Have you ever heard about the sculptor that fell in love with one of his creations? It’s perhaps more common than you’d guess. For example, there was a baker who fell in love with her gingerbread recipe. She built an entire house out of gingerbread so that she would never be separated from her dearest love. It didn’t turn out well.
Luckily, this story is not about her. Instead, this is the story of a mathematician who fell in love with a math problem. It wasn’t a particularly lovely equation. It wasn’t the theory of relativity or the Pythagorean theorem, or even Euler’s equation.
But it was a fun problem to spend time with. Sometimes it made him laugh out loud. He’d sit on the couch with a pencil and paper, pick a random number and start computing. If it was even, divide it in half. If it was odd, multiply it by three and add one. Repeat with the new number. Eventually, you always, always return to one.
His colleagues didn’t understand. “Isn’t it a little odd to spend all your free time with that one problem? You aren’t going anywhere or learning anything new.”
“And yet no one knows if there’s an exception to the rule. Isn’t that mysterious? Maybe I’ll stumble across it someday. It would be like the discovery of penicillin. I wouldn’t want to miss out on that because I stopped looking.”
His friends didn’t understand. “Why are you spending so much time writing down that whatever-it-is? You should spend time with us. We’re your real friends, not that stuff.”
“The Collatz conjecture has never let me down,” he protested. “It’s always there for me. It’s dependable and loyal, and yet it still surprises me along the way. What else would I want from a friend?”
“But can the Collatz conjecture make you chicken noodle soup when you’re sick?” they asked.
“No, but I can buy soup at the store. Where can you buy loyalty?”
His mother didn’t understand. “But darling, numbers can’t listen to your problems. Aren’t you lonely?”
The mathematician sighed. “Numbers are excellent listeners. They never interrupt, and they are very reassuring. The Collatz conjecture constantly tells me that everything will work out in the end. It’s always there for me. How could I be lonely?”
His dog didn’t understand. It was jealous of the numbers and tried to eat them up. He didn’t have a dog for long. Luckily, it was much happier living with his mother, anyway.
And while the mathematician grew old, his beloved Collatz conjecture remained timeless and constant. One day, the mathematician had to face the facts. Someday, he would die, and his favorite math problem would go on without him, and it wouldn’t miss him at all.
He looked down at his most recent string of numbers and sighed. How loyal was something that didn’t really recognize your existence to begin with? His love for the Collatz conjecture was one-sided.
The mathematician looked around at his empty house. He contemplated his empty calendar. He looked down at the page full of numbers. “Collatz conjecture,” he said sadly. “I will always love you, but I don’t think this is going to work. Can we remain friends?”
And the mathematician, older and wiser, learned that being friends with people was rewarding in ways that being friends with a math problem was not. Even if sometimes it was more difficult and confusing. Luckily, the Collatz conjecture was still there to reassure and console him when times were tough.
He lived happily ever after. Unlike that poor baker. I won’t say that math is always superior to baking, but in this case, maybe it is.