Let a and b be two positive integers. A culminating path is a path of Z^2 that starts from (0,0), consists of steps (1,a) and (1,-b), stays above the x-axis and ends at the highest ordinate it ever reaches. These paths were first encountered in bioinformatics, in the analysis of similarity search algorithms. They are also related to certain models of Lorentzian gravity in theoretical physics. We first show that the language on a two letter alphabet that naturally encodes culminating paths is not context-free. Then, we focus on the enumeration of culminating paths. A step by step approach, combined with the kernel method, provides a closed form expression for the generating fucntion of culminating paths ending at a (generic) height k. In the case a=b, we derive from this expression the asymptotic behaviour of the number of culminating paths of length n. When a>b, we obtain the asymptotic behaviour by a simpler argument. When a<b, we only determine the exponential growth of the number of culminating paths. Finally, we study the uniform random generation of culminating paths via various methods. The rejection approach, coupled with a symmetry argument, gives an algorithm that is linear when a>= b, with no precomputation stage nor non-linear storage required. The choice of the best algorithm is not as clear when a<b. An elementary recursive approach yields a linear algorithm after a precomputation stage involving O(n^3) arithmetic operations, but we also present some alternatives that may be more efficient in practise.
Mathematics - Combinatorics, 05A15, 05A16, 60C05