I was just listening to the show "A Splendid Table" (which I'd recommend, if you're interested in food) in which they were discussing how to spot a good recipe: one which you can follow successfully and reinforces your confidence in your ability to cook. It occurred to me that since theorems/proof are like recipes (the best will prepare an intellectually tasty dish), that we could come up with an analogous checklist (with examples) for them.
Some theorems/proofs are like marvelous magic tricks which can excite and thrill you but leave you mystified as to how it's done ("How did he ever think of that?"). Others also inspire you and leave you with the feeling "I could do that". So I'd like examples of the latter. I don't have specific examples right now, but I was thinking that almost anything by Jean-Pierre Serre has that quality for me. Some might object that all of the details that I list below don't always belong in research papers, but should perhaps be relegated to text books or course notes. I'm not so sure. I've found proofs that could have been made much more accessible for me by adding only a few well-chosen remarks.
Here's what Lynne Rossetto Kasper (the host) gave
You can know ahead of time that a recipe will most likely work if you have a checklist of the key things to look for.
What key ideas, other definitions/theorems do you need to understand before launching into the proof?
One bright red flag is the extremely short recipe. It looks so easy and it can betray you in a nanosecond. That brevity often comes from cutting out the specific information you need to know to end up with something worth eating.
Some proofs are so polished and over simplified that they're like an intricate jewel box -- very pretty, but seem to be evanescent -- leave out one little piece and they fall apart.
Here's the rest of the list:
·Does the recipe tell you what you can prepare ahead?
·Does it tell you how to store the food and for how long?
I'm not sure how well this applies, but it might have to do with how to remember the theorem/proof.
·Are the ingredients specific -- not "1 pound beef," but "1 pound well-marbled beef chuck"?
·Do the instructions tell you ...
·What kind of pot and utensils to use?
What mathematical techniques are you using?
·The level of heat and/or the timing needed for each step?
I'm not so sure about this, but it might be -- into how much detail you need to go.
·What the food should look like, sound like, and/or smell like?
I find this quite interesting. This is a guide to tell how to know if your intuition is on the right track as you proceed.
·How to know if it's done?
A lot of times this is obvious, but there are a lot of proofs, at whose end, I'm forced to sit and think as to why it's finished!
·How to serve?
How to talk/write about this theorem/proof.