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75
votes
29answers
10k views

What is the single most influential book every mathematician should read?

If you could go back in time and tell yourself to read a specific book at the beginning of your career as a mathematician, which book would it be?
75
votes
10answers
9k views

Why can't you add apples and oranges, but you can multiply and divide them?

What is the algebraic difference between arithmetic operations, that prevents entities with different units from being summed or subtracted, but allows them to be multiplied or divided? This looks ...
74
votes
8answers
20k views

Learning mathematics as if an absolute beginner?

I dread mathematics, and I believe it's because I have come to associate mathematics with the experience of terrible teachers. All of my math teachers have been grumpy, but one in particular was the ...
73
votes
4answers
7k views

How do I convince someone that $1+1=2$ may not necessarily be true?

Me and my friend were arguing over this "fact" that we all know and hold dear. However, I do know that $1+1=2$ is an axiom. That is why I beg to differ. Neither of us have the required mathematical ...
73
votes
9answers
5k views

Math and mental fatigue

Just a soft-question that has been bugging me for a long time: How does one deal with mental fatigue when studying math? I am interested in Mathematics, but when studying say Galois Theory and ...
72
votes
14answers
8k views

Why are mathematical proofs that rely on computers controversial?

There are many theorems in mathematics that have been proved with the assistance of computers, take the famous four color theorem for example. Such proofs are often controversial among some ...
71
votes
31answers
7k views

What are some conceptualizations that work in mathematics but are not strictly true?

I'm having an argument with someone who thinks it's never justified to teach something that's not strictly correct. I disagree: often, the pedagogically most efficient way to make progress is to ...
71
votes
22answers
6k views

Is math built on assumptions?

I just came across this statement when I was lecturing a student on math and strictly speaking I used: Assuming that the value of $x$ equals <something>, ... One of my students just rose ...
70
votes
32answers
5k views

Theorems with an extraordinary exception or a small number of sporadic exceptions

The Whitney graph isomorphism theorem gives an example of an extraordinary exception: a very general statement holds except for one very specific case. Another example is the classification theorem ...
70
votes
12answers
7k views

Can you give an example of a complex math problem that is easy to solve?

I am working on a project presentation and would like to illustrate that it is often difficult or impossible to estimate how long a task would take. I’d like to make the point by presenting three math ...
70
votes
12answers
5k views

Why is compactness so important?

I've read many times that 'compactness' is such an extremely important and useful concept, though it's still not very apparent why. The only theorems I've seen concerning it are the Heine-Borel ...
68
votes
16answers
11k views

How do you explain the concept of logarithm to a five year old?

Okay I understand that it cannot be explained to a 5 year old. But, how do you explain the logarithm to primary school students?
68
votes
15answers
6k views

A good way to retain mathematical understanding?

What is a good way to remember math concepts/definitions and commit them to long term memory? Background: In my current situation, I'm at an undergraduate institution where I have to take a lot of ...
68
votes
11answers
10k views

Using “we have” in maths papers

I commonly want to use the phrase "we have" when writing mathematics, to mean something like "most readers will know this thing and I am about to use it". My primary question is whether this is too ...
68
votes
7answers
3k views

A Case Against the “Math Gene”

I'm currently teaching a mathematics course for elementary educators (think of it as math methods, but with less focus on methods and more focus on content). In a student's essay, I encountered the ...
67
votes
9answers
4k views

Besides proving new theorems, how can a person contribute to mathematics?

There are at least a few things a person can do to contribute to the mathematics community without necessarily obtaining novel results, for example: Organizing known results into a coherent ...
67
votes
6answers
34k views

What is the importance of eigenvalues/eigenvectors?

What is the importance of eigenvalues/eigenvectors?
67
votes
6answers
5k views

Strategies for Effective Self-Study

I have a long-term goal of acquiring graduate-level knowledge in Analysis, Algebra and Geometry/Topology. Once that is achieved, I am interested in applying this knowledge to both pure and applied ...
66
votes
24answers
11k 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 ...
66
votes
11answers
10k 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. ...
65
votes
21answers
14k views
65
votes
23answers
1k views

Open mathematical questions for which we really, really have no idea what the answer is

There is no shortage of open problems in mathematics. While a formal proof for any of them remains elusive, with the "yes/no" questions among them mathematicians are typically not working in both ...
65
votes
5answers
2k views

“Advice to young mathematicians”

I have been suggested to read the Advice to a Young Mathematician section of the Princeton Companion to Mathematics, the short paper Ten Lessons I wish I had been Taught by Gian-Carlo Rota, and the ...
64
votes
14answers
6k views

Should an undergrad accept that some things don't make sense, or study the foundation of mathematics to resolve this?

I'm a second year math student. And I've the following problem. When I prepare myself for an exam, I can distinguish two phases. First I'm mainly interested in whatever is necessary to pass the ...
63
votes
23answers
13k views

Why do we still do symbolic math?

I just read that most practical problems (algebraic equations, differential equations) do not have a symbolic solution, but only a numerical. Numerical computations, to my understanding, never deal ...
63
votes
8answers
3k views

Why are all the interesting constants so small?

A quick look at the wikipedia entry on mathematical constants suggests that the most important fundamental constants all live in the immediate neighborhood of the first few positive integers. Is ...
63
votes
9answers
2k views

Problems that become easier in a more general form.

When solving a problem, we often look at some special cases first, then try to work our way up to the general case. It would be interesting to see some counterexamples to this mental process, i.e. ...
63
votes
8answers
8k views

Will it become impossible to learn math? [closed]

I was thinking about this today and it seems like a good question. Assuming mathematics will keep on expanding, do you think it will ever become impossible for a beginner to learn all the known ...
63
votes
4answers
8k views

Books that every student “needs” to go through

I'm still a student, but the same books keep getting named by my tutors (Rudin, Royden). I've read Baby Rudin and begun Royden though I'm unsure if there are other books that I "should" be working on ...
63
votes
2answers
1k views

Some users are mind bogglingly skilled at integration. How did they get there?

Looking through old problems, it is not difficult to see that some users are beyond incredible at computing integrals. It only took a couple seconds to dig up an example like this. Especially in a ...
62
votes
6answers
3k views

How Do You Actually Do Your Mathematics?

Better yet, what I'm asking is how do you actually write your mathematics? I think I need to give brief background: Through most of my childhood, I'd considered myself pretty good at math, up ...
61
votes
26answers
4k 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 ...
61
votes
5answers
2k views

How are mathematicians taught to write with such an expository style?

I wasn't sure if this question was appropriate for MSE. One of the major complaints we see in industry is a person's ability to communicate which includes writing. We see the same thing on questions ...
60
votes
7answers
5k views

What made you choose your research field?

I was wondering how come modern mathematicians do not seem to discover as many theorems as the older mathematicians seem to have done. Have we reached some kind of saturation limit where all commonly ...
59
votes
7answers
5k views

Why do books titled “Abstract Algebra” mostly deal with groups/rings/fields?

As a computer science graduate who had only a basic course in abstract algebra, I want to study some abstract algebra in my free time. I've been looking through some books on the topic, and most seem ...
59
votes
8answers
3k views

How to make notes when learning a new topic

At the moment I'm trying to teach myself Riemannian geometry by reading some books. I take notes by hand but I find that I forget it all and worse, either lose the sheets of paper or don't want to ...
59
votes
3answers
4k views

Getting Students to Not Fear Confusion

I'm a fifth year grad student, and I've taught several classes for freshmen and sophomores. This summer, as an "advanced" (whatever that means) grad student I got to teach an upper level class: Intro ...
58
votes
11answers
10k views

Am I just not smart enough? [closed]

When I was doing math, let us say for example, introductory number theory, it seems to take me a lot of time to fully understand a theorem. By understanding, I mean, both intuitively and also ...
57
votes
12answers
8k views

Can the golden ratio accurately be expressed in terms of e and $\pi$

I was playing around with numbers when I noticed that $\sqrt e$ was very somewhat close to $\phi$ And so, I took it upon myself to try to find a way to express the golden ratio in terms of the ...
57
votes
23answers
8k views

An example of a problem which is difficult but is made easier when a diagram is drawn

I am writing a blog post related to problem solving and one of the main techniques used in problem solving is drawing a diagram. Essentially, I want to illustrate that some hard problems (for example, ...
56
votes
14answers
3k views

Why rationalize the denominator?

In grade school we learn to rationalize denominators of fractions when possible. We are taught that $\frac{\sqrt{2}}{2}$ is simpler than $\frac{1}{\sqrt{2}}$. An answer on this site says that "there ...
55
votes
12answers
3k views

I lost my love of math; I'm getting it back. How can I determine if math is actually right for me? [closed]

This question has been on my mind for a very long time, and I thought I'd finally ask it here. When I was 6, my dad pulled me out of school. The classes were too easy; the professors, too dull. ...
55
votes
21answers
3k views

Your favourite maths puzzles

Okay, so this question was bound to come up sooner or later- the hope was to ask it well before someone asked it badly... We all love a good puzzle To a certain extent, any piece of mathematics is a ...
55
votes
3answers
6k views

Mathematical research of Pokémon

In competitive Pokémon-play, two players pick a team of six Pokémon out of the 718 available. These are picked independently, that is, player $A$ is unaware of player $B$'s choice of Pokémon. Some ...
54
votes
28answers
8k views

“Simple” beautiful math proof

Is there a "simple" mathematical proof that is fully understandable by a 1st year university student that impressed you because it is beautiful?
54
votes
9answers
9k views

Advantages of IMO students in Mathematical Research

Everyone in this community i think would be familiar with International Mathematical Olympiad, which is an International Mathematics Competition held for high school students, with many countries ...
54
votes
9answers
4k views

What makes elementary functions elementary?

Is there a mathematical reason (or possibly a historical one) that the "elementary" functions are what they are? As I'm learning calculus, I seem to focus most of my attention on trigonometric, ...
53
votes
19answers
18k views

How do I convince my students that the choice of variable of integration is irrelevant?

I will be TA this semester for the second course on Calculus, which contains the definite integral. I have thought this since the time I took this course, so how do I convince my students that for a ...
53
votes
16answers
7k views

Interesting “real life” applications of serious theorems

As a student one sometimes encounters exercises which ask you to solve a rather funny "real life problem", e.g. I recall an exercise on the Krein-Milman theorem which was something like: "You have a ...
53
votes
12answers
4k views

Is it morally right and pedagogically right to google answers to homework? [closed]

This is a soft question that I have been struggling with lately. My professor sets tough questions for homework (around 10 per week). The difficulty is such that if I attempt the questions entirely ...