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380 votes
79 answers

Proofs without words

Can you give examples of proofs without words? In particular, can you give examples of proofs without words for non-trivial results? (One could ask if this is of interest to mathematicians, and I ...
978 votes
281 answers

Examples of common false beliefs in mathematics

The first thing to say is that this is not the same as the question about interesting mathematical mistakes. I am interested about the type of false beliefs that many intelligent people have while ...
103 votes
10 answers

What are the benefits of writing vector inner products as $\langle u, v\rangle$ as opposed to $u^T v$?

In a lot of computational math, operations research, such as algorithm design for optimization problems and the like, authors like to use $$\langle \cdot, \cdot \rangle$$ as opposed to $$(\cdot)^T (\...
183 votes
3 answers

Issue UPDATE: in graph theory, different definitions of edge crossing numbers - impact on applications?

QUICK FINAL UPDATE: Just wanted to thank you MO users for all your support. Special thanks for the fast answers, I've accepted first one, appreciated the clarity it gave me. I've updated my torus ...
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95 votes
2 answers

Perfectly centered break of a perfectly aligned pool ball rack

Imagine the beginning of a game of pool, you have 16 balls, 15 of them in a triangle <| and 1 of them being the cue ball off to the left of that triangle. Imagine that the rack (the 15 balls in a ...
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  • 989
235 votes
29 answers

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 ...
251 votes
29 answers

Mathematical games interesting to both you and a 5+-year-old child

Background: My daughter is 6 years old now, once I wanted to think on some math (about some Young diagrams), but she wanted to play with me... How to make both of us to do what they want ? I guess ...
265 votes
45 answers

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 ...
39 votes
8 answers

The factorial of -1, -2, -3,

Well, $n!$ is for integer $n < 0$ not defined — as yet. So the question is: How could a sensible generalization of the factorial for negative integers look like? Clearly a good generalization ...
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  • 1,006
410 votes
89 answers

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 ...
80 votes
12 answers

If you break a stick at two points chosen uniformly, the probability the three resulting sticks form a triangle is 1/4. Is there a nice proof of this?

There is a standard problem in elementary probability that goes as follows. Consider a stick of length 1. Pick two points uniformly at random on the stick, and break the stick at those points. What ...
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99 votes
16 answers

Theorems that are essentially impossible to guess by empirical observation

There are many mathematical statements that, despite being supported by a massive amount of data, are currently unproven. A well-known example is the Goldbach conjecture, which has been shown to hold ...
80 votes
19 answers

Reading list for basic differential geometry?

I'd like to ask if people can point me towards good books or notes to learn some basic differential geometry. I work in representation theory mostly and have found that sometimes my background is ...
224 votes
37 answers

Best algebraic geometry textbook? (other than Hartshorne)

I think (almost) everyone agrees that Hartshorne's Algebraic Geometry is still the best. Then what might be the 2nd best? It can be a book, preprint, online lecture note, webpage, etc. One suggestion ...
229 votes
36 answers

Conway's lesser-known results

John Horton Conway is known for many achievements: Life, the three sporadic groups in the "Conway constellation," surreal numbers, his "Look-and-Say" sequence analysis, the Conway-Schneeberger $15$-...
161 votes
8 answers

The "Dzhanibekov effect" - an exercise in mechanics or fiction? Explain mathematically a video from a space station

The question briefly: Can one explain the "Dzhanibekov effect" (see youtube videos from space station or comments below) on the basis of the standard rigid body dynamics using Euler's equations? (Or ...
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340 votes
51 answers

Widely accepted mathematical results that were later shown to be wrong?

Are there 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 later, possibly ...
221 votes
8 answers

Need advice or assistance for son who is in prison. His interest is scattering theory

The letter below is written by my son. I have been sending him text books and looking for answers on the internet to keep his interest up. He has progressed so far on his own and now he needs ...
77 votes
21 answers

How would you have answered Richard Feynman's challenge?

Reading the autobiography of Richard Feynman, I struck upon the following paragraphs, in which Feynman recall when, as a student of the Princeton physics department, he used to challenge the students ...
176 votes
34 answers

What is convolution intuitively?

If random variable $X$ has a probability distribution of $f(x)$ and random variable $Y$ has a probability distribution $g(x)$ then $(f*g)(x)$, the convolution of $f$ and $g$, is the probability ...
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  • 3,433
192 votes
13 answers

Why doesn't mathematics collapse even though humans quite often make mistakes in their proofs?

To begin with, I am aware of these questions, which seems to be related: How do I fix someone's published error?, Examples of common false beliefs in mathematics, When have we lost a body of ...
51 votes
14 answers

Modern results that are widely known, yet which at the time were ignored, not accepted or criticized

What is your favorite example of a celebrated mathematical fact that had a hard time to become accepted by the community, but after overcoming some initial "resistance" quickly took on? It ...
290 votes
8 answers

Philosophy behind Mochizuki's work on the ABC conjecture

Mochizuki has recently announced a proof of the ABC conjecture. It is far too early to judge its correctness, but it builds on many years of work by him. Can someone briefly explain the philosophy ...
353 votes
110 answers

Not especially famous, long-open problems which anyone can understand

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 ...
76 votes
12 answers

What practical applications does set theory have?

I am a non-mathematician. I'm reading up on set theory. It's fascinating, but I wonder if it's found any 'real-world' applications yet. For instance, in high school when we were learning the ...
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  • 779
278 votes
122 answers

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

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 ...
80 votes
12 answers

Why is the gradient normal?

This is a somewhat long discussion so please bear with me. There is a theorem that I have always been curious about from an intuitive standpoint and that has been glossed over in most textbooks I ...
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  • 3,433
181 votes
47 answers

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 ...
409 votes
16 answers

Why do roots of polynomials tend to have absolute value close to 1?

While playing around with Mathematica I noticed that most polynomials with real coefficients seem to have most complex zeroes very near the unit circle. For instance, if we plot all the roots of a ...
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  • 43.4k
112 votes
8 answers

Breakthroughs in mathematics in 2021

This is somehow a general (and naive) question, but as specialized mathematicians we usually miss important results outside our area of research. So, generally speaking, which have been important ...
108 votes
89 answers

Tweetable Mathematics

Update: Please restrict your answers to "tweets" that give more than just the statement of the result, and give also the essence (or a useful hint) of the argument/novelty. I am looking for ...
155 votes
2 answers

Estimating the size of solutions of a diophantine equation

A. Is there natural numbers $a,b,c$ such that $\frac{a}{b+c} + \frac{b}{a+c} + \frac{c}{a+b}$ is equal to an odd natural number ? (I do not know any such numbers). B. Suppose that $\frac{a}{b+c} + \...
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  • 1,691
81 votes
9 answers

Why do we make such big deal about the 'unsolvability' of the quintic?

The unsolvability of a general quintic equation in terms of the basic arithmetic operations and $n$th roots (i.e. the Abel–Ruffini theorem) is considered a major result in the mathematical canon. I ...
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  • 1,158
143 votes
31 answers

What are the most misleading alternate definitions in taught mathematics?

I suppose this question can be interpreted in two ways. It is often the case that two or more equivalent (but not necessarily semantically equivalent) definitions of the same idea/object are used in ...
156 votes
46 answers

Every mathematician has only a few tricks

In Gian-Carlo Rota's "Ten lessons I wish I had been taught" he has a section, "Every mathematician has only a few tricks", where he asserts that even mathematicians like Hilbert ...
329 votes
30 answers

Geometric interpretation of trace

This afternoon I was speaking with some graduate students in the department and we came to the following quandary; Is there a geometric interpretation of the trace of a matrix? This question ...
196 votes
30 answers

Real-world applications of mathematics, by arxiv subject area?

What are the most important applications outside of mathematics of each of the major fields of mathematics? For concreteness, let's divide up mathematics according to arxiv mathematics categories, e.g....
138 votes
5 answers

What makes dependent type theory more suitable than set theory for proof assistants?

In his talk, The Future of Mathematics, Dr. Kevin Buzzard states that Lean is the only existing proof assistant suitable for formalizing all of math. In the Q&A part of the talk (at 1:00:00) he ...
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  • 1,457
121 votes
14 answers

What are some noteworthy "mic-drop" moments in math?

Oftentimes in math the manner in which a solution to a problem is announced becomes a significant chapter/part of the lore associated with the problem, almost being remembered more than the manner in ...
219 votes
14 answers

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 ...
162 votes
50 answers

17 camels trick

The following popular mathematical parable is well known: A father left 17 camels to his three sons and, according to the will, the eldest son should be given a half of all camels, the middle son ...
59 votes
19 answers

Suggestions for a good Measure Theory book

I have taken analysis and have looked at different measures, but I am currently looking at realizing a certain problem in a different light and feel that I need a better background in various measures ...
191 votes
25 answers

The most outrageous (or ridiculous) conjectures in mathematics

The purpose of this question is to collect the most outrageous (or ridiculous) conjectures in mathematics. An outrageous conjecture is qualified ONLY if: 1) It is most likely false (Being hopeless is ...
55 votes
8 answers

Example of a good Zero Knowledge Proof.

I am working on my zero knowledge proofs and I am looking for a good example of a real world proof of this type. An even better answer would be a Zero Knowledge Proof that shows the statement isn't ...
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  • 569
211 votes
20 answers

How can a mathematician handle the pressure to discover something new?

Suppose I'm an aspiring mathematician-to-be, who started doing research. Although this is really what I love doing, I found that one disturbing point is that there's always the pressure of discovering ...
125 votes
19 answers

Periods and commas in mathematical writing

I just realized that I am a barbarian when it comes to writing. But I am not entirely sure, so this might be the right place to ask. When typing display-mode formulae do you guys add a period after ...
222 votes
46 answers

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. Poincaré's 3d sphere characterization or the search to prove ...
167 votes
39 answers

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?
8 votes
6 answers

Lorentzian vs Gaussian Fitting Functions

This is probably too general a question to ask without some specific context, but I'm going to give it a shot anyway: What are the practical differences between using a Lorentzian function and using ...
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174 votes
61 answers

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 ...