# Collatz and Base 2 / Base 3 Duality

13 min readJul 28, 2024

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It might be obvious from my last two articles that I’ve been thinking about the Collatz conjecture a bit. Here, I can tie some of these ideas together in a surprising and really striking way.

Some of this I covered in earlier posts, but I’m going to construct things a little differently, so I’ll start from scratch. The Collatz conjecture is about the function f(n) defined to be n/2 if n is even, or 3n+1 if n is odd. Starting with some number (say, 7, for example) we can apply this function repeatedly to get 7, then 22, then 11, then 34, 17, 52, 26, 13, 40, 20, 10, 5, 16, 8, 4, 2, 1, and then we’ll repeat 4, 2, 1, 4, 2, 1, and so on forever. The conjecture is that no matter which positive integer you start with, you’ll always end up in that same loop of 4, 2, and 1.

For reference, it’s going to be more convenient for us to work with something called the shortcut Collatz map. The idea here is that when n is odd, we already know that 3n+1 will be even. So we can shortcut one iteration by jumping straight to (3n+1)/2, just avoiding a separate pass for the division by two that we already know will be necessary.

We tend to work in base 10 as society, but the question I asked in an article a couple weeks ago is what happens if you perform this computation in base 2 or 3, instead.

• In base 2, it’s trivial to decide if a number is even or odd, and if it’s even, to divide by two. You just look at the least significant bit, and drop it if it’s a zero!
• In base 3, it’s trivial to compute 3n+1. You just add a 1 digit to the end of the number!

We could go either way, really, and in my original article I explored both computations to see what they looked like. This time, we’ll first head deep into the base 2 side, and see where it leads us.

## Collatz in Base 2

When computing the Collatz function in base 2, the computationally significant part is to multiply a base 2 number by 3. We can work this out in the standard algorithm we all learned in elementary school, working from right to left, and keeping track of a carry at each step.

We can even enumerate the rules:

• If the next bit is a 0 and the carry is a 0, then output a 0 and carry a 0.
• If the next bit is a 1 and the carry is a 0, then output a 1 and carry a 1.
• If the next bit is a 0 and the carry is a 1, then output a 1 and carry a 0.
• If the next bit is a 1 and the carry is a 1, then output a 0 and carry a 2.
• If the next bit is a 0 and the carry is a 2, then output a 0 and carry a 1.
• If the next bit is a 1 and the carry is a 2, then output a 1 and carry a 2.

and represent this using a finite state machine with a transition diagram.

This machine isn’t too hard to understand, really. When you see a 0, move up one state; when you see a 1, move down one state. When the carry is 1 (before moving), output the opposite bit; otherwise, output the same bit. That’s all there is to it.

We will make three small modifications to this simple state machine:

• In the Collatz map, we want to compute 3n+1, That just amounts to starting with a carry of 1, rather than 0.
• Before computing 3n+1, we should divide by two until the number is odd. That amounts to adding a new “Start” state, or S for short, that ignores zeros on the right, and then acts like carry 1 when it encounters the first 1 bit. (Recall that we’re working from right to left!)
• Finally, let’s compute the shortcut map as well: as discussed above, when we compute 3n+1, it will always be even. (We will always move the start state that acts like carry 1 into carry 2, and the arrow there emits a 0 in the least significant bit.) We do not emit the zero when moving from the start state to carry 2, so the bits that come out represent (3n+1)/2.

The resulting maching looks like this.

When fed the right-to-left bits of a non-zero number, this machine will compute what we might call a compressed Collatz map: dividing by 2 as long as the number remains even, and then compute (3n+1)/2 just like the shortcut Collatz map does.

## Iterating the Map

The Collatz conjecture isn’t about a single application of this map, though, but rather about the trajectory of a number when the map is applied many times in succession. To simulate this, we’ll want a whole infinite array of these machines connected end to end, so the bits that leave each one arrive at the one after. Something like this:

This is starting to get out of hand! So let’s simplify. Two things:

• Because their state transition diagrams are all the same, the only information we need about each machine is what state it’s in.
• The S state never emits any bits, and you can never get back to S once you leave it, so we know that as soon as we see an S, the entire rest of the machines, the whole infinite tail, is still sitting in the S state waiting for bits. We need not worry about these states at all.
• Once we’re done feeding in the non-zero digits of the input number, any machines in state 0 also become uninteresting. The rest of the inputs will all be zero, they will remain in state 0, and they will pass on that 0 bit of input unchanged. Again, we need not worry about these machines.

With that in mind, we can trace what happens when we feed this array of cascading machines the bits of a number. Let’s try 7, since we saw its sequence already earlier on.

The output of each machine feeds into the next machine below it, and I’ve drawn this propagation of outputs to inputs of the next machine using green arrows. We’ll draw the digits of input from right to left, matching the conventional order of writing binary numbers, so in a sense, time flows from right to left here. Each state machine remembers its state as time progresses to the left, and I’ve drawn this memory of previous states using blue arrows. Notice that to play out the full dynamics, we need to feed in quite a few of the leading zeros on the input.

In the rows of green arrows, you can read off the outputs of each state machine in the sequence in binary:

• binary 111 = decimal 7
• binary 1011 = decimal 11
• binary 10001 = decimal 17
• binary 11010 = decimal 26
• binary 10100 = decimal 20
• binary 1000 = decimal 8
• binary 10 = decimal 2

If we were to continue, the next rows would just repeat binary 10 (decimal 2) forever. This makes sense, because the way we defined the compressed Collatz map stabilizes at 2, rather than 1.

A second thing we can read from this map is the so-called parity sequence of the shortcut Collatz map. This is just the sequence of evens and odds that occur when the map is iterated on the starting number. When a column ends by emitting a 1 bit, bumping a new machine out of the S state, that indicates that the next value of the shortcut Collatz map will be odd. When it ends in a 0 bit, then the next value will be even.

There’s quite a lot of interesting theory about the parity sequences of the shortcut Collatz map! It turns out that every possible parity sequence is generated by a unique 2-adic integer, which I defined in my previous article, so the 2-adic integers are in one-to-one correspondence with parity sequences. We can, in fact, compute the reverse direction of this one-to-one correspondence as well using state arrays like this one. Every eventually repeating parity sequence comes from a rational number, via the canonical embedding of the rationals into the 2-adic numbers. (The converse, though, that acyclic parity sequences only come from irrational 2-adic integers, is conjectured but not known!)

Because every parity sequence comes from a unique 2-adic integer, if we could show that every positive integer eventually leads to alternating even and odd numbers in its parity sequence, this would prove that the Collatz conjecture is true. Now we have a new way of looking at that question. Among the 2-adic integers, the positive integers are those that eventually have an infinite number of leading 0s. So we can ask instead, from any starting state sequence of this array of machines, when feeding zeros into the sequence forever, do we eventually (ignoring machines at the beginning that have reached the 0 state) reach only a single machine alternating through states 1, 2, 1, 2, etc.?

This isn’t an easy question, though. Certainly, feeding zeros into the array on the left will bump the state of the top-most machines down to zero. However, the bits continue to propagate through the machine, possibly pushing new machines out of their starting states and so appending them on the bottom! There is something of a race between these two processes of pruning machines on the top and adding them on the bottom, and we would need to show that the pruning wins that race.

## From Base 2 to Base 3

As we investigate this race, we discover something surprising about the behavior of the state sequences when leading zeros are fed into the top machine. If you read the machine states in the blue arrows, starting at the third column from the right after all the non-zero bits of input have been fed in, we can interpret those state sequences as a ternary (base 3) number! And we get quite a familiar progression:

• ternary 222 = decimal 26
• ternary 111 = decimal 13
• ternary 202 = decimal 20
• ternary 101 = decimal 10
• ternary 12 = decimal 5
• ternary 22 = decimal 8
• ternary 11 = decimal 4
• ternary 2 = decimal 2
• ternary 1 = decimal 1

That’s the shortcut Collatz sequence again! Rather than starting at 7, we jumped three numbers ahead because it took those three steps to feed in the non-zero bits of 7, so we missed 7, 11 and 17 and went straight to 26. Then we continue according to the same dynamics.

This coincidence where state sequences can be interpreted as ternary numbers is suprising, but is it useful? It can be a revealing way to think about Collatz sequences. Here’s an example.

Numbers of the form 2-1 have a binary representation consisting of n consecutive 1s. If we trace what happens to the state sequence, we find that each 1 we feed to this state sequence propagates all the way to the end to append another 2 to the sequence, leaving us with a state sequence consisting of n consecutive 2s. As a ternary number, that is 3-1. If the above is correct, then, we can conclude that iterating the shortcut Collatz map n times starting with 2-1 should yield 3-1 as a result.

In fact, this isn’t hard to prove. We can prove the more general statement that for all in, iterating the shortcut Collatz map i times on 2-1 gives a result of 32ⁿ⁻ⁱ-1. A simple induction suffices. If i = 0, then the result is immediate. Assuming it’s true for i, and that i + 1 ≤ n, we know that 32ⁿ⁻ⁱ-1 is odd, so applying the shortcut Collatz map one more time yields (3(32ⁿ⁻ⁱ-1)+1)/2, which simplifies to establish the property for i + 1 as well, completing the induction. Now let i = n to recover the original statement.

The proof was simple, but the idea came from observing the behavior of this state machine. And this is an interesting observation: 3-1 grows asymptotically faster than 2-1, so it implies that there is no bound on the factor by which a number might grow in the Collatz sequence. We can always find some arbitrarily large n that grows to at least about 1.5 times its original value.

## From Base 3 to Base 2

Recall that in base 3, computing 3n+1 is easy, but it’s dividing by two that becomes a non-trivial computation. Back in elementary school again, we learned about long division, an algorithm for dividing numbers digit by digit, this time left to right. To do this, we divide each digit in turn, but keep track of a remainder that propagates from digit to digit. We can also draw this as a state machine.

To extend this to the shortcut Collatz map, we need to look for a remainder when the division completes. This means that we’ll need to feed our state machine not just the ternary digits 0, 1, and 2, but an extra “Stop” signal (S for short) indicating the number is complete. Since the result may be longer than the input, it will be convenient to send an infinite sequence of these S signals, giving the machine time to output all of the digits of the result before it begins to produce S signals, as well. Upon receiving this S signal, if there is a remainder, then the input was odd, so our state machine needs to add another 2 onto the end of the sequence of ternary digits to complete the computation of (3n+1)/2 before emitting its own S signals.

Just as before, we’re interested not in a single application of this state machine, but the behavior of numbers under many different iterations, so we will again chain together an infinite number of these machines, feeding the ternary digits (or S signals) that leave each one into the next one as inputs. This time I’ll draw the ternary digits flowing from right to left.

Let’s try to simplify this picture.

• Again, all the state machines share the same transition diagram, so we need only note which state each machine is in.
• Once a machine (or the input) starts emitting S signals, it will never stop, so we need not concern outselves with these machines.
• Because the machines start in state 0 and machines in state 0 always decrease the ternary digit so no single digit can change more than two of these into non-zero states before it becomes zero itself, we’ll always encounter an infinite tail of 0 states to the left, which are similarly uninteresting.

With those simplifications in mind, we can work through the behavior of these machines starting with the input 7, which is 21 in base 3. This time, input digits (time, essentially) flows from top to bottom, while the iterations of the state machine are oriented from right to left. The green arrows represent the memory of state over time, and the blue arrows represent input and output digits.

Following the flow from right to left and reading down the blue arrows representing ternary digits, we can see the ternary values from the shortcut Collatz map computed by the state machines, read from top to bottom. We might ask a question similar to the earlier one: can we show that, starting from any state and throwing S signals at these state machines from the right, it somehow simplifies to the sequence 10 (a 0, followed by a 1 to its left), which indicates we’ve reached the cyclic orbit at 1, 2 in the shortcut Collatz sequence?

In looking at this, as you likely guessed, we find that the state sequences when read from left to right from green arrows (starting from the second row down, after all the input digits have been fed in) give the binary form of the compressed Collatz map. That’s the one that even further shortens the shortcut Collatz map by folding all the divisions by two so they happen implicitly before each odd value is processed. Starting with base 3, then, we end up back in base 2!

What’s going on? It’s easy to see that the diagram above is the same as the one from binary earlier, except for the addition of two rows at the top where we’re still feeding in the ternary digits, and some uninteresting state propagation from machines that are already emitting S signals, and swapping the interpretation of the axes. But why?

Let’s compare the state machines:

They look quite different… but this is an illusion created by a biased presentation. These diagrams emphasize the state structure, but relegate the input structure to text labels on the arrows. We can instead draw both diagrams at once in this way:

In the base 2 case, we can interpret the rows as representing bits of input, and the columns as states: three carries, and the Start state S. In the base 3 case, we can interpret the columns as inputs: three ternary digits, and the Stop signal S, and the rows as states. With either interpretation, though, the rule is the same: we are exchanging a presentation of a number from 0 through 5 as 3b + t for a presentation as 2t + b, where t takes values 0, 1, or 2, while b takes values 0 or 1, and with the same rules for the special S token on the side of the least significant digits.

So in some deep sense, computing the Collatz trajectory in base 2 or base 3 is performing the same computation. This is true even though in base 2, we’re computing the compressed Collatz map, which has fewer iterations (but more digits to compute with), while in base 3, we’re computing the shortcut Collatz map, which has more iterations (but fewer digits to compute with). Somehow these differences are all dual to each other so the same thing happens in each.

Frankly, I find that very pretty.

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Software engineer, volunteer K-12 math and computer science teacher, author of the CodeWorld platform, amateur ring theorist, and Haskell enthusiast.