Questions that ask about some aspect of mathematical research or study which doesn't involve the actual mathematics. In general, soft questions can be answered without using mathematical reasoning.

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203
votes
72answers
81k views

Video lectures of mathematics courses available online for free

It can be difficult to learn mathematics on your own from textbooks, and I often wish universities videotaped their mathematics courses and distributed them for free online. Fortunately, some ...
202
votes
22answers
24k views

Thinking and Explaining

How big a gap is there between how you think about mathematics and what you say to others? Do you say what you're thinking? Please give either personal examples of how your thoughts and words ...
163
votes
11answers
12k views

Refereeing a Paper [closed]

I've refereed at least a dozen papers in my (short) career so far and I still find the process completely baffling. I'm wondering what is actually expected and what people tend to do... Some things ...
150
votes
108answers
40k views

What are some examples of colorful language in serious mathematics papers? [closed]

The popular MO question "Famous mathematical quotes" has turned up many examples of witty, insightful, and humorous writing by mathematicians. Yet, with a few exceptions such as Weyl's "angel of ...
143
votes
41answers
54k views

A single paper everyone should read? [closed]

Different people like different things in math, but sometimes you stand in awe before a beautiful and simple, but not universally known, result that you want to share with any of your colleagues. Do ...
126
votes
36answers
32k views

Widely accepted mathematical results that were later shown wrong?

I wonder if there are any examples in the history of mathematics of a mathematical proof that was initially reviewed and widely accepted as valid, only to be disproved a significant amount of time ...
123
votes
67answers
39k views

Awfully sophisticated proof for simple facts [closed]

It is sometimes the case that one can produce proofs of simple facts that are of disproportionate sophistication which, however, do not involve any circularity. For example, (I think) I gave an ...
121
votes
11answers
40k views

Have any long-suspected irrational numbers turned out to be rational?

The history of proving numbers irrational is full of interesting stories, from the ancient proofs for $\sqrt{2}$, to Lambert's irrationality proof for $\pi$, to Roger Apéry's surprise demonstration ...
120
votes
16answers
51k views

What's a mathematician to do? [closed]

I have to apologize because this is not the normal sort of question for this site, but there have been times in the past where MO was remarkably helpful and kind to undergrads with similar types of ...
116
votes
130answers
27k views

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 ...
114
votes
42answers
57k views

Magic trick based on deep mathematics

I am interested in magic tricks whose explanation requires deep mathematics. The trick should be one that would actually appeal to a layman. An example is the following: the magician asks Alice to ...
108
votes
75answers
34k views

Best online mathematics videos?

I know of two good mathematics videos available online, namely: Sphere inside out (part I and part II) Moebius transformation revealed Do you know of any other good math videos? Share.
100
votes
20answers
22k views

Examples of unexpected mathematical images

I try to generate a lot of examples in my research to get a better feel for what I am doing. Sometimes, I generate a plot, or a figure, that really surprises me, and makes my research take an ...
99
votes
15answers
11k views

When and how is it appropriate for an undergraduate to email a professor out of the blue?

This may not be appropriate for MathOverflow, as I haven't seen precedent for this type of question. But the answer is certainly of interest to me, and (I think) would be of interest to many other ...
97
votes
22answers
10k views

Why do so many textbooks have so much technical detail and so little enlightenment? [closed]

I think/hope this is okay for MO. I often find that textbooks provide very little in the way of motivation or context. As a simple example, consider group theory. Every textbook I have seen that ...
96
votes
64answers
19k views

Which math paper maximizes the ratio (importance)/(length)?

My vote would be Milnor's 7-page paper "On manifolds homeomorphic to the 7-sphere", in Vol. 64 of Annals of Math. For those who have not read it, he explicitly constructs smooth 7-manifolds which are ...
96
votes
37answers
72k views

Too old for advanced mathematics? [closed]

Kind of an odd question, perhaps, so I apologize in advance if it is inappropriate for this forum. I've never taken a mathematics course since high school, and didn't complete college. However, ...
95
votes
59answers
16k views

Jokes in the sense of Littlewood: examples? [closed]

First, let me make it clear that I do not mean jokes of the "abelian grape" variety. I take my cue from the following passage in A Mathematician's Miscellany by J.E. Littlewood (Methuen 1953, p. 79): ...
92
votes
16answers
20k views

How do you keep your research notes organized? [closed]

One of the things I struggle with most in doing research is keeping my notes organized. Since research tends to do a lot of branching, keeping notes in a linear fashion seems useless to me. On the ...
91
votes
81answers
68k views

Do good math jokes exist? [closed]

Have a good joke? Share. I know this is subjective, but the principle "should be of interest to mathematicians" trumps. (I hope.)
91
votes
107answers
29k views

Most memorable titles [closed]

Apparently, for a large number of readers, the choice whether they select to read a paper or not is often strongly influenced by the title. I was wondering if the MO-users would be willing to share ...
91
votes
77answers
20k views

Examples of great mathematical writing

This question is basically from Ravi Vakil's web page, but modified for Math Overflow. How do I write mathematics well? Learning by example is more helpful than being told what to do, so let's try to ...
89
votes
9answers
5k views

What non-categorical applications are there of homotopical algebra?

(To be honest, I actually mean something more general than 'homotopical algebra' - topos theory, $\infty$-categories, operads, anything that sounds like its natural home would be on the nLab.) More ...
89
votes
20answers
23k views

eBook readers for mathematics

For a while I have been eying stand-alone eBook readers that use "electronic ink" displays, the most popular ones seem to be the Amazon Kindle readers. My criteria are as follows: It should be able ...
88
votes
97answers
55k views

Famous mathematical quotes [closed]

Some famous quotes often give interesting insights into the vision of mathematics that certain mathematicians have. Which ones are you particularly fond of? Standard community wiki rules apply: one ...
87
votes
68answers
14k views

Most helpful math resources on the web

What are really helpful math resources out there on the web? Please don't only post a link but a short description of what it does and why it is helpful. Please only one resource per answer and let ...
85
votes
7answers
6k views

How to escape the inclination to be a universalist or: How to learn to stop worrying and do some research.

As an undergraduate we are trained as mathematicians to be universalists. We are expected to embrace a wide spectrum of mathematics. Both algebra and analysis are presented on equal footing with ...
80
votes
26answers
11k views

How To Present Mathematics To Non-Mathematicians?

(Added an epilogue) I started a job as a TA, and it requires me to take a five sessions workshop about better teaching in which we have to present a 10 minutes lecture (micro-teaching). In the last ...
78
votes
19answers
11k views

Mathematical habits of thought and action which would be of use to non-mathematicians

Once again I come to MO for help with something I'm writing for the public. Which habits of mathematicians -- aspects of the way we approach problems, the way we argue, the way we function as a ...
78
votes
10answers
11k views

Work of plenary speakers at ICM 2014

The next International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) will take place in 2014 in Seoul, Korea. The present question is meant to gather brief overviews of the work of the plenary speakers for the ICM ...
76
votes
45answers
35k views

Interesting mathematical documentaries

I am looking for mathematical documentaries, both technical and non-technical. They should be "interesting" in that they present either actual mathematics, mathematicians or history of mathematics. I ...
76
votes
16answers
7k views

How does one justify funding for mathematics research?

G. H. Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology provides an answer as to why one would do mathematics, but I'm unable to find an answer as to why mathematics deserves public funding. Mathematics can be ...
74
votes
30answers
11k views

Most harmful heuristic?

What's the most harmful heuristic (towards proper mathematics education), you've seen taught/accidentally taught/were taught? When did handwaving inhibit proper learning?
74
votes
50answers
14k views

Counterexamples in Algebra?

This is certainly related to "What are your favorite instructional counterexamples?", but I thought I would ask a more focused question. We've all seen Counterexamples in Analysis and Counterexamples ...
74
votes
6answers
7k views

Mistakes in mathematics, false illusions about conjectures

Since long time ago I have been thinking in two problems that I have not been able to solve. It seems that one of them was recently solved. I have been thinking a lot about the motivation and its ...
73
votes
28answers
8k views

New grand projects in contemporary math

When I was a graduate student in math (mid-late eighties and early nineties) the arena was dominated by a few grand projects: for instance, Misha Gromov's hyperbolic groups, which spread into many ...
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 ...
73
votes
16answers
5k views

Does Physics need non-analytic smooth functions?

Observing the behaviour of a few physicists "in nature", I had the impression that among the mathematical tools they use a lot (along with possibly much more sofisticated maths, of course), there is ...
73
votes
18answers
6k views

How do you decide whether a question in abstract algebra is worth studying?

Dear MO-community, I am not sure how mature my view on this is and I might say some things that are controversial. I welcome contradicting views. In any case, I find it important to clarify this in my ...
71
votes
16answers
17k views

What recent discoveries have amateur mathematicians made?

E.T. Bell called Fermat the Prince of Amateurs. One hundred years ago Ramanujan amazed the mathematical world. In between were many important amateurs and mathematicians off the beaten path, but what ...
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 ...
69
votes
62answers
22k views

Which mathematicians have influenced you the most? [closed]

There are mathematicians whose creativity, insight and taste have the power of driving anyone into a world of beautiful ideas, which can inspire the desire, even the need for doing mathematics, or can ...
69
votes
9answers
7k views

Analogues of P vs. NP in the history of mathematics

Recently I wrote a blog post entitled "The Scientific Case for P≠NP". The argument I tried to articulate there is that there seems to be an "invisible electric fence" separating the problems in P ...
68
votes
60answers
7k views

Blackbox Theorems [closed]

By a blackbox theorem I mean a theorem that is often applied but whose proof is understood in detail by relatively few of those who use it. A prototypical example is the Classification of Finite ...
68
votes
13answers
7k views

How does an academic mathematician educate him/herself about job opportunities outside academia?

One of the contradictions of being a math professor is that a big part of your job is to train people to do things which are quite different from what you do yourself professionally; this is ...
66
votes
36answers
25k views

Most interesting mathematics mistake?

Some mistakes in mathematics made by extremely smart and famous people can eventually lead to interesting developments and theorems, e.g. Poincare's 3d sphere charaterization or the search to prove ...
65
votes
50answers
18k views

Which popular games are the most mathematical?

I consider a game to be mathematical if there is interesting mathematics (to a mathematician) involved in the game's structure, optimal strategies, practical strategies, analysis of the game ...
65
votes
6answers
14k views

How do I see LaTeX math on any web page and in email?

This is a follow up to this closed question. I open a random page, such as something on arXiv at 8:05 p.m. EST, and I see all these dollar signs, and I sigh and I wish that I could see nicely ...
64
votes
21answers
9k views

What is the most useful non-existing object of your field?

When many proofs by contradiction end with "we have built an object with such, such and such properties, which does not exist", it seems relevant to give this object a name, even though (in fact ...
63
votes
10answers
9k views

What is the oldest open problem in mathematics?

What is the oldest open problem in mathematics? By old, I am referring to the date the problem was stated. Browsing Wikipedia list of open problems, it seems that the Goldbach conjecture (1742, every ...