MathOverflow is a question and answer site for professional mathematicians. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Imagine your-self in front of a class with very good undergraduates who plan to do mathematics (professionally) in the future. You have 30 minutes after that you do not see these students again. You need to present a theorem which will be 100% useful for them.

What would you do?

One theorem per answer please. Try to be realistic.

For example: 30 min is more than enough to introduce metric spaces, prove existence of partition of unity, and explain how it can be used later.

P.S. Many of you criticized the vague formulation of the question. I agree. I was trying to make it short --- I do not read the questions if they are longer than half a page. Still I think it is a good approximation to what I really wanted to ask. Here is an other formulation of the same question, but it might be even more vague.

Before I liked jewelry-type theorems; those I can put in my pocket and look at it when I want to. Now I like tool-type theorems; those which can be used to dig a hole or build a wall. It turns out that there are jewelry-type and tool-type theorems at the same time. I know a few and I want to know more.

share|cite|improve this question
How many years of undergraduate education do those students have? What can we assume that they know? (It is a big difference between one who's in the second half of her third year and one that just started two months ago.) – Willie Wong Apr 3 '11 at 18:28
I find it hard to square the "no prerequisites" condition with the "partitions of unity" example. Or are we talking about ideal undergraduate students, who like ideal gases are only an approximation to the reality? – Yemon Choi Apr 3 '11 at 20:34
In my opinion, the "try to be realistic" injunction (which I approve of in all pedagogical questions; note that a lot of experienced teachers do see some of the more ridiculously ambitious pedagogical suggestions promulgated in some answers here and have a good laugh at the naivete of the authors) is hard to square with the vagueness of the question. The term "very good undergraduate" alone is a currency whose value will rise and fall according to where you go. It is tempting to close the question as "too localized" for this reason, but I'll think about it a bit more... – Pete L. Clark Apr 3 '11 at 23:03
I too find the partitions of unity example unrealistic. I do think this and some of the examples below could be made to work if one wasn't obliged to give a proof, but perhaps only an intuitive idea, and then explain why it was useful -- sort of like a colloquium talk for undergraduates. – Todd Trimble Apr 3 '11 at 23:10
Indeed, Anton, you can do all sort of things in 30 minutes... but unless the students already somewhat familiar about the subject you are talking about, it is rather unusual that you can introduce three new objects, two concepts, and a theorem to anyone and as a result get them to understand the significance of anything. – Mariano Suárez-Alvarez Apr 4 '11 at 17:10

77 Answers 77

Pursuant to Johannes's answer, I would like to give a talk entitled “How to factor $x_0^4 + x_1^4 + x_2^4 + x_3^4 - 2x_0^2 x_1^2 - 2x_0^2 x_2^2 - 2x_0^2 x_3^2 - 2x_1^2 x_2^2 - 2x_1^2 x_3^2 - 2x_2^2 x_3^2 - 8x_0 x_1 x_2 x_3$”.

share|cite|improve this answer

Integration by Parts It's a powerful analytical tool and it can be used for reduction of order on complex functions.

share|cite|improve this answer
And it can also win you the national medal of science:… :-) – Willie Wong Apr 13 '11 at 18:18

Jordan normal form.

share|cite|improve this answer

The Arithmetic Mean-Geometric Mean Inequality.

share|cite|improve this answer
This needs more self-contained elaboration. – Douglas Zare Jan 10 at 6:05

My suggestion -- assuming they have not yet taken a class on complex analysis -- would be to talk about Eulers formula and De Moivre's formula, along with the complex representations of the most common trigonometric functions. Perhaps, if there is time left, power series and the Cauchy product could be touched upon.

This could help the students to understand better how some trigonometric identities can be derived, which is usually not explained in detail until a first course on complex analysis.

Each of the topics is simple enough to introduce in a very short amount of time, so there would probably be time left to show some cool applications.

share|cite|improve this answer

Cauchy's integral theorem and Cauchy's integral formula.

It's really an example of a jewellery-type and tool-type theorem at the same time. It can be introduced and proved for students that even don't know about functions of complex variables in 20 minutes. And other 10 minutes can be spend to say how many applications and generalizations these results have in theory of functions and applied mathematics.

share|cite|improve this answer

I can just imagine what would have happened if I was introduced to Kepler's Conjecture and Thomas Hales' approach earlier ...

share|cite|improve this answer
It is nice way to impress students, but I do not see anything useful, except a message "do not be afraid to do technical work". – Anton Petrunin Apr 8 '11 at 16:37
@Anton thanks for the comment :) actually that's the point - the students are from the a Game Development and Design course and we will soon have an Alienware laboratory - I might as well come up with something that they can put all that computing power to good use :) – pageman Apr 9 '11 at 14:10

Maybe a stretch, but...

Finiteness of the class number via Minkowski's theorem.

  • Everyone should at least have a rough idea what the class number is.
  • Minkowski's theorem has other amusing and useful applications (e.g. well-definedness of the signature?)
  • One of the first (of many) interesting theorems involving the geometry of lattices.
share|cite|improve this answer

Schur's Lemma. After which one can as an application, classify the simple modules for cyclic groups.

share|cite|improve this answer

Sperner's Theorem on antichains in subset lattice and the Sunflower Lemma. Two great theorems in combo which require little to no theory to introduce and have extremely beautiful proofs.

share|cite|improve this answer
This is a different theorem by the same person... – Gil Kalai Apr 12 '11 at 4:26
[deleted earlier comment as it was based on a misreading] – Yemon Choi Apr 14 '11 at 2:53
  • I would go for Cayley's theorem which asserts that every group is isomorphic to a subgroup of $S_{n}$ for some $n$.

One, can even look into this following post:

share|cite|improve this answer

Consider some metric spaces, then Hausdorff distance and Gromov-hausdorff convergence

Also, introduce catagorical notation, it may be very useful.

share|cite|improve this answer

Riesz theorem or, more general, Lax-Milgram theorem.

share|cite|improve this answer

The Laplace approximation to integrals! This scores well on all points: it is elementary (could be taught in calculus 1) and very useful. Within 30 minutes there should be time to some application, dependent on the audience, maybe the Stirling approximation to the factorial (which is often useds without any proof).

share|cite|improve this answer

Every matrix can be represented by the linear combinations of four orthogonal matrix

share|cite|improve this answer
Example of use, maybe? – Michal Kotowski Apr 10 '11 at 9:49

Something that I found very interesting and very useful is Singular value decomposition. It shows that every operator is "almost diagnosable", and is skipped in a lot of basic linear algebra courses I have seen.

I has many application, for example - solving sum of least squares of example. You can give a 30 minute talk on this in various levels as well.

There are prettier theorems (Stokes, Uniformization, and many more) but I think with the 3 constraints (interesting, useful, little background) this is a good topic.

share|cite|improve this answer
Singular value decomposition has already been suggested.… So has Stokes… – Willie Wong Apr 8 '11 at 18:50

Yoneda Lemma. :D

share|cite|improve this answer
Someone else has already suggested this.… – Willie Wong Apr 7 '11 at 14:54

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

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