Use this tag for questions concerning history of mathematics, historical primacies of results, and evolution of terminology, symbols, and notations. Consider if History of Science and Mathematics Stack Exchange is a better place to ask your question.

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589
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16answers
54k views

Is $\frac{\textrm{d}y}{\textrm{d}x}$ not a ratio?

In the book Thomas's Calculus (11th edition) it is mentioned (Section 3.8 pg 225) that the derivative $\frac{\textrm{d}y}{\textrm{d}x}$ is not a ratio. Couldn't it be interpreted as a ratio, because ...
184
votes
19answers
14k views

In the history of mathematics, has there ever been a mistake?

I was just wondering whether or not there have been mistakes in mathematics. Not a conjecture that ended up being false, but a theorem which had a proof that was accepted for a nontrivial amount of ...
174
votes
22answers
11k views

Why do mathematicians use single-letter variables?

I have much more experience programming than I do with advanced mathematics, so perhaps this is just a comfort thing with me, but I often get frustrated trying to follow mathematical notation. ...
163
votes
20answers
32k views

What are some examples of when Mathematics 'accidentally' discovered something about the world?

I do not remember precisely what the equations or who the relevant mathematicians and physicists were, but I recall being told the following story. I apologise in advance if I have misunderstood ...
138
votes
3answers
7k views

A 1,400 years old approximation to the sine function by Mahabhaskariya of Bhaskara I

The approximation $$\sin(x) \simeq \frac{16 (\pi -x) x}{5 \pi ^2-4 (\pi -x) x}\qquad (0\leq x\leq\pi)$$ was proposed by Mahabhaskariya of Bhaskara I, a seventh-century Indian mathematician. I ...
132
votes
22answers
19k views

Examples of mathematical discoveries which were kept as a secret

There could be several personal, social, philosophical and even political reasons to keep a mathematical discovery as a secret. For example it is completely expected that if some mathematician find ...
124
votes
1answer
11k views

Why are rings called rings?

I've done some search in Internet and other sources about this question. Why the name ring to this particular object? Just curiosity. Thanks.
120
votes
9answers
8k views

Why do people use “it is easy to prove”?

Math is not generally what I am doing, but I have to read some literature and articles in dynamic systems and complexity theory. What I noticed is that authors tend to use (quite frequently) the ...
116
votes
33answers
16k views

Can you provide me historical examples of pure mathematics becoming “useful”?

I'm trying to think/know about something but I don't know if my basis premise is plausible, here we go. Sometimes when I'm talking with people about pure mathematics, they usually dismiss it because ...
108
votes
15answers
10k views

Has lack of mathematical rigour killed anybody before? [closed]

One of my friends was asking me about tertiary level mathematics as opposed to high school mathematics, and naturally the topic of rigour came up. To provide him with a brief glimpse as to the ...
106
votes
19answers
4k views

Past open problems with sudden and easy-to-understand solutions

What are some examples of mathematical facts that had once been open problems for a significant amount of time and thought hard or unsolvable by contemporary methods, but were then unexpectedly solved ...
105
votes
34answers
17k views

Examples of mathematical results discovered “late”

What are examples of mathematical results that were discovered surprisingly late in history? Maybe the result is a straightforward corollary of an established theorem, or maybe it's just so simple ...
101
votes
15answers
14k views

Why do both sine and cosine exist?

Cosine is just a change in the argument of sine, and vice versa. $$\sin(x+\pi/2)=\cos(x)$$ $$\cos(x-\pi/2)=\sin(x)$$ So why do we have both of them? Do they both exist simply for convenience in ...
98
votes
8answers
14k views

Are half of all numbers odd?

Plato puts the following words in Socrates' mouth in the Phaedo dialogue: I mean, for instance, the number three, and there are many other examples. Take the case of three; do you not think it may ...
97
votes
28answers
8k views

What are some examples of notation that really improved mathematics? [closed]

I've always felt that the concise, suggestive nature of the written language of mathematics is one of the reasons it can be so powerful. Off the top of my head I can think of a few notational ...
93
votes
6answers
11k views

What did Alan Turing mean when he said he didn't fully understand dy/dx?

Alan Turing's notebook has recently been sold at an auction house in London. In it he says this: Written out: The Leibniz notation $\frac{\mathrm{d}y}{\mathrm{d}x}$ I find extremely difficult ...
91
votes
16answers
10k views

Why did mathematicians take Russell's paradox seriously?

Though I've understood the logic behind's Russell's paradox for long enough, I have to admit I've never really understood why mathematicians and mathematical historians thought it so important. Most ...
89
votes
16answers
11k views

Do mathematicians, in the end, always agree?

I've been trying to study some different sciences in my life, ranging from biology to mathematics, and if I try to explain to people why I like mathematics above the others, I think the most important ...
87
votes
6answers
3k views

Why does mathematical convention deal so ineptly with multisets?

Many statements of mathematics are phrased most naturally in terms of multisets. For example: Every positive integer can be uniquely expressed as the product of a multiset of primes. But this ...
79
votes
21answers
5k views

What are some examples of mathematics that had unintended useful applications much later?

I would like to know some examples of interesting (to the layman or young student), easy-to-describe examples of mathematics that has had profound unanticipated useful applications in the real world. ...
77
votes
25answers
12k views

Mathematicians ahead of their time?

In every field there's always that person who's just years ahead of their time. For instance, Paul Morphy (born 1837) is said to have retired from chess because he found no one to match his technique ...
77
votes
11answers
18k views

Is zero odd or even?

Some books say even numbers start from two but if you consider the number line concept, I think zero should be even because it is in between -1 and +1 (i.e in between 2 odd numbers). What is the real ...
76
votes
15answers
12k views

What is the smallest unknown natural number?

There are several unknown numbers in mathematics, such as optimal constants in some inequalities. Often it is enough to some estimates for these numbers from above and below, but finding the exact ...
76
votes
6answers
9k views

Mathematically, why was the Enigma machine so hard to crack?

Mathematically, why was the Enigma machine so hard to crack? In laymen terms, what was it exactly that made cracking the Enigma machine such a formidable task? Everything I have seen about the ...
75
votes
11answers
11k views

Results that came out of nowhere.

Most big results in mathematics are built on years and years of groundwork by the author and other mathematicians, such as Wiles' proof of FLT or the classification of finite simple groups. ...
72
votes
3answers
3k views

How did Hermite calculate $e^{\pi\sqrt{163}}$ in 1859?

Pretend you are in 1859. What is a fast, efficient, and accurate way to numerically evaluate constants like that to, say, 20 decimal places, using ONLY pen and paper?
66
votes
1answer
3k views

Theorem that von Neumann proved in five minutes.

In "How To Solve It", George Pólya writes: "There was a seminar for advanced students in Zürich that I was teaching and von Neumann was in the class. I came to a certain theorem, and I said it ...
64
votes
18answers
21k views

Anecdotes about famous mathematicians or physicists

I'm not sure whether this question suits this website, however, I don't know where else I could ask it. It is no mathematical problem or something similar, still I hope it won't be closed. A few ...
63
votes
3answers
2k views

Paul Erdos's Two-Line Functional Analysis Proof

Legends hold that once upon a time, some mathematicians were rather pleased about a 30-ish page result in functional analysis. Paul Erdos, upon learning of the problem, spent ten or so minutes ...
62
votes
27answers
5k views

Is there a great mathematical example for a 12-year-old?

I've just been working with my 12-year-old daughter on Cantor's diagonal argument, and countable and uncountable sets. Why? Because the maths department at her school is outrageously good, and set ...
60
votes
6answers
4k views

What kind of “symmetry” is the symmetric group about?

There are two concepts which are very similar literally in abstract algebra: symmetric group and symmetry group. By definition, the symmetric group on a set is the group consisting of all bijections ...
60
votes
1answer
2k views

How was the Monster's existence originally suspected?

I've read in many places that the Monster group was suspected to exist before it was actually proven to exist, and further that many of its properties were deduced contingent upon existence. For ...
59
votes
5answers
6k views

Is there any branch of Mathematics which has no applications in any other field or in real world?

Is there any branch of Mathematics which has no applications in any other field or in real world ? for instance , maybe : number theory ? mathematical logic ? is there something like this ?
59
votes
9answers
3k views

Surprisingly elementary and direct proofs

What are some examples of theorems, whose first proof was quite hard and sophisticated, perhaps using some other deep theorems of some theory, before years later surprisingly a quite elementary, ...
56
votes
7answers
6k views

What is the oldest open problem in geometry?

Geometry is one of the oldest branches of mathematics, and many famous problems have been proposed and solved in its long history. What I would like to know is: What is the oldest open problem in ...
56
votes
6answers
13k views

Why is a full turn of the circle 360°? Why not any other number?

I was just wondering why we have 90° degrees for a perpendicular angle. Why not 100° or any other number? What is the significance of 90° for the perpendicular or 360° for a circle? I didn't ever ...
55
votes
19answers
5k views

Theorems' names that don't credit the right people

The point of this question is to compile a list of theorems that don't give credit to right people in the sense that the name(s) of the mathematician(s) who first proved the theorem doesn't (do not) ...
55
votes
8answers
20k views

Why do the French count so strangely?

Today I've heard a talk about division rules. The lecturer stated that base 12 has a lot of division rules and was therefore commonly used in trade. English and German name their numbers like they ...
55
votes
17answers
3k views

Good “history of mathematical ideas” book?

All too often, mathematical history books include far too much material on the private lives of the personalities involved and not enough information on the actual ideas. Mathematics is a living ...
51
votes
3answers
2k views

Unexpected approximations which have led to important mathematical discoveries

On a regular basis, one sees at MSE approximate numerology questions like Prove $\log_{{1}/{4}} \frac{8}{7}> \log_{{1}/{5}} \frac{5}{4}$, Prove $\left(\dfrac{2}{5}\right)^{{2}/{5}}<\ln{2}$, ...
47
votes
2answers
2k views

On a long proof

On wikipedia there is a claim that the Abel–Ruffini theorem was nearly proved by Paolo Ruffini, and that his proof spanned over $500$ pages, is this really true? I don't really know much abstract ...
46
votes
13answers
5k views

Research done by high-school students

I'm giving a talk soon to a group of high-school students about open problems in mathematics that high-school students could understand. To inspire them, I would like to give them examples of high-...
45
votes
6answers
6k views

How hard is the proof of $\pi$ or $e$ being transcendental?

I understand that $\pi$ and $e$ are transcendental and that these are not simple facts. I mean, I have been told that these results are deep and difficult, and I am happy to believe them. I am curious ...
45
votes
5answers
1k views

What are examples of unexpected algebraic numbers of high degree occured in some math problems?

Recently I asked a question about a possible transcendence of the number $\Gamma\left(\frac{1}{5}\right)\Gamma\left(\frac{4}{15}\right)/\left(\Gamma\left(\frac{1}{3}\right)\Gamma\left(\frac{2}{15}\...
45
votes
3answers
3k views

History of the Concept of a Ring

I am vaguely familiar with the broad strokes of the development of group theory, first when ideas of geometric symmetries were studied in concrete settings without the abstract notion of a group ...
43
votes
20answers
3k views

Which mathematicians have influenced you the most? [closed]

This question is lifted from Mathoverflow.. I feel it belongs here too. There are mathematicians whose creativity, insight and taste have the power of driving anyone into a world of beautiful ideas, ...
43
votes
4answers
3k views

Understanding the intuition behind math

I'm currently a Calculus III student. I enjoy math a lot, but only when I understand its beauty and meaning. However, so many times I have no idea what it is I am learning about, althought I am still ...
42
votes
14answers
4k views

Examples of famous problems resolved easily

Have there been examples of seemingly long standing hard problems, answered quite easily possibly with tools existing at the time the problems were made? More modern examples would be nice. An example ...
42
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1answer
4k views

Was Grothendieck familiar with Stone's work on Boolean algebras?

In short, my question is: Was Grothendieck familiar with Stone's work on Boolean algebras? Background: In an answer to Pierre-Yves Gaillard's question Did Zariski really define the Zariski ...
41
votes
7answers
11k views

Good books on Math History

I'm trying to find good books on the history of mathematics, dating as far back as possible. There was a similar question here Good books on Philosophy of Mathematics, but mostly pertaining to ...