For questions whose answers can't be objectively evaluated as correct or incorrect, but which are still relevant to this site. Please be specific about what you are after.

learn more… | top users | synonyms

48
votes
8answers
4k views

Does mathematics require axioms?

I just read this whole article: http://web.maths.unsw.edu.au/~norman/papers/SetTheory.pdf which is also discussed over here: Infinite sets don't exist!? However, the paragraph which I found most ...
48
votes
8answers
2k views

How to maintain enthusiasm and joy in teaching when the material grows stale

I recently finished my third semester of teaching calculus to freshman college students. This means I was drawing the same pictures, solving the same example problems, and discussing the same ...
47
votes
24answers
8k views

“Negative” versus “Minus”

As a math educator, do you think it is appropriate to insist that students say "negative $0.8$" and not "minus $0.8$" to denote $-0.8$? The so called "textbook answer" regarding this question reads: ...
47
votes
16answers
5k views

What is $-i$ exactly?

We all know that $i$ doesn't have any sign: it is neither positive nor negative. Then how can people use $-i$ for anything? Also, we define $i$ a number such that $i^2 = -1$. But it can also be seen ...
47
votes
7answers
5k views

What is integration by parts, really?

Integration by parts comes up a lot - for instance, it appears in the definition of a weak derivative / distributional derivative, or as a tool that one can use to turn information about higher ...
47
votes
9answers
7k views

How to effectively study math?

Maybe this is too general for here, but I am having a lot of difficulty studying math. Just got out of the military and I guess I am not use to this yet but when I run into a problem I have trouble ...
47
votes
7answers
8k views

Can someone please explain the Riemann Hypothesis to me… in English?

I've read so much about it but none of it makes a lot of sense. Also, what's so unsolvable about it?
47
votes
5answers
10k views

How Do You Go About Learning Mathematics?

I really like mathematics, but I am not good at learning it. I find it takes me a long time to absorb new material by reading on my own and I haven't found a formula that works for me. I am hoping a ...
47
votes
14answers
2k views

How to entertain a crowd with mathematics? [closed]

I am a high school student who follows a university level curriculum, and recently my teacher asked me to hold a short lecture to a crowd of about 100 people (mostly parents of my classmates and such, ...
47
votes
10answers
16k views

List of interesting math podcasts?

mathfactor is one I listen to. Does anyone else have a recommendation?
46
votes
13answers
14k views

Interesting math-facts that are visually attractive

To give a talk to 17-18 years old (who have a knack for mathematics) about how interesting mathematics (and more specifically pure mathematics) can be, I wanted to use nice facts accompanied by nice ...
46
votes
10answers
3k views

What is exponentiation?

Is there an intuitive definition of exponentiation? In elementary school, we learned that $$ a^b = a \cdot a \cdot a \cdot a \cdots (b\ \textrm{ times}) $$ where $b$ is an integer. Then later on ...
46
votes
8answers
3k views

Designing an Irrational Numbers Wall Clock

A friend sent me a link to this item today, which is billed as an "Irrational Numbers Wall Clock." There is at least one possible mistake in it, as it is not known whether $\gamma$ is irrational. ...
46
votes
4answers
3k views

Is “A New Kind of Science” a new kind of science?

A couple of years ago I was reading "New Kind of Science" (NKS) by S. Wolfram, and it presented lot of interesting ideas for a young Physics undergraduate. Now that I am studying Mathematics however, ...
46
votes
4answers
2k views

How to understand and appreciate the prime number industry?

Why would I want to buy prime numbers? There is a website (found it!) selling a table of 400 digit primes for twenty dollars. Like an updated version of this. I have a layman's idea that prime numbers ...
45
votes
15answers
5k views

How do I motivate myself to do math again?

I have been thinking of asking for help for a few months now but posting in a public forum like this is intimidating. Still, I am currently in a university studying mathematics as an undergrad. I took ...
45
votes
6answers
2k views

What to answer when people ask what I do in mathematics

This is not really a math question, but I think that every mathematician and student in math (specially pure) struggles with this at some point. Inevitably at some point when we're talking with ...
45
votes
10answers
1k views

Why does being holomorphic imply so much about a function?

I haven't yet started my complex analysis course (soon!), but recently (inspired by you guys) I've been looking into holomorphic functions. And wow, they're cool! There's so much stuff that's true ...
45
votes
3answers
9k views

What is the importance of Calculus in today's Mathematics?

For engineering (e. g. electrical engineering) and physics, Calculus is important. But for a future mathematician, is the classical approach to Calculus still important? What is normally taught, as a ...
45
votes
5answers
4k views

How to write a good mathematical paper?

I hesitate to ask this question. However I read many advices from math.stackexchange, and I couldn't find anything similar. A good time always goes too fast! Two years are fled. In the third year of ...
44
votes
14answers
3k views

Largest “leap-to-generality” in math history?

Grothendieck, who is famous inter alia for his capacity/tendency to look for the most general formulation of a problem, introduced a number of new concepts (with topos maybe the most famous ?) that ...
44
votes
10answers
2k views

Have there been efforts to introduce non Greek or Latin alphabets into mathematics?

As a physics student, often I find when doing blackboard problems, the lecturer will struggle to find a good variable name for a variable e.g. "Oh, I cannot use B for this matrix, that's the magnetic ...
44
votes
3answers
1k views
43
votes
17answers
4k views

Nuking the Mosquito — ridiculously complicated ways to achieve very simple results [closed]

Here is a toned down example of what I'm looking for: Integration by solving for the unknown integral of $f(x)=x$: $$\int x \, dx=x^2-\int x \, dx$$ $$2\int x \, dx=x^2$$ $$\int x \, ...
43
votes
6answers
6k views

What is mathematical research like?

I'm planning on applying for a math research program over the summer, but I'm slightly nervous about it just because the name math research sounds strange to me. What does math research entail ...
43
votes
7answers
2k views

Algebraic Intuition for Homological Algebra and Applications to More Elementary Algebra

I am taking a course next term in homological algebra (using Weibel's classic text) and am having a hard time seeing some of the big picture of the idea behind homological algebra. Now, this sort of ...
43
votes
5answers
5k views

Soft Question - Intuition of the meaning of homology groups

I'm studying homology groups and I'm looking to try and develop, if possible, a little more intuition about what they actually mean. I've only been studying homology for a short while, so if possible ...
42
votes
14answers
2k views

Surprising Generalizations

I just learned (thanks to Harry Gindi's answer on MO and to Qiaochu Yuan's blog post on AoPS) that the chinese remainder theorem and Lagrange interpolation are really just two instances of the same ...
42
votes
3answers
4k views

Motivation and methods for self-study

First, a little background: Beginning with calculus in my first semester of college, I fell in love with mathematics. That was the point at which the concepts became interesting to me, and I started ...
41
votes
13answers
5k views

Do we really need reals?

It seems to me that the set of all numbers really used by mathematics and physics is countable, because they are defined by means of a finite set of symbols and, eventually, by computable functions. ...
41
votes
8answers
4k views

How does a non-mathematician go about publishing a proof in a way that ensures it to be up to the mathematical community's standards?

I'm a computer science student who is a maths hobbyist. I'm convinced that I've proven a major conjecture. The problem lies in that I've never published anything before and am not a mathematician by ...
41
votes
7answers
7k views

How to tell if I'm good enough for graduate school?

I'm concerned about my level of preparation for graduate school. I have decent grades (3.64 GPA, 4.0 in math), great recommendations lined up, and some OK research experience (no publications), but I ...
41
votes
17answers
5k views

What's the goal of mathematics?

Are we just trying to prove every theorem or find theories which lead to a lot of creativity or what? I've already read G. H. Hardy Apology but I didn't get an answer from it.
41
votes
11answers
2k views

What if $\pi$ was an algebraic number? (significance of algebraic numbers)

To be honest, I never really understood the importance of algebraic numbers. If we lived in an universe where $\pi$ was algebraic, would there be a palpable difference between that universe and ours? ...
41
votes
15answers
4k views

Why are real numbers useful?

A question (by a fellow CS student taking a first course in calculus, presumably after the lecture in which continuity was introduced: was as follows. In the real, physical world, we deal with ...
41
votes
17answers
5k views

What exactly is a number?

We've just been learning about complex numbers in class, and I don't really see why they're called numbers. Originally, a number used to be a means of counting (natural numbers). Then we extend ...
41
votes
15answers
2k views

Nobody told me that self teaching could be so damaging…

Even though I've been teaching myself math for a couple of years now I only just started (a month ago) at the university. My experience is rather mixed. For starters, I'd like to mention that I'm 21 ...
41
votes
5answers
2k views

Understanding the Laplace operator conceptually

The Laplace operator: those of you who now understand it, how would you explain what it "does" conceptually? How do you wish you had been taught it? Any good essays (combining both history and ...
41
votes
16answers
10k views

Pen, pencils and paper to write math [closed]

The question is inspired by this thread on MO. My father is a mathematician, so I remember seeing very nice pens all around. When I started to do math by myself I've realized how important can be a ...
41
votes
6answers
4k views

What should an amateur do with a proof of an open problem?

Assuming that somebody is not an employee of a university, just a math amateur, and makes a proper proof of some well known open math problem, what should he do with it? Publish on the internet for ...
41
votes
2answers
721 views

Effective Research Notes

Note-taking for research is vital to your success as a mathematician. As I look back at some of my handwritten notes, I realized how poor they were. I had thought to myself, "What happened?" I was ...
40
votes
14answers
4k views

Is there such a thing as proof by example (not counter example)

Is there such a logical thing as proof by example? I know many times when I am working with algebraic manipulations, I do quick tests to see if I remembered the formula right. This works and is ...
40
votes
8answers
5k views

Why is there never a proof that extending the reals to the complex numbers will not cause contradictions?

The number $i$ is essentially defined for a property we would like to have - to then lead to taking square roots of negative reals, to solve any polynomial, etc. But there is never a proof this cannot ...
40
votes
14answers
3k views

What are “instantaneous” rates of change, really?

This is driving me crazy, I'm literally losing sleep over it, please help me resolve this confusion. Here's how I see it (please read the following if you can, because I address a lot of arguments ...
40
votes
7answers
5k views

What does it take to get a job at a top 50 math program in the U.S.?

I'm a senior undergrad right at a small liberal arts college right now who is applying to math PhD programs in the U.S. I would like to eventually become a professor at a relatively good university ...
40
votes
8answers
2k views

Intuitive meaning of Exact Sequence

I'm currently learning about exact sequences in grad sch Algebra I course, but I really can't get the intuitive picture of the concept and why it is important at all. Can anyone explain them for me? ...
40
votes
5answers
2k views

Why do we negate the imaginary part when conjugating?

For $z=x+iy \in \mathbb C$ we all know the definition for the "conjugate" of $z$, $\bar{z}=x-iy$. Geometrically this is the reflection of $z$ across the $y$ axis. My question is: couldn't we have ...
40
votes
5answers
7k views

What are the work habits of the best mathematicians? [closed]

Of course I would never compare myself to, and don't expect to be, one of the great mathematicians. However, I am curious as to how my work habits, dedication and passion differs from theirs. How ...
40
votes
6answers
4k 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 ...
40
votes
4answers
4k views

What's wrong with l'Hopital's rule?

Upon looking at yet another question on this site on evaluating a limit explicitly without l'Hopital's rule, I remembered that one of my professors once said something to the effect that in Europe ...