Beck's three permutations conjecture: A counterexample and some consequences

Alantha Newman, Ofer Neiman, Aleksandar Nikolov

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Given three permutations on the integers 1 through n, consider the set system consisting of each interval in each of the three permutations. In 1982, Beck conjectured that the discrepancy of this set system is O(1). In other words, the conjecture says that each integer from 1 through n can be colored either red or blue so that the number of red and blue integers in each interval of each permutations differs only by a constant. (The discrepancy of a set system based on two permutations is at most two.) Our main result is a counterexample to this conjecture: for any positive integer n = 3k, we construct three permutations whose corresponding set system has discrepancy Ω(log n). Our counterexample is based on a simple recursive construction, and our proof of the discrepancy lower bound is by induction. This construction also disproves a generalization of Beck's conjecture due to Spencer, Srinivasan and Tetali, who conjectured that a set system corresponding to ℓ permutations has discrepancy O(√ℓ). Our work was inspired by an intriguing paper from SODA 2011 by Eisenbrand, Pálvölgyi and Rothvoß, who show a surprising connection between the discrepancy of three permutations and the bin packing problem: They show that Beck's conjecture implies a constant worst-case bound on the additive integrality gap for the Gilmore-Gomory LP relaxation for bin packing in the special case when all items have sizes strictly between 1/4 and 1/2, also known as the three partition problem. Our counterexample shows that this approach to bounding the additive integrality gap for bin packing will not work. We can, however, prove an interesting implication of our construction in the reverse direction: there are instances of bin packing and corresponding optimal basic feasible solutions for the Gilmore-Gomory LP relaxation such that any packing that contains only patterns from the support of these solutions requires at least opt + Ω(log m) bins, where m is the number of items. Finally, we discuss some implications that our construction has for other areas of discrepancy theory.

Original languageEnglish
Article number6375303
Pages (from-to)253-262
Number of pages10
JournalProceedings - Annual IEEE Symposium on Foundations of Computer Science, FOCS
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2012
Event53rd Annual IEEE Symposium on Foundations of Computer Science, FOCS 2012 - New Brunswick, NJ, United States
Duration: 20 Oct 201223 Oct 2012


  • bin packing
  • discrepancy
  • permutations


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