## Fundamental Examples

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.)

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. – Andrew Stacey Nov 11 2009 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. – Andrew Stacey Nov 11 2009 at 9:50
I've hit this with the wiki hammer. – Scott Morrison Nov 11 2009 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 2009 at 8:03
Why does this question have a bounty anyway? – Kevin Lin Nov 21 2009 at 17:33

Gödel's Constructible Universe, L, is the fundamental example of inner model theory. L was the first inner model, and is the minimal one. One could argue that the point of inner model theory is to build L-like models that do things L cannot.

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Brownian motion has a central role in the theory of stochastic processes

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See the book and several expository papers by Jean-Pierre Kahane for the role of Brownian motion in and outside Stochastic Processes. – ogerard May 9 2010 at 9:57

Poincare dodecahedral sphere, the 1904 example of a homology sphere was fundamental for the discovery of the fundamental group, and have led to the statement of the Poincare conjecture.

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The Harmonic series 1+1/2+1/3+1/4+1/5+... and for that matter the Riemann zeta function.

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SAT (Boolean satisfiability problem) in complexity theory/theoretical computer science -- it's the canonical example of an NP-complete problem not just because it came first, but because it launched a thousand other research papers all on its own. (3SAT is maybe more canonical, but the more general form is better to generalize and study for its own sake.)

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I would say that it's the canonical example of an NP-complete problem just because it's the one which is "the most obviously" NP-complete. – Kevin Lin Nov 12 2009 at 19:04

Someone has already mentioned tori, but I think elliptic curves in algebraic geometry merit their own separate mention.

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the Fischer-Griess Monster.

see:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monster_group

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The Catalan numbers are definitely a fundamental example in combinatorics.

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I agree. I would also add the Fibonacci numbers en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fibonacci_number . Fibonacci numbers lead to rational generating functions and Catalan numbers to rational generating functions. The Catalan numbers appear in an amazing number of different problems. – Gil Kalai Nov 12 2009 at 18:40
*Algebraic (I assume). – Qiaochu Yuan Nov 12 2009 at 19:41

Tsirelson space (see the Wiki entry for quick facts) in Banach space theory was seminal, in that it generated a stream of further refined and specialized counterexamples (most notably in the work of Casazza, Odell, Schlumprecht, and culminating in the famous examples of hereditarily indecomposable spaces by Gowers and Maurey (apologies for the countless others not mentioned here, but the list would be too long). Several long-standing conjectures (even dating back to Banach) have been proved or disproved using these examples, and the flow is not over even now.

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The quaternions

Probably the natural numbers, real numbers, and complex numbers are "too fundamental" to count here. But the field of quaternions discovered in the mid 19 century qualifies.

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Relevant to many areas (but mostly topology) is the Cantor set. It is an example of a set with properties too numerous to list here. To name a few: it is uncountable, compact, nowhere dense and it has Lebesgue measure 0.

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Another good reason: Every compact Hausdorff space is a quotient of the Cantor set!! See Tom Leinster's answer here mathoverflow.net/questions/5357/… It's just incredible - I still can't get over it. – Peter Arndt Nov 20 2009 at 15:30
@Peter Arndt: Every compact Hausdorff metrizable (equivalently, second-countable) space is a quotient of the Cantor set. There are compact Hausdorff spaces of greater than continuum cardinality, and these evidently are not quotients of the Cantor set. – Pete L. Clark Jan 15 2010 at 10:30

In modal logic there is a particularly simple formula, called McKinsey formula: ◻⋄p→⋄◻p. It is so simple, yet it defines a frame property which cannot be expressed in first-order logic.

Also, with the right selection of other formulas, it gives rise to frame incompleteness examples (logics that are consistent, but are not logics of any class of frames whatsoever).

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In complex dynamics: The Mandelbrot set

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In geometry, group theory and other areas: The Leech Lattice:

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Recursion theory has the halting problem. From it, you obtain the first example of an interesting Turing degree, and generalizing it, you get the Turing jump operator.

The halting problem also plays an important role in (the boundary of) computational complexity theory, since it's one of the main tools for demonstrating the insolubility of computational problems.

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The cyclic polytope in the study of convex polytopes in high dimensions.

It is the convex hull of n points on the moment curve (t,t^2,t^3,...,t^d). It is simplicial and has the property that every [d/2] points form a face. (So, for example, in 4 dimension every two vertices form an edge.)

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In convex geometry, the Euclidean ball. In fact (as I think Gil knows but many other readers here probably don't) a huge portion of (high-dimensional) convex geometry consists of results that show that arbitrary high-dimensional convex bodies behave like the Euclidean ball in various ways.

And if I may be permitted to add another complementary example or two, the simplex and cube are for many purposes the least "Euclidean ball-like" convex bodies, so they are useful for understanding the limitations of the Euclidean ball as a prototype for arbitrary bodies.

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The integral $\int \frac{dx}{\sqrt{x(x-1)(x-\lambda)}}$ for $\lambda\neq 0,1$ essentially launched both complex analysis and algebraic geometry, via Riemann's discovery of the Riemann surface that is the natural domain of a function, leading to both analytic theory of Riemann surfaces and to the study of algebraic curves, leading to...complex analysis including in several variables and complex algebraic geometry, as we now know it.

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This great answer have earned Charles the first gold badge in mathoverflow history. Congratulations, Charles! – Gil Kalai Nov 27 2009 at 12:38

The Fermat Equation xn + yn - zn = 0.

This has truly been much more than an example in both algebra and number theory: it was one of the main motivations to develop the theory of unique factorization domains, Dedekind domains, class numbers, regular primes, etc. in the 19th century. In the late 20th century it provided a motivation for Wiles to work on modularity of elliptic curves.

In the 21st century, the equation c1 xa + c2 yb - c3 zc = 0 is similarly motivational for things like Q-curves, Galois representations, hypergeometric abelian varieties...

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The Petersen Graph in graph theory

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For a picture that launched a thousand papers, I'd nominate the bifurcation diagram of the logistic map.

(image via Wikipedia).

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If pictures are allowed then the Mandelbrot set and its Julia sets are also quite fundamental as prime examples of what lies hidden in dynamical systems. Of course, as the Wikipedia page on the Mandelbrot set says, there is a close relation between the Mandelbrot set and the bifurcation diagram of the logistic map. – lhf Nov 11 2009 at 18:37
Roughly speaking, the bifurcation diagram is what you get by going through the Mandelbrot set along the real axis. – Lasse Rempe-Gillen Mar 3 2010 at 10:54
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The ring ${Z}[\sqrt{-5}]$ is a fundamental example of non-unique factorization in rings in algebraic integers. Perhaps of more historical relevance is the example of p=37 that shows that Lamé's "proof" of Fermat's Last Theorem fails. I'm not sure Kummer used p=37 though. In any case, examples of non-unique factorization in rings in algebraic integers lead to the whole theory of ideal numbers and later Dedekind domains ans set the tone for algebraic number theory.

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Unique prime factorization fails for the ring of integers underlying the p = 23 case of FLT. Kummer's method of proof works for p = 23, but not p = 37 (as Kummer was well aware of). – Jonah Sinick Nov 16 2009 at 19:35
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The KdV equation in integrable systems. It was through a numerical study of KdV that the word soliton was coined. This numerical study lead to much analytical work, including the development of Lax Pairs. (Answer by Aaron Hoffman)

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Answered by Agol: The figure eight knot (complement) is the starting point for much of hyperbolic geometry. Although other hyperbolic manifolds were discovered before it, the figure eight knot complement has one of the simplest hyperbolic structures to analyze. Thurston first proved his hyperbolic Dehn surgery theorem for the figure eight knot complement - after understanding the proof in this case, the general case is not much harder to understand. It is the simplest knot for which every 3-manifold is a branched cover over it. It was one of the first (non-torus) knots for which the knot-complement problem was proven. It has the most number of non-hyperbolic Dehn-fillings over any one-cusped hyperbolic 3-manifold. It is the smallest volume orientable hyperbolic manifold with one cusp. It was the first knot proven that all non-trivial Dehn fillings have a finite-sheeted cover with positive first betti number. It was the first knot for which the volume conjecture has been verified.

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The Noncommutative Torus in non-commutative geometry. (Maybe it has just shaped the subject because it is about the only thing one can handle explicitly)

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Ravi Vakil gives interesting examples in algebraic geometry: "The existence of some of these pathologies is common knowledge'', but I had never known what they were.".

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A lot of algebraic topology was developed with computing the higher homotopy groups of spheres in mind.

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The Prisoner's Dilemma in Game Theory.

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Prisoner's Dilemma is certainly a fundamental example but there are other games which I think have been as rich in encouraging interesting research: Chicken en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicken_game Chain store en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chainstore_paradox centipede en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centipede_game One reason these are interesting games is that help one try to understand what is "rational" behavior and help distinguish between what people do in practice as compared with some "abstract model" of rationality. – Joseph Malkevitch Dec 25 2009 at 15:10