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Question: I'm asking for a big list of not especially famous, long open problems that anyone can understand. Community wiki, so one problem per answer, please.

Motivation: I plan to use this list in my teaching, to motivate general education undergraduates, and early year majors, suggesting to them an idea of what research mathematicians do.

Meaning of "not too famous" Examples of problems that are too famous might be the Goldbach conjecture, the $3x+1$-problem, the twin-prime conjecture, or the chromatic number of the unit-distance graph on ${\Bbb R}^2$. Roughly, if there exists a whole monograph already dedicated to the problem (or narrow circle of problems), no need to mention it again here. I'm looking for problems that, with high probability, a mathematician working outside the particular area has never encountered.

Meaning of: anyone can understand The statement (in some appropriate, but reasonably terse formulation) shouldn't involve concepts beyond (American) K-12 mathematics. For example, if it weren't already too famous, I would say that the conjecture that "finite projective planes have prime power order" does have barely acceptable articulations.

Meaning of: long open The problem should occur in the literature or have a solid history as folklore. So I do not mean to call here for the invention of new problems or to collect everybody's laundry list of private-research-impeding unproved elementary technical lemmas. There should already exist at least of small community of mathematicians who will care if one of these problems gets solved.

I hope I have reduced subjectivity to a minimum, but I can't eliminate all fuzziness -- so if in doubt please don't hesitate to post!

To get started, here's a problem that I only learned of recently and that I've actually enjoyed describing to general education students.


Edit: I'm primarily interested in conjectures - yes-no questions, rather than classification problems, quests for algorithms, etc.

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You might get more success if you sampled certain open problem lists and indicated which ones fit your list and which ones did not. I could mention various combinatorial problems such as integer complexity, determinant spectrum, covering design optimization, but I can't tell from your description if they would be suitable for you. Gerhard "They Are Suitable For Me" Paseman, 2012.06.21 –  Gerhard Paseman Jun 21 '12 at 19:11
Here is some collection of some other "collect open problems" quests. on MO: mathoverflow.net/questions/96202/… PS Nice question ! PSPS may be add tag "open-problems" –  Alexander Chervov Jun 21 '12 at 20:53
Nice question!! –  Suvrit Jun 22 '12 at 3:25
To save the search for explanation of cryptic acronyms for those of us outside US, K-12 means high school. @Mahmud: You are using a wrong meaning of the word “problem”. The TSP is not an unproved mathematical statement, it is a computational task. –  Emil Jeřábek Jun 22 '12 at 12:05
More precisely, K-12 means anything up to high school (K = Kindergarten, 12 = 12th grade, and K-12 covers this range). –  Henry Cohn Jun 22 '12 at 13:05

89 Answers 89

Erdos's problem on the length of lemniscates (it is somewhat famous in certain narrow circles). Let $P$ be a polynomial, and consider the set $E=\{ z:|P(z)|=1\}$ in the complex plane.

What is the maximum length of $E$ over all monic polynomials of degree $d$?

Erdos conjectured that an extremal $P$ is $P_0(z)=z^d+1$.

It is known that the asymptotic of maximal length is $2d+o(d).$ It is known that $P_0$ gives a local maximum. It is also known that for every extremal polynomial, all critical points lie on $E$, so $E$ must be connected.

However the conjecture is not established even for $d=3$.

After Erdos's death, I offered a $200 prize for the first solution. (Erdos had offered the same, but I do not know whether one can collect his prize.)

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This is basically copied from my answer on this question, which I've now updated some.

Let's let $\|n\|$ denote the smallest number of 1's needed to write n using an arbitrary combination of addition and multiplication. For instance, ||11||=8, because $11=(1+1)(1+1+1+1+1)+1$, and there's no shorter way. This is sequence A005245.

Then we can ask: For n>0, is $\|2^n\|=2n$?

Since it is known that for m>0, $\|3^m\|=3m$, we can ask more generally: For n, m not both zero, is $\|2^n 3^m\|=2n+3m$?

Attempting to throw in powers of 5 will not work; ||5||=5, but $\|5^6\|=29<30$. (Possibly it could hold that $\|a^n\|=n\|a\|$ for some yet higher choices of a, but I don't see any reason why those should be any easier.)

Jānis Iraids has checked by computer that this is true for $2^n 3^m\le 10^{12}$ (in particular, for $2^n$ with n≤39), and Joshua Zelinsky and I have shown that so long as $n\le 21$, it is true for all m. (Fixed powers of 2 and arbitrary powers of 3 are much easier than arbitrary powers of 2!) In fact, using an algorithmic version of the method in the linked preprint, I have computed that so long as $n\le 41$, it is true for all $m$, though I'm afraid it will be some time before I get to writing that up...

That seems to be the best known.

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Are there eight points on the plane, no three on a line, no four on a circle, with integer pairwise distances?

The analogous question for seven points was posed by Paul Erdős and answered positively by Kreisel, Kurz 2008, who have then asked this question.

In general, problems by Paul Erdős are worth to check if you want to find problems you are asking for here.

Tobias Kreisel, Sascha Kurz, There Are Integral Heptagons, no Three Points on a Line, no Four on a Circle, Discrete & Computational Geometry 39/4 (2008), 786-790.

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Here's another Birch Swinnerton-Dyer related problem. Sylvester conjectured that every prime that is 4,7 or 8 mod 9 is a sum of two rational cubes. Elkies (unpublished?) settled the first two cases. As far as I know, the third is still open.

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This conjecture of Sylvester is indeed not so widely known and the case $p=8 \mod{9}$ is still open. For some informations on Elkies's construction, see math.harvard.edu/~elkies/sel_p.html For published results, see Dasgupta-Voight's article people.ucsc.edu/~sdasgup2/clay.pdf –  François Brunault Jun 23 '12 at 12:51
Yes, still unpublished alas. When I was working on it I looked up Sylvester's work on $x^3+y^3=a$ and didn't find any evidence that he actually conjectured this, though he did make some speculations about the case $p \equiv 1 \bmod 9$, which is the one case where $a$ is prime and the rank might be as high as $2$. For $p \equiv 4, 7, 8 \bmod 9$ the earliest statement of the conjecture that I found is Birch-Stephens (Topology 1966), prefigured by Selmer (Acta Math. 1951). It is a special case of the parity conjecture for the rank of elliptic curves. –  Noam D. Elkies Jun 24 '12 at 15:09

Is there an upper bound of quotients in the continued fraction representation of $\sqrt[3]{2}=[ 1; 3, 1, 5, 1, 1, \dots]$?

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A meta-answer: I recommend Guy's Unsolved Problems in Number Theory and perhaps some of his others (Unsolved Problems in Geometry, Unsolved Problems in Combinatorial Games), which have many unsolved problems (both well-known and obscure), grouped into categories. Many of these are of attackable difficulty.

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A few decades ago Sherman Stein asked whether a trapezoid whose parallel sides are in the ratio 1:root 2 can be dissected into triangles, all of the same area. This remains open--it's a mystery which trapezoids admit such dissections./

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The Kurepa conjecture : For every odd prime $p$, one has $$ 0!+1!+\cdots+(p-1)!\not\equiv0\pmod p $$ A proof was claimed and published in 2004 but the claim was withdrawn in 2011. See also my comment on the accepted answer to MO24265.

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Is there a dense subset of a plane having only rational distances between its points?

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This problem is given in Klee, Victor; Wagon, Stan (1991), "Problem 10 Does the plane contain a dense rational set?", Old and New Unsolved Problems in Plane Geometry and Number Theory, Dolciani mathematical expositions, 11, Cambridge University Press, pp. 132–135, ISBN 978-0-88385-315-3, and attributed to Ulam and Erdős. –  Vladimir Reshetnikov Jul 25 '12 at 13:39
It was also discussed here: mathoverflow.net/questions/19127/… –  Vladimir Reshetnikov Jul 28 '12 at 20:30

The Happy Ending Problem

  • Says that any set of five points in the plane in general position has a subset of four points that form the vertices of a convex quadrilateral. More generally, Erdös and Szekeres proved that for any positive integer $N$, there is a minimal integer $f(N)$ such that any set of $f(N)$ points in the plane in general position has a subset of $N$ points that form the vertices of a convex polygon, and it is known that $f(N)$ is at least $1+2^{N-2}$.

An open question is: does $f(N)=1+2^{N-2}$ hold?. Taken from this MO link.

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Could you please not use BIG FONT for your headings? –  Yemon Choi Jun 24 '12 at 9:04
@Yemon: Why whats wrong? –  S.C. Jun 24 '12 at 9:08

3D Version Of Blaschke-Lebesgue(1914) Theorem

The planar, compact.convex set of constant width, say 1, of minimal area is the Reuleaux triangle: Blaschk-Lebesgue(1914). The 3D set of constant width and mimimal volume is unknown.

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The following is a conjecture of Wlodzimierz Kuperberg:

Every convex planar set of area 1 is contained in a quadrilateral of area $1+\frac{4}{5}\tan\frac{\pi}{5}\sin\frac{\pi}{5}$.

In other words, such a set is contained in a quadrilateral of area less that $\sqrt{2}$, and the minimum is obtained for the minimum area quadrilateral containing a regular pentagon.

The conjecture involved only elementary plane geometry, and can be found in:

W. Kuperberg, On minimum area quadrilaterals and triangles circumscribed about convex plane regions, Elem. Math. 38 (1983), no. 3, 57–61, MR0703939 (85a:52009)

It is presented as a challenge to the MO community here:

Small quadrilaterals containing a given convex region

It is easy to prove that

(*) Every convex planar set of area 1 is contained in a quadrilateral of area 2.

It is also easy to see that statement (*) remains true if the constant 2 is replaced with a somewhat smaller one. Contest: Find such a constant, the smaller the better.


Reaching $\sqrt{2}$ and even a strictly smaller value was proved by Chakerian (1973) and Kuperberg (1983) and the research challenge offered is to improve it even further, and perhaps even to verify the conjecture that the minimum is attained by a regular pentagon. But any nice arguments for bounds below 2 are welcome.

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Waring's problem inequality

One of the oldest (Since 1770) and famous open problem in number theory is Waring's problem. It has been conjectured that if

$$ \left\{\left(\frac{3}{2}\right)^n\right\} \le 1 - \left(\frac{3}{4}\right)^n. $$

(where $\{ \cdot \}$ denotes the fractional part) true then, the general solution of Waring's problem is

$$ g(n) = 2^n + \left\lfloor{\left(\frac{3}{2}\right)^n}\right\rfloor - 2. $$

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If I understand correctly, the statement given here has actually been proved in work by Dickson, Pillai, Rubugunday, and Niven. (This is stated in section 6.2.7 of Bombieri and Gubler's book, Heights in Diophantine Geometry.) The conjecture, which coupled to this result would complete the solution of Waring's problem, is that the the stated diophantine inequality (on the fractional part of $(3/2)^n$), should hold true for all $n$. It is an ineffective consequence of Roth's theorem (as extended by Mahler to several places) that it holds for $n \gg 0$. –  Vesselin Dimitrov Dec 17 '14 at 17:35

Easy-to-Explain but Hard-to-Solve Problems About Convex Polytopes slides by Jes´us De Loera contains 7 open problems (Hirsch conjecture is also there so it is out-of-date).

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Here is a nice question due to John Conway. In a magical 4x4 square, show that the XOR composition of the four numbers, written in base 2, in every row and in every column is zero. This applies to a square in which the numbers 0 to 15 are used (rather than 1 to 16).

For instance, a typical row might be 0 15 14 1, which in binary is 0000 1111 1110 0001, and in each of the four positions there happen to be two entries 0 and two entries 1, so the binary sum is zero.

Of course there are only finitely many possible magic 4x4 squares, and you can give proof by "complete inspection" (aka brute force). In fact, that has been done, so the result is true. But neither he nor I know a conceptual proof. Should be easy to understand about a classical problem -- and yet seems not obvious. Try it!

(Incidentally, the binary sum along the diagonals need not always be zero; that's not part of the question.)

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In an oriented graph, is there always a vertex from which there are at least as many vertices that one can access by moving along exactly two edges, than there are vertices that one can access by moving along one edge?

This is known as Seymour's second neighborhood conjecture, and might be on the verge to being too famous (but it seems few of my colleagues know it).

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Do there exist five positive integers such that the product of any two of them increased by 1 is a perfect square?

The same question for seven distinct nonzero rationals.

Diophantine m-tuples pages

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Enumeration of meanders. (See also meander).

Problem is to find some formula for the number of meanders or at least some good asymptotic.

As far as I understand the attention to it has been attracted by V.I. Arnold. The problem is so "everyone can understand" that there is an article by him in the math. journal for shool-children "Quant" (sorry it is in Russian. I remember it from my school years): djvu file from the site.

There are plenty papers in arXiv on the problem.

E.g. http://arxiv.org/abs/cond-mat/0003008 Exact Meander Asymptotics: a Numerical Check Philippe Di Francesco, Emmanuel Guitter (SPHT-Saclay), Jesper Lykke Jacobsen (LPTMS-Orsay)

As far as I understand from the nice book (or) by S. Lando and A. Zvonkin the problem is still open.

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How many trees are there?

Let $T(n)$ be the number of trees on $n$ vertices up to graph isomorphism. There is no known closed formula for $T(n)$.

In 1947 Richard Otter proved[Source] the asymptotic result $$T(n) \sim A \cdot B^n \cdot n^{-\frac{5}{2}}$$ where $A \approx 0.535$ & $B \approx 2.996$.

By way of contrast, let $L(n)$ be the number of labelled trees, i.e. trees formed from vertices labelled $1,...,n$ where isomorphism additionally preseves the label. In 1889, Arthur Cayley showed[Source] that $$L(n)=n^{n-2}$$

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What exactly is the problem here? –  Harry Altman Jul 24 '12 at 22:03

Let $R(x)=P(x)/Q(x)$ where $P(x)$ and $Q(x)$ are polynomials with integer coefficients and $Q(0)\neq 0$. Is there an algorithm that given $P(x)$ and $Q(x)$ as an input always halts and decides if the Taylor series of $R(x)$ at $x=0$ has a coefficient $0$?

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The Graph Reconstruction Conjecture:

Let $G, H$ be finite, simple, loopless graphs such that $|V(G)|$ and $|V(H)|$ are at least $4$. If there is a bijection $\varphi:V(G)\to V(H)$ such that for all $v\in V(G)$ the graphs $G\setminus \{v\}$ and $H\setminus \{\varphi(v)\}$ are isomorphic, then $G\cong H$.

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For integers $a_1, a_2, \ldots$, let $[a_1,a_2,\ldots]$ denote a continued fraction expansion $a_1 + \frac{1}{a_2 + \frac{1}{\ddots}}$.

Zaremba conjectured in 1972 that there must exist some constant $A > 1$ such that given any integer integer $d > 1$, you can always find some coprime $b$ such that if we write out the continued fraction expansion $b/d = [a_1, a_2, \ldots, a_k]$, all of the coefficients $a_i \leq A$.

Everyone seems to believe that $A = 5$, but we still don't know if such a constant exists. The current best known result (of Bourgain and Kontorovich) is that almost all integers $d$ permit a $b$ such that $b/d$ has the desired property (in their paper, they took $A = 50$, but I think that has been improved slightly since).

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Some pages:
Open Problem Garden
The Open Problems Project

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[Removed the link to my open-problem page, which is more than a decade old; most of those problems are now solved.] –  JeffE Jun 22 '12 at 12:06

Can one prove the infinitude of the primes without employing any functions of super-polynomial growth?

(Of course I confess I have in mind Paris and Wilkie's more precise and sophisticated question concerning primes in the theory of bounded induction, but I think a high school student could think about looking for a positive answer without that background.)

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Where are functions of exponential growth used in the classical proof, or the Euler product + divergence of harmonic series? –  Douglas Zare Jun 24 '12 at 14:06
In the classical proof, the exponential growth is in the product of the known primes. See mathoverflow.net/questions/59262/… for a more precise discussion. In the Euler product proof, I imagine the growth occurs in the Chinese-remainder-theorem-based coding tricks necessary to express this proof in the language of first-order arithmetic, but I haven't thought this through carefully so maybe I'm totally off base. –  Henry Cohn Jun 24 '12 at 16:49
See also mathoverflow.net/questions/76058 . David, contrary to what you write, it is possible to define in bounded arithmetic a function computing rational approximations of logarithm. This does not imply that exponentiation is total, since there may be numbers greater that all values of logarithm. As for divergence of harmonic series, the problem is even to express this statement in bounded arithmetic: you cannot in general define $\sum_{n\le x}f(n)$ by a bounded formula, unless $x$ is logarithmic. –  Emil Jeřábek Jun 25 '12 at 11:35
Even if you restrict attention to small $x$, there is the question how do you formulate “divergence”. Bounded arithmetic certainly cannot prove that for every $y$, there exists $x$ such that $\sum_{n\le x}n^{-1}$ is defined and larger than $y$. However, I think that with appropriate formulations, it can prove that for every $y$, either there exists such an $x$, or all sums $\sum_{n\le x}n^{-1}$ that are defined have value less than, say, $y/2$ (which means the sum does not converge to $y$). Anyway, this is largely irrelevant. The real show-stopper in the proof using the Euler product is... –  Emil Jeřábek Jun 25 '12 at 11:52

The complexity of matrix multiplication (i.e. the asymptotic number of steps required to multiply two n-by-n matrices).

This is an important problem in CS theory, but is non-famous enough in other fields that a mathematician (Andrew Stothers) made a significant advance in it in 2010 (beating a 20-year-old bound of Coppersmith and Winograd), and wrote up the result on page 71 of his PhD thesis without bothering to state it as a theorem or otherwise call attention to it. Word of it only got around a year or so later, when a computer scientist (Virginia Vassilevska Williams) independently made a further improvement.

The obvious multiplication algorithm takes $O(n^3)$ steps, and a well-known Karatsuba-like rearrangement gets the exponent $\omega$ down to about 2.8. There is a simple proof that the smallest possible $\omega$ is $\ge 2$. Coppersmith and Winograd got an exponent of 2.376 and the more recent results have it at 2.373. Apparently nobody has even shown that the minimum is not equal to 2: there are some who believe there's an algorithm faster than $O(n^{2+\epsilon})$ for any $\epsilon>0$ but not an $O(n^2)$ algorithm, but this is not known.

More info is in this blog post of Scott Aaronson: http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=839

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I don't think this counts as "not especially famous"... –  Harry Altman Jul 24 '12 at 4:24

What is the largest possible volume of the convex hull of a space curve having unit length?

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It was discussed here: mathoverflow.net/questions/83026/… –  Vladimir Reshetnikov Jul 28 '12 at 21:10

Is there a rectangle that can be cut into $3$ congruent connected non-rectangular parts?

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Bonnesesn—Fenchel conjecture: Which body of constant width has the least volume? Is it Meissner's tetrahedron?

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The Polya--Szego conjecture for polygonal drums: among the polygonal drums with $n$ sides and given area, the regular one has the slowest vibration (and therefore the lowest tone).

As far as I know, this remains open for $n\geq 5$.

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Imre Ruzsa conjectured in 1971 (Mat. Lapok 22, in hungarian) that a congruence-preserving mapping $f : \mathbb{N} \to \mathbb{Z}$ is a polynomial as soon as the power series $A(t) := \sum_{n \in \mathbb{N}} f(n)t^n \in \mathbb{Z}[[t]]$ has radius of convergence $> 1/e$. (Congruence-preserving simply means $n-m \mid f(n)-f(m)$.)

This is still an open problem, although A. Perelli and U. Zannier have shown that the power series $A(t)$ must be $D$-finite ("On recurrent mod $p$ sequences," J. reine angew. Mat. 348, 1984). The best result on Ruzsa's problem is due to U. Zannier ("On periodic mod $p$ sequences and G-functions," Manuscripta math. 90, 1996).

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