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The first thing to say is that this is not the same as the question about interesting mathematical mistakes. I am interested about the type of false beliefs that many intelligent people have while they are learning mathematics, but quickly abandon when their mistake is pointed out -- and also in why they have these beliefs. So in a sense I am interested in commonplace mathematical mistakes.

Let me give a couple of examples to show the kind of thing I mean. When teaching complex analysis, I often come across people who do not realize that they have four incompatible beliefs in their heads simultaneously. These are

(i) a bounded entire function is constant;
(ii) $\sin z$ is a bounded function;
(iii) $\sin z$ is defined and analytic everywhere on $\mathbb{C}$;
(iv) $\sin z$ is not a constant function.

Obviously, it is (ii) that is false. I think probably many people visualize the extension of $\sin z$ to the complex plane as a doubly periodic function, until someone points out that that is complete nonsense.

A second example is the statement that an open dense subset $U$ of $\mathbb{R}$ must be the whole of $\mathbb{R}$. The "proof" of this statement is that every point $x$ is arbitrarily close to a point $u$ in $U$, so when you put a small neighbourhood about $u$ it must contain $x$.

Since I'm asking for a good list of examples, and since it's more like a psychological question than a mathematical one, I think I'd better make it community wiki. The properties I'd most like from examples are that they are from reasonably advanced mathematics (so I'm less interested in very elementary false statements like $(x+y)^2=x^2+y^2$, even if they are widely believed) and that the reasons they are found plausible are quite varied.

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I have to say this is proving to be one of the more useful CW big-list questions on the site... – Qiaochu Yuan May 6 '10 at 0:55
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The answers below are truly informative. Big thanks for your question. I have always loved your post here in MO and wordpress. – Unknown May 22 '10 at 9:04
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wouldn't it be great to compile all the nice examples (and some of the most relevant discussion / comments) presented below into a little writeup? that would make for a highly educative and entertaining read. – Suvrit Sep 20 '10 at 12:39
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It's a thought -- I might consider it. – gowers Oct 4 '10 at 20:13
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Meta created tea.mathoverflow.net/discussion/1165/… – quid Oct 8 '11 at 14:27

207 Answers 207

"It cannot be shown without some form of AC that the union (or disjoint union) of countably many countable sets is countable. I have a countably infinite set X of countably infinite sets. Therefore, the union of X cannot be shown to be countable without Choice."

The fallacy is that in many cases of interest, it is possible to exhibit an explicit counting of every element of X. In such a case a counting of X by antidiagonals is easily constructed. The usual counting of the rationals is an example of this.

I think this may even be an example of a more general phenomenon of "people think AC is necessary for a certain construction, but in fact it turns out not to be necessary for the example they have in mind". For example, AC is necessary to find a maximal ideal in an arbitrary ring ... but it isn't if you're prepared to assume the ring is Noetherian.

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If "Noetherian" is defined by the ascending chain condition or by requiring all ideals to be finitely generated, then in order to deduce the existence of maximal ideals, you still need a weak form of the axiom of choice. The usual argument uses the axiom of dependent choice. (Of course, if you define "Noetherian" to mean that every set of ideals has a maximal element, then deducing the existence of maximal ideals is a choiceless triviality.) A good reference is "Six impossible rings" by Wilfrid Hodges (J. Algebra 31 (1974) 218-244). – Andreas Blass Oct 22 '10 at 15:29

If a matrix $A$ is self-adjoint/skew-self-adjoint with respect to a symmetric bilinear form, then it is diagonalizable.

True for matrices over $\mathbb{R}$, with respect to a positive definite inner product.

False over other fields. For example, over $\mathbb{C}$, $\left( \begin{smallmatrix} 1 & i \\ i & -1 \end{smallmatrix} \right)$ and $\left( \begin{smallmatrix} 0 & 1 & i \\ -1 & 0 & 0 \\ -i & 0 & 0 \end{smallmatrix} \right)$ are nilpotent, but self-adjoint and skew self-adjoint respectively with respect to the standard inner product.

False for other nondegenerate symmetric bilinear forms: $\left( \begin{smallmatrix} 1 & 1 \\ -1 & -1 \end{smallmatrix} \right)$ and $\left( \begin{smallmatrix} 0 & -1 & -1 \\ 1 & 0 & 0 \\ -1 & 0 & 0 \end{smallmatrix} \right)$ are nilpotent, but self-adjoint and skew self-adjoint respectively with respect to $\left( \begin{smallmatrix} 1 & 0 \\ 0 & -1 \end{smallmatrix} \right)$ and $\left( \begin{smallmatrix} 1 & 0 & 0 \\ 0 & 1 & 0 \\ 0 & 0 & -1 \end{smallmatrix} \right)$.

You can exponentiate the skew-self-adjoint matrices to get examples of matrices preserving a nondegenerate symmetric bilinear form, with Jordan blocks of the form $\left( \begin{smallmatrix} 1 & 1 \\ 0 & 1 \end{smallmatrix} \right)$.

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You seem to have a different definition of "the standard inner product on $\mathbb{C}^n$" than I do. I think that phrase normally refers to the familiar positive definite sesquilinear form, with respect to which self-adjoint matrices are indeed diagonalizable. – Mark Meckes Jan 28 '11 at 16:46
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Of course it's not bilinear -- an "inner product" on a complex vector space is defined to be sesquilinear, not bilinear -- I've spent a lot of time trying to get my linear algebra students to remember that. The failure of such a form to generalize to other fields is indeed sad, but I think the richness of Hilbert space theory helps to make up for that disappointment. :) – Mark Meckes Jan 28 '11 at 21:24

In ${\mathbb F}_p^\times$, the non-squares are the opposite of the squares. In other words, $a$ is square iff $-a$ is not a square.

This is a confusion with the facts that the kernel of $x\mapsto x^2$ is $\{1,-1\}$ and the subgroup of squares has index $2$.

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Some undergraduate common false beliefs that I found

(1) If $H$ is a subgroup of $\mathbb{Z}$ and $H$ and $\mathbb{Z}$ are isomorphic, then $H = \mathbb{Z}$;

(2) In a metric space every two open balls are homeomorphic;

(3) For $p \in [1, \infty]$, $L^p(X, \mathfrak{M}, \mu) = \left\{ f \in \mathbb{C}^X : \int_X |f|^p \, d \mu < \infty \right\}$ is a $\mathbb{C}$-normed vector space, with the norm $\lVert f \rVert_p = (\int_X |f|^p \, d \mu)^{1/p}$.

Belief (1) is very naive, for every nontrivial subgroup of $\mathbb{Z}$ is of the form $n \mathbb{Z}$, all of them isomorphic with $\mathbb{Z}$. For (2) people tend to think of normed vector spaces and forgets the discrete metric spaces. For (3) some people just forget that one have to consider the quotient space, where the classes $[f]=[g]$ iff $f=g$ $\mu$-almost everywhere.

Belief (1) is very naive, because every nontrivial subgroup of $\mathbb{Z}$ is of the form $n \mathbb{Z}$, all of them isomorphic to $\mathbb{Z}$. For (2) people tend to think of normed vector spaces and they forget the discrete metric spaces. For (3) some people just forget that one have to consider the quotient space, where the classes $[f]=[g]$ iff $f=g$ $\ \mu$-almost everywhere.

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For awhile, I used to think:
If $depth\ M\ge depth\ N$ then $depth\ M_p\ge depth\ N_p$; for any prime ideal $p$ and finite R-modules $M$ and $N$ (Which is not true).

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I don't think I've seen it in here:

Every vector space has a non-trivial dual space ($L^p$ for $0 < p < 1$ was a counter-example only mentioned during one of the classes in measure theory)

And of course there's the common false belief of people outside of mathematics that "mathematicians work with numbers and formulae all day long" :)

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Well, it is true that every vector space has a dual space, even $L^{1/2}$... and it is even true that every topological vector space has a continuous dual space... What you mean is that it is not true that every topological vector space has a non-trivial continuous dual space (or, that the continuous dual of a topological vector space does not necessarily separate points) – Mariano Suárez-Alvarez Jul 7 '10 at 18:54

Fans: (related to the one of polytopes written above) all convex cones are rational, i.e. one would expect that a line would eventually hit a point in the lattice. It is obviously not true, just take the one-dimensional cone generated by $(1,\sqrt{2})$. A similar one was thinking that if I rotate the cone a bit, I can always make it rational.

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reminds me of the curious fact that some circles in the plane, too, have no points in $\mathbb Q^2$. (proven simply by cardinality!) – AndrewLMarshall Oct 4 '10 at 19:21

The assumption that a cubic surface expressed as a foliation of Weierstrass curves cannot be rational, because a general Weierstrass curve is not rational.

I've seen this false assumption more than once on sci.math over the years. But there are simple counterexamples, such as:

$ (x + y) (x^2 + y^2) = z^2 $

On defining $ u = x/y $ and $ v = z/y $ one obtains $ y (u + 1) (u^2 + 1) = v^2 $, and hence x, y, z as rational functions of u, v.

I'd love to have a reference to a procedure for calculating the geometric genus and algebraic genus of surfaces like this, because they are rational if and only if both these quantities are zero, and for other cubic surfaces that interest me it would save a lot of fruitless hacking around trying to find a rational solution that probably doesn't exist! Are there any symbolic algebra packages that can do this?

I mean for example is $ x y (x y + 1) (x + y) = z^2 $ rational? I'm almost sure it isn't; but how can one be sure?

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Something I was sure about until earlier today:

Suppose $\kappa$ is an $\aleph$ number, then $AC_\kappa$ is equivalent to $W_\kappa$, namely the universe holds that the product of $\kappa$ many sets is non-empty if and only if every cardinality is either of size less than $\kappa$ or has a subset of cardinality $\kappa$.

In fact this is only true if you assume full $AC$, and $(\forall \kappa) AC_\kappa$ doesn't even imply $W_{\aleph_1}$, I was truly shocked.

Furthermore, $W_\kappa$ doesn't even imply $AC_\kappa$ in most cases.

The strongest psychological implication is that most people actually think of the well-ordering principle as a the "correct form" of choice, when it is actually Dependent Choice (limited to $\kappa$, or unbounded) which is the "proper" form, that is $DC_\kappa$ implies both $AC_\kappa$ and $W_\kappa$.

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How common is this misconception? – Thierry Zell Apr 17 '11 at 3:08
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@Thierry: For the past couple of weeks I spent a lot time considering models without choice, not only I held that misconception but not once anyone corrected me about it - grad students and professors alike. – Asaf Karagila Apr 17 '11 at 6:09

A few mistakes I remember:

  • The quotient groups $\frac{G}{N}$ and $\frac{H}{K}$ are isomorphic if $G \thicksim H$ and $N\thicksim K$.
  • A closed interval of a complete lattice is a complete sublattice.
  • Two homeomorphic topologies on a set are the same.
  • The set of all compatible uniformities of a topological group forms a complete lattice.
  • The trace of the identity matrix is 1.
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A closed interval of a complete lattice does form a lattice that is complete, right? So that the mistake is that sups and infs in the interval (particularly the sup and inf over the empty set) are not necessarily computed as they would be in the ambient complete lattice; is that what you have in mind? – Todd Trimble Sep 6 '15 at 1:47

If $V$ is a vector space and $k$ is a number, then the $k$-th tensor product of $V$ with itself decomposes as a direct sum into symmetric and antisymmetric tensors: $$ \underbrace{V \otimes ... \otimes V}_{k\text{ times}} = \Lambda^kV \oplus \mathrm{Sym}^kV $$

Recall (in the finite-dimensional case) the dimensions: $$ \dim \Lambda^k V = \binom{n}{k} \quad\text{ and }\quad \dim\mathrm{Sym}^kV = \binom{n+k-1}{k} $$

Looking at $k=1$ shows that we have non-trivial intersection.

Looking at $n=k=3$ shows that the sum is not exhausting.

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Most people that study Riemannian geometry for their first time make the following assumption at some point: "Let $(e_1,\dots,e_n)$ be a local orthonormal frame of $TM$ such that all Lie brackets $[e_i,e_j]$ vanish..."

This one is not so common (maybe special to me), but here we go: "$\mathbb{RP}^\infty$ and $\mathbb{CP}^\infty$ are Eilenberg-Mac Lane spaces, so $\mathbb{HP}^\infty$ is one, too."

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This might not be common, but I once believed the following.

Let $ A, B $ be integers, and define a sequence by the linear recurrence $ s_n = A s_{n-1} + B s_{n-2} $ with the base case $ s_0 = 0 $, $ s_1 = 1 $. Two important special cases are the Fibonacci sequence ($ A = B = 1 $) and the sequence $ s_n = 2^n - 1 $ (where $ A = 3 $, $ B = -2 $). Then, for any integers $ n $ and $ k $, $ \gcd(s_n, s_k) = s_{\gcd(n,k)} $.

This is true in the two mentioned special cases, so it's tempting to believe it's true in general. But there's a counterexample: $ A = B = k = 2 $, $ n = 3 $.

Update: corrected the powers of two minus one example from B = 2 to B = -2. Thanks to Harry Altman.

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If every collection of disjoint open sets in a topological space is at most countable, then the space is separable

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For $p$ prime and the chain of embeddings $\mathbb{Z}/p\mathbb{Z} \hookrightarrow \mathbb{Z}/p^2\mathbb{Z} \hookrightarrow \cdots$ given by multiplication by $p$, then $\bigcup_n \mathbb{Z}/p^n\mathbb{Z}$ is not the group of $p$-adic integers $\mathbb{Z}_p$, but its Pontryagin dual, the Prüfer $p$-group $\mathbb{Z}(p^{\infty})$.

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Is that actually a common false belief? After all, $\mathbb{Z}_p$ is uncountable, as everyone realizes! – Todd Trimble Mar 5 '15 at 14:25
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It's hard for me to believe it's at all common. I wasn't the downvoter, but I think it would be better if answers were rooted either in instances that can be found in the literature, or widely encountered in one's experience as an instructor. – Todd Trimble Mar 5 '15 at 14:52

This might not be common, but it gave me a headache once. I'll delete if it gets heavily downvoted.

I once had to think really hard about a contradiction in the great scheme of things that followed from my unwitting assumption that if $f$ was a function from a semigroup to a semigroup, then if its kernel was a congruence, $f$ had to be a homomorphism. I encountered a function whose kernel clearly was a congruence but which clearly wasn't a homomorphism, and it took about an hour's walk in a park for my vague notions and incoherent thought to produce the necessary realization.

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Here is a short list of some false beliefs I had when I was studying mathematics, I suppose they may be common but I have never checked:

  • I was in the last year of high school and studying university-level math in advance. I remember trying for a week to prove that a continous injective map from an open subset of $\mathbb{R}^2$ to $\mathbb{R}^2$ that preserves "being aligned" (I mean that maps aligned triples to aligned triples) must be the restriction of an affine map (over $\mathbb{R}$). That is disproved by restrictions of projective transformations... Which I knew of but I was not able to see they contradicted my belief. When my teacher told me "What about projective transformations?"... I felt dumb.
  • I was in the 1st year of PhD studies. My advisor, Adrien Douady, had an idea to build polynomial Julia sets with positive Lebesgue measure. Julia sets are fractals, often with complicated topological structures at every scale. Surely that must be the source of measure? So as an exercise, I tried for a week to prove that Jordan curves are necessarily of Lebesgue measure 0. I told Adrien about my attempts. He gave me a counter-example. I felt dumb.
  • Learning that there are closed subsets of the interval with positive Lebesgue measure but no interior did not surprise me as much, as the construction is very simple, but still that's a bit counterintuitive.
  • When you zoom on the Mandelbrot set, you see all that round components with smooth boundaries. They look so round. Surely they must be circles, for otherwise the difference would be visible. Well... they are not (except one). Guess how I felt when I learned.
  • Frankly, when learning the first time about complex numbers, did anybody here expect that, adding the square root of -1 to the reals would add the roots of all other polynomials?
  • I was giving a lecture to math teachers about sensitivity to initial condition (call it chaos) and showing strange attractors on the computer, one told me that by the very presence of chaos, what we see may be quite far from the actual behaviour of the equation, save reality. It turns out hyperbolic systems are stable, so I believe this is still representative (it does not prove it but it is an encouraging hint).
  • ... Chaos in deterministic systems. I won't develop on that.
  • Surely before hearing of set theory and Cantor's argument, you will believe that all sets are countable. Then after learning that this is not the case, you will think that $\mathbb{R}^2$ must be bigger than $\mathbb{R}$, right?
  • You have a $C^\infty$ function on the right half plane, all of whose derivatives have a continuous extension to the boundary line. Surely, it must be easy to extend it to a $C^\infty$ function of the whole plane, isn't it? Well... You can but I would not call it easy.
  • Short statements have short proofs. Disproved by Fermat's last theorem (among others).
  • I was quite disapointed to learn that there cannot be a finite non-commutative field (division algebra).

I have a few other examples, that I would not term "common false beliefs" but rather "fun and surprising math facts". Is there already a MO question about that?

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Way late to the party...

"$ \mathrm{polymod}\ p$ and $\mathrm{mod}\ p$ are the same thing."

And it's cousin: "$\forall{x}, f(x) \cong g(x) \pmod{q} \implies f(x) = g(x)$"

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What does polymod mean? – darij grinberg Oct 20 '10 at 11:47
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Probably I understand what this means: if $f(x)=0\pmod 2$ for all $x$, then $f=0$ over $\mathbb F_2$. This is similar to my second example: mathoverflow.net/questions/23478/… – zhoraster Oct 20 '10 at 18:33
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$\mathrm{polymod}$ is "polynomial mod". Two polynomials are congruent $\mathrm{polymod} p$ iff the coefficients each power of the variable are congruent $\pmod{p}$. The equivalence classes are sets of polynomials where each coefficient ranges over an equivalence class $\pmod{p}$. For the cousin, there are many local/globals but they all seem to require additional conditions (q.v. Hensel lifting). I think the set from which $x$ was chosen was left unspecified because this "imprecise mental abbreviation" pops up at various levels of sophistication each with a different such set. – Anonymous Oct 23 '10 at 15:22

I'm not sure how common it is but I've certainly been able to trick a few people into answering the following question wrong:

Given $n$ identical and independently distributed random variables, $X_k$, what is the limiting distribution of their sum, $S_n = \sum_{k=0}^{n-1} X_k $, as $n \to \infty$?

Most (?) people's answer is the Normal distribution when in actuality the sum is drawn from a Levy-stable distribution. I've cheated a little by making some extra assumptions on the random variables but I think the question is still valid.

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Generally such a limiting distribution doesn't exist. Perhaps you need to divide your sum by the square root of $n$? – John Bentin Dec 29 '11 at 13:56

From Keith Devlin

"Multiplication is not the same as repeated addition", as put forward in Devlin's MAA column.

I'm not really sure how I feel about this one; I might be one of the unfortunate souls who are still prey to that delusion.

Caution

In case you missed it, the column ended up spilling a lot of electronic ink (as evidenced in this follow-up column), so I don't believe it would be wise to start yet a new one on MO. Thanks in advance!

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The more I think about this "error", the less I am convinced. It's like saying that you cannot say that $\binom n k$ is the number of $k$-element sets in an $n$-element set because then you will be unable to generalize to complex values of $n$. Or you cannot define the chromatic polynomial as the function counting the colourings and then plug in $-1$ to get the acyclic orientations of the graph. Also, I think it is perfectly understandable what it means to add something halfways. – user11235 Apr 10 '11 at 20:50
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It's not a "false belief". It's a false heuristic. And it's actually here: mathoverflow.net/questions/2358/most-harmful-heuristic – darij grinberg Apr 10 '11 at 21:17
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When I taught elementary teachers the course on arithmetic, they all had been taught that multiplication is repeated addition, but I myself thought it was the cardinality of the cartesian product. We enjoyed discussing this difference in point of view. – roy smith May 9 '11 at 3:06
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The "repeated addition" characterization has an advantage over the "cardinality of the Cartesian product" characterization (which possibly in some contexts could be considered a disadvantage). That is that it's not self-evident that it's commutative, and so one has a useful exercise for certain kinds of students: figure out why it's commutative. – Michael Hardy May 20 '11 at 2:28

A common false assumption is that that two non-orthogonal pure states of a quantum mechanical system may never be unambiguously distinguished by a measurement. (See http://arxiv.org/pdf/quant-ph/9807022.pdf)

Another false belief is that a quantum computer is similar to an analogue computer, in that large computations will necessarily fail because of accumulated error. (See, for example, http://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/9712048)

For that matter, another common false believe is that Bell Inequalities aren't violated, although it is mostly held by people who have never heard of Bell Inequalities.

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I once very briefly thought that:

Given a vector space $V$ and a sub-space $U \subset V$ that $V-U$ is also a subspace.

I've heard this several times as a TA also.

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I think this falls under $(x+y)^2=x^2+y^2$, – Thomas Rot Aug 10 '15 at 12:48
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It always fails... But I don't think this is a common held belief. – Thomas Rot Aug 10 '15 at 21:40

Related to this answer: $$ \pi=\left(\frac{1}{10^5}\sum_{-\infty}^{+\infty}e^{-n^2/10^{10}}\right)^2. $$ Proof: With a computer one can verify that the first 42 billions digits of the two numbers are the same, see J. Borwein and P. Borwein, Strange series and high precision fraud, in The American Mathematical Monthly, 1992, pages 622-640.

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I voted this down because I don't think it's a statement that anyone actually believes, and therefore doesn't fit the spirit of this questions, but I have to say it's pretty clever. – Nate Eldredge Oct 19 '10 at 21:11
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I would vote it down if I could. There is nothing false with believing in that Riemann sums converge to the true value of an integral (Poisson in this case). – zhoraster Oct 20 '10 at 19:12
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I must admit I'm a little bit surprised just how quickly $f(a) = (1/a \sum e^{-n^2/a^2})^2$ converges to $\pi$ as $a \to \infty$. (According to the identity given in the article, $\lim a^{-2} \log (f(a)-\pi) = -\pi^2$. This feels much faster than we have any right to expect. – Michael Lugo Oct 26 '10 at 4:40

When I was a kid (8th grade), I solved a bunch of math problems in an exam using the ``well-known identity'' that $(x+y)^2=x^2+y^2$, which I was sure I had been taught the year before. It was of course way before I heard about characterstic two and I didn't get a good grade that day!

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Quoth the question, "The properties I'd most like from examples are that they are from reasonably advanced mathematics (so I'm less interested in very elementary false statements like $(x+y)^2=x^2+y^2$, even if they are widely believed)". – JBL Dec 1 '10 at 23:39
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Also, this is of course just a special case of the more general “law of universal linearity”, which iirc was mentioned in earlier answers… – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Dec 2 '10 at 0:40

I had the false belief that recursive functions are always decidable in ZFC.

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I don't know if this is what you are looking for, but I keep hearing that "a differentiable function is one that is locally linear", not one whose local variation can be approximated linearly. No one stops to think about e.g, x2, and the fact that its graph does not look like a line at any value of x.

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I would say this is more a heuristic than a false statement; as such, it would be more appropriate as an answer to mathoverflow.net/questions/2358/most-harmful-heuristic (although I do not think anyone interprets it the way you apparently do). – Qiaochu Yuan May 5 '10 at 4:53

I had a false belief in linear algebra, that a basis of a vector space could have infinitely many elements (like an orthonormal basis in Fourier analysis). That tripped me up trying to understand the definition of tensor products, and even after someone explained the issue to me I didn't believe it at first.

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I don't understand. A basis can have infinitely many elements. That's no false belief, that's correct. – Johannes Hahn Aug 22 '10 at 12:07
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The false believe would be that when you define basis, you allow infinite linear combinations. If some confusion is possible, say "Hamel basis" ... Even if there is no topology defined, it still will emphasize that only finite linear combinations are considered. – Gerald Edgar Aug 22 '10 at 12:30

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