**204**

votes

**67**answers

99k 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 ...

**191**

votes

**7**answers

95k 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 ...

**111**

votes

**16**answers

15k 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 ...

**92**

votes

**25**answers

38k 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 ...

**90**

votes

**42**answers

17k 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 ...

**90**

votes

**25**answers

27k 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 ...

**87**

votes

**16**answers

11k 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 ...

**77**

votes

**9**answers

6k 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 ...

**62**

votes

**11**answers

11k 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 ...

**60**

votes

**32**answers

10k 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 ...

**60**

votes

**9**answers

7k 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 ...

**59**

votes

**8**answers

10k 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 ...

**55**

votes

**15**answers

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 ...

**54**

votes

**26**answers

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

**5**answers

7k 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 ...

**53**

votes

**9**answers

9k 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

**11**answers

5k 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" ...

**49**

votes

**52**answers

17k 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 ...

**48**

votes

**15**answers

13k 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 ...

**48**

votes

**5**answers

4k 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 ...

**47**

votes

**11**answers

4k 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 ...

**43**

votes

**4**answers

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 ...

**40**

votes

**9**answers

8k 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 ...

**40**

votes

**7**answers

4k 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 ...

**38**

votes

**12**answers

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 ...

**37**

votes

**5**answers

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 ...

**33**

votes

**4**answers

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 ...

**32**

votes

**3**answers

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 ...

**32**

votes

**8**answers

5k 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 ...

**32**

votes

**3**answers

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 ...

**32**

votes

**2**answers

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 ...

**31**

votes

**6**answers

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 ...

**30**

votes

**6**answers

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 ...

**30**

votes

**6**answers

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 ...

**30**

votes

**3**answers

5k 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, ...

**30**

votes

**5**answers

1k 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 ...

**30**

votes

**4**answers

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 ...

**29**

votes

**2**answers

3k 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 ...

**29**

votes

**6**answers

5k 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 ...

**28**

votes

**7**answers

9k 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, ...

**28**

votes

**6**answers

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 ...

**28**

votes

**13**answers

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

**7**answers

3k 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 ...

**28**

votes

**2**answers

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 ...

**27**

votes

**13**answers

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

**6**answers

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 ...

**27**

votes

**10**answers

8k views

### What is (co)homology, and how does a beginner gain intuition about it?

This question comes along with a lot of associated sub-questions, most of which would probably be answered by a sufficiently good introductory text. So a perfectly acceptable answer to this question ...

**27**

votes

**7**answers

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 ...

**26**

votes

**11**answers

22k views

### Why is the gradient normal?

This is a somewhat long discussion so bear with me. There is a theorem that I have always been curious about from an intuitive standpoint. This is an issue that has been glossed over in most ...

**26**

votes

**3**answers

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 ...