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It is not unusual that a single example or a very few shape an entire mathematical discipline. Can you give examples for such examples? (One example, or few, per post, please)

I'd love to learn about further basic or central examples and I think such examples serve as good invitations to various areas. (Which is why a bounty was offered.)

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To make this question and the various examples a more useful source there is a designated answer to point out connections between the various examples we collected.

In order to make it a more useful source, I list all the answers in categories, and added (for most) a date and (for 2/5) a link to the answer which often offers more details. (~year means approximate year, *year means a year when an older example becomes central in view of some discovery, year? means that I am not sure if this is the correct year and ? means that I do not know the date. Please edit and correct.) Of course, if you see some important example missing, add it!

Logic and foundations: $\aleph_\omega$ (~1890), Russell's paradox (1901), Halting problem (1936), Goedel constructible universe L (1938), McKinsey formula in modal logic (~1941), 3SAT (*1970), The theory of Algebraically closed fields (ACF) (?),

Physics: Brachistochrone problem (1696), Ising model (1925), The harmonic oscillator,(?) Dirac's delta function (1927), Heisenberg model of 1-D chain of spin 1/2 atoms, (~1928), Feynman path integral (1948),

Real and Complex Analysis: Harmonic series (14th Cen.) {and Riemann zeta function (1859)}, the Gamma function (1720), li(x), The elliptic integral that launched Riemann surfaces (*1854?), Chebyshev polynomials (?1854) punctured open set in C^n (Hartog's theorem *1906 ?)

Partial differential equations: Laplace equation (1773), the heat equation, wave equation, Navier-Stokes equation (1822),KdV equations (1877),

Functional analysis: Unilateral shift, The spaces $\ell_p$, $L_p$ and $C(k)$, Tsirelson spaces (1974), Cuntz algebra,

Algebra: Polynomials (ancient?), Z (ancient?) and Z/6Z (Middle Ages?), symmetric and alternating groups (*1832), Gaussian integers ($Z[\sqrt -1]$) (1832), $Z[\sqrt(-5)]$,$su_3$ ($su_2)$, full matrix ring over a ring, $\operatorname{SL}_2(\mathbb{Z})$ and SU(2), quaternions (1843), p-adic numbers (1897), Young tableaux (1900) and Schur polynomials, cyclotomic fields, Hopf algebras (1941) Fischer-Griess monster (1973), Heisenberg group, ADE-classification (and Dynkin diagrams), Prufer p-groups,

Number Theory: conics and pythagorean triples (ancient), Fermat equation (1637), Riemann zeta function (1859) eliptic curves, transendental numbers, Fermat hypersurfaces,

Probability: Normal distribution (1733), Brownian motion (1827), The percolation model (1957), The Gaussian Orthogonal Ensemble, the Gaussian Unitary Ensemble, and the Gaussian Symplectic Ensemble, SLE (1999),

Dynamics: Logistic map (1845?), Smale's horseshoe map(1960). Mandelbrot set (1978/80) (Julia set), cat map, (Anosov diffeomorphism)

Geometry: Platonic solids (ancient), the Euclidean ball (ancient), The configuration of 27 lines on a cubic surface, The configurations of Desrague and Pappus, construction of regular heptadecagon (*1796), Hyperbolic geometry (1830), Reuleaux triangle (19th century), Fano plane (early 20th century ??), cyclic polytopes (1902), Delaunay triangulation (1934) Leech lattice (1965), Penrose tiling (1974), noncommutative torus, cone of positive semidefinite matrices, the associahedron (1961)

Topology: Spheres, Figure-eight knot (ancient), trefoil knot (ancient?) (Borromean rings (ancient?)), the torus (ancient?), Mobius strip (1858), Cantor set (1883), Projective spaces (complex, real, quanterionic..), Poincare dodecahedral sphere (1904), Homotopy group of spheres, Alexander polynomial (1923), Hopf fibration (1931), The standard embedding of the torus in R^3 (*1934 in Morse theory), pseudo-arcs (1948), Discrete metric spaces, Sorgenfrey line, Complex projective space, the cotangent bundle (?), The Grassmannian variety,homotopy group of spheres (*1951), Milnor exotic spheres (1965)

Graph theory: The seven bridges of Koenigsberg (1735), Petersen Graph (1886), two edge-colorings of K_6 (Ramsey's theorem 1930), K_33 and K_5 (Kuratowski's theorem 1930), Tutte graph (1946), Margulis's expanders (1973) and Ramanujan graphs (1986),

Combinatorics: tic-tac-toe (ancient Egypt(?)) (The game of nim (ancient China(?))), Pascal's triangle (China and Europe 17th), Catalan numbers (mid 19th century), (Fibonacci sequence (12th century; probably ancient), Kirkman's schoolgirl problem (1850), surreal numbers (1969), alternating sign matrices (1982)

Algorithms and Computer Science: Newton Raphson method (17th century), Turing machine (1937), RSA (1977), universal quantum computer (1985)

Social Science: Prisoner's dilemma (1950) (and also the chicken game, chain store game, and centipede game), the model of exchange economy, second price auction (1961)

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I think that this should be community wiki. –  Loop Space Nov 11 '09 at 7:55
@Jose: Hard to say exactly. My instinct is that the kind of answers that this question will garner are those that didn't involve much actual thought, and the votes up or down will be more an assessment of whether the voter liked the example rather than whether the voter liked the answer (which, ideally, should contain an explanation of why that example shaped the discipline); both of these indicate that the answerers should not gain reputation for their answers, hence community wiki. –  Loop Space Nov 11 '09 at 9:50
I've hit this with the wiki hammer. –  Scott Morrison Nov 11 '09 at 19:34
I can't imagine a counterexample to the following rule: Any question whose purpose is to produce a sorted list of resources (i.e. the question includes, or should include, "one per post please") should be community wiki. –  Anton Geraschenko Nov 12 '09 at 8:03
Why does this question have a bounty anyway? –  Kevin H. Lin Nov 21 '09 at 17:33

132 Answers 132

Three related fundamental examples in random matrix theory (in mathematical physics and probability) are the Gaussian Orthogonal Ensemble, the Gaussian Unitary Ensemble, and the Gaussian Symplectic Ensemble. Much of random matrix theory has been devoted to determining the properties of these families of random matrices and proving that other families exhibit the same behaviors.

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Borromean rings

Borromean rings are important in several places. For example, they appear in computations of homotopy groups of the 2-sphere, where they corresponds to the Hopf fibration.

alt text

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The discovery of Transcendental numbers, or numbers that are not the root of any finite polynomial with rational coefficients.
Also, the proof that e and π were transcendental, the latter via the proof that ea is only algebraic for transcendental values of a (and e*i*π = -1 is algebraic, as is i, so therefore π must be transcendental). Their discovery, as well as the first explicitly created example, the Liouville number, sparked what's called "Transcendence theory".
And as it turns out, any randomly chosen real number is "almost surely" transcendental. In other words, the density of transcendental numbers among the real numbers is 1!!

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$\mathbb{Q}_{p}$. The field of p-adic numbers brings the study of local methods. Hensel's lemma is a great example. It is also interesting that p-adic integers is the projective limit of the rings $\mathbb{Z}/p^{n}\mathbb{Z}$.

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The Sorgenfrey line is an example that has motivated a lot of research in general topology, mostly generalized metric properties and ordered space theory. It's an example of a hereditary normal space with non-normal square, it is separable, Lindelöf, first countable, but not second countable; a generalized ordered space that is not orderable, and many more.

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I presented the emerging list of examples over my blog and several people suggested a few more examples. I will mention them together:

Tom LaGatta proposed to add the percolation model (1854), John Sidles made several suggestions and in particular proposed several examples from Control theory such as the Nyquist criteria, Christian Blatter proposed adding the Peano curve, and Mark Meckes proposed adding the fundamental Banach spaces L_p/l_p and C(K).

Joe Malkevich proposed several basic examples of games in addition to the prisoner dilemma (chicken, chain store game, and centipede) and the Gale-Shapley model of two-sided market model (the model in the famous Gale-Shapley stable marriage theorem). I thought that we should probably add a basic economic model of exchange markets (like the Arrow-Debreu model).

I also thought the configurations of Desargues and Pappus should be added.

There was also some critique on the classification of examples, and an interesting suggestion By Michael Nielsen that "Distilled and expanded, it could form the basis for an excellent book. Perhaps: 'Examples from the book'." (This refers to Aigner and Ziegler's book "Proofs from the book". (In fact, a similar idea by Ziegler and me have motivated the question itsef.)

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The Möbius strip or Möbius band (a surface with only one side and only one boundary component).

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The cyclotomic field $\mathbb{Q}(\zeta_p)/\mathbb{Q}$ is the most basic example of a field extension in which splitting of primes depends on an obvious congruence condition. Specifically, if $\ell$ is another prime, then the Frobenius of $\ell$ is $\ell \mod p \in (\mathbb{Z}/p)^\times = \mathrm{Gal}(\mathbb{Q}(\zeta_p)/\mathbb{Q})$. In particular, $\ell$ splits in the field iff its Frobenius is trivial, and this is true iff $\ell \equiv 1 \mod p$. We can then relate other congruences to splitting in subfields of $\mathbb{Q}(\zeta_p)$, etc. The theorems of global class field theory show that this basic concept holds in a very general case, although the general case is much harder to prove. This basic example, does, however, motivate the ideas in class field theory, which have greatly influenced modern number theory and related areas. (As an added note, the fact that the Artin reciprocity law is true for cyclotomic fields is actually a key ingredient in the proof for general abelian extensions!)

Answered by Davidac897

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Heisenberg model of 1-D chain of spin 1/2 atoms, solved exactly by Bethe in 1931, is where Bethe Ansatz was born, and with it the field of integrable models in statistical and quantum mechanics.

Answered by Mio

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The gamma function is a fundamental example of an interesting function defined only on the integers which has an analytic (meromorphic) continuation to the whole complex plane. This ability to extend an interesting, seemingly discrete function to a complex differentiable function motivates a lot of later material.

Answered by Davidac897

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The semicircular law and the Marchenko-Pastur distribution are fundamental examples of probability distributions in random matrix theory.

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The hyperfinite $\mathrm{II}_1$ factor $\mathcal{R}$ and its ultrapower $\mathcal{R}^{\omega}$ are fundamental examples in von Neumann algebras and Connes' embedding problem.

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The free group factors $L(\mathbb{F}_{n})$, which are the closer in the weak operator topology of the left regular representation of the free group $\mathbb{F}_n$, are fundamental examples in von Neumann algebras. The isomorphism question is the root of the so important Free Probability theory of Voiculescu.

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Schwarzschild metric as a prototype of black hole was a fundamental example in the development of General Relativity (for instance, it is often referred to when "defending" the ADM mass as a natural concept of mass in General Relativity).

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The Lorenz system of ordinary differential equations: $$\dot x=\sigma(y-x)$$ $$\dot y = rx-y-xz$$ $$\dot z = xy-bz$$ ($\sigma$, $r$, $b$ are parameters) is a good example in dynamical system. It is an example of a deterministic system displaying chaotic behaviour. Also the Lorenz attractor. Date: 1963.

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In combinatorics there are very simple basic graphs from which a whole lot of theory came. For example the complete graphs $K_5$ and $K_{3,3}$ which alone provide the ground level for any non-planar graph according to Kuratowski's theorem. Another simple graph that gave rise to a huge amount of theory is Petersen's graph, which I like to think as the graph whose vertices are the ten two-element subsets of $\{1,2,3,4,5\}$, and for which two such vertices are connected iff they are disjoint.

A link for Kuratowski's theorem is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kuratowski's_theorem

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Within the category of algorithms and computer science, I would say Conway's "The Game of Life", where binary, two dimensional structures may evolve, requiring not much than an initial state.


Cellular automatons have spawn practically a branch of computer science on its own right, and has deep connections with dynamical systems and some types of fractals as well, like Sierpinsky's triangle, using rule 90 (in Mathematica):

ArrayPlot[CellularAutomaton[90, {{1}, 0}, 50]] This commands embeds the running of the Rule 90 for 50 steps, from a single 1 on a background of zeros, and then displays Sierpinsky's triangle.

Also, celullar automatons, inspired on the Game of Life, have met their usage as well to study pseudo-randomness, or artificial music (see Stephen Wolfram's work, for example).

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Second price auction (or Vickrey auction): an auction in which the bidder who submitted the highest bid is awarded the object being sold and pays a price equal to the second highest amount bid.

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It seems close to the classic pie division procedure. The cutter cuts and the other chose first the part he wants. –  ogerard May 13 '10 at 17:12

Two unrelated examples: The configuration of 27 lines on a cubic surface ; (See also here and here) The regular heptadecagon (17 sides polygon) and its geometric construction.

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Dear Gil,

I will quibble with your listing the Fano Plane under graph theory rather than under geometry or perhaps combinatorics. Now I know people who do not think the theory of finite planes is very geometric, and I agree there is much truth here. In some cases it requires algebraic rather than geometrical work to make progress, and in other cases combinatorial ideas. Yet, trying to "imitate" in the finite plane world interesting geometric phenomenon in the Euclidean, projective, or hyperbolic planes I think has proved very fruitful.

I don't really see that the Fano Plane leads to graph theory questions that are of great interest, and that would not be raised from some other point of view.



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Shouldn't this be a comment, rather than an answer? –  Grétar Amazeen Dec 12 '09 at 22:24
Based on the tiny amount I know, I think your comment makes sense. But it's still a comment, not an answer. –  Darsh Ranjan Dec 13 '09 at 0:46
I tried to do this as a comment but the system did not seem to want to allow me to do this. –  Joseph Malkevitch Dec 13 '09 at 12:56
Now that this has been changed, shouldn't this answer be deleted from the list of examples? –  Douglas Zare Jan 13 '10 at 15:51

The Delaunay triangulation is fundamental in computational (Euclidean) geometry. For a finite point set S in general position, it can be defined in several ways: (1) as the unique triangulation in which every simplicial cell is Delaunay (i. e., its circumsphere does not contain any points of S in its interior), (2) as the uniqe triangulation in which every facet (of any dimension) of every simplicial cell is Delaunay (meaning it has some empty circumsphere), or (3) as the dual of the Voronoi diagram (which is also fundamental). In the plane, the Delaunay triangulation has the additional property of maximizing the smallest angle of all its triangles, among all triangulations.

The Delaunay triangulation is usually the most obvious candidate for "the right" triangulation of a given point set, and most simplicial mesh-generating methods seem to be based on it. It doesn't hurt that there are reasonably fast and elegant algorithms for constructing it (very fast in the plane, but unfortunately (and necessarily) exponential in the dimension in the worst case).

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The solution of Kirkman's Schoolgirl Problem is the archetypal example of a resolvable triple system. This example essential shaped the entirety of Design Theory.

We might also consider Euler's 36 Officers Problem to be one of the fundamental counter-examples within this field. Answer by Disonnant

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I suppose the discrete metric space is a crucial example in the metric spaces theory and in the introductory mathematical analysis. It shows many aspects and pathological behavior of metric spaces in general.

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Taking introductory topology, I got the impression that the real line is the fundamental example of a topological space. I wouldn't be surprised if the open and closed intervals of $\mathbb{R}$ were the prototypical examples of open and closed sets, and I think many important topological properties---including compactness, connectedness, and Hausdorffness---first arose because you need them to prove obvious facts about $\mathbb{R}$ and its subsets.

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There are several examples that I would regard as "too fundamental" for the list like: 0, 1,2, $\sqrt 2$, the real numbers, the natural numbers, the prime numbers, the triangle. I also consider Alef_0 and Alef as "too fundamental" and chose Alef_\omega to start the set theory examples. –  Gil Kalai Feb 20 '10 at 7:33

To make this question and the various examples a more useful source this is a designated answer to point out connections between the various examples we collected. please indicate only strong, definite, nontrivial, and clear connections.

1) The Petersen graph is obtained by identifying antipodal vertices and edges in the graph of the dodecahedron - one of the five platonic solids. Such an identification gives a polyhedral complex realizing the real projective plane. Applying this operation to the icosahedron leads to a 6-vertex triangulation of the real projective plane.

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The pseudo-arc in continuum theory.

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I think no one's pointed Lorenz equations.

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Can you explain or add a link, please? –  Gil Kalai Feb 21 '11 at 19:54


I suppose that $\aleph_0$ and $2^{\aleph_0}$ are, like the natural numbers and the unit ball, "too fundamental" as they are fundamental for mathematics as a whole. But the $\omega^{\mathrm{th}}$ cardinal, $\aleph_{\omega}$ already suits us as a fundamental object in set theory and infinite combinatorics.

Can you show that the continuum is NOT $\aleph_{\omega}$ ?

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to understand curves, first study the abel map. and then the torelli map. [perhaps I should expand this rather succinct answer.]

8320 Spring 2010, day one Introduction to Riemann Surfaces

We will describe how Riemann used topology and complex analysis to study algebraic curves over the complex numbers. [The main tools and results have analogs in arithmetic, which I hope are more easily understood after seeing the original versions.]

The idea is that an algebraic curve C, say in the plane, is the image by a holomorphic map, of an abstract complex manifold, the Riemann surface X of the curve, where X has an intrinsic complex structure independent of its representation in the plane. Then Riemann's approach to classifying all complex curves, is to classify such Riemann surfaces, and then for each such surface to classify all maps from it to projective space. Briefly, the Torelli maps classifies complex surfaces, and the abel maps classify all projective models of a given complex surface.

More precisely, we will construct two fundamental functors of an algebraic curve:

i) the Riemann surface X, and

ii) the Jacobian variety J(X), and

natural transformations X^(d)--->J(X), the Abel maps, from the “symmetric powers” X^(d) of X, to J(X).

The Riemann surface X

The first construction is the Riemann surface of a plane curve: {irreducible plane curves C: f(x,y)=0} ---> {compact Riemann surfaces X}.

The first step is to compactify the affine curve C: f(x,y) =0 in A^2, the affine complex plane, by taking its closure in the complex projective plane P^2. Then one separates intersection points of C to obtain a smooth compact surface X. X inherits a complex structure from the coordinate functions of the plane. If f is an irreducible polynomial, X will be connected. Then X will have a topological genus g, and a complex structure, and will be equipped with a holomorphic map ƒ:X--->C of degree one, i.e. ƒ will be an isomorphism except over points where the curve C is not smooth, e.g. where C crosses itself or has a pinch.

This analytic version X of the curve C retains algebraic information about C, e.g. the field M(X) of meromorphic functions on X is isomorphic to the field Rat(C) of rational functions on C, the quotient field k[x,y]/(f), where k = complex number field. It turns out that two curves have isomorphic Riemann surfaces if and only if their fields of rational functions are isomorphic, if and only if the curves are equivalent under maps defined by mutually inverse pairs of rational functions.

Since the map X--->C is determined by the functions (x,y) on X, which generate the field Rat(C), classifying algebraic curves up to “birational equivalence” becomes the question of classifying these function fields, and classifying pairs of generators for each field, but Riemann’s approach to this algebraic problem will be topological/analytic.

We already can deduce that two curves cannot be birationally equivalent unless their Riemann surfaces have the same genus. This solves the problem that interested the Bernoullis as to why most integrals of form dx/sqrt(cubic in x) cannot be “rationalized” by rational substitutions. I.e. only curves of genus zero can be so rationalized and y^2 = (cubic in x) usually has positive genus.

The symmetric powers X^(d)

To recover C, we seek to encode the map ƒ:X--->C, i.e. ƒ:X--->P^2, by intrinsic geometric data on X. If the polynomial f defining C has degree d, then each line L in the plane P^2 meets C in d points, counted properly. Thus we get an unordered d tuple of points L.C, possibly with repetitions, on C, hence when pulled back via ƒ, we get such a d tuple called a positive “divisor” D = ƒ^(-1)(L) of degree d on X. (D = n1p1+...nk pk, where nj are positive integers, n1+...nk = d.)

Since lines L in the plane move in a linear space dual to the plane, and (if d ≥ 2) each line is spanned by the points where it meets C, we get an injection P^2*--->{unordered d tuples of points of X}, taking L to ƒ^(-1)(L).

If X^d is the d - fold Cartesian product of X, and Sym(d) is the symmetric group of permutations of d objects, and we define X^(d) = X^d/Sym(d) = the “symmetric product” of X, d times, then the symmetric product X^(d) parametrizes unordered d tuples, and inherits a complex structure as well.

Thus the map ƒ:X--->C yields a holomorphic injection P^2*--->Π of the projective plane into X^(d). I.e. the map ƒ determines a complex subvariety of X^(d) isomorphic to a linear space Π ≈ P^2*. Now conversely, this “linear system” Π of divisors of degree d on X determines the map ƒ back again as follows:

Define ƒ:X--->Π* = P^2** =P^2, by setting ƒ(p) = the line in Π consisting of those divisors D that contain p. Then this determines the point ƒ(p) on C in P^2, because a point in the plane is determined by the lines through that point. [draw picture] Thus the problem becomes one of determining when the product X^(d) contains a holomorphic copy of P^2, or copies of P^n for models of X in other projective spaces.

The Jacobian variety J(X) and the Abel map X^(d)--->J(X).

For this problem, Riemann introduced a second functor the “Jacobian” variety J(X) = k^g/lattice, where k^g complex g -dimensional space. J(X) is a compact g dimensional complex group, and there is a natural holomorphic map Abel:X^(d)--->J(X), defined by integrating a basis of the holomorphic differential forms on X over paths in X.

Abel collapses each linear system Π ≈ P^n* to a point by the maximum principle, since the coordinate functions of k^g have a local maximum on the compact simply connected variety Π. Conversely, each fiber of the Abel map is a linear system in X^(d). Existence of linear systems Π on X: the Riemann - Roch theorem.

By dimension theory of holomorphic maps, every fiber of the abel map X^(d)--->J(X) has dimension ≥ d-g. Hence every positive divisor D of degree d on X is contained in a maximal linear system |D| , where dim|D| ≥ d-g. This is called Riemann’s inequality, or the “weak” Riemann Roch theorem.

The Roch part analyzes the relation between D and the divisor of a differential form to compute dim|D| more precisely. Note if D is the divisor cut by one line in the plane of C, and E is cut by another line, then E belongs to |D|, and the difference E-D is the divisor of the meromorphic function defined by the quotient of the linear equations for the two lines.

If D is a not necessarily positive divisor, we define |D| to consist of those positive divisors E such that E-D is the divisor of a meromorphic function on X. If there are no such positive divisors, |D| is empty and has “dimension” equal to -1. Then if K is the divisor of zeroes of a holomorphic differential form on X, the full Riemann Roch theorem says:

dim|D| = d-g +1+dim|K-D|, where the right side = d-g when d > deg(K).

This sketch describes the abel maps and their relation to the RRT. The assignment X-->J(X) is the Torelli map, and classifies X by the numerical data in the lattice defining J(X), i.e. periods of integrals of the first kind on X. This assignment gives birth to the whole subject of "moduli" as numerical invariants of complex or geometric structure.a

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