The Kolakoski-Cantor set

A 0-1 sequence can be interpreted as a point in the interval [0,1]. But this makes the long-term behavior of the sequence practically invisible due to limited resolution of our screens (and eyes). To make it visible, we can also plot the points obtained by shifting the binary sequence to the left (Bernoulli shift, which also goes by many other names). The resulting orbit  is often dense in the interval, which doesn’t really help us visualize any patterns. But sometimes we get an interesting complex structure.

kol_set_small
The Kolakoski-Cantor set, KC

The vertical axis here is the time parameter, the number of dyadic shifts. The 0-1 sequence being visualized is the Kolakoski sequence in its binary form, with 0 and 1 instead of 1 and 2. By definition, the n-th run of equal digits in this sequence has length {x_n+1}. In particular, 000 and 111 never occur, which contributes to the blank spots near 0 and 1.

Although the sequence is not periodic, the set is quite stable in time; it does not make a visible difference whether one plots the first 10,000 shifts, or 10,000,000. The apparent symmetry about 1/2 is related to the open problem of whether the Kolakoski sequence is mirror invariant, meaning that together with any finite word (such as 0010) it also contains its complement (that would be 1101).

There are infinitely many forbidden words apart from 000 and 111 (and the words containing those). For example, 01010 cannot occur because it has 3 consecutive runs of length 1, which implies having 000 elsewhere in the sequence. For the same reason, 001100 is forbidden. This goes on forever: 00100100 is forbidden because it implies having 10101, etc.

The number of distinct words of length n in the Kolakoski sequence is bounded by a power of n (see F. M. Dekking, What is the long range order in the Kolakoski sequence?). Hence, the set pictured above is covered by {O(n^p)} intervals of length {2^{-n}}, which implies it (and even its closure) is zero-dimensional in any fractal sense (has Minkowski dimension 0).

The set KC apparently does not have any isolated points; this is also an open problem, of recurrence (whether every word that appears in the sequence has to appear infinitely many times). Assuming this is so, the closure of the orbit is a totally disconnected compact set without isolated points, i.e., a Cantor set. It is not self-similar (not surprising, given it’s zero-dimensional), but its relation to the Bernoulli shift implies a structure resembling self-similarity:

kolhalf
KC is covered by two copies scaled by 1/2

Applying the transformations {x\mapsto x/2} and {x\mapsto (1+x)/2} yields two disjoint smaller copies that cover the original set, but with some spare parts left. The leftover bits exist because not every word in the sequence can be preceded by both 0 and 1.

kolx2
KC covered by two copies scaled by 2

Applying the transformations {x\mapsto 2x} and {x\mapsto 2x-1} yields two larger copies that cover the original set. There are no extra parts within the interval [0,1] but there is an overlap between the two copies.

The number {c = \inf KC\approx 0.146778684766479} appears several times in the structure of the set: for instance, the central gap is {((1-c)/2, (1+c)/2)}, the second-largest gap on the left has the left endpoint {(1-c)/4}, etc. The Inverse Symbolic Calculator has not found anything about this number. Its binary expansion begins with 0.001 001 011 001 001 101 001 001 101 100… which one can recognize as the smallest binary number that can be written without doing anything three times in a row. (Can’t have 000; also can’t have 001 three times in a row; and 001 010 is not allowed because it contains 01010, three runs of length 1. Hence, the number begins with 001 001 011.) This number is obviously irrational, but other than that…

In conclusion, the Python code used to plot KC.

import numpy as np
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
n = 1000000
a = np.zeros(n, dtype=int)
j = 0                  
same = False  
for i in range(1, n):
    if same:
        a[i] = a[i-1]    
        same = False
    else:
        a[i] = 1 - a[i-1]
        j += 1            
        same = bool(a[j])
v = np.array([1/2**k for k in range(60, 0, -1)])
b = np.convolve(a, v, mode='valid')
plt.plot(b, np.arange(np.size(b)), '.', ms=2)
plt.show()

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