform matroids. Let $U$ be a uniform matroid not contained in $\mathcal{M}$. Without loss of generality, we may assume that $U = U_{s,2s}$ where $s \ge 4$, as every uniform matroid is a minor of a matroid of this form. Here are some examples of interesting classes that  $\mathcal{M}$ could be:

  • The class of $\mathbb{F}$-representable matroids, where $\mathbb{F}$ is some finite field over which $U$ is not representable.
  • The class of graphic matroids.
  • The class of bicircular matroids. (These are the ‘graph-like’ matroids in which each edge element is placed freely on the line between two vertex elements).
  • The class of frame matroids (i.e. the matroids of the form $M \backslash V$, where $V$ is a basis of a matroid $M$ for which every fundamental circuit has size at most two). This class contains both the previous ones, as well as various other graph-like matroids such as those arising from group-labelled graphs. $U_{4,8}$ is not a frame matroid and therefore neither is $U$.
  • The class of duals of frame matroids. (Or graphic/bicircular matroids)
  • A class of matroids arising (as graphic, cographic, bicircular, group-labelled-graphic, etc…)  from the class of graphs that embed on some surface.

Although they are not at all trivial from a graph-theoretic perspective, classes of the last type are less rich as they all have small vertical separations. Classes of the the other types, however, contain matroids of arbitrarily high vertical connectivity. Structural statements simplify a lot when they are made about highly connected matroids, and the main conjecture I’ll be stating will apply only to very highly vertically connected matroids in a given minor-closed class; the last type of class will therefore not show up.

The divide between the ‘highly connected’ minor-closed classes and other classes is made concrete by the following conjecture.

Conjecture 1. Let $\mathcal{M}$ be a minor-closed class of matroids not containing all uniform matroids. Either

  • $\mathcal{M}$ contains the graphic matroids or their duals,
  • $\mathcal{M}$ contains the bicircular matroids or their duals, or
  • there is an integer $t$ so that $\mathcal{M}$ does not contain any vertically $t$-connected matroid on at least $2t$ elements.


We now need to say what, according to our structural conjecture, exactly is meant by two matroids being ‘close’. For minor-closed classes of graphs, ‘closeness’ is measured in terms of vortices, apex vertices, and clique-sums. For matroids over finite fields, the structure theory considers two matroids on the same ground set to be ‘close’ if they have representations that differ by a bounded-rank matrix. None of these ideas quite work for matroids in general, as we don’t have representations, let alone vertices. However, there is something that will.

single-element projection of a matroid $M$ is a matroid $N$ for which there exists a matroid $L$ such that $L \backslash e = M$ and $L / e = N$. If $N$ is a single-element projection of $M$ then $N$ is a single-element lift of $M$. Single-element lifts and projections are dual notions that ‘perturb’ a matroid by a small amount to another matroid on the same ground set; for example, they change the rank and corank of any given set by at most $1$. We write $\mathrm{dist}(M,N)$ to denote the minimum number of single-element lifts and/or projections to transform $M$ into $N$. If this ‘distance’ is small, then $M$ and $N$ are ‘close’. This will serve as the notion of closeness in our structure conjecture. (In a more general structure theory, vortices will also arise). This distance only makes sense if $M$ and $N$ have the same ground set, if this is not the case, then we say $\mathrm{dist}(M,N) = \infty$.

Incidentally (and I’m looking at you, grad students), I would like an answer to the following question, which would simplify the notion of perturbation distance – I don’t have a good intuition for whether it should be true or false, and either way it could be easy.

Problem. Let $M$ and $N$ be matroids for which there exists a matroid $L$ that is a single-element lift of both $M$ and $N$. Does there exist a matroid $P$ that is a single-element projection of both $M$ and $N$?

The Conjecture

Here goes! If $\mathcal{M}$ is a minor-closed class not containing all uniform matroids, then the highly connected members of $\mathcal{M}$ should be close to being frame, co-frame, or representable.

Conjecture 2: Let $\mathcal{M}$ be a minor-closed class of matroids not containing a uniform matroid $U$. There is an integer $t \ge 0$ so that, if $M$ is a vertically $t$-connected matroid in $\mathcal{M}$, then there is a matroid $N$ such that $\mathrm{dist}(M,N) \le t$ and either

  • $N$ is a frame matroid,
  • $N^*$ is a frame matroid, or
  • $N$ is representable over a field $\mathbb{F}$ for which $U$ is not $\mathbb{F}$-representable.

If true, this conjecture would tell us that minor-closed classes of matroids inhabit a very beautiful universe. The hypotheses are very minimal, applying to a massive variety of different $\mathcal{M}$. The conclusions, on the other hand, imply that all ‘nondegenerate’ members of $\mathcal{M}$ are at a small distance from a matroid $N$ that is very far from being generic. Somehow, as happens again and again in matroid theory, the ‘special’ classes of representable and graph-like matroids are in fact fundamental to understanding the minor order.

Conjecture 2 is one of the many goals of a more general matroid structure theory; in my next post I will discuss some recent progress we have made towards it.


[1] Some open problems on excluding a uniform matroid, J. Geelen, Adv. Appl. Math. 41 (2008), 628-637.