Estimating the number of integer partitions

Last week I wrote a few posts that included code that iterated over all partitions of a positive integer n. See here, here, and here. How long would it take these programs to run for large n?

For this post, I’ll focus just on how many partitions there are. It’s interesting to think about how you would generate the partitions, but that’s a topic for another time.

Ramanujan discovered an asymptotic formula for p(n), the number of partitions of n. As n increases,

p(n) \sim \frac{1}{4n\sqrt{3}} \exp\left( \pi \sqrt{\frac{2n}{3}} \right)

The ratio of the two sides of the equation goes to 1 as n → ∞, but how accurate is it for the sizes of n that you might want to iterate over in a program?

Before answering that, we need to decide what range of n we might use. Let’s be generous and say we might want to look at up to a trillion (1012) partitions. How big of a value of n does that correspond to? The estimate above shows p(200) is on the order of 4 × 1012, so we only need to be concerned with n ≤ 200. (See the next post for how to exactly solve for a n that gives a specified value.)

Here’s a plot to show the relative error in the approximation above.

Here’s the Mathematica code that made the plot.

    approx[n_] := Exp[Pi Sqrt[2 n/3]]/(4 n Sqrt[3])
    DiscretePlot[ 1 - approx[n]/PartitionsP[n], {n, 200}]

So the estimate above is always an under-estimate, at least about 4% low over the range we care about. It’s good enough for a quick calculation. It tells us, for example, to be very patient if we’re going to run any program that needs to iterate over all partitions of an integer even as small as 100.

The function PartitionsP above returns the number of partitions in its argument. It returned quickly, so it certainly did not generate all partitions and count them. Algorithms for computing p(n) might make an interesting blog post another time.

Even though it would be impractical to iterate over the partitions of larger values, we still might be curious what the plot above looks like for larger arguments. Let’s see what the plot would look like for n between 200 and 2000.

The shape of the curve is practically the same.

The relative error dropped by about a factor or 3 when we increased n by a factor of 10. So we’d expect if we increase n by another factor of 10, the relative error would drop about another factor of 3, and indeed that’s what happens: when n = 20,000, the relative error is about -0.003.

Partitions and Pentagons

This post will present a remarkable theorem of Euler which makes a connection between integer partitions and pentagons.


A partition of an integer n is a way of writing n as a sum of positive integers. For example, there are seven unordered partitions of 5:

  • 5
  • 4 + 1
  • 3 + 2
  • 3 + 1 + 1
  • 2 + 2 + 1
  • 2 + 1 + 1 + 1
  • 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1

Note that order does not matter. For instance, 4 + 1 and 1 + 4 count as the same partition. You can get a list of partitions of n in Mathematica with the function IntegerPartitions[n]. If we enter IntegerPartitions[5] we get

     {{5}, {4, 1}, {3, 2}, {3, 1, 1}, {2, 2, 1}, 
      {2, 1, 1, 1}, {1, 1, 1, 1, 1}}

We say a partition is distinct if all the numbers in the sum are distinct. For example, these partitions of 5 are distinct

  • 5
  • 4 + 1
  • 3 + 2

but these are not

  • 3 + 1 + 1
  • 2 + 2 + 1
  • 2 + 1 + 1 + 1
  • 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1

because 1 appears more than once in each sum.

We can divide distinct partitions into those having an even number of terms and those having an odd number of terms. In the example above, there is one odd partition, just 5, and two even partitions: 4 + 1 and 3 + 2.

Pentagonal numbers

The pentagonal numbers are defined by counting the number of dots in a graph of concentric pentagons: 1, 5, 12, 22, …. This is OEIS sequence A000326.

The jth pentagonal number is

Pj = j(3j – 1) / 2.

We can define negative pentagonal numbers by plugging negative values of j into the equation above, though these numbers don’t have the same geometric interpretation. (I think they do have a geometric interpretation, but I forget what it is.)

Euler’s pentagonal number theorem

Leonard Euler discovered that the number of even distinct partitions of n equals the number of odd distinct partitions, unless n is a pentagonal number (including negative indices). If n is the jth pentagonal number, then the difference between the number of even and odd distinct partitions of n equals (-1)j. In symbols,

D_e(n) - D_o(n) = \left\{ \begin{array}{ll} (-1)^j & \mbox{if } n = P_j \\ 0 & \mbox{otherwise} \end{array} \right.

Here De is the number of even distinct partitions and Do is the number of odd distinct partitions.

Euler discovered this by playing around with power series and noticing that the series involved were generating functions for pentagonal numbers. Jordan Bell has written a commentary on Euler’s work and posted it on arXiv.

Mathematica examples

Let’s look at the partitions of 12, the 3rd pentagonal number.

IntegerPartions[12] shows there are 77 partitions of 12. We can pick out just the partitions into distinct numbers by selecting partition sets that have no repeated terms, i.e. that have as many elements as their union.

    Select[IntegerPartitions[12], Length[Union[#]] == Length[#] &]

This returns a list of 15 partitions:

    {{12},      {11, 1},   {10, 2},      {9, 3},    {9, 2, 1}, 
     {8, 4},    {8, 3, 1}, {7, 5},       {7, 4, 1}, {7, 3, 2}, 
     {6, 5, 1}, {6, 4, 2}, {6, 3, 2, 1}, {5, 4, 3}, {5, 4, 2, 1}}

Of these sets, 7 have an even number of elements and 8 have an odd number of elements. This matches what Euler said we would get because

7 – 8 = (-1)3.

We’d like to eplore this further without having to count partitions by hand, so let’s define a helper function.

    f[list_] := Module[
        {n = Length[Union[list]]}, 
        If [n == Length[list], (-1)^n, 0]

This function returns 0 for lists that have repeated elements. For sets with no repeated elements, it returns 1 for sets with an even number of elements and -1 for sets with an odd number of elements. If we apply this function to the list of partitions of n and take the sum, we get

De(n) – Do(n).


    Total[Map[f, IntegerPartitions[12]]]

returns -1. And we can verify that it returns (-1)j for the jth pentagonal number. The code

    Table[Total[Map[f, IntegerPartitions[j (3 j - 1)/2]]], {j, -3, 3}]


    {-1, 1, -1, 1, -1, 1, -1}

We can compute De(n) – Do(n) for n = 1, 2, 3, …, 12 with

    Table[{n, Total[Map[f, IntegerPartitions[n]]]}, {n, 1, 12}]

and get

    {{1, -1}, {2, -1}, {3,  0}, {4,  0}, 
     {5,  1}, {6,  0}, {7,  1}, {8,  0}, 
     {9,  0}, {10, 0}, {11, 0}, {12, -1}}

which shows that we get 0 unless n is a pentagonal number.

Euler characteristic

Euler’s pentagonal number theorem reminds me of Euler characteristic. Maybe there’s a historical connection there, or maybe someone could formalize a connection even if Euler didn’t make the connection himself. In its most familiar form, the Euler characteristic of a polyhedron is

VE + F

where V is the number of vertices, E is the number of edges, and F is the number of faces. Notice that this is an alternating sum counting o-dimensional things (vertices), 1-dimensional things (edges), and 2-dimensional things (faces). This is extended to higher dimensions, defining the Euler characteristic to be the alternating sum of dimensions of homology groups.

We can write De(n) – Do(n) to make it look more like the Euler characteristic, using Dk(n) to denote the number of distinct partitions of size k.

D0(n) – D1(n) + D2(n) – …

I suppose there’s some way to formulate Euler’s pentagonal number theorem in terms of homology.

Dirichlet series generating functions

A couple days ago I wrote about Dirichlet convolution, and in that post I said

Define the function ζ to be the constant function 1.

This was following the notation from the book I quoted in the post.

Someone might question the use of ζ because it is commonly used to denote the Riemann ζ function. And they’d be onto something: Calling the sequence of all 1’s ζ is sort of a pun on the ζ function.

Dirichlet series generating functions

Given a sequence a1, a2, a3, … its Dirichlet series generating function (dsgf) is defined to be

A(s) = \sum_{n=1}^\infty \frac{a_n}{n^s}

The Dirichlet series generating function for the sequence of all 1’s is the Riemann zeta function ζ(s).

\zeta(s) = \sum_{n=1}^\infty \frac{1}{n^s}

The definition of ζ as a sequence was alluding to its associated Dirichlet series.

Dirichlet convolution

Recall from the earlier post that the Dirichlet convolution of two sequences is defined by

(f*g)(n) = \sum_{d|n} f(d) \,\,g\left(\frac{n}{d} \right)

A basic theorem connecting Dirichlet series and Dirichlet convolution says that if A(s) is the dsgf of

a1, a2, a3, …

and B(s) is the dsgf of

b1, b2, b3, …

then the dsgf of a*b, the Dirichlet convolution of the two series, is A(s) B(s).

In short, the dsgf of a convolution is the product of the dsgfs. This is an example of the general pattern that transforms turn convolutions into products. Different kinds of transformations have different kinds of convolution. See examples here.

Dirichlet series of an inverse

In the earlier post we defined the inverse of a sequence (with respect to Dirichlet convolution) to be the sequence you convolve it with to get the sequence δ(n) given by

1, 0, 0, 0, …

The dsgf of δ(n) is simply the constant 1. Therefore if a*b = δ, then AB = 1. Said another way, if a is the inverse sequence of b, then the dsgf of a is the reciprocal of the dsgf of b.

The earlier post defined the Möbius function μ(n) to be the inverse of the sequence of 1’s, and so its dsgf is the reciprocal of the zeta function.

\sum_{n=1}^\infty \frac{\mu(n)}{n^s} = \frac{1}{\zeta(s)}

Related posts

Dirichlet convolution

That can’t be right

I was skimming a book on number theory [1] recently and came across the following theorem that makes no sense out of context:

An arithmetical function f has an inverse if and only if f(1) ≠ 0.

Wait, what?! That’s obviously false unless I’ve missed something. Maybe “arithmetical function” is far more restrictive than I thought.

No, in this book an arithmetical function is simply a function on positive integers. In general it can be complex-valued, though early in the book all the examples are integer or rational valued.

What I was missing was the meaning of “inverse.” My first thought was that it meant inverse with respect to composition, but it meant inverse with respect to convolution.

Dirichlet convolution

Given to arithmetic functions f and g, their Dirichlet convolution f*g is defined by

(f*g)(n) = \sum_{d|n} f(d) \,\,g\left(\frac{n}{d} \right)

The sum is over all divisors of n and so, for example, the value of f * g at 6 would be

f(1)g(6) + f(2)g(3) + f(3)g(2) + f(6)g(1)

It’s clear that convolution is commutative, and with a little more effort you can show that it’s associative.

There is an identity element for convolution, the function δ(n) defined to be 1 if n = 1 and 0 otherwise. For any arithmetical function f, clearly f*δ = f because all the terms in the sum defining (f*δ)(n) are zero except the term f(n).


In the context of the theorem above, the inverse of a function f is another function g whose convolution with f gives the identity δ, i.e. g is the inverse of f if f*g = δ. Inverses, if they exist, are unique.

Now that we have the right definition of inverse in mind, the theorem above isn’t obviously false, but it’s not clear why it should be true. And it’s a remarkable statement: with just the slightest restriction, i.e. f(1) ≠ 0, every arithmetical function has an inverse with respect to convolution. Not only that, the proof is constructive, so it shows how to compute the inverse.

For an arithmetical function f with f(1) ≠ 0, define its inverse function g by

g(1) =\frac{1}{f(1)}

and for n > 1 define

g(n) = -\frac{1}{f(1)} \sum_{\stackrel{d > 1}{d|n}} f(d)\,\,g\left(\frac{n}{d} \right )

This definition is not circular even though g appears on both sides. On the right side g is only evaluated at arguments less than n since the sum restricts d to be greater than 1. The next post implements this recursive definition of g in Python.

Möbius inversion formula

Define the function ζ to be the constant function 1. Since ζ(1) is not zero, ζ has an inverse. Call that inverse μ.

If f = g*ζ, then convolution of both sides with μ shows that f*μ = g. This is the Möbius inversion formula.

When presented this way, the Möbius inversion formula looks trivial. That’s because all the hard work has been moved into prerequisites. Stated from scratch, the theorem is more impressive. Without using any of the definitions above, Möbius inversion formula says that if f is defined by

f(n) = \sum_{d|n}g(d)


g(n) = \sum_{d|n}f(d) \, \mu\left(\frac{n}{d} \right)


\mu(n) = \left\{ \begin{aligned} {1} &\mbox{\quad if } {n=1} \\ {0} &\mbox{\quad if } {a^2 \,|\, n \mbox{ for some } a > 1} \\ {(-1)^r} &\mbox{\quad if } {n \mbox{ has } r \mbox{ distinct prime factors}} \end{aligned} \right.

We initially defined μ implicitly as the inverse of the constant function 1. When written out explicitly we have the definition of the Möbius function μ above.

Related posts

[1] An Introduction of Arithmetical Functions by Paul J. McCarthy, Springer-Verlag, 1986.

Floor exercises

The previous post explained why the number of trailing zeros in n! is

\sum_{i=1}^\infty \left\lfloor \frac{n}{5^i} \right\rfloor

and that the sum is not really infinite because all the terms with index i larger than log5 n are zero. Here ⌊x⌋ is the floor of x, the largest integer no greater than x.

The post gave the example of n = 8675309 and computed that the number of trailing zeros is 2168823 using the Python code

    sum(floor(8675309/5**i) for i in range(1, 10))

Now suppose you wanted to calculate this by hand. You would want to be more clever than the code above. Instead of dividing n by 5, and then by 25, and then by 125 etc. you’d save time by first computing

⌊8675309/5⌋ = 1735061,

then computing

⌊1735061/5⌋ = 347012,

and so forth.

Is this calculation justified? We implicitly assumed that, for example,

n/25⌋ = ⌊⌊n/5⌋ /5⌋.

This seems reasonable, so reasonable that we might not think to check it, but calculations with floor and ceiling functions can be tricky.

There’s a theorem from Concrete Mathematics that can help us.

Let f(x) be any continuous, monotonically increasing function with the property that whenever f(x) is an integer, x is an integer. Then

f(x) ⌋ =⌊ f(⌊x⌋) ⌋


f(x) ⌉ =⌈ f(⌈x⌉) ⌉.

Note that the requirements on f compose. That is, if a function f satisfies the hypothesis of the theorem, so do the compositions  ff and fff etc. This means we can apply the theorem above iteratively to conclude

f(f(x)) ⌋ =⌊ f (⌊f(⌊x⌋)⌋) ⌋


f( f(x)) ⌉ =⌈ f (⌈f(⌈x⌉)⌉) ⌉

and similarly for higher compositions.

The hand calculation above is justified by applying the iterated theorem to the function f(x) = x/5.

Related posts

Factorial random number generator

Here’s a strange pseudorandom number generator I ran across recently in [1].

Starting with a positive integer n, create a sequence of bits as follows.

  1. Compute n! as a base 10 number.
  2. Cut off the trailing zeros.
  3. Replace digits 0 through 4 with 0, and the rest with 1.

You’d want to use a fairly large n, but let’s use n = 20 for a small example. Then

20! = 2432902008176640000.

Lopping off the trailing zeros gives


Replacing small digits with 0 and large digits with 1 gives


This is not a practical PRNG, but it does produce a sequence of bits that has good statistical properties.

Several questions naturally arise that will be addressed below.

How many digits does n! have?

I give two ways to compute the answer in this post.

As an example, if we let n = 8675309, then n! has 56424131 digits.

How many trailing zeros does n! have?

An equivalent question is what is the largest power of 10 that divide n!. When we write out the integers from 1 to n, there are more multiples of 2 than multiples of 5, so powers of 5 are the limiting resource when looking to divide n! by powers of 10.

Every fifth number is a multiple of 5, so the number of powers of 5 dividing n! is at least the floor of n / 5. But every 25th number contributes an extra factor of 5. And every 125th contributes still another factor, etc. So the number of factors of 5 in n!, and thus the number of factors of 10 in n!, is

\sum_{i=1}^\infty \left\lfloor \frac{n}{5^i} \right\rfloor

This is formally an infinite sum, but the sum is actually finite because all the terms are zero once the index i is so large that

5i > n.

Or in other words, the number of terms in the sum is bounded by log5 n. Now

log 8675309 = 9.9…

and so the “infinite” sum above has only nine non-zero terms when n = 8675309. A quick Python calculation

    sum(floor(8675309/5**i) for i in range(1, 10))

shows that n! has 2168823 trailing zeros. So n! has roughly 56 million digits, and we chop off roughly the last 2 million digits, giving us 54 million digits, which leads to 54 million bits.

Leading digits

The leading digits are a little biased, because the leading digits of factorials follow Benford’s law. When we carry out the procedure at the top of this post, the first digit of n! will be 1, 2, 3, or 4 more often than it will be 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9. The first bit will be biased, the second bit less biased, the third bit even less biased, etc. The bias declines rapidly, and so would have little effect when generating millions of bits.

In practice you could discard the first few bits, though in practice you’d never use this generator in the first place because it’s so inefficient.


[1] Random Numbers and Computers by Ronand Kneusel, Springer, 2018.

Reciprocals of prime powers

Let p be a prime number. This post explores a relationship between the number of digits in the reciprocal of p and in the reciprocal of powers of p.

By the number of digits in a fraction we mean the period of the decimal representation as a repeating sequence. So, for example, we say there are 6 digits in 1/7 because

1/7 = 0.142857 142857 …

We will assume our prime p is not 2 or 5 so that 1/p is a repeating decimal.

If 1/p has r digits, is there a way to say how many digits 1/pa has? Indeed there is, and usually the answer is

r pa-1.

So, for example, we would expect 1/7² to have 6×7 digits, and 1/7³ to have 6×7² digits, which is the case.

As another example, consider

1/11 = 0.09 09 09 …

Since 1/11 has 2 digits, we’d expect 1/121 to have 22 digits, and it does.

You may be worried about the word “usually” above. When does the theorem not hold? For primes p less than 1000, the only exceptions are p = 3 and p = 487. In general, how do you know whether a given prime satisfies the theorem? I don’t know. I just ran across this, and my source [1] doesn’t cite any references. I haven’t thought about it much, but I suspect you could get to a proof starting from the theorem given here.

What if we’re not working in base 10? We’ll do a quick example in duodecimal using bc.

    $ bc -lq

Here we fire up the Unix calculator bc and tell it to set the output base to 12. In base 12, the representation of 1/5 repeats after 4 figures: 0.2497 2497 ….

We expect 1/5² to repeat after 4×5 = 20 places, so let’s set the scale to 40 and see if that’s the case.

    scale = 40

OK, it looks like it repeats, but we didn’t get 40 figures, only 38. Let’s try setting the scale larger so we can make sure the full cycle of figures repeats.


That gives us 40 figures, and indeed the first 20 repeat in the second 20. But why did we have to set the scale to 44 to get 40 figures?

Because the scale sets the precision in base 10. Setting the scale to 40 does give us 40 decimal places, but fewer duodecimal figures. If we solve the equation

10x = 1240

we get x = 43.16… and so we round x up to 44. That tells us 44 decimal places will give us 40 duodecimal places.

Related posts

[1] Recreations in the Theory of Numbers by Alfred H. Beiler.

Searching for pseudoprimes

I was reading a book on computer algebra and ran across an interesting theorem about Carmichael numbers in the one of the exercises. I’ll present that theorem below, but first I’ll back up and say what a pseudoprime is and what a Carmichael number is.

Fermat’s theorem

If p is a prime number, then for any integer b, Fermat’s little theorem says

bp-1 = 1 (mod p).

The contrapositive of this theorem is useful for testing whether a number is (not) prime: if for some b,

bp-1 ≠ 1 (mod p)

then p is not a prime. For example, we could test whether 1003 is prime by computing [1]

21002 (mod 1003).

When we do, we find the result is 990, not 1, and so 1003 is not prime.


Let’s test whether 341 is prime. If we compute

2340 (mod 341)

we get 1. But clearly 341 = 11 × 31. If we go back and read the top of the post carefully, we see that Fermat’s theorem only gives a way to prove a number is not prime. We say 341 is a pseudoprime base 2 because it is a composite number that slips past the primality test based on Fermat’s little theorem with b = 2.

Strictly speaking we should say 341 is a Fermat pseudoprime base 2. When someone says “pseudoprime” without further qualification, they usually mean Fermat pseudo prime. But there are other kinds of pseudoprimes. For any theorem that gives a necessary but not sufficient for a number to be prime, the composite numbers that satisfy the condition are called pseudoprimes. See this post for examples, such as Euler pseudoprimes and Wilson pseudoprimes.

Note that 341 is not a Fermat pseudoprime base 3 because

3340 = 56 (mod 341)

If a number passes Fermat’s primality test for several bases, it’s probably prime. (Here’s a blog post that carefully unpacks what “probably prime” means.)

Carmichael numbers

We saw that 341 is a Fermat pseudoprime for base 2 but not base 3; it slipped past our first check on primality but not our second. Some numbers are more slippery. Carmichael numbers are composite numbers that slip past Fermat’s primality test for every base b.

Actually, not every base. A Carmichael number n passes Fermat’s primality test for any base b relatively prime to n.

The smallest Carmichael number is 561. There are infinitely many Carmichael numbers, but they’re distributed very thinly.

Searching for Carmichael numbers

Now I’m finally ready to get to the exercise I mentioned at the top of the post. I’m reading Computer Algebra by Wolfram Koepf. The exercise asks the reader to prove that if for a given k the three numbers 6k+1, 12k+1, and 18k+1 are all prime, then their product is a Carmichael number. This theorem was discovered by J. Chernick in 1939.

We can use this to search for Carmichael numbers with the following Python code. (Note that this approach doesn’t produce all Carmichael numbers—it doesn’t produce 561, for example.) It is unknown whether it produces an infinite sequence of Carmichael numbers.

    from sympy import isprime

    for k in range(2, 100):
        if isprime(6*k+1) and isprime(12*k+1) and isprime(18*k+1):
            print(k, (6*k+1)*(12*k+1)*(18*k+1))

Testing values of k up to 100 reveals six Carmichael numbers.

     6 294409
    35 56052361
    45 118901521
    51 172947529
    55 216821881
    56 228842209

Related posts

[1] This may not look like a good idea at first. 21002 is an enormous number. Surely it would be easier to test whether 1003 is prime than to compute such a large number. Except you don’t have to compute 21002 per se: you have to compute 21002 (mod 1003). You can reduce your intermediate results (mod 1003) at every step, so you never have to work with large numbers. You can also use fast exponentiation, and so Fermat’s primality test is much more efficient than it may seem at first glance.

Python’s pow function optionally takes a modulus as a third argument. So, for example,

    pow(2, 1002)

computes 21002, and

    pow(2, 1002, 1003)

computes 21002 (mod 1003). It produces the same result as

    2**1002 % 1003

but is more efficient. Not that it matters in this example, but it matters more when the exponent is much larger.

Aliquot ratio distribution

The previous post looked at repeatedly applying the function s(n) which is the sum of the divisors of n less than n. It is an open question whether the sequence

s( s( s( … s(n) … ) ) )

always converges or enters a loop. In fact, it’s an open question of whether the sequence starting with n = 276 converges.

A heuristic argument for why the sequence ought to converge, at least much of the time, is that s(n) is usually less than n. This can be made precise as explained here: in the limit as N goes to infinity, the proportion of numbers less than N for which s(n) < n is at least 0.752.

Even though applying s usually leads to a smaller result, conceivably it could lead to a much larger result when it increases, as with the hailstone problem.

I made some histograms of the ratio s(n) / n to get a feel for how much s increases or decreases its argument. (I imagine this has all been done before, but I haven’t seen it.)

Here’s my first attempt, for n up to 1000.

Histogram of aliquot ratios

So apparently the ratio is often less than 1.

I thought it would be clearer to work on a log scale and center the graph at 0 so I next made the following graph.

Histogram of log aliquot ratios

This shows that the aliquot function s never increases its argument by much, and it often reduces its argument quite a bit, at least for numbers less than 1000.

Next I made a histogram with numbers less than 1,000,000 to see whether the pattern continued. Here’s what I got.

Histogram of log aliquot ratios for numbers less than a million

The most obvious feature is the huge spike. If you can ignore that, mentally cropping the image to just the bottom part, it looks basically like the previous graph.

What’s up with that spike? It’s in the bin containing log(0.5). In other words, the ratio s(n)/n is often near 0.5.

So I thought maybe there’s some number theoretic reason the ratio is often exactly 1/2. That’s not the case. It’s only exactly 1/2 once, when n = 2, but it’s often near 1/2.

In any case, applying s very often returns a smaller number than you started with, so it’s plausible that the iterated aliquot sequence would often converge. But empirically it looks like some sequences, such as the one starting at n = 276, diverge. They somehow weave through all the numbers for which the sequence would come tumbling down.

The iterated aliquot problem

Let s(n) be the sum of the proper divisors of n, the divisors less than n itself. A number n is called excessive, deficient, or perfect depending on whether s(n) – n is positive, negative, or 0 respectively, as I wrote about a few days ago.

The number s(n) is called the aliquot sum of n. The iterated aliquot problem asks whether repeated iterations of s always converge to a perfect number or to 0. This problem has something of the flavor of the Collatz conjecture, a.k.a. the hailstone problem.

As mentioned here, about 1/4 of all integers are excessive and about 3/4 are deficient. That is, s(n) is smaller than n for about 3 out of 4 integers. Based on just this, it seems plausible that iterated aliquots would often converge. (See the next post for a visualization of how much the function s increases or decreases its argument.)

We can investigate the iterated aliquot problem with the following Python code.

    from sympy import divisors
    def s(n):
        if n == 0:
            return 0
        return sum(divisors(n)) - n
    def perfect(n):
        return n == s(n)
    def iterate(n):
        i = 0
        while True:
            if perfect(n) or n == 0:
                return i
            n = s(n)
            i += 1

The function iterate counts how many iterations it takes for repeated applications of s to converge.

For n = 1 through 24, the sequence of iterates converges to 0, the only exception being the perfect number 6.

When n = 25 the sequence converges, but it converges to 6 rather than 0. That is, 25 is the smallest number which is not perfect but for which the sequence terminates in a perfect number.

When n = 138, the sequence converges, but it takes 178 iterations to do so. For smaller n the sequence converges much sooner.

When n = 220, we see something new. s(220) = 284, and s(284) = 220. That is, our code is stuck in an infinite loop.

So we need to go back and refine our question: does the sequence of iterations always converge to 0, converge to a perfect number, or enter a loop?

We have to modify the Python code above to look for loops;

    def iterate(n):
        i = 0
        seen = set()
        while True:
            if perfect(n) or n == 0 or n in seen:
                return i
            n = s(n)
            i += 1

At least for n < 276 the sequence converges.

When I tried 276, the iterations got much larger and slower. I let it run for 400 iterations and the last iteration was


This took 150 seconds. I switched over to Mathematica and it calculated the same result in 0.6 seconds.

Then I asked Mathematica to run 600 iterations and that took 64 seconds. I went up to 700 iterations and that took 6133 seconds. So it seems that each set of 100 iterations takes about 10 times longer than the previous one.

The last result I got was


Maybe the iterations turn around eventually, but so far it looks like they’ve reached escape velocity. The growth isn’t monotonic. It goes up and down, but more often goes up.

The problem of whether the sequence always converges is unsolved. I don’t know whether it’s known whether the particular sequence starting at 276 converges.

Update: See the first comment. It’s an open problem whether the sequence starting at 276 converges.