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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 further basic or central examples and I think such examples serve as good invitations to various areas. (Which is why a bounty was offered.)


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To make this question and the various examples a more useful source there is a designated answer to point out connections between the various examples we collected.


In order to make it a more useful source, I list all the answers in categories, and added (for most) a date and (for 2/5) a link to the answer which often offers more details. (~year means approximate year, *year means a year when an older example becomes central in view of some discovery, year? means that I am not sure if this is the correct year and ? means that I do not know the date. Please edit and correct.) Of course, if you see some important example missing, add it!

Logic and foundations: $\aleph_\omega$ (~1890), Russell's paradox (1901), Halting problem (1936), Goedel constructible universe L (1938), McKinsey formula in modal logic (~1941), 3SAT (*1970), The theory of Algebraically closed fields (ACF) (?),

Physics: Brachistochrone problem (1696), Ising model (1925), The harmonic oscillator,(?) Dirac's delta function (1927), Heisenberg model of 1-D chain of spin 1/2 atoms, (~1928), Feynman path integral (1948),

Real and Complex Analysis: Harmonic series (14th Cen.) {and Riemann zeta function (1859)}, the Gamma function (1720), li(x), The elliptic integral that launched Riemann surfaces (*1854?), Chebyshev polynomials (?1854) punctured open set in C^n (Hartog's theorem *1906 ?)

Partial differential equations: Laplace equation (1773), the heat equation, wave equation, Navier-Stokes equation (1822),KdV equations (1877),

Functional analysis: Unilateral shift, The spaces $\ell_p$, $L_p$ and $C(k)$, Tsirelson spaces (1974), Cuntz algebra,

Algebra: Polynomials (ancient?), Z (ancient?) and Z/6Z (Middle Ages?), symmetric and alternating groups (*1832), Gaussian integers ($Z[\sqrt -1]$) (1832), $Z[\sqrt(-5)]$,$su_3$ ($su_2)$, full matrix ring over a ring, $\operatorname{SL}_2(\mathbb{Z})$ and SU(2), quaternions (1843), p-adic numbers (1897), Young tableaux (1900) and Schur polynomials, cyclotomic fields, Hopf algebras (1941) Fischer-Griess monster (1973), Heisenberg group, ADE-classification (and Dynkin diagrams), Prufer p-groups,

Number Theory: conics and pythagorean triples (ancient), Fermat equation (1637), Riemann zeta function (1859) elliptic curves, transcendental numbers, Fermat hypersurfaces,

Probability: Normal distribution (1733), Brownian motion (1827), The percolation model (1957), The Gaussian Orthogonal Ensemble, the Gaussian Unitary Ensemble, and the Gaussian Symplectic Ensemble, SLE (1999),

Dynamics: Logistic map (1845?), Smale's horseshoe map(1960). Mandelbrot set (1978/80) (Julia set), cat map, (Anosov diffeomorphism)

Geometry: Platonic solids (ancient), the Euclidean ball (ancient), The configuration of 27 lines on a cubic surface, The configurations of Desargues and Pappus, construction of regular heptadecagon (*1796), Hyperbolic geometry (1830), Reuleaux triangle (19th century), Fano plane (early 20th century ??), cyclic polytopes (1902), Delaunay triangulation (1934) Leech lattice (1965), Penrose tiling (1974), noncommutative torus, cone of positive semidefinite matrices, the associahedron (1961)

Topology: Spheres, Figure-eight knot (ancient), trefoil knot (ancient?) (Borromean rings (ancient?)), the torus (ancient?), Mobius strip (1858), Cantor set (1883), Projective spaces (complex, real, quanterionic..), Poincare dodecahedral sphere (1904), Homotopy group of spheres, Alexander polynomial (1923), Hopf fibration (1931), The standard embedding of the torus in R^3 (*1934 in Morse theory), pseudo-arcs (1948), Discrete metric spaces, Sorgenfrey line, Complex projective space, the cotangent bundle (?), The Grassmannian variety,homotopy group of spheres (*1951), Milnor exotic spheres (1965)

Graph theory: The seven bridges of Koenigsberg (1735), Petersen Graph (1886), two edge-colorings of K_6 (Ramsey's theorem 1930), K_33 and K_5 (Kuratowski's theorem 1930), Tutte graph (1946), Margulis's expanders (1973) and Ramanujan graphs (1986),

Combinatorics: tic-tac-toe (ancient Egypt(?)) (The game of nim (ancient China(?))), Pascal's triangle (China and Europe 17th), Catalan numbers (18th century), (Fibonacci sequence (12th century; probably ancient), Kirkman's schoolgirl problem (1850), surreal numbers (1969), alternating sign matrices (1982)

Algorithms and Computer Science: Newton Raphson method (17th century), Turing machine (1937), RSA (1977), universal quantum computer (1985)

Social Science: Prisoner's dilemma (1950) (and also the chicken game, chain store game, and centipede game), the model of exchange economy, second price auction (1961)

Statistics: the Lady Tasting Tea (?1920), Agricultural Field Experiments (Randomized Block Design, Analysis of Variance) (?1920), Neyman-Pearson lemma (?1930), Decision Theory (?1940), the Likelihood Function (?1920), Bootstrapping (?1975)

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    $\begingroup$ I think that this should be community wiki. $\endgroup$ – Loop Space Nov 11 '09 at 7:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Jose: Hard to say exactly. My instinct is that the kind of answers that this question will garner are those that didn't involve much actual thought, and the votes up or down will be more an assessment of whether the voter liked the example rather than whether the voter liked the answer (which, ideally, should contain an explanation of why that example shaped the discipline); both of these indicate that the answerers should not gain reputation for their answers, hence community wiki. $\endgroup$ – Loop Space Nov 11 '09 at 9:50
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    $\begingroup$ I've hit this with the wiki hammer. $\endgroup$ – Scott Morrison Nov 11 '09 at 19:34
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    $\begingroup$ I can't imagine a counterexample to the following rule: Any question whose purpose is to produce a sorted list of resources (i.e. the question includes, or should include, "one per post please") should be community wiki. $\endgroup$ – Anton Geraschenko Nov 12 '09 at 8:03
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    $\begingroup$ Why does this question have a bounty anyway? $\endgroup$ – Kevin H. Lin Nov 21 '09 at 17:33

141 Answers 141

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Heisenberg model of 1-D chain of spin 1/2 atoms, solved exactly by Bethe in 1931, is where Bethe Ansatz was born, and with it the field of integrable models in statistical and quantum mechanics.

Answered by Mio

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The Lorenz system of ordinary differential equations: $$\dot x=\sigma(y-x)$$ $$\dot y = rx-y-xz$$ $$\dot z = xy-bz$$ ($\sigma$, $r$, $b$ are parameters) is a good example in dynamical system. It is an example of a deterministic system displaying chaotic behaviour. Also the Lorenz attractor. Date: 1963.

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Dirichlet Function is a fundamental example in Calculus where Riemann integral does not work. It is also a function which is discontinuous everywhere. The function D(x) is defined as D(x) = 1, if x is a rational number; otherwise D(x) = 0.

For more information, see for example: http://mathworld.wolfram.com/DirichletFunction.html

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In $C^*$-algebras, the Cuntz Algebra is a fundamental example of a separable unital $C^*$-algebra. Its appearance has reshaped much of the theory of $C^*$-algebras.

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  • $\begingroup$ You probably want to say something about it being simple and infinite and nuclear, as well... $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Nov 22 '09 at 14:10
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The image of a torus embedded in $\mathbb{R}^3$ tilted on its side is the fundamental example of Morse Theory. In some sense it shows why you should "believe" all of the Morse lemmas before you sit down to prove them.

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I think the question of whether or not $li(x) := \int_{2}^{x} \frac{dt}{\ln(t)}$ was contained in $\mathbb{C}\left(x, \ln\left(x\right)\right)$ spawned the field of galois theory of differential equations. One key question in this field, is what sort of extensions arise from adjoining solutions to a differential equation with coefficients in some ring (for example $\mathbb{C}(x)$?

In the case of the original question it can be posed as what extension arises from the differential equation $$\ln(x)y' = 1?$$

This field developed in parallel to galois theory of number fields (and other algebraic geometry, and arithmetic geometry). A good reference for the field is the aptly titled "Galois Theory of Linear Differential Equations" by Marius Van der Put and Michael Singer.

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  • $\begingroup$ In case it is not clear why this function is interesting, it is asymptotic to $\pi(x)$, the number of primes less than x. $\endgroup$ – Ben Weiss Nov 24 '09 at 5:44
  • $\begingroup$ This reminds me that we did not include any number in our list. Probably pi and e are too fundamental, but the Euler constant could be a candidate. $\endgroup$ – Gil Kalai Nov 24 '09 at 6:05
  • $\begingroup$ The question of whether li(x) is contained in C(x,ln(x)) reduces at once to the transcendence of ln(x) over C(x), which is easy to prove. So perhaps you mean the question of whether li(x) is an elementary function. Questions similar to this were indeed the root of Liouville's theory of elementary integrals. $\endgroup$ – lhf Nov 25 '09 at 1:31
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Theorem on Friends and strangers in Ramsey Theory.

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  • $\begingroup$ In other words, $R(3,3)$, starting point for all of Ramsey Theory. We should probably include the closely-related Happy Ending Problem ( en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happy_ending_problem ) for its additional role in kicking off Discrete Geometry. $\endgroup$ – anonymous_coward May 16 '19 at 18:05
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Some of the examples above have indeed shaped whole "disciplines" but others, as striking as they are, are less sweeping in scope.

For me, a very important and thought provoking example, and historically important for a variety of reasons is the Tutte graph. This graph shows a 3-valent 3-polytopal graph which has no hamiltonian circuit. This example, in particular, doomed attempts to prove the 4-color theorem based on ideas related to hamiltonian circuits.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tutte_graph

http://mathworld.wolfram.com/TuttesGraph.html

It inspired a great variety of conjectures and work related to hamiltonian circuits for polytopes.

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    $\begingroup$ A very nice example. It is true that the examples vary in terms of importance and also in terms of how large we understand the concept of an "example". $\endgroup$ – Gil Kalai Dec 6 '09 at 6:49
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To make this question and the various examples a more useful source this is a designated answer to point out connections between the various examples we collected. please indicate only strong, definite, nontrivial, and clear connections.

1) The Petersen graph is obtained by identifying antipodal vertices and edges in the graph of the dodecahedron - one of the five platonic solids. Such an identification gives a polyhedral complex realizing the real projective plane. Applying this operation to the icosahedron leads to a 6-vertex triangulation of the real projective plane.

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The cyclotomic field $\mathbb{Q}(\zeta_p)/\mathbb{Q}$ is the most basic example of a field extension in which splitting of primes depends on an obvious congruence condition. Specifically, if $\ell$ is another prime, then the Frobenius of $\ell$ is $\ell \mod p \in (\mathbb{Z}/p)^\times = \mathrm{Gal}(\mathbb{Q}(\zeta_p)/\mathbb{Q})$. In particular, $\ell$ splits in the field iff its Frobenius is trivial, and this is true iff $\ell \equiv 1 \mod p$. We can then relate other congruences to splitting in subfields of $\mathbb{Q}(\zeta_p)$, etc. The theorems of global class field theory show that this basic concept holds in a very general case, although the general case is much harder to prove. This basic example, does, however, motivate the ideas in class field theory, which have greatly influenced modern number theory and related areas. (As an added note, the fact that the Artin reciprocity law is true for cyclotomic fields is actually a key ingredient in the proof for general abelian extensions!)

Answered by Davidac897

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The semicircular law and the Marchenko-Pastur distribution are fundamental examples of probability distributions in random matrix theory.

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The hyperfinite $\mathrm{II}_1$ factor $\mathcal{R}$ and its ultrapower $\mathcal{R}^{\omega}$ are fundamental examples in von Neumann algebras and Connes' embedding problem.

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The free group factors $L(\mathbb{F}_{n})$, which are the closer in the weak operator topology of the left regular representation of the free group $\mathbb{F}_n$, are fundamental examples in von Neumann algebras. The isomorphism question is the root of the so important Free Probability theory of Voiculescu.

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The example that launched category theory: (co)homology, for example simplicial homology and Čech cohomology. The various maps linking (co)homology groups for different 'resolutions' of a topological space (by triangulation or open sets resp.) were I think the first examples of natural transformations. This necessitated defining functors, and hence defining categories.

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Linear Algebra: In linear algebra the symmetric group $S_n=Bij(\{1,,n\})$ is a classical and important example if you learn basics in group theory.

Operator-algebra/ functional-analysis: Fundamental examples of $C^*$-algebras are $C(X)$ ( continuous functions on a compact Haudorff space X), $C_0(X)$ ( continuous functions vanishing at infinity on a localcompact Haudorff space X), $B(H)$ (bounded linear maps on a Hilbert space H). By Gelfand-Naimark you know a lot of abstract $C^*$algebras if you know these concrete examples.

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Margulis's expanders: This class of 8 regular graphs is the first explicit example for a family of expanders. The vertices are pairs of integer modulo m, the neighbors of (x,y) are (x+y,y), (x-y,y), (x,y+x), (x,y-x), (x+y+1,y), (x-y+1,y), (x, y+x+1), (x,y-x+1). All operations are modulo m.

Expanders were first discovered and constucted probabilistically by Pinsker. The Ramanujan graphs of Lubotzky, Philips and Sarnak are expanders with extremely good properties. This paper by Hoory, Linial and Wigderson contains much more information.

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Category theory: There is an isomorphism between a vector space and its double-dual which does not depend on choice of basis. It is natural in the sense that every vector space has such an isomorphism, and these isomorphisms commute with every linear transformation.

This should be contrasted between the isomorphisms between a finite-dimensional vector space and its dual. These depend on a choice of basis and are not natural in this sense.

This example constitutes the first two paragraphs of the first paper in category theory! Eilenberg-Mac Lane: General theory of natural equivalences.

In Categories for the working mathematician, Mac Lane writes that the purpose of discussing categories is to discuss functors, and that the purpose of discussing functors is to discuss natural transformations.

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Weierstrass's example of a continuous, nowhere differentiable real function -- apparently was a real surprise at the time and is still surprising to students.

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The existence of dense open sets of small measure -- very counterintuitive and allows for all sorts of mischief.

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In number theory: the diophantine equation

$a^2-b^3=c$.

This equation can be seen as an epitome of modern number theory, despite its deceptive simplicity.

This equation is not 'fully' understood to this day. But much about it is understood.

This equation is a recurring theme in the award-winning article

Graham Everest, Tom Ward: A Repulsion Motif in Diophantine Equations. The American Mathematical Monthly, vol. 118, no. 7, August-September 2011, pp. 584-598.

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Ravi Vakil gives interesting examples in algebraic geometry: "The existence of some of these pathologies is ``common knowledge'', but I had never known what they were.".

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Although this may fall foul of the criticism that it perhaps it has not shaped a subject yet, I'll give it the benefit of the doubt that it may still shape a future subject. In a way the answer touches two answers already given: the Platonic solids and also the quaternions.

I am talking about the ADE classification, which appears in the theory of Lie algebras, finite subgroups of $SU(2)$ (McKay correspondence), representation theory of quivers (Gabriel's theorem), singularity theory (Du Val), classification of conformal field theories,...

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The arithmetics of conics with pythagorean triples is since long been used as toy model for the beautifull combination of arithmetics, analysis and geometry in the study of algebraic curves, but Lemmermeyer's "Conics - a Poor Man's Elliptic Curves" and his subsequent arxiv articles pushes the "toy" into the direction of a "fundamental example" for some fascinating issues.

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Spheres (of various dimensions) are the fundamental examples of (compact) Riemannian manifolds (or even Alexandrov spaces) of curvature > 0. Several major theorems of Riemannian geometry were motivated by the question of how to recognize a sphere. Most recently this culminated in Brendle and Schoen's proof of the differentiable sphere theorem.

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Three related fundamental examples in random matrix theory (in mathematical physics and probability) are the Gaussian Orthogonal Ensemble, the Gaussian Unitary Ensemble, and the Gaussian Symplectic Ensemble. Much of random matrix theory has been devoted to determining the properties of these families of random matrices and proving that other families exhibit the same behaviors.

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The discovery of Transcendental numbers, or numbers that are not the root of any finite polynomial with rational coefficients.
Also, the proof that e and π were transcendental, the latter via the proof that ea is only algebraic for transcendental values of a (and e*i*π = -1 is algebraic, as is i, so therefore π must be transcendental). Their discovery, as well as the first explicitly created example, the Liouville number, sparked what's called "Transcendence theory".
And as it turns out, any randomly chosen real number is "almost surely" transcendental. In other words, the density of transcendental numbers among the real numbers is 1!!

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$\mathbb{Q}_{p}$. The field of p-adic numbers brings the study of local methods. Hensel's lemma is a great example. It is also interesting that p-adic integers is the projective limit of the rings $\mathbb{Z}/p^{n}\mathbb{Z}$.

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The (complex analytic) proof of the Prime Number Theorem is the first major use of complex analysis to prove results about asymptotic behavior of prime numbers, which, at first glance, do not at all seem to be tied to complex numbers. This has led to an enormous amount of mathematics.

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The field extension $\mathbb{Q}(\sqrt[3]{2})/\mathbb{Q}$ is the most basic example of an algebraic extension which is not Galois. In particular, one notices that it has no non-trivial automorphisms, and that this is related to the fact that not enough of the roots of $x^3-2$ are in this field. This leads to the key concept of Galois extensions and the relation between automorphisms and roots. It also led Galois to develop the concept of normal subgroup.

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I think no one's pointed Lorenz equations.

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    $\begingroup$ Can you explain or add a link, please? $\endgroup$ – Gil Kalai Feb 21 '11 at 19:54

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