Mythematics: a call for participation

I thought I would try a little experiement here. Recently some high profile mathematicians have been using a blog to conduct a massively collaborative mathematics project. What a brilliant idea that could be done today, with our current technology!

I have nothing so grand in mind, but I thought I’d try something in the same spirit.

I would like to write an article called “Mythematics” in which I list some famous mathematical myths and either debunk them or argue for their veracity (the type of article that would fit well in a journal like Math Horizons or the Mathematical Intelligencer).

For example consider these two oft-repeated myths:

  • There is no Nobel Prize in mathematics because Nobel’s wife had an affair with a mathematician (soundly debunked)
  • The baby Gauss story—Gauss amazed his teacher by quickly summing 1 to 100 (Brian Hayes wrote an interesting article about this in the American Scientist)

I have a long list of other myths that I discovered, but I am not going to list them yet.

This is where you come in. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to give me some mathematical myths to include in the article. You can post them in the comments below (that’s my preference) or send them to me by email. (I think this is what they call crowdsourcing.) The more information you can give me, the better. For example, if you know of a good reference that debunks/validates the myth, include that too. Remember I’m looking for myths that are true and ones that are false.

Then I will use this blog throughout the spring and summer as a place to write about what I find. Eventually I will put them together into an article. I will give credit to those of you whose myths make it into the blog or the final article.


  1. John says:

    Here’s one. Some folks think the “normal” (Gaussian) distribution is so named because it is “normal” in the colloquial sense of being usual or customary in application. This leads to overuse of the normality assumption in modeling. In fact, “normal” comes from the Latin “normalis” meaning “perpendicular.” I believe Gauss coined the term because something was geometrically perpendicular in his derivation or application of the distribution.

  2. samjshah, that is a great one. It certainly sounds like an urban legend.

    John, thanks for suggesting this one. I’d never heard it before. I did a little looking yesterday and couldn’t find a source discussing the origin of the name. I’ll keep looking.

  3. John says:

    Here’s a blog post I wrote on characterizing the normal distribution. It has a little more information on the etymology of “normal” but I didn’t include references. It’s been a year, and unfortunately I don’t remember what my sources were.

  4. samjshah says:

    I thought of another one that I love…

    Godel supposedly found a loophole in the US constitution which would allow for a dictator

    I remember researching this a long while ago, and I think the conclusion that I came to is that even though the incident likely happened, there isn’t any evidence of what this supposed loophole was.

    Here’s a site with some more info:


  5. mrstmath says:

    I have issues with slope…could not get math department to agree why the letter m is used in slope formula and slope-intercept equations. Found some banter here:

  6. Kate says:

    Oh so many! Here are 2 faves.

    Archimedes may or may not have made a death ray by reflecting and/or focusing the light from the sun. Some MIT kids and Mythbusters disproved doing it with a mirror…personally I think he used a lens.

    The Pythagorean Brotherhood murdered Hippasus by drowning him in the Adriatic for discovering that the square root of two was irrational.

  7. Jason Dyer says:

    Finding various constants in odd places (proving the wisdom of the ancients) probably counts as one.

    For example, supposedly the “circumference” of the Great Pyramid divided by the original height gives a value of 2pi.

    Values of the “golden ratio” show up in pop mathematics absolutely everywhere, even though it’s easy to pull up a random piece of art and shift a golden rectangle around until it seems to fit.

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