The Tracy-Widom law describes, among other things, the fluctuations of maximal eigenvalues of many random large matrix models. Because of its universal character, it obtained his position on the podium of very famous laws in probability theory. I'd like to discuss what are the ingredients to be present in order expect his apparition.

More precisely, the Tracy-Widom law has for cumulative distribution the Fredholm determinant $$ F(s)=\det(I-A_s) $$ where the operator $A_s$ acts on $L^2(s,+\infty)$ by $$ A_sf(x)=\int A(x,y)dy,\qquad A(x,y)=\frac{Ai(x)Ai'(y)-Ai(y)Ai'(x)}{x-y}, $$ $Ai$ being the Airy function. It is moreover possible to rewrite $F$ in a more explicit (?) form, involving a solution of the Painlevé II equation. It is known that this distribution describes the fluctuations of the maximal value of the GUE, and actually of a large class of Wigner Matrices. It curiously also appears in many interacting particle processes, such as ASEP, TASEP, longest increasing subsequence of uniformly random permutations, polynuclear growth models ... (For an introduction, see http://arxiv.org/abs/math-ph/0603038 and references inside. You may jump at (30) if you are in a hurry, and read more about particles models in Section 3). A natural (but ambitious) question is

- You have $N$ interacting random points $(x_1,\ldots,x_N)$ on $\mathbb{R}$, when can you predict that $x_{\max}^{(N)}=\max_{i=1}^N x_i$ will fluctuate (up to a rescaling) according to Tracy-Widom law around its large $N$ limiting value ?

Assume that the limiting distribution of the $x_i$'s $$ \mu(dx)=\lim_{N\rightarrow\infty}\frac{1}{N}\sum_{i=1}^N\delta_{x_i}\qquad \mbox{(in the weak topology)} $$ admits a density $f$ on a compact support $S(\mu)$, and note $x_\max=\max S(\mu)$ (which can be assumed to be positive by translation). I have the impression that a necessary condition for the appearance of Tracy-Widom is to satisfy the three following points :

1) (strong repulsion) There exists a strong repulsion between the $x_i$'s (typically, the joint density of the $x_i$'s has a term like $\prod_{i\neq j}|x_i-x_j|$, or at least the $x_i$'s form a determinantal point process).

2) (no jump for $x_\max^{(N)} $) $x_\max^{(N)}\rightarrow x_\max$ a.s. when $N\rightarrow\infty$.

3) (soft edge) The density of $\mu$ vanishes like a square root around $x_\max$, i.e. $f(x)\sim (x_\max-x)^{1/2}$ when $x\rightarrow x_\max$.

For TASEP and longest increasing subsequence models, one can see that 1), 2) and 3) hold [since these models are somehow discretizations of random matrix models where everything is explicit (Wishart and GUE respectively)]. For the Wigner matrices, 2) and 3) clearly hold [Wigner's semicircular law], and I guess 1) is ok [because of the local semicircular law]. For ASEP, 1) clearly holds [because of the E of ASEP], 2) and 3) are not so clear to me, but sound reasonable.

- Do you know any interacting particle model where Tracy-Widom holds but where one of the previous points is cruelly violated ?

Of course the condition 1) is pretty vague, and would deserve to be defined precisely. It is a part of the question !

NB : I have a pretty weak physical background, so if by any chance a physicist was lost on MO, I'd love to hear his/her criteria for Tracy-Widom...