What is the importance of the Collatz conjecture?

I have been fascinated by the Collatz problem since I first heard about it in high school.

Take any natural number $n$. If $n$ is even, divide it by $2$ to get $n / 2$, if $n$ is odd multiply it by $3$ and add $1$ to obtain $3n + 1$. Repeat the process indefinitely. The conjecture is that no matter what number you start with, you will always eventually reach $1$. […]

Paul Erdős said about the Collatz conjecture: “Mathematics is not yet ready for such problems.” He offered $500 USD for its solution.

How important do you consider the answer to this question to be? Why?

Would you speculate on what might have possessed Paul Erdős to make such an offer?

EDIT: Is there any reason to think that a proof of the Collatz Conjecture would be complex (like the FLT) rather than simple (like PRIMES is in P)? And can this characterization of FLT vs. PRIMES is in P be made more specific than a bit-length comparison?

Answer

Most of the answers so far have been along the general lines of ‘Why hard problems are important’, rather than ‘Why the Collatz conjecture is important’; I will try to address the latter.

I think the basic question being touched on is:

In what ways does the prime factorization of $a$ affect the prime factorization of $a+1$?

Of course, one can always multiply out the prime factorization, add one, and then factor again, but this throws away the information of the prime factorization of $a$. Note that this question is also meaningful in other UFDs, like $\mathbb{C}[x]$.

It seems very hard to come up with answers to this question that don’t fall under the heading of ‘immediate’, such as distinct primes in each factorization. This seems to be in part because a small change in the prime factorization for $a$ (multiplication by a prime, say) can have a huge change in the prime factorization for $a+1$ (totally distinct prime support perhaps). Therefore, it is tempting to regard the act of adding 1 as an essentially-random shuffling of the prime factorization.

The most striking thing about the Collatz conjecture is that it seems to be making a deep statement about a subtle relation between the prime factorizations of $a$ and $a+1$. Note that the Collatz iteration consists of three steps; two of which are ‘small’ in terms of the prime factorization, and the other of which is adding one:

  • multiplying by 3 has a small effect on the factorization.
  • adding 1 has a (possibly) huge effect on the factorization.
  • factoring out a power of 2 has a small effect on the factorization (in that it doesn’t change the other prime powers in the factorization).

So, the Collatz conjecture seems to say that there is some sort of abstract quantity like ‘energy’ which cannot be arbitrarily increased by adding 1. That is, no matter where you start, and no matter where this weird prime-shuffling action of adding 1 takes you, eventually the act of pulling out 2s takes enough energy out of the system so that you reach 1. I think it is for reasons like this that mathematicians suspect that a solution of the Collatz conjecture will open new horizons and develop new and important techniques in number theory.

Attribution
Source : Link , Question Author : Dan Brumleve , Answer Author : David Kipper

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