A Simple Conjecture
The Collatz conjecture is an unsolved mathematical riddle posed by German mathematician Lothar Collatz in 1937. It remains a mystery to this day. Why has it temped so many mathematicians over so many years and yet remained unsolved? It is especially exasperating because it is so simple. The question is, “Is it even computable?” If not, then mathematicians and computer scientists should stop trying.
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I once described the image of a typical young American child as holding a balloon in one hand and a melting ice cream cone in the other. Instead of a young child, the picture could also show (and probably more accurately) an adult holding a cup of coffee in one hand and a doughnut in the other.
Iconically American (like the French croissant), the doughnut today is known and appreciated around the world (also like the croissant). As with many iconic things, the doughnut is the subject of considerable controversy, not the least of which is: Should the correct spelling of the name be “doughnut” or “donut”? More fundamentally, when is a doughnut truly a doughnut and when is it something else?
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For a long time, I have been intrigued by the zipper. It is everywhere: on clothes, backpacks, shoes, sporting goods, suitcases, camping equipment, etc. But look at one closely and try to imagine how it works.
The basic principle is quite simple; two parallel chains of projections (teeth) lock and unlock to form a quick, easy, reliable means of opening and closing things. The chains of teeth are part of a truly ingeniously designed and engineered piece of precision equipment.
Given its ubiquity and generally flawless performance in so many everyday tasks, I believe the zipper truly deserves a place of honor on my list of what I like to call “extraordinary ordinary things.”
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I live in Brussels. Every time I leave my house, I am bombarded with information about the air temperature because most pharmacies here seem obsessed with showing the air temperature on electronic signs outside their shops, along with the time of day (24-hour clock) and the establishment’s business hours. I imagine the same is true in cities throughout Europe, North America, and elsewhere. We can’t seem to live without constantly being reminded of how warm or cold it is. It is virtually an obsession.
But of course most of us don’t need to leave home to get temperature information. In my case, all I need to do is go out to my terrace and look at the thermometer hanging on the wall. This is something I do faithfully virtually every morning when I wake up, as well as two or three times during the day. It is like a game. I check the thermometer in the morning (usually about 7 a.m.), look at the sky, feel the moisture in the air, and try to guess how high the temperature will rise during the day.
I am talking about a simple liquid thermometer, i.e. the type in which liquid in a glass tube rises and falls as the temperature rises and falls. This is generally what most people mean when they say “check the thermometer.” However; there are many other types of thermometers they might be checking such as the type you reach for when feeling ill, the type you stick into meat when cooking it, the temperature gauge in your automobile, etc. Still, no matter where you go, there is almost always a thermometer around whether we notice them or not. And we cannot seem to live without them.
This is why I consider the thermometer, in whatever form, fully deserves to be included on the list of what I like to call “extraordinary ordinary things.“
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