Let $n$ be a large natural number, and let $z_1, \ldots, z_{10}$ be (say) ten $n^{th}$ roots of unity: $z_1^n = \ldots = z_{10}^n = 1$. Suppose that the sum $S = z_1+\ldots+z_{10}$ is non-zero. How small can $|S|$ be?

$S$ is an algebraic integer in the cyclotomic field of order $n$, so the product of all its Galois conjugates has to be a non-zero rational integer. Using the utterly crude estimate that the magnitude of a non-zero rational integer is at least one, this gives an exponential lower bound on $S$. On the other hand, standard probabilistic heuristics suggest that there should be a polynomial lower bound, such as $n^{-100}$, for $|S|$. (Certainly a volume packing argument shows that one can make $S$ as small as, say, $O(n^{-5/2})$, though it is unclear to me whether this should be close to the true bound.) Is such a bound known? Presumably one needs some algebraic number theoretic methods to attack this problem, but the only techniques I know of go through Galois theory and thus give exponentially poor bounds.

Of course, there is nothing special about the number $10$ here; one can phrase the question for any other fixed sum of roots, though the question degenerates when there are four or fewer roots to sum.

lowerbounds on magnitudes, rather than upper bounds. $\endgroup$ – Terry Tao Nov 15 '10 at 16:24