Mathematics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for people studying math at any level and professionals in related fields. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

This is a problem about the meeting time of several independent random walks on the lattice $\mathbb{Z}^1$:

Suppose there is a thief at the origin 0 and $N$ policemen at the point 2.

The thief and the policemen began their random walks independently at the same time following the same rule: move left or right both with probability 1/2.

Let $\tau_N$ denote the first time that some policeman meets the thief.

It's not hard to prove $E\tau_1=\infty$.

so what is the smallest $N$ such that $E\tau_N<\infty$?

I was shown this problem on my undergraduate course on Markov chains, but my teacher did not tell me the solution. Does anyone know the solution or references to the problem?

share|cite|improve this question
You can probably consider a Markov chain on $\mathbb{Z}^{N+1}$ starting at $(0,2, ..., 2)$ and evolving under a probability transition kernel correctly chosen. Then you're looking at the entrance time to some subset. Just a few ideas, though, I don't know the answer. – Ahriman Aug 29 '12 at 16:23
Crossposted to MO:… – Byron Schmuland Sep 2 '12 at 16:24

First some simplifications. Pretend that the origin moves with the thief; then we can say that the thief always stands still, while each policeman (rather, each police officer) moves 2 spots left with probability $1/4$, moves 2 spots right with probability $1/4$, and stands still with probability $1/2$. Now we might as well scale down by a factor of 2, so that the moves to the left and right are 1 spot each (and the officers start at 1 instead of 2, though that won't affect whether the expectation is infinite). Finally, if you like, ignore the possibility of standing still and just let each officer random walk on $\mathbb Z$ with probabilities $1/2$ to the left and right: the standing still just multiplies the expectation by $2$, the expected time it takes to move a spot.

So we've reduced to the following problem: $N$ police officers do a standard random walk on $\mathbb Z$, starting at 1. Is the expectation of the time it takes for one of them to hit the origin finite or infinite?

A general identity will be useful here. Let $X_k$ be a sequence of independent coin flips (not necessarily fair or identical coins) with possible outcomes S (Success) or F (Failure). Let $FS(n)$ be the probability that the $n$th flip is the First Success (that is, $X_1=\cdots=X_{n-1}={}$F and $X_n={}$S). Let $NSY(n)$ be the probability that there have been No Successes Yet by the $n$th step (that is, $X_1=\cdots=X_{n}={}$F). Then the expectation of the first success is $$ \sum_{n=0}^\infty n FS(n) = \sum_{n=0}^\infty n \big( NSY(n-1)-NSY(n) \big) = \sum_{m=0}^\infty NSY(m) $$ after telescoping the sum.

Now I believe (but someone should verify) that in a standard random walk on $\mathbb Z$ starting at 1, the probability that 0 has not been hit yet by the $n$th step is asymptotically proportional to $1/\sqrt n$. (This probably has to do with Catalan numbers.) This is one way of seeing that $E\tau_1$ is infinite: it's summing the infinite series $NSY(m)$ where each term is essentially a constant times $1/\sqrt m$.

In the $N$-officer case, the No Success Yet probability is just the $N$th power of the No Success Yet probability when $N=1$. Therefore for $N=2$, the series will still (barely) diverge, but it will converge for $N=3$; in other words, $E\tau_2 = \infty$ but $E\tau_3<\infty$.

share|cite|improve this answer
The problem that I have with this solution is that the $N$ police-thief systems are not independent. So I'm not sure that the first simplification is valid. – Byron Schmuland Aug 29 '12 at 18:35
I should add that this is a correct solution when the thief is stationary, and I'll be willing to bet that the answer is the same for the moving thief. It's just that the argument seems incomplete. – Byron Schmuland Aug 30 '12 at 0:47
Aha. For example, it's impossible (in the post-first-simplification description) for one officer to move 2 spots left while another moves 2 spots right. Not independent - good point. – Greg Martin Aug 30 '12 at 6:28

(I do not have enough reputation to leave comments, so I am writing in a new post) Using Greg Martin's argument and an additional coupling argument (using the fact that at any time $n$, with probability $>1/2$, the random walk corresponding to the thief is at a nonnegative point at time $n$) you can show that $\mathbb{E}\tau_2 = +\infty$ as well.

His comment about the Catalan numbers is also correct; the only way to drop below $0$ for the first time on step $2j+1$ is to have a Dyck path of length $2j$ followed by a downward jump; this means that the corresponding probability is about $Cj^{-3/2}$, and summing over $j$ from $1$ to $n$ gives $n^{-1/2}$.

I don't yet know how to show that $\mathbb{E}\tau_3<+\infty$, though.

share|cite|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.