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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 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 R must be the whole of 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
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
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
It's a thought -- I might consider it. –  gowers Oct 4 '10 at 20:13
Meta created tea.mathoverflow.net/discussion/1165/… –  quid Oct 8 '11 at 14:27

188 Answers 188

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 at 14:25
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 at 14:52

Here is a false belief I had. Let $f:X \to Y$ be a map of topological spaces having the property that for every finite CW complex $K$, the induced map $f_{\ast}:[K,X] \to [K,Y]$, on unpointed homotopy classes of maps, is a bijection. Then $f$ is a weak homotopy equivalence (that is, it induces isomorphisms on all homotopy groups relative to all basepoints). A counterexample is given by the stabilization map $B \Sigma_{\infty}\xrightarrow{+1} B \Sigma_{\infty}$, which is not an isomorphism on $\pi_1$.

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Although the original intent of this question seems to have long since evaporated, I can't help asking: is this really a "common false belief"? –  Yemon Choi Feb 17 at 1:24

The closure of the open ball of radius $r$ in a metric space, is the closed ball of radius $r$ in that metric space.

In a somewhat related spirit: the boundary of a subset of (say) Euclidean space has empty interior, and furthermore has Lebesgue measure zero. (This false belief is closely related to Gowers' example of the belief that there are no non-trivial open dense sets.)

More generally, point set topology and measure theory abound with all sorts of false beliefs that only tend to be expunged once one plays with the canonical counterexamples (Cantor sets, bullet-ridden squares, space-filling curves, the long line, $\sin\left(\dfrac{1}{x}\right)$ and its variants, etc.).

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I remember being assigned as an exercise to find a counterexample to the first statement, but I can't remember where. Rudin? –  Qiaochu Yuan Jun 6 '10 at 23:39
What about a space with 2 points a distance 1 apart, and the open/closed ball having radius 1? I don't remember seeing this before, though. –  Peter Samuelson Jun 6 '10 at 23:53
@Terry Really good examples. We can count on you to do anything but waste our time with a post, Terry. I hope you keep finding the time to post here and lend your support! –  Andrew L Jun 7 '10 at 0:11
These seem to be more "interesting mistakes" than "false beliefs", especially the last part. –  Victor Protsak Jun 10 '10 at 6:02
Peter: actually the simplest counterexample is the open/closed ball of radius $0$, empty set vs a singleton. –  Pietro Majer Aug 1 '11 at 15:43

Some false beliefs in linear algebra:

  • If two operators or matrices A, B commute, then they are simultaneously diagonalisable. (Of course, this overlooks the obvious necessary condition that each of A, B must first be individually diagonalisable. Part of the problem is that this is not an issue in the Hermitian case, which is usually the case one is most frequently exposed to.)

  • The operator norm of a matrix is the same as the magnitude of the most extreme eigenvalue. (Again, true in the Hermitian or normal case, but in the general case one has to either replace "operator norm" with "spectral radius", or else replace "eigenvalue" with "singular value".)

  • The singular values of a matrix are the absolute values of the eigenvalues of the matrix. (Closely related to the previous false belief.)

  • If a matrix has distinct eigenvalues, then one can find an orthonormal eigenbasis. (The orthonormality is only possible when the matrix is, well, normal.)

  • A matrix is diagonalisable if and only if it has distinct eigenvalues. (Only the "if" part is true. The identity matrix and zero matrix are blatant counterexamples, but this false belief is remarkably persistent nonetheless.)

  • If L: X -> Y is a bounded linear transformation that is surjective (i.e. Lu=f is always solvable for any data f in Y), and X and Y are Banach spaces then it has a bounded linear right inverse. (This is subtle. Zorn's lemma gives a linear right inverse; the open mapping theorem gives a bounded right inverse. But getting a right inverse that is simultaneously bounded and linear is not always possible!)

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Wow. I believed that second one until now. Which is ridiculous, of course, since the operator norm of a nilpotent matrix can't be zero or else it wouldn't be a norm! –  Qiaochu Yuan Jun 6 '10 at 23:45
The parethentical comment in 2nd bulleted point is worded as if, $\textit{in general},$ the operator norm were equal both to the spectral radius and the largest singular value (or, perhaps, that $\|A\|=\rho(A)$ and $\lambda_1(A)=s_1(A).$) But for a nilpotent matrix the spectral radius is 0, whereas the operator norm and the largest singular values aren't. –  Victor Protsak Jun 10 '10 at 7:59
Fair enough; I've reworded the parenthetical. –  Terry Tao Jun 10 '10 at 16:35
Yes, I meant right inverse, thanks. Getting a continuous right-inverse is actually a subtle question - the OMT only gets boundedness, which is not equivalent to continuity when one is not linear. I believe that the existence of a continuous right inverse may follow from a classical theorem of Bartle and Graves, but this is nontrivial. –  Terry Tao Jun 10 '10 at 19:06

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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The ring $\mathbb{C}[x]$ has countable dimension over $\mathbb{C}$; therefore its field of fractions $\mathbb{C}(x)$ also has countable dimension over $\mathbb{C}$.

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The uncountably many elements $1/(x-a)$ for all $a \in \mathbb C$ are linearly independent. –  darij grinberg Nov 29 '14 at 22:47

The "conditional Vitali convergence theorem": Let $X_n$ be a uniformly integrable sequence of random variables with $X_n \to X$ almost surely, and $\mathcal{G}$ a sub-$\sigma$-field. Then $\mathbb{E}[X_n \mid \mathcal{G}] \to \mathbb{E}[X \mid \mathcal{G}]$ almost surely (FALSE).

I believed this one until I read Uniformly integrable sequence such that a.s. limit and conditional expectation do not commute. It is particularly startling because the conditional versions of the monotone convergence theorem, the dominated convergence theorem, and Fatou's lemma are all true!

What is true is that $\mathbb{E}[X_n \mid \mathcal{G}] \to \mathbb{E}[X \mid \mathcal{G}]$ in $L^1$, so you do have a subsequence converging almost surely.

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Many students believe that every abelian subgroup is a normal subgroup.

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I confess that I didn't carefully comb through all the answers, although I've read through this thread a few times in the past. So maybe these are repeats.

  • "The category of compact Hausdorff spaces is complete but not cocomplete; for example, it doesn't have all coproducts."

  • "The category of torsion abelian groups is cocomplete but not complete; for example, it doesn't have all products."

One of my professors in graduate school (quite a well-known and strong mathematician actually) insisted on the first, and quite a few people here at MO have mistakenly believed the second before the error was pointed out.

The moral of the story: sometimes categorical limits/colimits aren't computed the way you might first think of, e.g., colimits of compact Hausdorff spaces aren't always computed as colimits in $\mathrm{Top}$, and limits of torsion abelian groups aren't always computed as limits in $\mathrm{Ab}$.

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Here are a few more: (Everything between quotation marks is a false belief.)

Basic logic: Among students: "If A implies B then B implies A" (or "if A implies B then not A implies not B").

Even among mature mathematicians a frequent false belief is to forget that the conclusion of a theorem need not hold once the conditions of the theorem fail. Another common frequent belief is to assume that once the conditions fail then the conclusion must fail too.

Calculus: "The derivative of a differentiable function is continuous."

"An infinite series whose general term tend to 0 is convergent."

Geometry: "The circle is the only figure which has the same width in all directions." (Feynmann regarded this mistake as one reason for the space shuttle challenger disaster).

Polytopes: Often people believe that "given a convex polytope P you can slightly move the vertices to rational positions keeping the structure of the polytope unchanged."

(From Udi de Shalit): Some people believe that "if you hold a cube along a main diagonal, the remaining vertices all lie on a plane." Some even say that their number is 4.

Algebra (Also from Udi) "I have encountered many misconceptions about solvability by radicals. Some people think that 'the solution of an irreducible equation of degree 5 and higher, say over Q, is never expressible by radicals'. Some amateur mathematicians even say that 'equations of degree 5 and higher have no solutions'."

Probability: "If you play the casino patiently and carefully you will win in the long run" (and "you do not believe that?, this is my own experience on the matter!" and "Indeed when I am calm and patient I win, but when I lose my temper I lose big time".)

"an event which may occur has positive probability": (not true for infinite probability spaces)

Various places: "If you want to prove that a certain infinite structure exists it is enough to show that there is no upper bound to the sizes of such structures."

Combinatorics: "This is a finite problem, surely you can solve it with a computer."

"Hall marriage theorem is very nice and I am surprised no combinatorialist bothered to extend it to a matching built from triples instead of pairs." (It is unlikely that a general characteriztion when a hypergraph built from triples has a perfect matching (of triangles) will be found.)

Computer science: "It is known that quantum computers can solve NP complete problems in polynomial time."

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"If you want to prove that a certain infinite structure exists it is enough to show that there is no upper bound to the sizes of such structures." This is not necessarily false. In some important cases this does work! One uses the compactness theorem for such proofs. –  Johannes Hahn May 7 '10 at 12:46
Probability: There are two opposite errors. Both are common. Say we are flipping a fair coin repeatedly. (1) if there have been more heads than tails, then tails is "overdue" and thus more likely on the next flip. (2) if there have been more heads than tails, then heads is "hot" and thus more likely on the next flip. –  Gerald Edgar May 7 '10 at 15:15
I don't know anything about polytopes, but I'm having a hard time disbelieving this false result. Are we talking about finite polytopes here? –  Tom Ellis May 9 '10 at 19:26
Entirely finite, Tom. There are 4-dimensional polytopes with 33 vertices that cannot be presented with rational coordinates. Here is a reference arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/0710/0710.4453v2.pdf –  Gil Kalai May 9 '10 at 20:46
You list the statement "Quantum computers can solve NP complete problems in polynomial time" as a false belief, but I don't believe you actually know this belief to be false. For example, the assertion that this belief is false implies $P\neq NP$. Perhaps the false belief that you intend to mention is: "It has been proved that Quantum computers can solve NP complete problems in polynomial time." –  Joel David Hamkins May 17 '10 at 12:34

The false belif could be:

A sequence is a net. Then a subnet of a sequence is a subsequence

Counterexample: The sequence $sin(nx)$is a sequence in the compact topological space $[-1, 1]^{\mathbb{R}}$. So this net has a convergence subnet. But it is well known that the above sequence has no a subsequence which is point wise convegent(See the last page of the book of Walter Rudin Principle of mathematical Analysis). So in this example the convergent subnet can not be counted as a subsequence.

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This seems essentially a dupe as it is contained explictly in mathoverflow.net/a/40091 –  quid Nov 12 '14 at 13:31
@quid Thank you. I did not read it already. however this one introduce an explicte counter example. –  Ali Taghavi Nov 12 '14 at 13:59
  • The category of commutative C*-algebras is equivalent to the opposite category of locally compact Hausdorff spaces.

Let me know in case that this has been mentioned before; I haven't been able to find it. There is some discussion on math.SE.

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The Quaternions $\{x+yi+zj+wk\mid x,y,z,w\in \mathbb{R}$} is a complex banach algebra(With usual operations). Hence it is apparently a counterexample to the Gelfand=Mazur theorem

So, what is the error?

The error is the following:

However the quaternion is a vector space over the field of complex number and it is also a ring, but there is no compatibility between scalar multiplication and quternion multiplication). So it is not a complex algebra. This shows that in the definition of a complex algebra $A$, the commutative condition $\lambda (ab)=(a)(\lambda b),\;\;\lambda \in \mathbb{C},\;\;a,b\in A$, is very essential.

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This is not a common false belief except among people who do not understand the definition of an algebra over a field –  Yemon Choi Nov 12 '14 at 23:43
Moreover, surely the quaternions are a real vector space, not a complex vector space –  Yemon Choi Nov 13 '14 at 1:34
@AliTaghavi You're right that $R$-multiplication induces an $F$-module ($F$-vector space) structure via the evident composite $F \times R \to R \times R \to R$. To be fair to both you and Yemon: a very common slip even among professionals is in knowing that for commutative algebras an $F$-algebra is tantamount to a homomorphism $F \to R$, but temporarily forgetting this doesn't apply in the noncommutative setting (except of course when $F$ is central in $R$) -- not rising to the level of false belief so much as a temporary slip-up. I've made that slip myself! –  Todd Trimble Nov 13 '14 at 11:58

Let $(X,\tau)$ be a topological space. The false belief is: "Every sequence $(x_n)$ in $X$ with an accumulation point $a\in X$ has a subsequence that converges to $a$". I subscribed to this intuitively until I stumbled over a counterexample, see http://dominiczypen.wordpress.com/2014/10/13/accumulation-without-converging-subsequence/

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Here's my list of false beliefs ;-):

  • If $U$ is a subspace of a Banach space $V$, then $U$ is a direct summand of $V$.
  • If $M/L, L/K$ are normal field extensions, then the same is true for $M/K$.
  • Submodules/groups/algebras of finitely generated modules/groups/algebras are finitely generated.
  • The Krull dimension of a subring is at most the Krull dimension of the ring.
  • The Krull dimension of a noetherian domain is finite.
  • If $A \otimes B = 0$, then either $A=0$ or $B=0$.
  • If $f$ is a smooth function with $df=0$, then $f$ is constant.
  • If $X,Y$ are sets such that $P(X), P(Y)$ are equipotent, then $X,Y$ are equipotent.
  • Every short exact sequence of the form $0 \to A \to A \oplus B \to B \to 0$ splits.
  • $R[[x,y]] = R[[x]][[y]]$ as topological rings.
  • $R[x]^* = R^*$, even if $R$ is not a domain.
  • Every presheaf on a site has an associated sheaf. (Hint: the index category of the usual colimit has to be essentially small!)
  • (Co)limits may be computed in full subcategories. For example, $Spec(\prod_i R_i) = \coprod_i Spec(R_i)$ as schemes because $Spec$ is an antiequivalence.
  • Every finite CW-complex is compact, thus every CW-complex is locally compact.
  • The smash product of pointed spaces is associative (this is even false for CW complexes when you don't use the compactly-generated product!), products commute with quotients, and so on: Topologists often assume that everything behaves well, but sometimes it does not.
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+1: you had me at "Here's my list of false beliefs". –  Pete L. Clark May 5 '10 at 23:41
$A \to A \oplus B$ does not have to be the inclusion; likewise $A \oplus B$ does not have to be the projection. Thus the error here is: Two chain complexes, which are isomorphic "pointwise", don't have to be isomorphic. This occurs sometimes. –  Martin Brandenburg May 6 '10 at 16:12
Your fifth example reminds me of an even more plausible false belief I once held: if $A \otimes A = 0$, then $A = 0$. –  Reid Barton May 11 '10 at 2:12
@Regenbogen: Take the abelian group $\mathbb{Q}/\mathbb{Z}$. –  Steve D May 15 '10 at 13:44
$f$ is just locally constant ;-) –  Martin Brandenburg May 19 '10 at 8:39

The product of two symmetric matrices is symmetric!

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I don't know how common this mistake is, but I think it's worth mentioning. I used to think that existence of non-measurable sets is guaranteed by the axiom of choice only.

In the presence of AC, there cannot be a $\sigma$-additive measure on $\mathcal{P}(\mathbb{R})$ that extends the usual Lebesgue measure.

It is true that we cannot extend the Lebesgue measure in a translation-invariant way by various Vitali set constructions. On the other hand, if you do not insist that the extension is translation-invariant, it might be possible to do this relative to a real-valued measurable cardinal assumption.

Theorem (Ulam): If there exists a cardinal $\kappa$ such that there exists an atomless $\kappa$-additive probability measure on $\mathcal{P}(\kappa)$, then there exists a $\sigma$-additive measure on $\mathcal{P}(\mathbb{R})$ extending the Lebesgue measure.

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That Darboux functions are continuous is certainly a widely held belief among students, at least in France where it is induced by the way continuity is taught in high school.

I remember having gone through all the five "stages of grief" when shaken from this false belief with the $sin(1/x)$ example : denial, anger ( "then the definition of continuity must be wrong ! Let's change it !), bargaining ("Ok, but a Darboux function must surely be continuous except at exceptional points. Let's prove that..."), depression (when shown a nowhere continuous Darboux function), acceptance ("Hey guys, you really think the intermediate value theoem has a converse ? C'mon, you're smarter than that...")

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Here are some various examples (I hope that some of them weren't already mentioned):
1. If a space $X$ have two different norms $\| \cdot \|_i, i=1,2$ such that $\| \cdot \|_1 \leq \| \cdot \|_2$ then the completion with respect to $\| \cdot \|_1$ is contained in the completion with respect to $\| \cdot \|_2$.
2. If $M_1,M_2$ are isomorphic modules and $N_1,N_2$ are isomorphic submodules then $M_1/N_1$ and $M_2/N_2$ are isomorphic.
3. If $A,B$ are subsets of topological spaces $X,Y$ (resp.) and $A,B$ are homeomorphic then the closures $\overline{A}$ and $\overline{B}$ are also homeomorphic.
4. The standard construction of adjoining unit to the Banach algebra $A$ yields nothing new if $A$ already was unital.
5. The phrase "a function is almost everywhere continuous" means the same as: "the function is almost everywhere equal to the continuous function".
6. Suppose you are trying to prove that some function space $F$ is complete (say that functions are defined on $X$ and real valued): you take a Cauchy sequence $\{f_n\}_n$ and prove that for each point $x \in X$ the sequence $\{f_n(x)\}_n$ is Cauchy. Then form the completeness of $\mathbb{R}$ you obtain a function $f$. The false belief is that it is now enough to show that $f$ belong to $F$.
7. If you have an ascending family $\{A_i\}_i$ then to obtain it's union $\bigcup_{i}A_i$ it is enough to take some countable subfamily
8. A convergent net $\{x_i\}_i$ in a metric space is bounded and the set $\{x_i\}_i \cup \{x\}$ is compact (where $x$ is the limit).
9. If $D$ is an open dense subset of a topological space $X$ then $card \; D= card \; X$

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In descriptive set theory, we study properties of Polish spaces, typically not considered as topological spaces but rather we equip them with their "Borel structure", i.e., the collection of their Borel sets. Any two uncountable standard Borel Polish spaces are isomorphic, and the isomorphism map can be taken to be Borel. In practice, this means that for most properties we study it is irrelevant what specific Polish space we use as underlying "ambient space", it may be ${\mathbb R}$, or ${\mathbb N}^{\mathbb N}$, or ${\mathcal l}^2$, etc, and we tend to think of all of them as "the reals".

In Lebesgue Sur les fonctions representables analytiquement, J. de math. pures et appl. (1905), Lebesgue makes the mistake of thinking that projections of Borel subsets of the plane ${\mathbb R}^2$ are Borel. In a sense, this mistake created descriptive set theory.

Now we know, for example, that in ${\mathbb N}^{\mathbb N}$, projections of closed sets need not be Borel. Since we usually call reals the members of ${\mathbb N}^{\mathbb N}$,

it is not uncommon to think that projections of closed subsets of ${\mathbb R}^2$ are not necessarily Borel.

This is false. Note that closed sets are countable union of compact sets, so their projections are $F_\sigma$. The actual results in ${\mathbb R}$ are as follows: Recall that the analytic sets are (the empty set and) the sets that are images of Borel subsets of $\mathbb R$ by Borel measurable functions $f:\mathbb R\to\mathbb R$.

  • A set is Borel iff it and its complement are analytic.

  • A set is analytic iff it is the projection of the complement of the projection of a closed subset of ${\mathbb R}^3$.

  • A set is analytic iff it is the projection of a $G_\delta$ subset of $\mathbb R^2$.

  • There is a continuous $g:\mathbb R\to\mathbb R$ such that a set is analytic iff it is $g(A)$ for some $G_\delta$ set $A$.

  • A set if analytic iff it is $f(\mathbb R\setminus\mathbb Q)$ for some continuous $f:\mathbb R\setminus\mathbb Q\to\mathbb R$. (Note that if $f$ is actually continuous on $\mathbb R$, then $f(\mathbb R\setminus\mathbb Q)$ is Borel.)

(See also here.)

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Teaching introduction to analysis, I had students using the "fact" that if $f: [a,b] \rightarrow \mathbb{R}$ is continuous, then $[a,b]$ can be divided to subintervals $[a,c_1],[c_1,c_2],...,[c_n,b]$ such that $f$ is monotone on every subinterval. For instance you can use this "fact" to "prove" the (true) fact that $f$ must be bounded on $[a,b]$. Also, some students used the same "fact", but with countably many subintervals. I found this mistake hard to explain to students, because constructing a counterexample (such as the Weierstrass function) is impossible at the knowledge level of an introduction course.

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Why not $x \sin(1/x)$ as example? –  quid Jan 2 '14 at 17:33
You can surely discuss fractal shapes without needing to go into the details of a technical counterexample. The point seems to be that it is hard to imagine that "increasing at a point" and "increasing in a neighborhood of a point" are not the same for continuous functions. You can give easy examples showing that indeed they disagree, locally, and fractals suggest that you can make the disagreement happen everywhere. You can revisit this later, once more technology has been set in place. –  Andres Caicedo Jan 2 '14 at 23:44

Regard a reasonably nice surface in $\mathbb R^3$ that can locally be expressed by each of the functions $x(y,z)$, $y(x,z)$ and $z(x,y)$, then obviously

$\frac {dy} {dx} \cdot \frac {dz} {dy} \cdot \frac {dx} {dz} = 1$

(provided everything exists and is evaluated at the same point).

After all, this kind of reasoning works in $\mathbb R^2$ when calculating the derivative of the inverse function, it works for the chain rule and it works for separation of variables.

Note that this product is in fact $-1$ which can either be seen by just thinking about what happens to the equation $ax+by+cz=d$ of a plane / tangent plane or by looking at the expression coming out of the implicit function theorem.

I recall someone claiming that this example proves that $dx$ should be regarded as linear function rather than infinitesimal, but I cannot reconstruct the argument at the moment as this discussion was 15 years ago.

In particular, it is true under appropriate conditions in $\mathbb R^4$ that $\frac {\partial y} {\partial x} \cdot \frac {\partial z} {\partial y} \cdot \frac {\partial w} {\partial z} \cdot \frac {\partial x} {\partial w} = 1$

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This is an example of the principle that naïve reasoning with Leibniz notation works fine for total derivatives but not for partial derivatives. This is one reason why I would always write the left-hand side as $\frac{\partial{y}}{\partial{x}} \cdot \frac{\partial{z}}{\partial{y}} \cdot \frac{\partial{x}}{\partial{z}}$ if not $\left(\frac{\partial{y}}{\partial{x}}\right)_z \cdot \left(\frac{\partial{z}}{\partial{y}}\right)_x \cdot \left(\frac{\partial{x}}{\partial{z}}\right)_y$ (notation that I learnt from statistical physics, where the independent variables are otherwise not clear). –  Toby Bartels Apr 7 '11 at 12:56
Can you help us understand it? Or is there no better way than computation? –  darij grinberg Apr 10 '11 at 18:27
@TobyBartels, I remember an analyst colleague talking about a problem in a paper of his that he resolved by noticing (if I remember the particular example correctly) that $\partial/\partial r$ means something different in cylindrical and spherical co\"ordinates. –  L Spice Dec 12 '13 at 23:17

" Every open dense subset of $\mathbb{R}^n$ has full Lebesgue measure. "

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Common false belief: a space that is locally homeomorphic to $\mathbb{R}^n$ must be Hausdorff. More generally, many people forget that the usual definition of a manifold contains the Hausdorff and paracompact conditions.

There are of course examples that show that forgetting this assumption leads to unexpected result, and they are in fact much wilder than I knew a few weeks ago. Notably, among examples of (Hausdorff) non-paracompact "manifolds" are the well-known long line, but also the Prüfer manifold constructed from a closed half-plane by attaching to it a half plane at each boundary point.

Added: Let me give a particular case of this false belief to illustrate what kind of weird things can happen that most people would not realize when they are sloppy with the paracompact hypothesis: there exists a path-connected, locally contractible, simply-connected space that admits non-trivial locally trivial bundles with fiber $[0,1]$. Indeed, the first octant in the product of two long line is not homeomorphic to a product a long ray with an interval, but has a natural bundle structure over a long ray.

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A set is compact iff it is closed and bounded.

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This is perhaps a common false belief among undergraduates, but one that is dispelled by just a superficial acquaintance with functional analysis. –  Todd Trimble Dec 9 '13 at 2:45

It always confused me as an undergraduate that $\mathbb{Q}\subset\mathbb{R}$ has an open neighborhood $N_\epsilon \supset\mathbb{Q}$ of arbitrarily small measure $\epsilon$, because $\mathbb{Q}$ is dense in $\mathbb{R}$.

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Let $B(r_1) \subset B(r_2)$ be two open balls of radius $r_1$ and $r_2$ respectively. Then $r_1 \leq r_2$.

Bounded metric spaces give trivial counterexamples. Also, $B \left( \frac{1}{6}, \frac{2}{3} \right) \subsetneq B \left( \frac{1}{2}, \frac{1}{2} \right)$ in $(0,+ \infty)$.

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I guess you don't want commonly held beliefs of students that for every real number there is a next real number, or that convergent sequences are eventually constant. A version I saw in a book asked whether points on a line "touch." Understanding the topology of a line is a challenge for many students, although presumably not for most mathematicians.

Here is a more esoteric belief that I have even seen in some books:

"The Banach-Tarski Paradox says that a ball the size of a pea can be cut into 5 pieces and reassembled to make a ball the size of the sun."

As a consequence of the Banach-Tarski paradox, a ball the size of a pea can be partitioned (not really "cut") into a finite number of pieces which can be reassembled into a ball the size of the sun, but a simple outer measure argument implies that the number of pieces must be very large (I roughly estimate at least $10^{30}$). The number 5 probably comes from the fact that the basic Banach-Tarski paradox is that a ball of radius 1 can be partitioned into 5 pieces which can be reassembled into two disjoint balls of radius 1. (It can almost, but not quite, be done with four pieces; one of the five pieces can be taken to be a single point.)

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Since points do not touch, this was an objection to the set theoretic view of the geometric continuum as a set of points, for example by Veronese. A decent account of this can be found in Debates about infinity in mathematics around 1890: The Cantor-Veronese controversy, its origins and its outcome, by Detlef Laugwitz. –  Andres Caicedo Dec 2 '13 at 23:22

A common trap which sometimes I see people fall is that a Hermitian matrix $M$ is negative definite if and only if its leading principal minors are negative.

What is true is the Sylvester's criterion, which says that $M$ is positive definite if and only if its principal minors are positive. Thus, the true statement is that $M$ is negative definite if and only if the principal minors of $-M$ are positive.

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False belief: A function being continuous in some open interval implies that it is also differentiable on some point in that interval:


The Weierstrass function is an example of a function that is continuous everywhere but differentiable nowhere:

$f(x) = \sum_{n=0}^\infty a^n \cos(b^n \pi x)$

Where $a \in (0, 1)$, $b$ is a positive odd integer, and $ab > 1 + \frac{3\pi}{2}$. The function has fractal-like behavior, which leads to it not being differentiable. This notion is rather disheartening to most calculus students, though.

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Related: if f is continuous on the interval I, there must be an interval J in I on which f is monotone. Easily believed by the beginner. –  Thierry Zell Aug 31 '10 at 2:34

protected by François G. Dorais Oct 15 '13 at 2:34

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