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Given the vast number of new papers / preprints that hit the internet everyday, one factor that may help papers stand out for a broader, though possibly more casual, audience is their title. This view was my motivation for asking this question almost 7 years ago (wow!), and it remains equally true today (those who subscribe to arXiv feeds, MO feeds, etc., may agree).


I was wondering if the MO-users would be willing to share their wisdom with me on what makes the title of a paper memorable for them; or perhaps just cite an example of title they find memorable?

This advice would be very helpful in helping me (and perhaps others) in designing better, more informative titles (not only for papers, but also for example, for MO questions).

One title that I find memorable is:

  • Nineteen dubious ways to compute the exponential of a matrix, by Moler and van Loan.

The response to this question has been quite huge. So, what have I learned from it? A few things at least. Here is my summary of the obvious: Amongst the various "memorable" titles reported, some of the following are true:

  1. A title can be memorable, attractive, or even both (to oversimplify a bit);
  2. A title becomes truly memorable if the accompanying paper had memorable substance
  3. A title can be attractive even without having memorable material.
  4. To reach the broadest audience, attractive titles are good, though mathematicians might sometimes feel irritated by needlessly cute titles
  5. Titles that are bold, are usually short, have an element of surprise, but do not depart too much from the truth seems to be more attractive in general. 5.101 Mathematical succinctness might appeal to some people---but is perhaps not that memorable for me---so perhaps such titles are attractive, but maybe not memorable.
  6. If you are a bigshot, you can get away with pretty much any title!
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    $\begingroup$ I'd have put in "A Contribution to the Mathematical Theory of Big Game Hunting" as an answer, but that's carrying a joke too far I think. $\endgroup$ – J. M. is not a mathematician Oct 31 '10 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ Entertaining as this list may be, I seriously doubt that it will be a useful prescriptive guide as to how to title one's papers. Editors' and readers' tastes also change over the years $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Oct 31 '10 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ Since this question seems to have turned into a big list of "memorable/amusing paper titles," ignoring the primary question "what makes the title of a paper memorable?", perhaps it might be helpful to re-ask that question but without the loophole "...or perhaps just cite an example of title they find memorable". $\endgroup$ – Mike Shulman Nov 1 '10 at 0:23
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    $\begingroup$ I have now caught a duplicate answer for the second time in as many days on this thread. To me this casts doubt on the usefulness of this thread, but I acknowledge that I have a long-standing bias against these types of questions, which from previous discussions on meta seems not to be shared by most people $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Nov 2 '10 at 1:19
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    $\begingroup$ For some reason no further answers can be posted, so let me share with you Continuing horrors of topology without choice by C. Good and I.J. Tree, and related to that Horrors of topology without AC: A nonnormal orderable space by E.K. van Douwen, Disasters in topology without the axiom of choice by K. Keremedis, Disasters in metric topology without choice by E. Tachtsis. $\endgroup$ – Martin Brandenburg May 23 '14 at 14:26

107 Answers 107

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Integrity of ghosts, by Gert Almkvist. Gert Almkvist's generalization of a mistake by Bourbaki, by Doron Zeilberger. (And a few more by the same author.) The Point of Pointless Topology, by Peter Johnstone. The absolute classic: Go To Statement Considered Harmful, by Edsger Dijkstra.

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  • $\begingroup$ Memorable, but that last one is a computer science paper... $\endgroup$ – J. M. is not a mathematician Nov 1 '10 at 0:15
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    $\begingroup$ $\mathrm{ComputerScience}\subset\mathrm{Math}$. $\endgroup$ – Mariano Suárez-Álvarez Nov 1 '10 at 3:18
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    $\begingroup$ Mariano, the Library of Congress agrees with you, QA76 $\subset$ QA. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Nov 1 '10 at 11:41
  • $\begingroup$ Dang, I was about to go post "The Point of Pointless Topology." Anyway, I'd give you +1 for for the Dijkstra paper alone $\endgroup$ – David White May 4 '11 at 16:43
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    $\begingroup$ "Disturbing the Dyson Conjecture (in a GOOD Way)" by Andrew V. Sills and Doron Zeilberger (Exp. Math. 15 (2006), 187-191) is especially GOOD. (To whom it concerns, "Good" is for "Jack Good", a combinatorialist.) $\endgroup$ – Wadim Zudilin Jul 11 '11 at 13:48
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I'm quite surprised that no one has mentioned The Joy of Sets.

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    $\begingroup$ Ah, that's what "The Joy of Cats" (a category theory book) referred to. $\endgroup$ – darij grinberg Nov 3 '10 at 11:48
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    $\begingroup$ Actually both book are spin on a famous book by Alex Comfort. Either way, the first edition of "The Joy of Cats" dealt with its theme very nicely. There were many illustrations featuring cats. $\endgroup$ – Michael Greinecker Nov 3 '10 at 11:57
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    $\begingroup$ In fact, the Alex Comfort book was based on Irma Rombauer’s classic cookbook “The Joy of Cooking”, from 1931. As far as I know, this meme goes back no further… $\endgroup$ – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Nov 18 '10 at 1:19
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H=W

It's a paper showing that two methods of defining Sobolev spaces, one which uses H's with subscripts and superscripts and one that uses W's, give rise to the same spaces.

Thanks to Willie Wong for the following:

Citation information

@ARTICLE{MeySer1964,
  author = {Meyers, Norman G. and Serrin, James},
  title = {{H = W}},
  journal = {Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA},
  year = {1964},
  volume = {51},
  pages = {1055-1056},
  number = {6},
  file = {MeySer1964.pdf:MeySer1964.pdf:PDF},
  owner = {ww278},
  timestamp = {2010.05.03},
  url = {http://www.pnas.org/content/51/6/1055.short}
}
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  • $\begingroup$ I added the citation info, since this is CW, I just pasted it in, hope you don't mind. $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Oct 31 '10 at 22:34
  • $\begingroup$ (BTW, this was also the first thing that came to mind when I read the title of this question.) $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Oct 31 '10 at 22:35
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J.-M. FONTAINE Il n'y a pas de variété abélienne sur Z Invent. Math. (1985) 81, 515-538

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OK, fine... I'll confess I could not resist downloading from the arxiv the paper Act globally, compute locally: group actions, fixed points, and localization. I don't know if it quite fits the question though, since I never read it (beyond the first couple of pages). It's just way too far outside of my main interests.

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You'd think that with John H. Conway around, this should be like shooting fish in a barrel. One title that comes to mind is

  • The Sensual (Quadratic) Form

and there are more goodies if you look at his bibliography. For example,

  • Character Calisthenics

or

  • The $\sqrt{\text{Monster}}$ Construction

I also like the paper (both the title and the contents!) by Andreas Blass,

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Todd's "The 'odd' number six."

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Addictive Number Theory, by Melvyn B. Nathanson.

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    $\begingroup$ This is the title of the introductory chapter to Additive Number Theory: Festschrift in Honor of the Sixtieth Birthday of Melvyn B Nathanson. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Nov 16 '10 at 6:26
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"Footnote To a Note of Davenport and Heilbronn" by J. W. S. Cassels.

http://jlms.oxfordjournals.org/content/s1-36/1/177.extract

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    $\begingroup$ I'm afraid I don't get it. It's a nice paper, certainly, but what's memorable about the title? $\endgroup$ – Pete L. Clark Oct 31 '10 at 17:43
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps it is because "footnote to a note" makes one imagine the entire paper as written in a tiny, tiny font? $\endgroup$ – Daniel Litt Oct 31 '10 at 22:43
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    $\begingroup$ Or that the entire paper is a footnote? $\endgroup$ – adamo Nov 1 '10 at 11:55
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    $\begingroup$ @adamo: Two students in our institute wrote their master thesis based on a book written with typewriter in which a footnote roughly in the middle never ended and became the main text. $\endgroup$ – j.p. Nov 3 '10 at 20:57
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Approximately counting up to four, by Luby and Vigoda.

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I don't think $\textbf{L'endoscopie tordue n'est pas si tordue}$ (Twisted endoscopy is not so twisted) de J.-L. Waldspurger has been mentioned yet.

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Paul Halmos' Applied Mathematics is Bad Mathematics is certainly a memorable title, notwithstanding the wrong-headedness of what at least superficially appears to be its thesis.

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Lovasz's "Hit and Run Is Fast and Fun". In that he proved the hit run algorithm on sampling from log concave distributions on a convex set in the Euclidean space has a polynomial mixing time, hence fast.

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"Fun with $\mathbb{F}_{1}$"

http://arxiv.org/abs/0806.2401

Quite a decent pun, I think.

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My memory is marked by the titles of two papers by Branko Grünbaum:

  1. Branko Grünbaum. `Are your polyhedra the same as my polyhedra?' Discrete and comput. Geom.: the Goodman-Pollack Festschrift, ed. B. Aronov et al, Springer (2003), pp. 461-488.

  2. Branko Grünbaum. `The Bilinski Dodecahedron and Assorted Parallelohedra, Zonohedra, Monohedra, Isozonohedra, and Otherhedra'. The Mathematical Intelligencer (2010). DOI: 10.1007/s00283-010-9138-7.

The first title is easy for me to recall whenever I need to refer to the paper. The second title sounds fancy (though the article itself is not) and, more importantly, is unpronounceable by me, therefore I have put some stretch of mental effort into memorising it.

As to the original question---What makes the title of a paper memorable?---, personally, when I look for things to read, my attention tends to be captured by titles that are short and sweet, for instance, Jean-Pierre Serre's Trees, Ken Brown's Buildings. These monographs/papers usually turn out to be the authorative treaties of the topics, with material unforgettable for one working in the field.

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On the Dreaded Right Bousfield Localization by C. Barwick.

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One of my favorite titles from control theory is a 1978 paper by John Doyle entitled "Guaranteed Margins for LQG Regulators." It is memorable because of the abstract "There are none." The paper shows that optimal controls may be fragile; the 3-word abstract says it all.

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Why Knot? by Colin Adams.

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  • $\begingroup$ Who is the author? $\endgroup$ – Gjergji Zaimi Jul 11 '11 at 13:48
  • $\begingroup$ That was a good question! I am far from the business but saw the title on a desk of a colleague in Bonn about 4 years ago. The title was easily memorizable but not the name. I googled the latter... $\endgroup$ – Wadim Zudilin Jul 11 '11 at 13:57
  • $\begingroup$ There's also a set of notes for a knot theory course by Justin Roberts, called "Knot Knotes". $\endgroup$ – Marco Golla Aug 23 '11 at 11:55
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I've always enjoyed the poetry of the title:

"Period three implies chaos" -- T.-Y. Li & J. A. Yorke

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Noone beats Mick gets some (the odds are on his side) by V. Chvatal and B. Reed. It is an article about the satisfiability problem, and the title is of course referring to this song. I havn't read the article, and the only reason I know the it is its title.

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The hunting of the Hopf ring
Andrew Stacey and Sarah Whitehouse
Homology, Homotopy and Applications, Vol. 11 (2009), No. 2, pp.75-132.

referencing this poem. Much more memorable than the related works by the same authors:

Andrew Stacey and Sarah Whitehouse, Tall-Wraith monoids, in preparation, 2009.

Andrew Stacey and Sarah Whitehouse, Stable and unstable operations in mod p cohomology theories, Algebr. Geom. Topol. 8(2) (2008), 1059– 1091.

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Ben Andrews' : "Gauss curvature flow: the fate of the rolling stones"

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From the top of my head comes the papers

But also, Cox & Zucker, who in Intersection numbers of sections of elliptic surfaces creates the algorithm later named the Cox-Zucker machine

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Ideals and reality

projective modules and number of generators of ideals

By Friedrich Ischebeck and Ravi A. Rao

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There are some rather obvious aspects to the question that perhaps should be mentioned.

"For a large number of readers, the choice whether they select to read a paper or not is often strongly influenced by the title."

Yes, but it is also strongly influenced by the abstract and introduction.

"I was wondering if the MO-users would be willing to share their wisdom with me on what makes the title of a paper memorable for them; or perhaps just cite an example of title they find memorable?"

Since most answers refereed to the second part, perhaps it is worth answering the first part of the question as well. Perhaps the main thing that makes the title (and paper) memorable is the content of the paper.

"This advice would be very helpful in helping me (and perhaps others) in designing better, more informative titles (not only for papers, but also for example, for MO questions)."

Overall, the reaction in the mathematics community to catchy titles, personal descriptions, jokes of various kind, and various other things that can be seen as PR-related or "salesmenship" are mixed. So while it is always good to have a clear title having an overlly catchy title can also backfire.

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    $\begingroup$ I think given the papers that I have seen being cited here, a conservative moral might be: the more powerful the content (or the writer) of the paper, the bolder the title one may select. More important to me is to figure out a good balance between catchyness, precision, and informativeness. I would not want to sacrifice the latter two in favor of the first one, unless I had a breakthrough result. $\endgroup$ – Suvrit Nov 5 '10 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ I would put it more strongly: if you are in the position that the community won't mind your papers having catchy titles, then you probably aren't reading MO to get advice. $\endgroup$ – Arend Bayer Nov 5 '10 at 18:25
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A Tale of Two Sieves by Carl Pomerance

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There was the fuss about The Yellow Cake, a joint paper of Saharon Shelah and Andrzej Roslanowski.

They also co-authored several other funnily titled papers, amongst them are such names as:

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Street-Fighting Mathematics by Sanjoy Mahajan is about estimation, Fermi calculations, dimensional analysis and so on.

I haven't read it yet, but the title was certainly enough to get me to download it.

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  • $\begingroup$ The link you provide doesn't work. can you, please, fix it? $\endgroup$ – Sasha Patotski Aug 17 '13 at 15:52
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Al Capone and the Death Ray by R. C. Lyness

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    $\begingroup$ Wow. If you have access to JSTOR: jstor.org/stable/3606559 $\endgroup$ – Gil Kalai Nov 4 '10 at 15:47
  • $\begingroup$ The abstract says, in part, "After illustrating some of the methods by which difficult-looking results can be obtained simply, I shall obtain a simple-looking result with difficulty and ask for an easier way of getting it." $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Jul 26 '17 at 11:32

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