Consider each node on a graph has a $p$ probability of creating a new child node every step $c$. For this example $p = \frac{1}{2^{l+1}}$, where $l$ is the distance away from the origin node. See the chart at bottom (sorry for paint).

Question: For a step $c$, if $n \in [1, 2^c]$, what is the probability the graph has $n$ nodes? Is there a closed form expression?

My thoughts are that you'd have to "add down the tree" to get the probability for a specific branch. However, there are multiple ways of having $n$ nodes, which I assume you'd account for by multiplying the probabilities of having each possibility together, i.e. $P(x_j + \dots + x_k) \cdots P(x_m + \dots + x_n)$, where $x_m \dots x_n$ are probabilities in a combination of nodes that gives $n$ nodes overall.

For $c=2$ there's $1$ way for it to have $1$ node ($20\%$), $1$ way it could have $2$ ($20\%$), $2$ ways it could have $3$ ($40\%$), and $1$ way it could have $4$ ($20\%$). Clearly this is the result if each outcome is equally likely, which is not the case. Is there an easy, closed form way to weight each outcome?

I'm not sure where to go from there or really how to approach this problem at all.


Edit: I've been messing around with Mathematica and I've been able to simulate up to $10^7$ and generate some plots of the distributions (seen below). The width is slightly skew due to each step $c$ having a different max number of nodes, however we can still see the shape of the plot well. plot

where the solid lines are approximations using the Gaussian curve,

$$ \frac{A}{\sqrt{2\pi}\sigma} e^{\frac{-(x-x_0)^2}{2\sigma^2}} ,$$

$c=11 \to (A=1.00334,\, x_0=15.5507, \, \sigma=6.37225)$, $c=10 \to (A=1.00428,\, x_0=13.0468, \, \sigma=5.50204)$, $c=9 \to (A=1.0053,\, x_0=10.8424, \, \sigma=4.68556)$, $c=7 \to (A=1.01089,\, x_0=7.25233, \, \sigma=3.33195)$, $c=5 \to (A=1.02033,\, x_0=4.58044, \, \sigma=2.22072)$.

It's interesting that it's close to a Gaussian distribution, however I'm not sure if this helps in finding a closed form. Maybe one could define $f : \mathbb N \to \mathbb R^3$, which maps $c$ to $A$, $x_0$, and $\sigma$. How one would go about this? My only idea is to calculate $A$, $x_0$, and $\sigma$ a considerable number more times and try to fit the data with Mathematica. I've shown the general trend of the data here.

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    $\begingroup$ i think he is talking about a process. $c$ is not a cycle, but a step in the process i believe $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 24, 2017 at 18:27
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    $\begingroup$ The area of math you are talking about is called the theory of branching processes. It is an active level of research, and has rather difficult problems. I am attempting this problem, but it seems that the probabilities are highly dependent on the graph structure, and any attempt must sum over all the possible structures with some weighting scheme. This problem will probably keep me up late this weekend. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 24, 2017 at 18:34
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    $\begingroup$ Approximations for c <= 10. I will do more if requested. pastebin.com/THcMmbjq $\endgroup$
    – Sopel
    Commented Jun 24, 2017 at 20:59
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    $\begingroup$ ideone.com/T82lPL $\endgroup$
    – Sopel
    Commented Jun 24, 2017 at 21:10
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    $\begingroup$ Expected value is $\displaystyle \sum_{i=0}^c \binom{c}{i} 2^{-i(i+1)/2}$, because $\binom{c}{i}$ is the number of possible nodes at depth $i$ and $2^{-i(i+1)/2} = \frac12\ \frac14\ \frac18\ \dots\ \frac{1}{2^i}$ is the probability that such a node is present. $\endgroup$
    – Paul
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 12:35

1 Answer 1


Here's a partial answer.

Let $\mathsf{Picks}(n,k)$ denote the set of all $k$-element subsets of $[1,\ldots n]$. Let $\mathsf{Sums}(n,k)$ denote the set of all $k$-element ordered lists of nonnegative integers whose sum is $n$.

Finally, let $F(m,n)$ denote the probability that the tree has exactly $m$ nodes at step $n$. Because the root node produces at most one scaled copy of itself at each time step, we can write $F(m,n)$ as a recursive relation:

$$F(m,n) = \sum_{a = 0}^m \sum_{\vec{b} \in \mathsf{Picks}(n,a)} \sum_{\vec{c}\in\mathsf{Sums}(a, m-a-1)} \prod_{i=1}^a \frac{1}{2} F(c_i + 1, n-b_i).$$

This is because we can view the generation process as follows:

  1. Determine the number $a$ of immediate children the root node will produce after $m$ time steps.
  2. Determine at what times $\vec{b}$ the children will occur.
  3. Determine how many total descendants $\vec{c}$ each child will have, ensuring that the total number of nodes $1 + a + \sum_i c_i$ adds up to the desired total $m$.
  4. Determine the probability that each subtree yields exactly that number of descendants in the time it has. In our model, this probability is a 1/2 scale version of the overall probability function $F$.

Here's another way of looking at the problem, which might help lead to a closed-form solution:

You can view each tree as a polynomial $P(x) = a_1 x + a_2 x^2 + a_3 x^3 + \ldots$, where $a_{k+1}$ is the number of nodes at level $k$. If you do, then $P(1)$ is the total number of nodes in the tree, and $P(\frac{1}{2})$ is the expected number of nodes that will be added in the next time step.

Actually, using the formula mentioned above, you can get a computer program to collect like terms so that it will tell you the coefficients of

$$F(m,n) = \sum_{a,b} \beta_{a,b}F(a,b).$$

I will have to double-check my work, but when I write such a program, the coefficients seem very much like elements of Pascal's triangle— which would explain the Gaussian curves. (The normalized rows of Pascal's triangle approach a Gaussian distribution as the row becomes large.)

Specifically, assuming I've done my math correctly, it seems that something very much like the following occurs:

$$F(m, n) \equiv \frac{1}{2}\sum_{i=1}^{m-1} \sum_{j=1}^n {{m-i+1} \choose m-i-2}F(i,j)$$

which gives exactly the results you would expect when, for example, the number of nodes exceeds the maximum $2^{\text{# nodes}}$. It might even be possible to expand the definitions of $F(i,j)$ here completely so as to get an explicit closed-form solution.


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