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989 votes
282 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 ...
517 votes
3 answers

Polynomial bijection from $\mathbb Q\times\mathbb Q$ to $\mathbb Q$?

Is there any polynomial $f(x,y)\in{\mathbb Q}[x,y]{}$ such that $f\colon\mathbb{Q}\times\mathbb{Q} \rightarrow\mathbb{Q}$ is a bijection?
  • 5,213
413 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 ...
  • 44.4k
408 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 ...
387 votes
80 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 ...
372 votes
22 answers

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, ...
361 votes
112 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 in ...
348 votes
52 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 ...
337 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 ...
313 votes
34 answers

Why is a topology made up of 'open' sets? [closed]

I'm ashamed to admit it, but I don't think I've ever been able to genuinely motivate the definition of a topological space in an undergraduate course. Clearly, the definition distills the essence of ...
313 votes
22 answers

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 ...
297 votes
16 answers

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 ...
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 ...
287 votes
7 answers

Polynomial representing all nonnegative integers

Lagrange proved that every nonnegative integer is a sum of 4 squares. Gauss proved that every nonnegative integer is a sum of 3 triangular numbers. Is there a 2-variable polynomial $f(x,y) \in \...
285 votes
34 answers

Which journals publish expository work?

I wonder if anyone else has noticed that the market for expository papers in mathematics is very narrow (more so than it used to be, perhaps). Are there any journals which publish expository work, ...
279 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 ...
276 votes
47 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 ...
276 votes
34 answers

What are some reasonable-sounding statements that are independent of ZFC?

Every now and then, somebody will tell me about a question. When I start thinking about it, they say, "actually, it's undecidable in ZFC." For example, suppose $A$ is an abelian group such ...
255 votes
67 answers

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 ...
253 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 ...
249 votes
41 answers

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 ...
238 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 ...
237 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 ...
232 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 $15$-...
230 votes
16 answers

Why worry about the axiom of choice?

As I understand it, it has been proven that the axiom of choice is independent of the other axioms of set theory. Yet I still see people fuss about whether or not theorem X depends on it, and I don't ...
227 votes
16 answers

What elementary problems can you solve with schemes?

I'm a graduate student who's been learning about schemes this year from the usual sources (e.g. Hartshorne, Eisenbud-Harris, Ravi Vakil's notes). I'm looking for some examples of elementary self-...
227 votes
9 answers

John Nash's Mathematical Legacy

It would seem that John Nash and his wife Alicia died tragically in a car accident on May 23, 2015 (reference). My condolences to his family and friends. Maybe this is an appropriate time to ask a ...
226 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 ...
226 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 ...
223 votes
87 answers

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 ...
223 votes
12 answers

Is there an introduction to probability theory from a structuralist/categorical perspective?

The title really is the question, but allow me to explain. I am a pure mathematician working outside of probability theory, but the concepts and techniques of probability theory (in the sense of ...
222 votes
11 answers

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 ...
222 votes
4 answers

Is $\mathbb R^3$ the square of some topological space?

The other day, I was idly considering when a topological space has a square root. That is, what spaces are homeomorphic to $X \times X$ for some space $X$. $\mathbb{R}$ is not such a space: If $X \...
  • 5,137
222 votes
9 answers

If $f$ is infinitely differentiable then $f$ coincides with a polynomial

Let $f$ be an infinitely differentiable function on $[0,1]$ and suppose that for each $x \in [0,1]$ there is an integer $n \in \mathbb{N}$ such that $f^{(n)}(x)=0$. Then does $f$ coincide on $[0,1]$ ...
  • 4,585
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 ...
216 votes
140 answers

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 ...
216 votes
3 answers

A Game on Noetherian Rings

A friend suggested the following combinatorial game. At any time, the state of the game is a (commutative) Noetherian ring $\neq 0$. On a player's turn, that player chooses a nonzero non-unit element ...
  • 122k
215 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 ...
212 votes
67 answers

Proofs that require fundamentally new ways of thinking

I do not know exactly how to characterize the class of proofs that interests me, so let me give some examples and say why I would be interested in more. Perhaps what the examples have in common is ...
207 votes
8 answers

How to memorise (understand) Nakayama's lemma and its corollaries?

Nakayama's lemma is mentioned in the majority of books on algebraic geometry that treat varieties. So I think Ihave read the formulation of this lemma at least 20 times (and read the proof maybe ...
  • 13.6k
206 votes
40 answers

Demonstrating that rigour is important

Any pure mathematician will from time to time discuss, or think about, the question of why we care about proofs, or to put the question in a more precise form, why we seem to be so much happier with ...
204 votes
50 answers

Ways to prove the fundamental theorem of algebra

This seems to be a favorite question everywhere, including Princeton quals. How many ways are there? Please give a new way in each answer, and if possible give reference. I start by giving two: ...
203 votes
23 answers

What is torsion in differential geometry intuitively?

Hi, given a connection on the tangent space of a manifold, one can define its torsion: $$T(X,Y):=\triangledown_X Y - \triangledown_Y X - [X,Y]$$ What is the geometric picture behind this definition&...
  • 12.3k
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....
195 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 ...
194 votes
72 answers

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 ...
193 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 ...
190 votes
88 answers

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 ...
187 votes
46 answers

Books you would like to read (if somebody would just write them...)

I think that the title is self-explanatory but I'm thinking about mathematical subjects that have not received a full treatment in book form or if they have, they could benefit from a different ...
186 votes
18 answers

Great graduate courses that went online recently

In 09.2020 by pure chance I discovered the YouTube channel of Richard Borcherds where he gives graduate courses in Group Theory, Algebraic Geometry, Schemes, Commutative Algebra, Galois Theory, Lie ...

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