Questions tagged [soft-question]

Questions that are about research in mathematics, or about the job of a research mathematician, without being mathematical problems or statements in the strictest sense. Do not use this tag for easy or supposedly easy mathematical questions.

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361
votes
81answers
128k views

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 ...
340
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22answers
50k views

Thinking and Explaining

How big a gap is there between how you think about mathematics and what you say to others? Do you say what you're thinking? Please give either personal examples of how your thoughts and words differ, ...
302
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47answers
92k views

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 ...
282
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22answers
88k views

Why do so many textbooks have so much technical detail and so little enlightenment? [closed]

I think/hope this is okay for MO. I often find that textbooks provide very little in the way of motivation or context. As a simple example, consider group theory. Every textbook I have seen that ...
258
votes
16answers
112k views

What's a mathematician to do? [closed]

I have to apologize because this is not the normal sort of question for this site, but there have been times in the past where MO was remarkably helpful and kind to undergrads with similar types of ...
254
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110answers
67k views

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 ...
245
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44answers
99k views

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 ...
237
votes
29answers
83k views

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 ...
234
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41answers
86k views

A single paper everyone should read? [closed]

Different people like different things in math, but sometimes you stand in awe before a beautiful and simple, but not universally known, result that you want to share with any of your colleagues. Do ...
220
votes
67answers
105k views

Awfully sophisticated proof for simple facts [closed]

It is sometimes the case that one can produce proofs of simple facts that are of disproportionate sophistication which, however, do not involve any circularity. For example, (I think) I gave an ...
217
votes
29answers
140k views

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 ...
207
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11answers
22k views

Refereeing a Paper [closed]

I've refereed at least a dozen papers in my (short) career so far and I still find the process completely baffling. I'm wondering what is actually expected and what people tend to do... Some things ...
205
votes
140answers
44k views

Fundamental Examples

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 ...
199
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13answers
58k views

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 ...
193
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42answers
71k views

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 ...
189
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20answers
30k views

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 ...
187
votes
78answers
33k views

Your favorite surprising connections in Mathematics

There are certain things in mathematics that have caused me a pleasant surprise -- when some part of mathematics is brought to bear in a fundamental way on another, where the connection between the ...
178
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69answers
39k views

What are your favorite instructional counterexamples?

Related: question #879, Most interesting mathematics mistake. But the intent of this question is more pedagogical. In many branches of mathematics, it seems to me that a good counterexample can be ...
175
votes
79answers
36k views

Which math paper maximizes the ratio (importance)/(length)?

My vote would be Milnor's 7-page paper "On manifolds homeomorphic to the 7-sphere", in Vol. 64 of Annals of Math. For those who have not read it, he explicitly constructs smooth 7-manifolds which are ...
175
votes
13answers
50k views

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 ...
174
votes
46answers
92k views

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 ...
171
votes
88answers
42k views

Examples of great mathematical writing

This question is basically from Ravi Vakil's web page, but modified for Math Overflow. How do I write mathematics well? Learning by example is more helpful than being told what to do, so let's try to ...
170
votes
94answers
91k views

Famous mathematical quotes [closed]

Some famous quotes often give interesting insights into the vision of mathematics that certain mathematicians have. Which ones are you particularly fond of? Standard community wiki rules apply: one ...
167
votes
61answers
80k views

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 ...
162
votes
76answers
60k views

Best online mathematics videos?

I know of two good mathematics videos available online, namely: Sphere inside out (part I and part II) Moebius transformation revealed Do you know of any other good math videos? Share.
154
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36answers
35k views

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?
154
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37answers
182k views

Too old for advanced mathematics? [closed]

Kind of an odd question, perhaps, so I apologize in advance if it is inappropriate for this forum. I've never taken a mathematics course since high school, and didn't complete college. However, ...
147
votes
111answers
51k views

Most memorable titles

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 ...
146
votes
47answers
19k views

Generalizing a problem to make it easier

One of the many articles on the Tricki that was planned but has never been written was about making it easier to solve a problem by generalizing it (which initially seems paradoxical because if you ...
145
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10answers
21k views

Do you know important theorems that remain unknown?

Do you know of any very important theorems that remain unknown? I mean results that could easily make into textbooks or research monographs, but almost nobody knows about them. If you provide an ...
144
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28answers
24k views

How To Present Mathematics To Non-Mathematicians?

(Added an epilogue) I started a job as a TA, and it requires me to take a five sessions workshop about better teaching in which we have to present a 10 minutes lecture (micro-teaching). In the last ...
143
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8answers
13k views

How to escape the inclination to be a universalist or: How to learn to stop worrying and do some research.

As an undergraduate we are trained as mathematicians to be universalists. We are expected to embrace a wide spectrum of mathematics. Both algebra and analysis are presented on equal footing with ...
141
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25answers
37k views

What recent discoveries have amateur mathematicians made?

E.T. Bell called Fermat the Prince of Amateurs. One hundred years ago Ramanujan amazed the mathematical world. In between were many important amateurs and mathematicians off the beaten path, but what ...
136
votes
50answers
17k views

Old books you would like to have reprinted with high-quality typesetting

There are some questions on mathoverflow such as What out-of-print books would you like to see re-printed? Old books still used with answers that tell us things such as: Mathematicians prefer to ...
134
votes
10answers
12k views

What non-categorical applications are there of homotopical algebra?

(To be honest, I actually mean something more general than 'homotopical algebra' - topos theory, $\infty$-categories, operads, anything that sounds like its natural home would be on the nLab.) More ...
134
votes
10answers
14k views

Why are flat morphisms “flat?”

Of course "flatness" is a word that evokes a very particular geometric picture, and it seems to me like there should be a reason why this word is used, but nothing I can find gives me a reason! Is ...
133
votes
6answers
12k views

Proofs shown to be wrong after formalization with proof assistant

Are there examples of originally widely accepted proofs that were later discovered to be wrong by attempting to formalize them using a proof assistant (e.g. Coq, Agda, Lean, Isabelle, HOL, Metamath, ...
132
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20answers
17k views

How does one justify funding for mathematics research?

G. H. Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology provides an answer as to why one would do mathematics, but I'm unable to find an answer as to why mathematics deserves public funding. Mathematics can be ...
127
votes
59answers
25k views

Jokes in the sense of Littlewood: examples? [closed]

First, let me make it clear that I do not mean jokes of the "abelian grape" variety. I take my cue from the following passage in A Mathematician's Miscellany by J.E. Littlewood (Methuen 1953, p. 79): ...
127
votes
30answers
58k views

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 ...
126
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18answers
9k views

Suggestions for special lectures at next ICM

(I am posting this in my capacity as chair of the ICM programme committee.) ICM 2022 will feature a number of "special lectures", both at the sectional and plenary level, see last year's ...
122
votes
20answers
18k views

Are there examples of non-orientable manifolds in nature?

Whilst browsing through Marcel Berger's book "A Panoramic View of Riemannian Geometry" and thinking about the Klein bottle, I came across the sentence: "The unorientable surfaces are never discussed ...
120
votes
21answers
18k views

Good “casual” advanced math books

I'm curious if there are any good math books out there that take a "casual approach" to higher level topics. I'm very interested in advanced math, but have lost the time as of late to study textbooks ...
117
votes
15answers
16k views

When and how is it appropriate for an undergraduate to email a professor out of the blue?

This may not be appropriate for MathOverflow, as I haven't seen precedent for this type of question. But the answer is certainly of interest to me, and (I think) would be of interest to many other ...
115
votes
17answers
55k views

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 ...
115
votes
17answers
14k views

Pressure to defend the relevance of one's area of mathematics

I am a set theorist. Since I began to study this subject, I became increasingly aware of negative attitudes about it. These were expressed both from an internal and an external perspective. By the “...
112
votes
14answers
31k views

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 ...
111
votes
26answers
23k views

What are some famous rejections of correct mathematics?

Dick Lipton has a blog post that motivated this question. He recalled the Stark-Heegner Theorem: There are only a finite number of imaginary quadratic fields that have unique factorization. ...
111
votes
16answers
11k views

Does Physics need non-analytic smooth functions?

Observing the behaviour of a few physicists "in nature", I had the impression that among the mathematical tools they use a lot (along with possibly much more sofisticated maths, of course), ...
111
votes
16answers
31k views

How do you keep your research notes organized? [closed]

One of the things I struggle with most in doing research is keeping my notes organized. Since research tends to do a lot of branching, keeping notes in a linear fashion seems useless to me. On the ...

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