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Graph Isomorphism panto: oh no it isn’t; oh yes it is!

As we reported back in November 2015, László Babai came up with an algorithm to decide if two graphs are isomorphic in quasipolynomial time. At the time, this proof still needed peer review, and in the last week or so, two big developments have occurred on that front.

On Wednesday 4th January, an error was discovered in the proof. Harald Helfgott (of the University of Göttingen in Germany and France’s National Center for Scientific Research), who studied the paper for several months, discovered that the algorithm was not quasipolynomial ($\displaystyle{ 2^{\mathrm{O}((\log n)^{c})} }$ for some fixed $c>0$) as claimed, but merely subexponenential: growing faster than a polynomial but still significantly slower than exponential growth).

Adorably, Babai posted this message on his website:

I apologize to those who were drawn to my lectures on this subject solely because of the quasipolynomial claim, prematurely magnified on the internet in spite of my disclaimers. I believe those looking for an interesting combination of group theory, combinatorics, and algorithms need not feel disappointed.

But maths is all about the drama, so on Monday 9th January Babai announced a fix for the error, and it’s now back on the quasipolynomial table. This has now been confirmed (as of 14th Jan) by Harald Helfgott himself at the Bourbaki seminar in Paris. Amusingly, Helfgott had only been studying the paper in such detail in order to give the seminar, and it was this close scrutiny which allowed him to discover the mistake.

More information

Announcement on Babai’s website

Fixing the UPCC Case of Split-or-Johnson – Babai’s paper detailing the fix (PDF)

Graph Isomorphism Vanquished — Again, at Quanta Magazine

Bourbaki Seminar – Harald Helfgott, on YouTube

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