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Question: I'm asking for a big list of not especially famous, long open problems that anyone can understand. Community wiki, so one problem per answer, please.

Motivation: I plan to use this list in my teaching, to motivate general education undergraduates, and early year majors, suggesting to them an idea of what research mathematicians do.

Meaning of "not too famous" Examples of problems that are too famous might be the Goldbach conjecture, the $3x+1$-problem, the twin-prime conjecture, or the chromatic number of the unit-distance graph on ${\Bbb R}^2$. Roughly, if there exists a whole monograph already dedicated to the problem (or narrow circle of problems), no need to mention it again here. I'm looking for problems that, with high probability, a mathematician working outside the particular area has never encountered.

Meaning of: anyone can understand The statement (in some appropriate, but reasonably terse formulation) shouldn't involve concepts beyond (American) K-12 mathematics. For example, if it weren't already too famous, I would say that the conjecture that "finite projective planes have prime power order" does have barely acceptable articulations.

Meaning of: long open The problem should occur in the literature or have a solid history as folklore. So I do not mean to call here for the invention of new problems or to collect everybody's laundry list of private-research-impeding unproved elementary technical lemmas. There should already exist at least of small community of mathematicians who will care if one of these problems gets solved.

I hope I have reduced subjectivity to a minimum, but I can't eliminate all fuzziness -- so if in doubt please don't hesitate to post!

To get started, here's a problem that I only learned of recently and that I've actually enjoyed describing to general education students.

Edit: I'm primarily interested in conjectures - yes-no questions, rather than classification problems, quests for algorithms, etc.

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You might get more success if you sampled certain open problem lists and indicated which ones fit your list and which ones did not. I could mention various combinatorial problems such as integer complexity, determinant spectrum, covering design optimization, but I can't tell from your description if they would be suitable for you. Gerhard "They Are Suitable For Me" Paseman, 2012.06.21 – Gerhard Paseman Jun 21 '12 at 19:11
Here is some collection of some other "collect open problems" quests. on MO:… PS Nice question ! PSPS may be add tag "open-problems" – Alexander Chervov Jun 21 '12 at 20:53
To save the search for explanation of cryptic acronyms for those of us outside US, K-12 means high school. @Mahmud: You are using a wrong meaning of the word “problem”. The TSP is not an unproved mathematical statement, it is a computational task. – Emil Jeřábek Jun 22 '12 at 12:05
More precisely, K-12 means anything up to high school (K = Kindergarten, 12 = 12th grade, and K-12 covers this range). – Henry Cohn Jun 22 '12 at 13:05
There seems to be a claimed proof of the union-closed sets conjecture by Blinovsky – Marco Oct 22 at 14:08

99 Answers 99

Here is one which I found at this MO link:

$$ \frac{24}{7\sqrt{7}} \int_{\pi/3}^{\pi/2} \log \left| \frac{\tan(t)+\sqrt{7}}{\tan(t)-\sqrt{7}}\right|\ dt = \sum_{n\geq 1} \left(\frac n7\right)\frac{1}{n^2}, $$ where $\displaystyle\left(\frac n7\right)$ denotes the Legendre symbol. Not really my favorite identity, but it has the interesting feature that it is a conjecture! It is a rare example of a conjectured explicit identity between real numbers that can be checked to arbitrary accuracy. This identity has been verified to over 20,000 decimal places. See J. M. Borwein and D. H. Bailey, Mathematics by Experiment: Plausible Reasoning in the 21st Century, A K Peters, Natick, MA, 2004 (pages 90-91).

P.S. This problem was resolved before this post was placed in Section 5 of [D.H. Bailey, J.M. Borwein, D. Broadhurst and W. Zudilin, Experimental mathematics and mathematical physics, in "Gems in Experimental Mathematics", T. Amdeberhan, L.A. Medina, and V.H. Moll (eds.), Contemp. Math. 517 (2010), Amer. Math. Soc., 41–58]. In fact, the problem was solved even before its mentioning in the 2004 book; the details of the story can be found in the article.

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It was a good idea to split the two conjectures to two answers, but you should have done it the other way around. I venture to guess that most people, like me, originally upvoted this answer because of Sendov’s conjecture, not because of an obscure integral equality which I couldn’t explain to any high school student I now of. – Emil Jeřábek Jun 25 '12 at 10:34
@Emil: Emil, The answers were split because of an user requesting me to do so. Otherwise I would have kept it here itself. – S.C. Jul 1 '12 at 7:40

Are there infinitely many partition numbers divisible by $3$? See A000041.

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For example, it is known that there are infinitely many divisible by 2. It is hard for me to estimate how difficult the problem is, but it was publicly raised at OEIS more than 10 years ago (and I'm sure it had been discussed before), it is still open, and it is about a famous sequence that received much attention (and new interesting results) during last decade. The sequence graph suggests that the distribution of such numbers is quite irregular, they do not seem to to lie nicely on a smooth curve. – Vladimir Reshetnikov Nov 9 at 17:23

Given $n\in\mathbb N$, what is the smallest $k\in\mathbb N$ such that the harmonic number $H_k>n$?
It has been conjectured that for all $n$ the answer is $\lfloor\exp(n-\gamma)-1/2\rfloor$. See A002387.

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One I saw in a talk yesterday by Faustin Adiceam (I hope I have remembered this correctly):

Danzer's problem (in dimension 2): Is there a subset $S$ of $\mathbb{R}^2$ of finite density (the number of points at distance $\le r$ from the origin is $O(r^2)$) that hits every rectangle of unit area?

There is also a version where instead of positive density, a stronger condition is imposed: there is $\delta > 0$ such that any two points in $S$ are at least distance $\delta$ apart.

(Both versions are usually stated for convex sets, but the rectangle versions are equivalent, as any convex set of area $1$ is contained in a rectangle of area $2$ and contains a rectangle of area $1/2$.)

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More than ten years ago I posed the following problem in a couple of math-related mailing lists:

Let $G_n$ be the graph with vertex set $\{1, 2, \dots, 2n\}$ such that $\{i,j\}$ is an edge if and only if $i+j$ is a prime number. Is it true that $G_n$ is eulerian for every $n \geq 2$?

It is a simple consequence of Bertrand's Postulate (there is always a prime between $k$ and $2k$) that $G_n$ is connected and has a perfect matching for every $n$.

The problem turned out to be an old one. I believe that some variation of it appears in Richard K. Guy's "Unsolved Problems in Number Theory" and according to this article, it was originally posed in the Journal of Recreational Mathematics in 1982.

Michael A. Jones and Leslie Cheteyan, "Two observation on unsolved problem #1046 on prime circles of $\{1, 2, . . . , 2m\}$", J. Recreational Mathematics Vol.35(1) (2006), 15--19.

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Ramanujan's conjecture [*] If $2^x$ and $3^x$ are both rational (hereafter assumed) integers for some non-zero $x$ then $x$ is an integer.

[*] I think that is the accepted name for this problem. He certainly proved the weaker corresponding result with $2^x$, $3^x$, and $5^x$ all assumed to be integers.

Unlike some of the other fascinating conjectures already listed here, this one seems "obviously" true. Yet I gather little progress has been made on it. It must be hard to find a foothold, so to speak, or know where to start.

Another easily understood example is the Erdős-Straus Conjecture which asserts that for every integer $n > 1$, there is at least one set of positive integers $x, y, z$ with $\frac{1}{x} + \frac{1}{y} + \frac{1}{z} = \frac{4}{n}$. The result is trivially true if negative integers are also allowed.

In this case, by contrast, it's easy(ish) to "almost" prove it, and with patience and ingenuity one can proceed (apparently) ever closer to a solution. But a few annoying special cases always seem to slip through the net!

One more example - I think a high school kid would have little difficulty understanding the abc conjecture, or following the simple proof of the corresponding result for polynomials Mason-Stothers theorem.

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Also: one problem per answer – Yemon Choi Jun 23 '12 at 9:42

Are there infinitely many $n\ge1$ such that $$ \gcd(2^n-1,3^n-1)=1 ? $$ Ailon and Rudnick conjectured that the answer is affirmative around 2000. What I like about this problem is that it could appear in Euclid, yet wasn't asked until fairly recently. There are obvious generalizations, and the analogue with $\mathbb Z$ replaced by $\mathbb C[T]$, is proven in the Ailon-Rudnick paper. There are also some (deep) results of Bugeaud, Corvaja, and Zannier giving the following related results:

  • There is a constant $C>0$ and infinitely many $n\ge1$ such that $$ \gcd(2^n-1,3^n-1) \ge \exp(C n/\log\log n) . $$
  • For every $\epsilon>0$ there is a $C_\epsilon$ such that $$ \gcd(2^n-1,3^n-1) \le C_\epsilon\exp(\epsilon n) \quad\text{for all $n\ge1$.} $$
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This requires some multivariable calculus, so maybe it is not strictly speaking to "everyone", but you could still use it when teaching undergraduates: the unique continuation for the $p$-Laplace equation.

Let $\Omega \in \mathbb R^3$ be an open domain. Suppose $u \in C^2(\Omega)$ and $$ \nabla \cdot (|\nabla u|^{p-2}\nabla u) = 0 \ \ \text{in}\ \Omega, \quad 1 < p \neq 2, $$ with $u\equiv 0$ in some open ball $B \Subset \Omega$. Then the question is to show that necessarily $u \equiv 0$ in all of $\Omega$.

The real open problem is to show this for all weak solutions (which are known to be $C^{1,\alpha}$), but I think this is open also for $C^2$-functions; so posing this makes sense also without any knowledge above multivariable calculus.

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An open problem I find surprising, the PAC (Perimeter to Area Conjecture) due to Keleti (1998):

The perimeter to area ratio of the union of finitely many unit squares in the plane does not exceed 4.

See for example Bounded - Yes, but 4? and references therein.

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Can a disk be dissected into two or more congruent pieces, with its centre lying within one of the pieces?

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Surely there is a missing condition here. Maybe the pieces are required to be congruent? – zeb Mar 11 '14 at 11:50
Thank you, zeb - that is what I meant. – maproom Mar 11 '14 at 16:55

Bonnessen—Fenchel conjecture: Which convex body of constant width has the least volume? Is it Meissner's tetrahedron?

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Does there exist a point in the unit square whose distance to each of the four corners is rational?

This is sometimes called the rational distance problem, although that name often refers to a more general class of similar problems. It's discussed by Richard Guy in Unsolved Problems in Number Theory and in the following paper:

Guy, Richard K. "Tiling the square with rational triangles." Number theory and applications 265 (1989): 45-101.

It's also open whether there's a point outside the square whose distance to each of the four corners is rational, although it is known that no point on the edge of the square has this property.

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The easy-to-understand "equal sums of like powers" problem, which generalizes Pythagorean triples:

$$3^2+4^2 = 5^2$$

$$3^3+4^3+5^3 = 6^3$$

In general, does,

$$x_1^k+x_2^k+\dots +x_k^k=z^k$$

have a non-zero integer solution for all positive integer $k$?

So far, integer solutions are known for all $k\leq9$, except $k=6$.

(Unfortunately, the Eulernet search for $k=6$ has been stopped since the mid-2000s. With today's computers, and with a distributed search, it may be feasible to find it now.)

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In number theory, the Odd greedy expansion problem concerns a method for forming Egyptian fractions in which all denominators are odd.

Stein, Selfridge, Graham, and others have posed the question of

whether the odd greedy algorithm terminates with a finite expansion for every $x/y$ with $y$ odd?

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Grundy's game is a two-player mathematical game of strategy.

The starting configuration is a single heap of objects, and the two players take turn splitting a single heap into two heaps of different sizes. The game ends when only heaps of size two and smaller remain, none of which can be split unequally.

Whether the sequence of nim-values of Grundy's game ever becomes periodic is an unsolved problem. Elwyn Berlekamp, John Horton Conway and Richard Guy have conjectured that the sequence does become periodic eventually, but despite the calculation of the first $2^{35}$ values by Achim Flammenkamp, the question has not been resolved.

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A conjecture arising from Waring problem: a number of solutions of the equation $$x_1^3+x_2^3+x_3^3=y_1^3+y_2^3+y_3^3,\qquad|x_i|,|y_i|<P,$$ is $O(P^{3+\varepsilon})$. The best known estimate is $O(P^{7/2+\varepsilon})$ (Hua Loo Keng).

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Problem: The partition function $p(n)$ is even (resp. odd) half of the time.

Of course you need to explain to a general audience what the partition function is, but that's not hard, my daughter in K1 got as an assignment to compute $p(n)$ for $n$ up to 4. You also need to explain "half of the time", which means that the number of $n < x$ such that $p(n)$ is even, divided by $x$, has limit 1/2 when $x$ goes to infinity, so you need the notion of limit of a sequence, which is in K12, isn't it ?

The problem is certainly famous among specialists, but not too famous. I don't think there are books on it, for instance. It is old (formulated as a conjecture during the 50th), with an history going back to Ramanajunan. And I like it very much.

UPDATE (28/2/2015) Here is a useful reference:
Ken Ono, The parity of the partition function, Electronic Res. Ann. (1995)

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The notion of limit of a sequence is not usually taught in the US until a real analysis course, which is usually taken only by students in mathematics and frequently not until the third (or even last) year of university. (But I think this case is concrete enough that the necessary ideas here could be explained to a high school student.) – Alexander Woo Jun 22 '12 at 4:05
Sequences are taught before real analysis, usually in Calc 2 along with infinite series. And the more basic material is suitable for high school, even a decent precalculus class. These are only sequences of reals so it isn't very general, and while they are taught, students might not really "understand" them until later. – Francis Adams Jun 22 '12 at 12:51
Yes, there is an option for seniors in a good high school to learn some calculus, but most calculus courses in the United States no longer give a rigourous definition of a limit. Without a rigourous definition, there are some subtle possibilities for what might go wrong that won't be appreciated. (Of course, very few students at that level have the mathematical maturity to understand a rigourous definition well enough to appreciate the subtle possibilities anyway, which is why the rigourous definition isn't taught anymore.) – Alexander Woo Sep 6 '12 at 4:11
Also, "half of the time" can be restated in probabilistic terms. In other words, instead of framing it as a real analysis question, appeal to probabilistic intuition. Alexander Woo's remarks about subtle possibilities notwithstanding, vastly larger numbers of students learn elementary probability and statistics than calculus. – Victor Protsak Jan 6 '14 at 19:28

Assuming that the definitions of a graph, its diameter and girth are something anyone can understand*, whether a graph with diameter $2$, girth $5$ and degree $57$ exists or not is a long standing famous open problem. See this or this.

There are several such (not especially famous) open problems regarding existence/uniqueness in the theory of bipartite Moore graphs (known as generalized polygons), i.e., graphs with diameter $d$ and girth $2d$, the prime power conjecture for finite projective planes that OP has mentioned being one of them. For example, is there a unique $4$-regular bipartite graph with diameter $6$, girth $12$, the so called generalized hexagon of order (3,3)?

*I have never had a problem with explaining this problem to people who have no math background beyond high school.

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Erdos's problem on the length of lemniscates (it is somewhat famous in certain narrow circles). Let $P$ be a polynomial, and consider the set $E=\{ z:|P(z)|=1\}$ in the complex plane.

What is the maximum length of $E$ over all monic polynomials of degree $d$?

Erdos conjectured that an extremal $P$ is $P_0(z)=z^d+1$.

It is known that the asymptotic of maximal length is $2d+o(d).$ It is known that $P_0$ gives a local maximum. It is also known that for every extremal polynomial, all critical points lie on $E$, so $E$ must be connected.

However the conjecture is not established even for $d=3$.

After Erdos's death, I offered a $200 prize for the first solution. (Erdos had offered the same, but I do not know whether one can collect his prize.)

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According toős#Erd.C5.91s.27_problems offers Erdos made will be honored. – Gerry Myerson Jan 29 at 2:18
Thanks, this is nice to know. So you can collect $400 total for this problem. – Alexandre Eremenko Jan 29 at 18:27

For integers $a_1, a_2, \ldots$, let $[a_1,a_2,\ldots]$ denote a continued fraction expansion $a_1 + \frac{1}{a_2 + \frac{1}{\ddots}}$.

Zaremba conjectured in 1972 that there must exist some constant $A > 1$ such that given any integer integer $d > 1$, you can always find some coprime $b$ such that if we write out the continued fraction expansion $b/d = [a_1, a_2, \ldots, a_k]$, all of the coefficients $a_i \leq A$.

Everyone seems to believe that $A = 5$, but we still don't know if such a constant exists. The current best known result (of Bourgain and Kontorovich) is that almost all integers $d$ permit a $b$ such that $b/d$ has the desired property (in their paper, they took $A = 50$, but I think that has been improved slightly since).

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The Alon-Tarsi Conjecture:

A latin square of order $n$ is a filling of an $n\times n$ matrix with the numbers $1, 2,\ldots,n$ such that each row or column gives a permutation of $1,2,\ldots,n$. Take the product of the signs of these $2n$ permutations and call it the sign of the latin square. Let $EVEN(n)$ be the number of latin squares with sign $+1$ and let $ODD(n)$ be the number of latin squares with sign $-1$. The conjecture says:

If $n$ is even then $EVEN(n)\neq ODD(n)$.

The original reference is: N. Alon and M. Tarsi, Colorings and orientations of graphs, Combinatorica 12 (1992), 125-134. See also this preprint by Landsberg and Kumar for a recent update.

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I like the Montesinos-Nakanishi 3-move conjecture from knot theory. A 3-move on a link is the replacement of two parallel strands by three half twists. The conjecture is that any link can be turned into the trivial link by a sequence of such moves. (If you think of this as a conjecture on diagrams, then you also need to allow Reidemeister moves.) According to an Encyclopedia of Mathematics article:

The conjecture has been proved for links up to 12 crossings, 4-bridge links and five-braid links except one family represented by the square of the centre of the 5-braid group. This link, which can be reduced by 3-moves to a 20-crossings link, is the smallest known link for which the conjecture is open (as of 2001).

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Here is another problem on equilibrium points of potentials: suppose that we have infinitely many point masses in $R^3$ (the points do not accumulate). Must there exist a point where the gravitational force created by these masses is zero?

If the masses $m_k>0$ are placed at $x_k\to\infty$ then the force is $$\sum_{k=1}^\infty m_k\frac{x-x_k}{|x-x_k|^3},\quad \mbox{where}\quad\sum_{k=1}^\infty m_k|x_k|^{-2}<\infty.$$ Does every such function have a zero?

This is a version of the problem proposed by Lee Rubel in 1980-th. For some partial results see This question can be easily modified for any dimension $n\geq2$, using Newtonian ($n\geq 3$) or logarithmic potential ($n=2$). The question is substantially easier in dimension $2$, but even for $n=2$ it is not solved in full generality.

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The Kurepa problem: Show that for all primes $p>3$ we have that $$ 0!+1!+2!+\dots+(p-1)! $$ is not divisible by $p$. Kurepa posed this problem in 1971. For an overview see the article by Ivic and Mijajlovic (

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Already on this list: see – Yemon Choi Dec 17 '14 at 16:18
@Stefan Kohl: Ivic told me that the Barsky-Benzaghou-proof is philosophically correct in the sense that although it does not prove the conjecture, it gives a reason why the conjecture should be true. I haven't looked at the paper itself, though. – Jan-Christoph Schlage-Puchta Dec 18 '14 at 14:08

The Littlewood conjecture:

For any $\alpha, \beta \in \mathbb{R}$ we have $$\lim\textrm{inf}_{n\to\infty} (n\cdot||n\alpha||\cdot||n\beta||) = 0$$

where $||\cdot||$ denotes the distance to the nearest integer.

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The Graph Reconstruction Conjecture:

Let $G, H$ be finite, simple, loopless graphs such that $|V(G)|$ and $|V(H)|$ are at least $4$. If there is a bijection $\varphi:V(G)\to V(H)$ such that for all $v\in V(G)$ the graphs $G\setminus \{v\}$ and $H\setminus \{\varphi(v)\}$ are isomorphic, then $G\cong H$.

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Here is another easy to state problem which is 140 years old but not very famous. Consider the potential of finitely many positive charges: $$u(x)=\sum_{j=1}^n\frac{a_j}{|x-x_j|},\quad x,x_j\in R^3,\quad a_j>0$$ How many equilibrium points can this potential have? Equilibrium points are solutions of $\nabla u(x)=0$.

First conjecture: it is always finite.

Second conjecture: when finite, it is at most $(n-1)^2$. This estimate is stated by Maxwell in his Treatease on Electricity and Magnetism, vol. I, section 113, as something known. The editor (J. J. Thomson) wrote a footnote that he "could not find any place where this result is proved".

Nobody could find this place to this time. This is even unknown in the simplest case when all $a_j=1$ and $n=3$.

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I just saw this claim for a proof for the case $n=3$ with equal $a_j$: – Suvrit Oct 12 at 1:53

Is it true that any word of length $n$ contains less than $n$ squares?

(A square is a factor of the form $uu$ for a non-empty word $u$.)

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I think you need to be more precise -- say, $aaaa$ could be interpreted to contain 4 squares, and thus be a counterexample. – Stefan Kohl Dec 3 '14 at 9:54
By the definition, the word $aaaa$ contains only two squares, namely $aa$ and $aaaa$. The confusion may arise when one thinks of occurrences of factors, instead of distinct factors. – Gabriele Fici Dec 3 '14 at 11:33

Is the sequence $(3/2)^n \mod 1$ dense in the unit interval?

In the other direction, Mahler's 3/2 problem:

Do all elements of this sequence with large enough index $n$ lie in the interval $(0,1/2)$?

It is known that $\beta^n$ is uniformly distributed modulo one for almost all $\beta>1$, but explicit examples of $\beta$ for which density holds are not known. This question seems to originate in work of Weyl and Koksma on uniform distribution.

Update: Since posting this answer I've attempted to find some references with which to flesh it out, with only modest success. The earlier paper I have identified which deals with this question directly is T. Vijayaraghavan's 1940 article On the fractional parts of the powers of a number, in which it is shown that the sequence $(3/2)^n \mod 1$ has infinitely many limit points. Mahler conjectured in 1968 that the answer to his question is negative. Jeffrey Lagarias' 1985 survey on the Collatz problem, The 3x + 1 Problem and Its Generalizations, includes a one-page overview of the literature on the distribution of this sequence. Flatto, Lagarias and Pollington subsequently proved that the diameter of the set of accumulation points is at least 1/3; Mahler's question would be answered in the negative if this is improved to "at least 1/2".

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An excellent reference is the recent book Distribution modulo one and Diophantine approximation, by Yann Bugeaud. – Andrés Caicedo Jan 6 '14 at 19:35

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