Fisher's inequality

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Fisher's inequality is a necessary condition for the existence of a balanced incomplete block design, that is, a system of subsets that satisfy certain prescribed conditions in combinatorial mathematics. Outlined by Ronald Fisher, a population geneticist and statistician, who was concerned with the design of experiments such as studying the differences among several different varieties of plants, under each of a number of different growing conditions, called blocks.


  • v be the number of varieties of plants;
  • b be the number of blocks.

To be a balanced incomplete block design it is required that:

  • k different varieties are in each block, 1 ≤ k < v; no variety occurs twice in any one block;
  • any two varieties occur together in exactly λ blocks;
  • each variety occurs in exactly r blocks.

Fisher's inequality states simply that



Let the incidence matrix M be a v × b matrix defined so that Mi,j is 1 if element i is in block j and 0 otherwise. Then B = MMT is a v × v matrix such that Bi,i = r and Bi,j = λ for ij. Since r ≠ λ, det(B) ≠ 0, so rank(B) = v; on the other hand, rank(B) ≤ rank(M) ≤ b, so vb.


Fisher's inequality is valid for more general classes of designs. A pairwise balanced design (or PBD) is a set X together with a family of non-empty subsets of X (which need not have the same size and may contain repeats) such that every pair of distinct elements of X is contained in exactly λ (a positive integer) subsets. The set X is allowed to be one of the subsets, and if all the subsets are copies of X, the PBD is called "trivial". The size of X is v and the number of subsets in the family (counted with multiplicity) is b.

Theorem: For any non-trivial PBD, vb.[1]

This result also generalizes the Erdős–De Bruijn theorem:

For a PBD with λ = 1 having no blocks of size 1 or size v, vb, with equality if and only if the PBD is a projective plane or a near-pencil (meaning that exactly n − 1 of the points are collinear).[2]

In another direction, Ray-Chaudhuri and Wilson proved in 1975 that in a 2s-(v, k, λ) design, the number of blocks is at least .[3]


  1. ^ Stinson 2003, pg.193
  2. ^ Stinson 2003, pg.183
  3. ^ Ray-Chaudhuri, Dijen K.; Wilson, Richard M. (1975), "On t-designs", Osaka Journal of Mathematics, 12: 737–744, MR 0592624, Zbl 0342.05018