Questions asking for the intuition behind some definition, conjecture, proof etc. In other words, questions designed to improve or to acquire understanding on a conceptual or intuitive level, as opposed to on a technical or formal level. When asking such a question it can be helpful to include a ...

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178
votes
63answers
90k views

Proofs without words

Can you give examples of proofs without words? In particular, can you give examples of proofs without words for non-trivial results? (One could ask if this is of interest to mathematicians, and I ...
174
votes
7answers
85k views

Philosophy behind Mochizuki's work on the ABC conjecture

Mochizuki has recently announced a proof of the ABC conjecture. It is far too early to judge its correctness, but it builds on many years of work by him. Can someone briefly explain the philosophy ...
95
votes
16answers
13k views

How do I make the conceptual transition from multivariable calculus to differential forms?

One way to define the algebra of differential forms $\Omega(M)$ on a smooth manifold $M$ (as explained by John Baez's week287) is as the exterior algebra of the dual of the module of derivations on ...
82
votes
38answers
15k views

Examples of eventual counterexamples

Define an "eventual counterexample" to be $P(a) = T $ for $a < n$ $P(n) = F$ $n$ is sufficiently large for $P(n) = T\ \ \forall n \in \mathbb{N}$ to be a 'reasonable' conjecture to make. where ...
81
votes
25answers
23k views

What is convolution intuitively?

If random variable $X$ has a probability distribution of $f(x)$ and random variable $Y$ has a probability distribution $g(x)$ then $(f*g)(x)$, the convolution of $f$ and $g$, is the probability ...
80
votes
15answers
10k views

What is torsion in differential geometry intuitively?

Hi, given a connection on the tangent space of a manifold, one can define its torsion: $$T(X,Y):=\triangledown_X Y - \triangledown_Y X - [X,Y]$$ What is the geometric picture behind this ...
73
votes
25answers
30k views

Intuitive crutches for higher dimensional thinking

I once heard a joke (not a great one I'll admit...) about higher dimensional thinking that went as follows- An engineer, a physicist, and a mathematician are discussing how to visualise four ...
71
votes
9answers
5k views

Why are flat morphisms “flat?”

Of course "flatness" is a word that evokes a very particular geometric picture, and it seems to me like there should be a reason why this word is used, but nothing I can find gives me a reason! Is ...
58
votes
9answers
6k views

Why should I believe the Mordell Conjecture?

It was Faltings who first proved in 1983 the Mordell conjecture, that a curve of genus 2 or more over a number field has only finitely many rational points. I am interested to know why Mordell and ...
57
votes
11answers
10k views

“Philosophical” meaning of the Yoneda Lemma

The Yoneda Lemma is a simple result of category theory, and its proof is very straightforward. Yet I feel like I do not truly understand what it is about; I have seen a few comments here mentioning ...
53
votes
26answers
5k views

Proof synopsis collection

I hate to keep going with the big lists, but the question about one-sentence summaries of topics/areas spurred this question...and I just can't help myself! Definition (Fraleigh): A proof synopsis ...
53
votes
9answers
7k views

How is it that you can guess if one of a pair of random numbers is larger with probability > 1/2?

My apologies if this is too elementary, but it's been years since I heard of this paradox and I've never heard a satisfactory explanation. I've already tried it on my fair share of math Ph.D.'s, and ...
50
votes
15answers
7k views

What's a nice argument that shows the volume of the unit ball in $\mathbb R^n$ approaches 0?

Before you close for "homework problem", please note the tags. Last week, I gave my calculus 1 class the assignment to calculate the $n$-volume of the $n$-ball. They had finished up talking about ...
49
votes
8answers
8k views

Should the formula for the inverse of a 2x2 matrix be obvious?

As every MO user knows, and can easily prove, the inverse of the matrix $\begin{pmatrix} a & b \\\ c & d \end{pmatrix}$ is $\frac{1}{ad - bc} \begin{pmatrix} d & -b \\\ -c & a ...
48
votes
11answers
4k views

How should one think about non-Hausdorff topologies?

In most basic courses on general topology, one studies mainly Hausdorff spaces and finds that they fit quite well with our geometric intuition and generally, things work "as they should" ...
47
votes
52answers
16k views

Colloquial catchy statements encoding serious mathematics

As the title says, please share colloquial statements that encode (in a non-rigorous way, of course) some nontrivial mathematical fact (or heuristic). Instead of giving examples here I added them as ...
47
votes
5answers
3k views

Is there an intuitive reason for Zariski's main theorem?

Zariski's main theorem has many guises, and so I will give you the freedom to pick the one that you find to be most intuitive. For the sake of completeness, I will put here one version: Zariski's ...
45
votes
15answers
11k views

Most 'unintuitive' application of the Axiom of Choice?

It is well-known that the axiom of choice is equivalent to many other assumptions, such as the well-ordering principle, Tychonoff's theorem, and the fact that every vector space has a basis. Even ...
45
votes
5answers
6k views

What is sheaf cohomology intuitively?

What is sheaf cohomology intuitively? For local systems it is ordinary cohomology with twisted coefficients. But what if the sheaf in question is far from being constant? Can one still understand ...
43
votes
29answers
9k views

What notions are used but not clearly defined in modern mathematics?

"Everyone knows what a curve is, until he has studied enough mathematics to become confused through the countless number of possible exceptions." Felix Klein What notions are used but not ...
41
votes
4answers
7k views

Zagier's one-sentence proof of Fermat's theorem.

Zagier has a very short proof ( MR1041893) for the fact that every prime number $p$ of the form $4k+1$ is the sum of two squares. The proof defines an involution of the set $S= \lbrace (x,y,z) \in ...
41
votes
11answers
3k views

How to introduce notions of flat, projective and free modules?

In the coming spring semester I will be teaching for the first time an introductory (graduate) course in Commutative Algebra. As many people know, I have been plugging away for a while at this ...
40
votes
7answers
3k views

Demystifying the Caratheodory Approach to Measurability

Nowadays, the usual way to extend a measure on an algebra of sets to a measure on a $\sigma$-algebra, the Caratheodory approach, is by using the outer measure $m^* $ and then taking the family of all ...
36
votes
9answers
7k views

Intuition for Group Cohomology

I'm beginning to learn cohomology for cyclic groups in preparation for use in the proofs of global class field theory (using ideal-theoretic arguments). I've seen the proof of the long exact sequence ...
35
votes
12answers
5k views

Cures for mathematician's block (as in writer's block) [closed]

What kind of things do you find that help you get the "creative juices flowing," to use a tired cliche, when you're stuck or burnt out on a problem? I've read about some studies that suggest listening ...
33
votes
5answers
4k views

Intuition about the cotangent complex?

Does anyone have an answer to the question "What does the cotangent complex measure?" Algebraic intuitions (like "homology measures how far a sequence is from being exact") are as welcome as ...
32
votes
2answers
2k views

Meaning/Origin of Seiberg-Witten Equations/Invariants

Having now seen and "understood" (quotes necessary) the Seiberg-Witten equations on a closed oriented Riemannian 4-manifold $X$, I have no real understanding of where they came from. We take an ...
30
votes
3answers
3k views

Why is there no Cayley's Theorem for rings?

Cayley's theorem makes groups nice: a closed set of bijections is a group and a group is a closed set of bijections- beautiful, natural and understandable canonically as symmetry. It is not so much a ...
30
votes
8answers
4k views

What is a Lagrangian submanifold intuitively?

What are good ways to think about Lagrangian submanifolds? Why should one care about them? More generally: same questions about (co)isotropic ones. Answers from a classical mechanics point of view ...
29
votes
6answers
2k views

Why do Littlewood-Richardson coefficients describe the cohomology of the Grassmannian?

I'm looking for a "conceptual" explanation to the question in the title. The standard proofs that I've seen go as follows: use the Schubert cell decomposition to get a basis for cohomology and show ...
29
votes
4answers
2k views

Does anyone know an intuitive proof of the Birkhoff ergodic theorem?

For many standard, well-understood theorems the proofs have been streamlined to the point where you just need to understand the proof once and you remember the general idea forever. At this point I ...
28
votes
13answers
3k views

Surprising and Useful Physical Intuition for Mathematical Objects

I believe I.M. Gelfand said that when beginning to learn a new subject, one should learn it like a physicist. In this spirit, what are some helpful and surprising physical intuitions accompanying ...
28
votes
6answers
4k views

How is representation theory used in modular/automorphic forms?

There is certainly an abundance of advanced books on Galois representations and automorphic forms. What I'm wondering is more simple: What is the basic connection between modular forms and ...
28
votes
3answers
4k views

Why are planar graphs so exceptional?

As compared to classes of graphs embeddable in other surfaces. Some ways in which they're exceptional: Mac Lane's and Whitney's criteria are algebraic characterizations of planar graphs. (Well, ...
28
votes
5answers
960 views

are there natural examples of classical mechanics that happens on a symplectic manifold that isn't a cotangent bundle?

I'm curious about just how far the abstraction to a symplectic formalism can be justified by appeal to actual physical examples. There's good motivation, for example, for working over an arbitrary ...
28
votes
3answers
3k views

What do higher Chow groups mean?

Let $z^i(X, m)$ be the free abelian group generated by all codimension $i$ subvarieties on $X \times \Delta^m$ which intersect all faces $X \times \Delta^j$ properly for all j < m. Then, for each ...
28
votes
4answers
4k views

Is there a good way to think of vanishing cycles and nearby cycles?

Once in a while I run into literature that invokes vanishing cycle machinery with a cryptic sentence like, "this follows from a standard vanishing cycle argument." Is there a good way to look at ...
27
votes
13answers
6k views

Examples of using physical intuition to solve math problems

For the purposes of this question let a "physical intuition" be an intuition that is derived from your everyday experience of physical reality. Your intuitions about how the spin of a ball affects ...
27
votes
6answers
4k views

Algebraically closed fields of positive characteristic

I'm taking introductory algebraic geometry this term, so a lot of the theorems we see in class start with "Let k be an algebraically closed field." One of the things that's annoyed me is that as far ...
26
votes
6answers
3k views

Why does one think to Steenrod squares and powers?

I'm studying Steenrod operations from Hatcher's book. Like homology, one can use them only knowing the axioms, without caring for the actual construction. But while there are plenty of intuitive ...
26
votes
7answers
2k views

What is a coalgebra intuitively?

How to think about coalgebras? Are there geometric interpretations of coalgebras? If I think of algebras and modules as spaces and vectorbundles, what are coalgebras and comodules? What basic ...
26
votes
3answers
4k views

What is the “intuition” behind “brave new algebra”?

Y.I. Manin mentions in a recent interview the need for a “codification of efficient new intuitive tools, such as … the “brave new algebra” of homotopy theorists”. This makes me puzzle, because I ...
26
votes
2answers
2k views

Intuition for coends

Let $D$ be a co-complete category and $C$ be a small category. For a functor $F:C^{op}\times C \to D$ one defines the co-end $$ \int^{c\in C} F(c,c) $$ as the co-equalizer of $$ \coprod_{c\to ...
26
votes
2answers
2k views

A geometric characterization for arithmetic genus

Let $X$ be a smooth projective variety over $\mathbb{C}$. The following information is all equivalent (any of these numbers can be computed by a linear equation from any of the others): the ...
25
votes
6answers
2k views

How to think about model categories?

I've read about model categories from an Appendix to one of Lurie's papers. What are the examples of model categories? What should be my intuition about them? E.g. I understand the typical examples ...
25
votes
6answers
3k views

Intuition for the last step in Serre's proof of the three-squares theorem

Serre's A Course in Arithmetic gives essentially the following proof of the three-squares theorem, which says that an integer a is the sum of three squares if and only if it is not of the form 4^m (8n ...
25
votes
6answers
4k views

What does Mellin inversion “really mean”?

Given a function $f: \mathbb{R}^+ \rightarrow \mathbb{C}$ satisfying suitable conditions (exponential decay at infinity, continuous, and bounded variation) is good enough, its Mellin transform is ...
24
votes
7answers
8k views

What is the exterior derivative intuitively?

Hi, actually I have several related questions, not worth opening different threads: What is the of the exterior derivative intuitively? What is its geometric meaning? A possible answer I know is, ...
24
votes
7answers
2k views

What examples of distributions should I keep in mind?

I'm learning a bit about the theory of distributions. What examples of distributions will help me develop good intuition? Definitions: Let $U$ be an open subset of $\mathbb{R}^n$. Write ...
24
votes
4answers
1k views

Algebraic P vs. NP

I recently attended a lecture where the speaker mentioned that what he was talking about was connected to the algebraic version of the $P$ vs. $NP$ problem. Could someone explain what that means in a ...