Take the 2-minute tour ×
MathOverflow is a question and answer site for professional mathematicians. It's 100% free, no registration required.

It's a common observation in Lie theory that Cartan matrices and the Killing form are named after the wrong people; they were discovered by Killing and Cartan, respectively. I remember learning about many other examples of this phenomenon, but can't think of too many at the moment. Wikipedia has some examples here and here, but I'm curious about more obscure examples.

Bonus points for an interesting story behind why the concept was incorrectly named. Concepts that were deliberately named in honor of another mathematician don't count.

share|improve this question

closed as no longer relevant by Kevin H. Lin, quid, Qiaochu Yuan, Zev Chonoles, Gjergji Zaimi Jul 9 '11 at 3:12

This question is unlikely to help any future visitors; it is only relevant to a small geographic area, a specific moment in time, or an extraordinarily narrow situation that is not generally applicable to the worldwide audience of the internet. For help making this question more broadly applicable, visit the help center.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

19  
By the way, in the mathematical community "Stiegler's law" is often referred to as "Arnol'd's law", inclusive of the corollary "Arnol'd's law applies to Arnol'd's law as well". –  pasquale zito May 10 '10 at 20:24
7  
To further complicate things, there is also Whitehead's law: "Everything of importance has been said before by someone who did not discover it." –  bhwang May 10 '10 at 21:38
1  
Oh gosh, I could not imagine that there are SO many wrong names. Perhaps some day there will be a big important Brandenburg theorem, of course just because another one has proven it. ;-) –  Martin Brandenburg May 10 '10 at 23:09
8  
Not that I have a problem with the question per se, but "the wrong people" is pretty ambiguous. The first person to study something might not be the most deserving -- often a crucial application or popularizations trumps the actual innovation. Nor is it necessarily the case that the intent of the naming was to honor the inventor -- frequently the naming is done for reasons of analogy ("Euler systems" come to mind). –  Cam McLeman May 11 '10 at 1:10
2  
Stigler's law is called Boyer's Law by H.C. Kennedy in "Who Discovered Boyer's Law?" (Amer. Math. Monthly vol. 79 1972, 66--67). It says that "Mathematical formulas and theorems are usually not named after their original discoverers." The label Boyer's law was chosen because Boyer gave many examples of this phenomenon in his book A History of Mathematics. –  KConrad Sep 8 '10 at 17:12

56 Answers 56

Q: Who proved the Cayley-Hamilton Theorem?

A: Frobenius!

We now have the interesting question: Is this a maximal example of Stigler's law? That is, can we find distinct persons A, B, and C who are given credit for a result proven by D? Or A and B who are given credit for a result proven by C and D?

share|improve this answer
7  
And how long a directed cycle can we find in the graph where there is an edge from P to Q if P discovered/proved something attributed to Q? –  Saul Glasman May 11 '10 at 9:00
1  
What do you mean? That Frobenius was the first to prove it in full generality? Please supply a reference, as Cayley and Hamilton at least had proofs in dimension 2 and 3, if I recall correctly. –  Guntram May 12 '10 at 22:41

The Frobenius automorphism associated to a prime ideal in a Galois extension of number fields was actually developed by Dedekind, who wrote about it (and the associated ramification groups, later found by Hilbert) in a letter to Frobenius on June 8, 1882. Frobenius published this construction in a paper in 1896. Some citations:

  1. Frobenius, Collected Works, Vol. 2, pp. 719--733.

  2. van der Waerden, Modern Algebra, Vol. 1 (Spring 1966), p. 203.

  3. Zassenhaus, Canadian Math. Bulletin 18 (1975), p. 448.

share|improve this answer

According to Wikipedia, Markov's inequality is due to Chebyshev, and Chebyshev's inequality is due to Bienaymé.

On top of that, Hölder's inequality was first proved by Rogers, and Jensen's inequality by Hölder. What a mess!

share|improve this answer
1  
Related mess: Lipschitz and Hölder functions. –  Victor Protsak May 13 '10 at 0:11
8  
Would it be terminally geeky to point out that these attributions to Markov et al form a chain? –  smci Jan 18 '11 at 19:56

Our linear algebra professor had a joke he told every year at the same spot in the lectures, for some 30 or 40 years. He'd say in an absolutely dry voice and facing the blackboard: "And this is the Cauchy–Bunyakovsky–Schwarz inequality, named like this because it was first proved by Lebesgue". Apparently, Cauchy just did it just as an inequality for sums (ie findim spaces), and Bunyakovsky and Schwarz independently as an inequality for integrals (ie for L2).

share|improve this answer
5  
I wouldn't really call this "naming it after the wrong person". Lots of analytic facts come from natural generalizations of observations from finite dimensional vector space to $\ell_p$ spaces then to $L^p$ spaces. –  Willie Wong May 11 '10 at 8:16

Stokes's theorem was stated by William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) in a letter to Stokes. The letter is reproduced on the cover of Spivak's Calculus on Manifolds. I believe the theorem was named after Stokes because he frequently put it on the Tripos exam in Cambridge.

share|improve this answer
1  
According to wikipedia: Stokes set the theorem as a question on the 1854 Smith's Prize exam, which led to the result bearing his name. –  Regenbogen May 15 '10 at 17:08

The Pell equation was named so because Euler thought that John Pell was responsible for some key results involving this equation. While Pell was a notable mathematician, he had essentially no connection to the equation. The common belief is that Euler mistook Pell for Lord Brouncker who indeed had a number of results related to the "Pell" equation.

share|improve this answer
1  
I thought some Indian mathematicians had something to do with it. See André Weil's Number Theory, from Hammurapi to Legendre. –  Chandan Singh Dalawat May 13 '10 at 2:49

The most amazing example I know is the Cayley formula which was discovered by Carl Borchardt nearly 30 years earlier. Not only Cayley knew about this, in his paper he specifically wrote that this formula is due to Borchardt, and all he wants to do is give a new simple proof (without determinants as in the matrix tree theorem).

share|improve this answer

Bézout's theorem

This result was discovered first by Newton in 1665. Even though MacLaurin (1720) and Leonhard Euler gave proofs, the theorem is usually attributted to Etienne Bézout who much later (1776) gave an incorrect proof of the result.

share|improve this answer

The Cantor-Schroeder-Bernstein theorem was proved by Dedekind; this link is to Dedekind's collected works and there is an informative note at the end.

share|improve this answer

If you search for almost any eponymous topic in Wikipedia, you'll find that it was first studied by someone else. For example, the Gaussian distribution (according to Wikipedia) was first studied by de Moivre. It seems that in many cases, naming the body of work was given to the person who first applied its study to some other field (using the earlier example, Gauss used the distribution in astronomy).

The common story goes that L'Hôpital bought "the rights" to L'Hôpital's rule, as he was a nobleman and not a mathematician by trade, although I am not sure about the veracity of that story.

Although I am no expert on the history of Mathematics, it seems as though ideas or formulae assumed their names from certain mathematicians due either to a.) the more notable application or publication of the theory or b.) attribution by mathematicians of a later generation to pay tribute to (or garner attention from) the work of their predecessors.

share|improve this answer
5  
L'Hopital hired Johann Bernoulli to teach him the calculus, and as allowed by their contract, wrote a book under his own name containing what he had learned, some of which were Bernoulli's original results. Wikipedia has references. –  Nate Eldredge May 10 '10 at 22:03
1  
Damn,that was the one I was going to post! –  Andrew L Aug 7 '10 at 19:00

Chow varieties were invented by Van der Waerden (Chow was his student). And Hilbert schemes were invented by Grothendieck (who called them Hilbert schemes himself, however).

share|improve this answer

An article in the current issue of American Mathematical MONTHLY (G. Folland, "A tale of topology," Am. Math. Monthly 117 (8) pp.663-672, Oct. 2010) quotes Walter Rudin as follows:

Thus it appears that Čech proved the Tychonoff theorem, whereas Tychonoff found the Čech compactification -- a good illustration of the historical reliability of mathematical nomenclature.

Folland's article suggests the truth is more complicated, as it usually is.

share|improve this answer

The number of plane trees with no vertex of degree one and with $n$ endpoints is known as a Schröder number, from a 1870 paper by Ernst Schröder. In 1994 David Hough discovered that these numbers were known to Hipparchus (c. 190 - after 127 B.C.)! For a popular account, see http://math.mit.edu/~rstan/papers/hip.pdf. For a more scholarly treatment, see http://stl.recherche.univ-lille3.fr/sitespersonnels/acerbi/acerbipub5.pdf.

As an irrelevant aside, how do you make accent marks in MathOverflow? Schroder is supposed to have an umlaut over the o.

share|improve this answer

I was once told that Riemann's integral is due to Darboux, while Lebesgue integral is due to Borel. Riemann invented the Cauchy integral instead.

share|improve this answer
1  
Are you sure that Darboux did not invent Darboux integral, and Riemann actually did invent Riemann integral? The definitions are different, although equivalent. –  VA. May 12 '10 at 3:19
1  
Part of the confusion might be that textbooks such as Rudin develop the theory of the Riemann integral by using the Darboux integral. I also remember being told that Rudin goes on to assume that properties proven for the Darboux integral hold for the Riemann integral (and maybe even the Cauchy integral) without proving that this works. Sneaky. –  Qiaochu Yuan May 13 '10 at 2:41

In my first algebra book the Eisenstein criterion for irreducibilty of a polynomial is named Schönemann criterion and is left as an exercise. This is confusing when all others are talking about the Eisenstein criterion ;-). In fact, here is a quote from Wikipedia:

The criterion is named after Ferdinand Eisenstein. It was published by T. Schönemann in Crelle's Journal 32 (1846), p. 100, and was popularized by Eisenstein in Crelle's Journal 39 (1850), pp. 166-169. Eisenstein's application of this theorem was to polynomials with coefficients in Z[i], not Z.

share|improve this answer

To expand on Pasquale's comment, here's a quote from Arnold's article:

Similarly to the fact that America does not carry Columbus's name, mathematical results are almost never called by the names of their discoverers.

In order to avoid being misquoted, I have to note that my own achievements were for some unknown reason never expropriated in this way, although it always happened to both my teachers (Kolmogorov, Petrovskii, Pontryagin, Rokhlin) and my pupils. Prof. M. Berry once formulated the following two principles:

The Arnold Principle. If a notion bears a personal name, then this name is not the name of the discoverer.

The Berry Principle. The Arnold Principle is applicable to itself.

Perhaps somebody knows which results by Kolmogorov et. al. he is thinking of.

share|improve this answer

Currying should, I believe, be referred to as Schönfinkeling.

share|improve this answer
4  
Thank $DEITY for the misattribution, then! :P –  Mariano Suárez-Alvarez Oct 14 '10 at 15:58

Burnside's Lemma, which asserts that the number of orbits of a group action is the average number of fixed points, was known to Cauchy. Burnside himself even attributed it to Frobenius in his book.

share|improve this answer
9  
I like the fact that this lemma is sometimes called "Burnside's Lemma" and sometimes "The lemma that is not Burnside's". –  Konrad Waldorf May 10 '10 at 21:31

And the Bianchi identities are due to Ricci (according to Levi-Civita).

share|improve this answer

The Vandermonde Determinant/Matrix. Apparently Vandermonde never explicitly discussed his eponymous determinant. According to Lebesgue in his survey of Vandermonde work, it was probably due to somebody misinterpreting Vandermonde's notation.

share|improve this answer

In honour of the recently departed Benoit Mandelbrot, perhaps it is appropriate to offer up the example of the Mandelbrot set, the first pictures of which were drawn in 1978 by Robert Brooks and Peter Matelski (according to Wikipedia).

share|improve this answer
  1. Cauchy–Riemann equations were known to d'Alembert and Euler.

  2. Two-dimensional Voronoi diagrams were used by Descartes, three-dimensional - by Dirichlet. Also should be noted, that this construction has several other names in physics: Wigner–Seitz cells, Thiessen polygons.

share|improve this answer

There was a paper published in 2006 entitled "Simpson's Paradox in the Farey Sequence". The paradox is not Simpson's nor is the sequence Farey's. Bonus points.

share|improve this answer

The Banach-Steinhaus theorem was first proved by Hahn, the Hahn-Banach theorem was first proved by Helly.

share|improve this answer

In logic:

  • Tarski's undefinability theorem was obtained by Gödel before Tarski, who obtained it independently. Gödel did not publish the theorem. See Roman Murawskia (1998), "Undefinability of truth. The problem of priority: Tarski vs Gödel", History and Philosophy of Logic, v. 19 n. 3. pp. 153-160

  • The result sometimes known as Gödel's diagonal lemma was first stated by Carnap. Gödel (1934) explicitly attributed the result to Carnap (see Kurt Gödel, Collected Works, v. 1, p. 363).

share|improve this answer

Many of the examples mentioned go back to earlier centuries, when insulated national traditions and slow communications promoted mistaken labelling of results and concepts. A much more recent example from the 1950s involves the notion of Bruhat ordering on a general Coxeter group, motivated at first by the example of finite crystallographic reflection groups in Lie theory. The name seems to have been suggested by D.N. Verma in the late 1960s. For some reason the ordering itself fails to appear (even in the exercises) in Bourbaki's influential 1968 Chapters IV-VI dealing with Coxeter groups, root systems, Weyl groups and affine Weyl groups. Deodhar and others propagated the term "Bruhat ordering" in their papers, and as late as 1990 I routinely used this term in my book Reflection Groups and Coxeter Groups. But by then Borel, who had gotten more deeply involved in sorting out the history of Lie theory, objected that the ordering was not at all found in Bruhat's development of the Bruhat decomposition but had occurred for Weyl groups in Chevalley's treatment of the partial ordering of closures of Bruhat cells (Schubert varieties) in the flag variety.

As a result many of us now try in principle to start with something like Chevalley-Bruhat ordering (shortened to Bruhat ordering) or even Chevalley ordering. But this runs counter to a large body of literature including the 1979 Kazhdan-Lusztig paper.

Side remark: While Coxeter was the first to recognize the special presentation of a finite real reflection group that led to the term Coxeter group in Bourbaki, the general definition owes at least as much to people like Iwahori and Tits. Coxeter was interested in traditional (often intricate) combinatorial geometry and not in Lie theory or its generalizations. But short labels are easier to invent and tend to stick.

share|improve this answer
1  
What about Verma modules, then? My own recollection is that Harish-Chandra already used them in order to construct simple highest weight modules with dominant integral highest weights. On the other hand, Dixmier made a remark that Bernstein-Gelfands-Verma modules would have been a more justified name, although less practical. –  Victor Protsak Aug 7 '10 at 18:51
1  
@Victor: "Verma modules" are typical of many concepts which should be named after multiple people, but the name is not really wrong (just incomplete). It's true that the modules played a technical role in the uniform existence proof for simple highest weight modules, but not until Verma's 1966 thesis were these modules studied seriously in their own right including the infinite dimensional ones. The subtle error in Verma's false multiplicity 1 claim perhaps helped stimulate the further work of BGG, Jantzen, Kazhdan-Lusztig. All of them soon made deep contributions to "Verma" modules. –  Jim Humphreys Aug 7 '10 at 19:22

Expanding on the example given in the original post, here's an excerpt from Borel's "Essays in the History of Lie Groups and Algebraic Groups" (p. 5):

It has been remarked that, as far as terminology is concerned, posterity has not been kind to [Killing]: Cartan subalgebras, Weyl groups, fundamental reflections, roots, and the Coxeter transformation first appeared in his papers in some form. On the other hand, what now goes by his name, the "Killing form" seems to be a misnomer, and it may well be that I am the culprit. Cartan, Chevalley and Weyl never used this terminology. Once, J.J. Duistermaat and J.A.C. Kolk pointed out to me that, to their knowledge, its first occurence is in a paper of mine (Sém. Bourbaki, Exp. 33, May 1951). I do not remember why I chose it, though I probably felt I was innovating, since it is between quotation marks. It is rather likely that discussions with some members of Bourbaki had influenced me, but I cannot blame it directly on Bourbaki, since "Killing form" appears in Bourbaki drafts only from 1952 on. It is true that Killing was the first to remark that the coefficients of the characteristic equation (of a regular semisimple element), i.e. the elementary symmetric functions of the roots, are invariant under the adjoint group, but he did not make much use of the remark and did not single out the sum of the squares of the roots, of which Élie Cartan made such fundamental use in his thesis (1894). It would be more correct to speak of the Cartan form.

share|improve this answer

The Cayley numbers (also known as the Octonions) were discovered earlier by John T. Graves. The story is nicely explained in John C. Baez's paper, The Octonions, Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 39 (2002), 145-205.

share|improve this answer

Quoting from Alan Sokal's 2005 paper on the multivariate Tutte polynomial:

"The Potts model was invented in the early 1950s by Potts’ thesis advisor Domb. The $q = 2$ case, known as the Ising model, was invented in 1920 by Ising’s thesis advisor Lenz. (I hasten to add that these are the only two cases I know of where the thesis advisor’s invention was named after the graduate student, rather than the other way around.)"

share|improve this answer

Zorn's lemma is neither due to zorn, nor is it a lemma. It is a theorem due to Kuratowski.

share|improve this answer

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.