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“Every good theorem must have a good counterexample”

with 4 comments

Abhyankar[1] attributes the quote to Severi.

[1]: Historical Ramblings in Algebraic Geometry and Related Algebra, Shreeram S. Abhyankar, The American Mathematical Monthly, Vol. 83, No. 6 (Jun. – Jul., 1976), pp. 409-448. Also available here, because it won a Lester R. Ford Award (“articles of expository excellence”) and also a Chauvenet Prize (“the highest award for mathematical expository writing”).

Abhyankar, after distinguishing between the flavours of “high-school algebra” (polynomials, power series), “college algebra” (rings, fields, ideals) and “university algebra” (functors, homological algebra) goes on to present his fundamental thesis (“obviously a partisan claim”):

The method of high-school algebra is powerful, beautiful and accessible. So let us not be overwhelmed by the groups-ring-fields or the functorial arrows of the other two algebras and thereby lose sight of the power of the explicit algorithmic processes given to us by Newton, Tschirnhausen, Kronecker, and Sylvester.

Perhaps for this reason, Dr. Z calls Abhyankar (“one of my great heroes”) “the modern prophet of high-school-algebra”.

Anyway, enough rambling. Back to “Every good theorem must have a good counterexample”. Discuss.

[Edited to add: The statement in its original context was referring to a phenomenon where a pleasing conjecture is found to have counterexamples, until it is resolved by realising that we must, say, count multiplicities the “right” way—the right way turning out to be whatever makes the conjecture true. Thus Bezout’s theorem, etc., and the quote just means, as he paraphrases, “don’t be deterred if your formula is presently invalid in some cases; it only means that you have not yet completely deciphered god’s mind”. On the other hand, what I (mis?)remembered was that one must know “counterexamples” to a theorem in the sense that one must know why the conclusion is not true if the hypotheses are weakened: thus one doesn’t really understand a theorem till one knows at least one “counterexample” (and at least two proofs).]

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Written by S

Tue, 2009-03-10 at 06:34:18