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13532385396179 doesn’t climb to a prime

Someone called James Davis has found a counterexample to John H. Conway’s “Climb to a Prime” conjecture, for which Conway was offering \$1,000 for a solution.

The conjecture goes like this, as stated in Conway’s list of \$1,000 problems:

Let $n$ be a positive integer. Write the prime factorization in the usual way, e.g. $60 = 2^2 \cdot 3 \cdot 5$, in which the primes are written in increasing order, and exponents of $1$ are omitted. Then bring exponents down to the line and omit all multiplication signs, obtaining a number $f(n)$. Now repeat.

So, for example, $f(60) = f(2^2 \cdot 3 \cdot 5) = 2235$. Next, because $2235 = 3 \cdot 5 \cdot 149$, it maps, under $f$, to $35149$, and since $35149$ is prime, we stop there forever.

The conjecture, in which I seem to be the only believer, is that every number eventually climbs to a prime. The number 20 has not been verified to do so. Observe that $20 \to 225 \to 3252 \to 223271 \to \ldots$, eventually getting to more than one hundred digits without reaching a prime!

Well, James, who says he is “not a mathematician by any stretch”, had a hunch that a counterexample would be of the form $n = x \cdot p = f(x) \cdot 10^y+p$, where $p$ is the largest prime factor of $n$, which in turn motivates looking for $x$ of the form $x=m \cdot 10^y + 1$, and $m=1407$, $y=5$, $p=96179$ “fell out immediately”. It’s not at all obvious to me where that hunch came from, or why it worked.

The number James found was $13\,532\,385\,396\,179 = 13 \cdot 53^2 \cdot 3853 \cdot 96179$, which maps onto itself under Conway’s function $f$ – it’s a fixed point of the function. So, $f$ will never map this composite number onto a prime, disproving the conjecture. Finding such a simple counterexample against such stratospherically poor odds is like deciding to look for Lord Lucan and bumping into him on your doorstep as you leave the house.

A lovely bit of speculative maths spelunking!

via Hans Havermann, whom James originally contacted with his discovery.

Right answer for the wrong reason: cellular automaton on the new Cambridge North station

Cambridge North is a brand new train station, and the building’s got a fab bit of cladding with a design ‘derived from John Horton Conway’s “Game of Life” theories which he established while at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge in 1970.’

One problem: that’s Wolfram’s Rule 135, not the Game of Life. You can tell because of the pixels.

Rule 135 is a 1-dimensional automaton: you start with a row of black or white pixels, and the rule tells you how the colour of each pixel changes based on the colours of the neighbouring pixels. The Cambridge North design shows the evolution of a rule 135 pattern as a distinct row of pixels for each time step. Conway’s Game of Life follows the same idea but in two dimensions – a pixel’s colour changes depending on the nearby pixels  in every compass direction.

Either way, it’s a lovely pattern. I suspect the designers went with Rule 135 instead of the Game of Life so that they’d get a roughly even mix of white and black pixels, which is hard to achieve under Conway’s rules.

Just in case gawping at train stations is your cup of tea, here’s a promotional video with lots of lovely panning shots of the design:

EDIT: James Grime has now also done a video, which can be seen here:

More information

Delayed £50m Cambridge North railway station opens on BBC News.

Cambridge North Station information from Atkins Group, the design consultancy responsible for the station building.

Press release from Greater Anglia trains.

The Game of Life: a beginner’s guide by Alex Bellos in the Guardian.

Brought to our attention by @Quendus on Twitter.

Alexandre Grothendieck’s notes archive to be released online

News from France, where the family of the late Alexandre Grothendieck, legend of basically all maths, have finally reached an agreement with the academic community about his huge archive of written notes. Discussions have been ongoing for a while but it’s finally been agreed that the notes can be released online for the community at large to take advantage of.

The notes comprise over 100,000 pages of mathematics, diagrams and letters to collaborators, and an initial chunk of over 18,000 pages will be online from 10th May on the University of Montpellier’s website. It’s expected that many undiscovered mathematical treasures might be found within, although the challenge of reading through and deciphering it all may take a Polymath-style mass effort.

More information

The notes of the mathematician Alexandre Grothendieck arrive on the net, at Libération (in French)

via Jordan Ellenberg on Twitter

Cutting an oval pizza – video

As if there wasn’t enough maths/pizza news lately, the story has hit the red-tops recently that UK supermarkets are scamming consumers by offering them oval-shaped pizzas – marketed in the high-end/’Extra Special’ ranges, with more expensive (sounding) ingredients like mozzarella di bufala, roquito peppers and merguez sausage, and a distinctive pair of artisanally different radii. These pizzas apparently cost more per gram, because their elliptical shape means they’re actually smaller than a circle with the same diameter. Cue plenty of ‘costing you dough’ and ‘cheesed off’ puns.

While we’re not massively bothered by the pricing, the articles do raise, and then completely fail to address, an interesting point: an oval pizza is harder to cut into equally sized pieces! Luckily, maths is here to save the day. I found a nice method and made a video explaining how it works:

Take a look and improve your future pizza cutting technique!

The 12th Polymath project has started: resolve Rota’s basis conjecture

Timothy Chow of MIT has proposed a new Polymath project: resolve Rota’s basis conjecture.

What’s that? It’s this:

… if $B_1$, $B_2$, $\ldots$, $B_n$ are $n$ bases of an $n$-dimensional vector space $V$ (not necessarily distinct or disjoint), then there exists an $n \times n$ grid of vectors ($v_{ij}$) such that

1. the $n$ vectors in row $i$ are the members of the $i$th basis $B_i$ (in some order), and

2. in each column of the matrix, the $n$ vectors in that column form a basis of $V$.

Easy to state, but apparently hard to prove!

George Boole statue to be erected in Lincoln

It was George Boole’s bicentenary in 2015, so the Heslam Trust is a bit slow to reveal its plans to erect a statue of the great man in his home town of Lincoln.

The sculptors, Martin Jennings and Antony Dufort, have come up with a few designs for the statue, and they’d like the public to vote for their favourite.

There’s already a bust of Boole in University College, Cork, installed in plenty of time for the bicentenary. Here’s a picture of me and HRH Poppy Dog standing next to it, last Summer.

More information

Lincoln maths genius to get statue in city – and here are the designs at LincolnshireLive

Proposals for George Boole monument on the City of Lincoln council website

View the proposals and vote

Hans Rosling and Raymond Smullyan have died

Why should I worry about dying? It’s not going to happen in my lifetime!

Raymond Smullyan, This Book Needs No Title (1986)

This week, the mathematical community has lost not one but two of its most beloved practitioners. Earlier this week, Swedish statistician Hans Rosling passed away aged 68, and today it’s been announced that author and logician Raymond Smullyan has also died, aged 97.